265. The New College Classroom

Despite all that we have learned from cognitive science about how people learn, the most common form of classroom instruction still involves students passively listening to a lecturer standing at a podium at the front of the room. In this episode, Cathy Davidson and Christina Katopodis join us to discuss alternative approaches that treat student diversity as an asset and allow all students to be actively engaged in their own learning.

Cathy is a Distinguished Professor at the CUNY Graduate Center, the author of more than twenty books, and a regular contributor to the Washington Post and the Chronicle of Higher Education. She has served on the National Council of Humanities and delivered a keynote address at the Nobel Forum on the Future of Education. Christina is a Postdoctoral Research Associate in the Transformative Learning in the Humanities Initiative at CUNY and has authored over a dozen articles on innovative pedagogy, innovative pedagogy, environmental studies, and Early American Literature.  She has received the Dewey Digital Teaching Award and the Diana Colbert Initiative Teaching Prize.

Show Notes


John: Despite all that we have learned from cognitive science about how people learn, the most common form of classroom instruction still involves students passively listening to a lecturer standing at a podium at the front of the room. In this episode, we explore alternative approaches that treat student diversity as an asset and allow all students to be actively engaged in their own learning.


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: …and features guests doing important research and advocacy work to make higher education more inclusive and supportive of all learners.


John: Our guests today are Cathy Davidson and Christina Katopodis. Cathy is a Distinguished Professor at the CUNY Graduate Center, the author of more than twenty books, and a regular contributor to the Washington Post and the Chronicle of Higher Education. She has served on the National Council of Humanities and delivered a keynote address at the Nobel Forum on the Future of Education. Christina is a Postdoctoral Research Associate in the Transformative Learning in the Humanities Initiative at CUNY and has authored over a dozen articles on innovative pedagogy, innovative pedagogy, environmental studies, and Early American Literature. She has received the Dewey Digital Teaching Award and the Diana Colbert Initiative Teaching Prize. Welcome, Cathy and Christina.

Cathy: Great to be here. Thank you for having us.

Christina: Thank you so much.

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

Cathy: I am drinking English breakfast tea.

Rebecca: Yes. [LAUGHTER] And Christina?

Christina: I am drinking English breakfast tea.

John: And I am drinking wild blueberry black tea.

Rebecca: I forgot what kind of tea I made this morning. [LAUGHTER] I have no idea. I made nice loose leaf tea this morning, and it’s tasty, but I don’t remember what it is.

John: So you’re drinking a tasty tea.

Rebecca: I’m drinking a tasty tea this morning.

Cathy: Will I be kicked off the show if I say I’m drinking coffee?

John: About a third of our guests do. Yeah, and sometimes water.

Christina: I also have a Diet Coke. [LAUGHTER]

Rebecca: Sneaky, very sneaky.

John: And I had that right before I came over here.

Christina: We’re drinking all of the things.

John: We’ve invited you here today to discuss The New College Classroom. Could you tell us a little bit about how this book project came about?

Cathy: I can begin. This is actually the third in a series I called the “how we know” trilogy, which I began in 2011 after I stepped down as Vice Provost for Interdisciplinary Studies at Duke University, my previous employer, and was really interested in the science of attention and the neuroscience of learning. So that book really is about the neuroscience of learning. Then I wrote a second book called The New Education which came out in 2017, and was re-issued in a post pandemic version just this past spring. And it’s called The New Education. It’s really the history of higher education and why we inherited the forms we have now and how much higher education was re-created for and rebuilt, redesigned explicitly for the industrial age. And then I wanted to do a kind of installation guide that actually showed people how we do these things, how you take our knowledge of how the brain works, take our knowledge of learning, and how you take our knowledge of history and why we’ve inherited this very cumbersome history and actually do something new. And I thought it would be ridiculous for someone at the end of a long career to be telling other people how to teach. And I had the great fortune to be working with this… Christina will close her ears right now, she gets very embarrassed when I say this… but this utterly brilliant scholar, an Americanist environmental scholar, sound studies scholar who also had written several essays on pedagogy and had won all the teaching awards. And I asked her if she’d be interested in co-writing a book with me. And we started writing it when I was a senior fellow to the Mellon Foundation in my beautiful office overlooking the courtyard of the Mellon Foundation. And then the pandemic hit. We made a pledge to one another that we’d meet every Tuesday and Thursday and write together and we literally wrote, rewrote, re-re-re-wrote, and then re-re-re-re-re-wrote [LAUGHTER] every word together during the pandemic. So when people say, “Can you have a real relationship? Can you have a real project during the pandemic?,” we would say “Absolutely.” And that’s actually kind of key to the book, ‘cause we talked about learning in all its facets online and face-to-face. But that’s the very long version of how I’m the luckiest author in the world to have been able to work with Christina.

Christina: I’m the luckiest. [LAUGHTER]

Rebecca: It must have been very nice to have the stability of consistent writing times with each other during a time that was so unstable.

Christina: Yeah, it was a lifeline. I live in Brooklyn, near the Barclays Center where a lot of the Black Lives Matter protesting was happening here. And kids will be playing in the street. They had to close the streets on the weekends and weekdays so that kids could get time outside and neighbors could gather together outside where it would be safe. And kids playing on the street, drawing all these beautiful things in sidewalk chalk, and then you’d see police completely decked out, batons out, pepper spray, all kinds of things, getting ready for the protest that was just completely peaceful protesting and a police force that was just prepared for something wildly different. And it was a really dark time in trying to protest and think of a better way, a more equitable institution, an institution that could prepare students for the world, to be citizens of the world and also to fight for social justice and racial justice, and getting together and writing this book. It felt we have even more purpose more so than ever, in writing this and leaning into the active learning methods that really prepare students to participate and engage with the world.

John: You begin the book with something which actually serves as a very nice introduction to much of the rest of the book, which is a story about a 50-person department meeting in which no one was responding to the department chair. Could you just share a little bit about this anecdote?

Christina: Sure. So I was in that department meeting, it was a meeting in which we were given a really big task of imagining the goals for the department for the next 10 years. This is a review that happens every 10 years. And the department chair was standing at the front of the room behind the podium and was like, “Alright, so what are our goals for the next 10 years?” [LAUGHTER] …and everyone was quiet. Because as you can imagine, everyone has things that they want to change, things that they think could be better, and no one wanted to be the first to speak. And it really just felt like one of those situations where there’s a bunch of dry straw, and someone could just light a match. And so I was like, “Okay,” I knew everyone there, and I was familiar with the chair. The chair was very supportive of students, and I knew he was willing to listen. And then I said, “Hey, can we just talk to someone next to us and come up with a few ideas first, before we speak with the whole group?” He’s like, “Sure.” And this is what’s called think-pair-share where everyone thinks about a question and then they pair up with someone next to them or a small group of people. And then when we’re all done, we come back and share what we came up with. And five minutes go by and he is trying to get the attention of everyone in the room, the room has exploded in all this conversation, but everyone is smiling and enjoying talking to the person next to them. They’re thinking more hopeful thoughts with their generous colleagues and students and faculty all together. And when the chair was finally able to call everyone back to order… I’ve done this in 8 ams… the poor people who teach next to me have said that my classes are too loud at 8 am. [LAUGHTER] And Cathy has done this with a lot of people every time she gives a talk, and it takes a long time to get everyone to come back to order. And then people were so eager to share what they had talked about in their groups. And there was a little bit of anonymity, because it was like, “Okay, everyone in my group said this, not just me,” [LAUGHTER] and everyone was willing to share and we started to envision some really beautiful goals for the next 10 years that were really hopeful, that were imaginative, and creative, and beautiful, rather than starting with critique. Or sometimes what happens is, if one person says something, then everyone else kind of jumps on that train, and this way, diverse number of ideas coming out of these different separate conversations. So that’s why we do it.

Cathy: If you want an education-ese term this is called an inventory method. It’s the opposite of the standard seminar where you ask a question and those same three students raise their hand dutifully and answer the question. And sociologists of education have studied who those students are who raise their hand. And they tend to be a good match for the professor in class and race and gender and family background, family income… the people who are most into the class, most likely to get an A plus, most likely to go on to graduate school, most likely to be professors, replicate their professor. And that’s one reason why only 1% of Americans have a PhD and 25% of the professoriate has a parent that has a PhD. We have a system that’s a closed system. When you do an inventory method, like the one that Christina uses, think-pair-share, everybody in the classroom contributes. In that case, it was a meeting. But that’s true in a classroom too. Sociologists of education also tell us that 20% of students graduate from college without ever having spoken in a class unless they were required to speak by a professor. But if we really believe that higher education is about empowering students, not just giving them content, but giving them the tools to be experts themselves, then they have to learn how to articulate those ideas. And of course, some people are shy and then having them write on an index card means they’re still participating , even if they’re too shy to actually say something in class. An incredible method that I learned from a second grade teacher and I’ve done in many situations. Christina was alluding to the famous one I tell all the time about trying think-pair-share with 6000 International Baccalaureate teachers in the Philadelphia Seventy-Sixers auditorium. So they’re all thinking and pairing and sharing on these jumbotrons in the auditorium.[LAUGHTER] It was great. And I’ve also done it with the top 100 performing CEOs of the Cisco foundation. I did this with the Board of Trustees at Duke and John Chambers, the CEO of Cisco was on, he said, “I need you to talk to my executives, because there’s nobody more likely to be reticent about giving comments than one of my CEOs who’s talking to me. Power does that. There’s a kind of silence that happens in the face of power, whether it’s with second graders or a department meeting like Christina was in or students every day in our classes.

Rebecca: I think what’s really interesting about both of the stories that you’re sharing is that we’ve been in those situations where the silence is overwhelming, we’ve maybe have been the person running the meeting or the classroom or also been the person in the audience.

Cathy: And it feels awful, it feels terrible. My students call it’s playing silence chicken. [LAUGHTER] That’s a great term.

Rebecca: It’s a perfect descriptor for sure. So given that we’ve all had these experiences, and also have experienced the opposite. I think probably all of us, or at least most of us have experienced those engaging opportunities. Why do we always default to the one that doesn’t work? [LAUGHTER]

Cathy: Every structure we have in academe tells us our job is to learn from the master. And I use that word in quotation marks, but pointedly, and then repeat back what you learn on a final exam and that’s how you get As. And the students in our classrooms, they’re the winners, not the losers. They got to college because they learned that lesson, Freire calls it the “banking model,” where it’s my head dumping and depositing stuff into your head. We also have studies that go back to the 1880s, not 1980s, 1880s, the Ebbinghaus experiments with memory that tell us we forget 75% of what we’ve learned for that exam within weeks after the exam is over. So it’s not an effective way to learn, but it’s the way we learn. So we’re being reinforcing in a way of learning we only use in higher education and formal education, we don’t learn new skills that way, when it’s not commonsensical to learn from a lecture. I don’t learn how to play tennis from a video. I might look at a video, but that’s not how I get better. I practice and I improve and someone corrects me, and then I change what I’m doing. We all know that. But, for education, we’re told, learn from the sage on the stage. That’s what you’re supposed to do. That’s how you excel and our students have learned how to excel. It makes complete sense that they would think they learned more from a lecture than when they contribute. They’re deferring to the authority in the room.

Christina: And I think that this has been ingrained in them for a long time. We’ve been ranked and rated since birth, literally the first minute of birth ranked against others. And this one wonderful researcher, Susan Engel. She’s at Williams College, developmental psychologist, and she cites a study where kids on average before they go to school, when they’re at home asked about 27 questions per hour. And anyone who has a toddler, sometimes it is well more than 27 questions per hour. [LAUGHTER] My toddler just started asking why about literally absolutely everything. He’s about three. So right on target for asking lots of questions, for being naturally curious about the world. She talks about this. It’s called epistemic curiosity. And Dr. Engel says that once kids go to school, they ask on average three questions per hour, which is just a precipitous drop in getting to ask your questions, getting to know the world around you through engaging with it. And so by the time they get to college, they expect to learn more from a lecture, that they are not experts in the room, and that the person at the front of the room has all of the answers. And they have been trained through standardized testing to believe that there is a right answer, and they just need to be able to get to that right answer. That doesn’t train them to take on the world’s toughest problems and be problem solvers, to find alternative solutions, to think outside the box. And maybe those problems in the world are caused by believing there is a right answer and not thinking that maybe it’s me sitting in the room with all of these other people sitting in the room who could find a better solution or a better answer than the one that that one person has. And that’s how we change society. That’s how we transform our institutions. And I think they’ve just been ingrained in this system for so long, that by flipping it around and saying no, there are 50 different ways to answer this one question or 50 different ways to solve this one mathematical equation, then it’s more up to them. It’s giving them a little more responsibility and autonomy so that they can practice using it when they get out into the world rather than thinking, “Oh, there’s someone smarter than me who clearly has that figured out and they’ll take care of that problem.” That doesn’t really give them the kind of responsibility and accountability that I think that we all need in the world.

Rebecca: What you were talking Christina, I was thinking about a conversation I had with my kindergartner over the weekend, who does still ask many, many questions, some of which I do not know the answer to and so I don’t remember what she was asking me but whatever it was, I did not know the answer. And I said, “I don’t know, we’ll have to look that up” and she’s like, “I’ll ask my teacher, she knows the answer.” She’s in kindergarten, she’s only been in kindergarten for two months.

Cathy: I interviewed kindergarten teachers and first-grade teachers about learning. And almost every kindergarten teacher said, “when kids come to them, they think they can do all these things like ‘I love math, I love music, I love art, I’m an artist,’ by first grade, within six months into the first grade, they know, ‘I’m not good at art, I’m not good at math, I’m okay at language, but I’m very poor at…’ and already have absorbed those kinds of lessons about themselves.” And what you said is great, because it’s like the authority of the teacher is already happening. And then what happens when you absorb those lessons into a self definition. And that’s what we’re working against with active learning, is not just definition of the teacher, but definition of yourself in your role as a person.

John: And that’s hard to correct at the college level, because students have been indoctrinated in this from their very first exposure to educational systems. And when faculty do try using active learning, they often get a lot of pushback from the students. And that’s a challenge for new faculty where their teaching evaluations may have some impact on their continued employment. So it’s a difficult cycle to break.

Cathy: Yes, and it’s one reason why we include the research, serious research with any thing we offer to faculty members about what they can do in their class. And we also talk about the 2014 meta study in the publication of the National Academy of Science that looked at every possible way of evaluating learning and said if this had been a pharmaceutical follow-up study that Eric Mazur, who’s one of the inventors of the flipped classroom, did at MIT because his brilliant MIT students, were all sure they were being shortchanged by active learning. So he had them read serious scientific studies of active learning and then they all thought they were doing great by having active learning, and they thought they were better. So it’s about using the methods that speak to people in order to change the methods because unless you address the actual present situation of the audience, of the students, of the people you’re addressing, you can’t change things, you have to honor that present situation before you can move to something else and make a structural change beyond that.

Rebecca: A lot of the current system of higher education, as you mentioned, is based on a really different era, a really different audience of students and our student populations have changed, become more diverse, there’s more people going to college now than before. So how do we help students who have been through this system that has not really invited them to the table to really get involved. We share some of the research, and what are some other ways we can support them on this endeavor, and to continue helping us change the system.

Christina: Some really great pedagogy out there. One I’m thinking is an assignment that Erin Glass does with her students where they read terms and conditions for all of the technology that they’re using on their campuses. And they have to closely read them and critique them to help them become more aware of capitalist surveillance and what they are required to sign up for. And then they write a critique of that, of the university and of the system that they’re being signed up for, so they’re not only learning more, they’re learning digital literacy. They’re also learning more about the institution that is guiding these things that they’re signing up for. And they’re becoming better critical readers in general. And they’re also talking back to that institution and saying you could be doing better. And so there are ways in which we can give our students real-world problems that are immediately close to them and to their experiences of education, and task them with coming up with something better. And it’s really wonderful that students who come from all different kinds of educational systems to get together and think of what could be done better. Or Cathy also does this where at the end of the semester, a final project could be like, come up with a better syllabus. I don’t know if you want to speak to that Cathy, but I love this assignment.

Cathy: Yeah, I love to end the class where I be in the next class, like I say, “Okay, we’ve had about 12 weeks or 16, depending on the institution that I’m at, together and we’ve done this as a syllabus, and you’ve contributed to the syllabus, the last assignment, and sometimes we make this even as a final exam, is to make a syllabus the next people who take this class will inherit. Put your stamp on it. What did you like? What didn’t you like? That’s an incredible activity and it means it’s but again, using an education-ese term, it’s metacognition, too, because it means students are looking back over everything they’ve learned, which is the best way to beat the Ebbinghaus 75% forgetting because you’re actually processing it, analyzing it, and then trying to come up with some new version that you’re bequeathing to somebody else. It’s a legacy that you’re bequeathing to somebody else. It’s a marvelous exercise and you can do it in any kind of class. It’s quite fascinating to see the different ways people can come up with things. So often people say, “Well, you’re an English teacher, so of course, you’re flexible.” But what about… there’s somebody named Howie Hua, who’s a professor at Cal State Fresno, who on Twitter almost every day he comes up with what he calls mental math problems. And he’ll ask something seemingly simple that you think there’s no other way to solve that, like, “Add in your head 24 plus 36? How did you do it?” And dozens of people respond with different ways to add whatever those two numbers are that I just said, in their head. And it’s fascinating, because the point he’s making is it’s not about the right answer. It’s about, not only understanding the processes, but understanding all the different tools that we can have in order to be better mathematicians, more passionate about science or more passionate about all kinds of learning. So I think any assignment that gives students the tools and allows them, and even better is when they can pass on those tools to somebody else. When Erin Glass does that assignment, they not only critique, but they come up with their own terms of service. What are the terms of service for our class? What’s the community constitution for our class? What are the community rules we’re going to form in this class? …and so they’re already invested in a new kind of structure even before you start populating what that structure is going to look like.

Christina: And I think from the first day, you can really set students up for something different. One thing that Bettina Love does in her classes is she has everything set up and she goes, “Okay, now you tell me when the deadlines are going to be for this.” And so students look at their calendars, look at their schedules, and determine when things are going to be due so that they’re not all due in the same week as midterms or as in the same week as finals. That’s a very student-centered approach, asking students to come up with the learning outcomes of a class. And even in the most restrictive situations, you can add learning goals and learning outcomes, even if yours are set by the department. So I think also asking students what needs to change to better serve them and centering them in that conversation, you can start with your class and then start to think more broadly about a department or a whole institution.

Cathy: What I love about all of these different things, and we’ve borrowed them from other people, one of the things we did was we interviewed so many people, academic twitter was very helpful for that, to find out what they were doing and profile people and amplify people who are doing amazing things. What works best is when something specific, if you say how should we change this class, you get silence chicken. If you say here are the 10 learning outcomes that our department requires us to write, do you have anything else you’d like to add? Maybe work with a partner and come up with your own additions to these required learning outcomes? Students come up with beautiful, soaring, inspirational things that just make you aware that if they’re allowed not to be cynical, students want to have agency and want to have something that will help them in the rest of their life, it’s pretty scary to think about the world out there. And they want and need these things and want to be participants in the shaping of their own life and in their own agency.

Christina: And you’re reminding me too, that there’s this widespread movement right now to rename office hours, to call them student hours, because students are so used to going to the office being a punitive experience. And student hours really welcomes them to come with maybe more than just “I’m having difficulty with this problem set.” “But I want to talk about my career, what can I do with this degree? Or I’m having difficulty with x? Can you help me with y?” I think it really better serves them as well to rename it student hours to show that we actually really want you to come and we really want to talk to you. I don’t want to just sit alone in my office. [LAUGHTER] I want you to be here.

John: What are some other activities or ways in which we could give students a bit more agency? You mentioned the reflection on the syllabus and rewriting a new syllabus at the end. And you also hinted at having students be engaged in the syllabus itself. What are some other ways we can do this during the course of the class?

Cathy: I often quote our friend Jonathan Sterne, who teaches at McGill University because this is the most counterintuitive one. Jonathan teaches various versions of mediasStudies, media information, technology, and disability studies. He himself had throat cancer, and he talks through a voice box that he himself helped to design… a remarkable human being. He teaches classes of 400 to 600 students, and people say there’s no way… how in the world could that be active learning? He hands out index cards and at the end of every class students write down an answer to something he asks. He might ask “What did we talk about in class today that you’re still going to be thinking about before you go to sleep at night? And if there was nothing, what should we have been talking about?” Today’s media if you don’t have anything to say about media in the modern world, something’s misfiring. He has a blog about his learning, and he’s charted how well students have done since you’ve done these simple exercises of having students report back after every class. He also works with TAs who have special sections, and they take the 15 cards from their section, so they know what questions the students have before they go into the session. And then he uses some of those to spur his next assignment. He does this kind of cool thing where he spreads it all the cards and says, “Well, John said so and so. And Deborah said so and so. And Rebecca said, so and so. And Christina said so and so.” So he makes it interactive. He also does an incredible thing. He says, “With this many students, I have to use multiple choice testing, and I know how impoverished multiple choice testing is.” So he sets his students a creative assignment each time, sometimes it’ll be a piece of notebook paper, sometimes it’ll be an index card, and he’ll say, “You can write any crib sheet you want, go back, and you can do anything you want from the semester to help you do well on the multiple choice exam.” And what he knows is what they write on that crib sheet is the learning, right? It’s not filling in the ABCDEs, it’s the learning he also leaves some portion, it might be 5%, might be five points, it might be10 points, depending on the system he’s using. He’s Canadian university, so it’s a slightly different system than in the US. But he leaves some amount free, and students hand in both their multiple choice exam and their crib sheet. And he gives extra points for the crib sheets. He’s even done art installations with some of the crib sheets that students have done. But the point is the way you review a class and organize the knowledge onto some very prescriptive sheet, and he says the prescription is extremely important… he’s a composer as well. So he knows how it’s important is to have rules and to play with those rules. And it’s almost like a game. That’s where the learning is happening. So even in the most restrictive situation, you can still do active learning and learning that’s meaningful to how your students learn and how they retain and how they can apply that learning later.

Christina: A colleague of mine, Siqi Tu, also has her sociology students come up with some of the questions that will be included on the final exam. And you can do this with a multiple choice or a long answer type of exam, and the students develop a question. And then when they submit their questions to the professor to review, they also need to include what skills are we assessing with this question? And is this the right answer? What are the various ways you could get to the right answer? And if the right answer is D, then why are you offering A, B, and C as other but wrong answers? Why are they not the right answer? …things like that, to get students to have this kind of command over what they’re learning, why it’s important, what is worthy of being assessed, and how to go about assessing it and testing that knowledge. They have a lot more agency then in how they are being evaluated. And so their expertise is also being solicited there. And the majority of the learning is happening in creating the question and explaining all of the pieces of how that question has been crafted and what the right answer is and why. And then, at the end, she includes at least a portion of the student-generated questions on the final exam. And so it not only gives them great exam prep, but then they also know better what to expect. And they have more agency and control over how they’re being evaluated.

Rebecca: I really enjoyed some of the titles of the chapters in your book, for example, “group work without the groans.” [LAUGHTER] And I thought, yes, group work without the growns. So they resonate.

Cathy: I used to consult quite a lot with business. And just because of that I helped create the Duke Corporate Education Program, which was for returning executives, when I taught at my previous institution. And the number one expense of management experts who are brought into corporations to help manage more effectively is to help them with group work. And in classrooms, sometimes even in sixth grade, we say “Work in your groups and then do something amazing.” Well, no, we know what’s going to happen. That one person who raises their hand, they were one of the three who raises their hand, and in the group, they’re the one that does all the work, then there’s somebody else who kind of goofs off, and then there’s somebody else who does nothing at all. And we know those patterns, and it’s horrible for all three, it’s horrible for the person who always steps up, they’re not being pushed, and it’s horrible for the person who does nothing or the person who goofs off. So when I do group work, I have students write job descriptions. They write out job descriptions for who is going to do what in the group and I also love to have them do an exercise that I call superpowers. What’s your hidden superpower? What’s your three things you do that you think have no relevance at all to this group but that you know you do really well? It might be playing video games. I’ve had people say they were a clown. I found out that my executive director of the program I run was a professional clown. I didn’t know that. She’s a gorgeous young woman and she was a clown. She’s the last person I would have thought of who would be a professional clown. People have these skills, and what they find out in a group is those skills are not irrelevant, because you’re talking in group work not only about coming up with a product, but about interrelationships. And how you can make all the different parts of your personalities work together coherently to create a final product. Also, I have students put that on their resume. I have them look online at what employers most prize. And it turns out collaboration… duh…because that’s what they spend their money improving. Somebody who can be a great collaborator is somebody you want to hire in a job. So my students can not only put that on their resume, but have a wonderful example. You don’t have to say it’s in a classroom. I worked on a project with four others, and we took that project in from idea to implementation, and my role was the firestarter. That’s a term from computer scientists. I’m especially good at coming up with new ideas and presenting those ideas to a group. Fantastic. And then they don’t grown, they realize they’re learning a skill, not being put back into a pattern that they themselves hate and are embarrassed by or resentful of.

Christina: And I think in addition to telling them why group work is important, that they’re going to end up working in groups for the rest of their lives. Everything I’ve done in any job has been collaborative to some degree, and mostly a lot, like really collaborative. And so I just kind of tell them, “This is not busy work, this is actually good practice for the rest of your life, because at the end of the semester, you’re not going to work with these people anymore. But if you’re in a job, the only way to leave that group is to leave that job and the stakes are so much higher. So first of all, this is good practice.” But I think also, we sometimes neglect to offer students the structures that they need to feel confident in their grade for group work, and to feel confident going into group work. So from the get go, giving students structure for the group work, like a checklist of jobs or asking them to come up with a checklist of tasks that they need to complete, assigning roles, like putting a name next to each item on that checklist, so that it’s clear who is doing what. Teaching them a skill like that is teaching them how to delegate authority, how to be a good entrepreneur, a leader, and pointing that out to them that by creating this checklist and putting everyone’s name next to everything, you’re delegating authority, you’re learning these leadership skills that you need in the workforce, and helping them to understand that it is absolutely okay and totally normal to feel social anxiety before going into a group, particularly after a pandemic, when we really lost the ability to make small talk.

Cathy: It’s exhausting. [LAUGHTER]

Christina: It’s exhausting. It’s exhausting. It is we lost that skill. Oh my goodness,

Cathy: Today happens to be a Monday and I had brunches on Saturday and Sunday and took a nap after each one. I can’t remember how to do brunch anymore. [LAUGHTER] And we’re all in that situation.

Christina: It’s true. I just wanted to add one more thing, which is that it’s not just social anxiety, but it’s also anxiety about grades and grading. And we have a whole chapter about grades. Because no one likes grading. No one likes grading. And I think it’s important too for students to know that they’re being graded and assessed fairly on group work. I’m so having that checklist of roles and turning that in at the end to show who did what is really important. And inevitably, it’s funny because we also put faculty into groups …that transformative learning the humanities… where I work, and this inevitably happens with faculty too, that they get really anxious about working when the ideas aren’t gelling together. And I think it’s really important for students to know how they’re being graded. And if someone’s ghosting or someone’s not pulling their weight or not showing up, give everyone else extra credit for helping to make that work, helping to reach out to that person who’s not showing up or ghosting: “Are you okay?” And a lot of times that person is not okay. And they needed someone to reach out and ask if they’re okay, they need that support. So offering the students who unclog a problem, you can give them a plunger award, literally, that happens in a lot of groups, or do something to recognize someone who goes above and beyond to help resolve those kinds of conflicts and issues, rather than it feeling like “Oh, but my grade is being hurt by someone else.” I think it really helps to foster collaborative community and a learning community where everyone is important. Everyone is valued and everyone needs to be okay for the group work to be successful. How can we help our colleagues, our peers.

Cathy: Around 2005 to 2010 years for my organization HASTAC which I co-founded in 2002… NSF now called it the world’s first and oldest academic social network… we created a wiki and we went to this guy in a garage and asked him if he would help us create a wiki and then the next year he launched Wikipedia… that was Jimmy Wales. [LAUGHTER] So that’s how old, that’s how ancient this is. But with that world, we were dealing a lot with open-source computer programmers. When they would do a job, when a job would be posted on Stack Exchange or another open source site, they would have to find a partner that they’d never worked with before and know if that person was reliable, somebody who could complement their skills, and so they do a badging system. And I worked with the Mozilla Foundation on creating badging systems, where you would write down all the criteria that you need to accomplish a job and you never gave a negative, you never give a negative, you just give somebody a badge if they did something great in doing that, and then somebody else who comes by and wants to look to see if they want to work with that person sees where they’ve been given the right badges and says, “ooh, yeah, those are the things I do poorly and those are things what you do well.” Again, HASTAC calls that collaboration by difference. Not everybody has to do everything perfectly, but you have to know, you have to have an inventory of what people contribute. So in my classes, also, when I’m doing group work, I’ll have students not only write their own job descriptions, but write a list of the qualities they think are most important for the success of the group as a whole. And after every week, when they come together, I’ll have them give badges to the people. I don’t even say how many, what percentage, just give a badge to someone who you think really showed up this week, and give a badge in a different category. You don’t have to tell the person who never gets a badge from any of their peers that they’re not pulling their weight. And then that can be a first step, as Christina said, to doing something like reaching out and saying, “You must feel terrible that nobody’s given you a badge in anything. What’s going on? Is it indifference? Is something going on your life? What’s happening?” Yeah, and it doesn’t have to be punitive. But when you see that none of your peers are rewarding you, sometimes it’s like, “Darn them. I’m doing all the work. But I’m a shy person. So I just make the corrections.” That often happens among computer programmers who often are not the most voluble, personable, people. They used to wording, we’re doing code? And someone will say, :”No, no, no, I was fixing all the code you didn’t see, you just didn’t look and see that I was fixing all the code.” And then you can make an adjustment to and it’s an incredibly important adjustment. I’m working with somebody now who was Phi Beta Kappa, three majors, straight As, et cetera, et cetera, and never spok in college. And when she hears these methods, she says, “This would have changed my whole way of being in college.” Instead of feeling shame of all the people who should not feel shame, she felt ashamed that she wasn’t contributing. And because she was never offered an opportunity to until she wrote this brilliant final exam or brilliant final research paper when her teachers knew but in class, she felt like she was failing. That’s horrible. That somebody that brilliant would ever feel like they weren’t doing a great job.

Christina: I think it also asked how to get students excited. And thinking about what Cathy just said, I like to frame group work as an opportunity to practice being a step-up or a step-back person. So if you’re normally a step-up person, like everyone loves that you’re the first to volunteer to help. It’s great to be a step-up person, but sometimes that doesn’t leave room for stepping back and taking into account all of the things that have been said, and reflecting on the larger picture and finding the forest through the trees. And so I invite students to try to practice if you’re generally a step-up person, try being a step-back person. And if you’re generally a step-back person, try being a step-up person and see how it goes. And I also put all of the really loud step-up people in a group together, and I put all of the really quiet step-back people in a group together, because at some point, they’re going to have to talk and the step-up people need a way to regulate who is talking. And so I think a lot of us try to distribute those people through groups, and that can really change group dynamics. So I like having them all together in various ways to feel comfortable being among peers and navigating those roles and being more aware, calling to mind those roles before group work, so they could get excited about trying something new, and recognize that this is always just practice.

John: Will these methods help to create a more inclusive classroom environment?

Christina: These methods are inclusive because they solicit participation from every single person in the room. Inventory methods achieve total participation, that’s a term from the American Psychological Association, 100% participation, not just the hand-raising few. So these methods are inclusive.

John: There has been a lot of criticism recently concerning the way in which traditional grading systems cause students to focus on trying to achieve the highest grades rather than on learning. Do you have any suggestions on how we can focus student effort on learning rather than achieving higher grades?

Christina: Shifting the focus from grades to learning? A very quick answer would be thinking along the lines of Carol Dweck and using a growth mindset… that we are all learning… that you can do more assignments that are completion-based or labor-based to a satisfactory degree rather than A, B, C, D, F. And I think that one really great model is from Debbie Gail Mitchell, who teaches chemistry in Denver. She decided that an 80 is achieving proficiency. And the goal is to achieve proficiency. And so if you get an 80 on an exam or an assignment, then you receive the total number of points for that exam or assignment. And there’s a total number of points to achieve for the whole class. And so assignment or exam adds up to that. And so students stop grade grubbing or worrying if they’re getting an 83 or an 84. And they focus more on learning.

John: We always end with the question: “What’s next?”

Cathy: At one of those brunches This weekend, I had the privilege to meet someone named Matt Salesses, S-A-L-E-S-S-E-S, who is a novelist who just took a job in the MFA program at Columbia, who’s also written a book called Craft. And the book looks at how we teach writing in writing workshops by looking at novels and noticing how often white-authored novels don’t tell you the race of the white characters, but do tell you the race of the non-white characters, and how much craft through all fields as well as in writing workshops often assumes a putative expert in a putative subject as being white. And then everybody else gets defined. So even when we do the terms like diversity and inclusion, there’s an implicit grounding that the person who has craft and earns that craft is going to be from the dominant race. And it’s a really interesting book that looks at the Iowa Writers Workshop and the principles by which it was written up. You could have done craft as a way that higher education was set up. So many of the people who started and set up the metrics for higher education in the late 19th century were in fact, eugenicists, they really believed there was a biological reason for racial superiority and created a system that reified that prejudice that they had. So that’s just a parting. I just happened to be at a brunch at one of those exotic face-to-face human real experiences this weekend where I met an astonishing person with an astonishing book that I’m thinking about more and more. So that’s a what next for me as of yesterday, but that’s the wonderful thing about active learning is yesterday always has something interesting you can learn from.

Christina: My what next is I’m working on an article right now with a colleague, Josefine Ziebell. We’re both sound studies scholars, and also interested in pedagogy. And we’re looking at the school-to-prison pipeline, and the ways in which school soundscape mirrors the carceral soundscape, and how to give students more sonic agency. And so thinking about silence in the room, thinking about voice, and in what ways speaking up can challenge authority and how that can cost you your life in the worst scenarios. And also just like bells ringing, the time ticking ways in which school soundscape can contribute to the school-to-prison pipeline by regimenting everything about a person’s body and depriving them of their sonic agency, where making noise is considered inappropriate when that is exactly what we need to do to transform these institutions. And so I guess that just studying that I find really interesting right now with Josefine.

Rebecca: Well, thank you so much for such fascinating conversation today and things to think about and wonderful teasers for your book.

Cathy: Thank you very much.

Christina: Thank you so much.


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.


264. Collaborative Rubric Construction

Students may not immediately trust faculty who they perceive as being different from themselves. In this episode, Dr. Fen Kennedy joins us to discuss how collaborative rubric construction can be used as a strategy for building and maintaining trust. Fen is an assistant professor of dance at the University of Alabama and the author of a chapter in Picture a Professor, edited by Jessamyn Neuhaus.

Show Notes

John: Students may not immediately trust faculty who they perceive as being different from themselves. In this episode, we explore how collaborative rubric construction can be used as a strategy for building and maintaining trust.


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: …and features guests doing important research and advocacy work to make higher education more inclusive and supportive of all learners.


John: Our guest today is Dr. Fen Kennedy. Fen is an assistant professor of dance at the University of Alabama. They are also the author of a chapter in Picture a Professor, edited by Jessamyn Neuhaus. Welcome, Fen.

Fen: Hi both of you, it’s good to be here.

Rebecca: Our teas today are:… Fen, are you drinking tea?

Fen: I am because I saw that there was a tea list, so I am drinking one of my favorite teas, which is a Lapsang Souchong. And because of the theme of my chapter, I have it in my wonderful mug that says, “What a beautiful day to respect other people’s pronouns.” Cheers.

Rebecca: Cheers. That sounds wonderful.

John: It does and you know, I’ve wanted to drink that tea on here, but I was never quite sure how to pronounce it. [LAUGHTER] I do drink it fairly often, it’s a really nice tea. I keep it separate from the others so the smoke flavor doesn’t infuse the other teas.

Rebecca: See, unlike you, I just embarrass myself by trying to say things I don’t know how to say [LAUGHTER].

Fen: I have a wonderful tea from Plum Tea Company, which is the Picard tea, which is a variant of Earl Grey, which is wonderful.

Rebecca: Nice.

John: And a nice nerdy thing to do too. Many of our guests would appreciate that aspect of it, and we would too. I’m drinking a wild blueberry black tea today.

Rebecca: Oh, That sounds nice, John.

John: It’s very good.

Rebecca: A little different than your normal. I just have Earl Grey today.

John: But not the Picard variant.

Rebecca: Yeah, unfortunately, I didn’t know that that was an option.

Fen: It’s wonderful, I think there’s kind of sweet orange notes in it. I’m a big fan.

Rebecca: That sounds really good. We might have to look, John.

John: So we invited you here, today, to discuss your chapter in Picture a Professor entitled “Collaborative Rubric Creation as a Queer Transgender Professor’s Tactic for Building Trust in The Classroom.” You begin the chapter by noting that transgender and non-binary faculty are rarities in higher education. Could you describe some of the challenges that you face as a non- binary transgender faculty member, who’s also a first-gen student and an immigrant?

Fen: Well, that’s a mouthful. [LAUGHTER] My chapter title is a mouthful and then the question is a mouthful, and well, I will do my best. And so well, I thought about this in advance. And I could give you some of the easiest figures and more objective measures of those obstacles. For example, I worked out quite recently, as an immigrant on an H1 visa, which is a work visa, but not a citizenship or residence visa, you are not allowed to work outside of the contract that you’re hired for. So any work that I’ve done outside of the university, I have had to donate my income to someone else, or just refuse payments. And I worked out that with the money I have lost being an immigrant, I could have put down a second deposit on a house.

Rebecca: …not insignificant.

Fen: No, so it’s not insignificant. The other thing that I think a lot of people don’t realize is that as an immigrant, you can’t really buy your books unless you absolutely know you’re staying in the country. So during my PhD, when you want to look up something, you can’t turn to your wonderful bookshelf and pull down the book that you own, it’s write to the library and see if it’s in stock and see when you can get it. So it’s this little logistical things. And I know we’ll get to gender because the chapter is about gender. But on the first-gen student, something that comes to my mind is: I was in a teacher training and the person giving this training said, “Well, you’re first-generation students, they’re really going to struggle in the classroom, you’re going to know who they are, they’re going to have a hard time knowing how to do things.” And I sat there getting my PhD, getting ready to teach and thinking, I’m not sure I like how I’m being described as someone who’s going to struggle who’s going to have these challenges, and no one has ever said, What advantages does a first-generation student have? What do they bring that other students lack? And so I think sometimes one of the big things is that you’re perceived as a challenge, you’re perceived as someone who’s going to struggle, which means that when you do something that’s original, or creative, or critical, often the response is to say, “Oh, that’s because you don’t understand” rather than, “Oh, this could be a productive direction that other people might want to take also.”

Rebecca: Those are some really good points. I think many of our students are labeled in all kinds of ways that prevent us from seeing all that they have to offer, and how much they can move our classrooms forward and how much we can learn from our students and not have this expectation that they’re going to fail. I really appreciate that you put that right out front.

Fen: I think also, when you follow that line of thinking, a lot of teachers… and I think the book is getting towards this point as a whole… a lot of teachers plan to teach to the students they want rather than planning to teach the students they have. So when they design syllabi, when they design policies, when they design their standards for the course, they picture an ideal student and say how would that student fit in? Rather than saying, “Okay, who is coming into my classroom? What do they need when they get out of it? And how do I take them on that journey in a way that makes them feel engaged, delighted, enthusiastic, valued.” And so we’re talking about Picture a Professor, but maybe not picturing our students is another thing that we could work on.

John: That could be a sequel, Picture a Student.

Fen: Absolutely.

John: I think when we all start teaching, we often have some assumptions about what our students are going to be like. But the reality of our students is often quite different. And that can lead to some challenges for both students and faculty. Following up on that a little bit, what do you do to try to find out more about who your students are.

Fen: So one of the things I tried to do is, think of the people that I hung out with, in my day-to-day life. I hung out with other immigrants, I hang out with first-gen students, I hang out with queer people. And I know about their barriers to coming into education. I hear a lot of people who’ve had really, really awful experiences. And I think about myself, and I was like, “What is the kind of classroom environment that I would have enjoyed? What is the kind of classroom environment that they would have felt happy in and at home in.” So I start with trying to make the door to the classroom as wide as possible, rather than keeping it narrow and forcing students to fit their way through. And then the other thing, I think, what I do is, I started university teaching when I was 23 and I was younger than some of the people in the room with me. And so I didn’t feel like I could step into a classroom and have authority from any degree that I had, or any age that I had, or any status that I had. And so really, if I wanted my students to do what I wanted them to do, I felt like the other end of the deal was I had to know more and teach it really well. And so coming from that perspective, I think, and not thinking of myself as entitled to teach and not thinking of myself as entitled to be at the front of the room, but having to work to be at the front of the room. And part of that work is making a space for the students who are in the room with me. And so I don’t have particular always things that I do. But I try and improve my classroom every semester and make it better for more people.

Rebecca: One of the things that I really appreciated about what you’ve said, Fen, is an underscoring of the term “delightful” multiple times, so that it’s not just something that a group of students can deal with, or it’s survivable, [LAUGHTER] which I think is maybe the bar that is often set, but actually, that you set the bar at delightful. Can you talk a little bit more about that?

Fen: Well, it helps that I’ve always really liked being in classrooms. And school for a while was my safe space. Which means that I, in some ways, have in my past, lacked empathy with people who have not found that and who have not liked learning. And it took some hard experiences for me to realize, “Okay, this is something I’m going to have to step away from, because we’re taught often, if you don’t like learning, you’re lazy and it’s something of a personal failure, and you could be doing better.” And then realizing how many people are in a situation where they are taught that academia hates, and why would you want to constantly be in a space that hates you, for things that you have no control over? But when I start to teach things, I think, “How can I share this subject that I find really cool? How can I share it in a way that conveys my enthusiasm to the people I’m teaching it to.” And that’s fairly easy in a dance technique class, because dance is great fun, and also hard work. It is more difficult when you are teaching graduate critical theory. It’s more difficult when you’re teaching the required history course. But I love critical theory and I love history. And I find them really fun. And I think part of the way that you get people to enjoy the classroom is to give them ownership of the material and allow them to not step back at a distance and see the knowledge that is far off that they must aspire to, but put them in the middle of it and say this is work that we’re doing together. I say that I try and teach history, not to teach students history, but to teach the historians of the future, which means we’ve got to have debates and we’ve got to have conversations and we’ve got to have feelings and opinions that are legitimately ours rather than the ones we think we ought to have. [LAUGHTER]

John: That brings into the topic of your article, which is collaborative rubric creation with students. Could you talk a little bit about how you started doing that and how it’s been working?

Fen: Yes. So I really came to this idea of collaborative rubric creation because I was assigned a choreography course to teach for the first time and that gave me the opportunity to think philosophically about how does one grade choreography? [LAUGHTER] How do you grade someone making art? Because that is always… and I talked about this a little bit in the chapter… that’s always a big problem of a question in creative disciplines. There’s not a qualitative answer. There’s not a specific right or wrong. So how do you start to design that. And I must here, give a shout out to Jessica Zeller, who is a phenomenal dance teacher and also a really important voice in the conversation around what we call ungrading, and thinking about how to take down some of these structures of ranking students in boxes. And so looking through her ideas and trying to work out myself, and I thought, “Oh, what if we start the semester by talking about what art means to my students and what they want to do as choreographers,” because not every student wants to be a high-art experimental installation, interdisciplinary maker, even I kind of wish that more people were that thing. I don’t want to make them into me, I want to make them into the best version of them, which means I’ve got to understand what they want And also sometimes knowing that they don’t have exposure to all the things that they might want to be. So what’s the balance there? And I remember the first time I did it, I kind of structured it into their creative process, their self-directed learning and their citizenship. And what happened when we talked about the three different categories is they ran into all their assumptions about what they thought dance was. And so somebody had put down that an excellent choreographer uses partnering. They’ve done these wonderful, like written out on paper, and I said, “Well, do you think all expert choreographers use partnering? Do you think a piece is less if it doesn’t?” And they were, “Oh, wait, no, that doesn’t work.” And I said, “Okay, so what is the skill that’s being used? And we boil down, and so we got past these things that use partnering, like use motif and repetition, and started to realize what was underpinning those ideas, not the ingredients of what choreography had to include, but how you went about making choreography. And one of the big moments for the class was actually when we talked about citizenship, because they talked about “Oh, show up on time and answer all the questions.” And I said, “Well, with that in mind, how can you be a good citizen on a bad day? How can you be a good citizen when you are sick, or stressed out or having a panic attack?” And they went “Oh,” and so rather than, again, these indicators of good behavior and good practice, what is underpinning that or with a sense of being responsible for the space and yourselves and others, which sometimes is going to look different? It might be, “you have to email me and let me know if you’re not being there so I can shuffle the group’s around.” It might look like, “I’m going to take it notes for my friends and catch them up,” it might be “I’m going to zoom into class on a day that I can’t make it to class.” And that is a professional way of being a good citizen. And so it became a really generative conversation. And I went, “Okay, I’m going to do this every time I can.”

Rebecca: Sounds like a really productive conversation, and probably really pushing students to embody what it means to be a choreographer in a way that they wouldn’t otherwise approach the class.

Fen: I think it also gets them past the answers that they’ve just kind of learned by rote. And when I do this in technique classes, I start off by asking them, “What do you want to learn?” And usually, there’s a whole range from people who want to do their situps and their push ups at the start of class every day and get strong, there’s the people who would absolutely not like to do that. There’s the people who want to improvise, there’s the people who do not want to improvise. And when we only kind of pull it together, we see where the biggest priorities are and where, and what’s actually falling off the edges. And then I say, “Well, how do you want to be assessed on learning those things?” And so then, rather than their assessment criteria,being their straight knees and their wonderful athletic posture, we get things coming out, like “my problem solving,” “my adaptability,” “my ability to set a goal for myself and meet it within the range of my body.” And I really enjoy getting them to set goals that they’re invested in, so they understand that they have reasons behind them that they can then work towards, because they’re what they want to be working on anywhere.

Rebecca: One of the things you said a minute ago, in two different contexts was the students don’t always know where they want to be, or who they might want to be, or what kind of choreography they might want to make. How do you help students down that journey to discover and explore? Because that seems very tied to your rubric and your strategies here.

Fen: Yes, it is. And actually, it’s this process of creating trust. And I say that the rubric helps create trust, because they know that they’re not going to have a surprise. But if we’re all invested in the same goals, then we’re going on a path that we all kind of want to be on, which means that I get to say, “Look, I’m going to try something with you might seem really silly, and I want you to try it, I want you to try it for 15 minutes, and then we’ll talk about it, will you trust me enough to be really silly with me for 15 minutes?” And usually the answer is yes, because we’ve already agreed that we’re on the same page with what we want to get out of the experience. And I’m not going to suddenly swerve off into a different direction on my own agenda. So I think this idea of creating trust and buy-in allows me to expose students to a lot of different things, and a lot of different ideas, not because I’m saying this is right and this is where I want you to go even if you don’t understand why. But in the service of these goals that we’ve agreed upon, that we share, I think this will be helpful.

John: So it sounds like this process of rubric creation is not just creating this sense of trust, but you’re also breaking down some of their preconceptions about what the class is going to be about. Do you ever have trouble getting students to converge on a rubric? You mentioned that students come in with very different expectations, How do you resolve some of the differences in those expectations as a class?

Fen: Well, sometimes we just do all of them, if we have time to take different approaches, and we say, we’re going to compromise here, we’re going to do this some days, and not this other days, like I’ll do your situps, a nice, stretchy, soft, warm up, and we’ll see which one we like better. And at the midterm, we’ll check in and we’ll decide which one we like. And if we want to shift things. So, I think that’s how we’re resolving. And sometimes we sit down, we talk about it until we find out what we actually want and where the middle ground is. And on occasion, I say “There are limits what I can provide, and I cannot provide this experience for you. It is out of my skill set. Sorry, this is where you can go and get it.” And I think that two threads that I’m hearing myself say that I want to pull out the idea that things can change, that what you decided at the beginning can shift if it’s not working, and that I am willing to have limits in front of them and say, “This is what I can do and this is what I can’t.” And I think that’s really useful for them as well, because it helps them understand. If I’m there modeling that I get to set limits around my own workload, maybe they do too.

Rebecca: How often do you check in about the rubrics that you designed collectively,

Fen: Formally, not very often. And I think informally a lot, depending on the class. I think the first time I did it, I didn’t check in enough. And there was some confusion about how it would work out at the end of the semester. And it caused more stress than it needed to. And so the next time I followed the same pattern for a quarter of the class, I had regular check-ins throughout the semester, and I would look at like, “How is this working for you? And are you going in the directions that you want to and are you working your way towards these goals and targets,” rather than showing up at the end and going “Okay, now you’re going to be assessed on these things.” So I’ve learned to check in more. But depending on the class, sometimes I check in just as I chat to the students, and sometimes I have scheduled time,

John: How have students responded to the process, have they found it very helpful? Has it helped build that climate of trust?

Fen: Well, especially during the pandemic, thinking about what was reasonable to expect of students was really useful. And I think, because I already had this kind of system in place, I sent out things to my classes saying like, “What can I expect from you in terms of WiFi? Can you make it to classes? If you can’t make it to classes, would you prefer a podcast style or blog style? Or would you want me to just put up a lot of stuff and ask questions? This is the range of my flexibility, what would you like within it.” And so I think that was really, really useful. And I think it helps people who have obstacles to being in the classroom stay in the classroom. And I think that’s the big thing. Every semester, I have to submit my own benchmarks for what I want the students to do and how well they’ve done. But I am allowed to set my own benchmarks. And recently I shifted from what percentage of students are getting an A to, I would rather that a broader perspective of students were getting Bs across a wide range of material. When I submitted that benchmark, I said, “I don’t want to disregard the work of all the people who fought super, super hard to stay in the classroom and get a B in the course, because for some students, that is a huge amount of work. And they put in hours and hours and hours of time and effort and growth to get Cs and Bs in a course and I want the assessment of my teaching to show that I’m recognizing that and I’m trying to make it possible for them to do that. And I am proud of them when they do. A thing I hear a lot from my students is “You genuinely care about us. We know that you care about us,” and I’m really happy hearing that.

Rebecca: A thread that we’ve heard a lot lately is that the methods and things that are meant to be inclusive usually also involve methods that show care.

Fen: And I want to point out the other thing that I remember that a student said to me recently is, “You made me work harder in that class than I’ve ever worked in any class in my life. And I did it.” And so when we’re talking about these inclusive teaching methods and caring teaching, it’s not that we lack rigor, and it’s not that we asked for less. In fact, after we end up asking for more, because you can’t follow a known system, you can’t go to essaydownloads.com, which is not a real website… but I know things like it exist… because it’s not going to work for the kinds of work I’m asking my students to do. And so they’re being asked to meet really, really high standards, but they’re ones that will be genuinely professionally helpful to them as individuals.

Rebecca: You mentioned ungrading earlier and talked about students’ individual growth. Do you have students use the rubric to essentially self-evaluate or are you using the rubric to evaluate?

Fen: That depends on the class. In a choreography class I have the students come to me with a portfolio and a pitch for the grade they think they ought to get based on rubric, and we talk about whether that’s realistic or not. Actually, I’ve never had anybody over pitch, I’ve always had people under pitch on what they think they deserve, which is kind of sad, really. And then in some classes I use the rubrics more as a more conventional grading tool.

John: I think we’ve also heard that quite a bit from people who’ve used ungrading, that they’re more likely to find people who underestimate how much they’ve learned during the course, which is something that surprised me when I first heard it. But now we’re starting to hear that a lot. You mentioned teaching during a pandemic, and I would imagine that that’s especially challenging in a class like dance or choreography. Could you tell us how you manage your classes during a period of pandemic teaching?

Fen: I kind of had a great time. Like, obviously, there’s a lot that was not a great time. But I really admire the work my students did during those times. The commitment it takes to show up on Zoom and dance in your dorm room and keep being an artist is so much harder than it is to be when you’re in a studio among other artists. And they held themselves to that standard. I did talk with students about the reality of how do you give your best attention, which for some people is sitting looking at the computer and for some people is walking around, pottering, while they listen to a lecture and thinking about like, “Okay, what does it take for you to give your best attention today? because I’d rather you gave me your best attention than sat here, not being able to listen.” And I think that was useful. I was very lucky that I got to go completely remote for a semester. And I taught theory classes initially. And then I came back to a mix of theory and practical classes, one of which was choreography. And just like, as I said before, with the students it’s not planning for the class you want to have, it’s planning for the class you’ve got, and I had to do a hybrid class. And so rather than go “Okay, how do I make Zoom get as close as possible to an in-person class,” I said, “Okay, the first five weeks are going to be completely over Zoom, and at the end of it, we’re going to make a film about closeups. And we’re going to think of the dimensions of the Zoom screen and what it takes to be an artist within the tiny box. And so using the restrictions of the pandemic to shape how his class was going to be structured. And in history, again… I’m not sure if either of you have given lectures… but sitting on Zoom and watching a row of empty black boxes with a couple of faces while you try and give a lecture is a special kind of hell. [LAUGHTER] And I talked to my students, and they said, “We really do need lecture content.” I said, “Okay, so one class a week, I will just give you content over a lecture. And the other class of the week, you’re going into breakout rooms, and you’re going to do solo space self-directed learning. I’ll have questions for you.” I had a GTA, who was also in the rooms and they just talked their way through the history and the evidence and the questions and it was wonderful. And when I came back live, it completely reshaped my pedagogy. Because knowing that people were willing to get really deep into conversation further then I could take them to a kind of a guided discussion. And so not everybody wants to learn that way. Some people really do not want to sit and get into a really active lively discussion. And so finding a balance as I’m in the classroom, and there’s more opportunities. I call it “choose your own adventure,” but letting people have flexibility in how they’re learning. There’s lots of different ways to get through the course and that was shaped by Zoom and the necessities of how we teach dance during a pandemic.

Rebecca: So we talked at the top of the conversation about how few transgender and non-binary faculty members there are. And representation, as we know, is very important for our students and for our colleagues and to have a nice, wonderful learning environment. Could you talk about some of the challenges that you faced, as a faculty member who identifies as transgender and non-binary?

Fen: We are in a moment in America, and the world, where we don’t have a cultural consensus that transphobia is wrong, we don’t have a cultural consensus that homophobia is wrong, which means that putting myself out in the classroom is in itself a political statement. And that’s not one that every school wants to get behind. And it’s not one that every student feels necessarily confident about when they encounter me. We’ve got people coming in as undergrads, often I’m the first non-binary person they’ve met. And here I am grading them, and are they going to get into trouble if they get it wrong? And oh, my goodness, it’s a non-binary person at last. Let me ask them all my gender questions. Let me come out to you. There’s a spectrum of responses. But always, there’s a certain necessary caution around what I am allowed to say and who I am allowed to be. So that if somebody does say, “You’re grooming our children, you are putting our students in danger, you are sexualizing people and you are teaching children things that are against their religion.” And there are all things that could come up, how am I going to respond? And what is the record of my pedagogy and my actions going to say in response to those accusations? and that is a lot of weight to carry on your shoulders on a day-to-day basis. To know that the record of your actions might have to answer those questions. And so that’s something I think about a lot. And something I try and be very careful around. I have become more and more known for speaking about these interviews. I have been interviewed by Dance Teacher magazine, a couple of times, I keep my own blog about it. I’m someone that people go to when they want someone to talk about dance and gender now, which again means having a practice and how I shape my words and my presence. But on a practical level, I live in a small city, and even things like going out in the evening… is a student going to be in a restaurant? Or is a student going to be waiting on me and my partner? If someone takes a photo of me out in public with a glass of alcohol in my hand, is that going to come back to haunt me? And so it’s not just my professional life that gets shaped by these issues. But it’s every aspect of my life, where I have to be conscious of, again, what my actions may be held up as evidence for.

Rebecca: That’s a lot of emotional and cognitive energy that goes into all of that, and I imagine a great deal of planning, as you’re thinking about your courses.

Fen: Yes, there’s a lot of thinking, and I want to expose my students to a lot of very diverse material. And also, how do I give them the language of opting out? I don’t want to force anyone to watch things. And I’m actually a big believer in giving everybody the right of refusal in the classroom, most of the time, I work a lot with touch, which means you have to work really hard about consent. I definitely grew up in an era where your body was just picked up and moved around. And so thinking about my students’ right to say no to things, which often results in people feeling more comfortable saying yes to things. And I think in the same way that I sit down with my students and I say my pronouns are they and them, if you have a strong conviction that you can’t use that, you can use something else, I do prefer not to be called Mam, which I think is partly gender and partly British. But given that I’m out in the world, when I’m talking to my peers, and there’s not that level of force and power imbalance, I use they/them pronouns, and that’s what I expect people to use for me. But when it is someone over whom I have a certain amount of power, I think I have to give that little bit of space for them to go, “Okay, I need to think about my beliefs and my feelings and my desires and the power in the situation and know that I’m not going to mess up my entire academic career if I don’t get this right first time.”

Rebecca: Sounds like a lot of grace is extended. [LAUGHTER[

Fen: A lots of people weren’t sure about me coming down to Alabama. I chose to take the job here and I think it’s really important I say I had choices and I chose Alabama, in part because of how hungry the students were to learn, they really threw themselves enthusiastically at new challenging things. And I went, that’s where I want to be.

John: I was going to ask about that. While this could be challenging anywhere, I would think being in the south in general would make it much more challenging, especially given the level of religiosity of many of the students there.

Fen: Well, I think sometimes there’s a stereotype that the South is just an extra level of awfulness than anywhere else. And there’s a certain baseline of awful that you’re going to find absolutely anywhere where you’re a transgender professor. One of the places that I interviewed for a tenure-track position, they kind of grilled me for a long time trying not to say gender, but would I be willing to teach students with different beliefs? How would I manage students in the classroom who might have different ideas than me about how history worked? Which are valid questions, but really not the right question to ask when what you’re trying to say is, “How is your gender going to impact the classroom?” …which they can’t legally asked. And I walked into the interview at Alabama, and the head of dance said: “Just to check before we start the interview, you take they/them pronouns?” I’m like, “Yep.” And he went “Great.” And I was like, “Okay.” So in some ways, academia is a little blue bubble. But there are lots of things about being where I am in a situation that I am that I very much love and I also think that if people maintain this idea that the South is bad and awful, it’s often used as an excuse to stop people looking at their own behavior… we’re much better than the South, they need to change, they need to do things differently. People who are let’s get out of the south, let’s all move up north, whereas the activism down here is very powerful, like really incredible the work that people are doing to try and make the south a more livable place for everybody in it. And that should be respected and recognized, and it doesn’t do people justice to wrap the entire South up in this label of awful. That answer got a little tangled, but I think the summary of it is that there’s a lot of work to be done everywhere, and I’m happy to be doing the kind of work I want to do here.

Rebecca: That’s a very nice, succinct way of summarizing the tangle. [LAUGHTER] But it also always gets tangled, because there’s so many things that pull and push in different directions, and probably really worth acknowledging how much time you probably spend mentoring students who come to you based on your identity, and self-disclose because they’re looking for an advocate and they’re looking for a role model. And that labor is often incredibly invisible.

Fen: Yes. And I think, interestingly, I’m in a department where there’s a number of faculty members who collect… I call them goslings sometimes, [LAUGHTER] but students who, by virtue of identity or life situation, need extra love and support. And I think that every student at some point in their undergrad career needs a little extra love and support. And we are a large department. It’s hard to build those relationships with all the students, but I try not to just be there on the virtue of identity, like I do try and make time for anyone who asks for the time, often because I don’t get to know all the students very well, especially those with LGBTQ identities, you often can’t tell by looking. And so it helps me check my own judgment and make sure that I’m not unintentionally creating favoritism or groups. If somebody needs the help and the time, I want to be able to give it to them to the extent that I can. And I have had to learn how to say “I have X amount of time and then I have to have you leave my office.”

Rebecca: Boundaries, so helpful, so healthy.

Fen: Because if your professor is a person that your professor gets to be a person, just like you.

Rebecca: I feel like that’s such a powerful thing to end on. [LAUGHTER]

John: It is, yes. And humanizing the professor creates a much more positive environment where they do feel more connected to you.

Rebecca: Picture a professor, they are a person. [LAUGHTER]

Fen: Yes.

John: Okay. Well, we always end with the question: “What’s next?”

Fen: Well, I’m on sabbatical right now.

Rebecca: Woo hoo.

Fen: I have just gotten back from three weeks at the Hambidghe Arts Residency Center, which is just absolutely incredible… off the grid in the wilderness of the Georgia and North Carolina mountains. Fresh air. I got back yesterday.

Rebecca: Wow.

Fen: I leave on the 13th of October to go to Philly. I’m helping organize a partner dance event. And I am meandering up the East Coast, different cities ending in Ann Arbor where I am teaching a series of master classes and I’m presenting at a conference, and then I will come home and I’ll see what the next adventure is. But what’s next really is five cities in just under a month.

John: Sounds like a busy but productive schedule.

Fen: I’m really looking forward to it.

Rebecca: I hope you have wonderful travels.

Fen: Thank you


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

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



263. Reflect to Deflect

Students experiencing difficulty in challenging courses will sometimes blame their professor, especially when their professor’s identity does not align with the student’s cultural stereotype of who is a professor. In this episode, Melissa Eblen-Zayas joins us to discuss how she uses metacognitive reflection exercises to address student biases.

Melissa is a Professor of Physics in the Department of Astronomy and Physics at Carleton College. Melissa has served as a Director of a teaching center, and has published extensively on a wide variety of topics such as STEM education, student metacognition, and diversity, equity and inclusion. One of her most recent publications is a chapter in Picture a Professor, edited by Jessamyn Neuhaus.

Show Notes


John: Students experiencing difficulty in challenging courses will sometimes blame their professor, especially when their professor’s identity does not align with the student’s cultural stereotype of who is a professor. In this episode, we examine how one professor uses metacognitive reflection exercises to address student biases


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: …and features guests doing important research and advocacy work to make higher education more inclusive and supportive of all learners.


Rebecca: Our guest today is Melissa Eblen-Zayas. Melissa is a Professor of Physics in the Department of Astronomy and Physics at Carleton College. Melissa has served as a Director of a teaching center, and has published extensively on a wide variety of topics such as STEM education, student metacognition, and diversity, equity and inclusion. One of her most recent publications is a chapter in Picture a Professor, edited by Jessamyn Neuhaus. Welcome, Melissa.

Melissa: Hi, great to be here.

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

Melissa: I am. I’m drinking a black tea with cranberry orange.

Rebecca: Oh, that sounds really good.

Melissa: It is, and it’s finally cool enough that it’s tea weather.

Rebecca: Oh, it’s tea weather year-round.

Melissa: I am a cold weather tea drinker.

Rebecca: Okay, well, it’s definitely cold today, and empty [LAUGHTER]. I just finished a pot of eight at the fort. Eight, the number eight, once again. It’s a black blend. I don’t know what’s in it still. We’re recording an episode a couple days ago, I was drinking the same thing. I still don’t know what’s in it.

John: And I am drinking ginger peach black tea today.

Rebecca: So we invited you here today, Melissa, to discuss your chapter in Picture a Professor. The title of your chapter is “Reflect to Deflect: Using Metacognitive Activities to Address Student Perceptions of Instructor Competence and Caring.” Could you tell us a bit about why you started using metacognitive activities in your classes?

Melissa: Yeah, so when I was a junior faculty member, just starting out teaching physics, I found that I would get a lot of pushback from students. When students didn’t understand a topic right away or do as well as they had hoped on an assignment or an exam, they’d often be disappointed or frustrated. And some of those students would then come to my office, and the implication underneath their visit to my office was that if I was a better teacher, or if I just did things differently, they wouldn’t be in the situation that they were in. And of course, there’s always room to grow as a teacher, but that wasn’t the primary issue. I think the research literature shows that for younger women faculty members, they often encounter challenges from students as a persistent problem. And particularly as a woman in physics, where there aren’t many women, I think a lot of what I was seeing was there were some students who just had trouble seeing that this young woman in front of the class was actually a competent physicist and in a position to be able to effectively teach them. And in reality, there’s some additional research, Madeline Heilman and colleagues have found that women in male-dominated fields face this double bind in terms of expectations, and they can either be seen as competent or likable, but not both. And in some follow up research that they did, they found that women can try to mitigate this double bind by displaying a caring and nurturing demeanor. But my natural demeanor… I tend to be a sort of reserved person, I’m not a super outgoing, cheerful kind of person, I tend to just be sort of quieter. And so I was looking for a way to demonstrate to students that I cared deeply about them and I cared deeply about their success in this class, but to also demonstrate that maybe I could help them do this, as opposed to having them just pin their lack of success on my failure as a teacher. And so I found that introducing metacognitive activities was a way for me to navigate some of the pushback that I got from students, and to help them take responsibility for their learning, but also to demonstrate to students that I cared deeply about their success. And I wanted to help them learn how to navigate the ways of thinking, studying, and learning that are important to my discipline. And so I found that this is a way that I could demonstrate a caring that is what students expect from female faculty members, but in a way that felt more natural to me, as opposed to trying to pretend that I was a caregiver or a cheerleader in a way that just didn’t feel natural to me. And so the place where I introduced these metacognitive activities were actually on two very different ends of the spectrum in terms of course level. I found that one place where I got a lot of pushback from students was in my intro course. And then the other place where I actually got a fair amount of pushback from students was also in the advanced lab course that I taught. And both of these classes are classes where there was the opportunity for students to be frustrated a lot, and I find that when student frustration is high, finding ways to try to mitigate that frustration is important. And so the metacognitive activities are a way that I have now incorporated into my teaching in an effort to both help students succeed, but also mitigate some of the pushback that I would get from students.

John: Could you describe these metacognitive activities? How do you get students become more aware of what they know and what they don’t know?

Melissa: Yeah, so this has been a long evolutionary process over which I’ve developed these activities. And so I’ll start by describing the first activity that I introduced, which was really in my first or second year of teaching, when I was getting a lot of this pushback from students. And in particular, in intro physics classes, I’d hand back any item of student work, and students would always come in and challenge me about the grades that I had given them. And I would say now, I’ve moved away from grading in a traditional manner. So this isn’t quite as much of an issue, but at the time, I was using traditional point- based systems. So I started by instituting a policy that if you had concerns about homework or exams, before you could come in and see me at office hours, you had to send me via email, a summary of how you approached the problem that you wanted to talk to me about, you had to write down why you think I might not have given you full credit for your work. And then you had to talk to me about your rationale for why you think there was a discrepancy between your understanding of the material, how you did the work, how I viewed the work, and what I was hoping to see in terms of learning, and then why you thought there was this discrepancy. And that ended up being really interesting, because first off, it limited the number of students who just came charging in without having really looked at or thought about the work that they had done and the feedback that I had given. But the other thing is that then it started as a discussion about the learning that the students were doing, and how the students were perceiving their learning, and how I was perceiving their learning. And so that’s really where I started as a way to directly respond to the student challenges that I was facing. But then I really liked the opportunities that this provided for conversations with students about how they were thinking about their work in the course. And so the next activity that I started to include was homework wrappers. And so when students would submit problem sets, I would also ask them to submit a cover sheet to their problem set. And it will be questions about “who did you work with on this problem set?” “Where did you work on this problem set?” “How long did it take you?” “Did you ask people for help?” And that was a great way for students to monitor not just: did they get the answers, but sort of how were they engaging with the homework that they were working on. And it was also a great way for me to get some insight into what students were doing, so I could see if there were students who never listed that they worked with anyone, never listed that they reached out for help, I could then proactively reach out to those students and say, “I see you’re doing this alone, that’s fine. But that’s really not my expectation, I’m expecting that this is a community, we’re learning together, and I’m expecting that people will talk with each other about this work.” Or I could also report back to the class and give some summary statistics of saying like, “Oh, I saw that most people are spending this many hours on the problem set, but here’s the distribution. And so if you’re either way on the short end or way on the long end, just be aware, and maybe come in and talk with me.” And so that was the next step of including metacognitive activities that I introduced. And I think since then it’s just taken off in terms of the ways in which I include those activities. And so I’ll give you one example of more in depth metacognitive activities that I do in my intro physics class, and one example of some of the more metacognitive activities that I do in my advanced lab course. And both of these actually have to do with the idea of what is the error climate of the classroom? And how much room is there? And how acceptable is it for people to make mistakes. And I first really started thinking about this actually in the advanced lab course that I was teaching. And so this is a required course for all physics majors. But the focus in this course is really having students design an experiment, and then carry out their experiment. But the focus being more on the design of the experiment and in the confines of a term, they may not actually get to a completed project or a result. And so things fail, things don’t go according to plan, and students are inevitably frustrated by that. And so the first time I taught this course with this focus on lots of independent projects, I just didn’t address the frustration that accompanies the failure and the uncertainty and the confusion that inevitably occurs in a course like this where students are doing these independent projects. And so the next year when I taught this course, before the first day of class, I asked students to write down in two sentences, what their definition of a successful experiment was. And I would say the answers fell into two distinct categories. There was one subset of answers of students who said, “a successful experiment is where I get a high precision result with little error that closely matches theoretical predictions.” And indeed, I think sometimes how we set up laboratory work in early courses, what students are doing is they’re trying to get a result that will match a particular theory. But in these open-ended projects, they were designing things they were asking questions that maybe there weren’t clear answers for. And so if that’s your definition of success, you’re going to have trouble when you deal with the messiness that inevitably exists. But the other group of students in defining what their successful experiment was, there were students who would say, “oh, any experiment is a success, if I keep a good record of what I’m doing, and I learned something from the process.” And so I would start the first day of class and pick out some of these different definitions of successful experiments from students in their own words. And we begin by having this conversation about what are our own expectations for what learning and experimenting looks like. And then, throughout the course, I continued to normalize that things wouldn’t work, that things would fail, by having opportunities, both for individual reflections. And so about every two weeks, I would ask them questions that just reflected, “how did you approach work in the lab?” “When you ran into problems, what was the strategy you employed in trying to troubleshoot those problems?” And I didn’t ask if you ran into problems, I started the question “when you ran into problems” with the assumption that everyone is going to run into problems. And I’d ask “when you sought help, who did you seek help from?” “What kinds of questions did you ask?” And then I’d always say, “and what’s one thing you would do differently as you move forward in tackling this kind of work?” And so it was really getting students to articulate how they thought about this process and how they dealt with setbacks. And sometimes it was individual reflections, but sometimes we’d actually spend a class period with students talking about their approaches, so that they could see how different individuals had different approaches. And so the whole idea about learning is an iterative process. And when things don’t go according to plan, you need to reflect on how you dealt with those setbacks, and then how you might deal with setbacks differently going forward was really important. And so I’ve taken this focus on error climate and making mistakes, and translated that a lot into my introductory course. And one of the ways I’ve changed my introductory course, which is also consistent with the pushback I would get from students about grades, was problem sets and homework and physics are really designed to be practice. It’s your chance to practice that you know how to apply these concepts to solve problems. And yet we grade those, or traditionally, I had graded those. And so that was part of what contributed to the course grade. But that’s sort of against the idea of practice. And it makes it high stakes in that you can’t make mistakes, or you’re worried about making mistakes because you’re worried that that will then reflect in your grade. And so I took this idea of “okay, if I really am serious about changing the error climate in my classroom, and making sure that it’s okay to make mistakes, not just in the lab, things won’t go according to plan. But also, when you’re working on problems, you might hit roadblocks that you don’t know how to deal with, and that’s okay.” And so one of the things I did is I now have an approach to problem sets that in some ways mirrors what my colleagues who teach writing do. And so in writing, of course, you submit a draft, you get feedback on that draft, and then you respond to that feedback, and you revise to submit a next version. And so I’ve started doing that actually, with problem sets in my introductory courses. And so I give students an initial set of problems. I asked them not to consult with each other, but just to try on their own to see how far they can get, submit whatever they have, get feedback on that. And so that’s a way for them to check how much do I understand on my own, they get some feedback, and then they can come back, they can consult with peers in their class, they can consult with me, they can make revisions, and they can resubmit that problem set. And so that really helped address this idea of it’s okay to make mistakes, that learning is a process and you can learn from your mistakes as you go forward. And I think accompanying that, I also have started giving students these prompts for weekly reflections. And so I call them learning reflections and in intro physics, they submit them once a week, and they’re asking students about lots of different aspects of the class. So it might be asking them, “where did you read the textbook?” “How did you read the textbook?” “How many times did you revisit particular parts of the reading?” I might ask students, “how do you think about translating the concepts that you’re learning and connecting it to the visuals that you’re seeing in the chapter?” The weekly reflection might be asking students about “what’s one topic that you found confusing?” And “how did you try to deal with that confusion?” And so in addition to the physics work they’re doing, I also asked them to do this reflective work. And then I can once again use that reflective work as the basis for either individual or whole class conversations about how students are thinking about engaging with the material. So that’s a big range. But it gives you sort of a sense of the variety of types of metacognitive activities I include.

Rebecca: I know one thing that I’ve experienced when I do metacognitive, or reflective activities with my students is that if they don’t have experience doing it before, and many of them don’t, they think, “Well, this is a waste of time, I’m gonna spend two seconds on it,” unless you really take the time to set it up, and help them understand the why, so I’m curious what some of the setup looks like for you and what some of the conversations have been, or the kinds of negotiations you’ve had with students about the importance of reflective activities.

Melissa: Yeah, so I actually have begun being really intentional, both about talking about it during class time, and I think talking about why I’m asking them to do this before I ask them to do it, but also making sure that when I ask them metacognitive questions, or these reflections, then I bring some of their responses back into the discussion during class time, so that they don’t feel like this is just an extra thing, but I weave this into how we are doing things in class. So for example, the reflection about how do you navigate making connections between visual representations and the physics concepts that we’re doing? The next time I come to class, and I’m giving a short lecture on a topic or something, and there’s a visual component, I might actually bring in the response that one of the students said about, well, I really have trouble doing this, or I find this helpful, if it’s relevant to the problem that we’re doing. So then it’s not as if it’s an extra thing that I’m asking them to do busy work on. I try to then also model a little bit during class time, how some of the responses might be relevant to our approaches to engaging in problems or things like that. The other thing that I’ve done, in addition to bringing this in in class time, is it used to be when I gave out problem sets in physics, my problem sets were: here’s the deadline, here are the problems. And that was it. But once again, taking a page from the folks who teach writing, when I see the assignments that my folks who teach writing-rich courses teach, there’s often quite a bit of prose that provides some background for the expectations for the written work that’s going to be done. And so I actually will include some background to my problem sets about, “okay, here’s how I want you to tackle this. First go through and do this; second, go through and do this.” And “here is why I am asking you to do this.” And I think that’s helpful. The other thing that I would say is I also give students feedback, particularly in the advanced lab course, where these reflections are sort of a central part of the course. And I’ll explicitly write to students, “I’m disappointed. This seems like it’s not really getting at how you tackle this.” And I’ll just let them know that and usually, I will then use that as a conversation starter when I’m interacting with the students to talk about ways that other students have thought about it, or why I’m asking them these questions. But you’re right, you can’t just ask students to do this, you have to build this into the fabric of the course, so it’s relevant and make sure you explain why you’re doing this.

Rebecca: One of the things that you’re describing, this worth probably noting, or talking about, is that if you start building in more reflective activity, that takes time, that then has to take priority over other things, which means other things have to be deprioritized. So what are some of the things that you allowed to let go to allow this to come in?

Melissa: I think there’s a couple of things that I have allowed to let go. One is I have just come to realize that covering lots of topics in physics is not that important. It’s really more important that they understand how to solve problems or how to take concepts and really try to dig into their understanding. Because to some extent, this is teaching students how to learn on their own, which is what’s important. I do cover less content. I will say the other thing, though, is, I think, because I don’t have as much grading that is like, let me figure out the points that I am going to give you for these problems, and it’s much more holistic feedback, I spend less time on the grading in terms of points. And I’m actually grading in terms of you’re on track here, you’re not on track here. So I’m not sure it actually requires that much more of my time. And I will say, some of these weekly learning reflections, I just go through and check if students have done them. And then I fold that into other conversations that I will have with students either during office hours or during class time. So it’s not as if I have to give lots of individualized feedback on every reflection. Maybe the best way to say it is a lot of these activities I use to enrich my interactions with students during class time, because I have this little bit of insight into how they’re thinking about approaching the material. And so when I see them working in class or working in the lab, I can talk with them not only about the physics, but I can also talk with them about what are the strategies they’re using, and maybe they might want to try using a different strategy.

John: In our very second podcast, we talked about a technique that Judie Littlejohn and I had been using, and I think we’re both still using it. It’s an online discussion forum, we call it a Metacognitive Cafe. And it’s addressing many of the same types of issues with these types of reflections. But one of the things that’s really jumped out at me over the years is just how much students have enjoyed hearing about successful learning strategies that they picked up from other people. Because students generally don’t talk very much or think very much about how they learn, and they generally don’t share it. Most years, I have one person who says, “I don’t understand why we’re doing this, because it’s not part of the course.” But everyone else has talked about in a reflection on the use of that, how beneficial that was. How have students responded to these metacognitive reflections?

Melissa: My sense is that students are quite positive about this. I think you’re right in that oftentimes, this is something that we take for granted in our students, that they know how to learn, or they know how to engage in material. And I think some of our students have sort of figured things out on their own without necessarily knowing that they’ve figured it out. And so I think just providing students the opportunity to really think about what they’re doing and hear what their classmates are doing is useful because it normalizes that there is not one way to do this, it normalizes that different strategies are going to work for different people. I think oftentimes, if you don’t talk about this, the minute students feel confused, or the minute students hit a block, they see it as a reflection on like, “Oh, my goodness,” and particularly in a subject like physics, which has a reputation or a stereotype, they immediately think, “oh, physics is not for me, I’m not cut out to do this.” But if they hear that everyone in the class faces confusion or runs into things that don’t work according to plan. I think that can be really liberating for students. And I will say, one of my favorite comments right after I started doing this, in my advanced lab course on student evaluation, at the end of the course, someone said, “I have never failed so much and felt so good about failing so much as I did in this class.” And they didn’t fail the course, but they just realized that experimental physics is about experiments not working out the first time you do them, and then you’ve got to figure out how to make them work better. And so I do think there’s something that reduces a little bit of students feeling that they need to keep up their barrier of “I understand this, and this is going well,” by having these conversations.

John: Going back to those discussions that I’ve been using. One of them is at a point in the class where students face some really challenging material that they all struggle with. And the question I give them that week is, “How do they deal with challenging material?” …and it helps to normalize that type of failure and the benefits of working through it.

Rebecca: As you’ve been talking about your advanced physics class, I’m thinking about an activity I do in my Advanced Design class, which is have students keep a process log. So as a project develops, their constantly reflecting and documenting what they’ve been doing. And part of what the students have indicated as helpful about that is that sometimes they feel like they have nothing to show for hours of time.

Melissa: Yes, [LAUGHTER] that also happens. Yes.

Rebecca: But actually a lot was happening. They were researching something, they were trying something, they were experimenting with, they were troubleshooting. But now there’s a place for them to make that visible to themselves as well as to me, and that’s been really useful to also help them figure out more efficient ways of doing some things.

Melissa: And I think that’s exactly right. In our advanced lab course, what it is, is they’re keeping a lab notebook. And I think in previous courses, where students are working on more structured labs, where it’s sort of laid out, “here’s the first goal, here’s the second goal.” They’re used to lab notebooks just sort of saying that they followed what was laid out in the lab handout, whereas here, we look at actually some lab notebooks of famous scientists, where it’s like, “Well, I’m thinking about doing this, but I don’t know.” And there’s room for emotion and some “I’m gonna go down this way.” And then like, “Ph, this didn’t work for this, so now we’re going to go back to the idea that we talked about a couple of days ago.” And so having that all recorded, I think you’re right, it makes them feel like they can see that they are moving forward, even if they don’t have anything to necessarily show in terms of nice plots of data that they have collected.

Rebecca: Yeah, it makes all that decision making visible because there’s many decision points. And sometimes they just make a decision, and they don’t really know why they made it, but, reinforcing the idea that like, “Well, you had to have made it based on something.”

Melissa: Right.

Rebecca: What was it?

Melissa: As experts, we have sort of hidden that we’re doing all of this. And so for these advanced students, they’re not at the introductory level, and they see experts, but they don’t really see all of the things that are internal to us that it’s helpful to actually make visible to them.

John: So have other people at Carleton adopted similar strategies?

Melissa: Yeah. So one of the things that I love about Carleton is that this is a place where we have a lot of conversations about teaching. And so I would say that I’m not unique in using these kinds of activities. And I think one of the beautiful things about metacognitive activities is that, although the details of some of the questions you might ask students might be specific to your discipline, really, anyone who is teaching in any discipline can actually work with students on metacognition, and so ot’s a topic where I can talk with colleagues really in any field, and we can share ideas and hear from each other. I would say that one of my reflective prompts that I ask students is about who has assisted in their learning, so it’s called the learning assist prompt. And this is actually something that I got from a colleague in Classics, Chico Zimmermann. And he asked students to reflect: “In this past week in the course, who has assisted in your learning?” and he explicitly talks to and gives examples of what assistance might look like to assistance could be, they made a mistake that helped you understand something that you didn’t understand before, or they were confused about the same topic as you were confused about and in discussing it together, you began to make sense of a topic. So he very clearly articulates the way that individuals can learn from each other in confusion, or in making mistakes. And I really just loved his framing of that. And so that’s something where we don’t share very much content between classics and physics, but we can share ideas about how are we going to help our students learn. And I think the other thing that’s really nice is, I do feel, Rebecca, you mentioned students don’t necessarily know how to engage in metacognition. And so I do feel like the more students are asked to do this in different disciplines across campus, the better they become at it, because it is something that you need to practice and get a sense of. And so I’m excited when I hear about colleagues who are using similar approaches, and we share ideas about how we’re using it in our classes, because then I know that students who have thought about this in a colleague’s class in American Studies might bring some skills to my class that would be useful.

Rebecca: It kind of goes back to that same idea of normalizing failures, normalizing this reflective behavior as well. We know that you have a forthcoming publication, addressing student mental health and moving toward UDL. I’m wondering if you can talk a little bit about how that work connects to this work around metacognition.

Melissa: Yeah, so it actually, I would say, builds quite nicely on some of this work. So this is a piece that’s written with two of my colleagues, one, Kristen Burson is a physicist at Grinnell College, and the other Danielle McDermott is now at Los Alamos, but was teaching before. And one of the things that we found is that physics is one of those fields that because of the stereotypes, students just get really stressed and anxious sometimes in their physics courses in a way that sometimes they don’t in other courses. And so one of the things the three of us spend a lot of time talking about is what are ways that we can actively try to reduce the stress and anxiety that we seem to see in students who are coming to us in physics courses. I think, these days, stress and anxiety are rampant on campus in general. So I don’t think anything is unique to physics. But Universal Design for Learning has some suggestions about how to make courses accessible to folks. It also, though, is quite overwhelming. And so we were thinking about the students who we see in our courses who come with a lot of stress and anxiety, sometimes clinically diagnosed depression or anxiety, what are ways we could take some of the UDL principles and take what we know about physics education research and use it to modify our courses to try to make them places that students feel like they’re supported in being their whole selves and doing their best work and not having to be overly anxious about it. And so one of the pieces is what I’ve already discussed with you, this idea of increasing mastery oriented feedback and assignments. And so some of the ways that I’ve changed problem sets where I make problem sets, not really about right or wrong, about the process of: you practice, you learn and you can revise until you get it right. And that’s really consistent with some of the UDL principles around organizing courses towards mastery oriented assessments and feedback. And so that’s one of the modifications that we pointed out as something that’s valuable. Another thing that we’ve done a lot with is thinking about the social aspects of physics courses. And as physics has moved away from being lots of lecture to a lot more small-group activities, we’ve seen that for students with anxiety and depression, some of those small group activities can actually be a source of significant challenge. And so they really can find that difficult. And so they’re thinking about how you design group work, and thinking about when you provide students choices not to engage in group work, and how you help students interact with each other, if they aren’t normally comfortable interacting with each other is something that we explore as a second way that physicists, or really anyone who’s doing active learning that involves small-group work, can think about, and this is something that I’ll say I’ve evolved a lot in terms of how I do this. I used to have when students walked into the room, every class, they would get a number and then they would sit with the other students with the same number. And that would be their group for the day. And research by Katie Cooper at Arizona State University has really shown that constantly mixing up small groups is a significant source of anxiety for a lot of students. And it doesn’t give students who need help learning how to interact, learning to trust their groups, to develop a rapport so that they can work effectively together. And so now, when I have students work in small groups, I still have them work in small groups just as much, but I really structure how those groups interact. And I have them interact for a long time so that they can begin to develop approaches and rapport that will help reduce some of the anxiety of that small group work. And then the last element that we talk about is providing students with more choices, that’s UDL all the way… is about providing choices. And so we talk a little bit about what does choice look like? For example, I ask students to turn in written problem sets. But there’s no reason why, even before the pandemic I would invite students if they wanted to, you could actually record yourself talking through a problem set instead of writing down a problem set. And so that’s one example of how you might provide choice for students in a physics class, but also explicitly bringing up the importance of student well being and help seeking in a class. And so some of this normalizing the expectation that students will ask questions, asking students to keep a record of where do they seek help, and how do they seek help is important. And my colleague, Kristen Burson, she even has on her problem sets occasionally, an activity… it’s a problem where students must choose one activity for the week that they think will make them feel physically, mentally or emotionally better. And so it’s like, are you going to take a nap? Or are you going to go out and hang out with friends? She actually has that as a like, what’s one thing you did this week that you did to promote your health as a person who is in this physics class. And so just bringing that element of the whole person, and that the instructor is encouraging the student to be a whole person and make choices that support their wellness in that holistic manner. So those are some of the examples that we talk about in this forthcoming paper. And indeed, some of it is very similar, it’s built on some of these ideas from the metacognitive element. But just generally trying to focus on there’s a lot more to creating a classroom environment where students can succeed than just giving them the content.

John: We always end with the question, “what’s next?”

Melissa: One thing that I’m working on right now is I’m working with colleagues at Luther College and St. Olaf College, on a program that’s designed to foster a more robust and thoughtful culture of peer observation of teaching. And this is thinking about peer observation for formative development. We have peer observation for evaluation. But I’m not sure even in that context, we’ve necessarily done a great job of talking with each other as colleagues about what that looks like and what that means to make it the best possible experience for everyone involved. And so having the opportunity to get folks together from these three colleges to talk about how we can create cultures that foster teachers observing each other’s teaching has been really fun. And it’s fun to think about how we might also learn across campuses and from teachers across campuses. And this project also ties in a little bit with the Picture a Professor anthology, because one of the things we’ve been thinking about in this peer observation is thinking about how we can encourage colleagues when they’re observing each other to be mindful of how embodied authority might be in play in terms of the choices that people make, and how they observe other people in the classroom. And so we just started this program at the end of August. And so it’s going to be a trial for this year. And so I’m curious to see where it goes, and I think it’ll be a fun opportunity to engage in conversations about teaching with colleagues on some other campuses.

Rebecca: Sounds like a meaningful activity and endeavor for sure.

Melissa: So it’s fun.

John: Well, thank you for joining us, and we’re looking forward to sharing this with our listeners.

Melissa: It was great, thank you.

Rebecca: Yeah, thank you so much.


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.


262. What Teaching Looks Like

Video recordings of faculty teaching classes have long been used for professional development. In this episode, we examine Martin Springborg and Cassandra Volpe Horii join us to discuss how still photography may also be used for this purpose. Martin and Cassandra are the co-authors of What Teaching Looks Like: Higher Education through Photographs. Martin is the Interim Dean of Liberal Arts and STEM at Dakota County Technical College. Cassandra is the Associate Vice Provost for Education and Director of the Center for Teaching and Learning at Stanford University.

Show Notes


John: Video recordings of faculty teaching classes have long been used for professional development. In this episode, we examine how still photography may also be used for this purpose.


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: …and features guests doing important research and advocacy work to make higher education more inclusive and supportive of all learners.


Rebecca: Our guests today are Martin Springborg and Cassandra Volpe Horii, co-authors of What Teaching Looks Like: Higher Education through Photographs. Martin is the Interim Dean of Liberal Arts and STEM at Dakota County Technical College. Cassandra is the Associate Vice Provost for Education and Director of the Center for Teaching and Learning at Stanford University. Welcome, Cassandra, and welcome back, Martin.

Cassandra: Thank you.

Martin: Thanks for having us.

John: Today’s teas are: …are either of you drinking tea?

Martin: Oh, yeah. In preparation for this.

Rebecca: Awesome.

Martin: So normally, I drink coffee all day. Today I’m drinking one of my favorite drinks, a London fog, which is Earl Grey tea made into a latte.

Cassandra: Very nice. That sounds great Martin. And I have an iced Jasmine green tea, given the summer nature of what we’re doing and being out in California, but I had my coffee earlier.

Rebecca: [LAUGHTER] Well, I appreciate the real effort to have good tea for the day. I have a jasmine black tea today.

Cassandra: Another Jasmine drinker.

Rebecca: A nice summer flavor.

John: And I have spring cherry green tea.

Rebecca: We’ve invited you here today to discuss What Teaching Looks Like: Higher Education Through Photographs. Can you talk a little bit about how this project got started?

Martin: I started this project when I was teaching photography courses, and specifically an Intro to Photography course at Inver Hills Community College in Minnesota. So I had been teaching, I don’t know, maybe three or four years, going into this a little bit in the book, but I was doing nothing but teaching. So I was really wanting to do some of my own work again, and I decided to make this project that both I can work on and my students can work on at the same time. We were learning about documentary photography at the time. We’re talking about photographers, like Robert Frank, other photographers in this area. And just really getting to that subject, I encouraged them to make photographs of their lives as students. And I told them, I would make photographs of my life as a faculty member. So they could just see what that looks like. And I could learn about them. It blossomed from there. So it was a great project in class, and I loved it so much that I wanted to keep doing it outside of class, and even when I moved out of teaching and into educational development, and away from the college, I started doing this project, or kept doing this work, and actually named it something and said I was going to do this thing on my own and made some photographs of Minnesota State Colleges and Universities, then that’s where our system was called. I think I presented the work at the POD conference. Cassandra was there, and she liked the work, and she invited me out to CalTech, and I’ll let her take it from there.

Cassandra: Yeah, I was blown away by these photographs when I first saw them. It was around the time that Martin and I were both interacting through the professional organization, the POD Network, and working on conference organizing. So we had some committee work together, and they just stopped me in my tracks. I’d never seen anything like them. I hadn’t ever seen represented what happens in classrooms in this visual, but also visceral, way that got to the heart of what mattered, what I loved about being in a university environment. And at the time, I was starting up a new Center for Teaching and Learning, really working on communicating what teaching was all about, how to engage with teaching. And so Martin’s visit was, I think, the first outside of Minnesota. We got him into classrooms of a great variety of different formats, lecture formats, but also labs, and discussions, and conversations between faculty and students and teaching assistant meetings behind the scenes, and that work ended up being so impactful and important in the change process for our institution. It’s something that we started talking about and building on. And then I think, as Martin went to other institutions, became a part of the conversation. We also had the thought at some point, “Hmm, what if we talked with the faculty whose classrooms were photographed and started to really understand the impact on them.” So from that, we developed a protocol for consulting about teaching with faculty using photographs. And again, it just grew from there, and I think Martin could tell us a little bit about the inspiration for, actually, the book.

Martin: Yeah. So from there, we were talking with so many faculty after making photographs in their classrooms, and really just, in a lot of cases, shadowing them throughout their entire day, in other roles they were in. Getting faculty to reflect on their teaching practice, and other things about teaching, related to teaching, it was just really inspiring, and we thought, “well, this can’t be just kept between us, just can’t be this secret.” So then we started to dig into what else had been done, like if anything else had been done in this area. What could we learn from that? And how could we lend what we had done to whatever scholarship existed out there on this topic? We saw scant offerings out there on this topic. Some people who were doing video consultations, which is a very common way of doing teaching consultations with faculty… set up a video camera in a classroom, let it roll and then have the faculty member watch it and then talk about it. Nobody was really doing the still photograph approach to that. So we put together a book proposal. And really, the book proposal, I think originally was nine chapters, we narrowed it down in scope a little bit. But basically 15 years worth of documentary photography, institutions across the United States under the broad title of “The Teaching and Learning Project.” We billed it as the most comprehensive photographic exploration to date of contemporary post-secondary education in the US, which it is. And then the book proposal also included in those chapters, insights about the state of teaching and learning, challenges and solutions, and how and why to integrate photographs in an educational change and improvement work at organizations, institutions at that college level. And now, we’re hearing back from a lot of people who are diving into the book, and they’re just saying that it’s timeless. And there’s something we really didn’t expect to see. We got some feedback early on in the book proposal process that, well, now that we’re in COVID, this is just going to play as a time capsule of what teaching was. But that’s not what it is at all. And we’ll get more into that I’m sure later as we dive into how it’s being received now. But yeah, that was really the crux of the proposal.

John: What Teaching Looks Like is part of the Elon University Center for Engaged Learning Open Access series. Why was open access important for you as authors for this project?

Cassandra: Yeah, thanks for that question. So as you’re probably getting a sense, and you’ve taken a look, I’m sure, this is a very different kind of book about higher education and for higher education. Not only does it contain photographs, but it’s probably half photographs, it’s nearly 200, and those are really integrated with the text so that they sit in this co-equal fashion, the purpose is also somewhat different. So given these unique factors, we wanted it to be as fully accessible as possible in format and also in terms of cost. So we found that the editorial team at the Elon University Center for Engaged Learning, including managing editor Jennie Goforth, and a series co-editors, Jesse Moore and Peter Felton also had that clear vision and dedication. They were very excited to be able to make the supplementary resources readily available, and to explore the capacity, I would say, and the possibility of this format. Just for one example, we worked very closely with the editorial team on exactly how and what kind of descriptive text would be provided for these nearly 200 photographs. So that descriptive text is embedded right there in the electronic format, in a way that works with screen readers, and it’s also potentially enriching and available to all readers. So the other piece is that we really believed in the potential and the possible impact of the book and helped us zoom out for a moment. And, you know, through your conversations with authors that there are so many more excellent high quality books available and emerging about how to teach in higher education, how to teach in different disciplines, through different methods, and we think those are incredibly important. And now we’re seeing more books, volumes, articles coming out about how change works in higher education, how to structure change, strategies for systemic change, also incredibly important, and Martin and I are working on those things too. The thing that What Teaching Looks Like does that I think is different is it gets at why to change, why teaching matters, why to improve, and provides some new tools in our collective repertoire that engage people’s whole selves in that work. So when we talk about culture change, which is so important to sustainable and systemic change, there has to be that drawing in and sustainable interest in participating so that it’s not purely top down, it’s not a forced experience. The other thing we know is that reflection is so important, pausing to really deeply think about why we teach in particular ways and how to go about change, also incredibly important. And what we found was that, like Martin said, we were missing this whole avenue of engaging with people, and we need everything we’ve got to really tackle the challenges in higher education. So kind of circling back around to why open access. These factors are not necessarily a well-tested formula for publishing in higher education. But again, we think it’s really vital. And as Martin mentioned, the early reception to the book is indicating that it’s landing, so we’re getting messages back in email that you People are saying, like “I’m blown away. This is reminding me what I love about teaching. It’s making me think in new ways,” …and a real sense of excitement about the things that they want to do and the conversations that they want to have with their colleagues.

Rebecca: As an artist and a designer, I was really fascinated by this project since Martin first mentioned it to us, a while back, in part because we don’t typically think of SOTL as something that is visual, or that is documentary in nature. Can you talk a little bit about the methodology and what it reveals that some of these other methods don’t? You’ve started hinting at some of these things, but I’d love to hear more about “why photography?”

Martin: First of all, since high school, it’s the way I’ve communicated. So I’m used to communicating that way. And I think you touched on something.SOTL is typically text based. There’s a lot of great stuff there. But you’d have to dedicate yourself to sitting down with it for quite a long time. And if we’re asking faculty, who was really our main audience for this work, to learn from something, photography was just the first place I went, as far as just being a SOTL project, because still photographs instantly land with you. If you look at something, you have an opinion about it, whether you like it or don’t like it, whatever you see in there, immediately, it hits you at a very gut level, the longer you sit with something, the more you see the intricacies of it and more maybe the message that was intended by the author or the photographer, but because it was familiar to me as a way of communicating, that’s really why the methodology, and that’s why I see it as different from a lot of SOTL work is because it takes so little time comparatively, to get into it. You can use photographs to teach faculty something in far less time.

John: And imagery can be really powerful. When we think back to many historical events, key photographs from those events often have a much longer impact than any text that was written up describing those events. So I think you’re onto something quite interesting here. But could you talk a little bit about the structure of the book, and what readers can expect to find in each chapter?

Cassandra: Yeah, I’d be happy to take you through the outline of the book a little bit and preview what you can expect. So in the introduction, we talk a little bit more about the origins of the project itself and some of that surrounding work, which we alluded to a bit here. We also give readers a chance to anticipate how they might interact with the book and think about some strategies for observing the photographs, for taking that pause to really look closely. We continue to do that throughout, of course, but there’s this little primer in the beginning for just interacting with this type of a book, several of the chapters take up place, or a kind of experience in higher education, because we started with really the thematic commonalities that were coming through in these really 10s of 1000s of images that Martin had from multiple different campuses across the United States. Those often pointed to these thorny, challenging questions about what’s current, what’s difficult, what’s interesting about being in higher education today. So in classroom interactions, one of the chapters, it starts out with this quote from one of our participants, “if I were lying on my deathbed, I would want to look at these pictures to know that I did some good teaching.” When we heard that, we just got goosebumps, at least I did, and it speaks to this visceral power that we’ve been talking about. That chapter also looks at what the absence of photographs to date says about the value we place on teaching, what kinds of things we learn when we do have photographs. It’s interwoven with some of the theory and critical perspectives on what photographs are and how they function. We also look at, in another chapter, student perspectives, and really think about the student experience today, what kinds of emotions and forms of engagement, collectively, we’re willing to showcase and what we might be hiding from students that could get in the way of the deeper learning that we’re trying to get at, as well as we know that roles for educators are shifting as we move more toward active and engaged forms of collaborative learning. We also think in another chapter about our interactions with technology and spaces, that interplay that’s also speaking to the importance of those resources. They set the stage and the kind of agency that we might still have and the power relationships that we do have the capacity to change in those environments, and even looking at the nuances of partnerships beyond campus, of community engaged learning. There’s a set of chapters too that take on a little bit more of a philosophical slant. So we look at the productive chaos and the messy nature of education… a sort of deeper exploration of order and disorder, and really a critical admission and questioning of perhaps, the sort of secret aesthetic that we might come to in our experience as educators. Many of us might think that there’s something beautiful about learning, but it’s not something that we say, and we need to say it, but we also need to question it. And then there’s also kind of a real look at the behind the scenes, hidden work, the hidden labor behind education that we almost never show: the work of contingent faculty, adjunct faculty, tenure-track faculty, alt-AC staff, administrators. And we really see the liminality of some of those positions showing up in the images themselves, but also the capacity for that to connect across roles and generate empathy. And then the arc of the book ends with thinking about photographs and change agents, and how they can play a role in campus communities, making intentional, institutional, and educational change through the ways we communicate, how we bring people together through exhibits of photographs, through having this representation in our shared spaces, and then how photographs can have an impact on our teaching practice through the conversations that we might have about them. So every chapter ends with some open-ended questions for reflection, and those are expanded on in the website resources.

Rebecca: I really appreciated seeing the collection of photos and what you were saying about the absence of such photos existing or that documentation existing really resonated with me. I’m working on our graduate student orientation in our new learning management system, which is much more visual, and I’m trying to collect images and represent some ideas, and what I was quickly realizing, at the same time I was looking at your book… this was happening at the same time… was, “Wow, we’re not really great, just generally, taking photos of what learning really looks like or what being a student looks like, or what being a teacher looks like, what being in grad school looks like, because a lot of the things are very staged or focus on extracurricular spaces or they’re just very staged…” it was thinking about other opportunities where I’ve gotten to see something which I appreciate being able to see something in action, but often those seeing of the things in action are staged.

Martin: I’ve given talks to faculty at institutions when I’ve gone to to make photographs. And that’s one of the things that is often in those talks is wrestling with how we project ourselves to potential students and their families, the balance between marketing and what they would love to do, and the reality of what students see when they get to college. They’re often not the same thing. So we project a lot of images that don’t represent ourselves in truth. And I think that’s potentially why students are shocked often when they get to college. And they realize that, “oh, this is a wild mess,” in a lot of aspects. “This is crazy. I don’t know if I can take it.” What I’m trying to say is, if we do have more photographs available to students, sadly, if we’re able to have discussions around those truthful photographs… I won’t say truth… but around those honest photographs, then I think we circumvent a lot of that, we take some of the shock away from what it is to be in college, what it is to be a student, what it is to be a faculty member. If we showed photographs like this to our graduate students more often, they would understand what’s ahead of them when they teach their own classes. They get that in the teaching assistant roles, of course, but there’s more in those photographs to learn in that respect.

Rebecca: Yeah, the authenticity of the collection is really impactful. I really also appreciated all the companion resources, and would love for you to talk through some of those. There was multiple things that you’ve included, not only within the text itself, but also as this companion material on the website. And there were a couple that I was particularly interested in that I hope you might walk us through. One of them is the close reading and observation activity. Can you share a little bit about that?

Cassandra: Yes. And in fact, if you’d like we can try that out a little bit right here. Are you game for that, Rebecca and John?

Rebecca: We can try. We can try anything.

Cassandra: Alright. So the companion resources, as you alluded to, includes a set of close observation, close reading exercises, which excerpt, one photograph or sets of photographs around several themes, and then offer some prompts for reflection, conversation, discussion. We imagine that these… and they are actually…. being used in a reading group and book groups. I have given workshops on my own campus and Martin and I have done similar things in conferences where we take this similar method and really work with a group. It’s a great warmup, gets people very engaged, gets them thinking, also a wonderful activity in the context of reflecting on teaching. So lots of different uses, but I’m gonna have John and Rebecca, and Martin, if you like, open the resource called close reading and observation exercises, just to the first photograph that you find there. So it’s on the second page. And it’s called Introduction, close reading exercise. Is everybody there?

John: And we will share a link to all the resources, especially this one, in the show notes.

Cassandra: Fantastic. So let’s just start out by engaging, looking at this first photograph. And I’m going to ask John and Rebecca to share what you notice, in this image… start to describe it. Of course, we’re on audio. So your description will be helpful for listeners, and it will tell us something and yourself something about what you think is important and what stands out. What do you see?

Rebecca: I just want to verify that we’re looking at the figure 2.01.

Cassandra: Yes, 2.01.

Rebecca: So what I see is two groups of students, and each group is organized around a computer monitor. In the group that’s closest to us, I see a diverse group of students. And there’s one student who is gesturing with his paper at the screen, two students leaning in to see this screen, and one student hanging back a little bit… looking, peeking at what’s on the screen, but not quite leaning in like the other two are.

Cassandra: Awesome. Thank you. So there’s no wrong answers here. All of those are things that are present in the photograph. John, is there anything you would add, just at first glance, of what stands out to you?

John: Well, the students all seem focused on the same material, they all seem to be actively engaged in the activity, which is not something we always see in classrooms.

Cassandra: And as you think about, look at this photograph a little bit more, is there anything in it that maybe seems typical or atypical?

Rebecca: I think the level of focus is not always typical, as John mentioned, but it’s also, like a super win [LAUGHTER] when that level of focus is there. So I’m feeling the winning happening. It gives a teacher who is probably walking around the classroom, and you’re feeling like, yeah, the students are into this thing. So I can’t see that. But I’m feeling that.

Cassandra: Yeah, well, and that emotion is coming through in the details that you already have observed. So Rebecca, you pointed out some of the expressions and the body language that you’re noticing in this photograph, some of those signs that you see about what engagement might look like, what happens when students are getting engaged, that sort of leaning in, and the gesturing that’s happening. So there’s this action that you’re noticing as well. One more little question is this, you might not be able to tell from the photograph, the person closest to the lens, whose back is toward us, and who has the piece of paper gesturing toward the screen is actually the professor, the teacher in this setting. So any thoughts about knowing that about this image now, what might be going on and what you notice about the roles?

Rebecca: To me, it seems like the faculty member is checking in on something that’s happening, and now they’re having a conversation and maybe some explanation of where there was a misstep. And really the leaning in of like, “Wait, I want to know the answer. I want to understand this better.”

Cassandra: Yeah, fantastic. So I don’t want to go on too long. But I think, hopefully, that demonstrates that just with that moment of looking and some prompts and questions, you start to really get deeply into the photograph, deeply into the experience. And if we were in a course design institute, we might use this prompt and this image, to start to open up a conversation about how we want to structure in-class work, once we have some learning outcomes defined, the big goals of the course. And think about different ways we want to get students engaged and what that’s going to be like for the instructor. If we’re thinking about active learning, we might use this as a starting point to really reconsider the role of the instructor, the moves that they need to make, how to check in with students, we also might be thinking about student groups and how they’re interacting. So there’s lots of ways we can go and it’s that sort of open-ended, reflective quality that is really exciting, and I think fun to engage in and can open up some new possibilities.

John: And it’s especially nice to see all these resources provided with an open access piece of work, because that often doesn’t happen. These are really useful and powerful supplements that make these tools much more usable for professional development.

Martin: Another thing that I want to mention, in reference to this question about additional resources is the guide to photo-based consultations that Elon has on their site. So this is just really us offering our complete template to conducting a photo-based teaching consultation. It’s exactly, with very little modification, what Cassandra and I used every time we sat down with a faculty member that we photographed and guided them through reflection on their teaching practice using the photographs as a reference point, and I think it’s a very powerful way of conducting a teaching consultation, it was often an emotional experience for the faculty that we talked to, and I don’t even remember how many of these we did, we did quite a few at several institutions. They’re all very valuable experiences.

Cassandra: There’s a standalone published article about the teaching consultation framework and some of the findings about what we coded as incidents of reflection and different kinds of reflection that came through in these photographs. And then material from that same study is also incorporated into the book. So readers will see it again, less as the formal research study, and more as a compliment and an accompaniment to the images around these different themes.

Rebecca: We’ve talked a bit about the photographs that you’ve taken and the discussions around the photographs. Can you talk a little bit about the process of actually making the photograph and what the interaction was like with a faculty member to set up that opportunity? And then to follow them around all day? [LAUGHTER] And that was like, and how do you keep that authentic?

Martin: I’ll just start by saying it’s not easy, and it especially wasn’t easy in the very beginning. The first people I photographed were my colleagues, because they were colleagues and also friends, they trusted me. They’re like, “yes, you made this work in your class of yourself, for your students. But how are you going to do that of me in my class?” So it took some getting used to in the very beginning, and then we have like a two pager guide to making photographs in the resources on Elon site as well. But the biggest thing to remember is that things were more than likely be a little weird for about five minutes, you just have to keep making a lot of pictures, and only after you make a lot of pictures of the first few minutes that you’re there that people just tune you out, it does happen. You just have to trust the process, it’s just, you see all the photographs in the book. I had been in those classes with that faculty member trailing that President for some time, and they acted as though I wasn’t even there. And then the photographs, you can see that the people are acting naturally, as though nobody else is in the room with them. That’s my biggest piece of advice. For those that are wanting to do this on their own, I think that the biggest thing to keep in mind is that those moments will come. And you have to remember the ultimate goal of why you’re there and what you’re doing.

Cassandra: One question that we often receive is about permissions for the photographs, which is very important to protect the privacy and let people course consent and elect in to being represented in photographs. So everything that’s in the book, and in Martin’s body of work, every single person has consented actively and signed a photographic release. And when you’re working in your own institution, it’s a good idea to consult with your communications colleagues, potentially General Counsel, just to make sure that you’re following your own institution’s guidelines. Sometimes there’s a blanket photographic release that students elect into or out of that you can access. And in this case, because Martin was also exhibiting and presenting the work outside of the institution, that separate release was very important.

Martin: It’s important to note as well, that the release form gives equal use rights to both myself and the institution. So we have a shared ownership of the images, when I’m finished photographing at a location. And I just give them a complete set of the photographs that I made, so that they can use them for whatever purposes they need to use them for. I’ve almost always worked just with Center for Teaching and Learning staff. They’re going to use those photographs to really put teaching and learning out there visually as a priority at their institutions, and many of them have done that.

John: You visited many campuses and lots of classrooms. What were some observations that stood out in terms of really effective practices or effective activities that were occurring in these classes?

Martin: That’s a tricky word, “effective,” I think. So I’m going to dodge that question, I think, a little bit and talk about the different things I saw that on face value wouldn’t seem like they would work in terms of teaching students things, but ultimately did work to teach students things. So one part of the book that Cassandra mentioned earlier, that messy nature of teaching and learning gets into a situation I was in at one of the institutions where it was this kind of like a giant office hour or recitation session for students in an enormous class with three or four hundred students. It was right before an exam. There was a lot of nervousness in that room. Students were crammed in there together and they were all just sort of tossing notes back and forth… literally through the air, in some cases… handing laptops back and forth from table to table. But in that mess, were also a lot of TAs and the professor of the class, just making round after round after round, consulting with students. And that, if you were to just walk by, would be very loud, as it was loud and chaotic. And you would think “what’s happening here? What good could possibly come from this?” But if you get into the nuances of those photographs, those still photographs, you’ll see that sort of emotion and caring that’s in those interactions between the TAs and the faculty member and those students. And you’ll see on student faces, those moments where they’re like getting it, those “aha” moments. If you teach, you know the face, and those faces, or in those still images, I’m gonna dodge the most effective methods and go to those kinds of moments where I discovered something that to the outside wouldn’t appear to be working, but actually was working very well.

Rebecca: Were there any other really prominent moments, Martin, that really stuck with you?

Martin: There are so many. One situation I was in, I’ll always remember it. So I photographed a large lecture class, it was at night. So there were some students at the back of the room, and the hockey game was on their laptops. They weren’t paying attention to the lecture, it was nine o’clock at night. And then there were other students very engaged in that class, what I wanted to do was capture everything that was happening. When I make photographs of a complete class, which is always what I do, I never want to go into a class and photograph for 15 minutes and exit, I want to be there at the beginning before class starts, and then photograph even after it ends, and students coming up and talking or asking questions. Because that’s the whole thing. So I make probably hundreds, easily, of photographs. And then I whinnow that down to about 60 or so. And then I give those photographs to the faculty member to reflect on for teaching consultation moments that we have, because there are bad photographs, you’re gonna make a lot of bad photographs. But I try, in those 60 or so, to give them a summary of what happened from everything that was happening in that class. Well, this one faculty member just didn’t believe that that was what was happening. He just didn’t believe it, and wanted to see every single photograph and the timestamp on the photographs to know exactly that I got the whole class. And he wanted to see them not in black and white, he wanted the color just because he knew that they existed. I take color photographs, and I make them black and white. So that stuck with me and the reaction after I said “fine, I don’t mind giving you all these, here they are.” But the reaction after that was like, if you can summarize the email that would summarize it as like aha moment where it’s like, that really did happen. All that stuff was going on. I’ll never forget that. I don’t know why. But that’s one moment, one opportunity that stands out to me amongst all the others.

Cassandra: On the flip side, if I can add, there have also been these really striking conversations when instructors were having the chance to observe maybe the student in the back corner of the room that they maybe don’t engage with directly as much or who is quieter, and seeing them get really excited when the instructor is somewhere else in the room. So there was also a lot of seeing things for the first time, seeing students get excited, and recognizing the real difficulties that students are sometimes facing. There’s one image that I don’t think is in the book, but I will always remember seeing this and talking with the faculty member about it, where a student was in a class, computers were being used. There’s lots of stuff in the room. But this one student had laid very carefully on the table next to the computer a white food service uniform that was clearly needing to stay clean and crisp and pressed probably for the job that the student was going to go to after class. And that student was also engaged in the class, but clearly juggling a tremendous amount of life and work. And that’s all there in that image for that faculty member to reflect on and understand.

Martin: We could go on for a really long time. I want to mention two other photographs that stood out to me. So there’s one of a faculty member conducting office hours. And in the office, she’s really intently working with a student. And then you can see the student is really struggling to get it, like physically, the hands on the head. And then outside down the hall, you can see a line of students sitting on the floor waiting for their opportunity in the office hour. I think to me that just sums up what office hours should be and what they are. And it’s a thing that people don’t understand. If you’re not faculty you’ve never taught before, you’re outside of higher education, you don’t understand that that’s a part of faculty work. You can see that same struggle lined up in the hall many times more for that faculty member. And then one more photograph that I want to mention, because it’s funny, and both Cassandra and I laughed hysterically about it. So I photographed a large exam happening. This is one of those exams where it’s proctored by a graduate assistant and it’s timed, it’s very, you got to do everything by the book. This one student in the front row taking this exam is in a panda suit, like a panda costume [LAUGHTER], and it’s just a beautiful moment.

Rebecca: [LAUGHTER] These things do happen. I wanted to pick up on one more thread that you had mentioned at the top of the conversation, which is the power of… and you’ve hinted at some of these examples… the power of these photographs to instigate change. Change, perhaps for that faculty member, and I’m pretty sure I heard both of you imply that it could happen beyond the faculty member too, and I’d love to hear a little bit more about that.

Cassandra: Yeah, I could start this one off. And Martin, please feel free to jump in, of course. Some of the ways in which campuses were, first of all, initiating a project to capture photographs, and then really creatively engaging their communities with the photographs were pretty striking. So one example comes from the University of Michigan, and we’ve discussed this and have some wonderful reflections from colleagues there in the final chapter of the book. Looking at the largest courses on campus, this initiative was really trying to understand what was happening in them, what students were experiencing, what faculty were experiencing. And so that set of photos served as both a kind of baseline for the project, and an interactive tool to engage with those communities about how to change those courses, how to make them better, how to consider what would be most important. In other cases, campuses, and we did this actually on my own campus, created exhibits of photographs in museum spaces, but also in other kinds of spaces in a Center for Teaching and Learning, in an important office on campus. We’re hearing of more places that are also doing similar things now. Some temporary exhibits really brought presidents, and provosts, and deans, and chairs together with faculty teaching the courses, with these large-scale photographs that sparked new kinds of conversations, conversations across disciplines, across administrative and faculty, potentially, sometimes what’s perceived as barriers or misunderstandings. And in some cases, we heard stories about people walking off with the photographs because they wanted them for their own offices for their own.

Martin: They were told they could leave with their photographs at that one event.

Cassandra: That’s good.

Martin: They didn’t steal them.

John: One of the things you mentioned, Martin, was faculty being surprised by what was happening in various corners of the room. And that’s an issue that I think might be really enlightening information for people teaching large classes if they don’t normally walk around their classroom. Because nothing you said there seems surprising to me, I’ve been teaching classes of three or 400 students, and I generally get in often 3 or 4 thousand steps during an hour and 20 minute class because I’m as likely to be teaching from the back of the room or working with small groups of students as I am to be up at the podium. Or at least that was true until very recently. I’m hobbling around a little bit right now, and that actually is a concern I have going into this semester, that I’m going to be a little bit less mobile for the first few weeks. I had a bit of an accident a while back that broke my leg in a few places. So I’m very concerned about not being able to be out there with students for at least part of the semester. But I think it does illustrate the importance of being out there amongst the students. And we’ve often heard people talk about teaching by walking around, and it’s a really effective technique, and having these photos can encourage that in cases where faculty members are skeptical about what you observe in portions of the class.

Martin: Yeah, I don’t want to make it sound like that was the only large lecture situation that I found. I did photograph quite a few large lecture courses where the instructor was up and down the stairs, constantly making the rounds around the room all the time with a Bluetooth headset, rather than being behind the podium. You’re right, you talk about effective teaching methods, and that’s definitely one for those large lecture courses. Not only having the instructor in there, but also having TAs, graduate assistants wandering around constantly, and using the time and the space to conduct group work because you do get around the room.

John: We always end with the question. What’s next?

Martin: One thing that we’ve been able to do since the book has come out is engage more communities. I’m still asking myself what’s happening. What is my life right now? Because soon after the book came out, we gave two book talks to a contingent of educational developers in Asia. It’s this organized two events for people who wanted us to talk about the book with them. And just due to the reach of the book, and what Elon has been able to do, promoting it in that way, it’s so exciting to be engaging more and more communities of folks about the work. Also, we have institutions that are inviting us back, and mounting exhibitions of the work. So one example is St. Louis University, this fall in their museum of art is mounting an exhibition of the work that I made there. I’ll be going back there to make more photographs this fall, as well as Brown University. And I guess the third thing I want to mention for next things is we’re just hoping to build on models from the book, and conducting more educational development and teaching related professional development.

Cassandra: I’ll just add, we’re really excited to observe how communities pick this up and run with it, we’ve talked a little bit about those supplementary resources. So it’s really an approach that campuses can adopt, adapt, and run with. So for example, in one of the recent discussions with the SOTL Asia network, one faculty member was very excited to start to work with students on them documenting and sharing their own experiences as a way for them to reflect on their post-secondary experience, and really be able to communicate it in a different way. Others were immediately thinking about all kinds of contexts that they realized had never been shared about their own learning contexts, their own classes, sort of specific forms of special kinds of classes or environments that they realized were really important and should be shown and should be captured, those kind of hallmarks of the institution or the program or the community. So we’re finding that often just this idea of communicating with images brings to mind the images that haven’t yet been made and the engagements that haven’t yet happened about those representations, those forms of teaching and learning. And we’re hoping to have more of those conversations and to engage with more folks around the work that they’d like to do.

Rebecca: Well thank you so much for sharing your work. It’s really interesting, exciting, and really something we haven’t seen before, and so we’re looking forward to sharing it and spreading the word.

Martin: And on that note, I’ll say one more thing about what’s next. We just talked about this the other day. So now we have this visual baseline of what teaching looks like, and we can refer back to it maybe in 10 years and see how teaching has changed visually.

Cassandra: It’s been wonderful speaking with you. Thanks so much for having us on Tea for Teaching.

Martin: Yes, thank you.

John: Thank you both for joining us.


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.


261. Social Justice Assessments

Traditional methods of assessing student learning favor those students that reside in well-resourced school districts while leaving low-income students at a substantial disadvantage. These grading systems also encourage students to focus on their grades rather than on their learning. In this episode, Judith Littlejohn, Meghanne Freivald, and Katelyn Prager join us to discuss a variety of social justice assessment techniques that can help to create a more equitable environment in which all students can be successful.

Judie is the Director of Online Learning at SUNY Genesee Community College, Meghanne is an Instructional Technology Specialist at Alfred University, and Katelyn is an Assistant Professor in the English Department at the Fashion Institute of Technology.  Judie, Meghan, and Katelyn worked together on a SUNY Faculty Advisory Council on Teaching and Technology committee on social justice assessments.

Show Notes


John: Traditional methods of assessing student learning favor those students that reside in well-resourced school districts while leaving low-income students at a substantial disadvantage. These grading systems also encourage students to focus on their grades rather than on their learning. In this episode, we explore a variety of social justice assessment techniques that can create a more equitable environment in which all students can be successful.


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: …and features guests doing important research and advocacy work to make higher education more inclusive and supportive of all learners.


Rebecca: Our guests today are Judith Littlejohn, Meghanne Freivald, and Katelyn Prager. Judie is the Director of Online Learning at SUNY Genesee Community College, Meghanne is an Instructional Technology Specialist at Alfred University, and Katelyn is an Assistant Professor in the English Department at the Fashion Institute of Technology. Judie, Meghan, and Katelyn worked together on a SUNY Faculty Advisory Council on Teaching and Technology committee on social justice assessments. Welcome Meghanne and Katelyn and welcome back, Judie.

Meghanne: Thank you.

Katelyn: Thank you.

Judie: Thank you.

John: Today’s teas are:

Judie: …I have Lady Grey.

Rebecca: That’s a good one…

Judie: …In my DTL mug.

John: …a nice Desire to Learn mug.

Meghanne: I have iced green.

Rebecca: And Katelyn, how about you?

Katelyn: Mine’s water right now, if it were the evening, I would have one bag of peppermint and one bag of chamomile together, delicious.

Rebecca: Sounds nice and calming.

Rebecca: I have hot cinnamon spice tea.

John: And I have black raspberry green tea.

Rebecca: We’ve invited you here today to discuss your work on social justice assessment. Perhaps, we can start with a discussion on what you mean by social justice assessment.

Judie: So social justice assessment considers factors such as race, culture, language proficiency, socioeconomic status, and ability while working to dismantle systems of power, bias, and oppression in evaluation of student learning. So various approaches including equitable assessment, labor based grading, and ungrading, as they relate to the purpose, process, wording, and structure of student learning assessments are included. So we’re trying to focus on the learning that our diverse students achieve as it relates to specific learning outcomes just to mitigate the influence of dominant norms on our students’ grades. So we’ve all been working together for the last couple of years on a SUNY task group that was part of the Faculty Advisory Council on Teaching and Technology, which I chair. So we’re a subcommittee of an Innovations in Assessment group, and there’s a couple more of us who couldn’t make it today, but we’ve been a really close-knit group, I think, working together for over two years. And we really enjoyed the project, which resulted in a website with all these artifacts on it that people will be able to access. And we’re hoping down the road that we can continue our work, but we’ll get to that later on in this conversation.

John: And we’ll share a link to the overall website as well as your group-specific component of that in the show notes. So this was partly implied in your response defining social justice assessment, but, what are some of the shortcomings of traditional grading systems in terms of equity?

Meghanne: When we were doing our research on this topic, we encountered many drawbacks of the traditional types of assessments that we all experienced all the way up through school and into college, and I’ll share a few of them. One is that the focus is often on the grade rather than the actual learning process and what the student will actually be able to do, and be able to learn as a result of engaging in the education process. They just focus on the grade, “what’s my grade?” and that sort of misses the point. It creates a system where students are compared to each other rather than having the focus be on individual growth and achievement. It also can put students at an advantage or disadvantage based on characteristics such as race, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, disability status, language proficiency, and lots of other characteristics that students themselves don’t have any control over. We found in our research that traditional assessments tend to favor white, affluent, high-achieving students, and that really isn’t who most of our students are anymore. So we really need to remove barriers and create a way for students to accurately represent the learning that has taken place.

Rebecca: So you hinted to this in your response about traditional grading systems comparing students to one another. So thinking about that, what role should students play in determining how their learning is assessed?

Katelyn: I’ll tackle that one, and I want to answer it with a disclaimer to start because social justice assessment is an umbrella term that has all of these different strategies that are wrapped up in it, and each of those approaches, whether it’s ungrading, or labor-based grading, might have a slightly different response to that question. They all share the same goal, that students should not be systematically disadvantaged by the assessment mechanisms, and that we want to increase student agency in the classroom. We want students to be active participants in their own learning, but the actual question of how students might participate in determining their own assessments might look very different depending on who you’re talking to and what approach they use. Maybe it’s literally helping design the assessment mechanisms, the grading contract, grading rubric, maybe it’s creating flexible assignments that allow students to determine what learning is being assessed, or in the case of ungrading, maybe it’s just deprioritizing the assessment entirely in order to emphasize the individual student’s learning journey through the course. So I guess my answer, tentatively to your question, is yes, students should be participants in determining how they’re learning is assessed by the big how, and why is going to differ.

John: As you noted, there’s a wide continuum of alternative grading policies that can fit under this category of social justice assessment. Some of them are not that much different than traditional practices, and others are quite a bit different. One approach, which is much closer to the traditional grading systems that people are already using is a system of mastery learning. Could you talk a little bit about what mastery learning is and how that could be used in the classroom to provide a bit more equity.

Judie: So mastery learning is, instead of assessing a student or evaluating a student with one assessment, and giving them that grade, the students are able to go back and revisit the content and work again on any material that they didn’t understand or try things over again. So it’s an iterative process, and they should get some sort of formative feedback in between attempts so that they can understand what it is they need to work on and focus on. And this way, it’s more equitable, because the students are able to take the amount of time that they need to work on the assessment, they can access any review materials that they need to establish their foundational knowledge and continue on. And it just really helps the students learn and grow. And I think it’s a great way to establish foundational knowledge. I use it myself in all the history courses that I teach, and I just think it’s a great process. If you think about it, any athlete, that’s what they do. So if you’re learning how to play baseball, how many hours are spent in a batting cage, or like on the pitcher’s mound, how many times do you try again, and again, and then again, until you are able to do it correctly, or do things accurately? So I always liken it to use that sports analogy, because I really think that helps people understand that students’ learning… you have to practice and you can’t tell somebody something once and expect them to integrate it into all the knowledge they already have, and be able to recall it instantly. So I just think it’s a great way to level the playing field of students so that when you move on to the next part of your content, they all have the same foundation, and they’re ready to go forward.

John: And by explaining it to the students that way, in terms of a sports metaphor, it’s something that they can pretty easily connect to, and I think it also would help to promote a growth mindset, which we know is effective in increasing learning as well.

Rebecca: Another assessment strategy one might use is minimal or light grading that falls under this social justice umbrella, and is a bit different than mastery learning. Can you describe what minimal or light grading is?

Meghanne: Yeah, I’ve seen this described in a couple of different ways. This isn’t something that we really included in a lot of our research, so I kind of looked this up just a little while ago and it’s very interesting. And one approach is more on like the whole course level. And there’s another approach that can be taken on an assignment level. So for an entire course, what an instructor may do is that they would assign assignments throughout the semester, but most of them would not be graded, they would be used as like a conversation piece. And they would be discussed and gone over during class, which would then provide opportunities for the students to seek clarification and for the instructor to provide feedback in the moment. So then the assessment then becomes part of the learning process. So then when there are a small number of assessments that are given for a grade, then when the students get to those assessments, they’re not as intimidating. They’re things that they’ve done with their classmates, they’ve done them with their instructors, they’ve done them in class. So I think it’s a very interesting strategy because it removes a lot of the anxiety that students may have around assessment, because it’s just something that they’ve done in their class. Another take on this that I’ve seen is, on an assignment level, something like a paper, something that may require a lot of revision, where when the professor is grading that assessment, they would maybe not take the time to go through and mark all of the grammar and spelling and mechanical errors, but maybe they would look at a section of that, maybe point out some things the students are doing over and over again, but not mark up the entire paper, but just say, “Okay, these are the things you need to pay attention to that are recurring through your paper.” And then as they read and grade that student’s paper, they focus more on the message that the student is trying to convey and the ideas that they’re sharing, rather than the mechanics and the grammar and the spelling.

John: And one common thing I think, to both mastery learning and minimal light grading is that the goal is to provide students with feedback. In some cases that can be automated. Mastery learning systems involve some degree of automation, sometimes by textbook providers, or perhaps adaptive learning systems, or it could be questions that you put together. But if you’re going to provide feedback on writing, it can require a lot more time. And a minimal light grading approach allows faculty to provide feedback on the most important things without taking up as much time to allow faculty to provide feedback on a wider range of topics, which, again, is I think, to some extent in the same sort of spirit.

Rebecca: Light grading can help not intimidate a student with too much feedback. If you see just a paper completely marked up, it might feel like there’s no possibility for moving forward or revising. But emphasizing what’s most important to change, or most important to focus on can help a student prioritize. And this can be really important to someone new to a discipline who might not know what’s most important.

Katelyn: I’m so glad you said that.

Meghanne: There’s an element of trust there as well, because if we point out what a student needs to focus on mechanically or grammar wise in a small part of that paper, then they can be trusted to then use their judgment to go through it and read it more carefully, and then make those edits based on the feedback that they had received. So it is visually much less intimidating. Plus, it might be a motivating factor for some students too that their professor is trusting them to be in charge of that revision.

John: Another type of social justice assessment involves contract grading. Could one of you talk a little bit about how contract grading fits into this category of social justice assessment?

Katelyn: Sure, I think contract grading is one of those terms that’s gaining some broader popularity and recognition. So it’s probably a term that may be pretty familiar to a lot of instructors at this point. So maybe it doesn’t need a lot of explanation. I’ll just say there’s a couple of different models of contract grading. In some cases, the instructor might provide that contract at the start of the term. In other cases, the instructor and students would be able to negotiate that contract collaboratively together at the start of the term so that students have more of that active stake in the contract itself. Generally, the grading contract would lay out certain requirements which students would need to fulfill to receive their desired grade. And that might include requirements related to attending class or conferences, completing low-stakes assignments, completing major assignments, maybe some page- or process-based requirements. But the bottom line is that the contract gives students a clear picture from day one of the work required by the class so students can look at that contract and know exactly how much work they’re going to need to complete from day one, to get the grade that they really want to receive in the course. I think the additional benefit of contract grading for our conversation is that it decouples grades from assessment so students have more space to take risks in their work rather than aiming for correctness. And on the faculty side, faculty can respond to the content and spirit of the students work as opposed to justifying a grade. I think most important, though, because this system privileges students who are investing the time and effort into their learning, all students have the same potential to earn a high grade in the course regardless of their knowledge or ability with the subject matter prior to the start of the course. So to use another sports metaphor, it works to level the playing field on day one for students who may have very different levels of preparedness and experience with the subject matter.

Rebecca: Another strategy that folks might use, which we’ve certainly talked about quite a bit on this podcast at various times is peer assessment. Can you talk a little bit about what that looks like and how that fits into this social justice model?

Judie: So peer assessment, or I tend to call it peer review, helps to build student investment in writing, and helps the students understand the relationship between their writing and their coursework by helping them engage with the writing in a way that encourages more self reflection and works to help them build their critical thinking skills about their own work. And I think it also helps the students learn from one another, because they’re sort of trying to evaluate their peers’ work against the requirements for the course. But then you also look at your own writing in a new perspective, and you learn from what you’re seeing your peers write and from the feedback that you’re receiving from your peers.

John: Might students perhaps take feedback from their fellow classmates a bit more seriously than they do feedback from their instructors.

Judie: A lot of students self-report that they learn more from this peer review activity, because they’re trying to identify and articulate weaknesses that they’re seeing in their peers’ papers, and also in their own. And I think trying to incorporate feedback from both their peers and their instructor into their own work, I think, just helps raise that awareness and any kind of feedback that’s constructive, as they think about it and reiterate it and rewrite their work. It just helps with their critical thinking. And I think just raise awareness of how they write, and maybe they can be more thoughtful about what they’re writing going forward. I think they also, if they question their peers, say “How did you come up with this?I love this idea,” then they can apply some of this, that they’re learning from their peers to their own work, too. So perhaps that’s what you were getting at John, when you asked that question was, they may benefit more from their classmates telling them how they came up with their ideas than from their instructor just dictating what the expectations are.

Rebecca: I would expand the model to include not just writing but also other creative projects and things. It’s certainly a practice that’s pretty common in the arts, for example, to do peer review of student work.

John: And they also get to see what their peers are doing, which can serve as a positive role model. When students see that other people are doing something that they hadn’t considered doing, it could serve as a way of improving their work.

Katelyn: I think a lot of students come into the classroom thinking of their teacher as the sole reader or audience for their creations throughout the course of this semester. So anytime we can expand those audiences and have students thinking rhetorically about who else might be the consumer of their work. I think that that can benefit our students in really important ways.

Rebecca: It also seems like it’s a good opportunity to formulate community around an activity like that.

Katelyn: Absolutely.

John: One of the other areas you address with this group was the topic of labor-based grading, could you talk a little bit about that?

Meghanne: Yeah, labor-based grading removes the focus from the end product assignment and shifts it to the process of creating that piece of work. So students are provided with feedback throughout the process regarding their labor or the work that they put in. And they’re given opportunities to continue working to improve what they’re producing, and to achieve a desired grade based on a contract sometimes, so there is some overlap with contract grading, but not always. There typically aren’t penalties for students who revise and update their work, because that’s part of the learning process. And it really helps students determine what their end grade may be and how much effort they want to put in, because often, they will be given some sort of guideline for what different grades may be achieved based on certain levels of effort, or certain levels of work that are completed. And also there may be opportunities to grade based on completion rather than more of a subjective sort of qualitative grade.

John: So do you mean like using a light grading or minimal grading where you either completed satisfactorily or you haven’t, and as long as you complete a certain number of assignments or activities, you achieve that grade,

Meghanne: That or also if there’s criteria, like a rubric, and they hit all of the criteria, then they receive full credit.

John: Which becomes, actually, I think, a form of specifications grading.

Rebecca: And then one other model that you’ve talked a little bit about already today is ungrading. Can you expand upon that a little bit more?

Katelyn: Yeah, so ungrading works to deprioritize numerical grades or even attempt to eliminate them entirely. So I hope I’m not speaking out of turn when I say, I think that this is the most controversial of the approaches that we have been researching, it tends to get the most pushback from faculty because it is so different from what we have often been taught or trained to do. So instead of focusing on those numerical grades, instructors are encouraged to focus on providing learner feedback that encourages growth. Okay, I have a quote that is from an ungrading expert I’d like to share. This from Sean Michael Morris and he says, quote, “at the foundation of ungrading, lies something that could change school entirely. A suggestion that ranking and evaluation and the concomitant expertise of the ranker or evaluator is entirely an optional way of viewing things.” And I’m going to end the quote there because I think that that important kernel is that ungrading works to dismantle the hierarchy of the classroom and refocus the attention on individual student learning is an approach that requires a lot of trust between student and instructor, and a lot of student buy-in as well. Students have to be invested in the learning that’s going to happen throughout the course itself. And in a completely ungraded classroom, student grades might be based simply on a final student reflection, or even a one-on-one conversation between teacher and student about the grade that the student has earned. But because ungrading really rejects transactional grading systems, the final grade is more of an afterthought than an important outcome of the course, much less important than learning that’s occurred throughout the semester.

Rebecca: So today, we’re recording on August 9, James Lang posted on Twitter about how deep the system of creating actually is that there’s even things like discounts for insurance, for good students, or good grades. And that it’s really challenging to overcome a system that’s so ingrained beyond just our education system, but into many other systems as well. So I think that that, in part, is why there’s such a strong pushback on this particular method.

John: And we’ve always done it that way, at least for the last century or so.

Rebecca: Change is hard.

Katelyn: Yeah, I think that the traditional grading system is really embedded into not only academia but outside of academia as well. And even within a class that takes an ungrading approach, we still face that question at the end of the semester of “Well, what’s the grade going to be in the system?” because we don’t really have the option, at least at most institutions, to say, “No grade, job well done.” At least at my institution, I still have to put in a letter grade for the student. So we can work to reject that system as much as we can. But at the end of the day, we’re still operating within that same structure. And maybe that’s a question of what’s next, right? Like, are we going to see one day a future where more universities embrace this idea of learning for the sake of learning as opposed to learning for the grade? I don’t know.

John: One of the other things you address on the website is how perhaps the use of authentic assessment or UDL types of assessments might improve equity by providing a more equal playing field for students. Could you talk a little bit about how going beyond the traditional term papers and tests might provide a more equitable way of assessing students’ learning.

Judie: I think anytime you use authentic assessment that helps, or generally it allows the students the opportunity to demonstrate their learning in the way that works best for them. The students are writing a term paper, for example, they can write the paper the traditional way, or they can give a presentation or record a presentation, and still provide their citations and so forth at the end. Or they can do something visual, some sort of a PowerPoint or a nice visual display of the topic and again, cite their sources and explain their images to the group so that people understand how they’re meeting the learning outcome. And I feel like that’s just a good way if people are struggling with language, if people are just struggling with writing in general, I think that this levels the playing field, because it gives everybody an opportunity to really show their knowledge and shine and not just pigeonhole themselves into one more paper or one more multiple choice test, if they have test anxiety. Some of our traditional forms of testing or final assessment just set students up to fail. And allowing students to choose to demonstrate their learning in a way that they’re good at sets them up to succeed. And I think that’s what we really want at the end of the day. And of course UDL principles, those are Universal Design for Learning, and that does include equity in its heart. So that would definitely help to keep things equitable in the classroom. If you’re following UDL.

Rebecca: The multiple forms you were just talking about is a great example. [LAUGHTER]

Judie: Last semester, I had a student who, they’re supposed to do a blog post, and the student instead of writing a blog post, he made a video and he did it three different times. So one is on World War One, one’s on World War Two, and the third one was on revolutions, and so, this student stood in front of a whiteboard, and he had his camera set up so he could film himself. And he had his iPad in his hand. So he talked about a battle, say, for example, and he would draw it out on the board. And then he would show his citation on his iPad. And then he had other citations typed up and taped to the whiteboard. And he went on for 15 minutes, and just was making sure he explained things again, and drew little examples. And he was so animated, and so excited about his topic. And you’re not going to capture that on a written exam, or even in somebody’s written paper. It was just tremendous the way he was able to show all that he had learned and all that he was interested in, and the extra research that he had done, because he felt the freedom to pursue this topic, because he knew he was able to express it the way that suited him the past. And it was just amazing. So I think anytime we can incorporate these things, and I understand that there are times when, according to your creditor, or people have to sometimes sit for a specific certification, it doesn’t always fit, but I think if you can fit this type of assessment in, it is definitely worth it. Because just to see the joy in students when they can explore and expand their knowledge, and then feel confident in demonstrating that to you, it’s just tremendous.

Rebecca: I love the flexibility in demonstrating knowledge and understanding and skill sets because in some of our traditional methods, we are arbitrarily assessing something else. So we may be arbitrarily testing how well you can take a multiple choice test or how well you can take a test within a certain timeframe, or how well you can write, whether or not that’s actually the topic. So if I’m learning about history, there’s some learning objectives I’m trying to meet related to history that may or may not include writing. And if writing is not one of those outcomes that we’re hoping for, then we don’t need to be assessing it.

Judie: Exactly. He did this thing on medical advancements in World War One, it was just tremendous and he was so charming, because he just was so wrapped up in it that you just had to root for the guy. It was good.

Rebecca: I love that. So for those of us who may want to move towards equitable grading systems, what are some initial steps we might take? Because it could feel really daunting if you haven’t ventured down this path before.

Meghanne: Yeah, if you are not interested in overhauling your entire grading system, just to try this out, a nd to make your assessments more socially just, there are some adjustments that can be made to existing assignments. And really, the important thing is to consider the learning objectives and really think about what needs to be graded. So one of the things that we’ve talked about a lot in all of our different presentations that we’ve done is whether or not to grade for things like grammar and spelling, and mechanics, and English language proficiency. So in an example, like a discussion board, when you’re really interested in what the students have to say, and their interaction with each other, and the questions that they asked, does it really matter if their grammar and spelling is perfect in that instance, if they’re having a great conversation on a topic, and they’re learning from each other. So that’s one thing that we could suggest. Another is thinking about just the fact that sometimes students have challenges in their lives. They’re human beings, they have families, they have jobs, many of our students are athletes, and they have to travel and they have games and something like flexible due dates is very, very helpful for students because then they’re able to complete their work, certainly within a reasonable timeframe. But if those dates are a little bit more flexible, and they have access to those assignments in the learning management system beyond the actual due date, for instance, then that gives them the ability to complete that work without being penalized. So another mechanism would be in the learning management system, when students are taking quizzes, would be allowing backtracking, allowing students to go back and check their answers, that sometimes is a setting that a lot of professors really rely on, to try to avoid cheating. And as an LMS administrator, that is something that I see a lot. And I think that that can really be harmful to students, because many of our students are told to always go back and check your work. And if they’re not allowed to go back and check their work, that can be very frustrating. And also forcing completion is something that I would recommend turning off because again, that can create test anxiety. And often I think when completion is forced, there’s also a timer. So I think if any timers can be removed as well, then that does a couple of things. It can help remove testing anxiety. But then also, if there are students who require extra time due to a disability accommodation, then the professor at that point doesn’t have to go in and adjust all of the LMS settings for those students, because it’s already open ended and everyone can have as much time as they need to complete that assessment. So it really is just important to look at what the learning objectives are and what actually needs to be assessed. And the goal is always to remove barriers. So another thing that can be done is to just ask students, have a conversation about it, and find out what barriers they’ve experienced.

John: At the start of this. You mentioned the website that you were creating, could you talk a little bit more about what resources are there and how that might evolve over time?

Katelyn: Yeah, so the website, we have been slowly adding resources to over the past two years. And at this point, it’s becoming a pretty robust little outlet for people interested in social justice assessment. So, you go to the website, you can find an overview of the big picture theory of social justice assessment, as well as the various approaches that we’ve discussed today. We also have a really pretty large bibliography of resources for further reading for people who want to learn more about any one of these topics. And we’ve been working to develop a collection of sample assignments from faculty across SUNY. So we’re still working to collect additional sample assignments from faculty who might already be implementing some of these strategies within their classrooms. I think the more we can share those assignments with one another, the better off we’ll all be. I think a lot of us are doing social justice assessment in small ways in our classroom without realizing it. So the more we can share those resources and that knowledge, the more hopefully we can get people on board. So, hopefully, we’ll be able to share that link in the show notes. And people will be able to check that out.

Rebecca: So we always wrap up by asking: “What’s next?”

Judie: So for our little group, one thing that I think might be next for us is SUNY is updating the SUNY general education requirements that are mandated with the completion of any SUNY degree. And they’ve added a requirement for equity, inclusion, and diversity. So I’m hoping that our group can help contribute resources to that effort, and our website could be one more place where people go to for information on social justice assessment so that they can incorporate those into their courses that are designed to meet the DEI requirement.

Katelyn: Well, I’m gonna go take my one-year old to the pool. [LAUGHTER]

Judie: Nice.

Katelyn: I think, big picture, though, the “what’s next” I want to just give is, I hope that we’ll start to see more institutional support for some of these approaches. I think that there are still a lot of barriers, particularly for contingent faculty who want to embrace some of these practices. So I hope what’s next will be more departmental institutional support for this: more time, more resources, etc. But yeah, my personal what’s next is I’m gonna go enjoy this beautiful day.

Rebecca: Meghanne, do you want to add anything?

Meghanne: Sure yeah, at my institution, I am sharing this information, pretty much any chance I get, I’m meeting with our new incoming faculty in a couple of weeks. And this will be one of the topics that we discuss. And I’m also co-chair of our universal design for learning task force. And we have a few events and projects that we’re working on to spread the word on UDL, and also innovative assessments and social justice assessments as well.

Rebecca: Lots of great things coming and some really wonderful resources that you’ve shared today. Thank you so much for joining us.

Katelyn: Thank you.

Judie: Thank you for having us.

Meghanne: Yeah, thank you.

John: And thank you for all the great work you’ve done on this over the last couple of years and the resources you’re sharing.

Judie: I would just like to say that Shena Salvato is also in our group. She’s at Cortland, I believe. And Chris Price from SUNY is in our group, and they are missed today. They’ve been with us for all our other presentations. I know that Shana in particular wants to get the band back together and have some more meetings going forward so we can keep working together. And it was really good to see you guys again.

Katelyn: Likewise.


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.


260. Antiracist Pedagogy

Institutional statements related to diversity, equity, and inclusion are only meaningful if all practices within the institution embody these values. In this episode, Gabriela Torres joins us to discuss how we can become anti-racist educators and do the work of inclusion within our classrooms.

Gabriela is the Associate Provost for Academic Administration and Faculty Affairs and is a Professor and the William Isaac Cole Chair in Anthropology at Wheaton College. She specializes in the study of violence – particularly gender-based violence – and state formation. At Wheaton College, she teaches courses in Medical Anthropology, Global Health, Violence Against Women, and Latin America and Latinx Studies. She is also the author of a chapter in Picture a Professor, edited by Jessamyn Neuhaus.

Show Notes

  • Neuhaus, Jessamyn (2022). Picture a Professor: Interrupting Biases about Faculty and Increasing Student Learning. West Virginia University Press.
  • Gabriela Torres et. al. (2022). The Change Higher Education Needs Today. Inside Higher Ed.
  • Posse Foundation
  • Sathy, V., & Hogan, K. A. (2022). Inclusive teaching: Strategies for promoting equity in the college classroom.


John: Institutional statements related to diversity, equity, and inclusion are only meaningful if all practices within the institution embody these values. In this episode, we examine how we can become anti-racist educators and do the work of inclusion within our classrooms.


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: …and features guests doing important research and advocacy work to make higher education more inclusive and supportive of all learners.


John: Our guest today is Gabriela Torres. Gabriela is the Associate Provost for Academic Administration and Faculty Affairs and is a Professor and the William Isaac Cole Chair in Anthropology at Wheaton College. She specializes in the study of violence – particularly gender-based violence – and state formation. At Wheaton College, she teaches courses in Medical Anthropology, Global Health, Violence Against Women, and Latin America and Latinx Studies. She is also the author of a chapter in Picture a Professor, edited by Jessamyn Neuhaus. Welcome, Gabriela.

Gabriela: Thank you for having me.

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

Gabriela: Yes, I’m drinking ginger tea.

Rebecca: Mmmm… love ginger tea. How about you, John?

John: I am drinking, on that theme, a ginger peach black tea.

Rebecca: Not on that theme, [LAUGHTER] I’m drinking a blend called eight at the fort.

John: You ate at the fort?

Rebecca: No, like, the number eight? It’s a blend.

Gabriela: What does that have?

Rebecca: I don’t know but it’s tasty. [LAUGHTER]

John: Is there some gunpowder green tea in there or something?

Rebecca: I don’t know what the eight are but it’s a good blend, it tastes yummy.

John: We’ve invited you here to discuss your chapter in Picture a Professor entitled “Beyond Making Statements: The Reflective Practice of Becoming an Anti-Racist Educator.” Could you tell us a bit about how this chapter came about?

Gabriela: Sure. This chapter came about when I was working as Director for our Center for Teaching and Learning, which is the job I did before my current job as Associate Provost. And during that work, we experienced the George Floyd murder, and our faculty were really impacted and wanted to think about how we could do something different. And what we found as CCTL directors was that there really wasn’t a lot of really basic how to… how do you go about thinking about changing your pedagogical practice, really at the level… “How do you start thinking about what teaching is about? What is the purpose of teaching? Who are you teaching for? Is it possible to have any redemptive practice in your teaching? Are there harms that we’re doing through expected notions of ‘I need the students to give me this assignment at this time, I need the students to achieve this level. This assignment, I need the students to do this, because this is the way that the expectations have been set for my discipline.’” And I think professors at our institution were thinking, “Could there be harms associated with these expectations that are taken as a fact and aren’t really questions?” So thinking about how do we start from scratch is where this chapter got started. And the idea of reflective practice being at the center came from the common readings we were doing on what does it mean to engage in anti-racist practice and that anti- racist practice really has to start with thinking within ourselves. How do the things that I do in my classroom and outside of it contribute to entrenched inequalities in higher ed, what is my responsibility in terms of changing those entrenched inequalities? And so those were all the kinds of questions that we began with.

Rebecca: If you’re going to make suggestions to faculty about getting started, about having those conversations with themselves, about what teaching is, what are some of the ways that we get started in this work?

Gabriela: I think we need to look at expectations. Who do we expect is in our classroom? And what characteristics we attribute to that person who we think is in our classroom, that generic person who we’re teaching to? So that’s one area that we really need to question and the kinds of questions we need to ask are, “Is there a gendered and race expectation for the person I assume I’m teaching in my classroom?” And, “where might those expectations have been set for me? Have I even asked myself this question?” And that’s one area of questions you can start thinking about. Another area of questions you can start thinking about is content. So where does the content in let’s say, in my case, Introduction to Anthropology, where does the content for introduction to anthropology come from? Is it a canon that you learned yourself when you were an undergrad? And that you want to make sure that students receive the same canon you did? Have you considered who is actually part of that canon? Have you thought about whether the experiences of students in your classrooms are reflected in the readings that you have? The third area, where I think we need to start asking questions, is around “What are the objectives for the classroom?” And by this, I don’t just mean learning objectives. But what are the objectives in terms of social good that we’re trying to enact in our classrooms? So we are trying to create students that are enabled to make change. And if we are trying to do that, if our objective is an objective that is about going towards a future society, then we really need to think about how we’re structuring those courses. And what does social justice in the course look like? I think it’s really easy to say to colleagues, you should have more authors of color in your syllabus, or you should make sure that you discuss underrepresented groups as part of the content. But I think that doesn’t get you to the reflection that’s really needed to think about “What is our role in higher ed in terms of the social good that higher ed is meant to have?” And actually, probably the reason why many of us got into these jobs in the first place, so that we could actually educate the next generations. And so I think thinking of anti-racism as a reflective practice gets us further than just thinking of anti-racism as a sort of simple retooling that we’re doing, really, almost for performative purposes.

Rebecca: As a designer, what you’re saying is really resonating, because it reflects some of the design framework that I’ve even been talking to my students about recently, is like, you’re probably not the audience. So who is the audience? And they’re not some imaginary fake person with a fake value system. They’re they’re real people that have real goals, and they’re definable in a way. And I’m also hearing a philosophy that I like to talk to students about, which is “do no harm.” I’m hearing like, that resonating. When I’m thinking about some of the things that you’re saying. It’s interesting that the same ideas come up in different contexts, when we’re designing different kinds of experiences, to really be considering and thinking about them as questions to reframe what we’re doing, and maybe make some things explicit. We’re talking about not just learning objectives, but I was hearing you say, well, there’s things out there hidden objectives, perhaps, that we don’t make explicit. So is making those explicit important to this process and making it explicit for students as well?

Gabriela: Yeah, because I think those hidden objectives are really in many ways, what directs how we come to organize teaching for ourselves and the meaning that it has. ‘Cause teaching, for me, is always about the relationships that we have and about how, for the instructor, for the professor, it’s about what they are giving back to the world. And when we think about teaching in that context, really we’re thinking about an identity project. And so, often, we might be engaged in an identity project in practice, that is maybe not the identity project we thought we were engaged in. So when we were working in our Center for Teaching and Learning, and we would ask colleagues to think, “Who is the expected student in your course?” … it became clear that for some colleagues, they actually had a pretty precise picture. I teach in a liberal arts college in New England. So they thought that their student was 18 to 21, that they tended to come from New England, that they tended to be middle class. And so if that’s who you’re teaching towards, then you’re probably ignoring a lot of needs, that students who don’t come from those backgrounds might be having, or you’re not even considering the learning differences that students who come from those geographic backgrounds and class backgrounds might have, because you are assuming this student who isn’t raced, who isn’t gendered, who doesn’t have their fullness. And so even if you think you’re having a redemptive project by teaching something like public health, if you haven’t really thought through your audience carefully, and if you haven’t really thought, “how do we get to the future in which we are not just addressing the needs of the suburbs,” for instance.

John: I think a lot of faculty see their audience as being people who are just like them, and the faculty tend to be very different than our students. How can faculty elicit more information about their students’ identities and their needs?

Gabriela: I think that that can be resolved in multiple different ways. So how do we engage with our students’ identities, and I think we can engage at the assignment level, so we can have assignments that are structured to actually actively engage with students’ identities. There’s a lot of research that suggests that engaging with students’ identities allows us to amplify learning in different ways. And so I think that’s a regular practice, it allows for memory retention, it allows for students to integrate learning into their life course. So engaging students with their identities in assignments is one way to do it. So an example of the way that I’ve done this in anthropology courses is, I’ve asked them to engage in participant observation in a part of their daily life. Sometimes, I’ve asked them to do that when they’ve gone back home, or sometimes I’ve asked them to remember and engage in participant observation of a remembered ritual that they participated in. And so that process of engaging students’ identities and life experiences is one way for professors to find out. It also creates a lot more interesting things to grade and read, frankly. So I think it’s an interesting practice. Another way is to actually engage students in devising parts of a curriculum with you that is based on their interests. Many colleagues at my institution also send a questionnaire to students asking them to share their interests, whether these are topical interests, or to share experiences that they think might be impactful in their classroom learning. I think another way is to ask for course material that students would like to engage in together and to ask students to present that course material. So not exactly giving up part of your syllabus, but maybe integrating different pieces of course material. And students have done that in my courses by suggesting things in forums, which then we bring into the course. So there’s different ways that you can engage with students’ identities and experiences. I think the primary way is by saying that you value those, and that you think of those as relevant to the content of the course. So I think that’s the primary way, and there are different ways to signal that which I’ve just tried to go through.

Rebecca: Sometimes, we have conversations with colleagues where they might say, “Ah, I don’t know if this is really for me, because I don’t teach in a field where talking about race or gender or other types of identity is relevant.” Can you talk a little bit about ways that we might address or approach faculty and colleagues who maybe don’t quite see anti- racist education as an approach that is relevant to them?

Gabriela: I think that’s a really interesting question. And I think, starting from the idea of inequality being fundamental to our society, and race inequality being fundamental to our society, and to the creation of knowledge writ large, I think anyone who is working in academia is working in fields that have been shaped by that inequality. So colleagues that say, who are working in STEM can think about the history of knowledge production in their disciplines, and can find those histories of race inequality. For example, in our own college, we’ve been lucky to have Howard Hughes Medical Foundation funding to rethink STEM, and our colleagues have engaged in self- reflective practice. So for instance, we had a laboratory that was named for the famous biologist, Linnaeus, it was the Linnaeus Laboratory, who also happened to be the biologist that created the framework for racialization. And when our colleagues began to look at the production of knowledge, and that something that they felt was central to their canon, but was also central to racial hierarchies, they felt, “Oh, well, perhaps the naming of this laboratory as Linnaeus Laboratory is not the intention that we had in highlighting the history of our knowledge production and making it central to this lab.” So I think it’s always part of the history of knowledge production in any discipline. I mean, certainly in design, it is. [LAUGHTER] But I think also, in my own discipline, anthropology has been very, very tied to histories of colonialism, public health has been very tied to histories of colonialism. So I think in many disciplines, it just takes but to start unraveling a little bit of threads. And I think we’re all involved. And maybe thinking that we’re not means that the reflective practice is more important to start figuring those connections for yourself.

John: And sometimes even a Google search for decolonizing and then a discipline name will turn up a lot of resources, because there’s a lot of people who’ve been working in this in pretty much all disciplines. In May, you co-authored with a couple of other people in an article called “The Change Higher Education Needs Today,” and that deals with critical race theory. Could you talk a little bit about that?

Gabriela: Sure. The essential argument of that piece that I co wrote with Melba Trevino and Irene Mata, it was that if we think of the backlash that there’s been against critical race theory, we often don’t stop to think how that backlash really impacts those who are raced in the academy and working in the academy as raced persons. We often don’t stop to think about how colleagues who are working on let’s say, Latinx literatures are impacted by the constant backlash against critical race theory. And in fact, there are colleges and universities that instead of thinking about it, have attached themselves to the bandwagon of trying to suffocate critical race theory as something that might be dangerous or problematic. And we argued that instead, actually, if higher ed is truly going to become anti-racist, we need to actively incorporate critical race theory and the persons who are de facto assumed to espouse the beliefs that critical race theory, certainly not every person of color in academe would agree with critical race theory, but they’re assumed to and so what does radical inclusion of persons of color in academe mean? It probably means an acceptance that we do need to think about those raced bodies that we work together with. So that is what we were trying to argue. And we were trying to argue that based on our experience developing a mentoring program for faculty of color in New England, and unlike colleges and universities in the south, there very few faculty of color comparatively in New England institutions. And so we’ve created an inter-institutional program to support each other in persisting and thriving.

Rebecca: Can you talk a little bit more about mentorship and its relationship to this work more broadly?

Gabriela: Yeah. So I think mentorship in terms of anti- racist approaches to supporting students is something that has been actively used. So for instance, I participated as part of the Posse Foundation’s mentoring of students in elite colleges and universities. And the idea that to create and sustain persistence of students of color, you need to have systems of support that create an environment where people are not just socially emotionally supported, but also taught the rules of the game that are often talked about as the hidden curriculum. I don’t know if you’ve talked through that concept in Tea for Teaching. So for first-gen, and for a lot of students of color, there are a lot of assumptions that let’s say, my children who have grown up in New England and have half of their friends going to college, they already know that when you go to college, you should talk to your professor or go to office hours, you should ask for a syllabus. A lot of first-gen students, a lot of students of color, don’t know those very basic,” how do I engage with?” …even knowing where the rules are located. And so mentoring for students has always been a part. It is also a part for the persistence of faculty from first-gen backgrounds and faculty who are faculty of color. And so I can give you an example of how important that process is. So it’s important for tenure and promotion. But it’s also important for how do you navigate expectations within departments. And so that is work that we’ve been very lucky to have done working as a group of institutions based out of University of Connecticut.

John: In addition to mentoring, are there any other ways that faculty can try to unhide some of that hidden curriculum?

Gabriela: I think unhiding the hidden curriculum is essential. It’s essential for students who have differences in learning, it’s essential for students who have differences of experience, I think it’s even essential for us as educators to do. I don’t think that can be done by putting everything in the syllabus. So I’ve seen colleagues try to put every single rule possible into a syllabus. An effective strategy I’ve seen used is to try to take a nugget of that hidden curriculum, and explain it to students on a regular basis. And so to set as a goal for yourself, which little nugget am I going to explain in each of my classes? So for example, you could decide to explain the structure of a scientific article, there’s always an abstract, there’s always keywords, there’s always an argument that has to be restated in a conclusion. That is a hidden set of knowledge that actually a lot of students don’t have when they first take, say, a public health class. And you could just teach students to just read as a small goal in a class, or you could teach students that they can get help from a librarian to find out how to put in the best search terms. So you could bring in a librarian into your class and have them do a little bit of show and tell of how effective knowing the right search terms can use. So integrating little tiny pieces of knowledge that you assumed that the students would have is a way to slowly get in bite size, accessible pieces into that hidden curriculum.

John: In a just-in-time format, so that when it’s relevant and salient, students are getting access to the information they need.

Gabriela: I think that’s the most effective way I’ve seen it done. I always start with the idea that the syllabus is your contract. And then we talk about what’s your contract? What does that mean? And I think that that is a really important way to also show students… so to tell students about the kinds of relationships that they were involved in. So as a cultural anthropologist, students don’t often think about the kinds of relationships they’re involved in in a course with a professor. So they might be pretty nervous with a professor, they might be pretty dismissive with a professor, but they don’t realize that when they enter into a course, they enter into an agreement to provide a certain set of things to the professor, and to have the professor provide a certain set of things to them. So just even that basic, “here’s the relationship that we’re in” [LAUGHTER] …is a really important part of what it means to make the hidden curriculum visible.

John: And I was thinking not only in terms of helping students learn how to read scientific articles, which is something they’ve never done before. The same might be true in certain types of writing assignments, where some students will come in with preparation in those areas, others won’t, and just providing the structure that Viji Sathi and Kelly Hogan often talk about to support students who haven’t had that exposure earlier can make a big difference, I think.

Gabriela: Yeah, absolutely. That is such important work in terms of how do we engage in assignments. One of the effective ways that I’ve seen as well is to, if you’re going to be using an assignment regularly, is to work with student educational partners. So our current director of our teaching and learning, Deyonne Bryant, has begun a program where we have student educational interns in some courses, where they can test assignments, where they can act as consultants with the professor. That is a really good way for professors to also engage. his is work that has been done for a really long time at Bryn Mawr, and which is also outlined in the Picture a Professor volume. And so I would suggest people have a look at that chapter as well.

Rebecca: As part of this work, institutions make all kinds of statements, we’ve got DEI statements, we’ve got strategic plans around diversity, equity, and inclusion, we’ve got social justice missions at our institutions that often feel separate from our work as teachers. And so what role do teachers have in this work or what role do our classrooms have in this work?

Gabriela: The title of the piece was really reacting to the performativity that surrounded the post George Floyd moment, where businesses and certainly higher ed institutions were making statements. [LAUGHTER] And so I think the one point that is important for me to make is I think the classroom is really a site for making good on any statement that might be made at the institutional level. And actually, the classroom has to be the site where we make good on those statements. So thinking about the work that as professors we might do in the classroom is not untied to those statements, but as actually the space in which we are able to effectively deliver on those statements. So that as faculty members we’re essential parts of any anti-racist agenda that our institution has said it holds. And then I think faculty members need to hold their institutions accountable. So if they are unable to support students, or present the curricula that they need to… so for example, they have insufficient OER materials to make the content that they’re using accessible, and they want support for their institution to develop OER materials, or need different kinds of resources in their libraries, I think that professors do need to think of their role as saying, “I’m trying to make this effective in my classroom, and we’re going to need to be resourced in this way.” So I think tying yourself to institutional aspirations that are located within those diversity and equity statements is really important.

Rebecca: So we always wrap up by asking: “What’s next?”

Gabriela: I think what’s next is why I moved to this particular role as the Associate Provost, and that is to think about the complicated nature of resourcing diversity and equity work. So diversity and equity work is often an aspiration, but not a resource one. And so thinking about what’s next for me is trying to enact that change by creating the policies, and support, and follow up that we need to truly take on the work of equity in higher ed beyond those statements. And so, I guess, in complementing the accountability that I think faculty members should hold their administrations to, I think what’s next for me is trying to be a partner in that from the administrative end.

Rebecca: …important work to be done, for sure.

John: Well, thank you for joining us. We’ve very much enjoyed talking to you and we hope we’ll be talking to you again.

Gabriela: Thank you so much. Thank you for doing this Tea for Teaching.

John: It’s been a lot of fun.

Rebecca: Yeah, thank you so much for sharing your expertise.


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.


259. Experiential Learning

Course content and instructors are often forgotten once a  semester concludes. In this episode, Breanna Boppre joins us to discuss how experiential learning can humanize course content and provide meaningful and rich experiences that stick with learners for many years. Bree is an Assistant Professor at Sam Houston State University’s Department of Victim Studies. She is also the author of a chapter in Picture a Professor, edited by Jessamyn Neuhaus.

Show Notes


John: Course content and instructors are often forgotten once a semester concludes. In this episode, we discuss how experiential learning provides meaningful and rich experiences that stick with learners for many years.


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: …and features guests doing important research and advocacy work to make higher education more inclusive and supportive of all learners.


John: Our guest today is Breanna Boppre. Bree is an Assistant Professor at Sam Houston State University’s Department of Victim Studies. She is also the author of a chapter in Picture a Professor, edited by our friend, Jessamyn Neuhaus. Welcome, Bree.

Bree: Thanks for having me.

John: We’re very happy you can join us.

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

Bree: I sure am. I am drinking a tea given to me by my close friend and department chair, Shelley Clevenger. She gifted me this tea. It says, “you’re magic” on the front. And one of the ingredients is “luster dust.” So the tea is actually blue with glitter.

John: That is a first, I believe.

Bree: It’s very unique, and it’s herbal tea. It tastes great.

Rebecca: Does it taste sparkly?

Bree: Mmmm, if sparkly had a taste, this would be it. [LAUGHTER]

John: So, we’re having a sparkle party.

Bree: Yes, definitely a sparkle party. [LAUGHTER]

John: I’m drinking a black raspberry green tea.

Bree: Ooh, yum.

Rebecca: And I have a jasmine black today.

Bree: Nice. That sounds good too. Not quite as sparkly as mine, but… [LAUGHTER]

Rebecca: Definitely not, and not as blue, either. [LAUGHTER]

John: So we’ve invited you here today to discuss your chapter in Picture a Professor. Before we discuss your chapter, could you tell us a little bit about your department and the classes that you teach? Because we have not run across a Department of Victim Studies before, and I think it would be helpful to learn a little bit more about that.

Bree: Yes, I would love to talk about our department. It’s actually the first and only Victim Studies Department in the nation, and so this is really unique for us to have this opportunity. We’re housed in the College of Criminal Justice. So we’re a subset of criminal justice but we like to think of ourselves as different, both in what we study and teach about, but also the way that we do things. So we are very much community engaged. We emphasize caring and kind pedagogy, and we emphasize things that engage with the community to help survivors. And so, we have a lot of campus events. We have a lot of events dedicated to building awareness, but also donations and things for organizations in our community that helps survivors. And so, it’s really a great opportunity. I’m really excited to be here in the Department of Victim Studies. I’ve been here just over a year now. And the classes that I teach… violence against women, and I teach it more as gendered victimization. So we talk a lot about how gender and stereotypes shape victimization and harm. I also teach a brand new class that I created called “transformative justice,” which is a survivor-led movement aimed to address harm and violence without relying on systems that cause additional harm and trauma. And so, preventing harm and crime in the community before people end up in prisons and involved in the system. So that’s a really cool class that I’ve enjoyed teaching. I also teach family violence, and I teach research methods at the grad level, and that’s what I was prepping right before the podcast. So those are the classes I teach. I’m really excited about them. It’s heavy content, for sure, but I enjoy it.

Rebecca: I can imagine that teaching such topics really often includes students who are also victims and there’s some challenges in that arena as well. Can you talk a little bit about some strategies that your department uses to support survivors who are in your classes?

Bree: Yeah, so I can talk about what I do personally. So I’ve done a lot of research beyond teaching about the impacts of trauma, and I actually have a background in cognitive behavioral therapy and counseling techniques. And so, I interned as a grad student with community corrections and would engage in these counseling type classes for men who are on probation and parole. And one thing that I noticed was that the amount of trauma that these individuals have experienced, you can’t treat someone separate of that trauma. And so, that’s very much how I teach in the classroom as well. I’ve relied a lot on other scholars, like Karen Costa, who’s done a lot on trauma-aware teaching, who I know was a guest on the podcast multiple times, and others who, instead of teaching business as usual, we have to center the experiences of survivors and recognize that the vast majority of students have survived something traumatic at some point in their lives, whether it’s victimization, sexual assault, things like that, but even the adversity that they’ve encountered throughout their lives. That has has an impact on their experience in our classrooms. And so, I have used Nicole Bedera’s method of survivor-centered teaching, she has an amazing article in Teaching Sociology that really centers survivors in how we teach. And so, oftentimes, and even myself, when I first started teaching, and a student would disclose to me something related to victimization, because a lot of students feel close to me, they see me as that caring empathetic person. And so, I have had a lot of disclosures throughout my teaching. And at first, I wasn’t exactly sure how to handle it, because we know Title IX, we know that we are mandatory reporters of certain victimization and of certain things that we’re told, but not everything. And so my role as a professor, I’m very aware that I am not a licensed counselor, and I take that very seriously in referring out, as Karen Costa says. And so, I’ve done a lot of work to understand the role of Title IX and my role as a mandatory reporter, and that has really helped me know effective boundaries to myself and my teaching while also supporting students. And so, Nicole Bedera recommends really understanding each institution’s Title IX office requirements, because they can differ across institution. So one of the first things I did when I came to Sam Houston State was reach out to the Title IX office, and really try to understand what I am mandated to report. And now in every victimization related class, I have a module about survivor-centered teaching and self care. And so, in that module, I explain to students what they disclose to me, how that could potentially trigger a report, because I want them to be empowered and informed. I want them to know that if they disclose specifics, that if it occurs on campus, or a campus event, that’s something that I have to report, and if they don’t want me to report, they can disclose those things in a different way. And so, that takes more of the ownership on students and the power and agency to them, rather than to me, and it’s made me a lot more comfortable when students do disclose because I have a lot of assignments where they reflect, and that’s where the experiential learning background comes in. I’m very much about reflection, and so a lot of the students, I prompt them to reflect on the material and that prompts them to often disclose that they have survived something in their life that’s similar. And so, being empowered and informed, both as the students and me as the professor, having those survivor-centered and trauma-aware tools have made me a lot better able to address it in a supportive and empathetic way.

John: That transparency should make students feel much more comfortable and as you said, empowers them to make decisions that are best for them, which I think provides a much better relationship.

Rebecca: So it’s worth mentioning, if you’re interested in Nicole Bedera’s work, she was on episode 201, “Beyond Trigger Warnings.”

Bree: Highly recommend her article. Seriously, this changed my teaching for the better in many ways, and I’m a huge fan of her work.

John: We’ll include a link to that in the show notes. So the title of your chapter is “Using Experiential Learning to Humanize Course Content and Connect with Students,” and you’ve already addressed a little bit about how you use experiential learning. Could you expand on that just a little bit in terms of how you do this in your classes?

Bree: Yeah, so I actually started engaging with experiential learning as a doctoral student. Our PhD program is actually unique in that it had a required teaching and pedagogy class, which is shockingly rare for academic PhD programs, especially in criminology and criminal justice. So I was really fortunate to have that experience where we learned about teaching and pedagogy before we even entered the classroom. And so, we had to explore different approaches and write up what we envision our teaching approach to be, and one of those approaches that always stood out to me was experiential learning, and part of that interest in experiential learning was my own experience as an undergrad student. When I think back to my classes, one of the most vivid memories I have is in a corrections class, we toured a local prison, and I can still remember the weather that day, how it felt being in that prison. It was very dank and dark, which is similar to most prisons. [LAUGHTER] And so, that feeling of being there, I can close my eyes and still envision that day of touring that prison that really stuck with me. And the power of experiential learning to have that impact, to engage with multiple senses, your sight, your hearing, your smelling, you’re feeling the temperature, all of that has an impact, and I especially think it’s important for criminal justice in teaching classes related to prisons, which is what I taught for many years at Wichita State before coming to Sam Houston State, and those experiences are really what stand out with students and have that high impact. So that’s part of why I decided to focus on experiential learning for my pedagogy, especially early on, and we would do things like go on prison tours, or we would go on tours of local domestic violence shelters. I would take the students to these locations, and as I’ll talk about later on, when we discuss experiential learning online, there’s potential issues related to accessibility there. But if the students are able, it really is an immersive experience, and it’s really beneficial for them to go to these sites with the support of their instructor to gain that experience… that hands-on, what would a job in this area be like… but also to connect with people who work in the field. Because often my students have gained internships or jobs from going on these tours, the agencies also view it as a potential hiring or recruitment opportunity. So it’s really beneficial for me as the instructor, but also for the students and for the agencies in the field to connect directly with often juniors and seniors who I teach, and they’re going to be graduating soon and want to do something with that degree. So that’s really the “why” for me. It’s also very humanizing, and I talk about it in the chapter as a method of inclusive teaching. Because for me, I was never one of those people who wanted to be the sage on the stage, I’m much more into collaborative learning, and being more of the guide on the side. And so, I found with experiential learning, it really helped us build community and experiences together. Every time, I swear, when we would go visit the prison, something would happen. So one time we went and it was chow time, which is food time, and they offered to let us try the food. So that was a big experience for many students that we still talked about after and that’s, again, a big part of experiential learning is the reflection piece. So we would reflect on that experience together in class, we would talk about it, but also students would reflect on it on their own through reflection papers. And so, as I’ve evolved these approaches, one of my favorite parts of experiential learning is service learning. And so, service learning is really taking experiential learning to a next level, where we’re incorporating real-world experience, learning and applying concepts to helping actual agencies or a community of need that is identified by the students in the class and using that volunteer work to help and engage in civic engagement.

Rebecca: Those shared experiences are really powerful. We’ve seen these in many different situations, whether it’s service learning, or field trips, or study-abroad opportunities where groups of students are together, and they have this shared moment. It helps them connect, but also it’s a place to relate content back to that they all know, because they were all there, which has a lot of power. So you hinted at this already, Bree, but we know that you’re teaching entirely online now. So how do you go from visiting prisons to your current circumstance of teaching online and how do you bring these experiential components in that modality?

Bree: Yes, so I’m not gonna lie. In spring 2020, when the pandemic hit and we were told, “You’re going remote for two weeks,” and then that two weeks turned into the rest of the semester, I freaked out a little because I relied so heavily on the in-person, and the experiential learning is a big part of that. I did freak out. And so, I had never really taught online before. I taught one summer class online previously, it was a, quote, “canned class” that I couldn’t really change or adapt from. And so, I freaked out a bit. And then I remember the last class before we went online, I got a text from my colleagues saying, “the provost is about to announce, we’re going online.” I was like, alright, we’re going to stop what we’re doing: “What has worked for you as students online and what has not worked?” and we workshopped together, what the rest of the term was going to look like. And so, a lot of them mentioned, “we love these aspects of the in person, that community building, the humanization.” And so, I really had to think carefully and critically about, okay, how do I accomplish that online? And so, like I mentioned, the way I teach, I don’t like lecturing. I will lecture for like 10 minutes at a time, but you will never see a class where I’m just lecturing for an hour, that’s not enjoyable for me. And so, I tried to think about how to translate that to the online platform. Because often, I would pepper in my lecturing with other videos, with activities, we would do Kahoots, we would do group breakouts, we would do all these things,“oh, my gosh, how do I do this online?” So I came up with this approach, in our activities, where I would really think through how we did this in person, and try to modify it for online. So even though we can’t be in the classroom physically, at the same place, the same time together, how can we still achieve this community remotely. And so, I would do things like the Kahoots, the quizzes, the community sorts of activities to try and accomplish that, and with experiential learning, I’ve taken a lot of aspects of experiential learning, especially the reflection piece that has become very important to my pedagogy. And so, it may not be the traditional experiential learning anymore for me online. There’s parts that I incorporate, but I’ve really have had to adapt. And so, some of that includes being more creative about these big project-based assignments that I have. So I read Susan Blum’s, edited book, Ungrading, which is awesome. And so, inspired by that, I started assigning eportfolios, where students will experientially go through these modules, and they have reflection questions guiding them, and they write up kind of like this blog-style summary of the content, like they’re explaining it to someone who has no background in criminal justice victim studies, they have no idea what any of this is, and they’re explaining it to someone else. So it is very much like a blog. But then the second piece of those module reflections are reflecting on their learning, and that’s where they really think about their experience during the module, even though it’s online, even though they may be sitting watching TV or they may be having childcare during while they’re trying to learn. A lot of my students are single moms or in caretaking roles, they have a lot of other things going on. And so, they’re reflecting on that learning experience, despite all the other things that are going on in their lives. And so, that has been really key for me, that reflecting not just on the content, but their learning experience. So that’s been a way that I’ve adapted experiential learning. I still incorporate service learning as much as I can. So there’s four main types of service learning and direct service learning is the one that we often think of, when students go to a physical location and volunteer. Now, during the pandemic, that was not possible. So a lot of the agencies that I worked with, especially prisons, they shut down access, students were not allowed to come there. So I had to think differently about creating opportunities for civic engagement and advocacy. And so, some of the things that I’ve done are infographics and public service announcements to build awareness about social issues and taking that a step further to create those specifically for campus organizations. Or even now I’m partnering with local agencies, nonprofits, who may not have the resources to devote to social media and branding, and my students are actually helping with that by creating social media campaigns and things like that. And so, I’ve just tried to be creative. We have unlimited technology, we have so much available to us that is web based, or internet based, that students have access to, like Canva. Oh, my gosh, Canva is the best tool that I’ve incorporated, and they make these data visuals and public service announcements through Canva and they can even do it on their mobile phone. So it makes it really accessible for them, and it gives them a way to make an impact, even though we can’t have that direct service learning experience.

John: Could you tell us a little bit more about some of the service learning activities that your students have been engaged in?

Bree: Yes. So, I again, teach research methods, which often is not the favorite class, both from students and instructors. It’s often seen as a more boring content area, which is fair. There’s a lot of jargon, there’s a lot of complex concepts for students to learn. But I have found that experiential learning is even more important for teaching research methods. And the way that I do it is through research-based service learning. Well, because of the pandemic and because of agencies shutting down and not having direct access, I’ve been focused more on helping our campus community because that is an organization that I have access to and that I’m directly involved with. And so, some of the things that we’ve done in the past is we had students and I create surveys together for their fellow students in the university to fill out and then students, they create the survey questions. They think through research questions, how to create measures and concepts related to those questions. I facilitate this process, but they’re doing a lot of it firsthand, and then we distribute the survey online to students across the campus, they see how many students respond to the survey, which is often 10 to 20%, and they see the implications of that, and then they work through the data themselves. I’ll compile it in an Excel file for them, and then they create data visuals. They interpret the results, and then together, we compile a report that we give to university stakeholders. And so, that has been a really rewarding, and accessible version of service learning for me… is that research-based service learning, and it’s also beneficial for me. As pre-tenure, 40% of my position is research, 40% is teaching, and then the 20% is service. So I find that research-based service learning really combines all aspects of my scholarship together, and it makes it this really rewarding aspect of my teaching that has been successful both in person and online. And so, that has been a really cool avenue that I also have gone on to publish the results, and that has led to peer-reviewed articles and things that are important towards my tenure. So I wanted to bring that up, because I know a lot of fellow instructors, they see service learning or experiential learning and are like, “Oh, that all sounds great, but the amount of time that goes into it is a lot, especially when you’re working with external agencies.” And so, I really promote research-based service learning as this accessible alternative that can also benefit those faculty and instructors that are expected to do research as well.

Rebecca: Finding those connections between service, teaching, and research can always be really challenging. But when you can find those connections, definitely a worthwhile endeavor. I know that I’ve had similar experiences. Can you talk a little bit about students’ response to service learning, as well as your community partner? And I guess in this case, it would be your campus stakeholders?

Bree: Yeah. So I’ll back up a little. When I taught in person, one of the first service- learning projects I did was for the local drug court. And so, the drug court manager would actually come to our class, and we presented the results to her. And so, that experience of being live, us handing her the results, talking about the results together as a class, that made it really rewarding for both me and the students. And so, as a result of that drug court partnership, one of my students actually got an internship at drug court, which was super cool. That may not have happened organically otherwise. And so, students’ responses have been very positive to both service learning and experiential learning broadly. I think that both teaching and learning online can be very isolating. That was my fear of teaching online, was losing that connection, and that connection from what I’ve learned from Michelle Pacansky-Brock and Fabiola Torres on Twitter, I’ve taken trainings with them on humanizing course content. They are amazing. What I’ve learned from them and doing trainings about online teaching is that really the connection matters, and there are still ways that we can get that connection through humanization. And so, I think building those connections for students’ research shows, especially for underserved students, first-generation college students like myself… I was a first-gen student… those sorts of efforts to build that community and build that connection between student and instructor but also among students is really key towards their success and retention. So I have noticed, just taking the extra effort to send out personal check ins to students to get to know them as human beings, has greatly increased my student evaluations, but also my fulfillment and enjoyment as an instructor, because I read Kevin Gannon’s work, Radical Hope, it’s on my bookshelf over here, and he mentions this tension, often between this authoritative type of instruction where often instructors are seen as adversaries, and instead, there’s things that we can do to connect with students. So we go into this role of being allies to students, and that’s really where I see my role as empowering and supporting students rather than enforcing rules and teaching during the pandemic really, really brought that to light for me, that often these rules, especially around late work, and imposing late penalties, and strict rules around that, that’s not sustainable. And so, it’s also not inclusive, especially for our students, who many of them, again, are mothers, they’re in caretaking roles, they’re parents, they have full-time jobs already outside of their class that they’re taking with me. I think that instructors maybe forget that students have these full lives outside of this one class that they’re taking with you, and I try to be really mindful of that. And so, students’ responses to experiential learning have been great. My response has been great. The stakeholders have also really appreciated being able to connect with students. When we sent out the report to stakeholders for the campus survey, one of the interesting findings was there’s this care center on campus that offers free mental health referrals and academic assistance to students in crisis, and based on our survey with criminal justice students, only 25% even knew that the care team existed. And so, I shared this with the care team. I’m like, “Look, I know the amazing work you do. I’ve referred various students to you but largely, students don’t know you exist, which might be impacting self referral.” And so, students in that class gave recommendations for how to build awareness of the care team, and the following semester that I taught this class, we partnered with care team and created a social media campaign to build student awareness about who the care team is and what they do. And so, that was a really cool way of legacy teaching where we built upon what one class did in a semester, which was Spring 2020, where everything was wild, and it took a lot to get done in one semester, with the beginning of a pandemic, we built upon that in a second semester, to really create actionable things that the care team could use to build awareness about what they do for the campus.

John: You mentioned a focus on inclusive teaching, could you talk a little bit more about some strategies that you use to create an inclusive environment in your classes? You’ve talked about some of these, but do you have any other suggestions? Because I think everyone’s trying to make their classes more inclusive now and any tips you could provide would be helpful.

Bree: Yeah. So I think for me, a big part of it has been educating myself. I’ve taken a lot of trainings, I’ve had trainings specifically on Universal Design for Learning, inclusive teaching. So some of those trainings that I took actually had us listen to interviews from students about their experiences as first-generation students, as students who English is not their first language, as students who are full time working and caretakers. Listening to their stories really helped me design my classes in a way that is more accessible. I design my classes being very empathetic and mindful of the students who enter our class. So SHSU is a Hispanic-serving Institution, more than 50% of my students are first-generation college students, so I automatically design my classes for that population, and in turn, like we see from Universal Design for Learning, that has benefits for everybody. So if you design a building with a ramp for individuals who can’t walk, that ultimately can benefit other individuals. The ramp makes it easier for them to get to the building to get inside. So I really embrace that approach in my teaching, and I try to be inclusive from the start. Again, educating yourself is a big part. I’ve done a lot of work on anti-racist pedagogy and just in everyday life, so that has been really helpful for me as well. And then I’m not perfect by any means. I try really hard, and there have been times where things have come up and students have felt safe enough to bring it up to me that there was potentially issue with how something was presented or delivered in the class, and I think my biggest advice is, when that happens, take a step back, take a pause, and really use empathy to listen. This student took time out of their everyday life to come to you and explain how this content or how the delivery made them feel. So I know that the first instinct might be to be defensive. But I think it’s really important to take a step back and try to really understand where the student is coming from. And actually I have this situation in the fall and it ended up turning out to be a really informative and transformative experience for me, but also for the student and now the student still keeps in touch with me and emails me often about updates in her life. And so, I think that’s a really big part of teaching in a way that’s empowering and supportive, rather than being authoritative and the sage on the stage when you share that power, and that’s important for me teaching in victim studies, because I teach in our victim services management program, which is the master’s degree. The students who come into this program are rock stars, they have worked in the field for years, they are running nonprofits, they are doing all this amazing work already. And so by sharing the power, and by me recognizing I have this degree, and I have some experience, but their experience is just as valuable and important as mine. I think that is really setting the stage for inclusive teaching and that’s what I embrace.

John: You mentioned a collaborative environment in your classes. What role do students play in creating content for your classes?

Bree: Yeah, so that’s actually my ultimate goal for students. In a lot of the effective online teaching trainings I’ve took, a lot of what we give to students is stuck on the learning management system. If you give a student an assignment or a quiz, they submit it, and they may never have access again. So a lot of the assignments I give them are getting off the learning management system and giving them tools and things that they can have beyond the semester. And so, some examples of that are, again, creating eportfolios. So they create these eportfolios that they use throughout the class, they create their intro background page where they talk about themselves, as much as they want to share or not, they can keep it anonymous if they want to. But they create this front page, which is personalized to them. And then they have different sections where they have module reflections. They have a course glossary, where they define key terms for each module and put the term and the definition there. And so, I started this approach… again, after reading Ungrading. But also, when I think back to classes, I had this really cool class about serial killers. And we created a portfolio with case studies about each serial killer, and I hung onto that thing for like a decade. I even gave it to my grandma who was super into crime shows and she wanted to read it. And so, I was like, this is something that is missing when we teach on the learning management system, and it’s something that I want to facilitate for students. Online, I think the eportfolio fits best rather than a paper portfolio. And so, it’s something that they can take with them and,it was funny, I was at a campus event, it was a campus ally training, and there was a staff member there who said, “Oh, you’re Dr. Boppre, one of our student workers is taking your class and she showed me her eportfolio that she made in your class and was so proud of it, and it looks so cool.” I’m like “That is gold. If that is what happens as a result of my teaching, I have achieved what I wanted to.” I want students to end my classes with some creative item that they develop throughout the class, and that they’re so proud of and so excited about that they’re sharing it with others. And so, the eportfolios, I definitely love those. I also assign infographics, which I think I mentioned earlier. So students create these visually appealing flyers with information about controversial issues in our field. So for victimization related classes, they’ll talk about intimate partner violence, violence against women, and they’ll summarize the research. They will do what they would typically do for a research paper, but in this visually appealing, accessible format. Honestly, I can’t tell you that I’ve ever shared a paper from class with anybody from undergrad, but I would share an infographic. I would show someone and say, “Look at what I’ve done,” and that’s what students tell me, they’re really proud of that infographic that they’ve created. And so, that has been really rewarding for me is to help facilitate these students’ creations. I’m not gonna lie, it does take a lot of tutorials and working through students to develop these skills, but I tell them, I’m very purposeful about the technology that I choose for classes and I’ve honestly had to ditch some approaches for some that are more useful and relevant to their future careers. But I really focus on the tools and technology that I think will best serve them in their future careers no matter what they do. And so, that’s why I emphasize these eportfolios, because you’re developing a website, and I have a personal website for all my scholarship, but I’ve used Google Sites to create community exhibits, I’ve used them to present research presentations. I’ve used these web design skills for so many other things that I can envision for other students and the same with the infographics and getting used to using Canva. We live in an ever growing society that wants information quickly and visually, especially like TikTok, Instagram… that is the reality that we live in today. And so, these approaches really fit with where we’re going in our society. And so, learning Canva, you might make an infographic for class, but then you have those skills to make a flyer for an event at work, or you have those skills to create an infographic for something else related to your class or for your career. And so, that’s really what I emphasize, these creative, project-based finales is what I call them, because they help students create something and cultivate skills that will benefit them far beyond the end of the semester.

John: David wildly refers to those assignments that end up in the LMS and disappear at the end of the semester as “disposable assignments.” And the type of thing you’re describing are the non-disposable, open pedagogy type things that students often find much more engaging, because they have much more meaning to them, and I think you’ve described that quite nicely. So we always end with a question, what’s next?

Bree: So I’m entering my fifth year on the tenure track. So, I’m still very much focused on research. But this upcoming semester, I’m actually putting all of the trauma awareness and the survivor centered teaching into my research-based service-learning project with students. And so, we are actually going to ask students about survivor-centered teaching and trauma-aware teaching and we’re going to do a survey and focus group with students. So I’m really excited to test students’ reactions to these approaches and the need. That’s ultimately what I want to demonstrate, the need for these approaches from an empirical standpoint, and involving students in that process. I think that’s going to be really powerful. One of my students in my summer class actually inspired me to do this because we were having a zoom session, and we talked about survivor-centered teaching, and she’s just like, this is the first time I’ve ever felt empowered to tell my story, because in every other class, I have felt silenced by these Title IX and mandatory reporting warnings, I just have not felt comfortable or able to share. And so that is a big part of my future in what’s next, is continuing to empower students to tell their stories and to view students as the whole student, and how these life experiences shaped their interactions in the classroom and the eportfolios is a way that I get to do that. They do get to share their stories and reflect on it. But I’m always looking for what more we can do, and that’s really what I want to focus on. Because these life experiences, even my own life experiences. Both my parents were incarcerated throughout my life, I grew up visiting my dad in prisons for 15 plus years. Every weekend, I was at the prison. To say that experience has no impact on my teaching or learning would just be ridiculous to say. That had a huge impact on who I am, how I learned, how I teach. And so, I’m very upfront about that with students, and I also want to empower them to have their own stories and reflect on how it impacts their experiences, because education truly can be transformative. It was for me as a first-generation college student, as someone with those life experiences in my childhood. Being able to go to college transformed my life, and if I can play a small role in that for my students, that’s my ultimate life goal and that’s why I’m here.

Rebecca: Thank you so much Bree for sharing your really great techniques and providing us with a lot of things to think about as more of us are teaching online and thinking about experiential learning and service learning in those contexts.

John: And we noted on your website, you have a word cloud that lists some words that students have used to describe your teaching, and the most frequent words were fun and creative. But right behind those were unique, amazing, informative, thorough, and awesome. And that would be a nice aspirational goal for many of us, to see those types of responses for students, because I suspect that those wouldn’t be the most common words that students generally use for most of their classes. So thank you for joining us, and I hope you’ll be back again in the near future.

Bree: Yes, I was so excited to come. A lot of my pedagogical heroes have been on this show. So I’m very honored to be here and thanks so much for having me.


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

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

John: Editing assistance provided by Anna Croyle, Annalyn Smith, and Joshua Vega.


257. PsycLearn

Adaptive learning platforms provide each student with a customized learning path based on the student’s individual learning needs. In this episode, Anna Yocom, Linda Goldberg, and Alan Strathman join us to discuss how the American Psychological Association has developed adaptive learning packages for core psychology courses.

Show Notes


John: Adaptive learning platforms provide each student with a customized learning path based on the student’s individual learning needs. In this episode, we examine how one professional association has developed adaptive learning packages for core courses in their discipline.


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: …and features guests doing important research and advocacy work to make higher education more inclusive and supportive of all learners.


John: Our guests today are all involved with a psych learning project, which we’ll be talking about throughout the podcast. Let’s have each guest introduce themselves.

Anna: Hi, I am Anna Yocom. I am a senior lecturer at The Ohio State University in psychology and I am also a Content Manager for PsycLearn.

Linda: And I’m Linda Goldberg. And my role with the PsycLearn project is that of product evangelist.

Alan: Hi, this is Alan Strathman. I’m a content manager for PsycLearn and was a professor of psychology for a long time at the University of Missouri.

John: Welcome, everyone. We’re really happy to talk to you about PsycLearn. I first heard about this when I was working on a project at SUNY dealing with adaptive learning solutions. And we had seen some write ups of PsycLearn so we want to find out a little bit more.

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

Alan: I’m drinking coffee.

Rebecca: Oh, a coffee drinker.

Alan: Sorry.

Rebecca: I see how it is. [LAUGHTER]

Alan: I had tea this morning this morning.

Rebecca: Oh, that’s good. That’s good.

Rebecca:: How about you, Linda?

Linda: I’m having an iced tea this afternoon. It’s hot and muggy outside, so something citrusy and decaf.

Rebecca: …and perfectly refreshing. [LAUGHTER]

Linda: That’s right. And sweetened.

Rebecca: Awesome. Anna?

Anna: I had tea earlier, but I have switched to water.

John: And I’m drinking spring cherry green tea.

Rebecca: Nice. I have some Scottish breakfast. Still in my pot today.

John: We’ve invited all of you here today to discuss the PsycLearn adaptive learning platform developed by the American Psychological Association. Could you tell us a little bit about the origin of this project?

Linda: Okay, I’m going to start with that. And there are a couple of overlapping facets to the origin story, so to speak. One is really a desire to expand APA’s publishing program. APA has a very rich publishing program, which includes publishing of over 90 academic journals, a very robust books publishing program, where many of those books are aimed at clinical practice, as well as books that might support the professional researcher, books that might support self help, and so on. And we found that there was an opening for us to make a contribution to undergraduate academic instruction and contribute to that portion of the path toward the profession. We also were recognizing as we contemplated this new project that there was a tremendous amount of disruption in the higher educational publishing landscape, a lot of cost pushback, a lot of desire among publishers to leverage technology. And we thought that perhaps not simply for delivery of content, but to improve the learning experience and to improve efficacy that we saw there might be some opportunity there.

Alan: Yeah, also, let me jump in. I think the developers also saw this as an opportunity to work toward some of the goals that APA has for the field of psychology, including, for example, utilizing psychology to make an impact on social issues.

Linda: And the field of cognitive psychology is one that tells us a lot about how we learn. So we felt like we could draw from our very own field in development of our final product,

John: Which courses have been developed for this platform.

Linda: So we started with a course for research methods and psychology and added a PsycLearn statistics for the behavioral sciences to that. These two courses are typically required for all majors in the discipline. And they also represent the most challenging content for many students. So we thought that seemed like a good place to start.

Rebecca: Can you talk a little bit about how this material was developed?

Alan: Sure, we use a backwards design process where we start by identifying what we want students to learn in each module and a module is similar to what would be a chapter in a regular textbook. These outcomes that we have in mind become Learning Objectives, and they really guide the content development. Learning Objectives are developed through collaboration, a conversation, maybe a hashing out between the subject matter experts and the content managers, and are influenced by a variety of factors, including how well the learning objectives address APAs guidelines for undergraduate education. And then there is a rigorous review process where other experts in the field provide feedback and often suggest additional learning objectives

John: Was there much of a challenge getting agreement on learning objectives. I know in many disciplines, there’s a lot of discussion of what should be in the core material in the discipline? Has psychology been able to overcome that a bit by agreeing on these standards?

Alan: Well, I think it is a challenge in every case, because everybody has a sense of what they think should be taught and what is essential for students to learn. Like I said, I think it’s hashing out. It’s sometimes a little bit of trial and error, where we identify a learning objective, and then start writing about it. And then at some point, we may decide that’s not the right objective to have. But I think in the end, the subject matter experts and the content managers do a really good job of coming to some consensus on what we want to teach.

John: Was the content in the courses, the actual readings and other materials, developed by the people who created the package?

Alan: Absolutely. We are a digital first product, with original content developed by experts in various sub disciplines in psychology. And this really gives us a big advantage I think over print textbooks. So starting from scratch, in an entirely digital environment, we can develop a seamless presentation, where we start with learning objectives, we present content, we design activities and interactive exercises, and then have assessments. And we can be sure that all those things are aligned with learning objectives. And we don’t have to try and retrofit learning objectives into existing content. And then just hope that assessments that we have address the new learning objectives. So I think being able to work in a digital environment allows us to have this really seamless presentation where we start with learning objectives and we go all the way through assessment, and all those things match.

Rebecca: You’ve hinted a little bit about maintaining the content, given that it’s in a digital platform. But can you talk a little bit more about how you maintain that or what that review processes is or how that gets updated on a regular basis?

Alan: Well, that’s a good question. One issue for us is that we’re still so new, that we haven’t had semesters and semesters of feedback from students that we can use to make revisions. But what is really exciting is that whenever we decide that we want to make a change, we can do it in real time. Think about a print textbook, whenever they decide that they want something to be different, they might wait three to five years for the opportunity to make those changes. With us, since it’s digital first, we decide something needs to be changed or updated or revised and we can make those changes in a really timely fashion. And I think it really helps to keep our content current.

John: And if you find that students are not achieving the learning objectives, you have the ability, at least, to make some changes, either redefining the objectives if perhaps the objectives didn’t work too well. Or if the learning materials weren’t quite aligning with that. How often is that type of change done?

Alan: Well, so far, we’re still into the development process, that we’re making those changes just all the time. As the products get older and more mature, I think we’ll need to do that less. But again, we’ll still have the opportunity to do it as often as we’d like to.

Rebecca: John mentioned at the beginning of the episode about his interest in this project related to adaptive learning. Can you talk a little bit about the adaptive learning component of this project and the platform that you use.

Anna: The platform that we use is CogBooks, it is a platform, I think, is really unique compared to other textbooks, because it allows students to engage in their learning, and really direct their own learning pathway. And that’s based on their understanding of the content. So instead of going through a whole chapter, and then maybe quizzing yourself or testing yourself, after each content page, they get some formative questions and they get to make their own assessment. They get to say, “Okay, did I understand that? Was I not too sure? How did I do on those questions?” And then they can choose whether they want to get that support material or not, which we think of as like, “Would you follow up and ask your instructor a question.” That’s how we think of this support material. So if a student is very confident with the material, they’re essentially going to get a different path than a student who might need help in a couple of different areas or a student who might need help in a lot of areas. There’s just more examples or more practice. So it can look a little bit different for each student, which is pretty cool.

John: Linda mentioned earlier that psychologists have done a lot of research and cognitive scientists have done a lot of research on how people learn, how have some of those principles of how we learn been built into this platform?

Alan: Well, Linda is certainly right. There is a lot of research on learning science. And because we are psychologists, we’re familiar with the research, and use that knowledge to help students learn throughout the product. I think the centerpiece of our efforts to use learning science is the inclusion of metacognition, that is helping students evaluate their own learning, helping them identify what they know and what they don’t know. And when they identify what they don’t know, then they could spend a little more time learning that particular topic. Often students get to the exam, and they haven’t really done a good job of testing themselves, identifying what they know, and what they don’t know. And the first time they realize they don’t know something is when they get to the exam. And that’s obviously not the right time to get there. And so we’re able to identify ways that we can help them evaluate their own learning. We help them in this process by incorporating those learning strategies that we know are supported by research. We present concrete examples throughout. We have frequent activities and assessments. Students get practice retrieving content from memory. And these opportunities are spaced just as the research suggests they should be. They have interactive exercises. They get practice in the elaboration, or explaining content to themselves in their own words. And really the process of taking material and from the jargon in which it’s presented to explaining things in their own words, is a really useful process for students to engage in. And we could have a whole podcast just on principles of learning science that PsycLearn incorporates.

Rebecca: Can you talk a little bit about what the student experience is like for students that are using the platform? So Anna, you hinted a little bit at this with some of the adaptive learning components. But what does it look like from: I entered this space from the beginning, and now I’m interacting with this over time.

Anna: So students really, I think, approach PsycLearn differently than a printed textbook, again, not only just the fact that they would go through a printed textbook, and then maybe ask themselves some questions, probably skip over a lot of reading, because maybe it’s not very engaging or easy to get distracted with print textbooks as well. But one of the really interesting things is that they’re engaged with the content pages within them. So they’re not just engaged outside of content, like “Oh, refer to this video,” or “you can reference this activity” or “try some completely different platform to help with your reading….” but within the content pages, they get activities in which they’re asked to reflect on the course material. How does this connect to things you already know? So they get to respond to those things within the content pages. They get practice formative questions, formative meaning that it’s not just did I get this right? Yes or no. But they get feedback. So they would find out what a suggested answer was to a short answer question. They can compare that to their own. With a multiple choice question, they get follow up on why that is the correct answer, not just “Well, if I’ve missed this a couple of times, and they get multiple chances to respond, but they get some explanation about why that was the correct answer.” And so we have video questions, we have matching exercises, we have short answer, we have multiple choice questions, different drag and drop. So we’ve tried to just vary the kinds of interactions that students would have, the ways that they can practice answering questions. And this variety really helps maintain interest throughout. So they get to engage it in lots of different ways. It’s not just a rote memorization, but they’re actually applying the material as they go through each module.

John: So you mentioned formative questions. Are there are some assessment tools built in to evaluate students’ learning for grading purposes, for example?

Anna: There are. Yeah, so there are summative questions. And we try to have them associated with those learning objectives that Alan had talked about earlier. And so after maybe one, two, or a small group of those learning objectives are covered, there is a short sample, maybe 5…10 multiple choice questions where students have a few attempts, and we want them to get to about an 80% accuracy. And one of the nice things is if they don’t on their first attempt, they can actually go access those support pages then. So maybe they skipped over them earlier. And they thought, “Okay, I got this, it’s fine. I understood this page.” And then they get to these questions later on, these mastering the content and they’re like, “Well, wait a minute, I was missing some of this.” So they get another chance to go back to those support questions, and try it again. So then hopefully, they can get those right after three attempts. We don’t want them to be punitive. We want them to get engaged with the material and get to that mastery.

Rebecca: So now that you’ve talked a little bit about the student experience, can you talk a little bit about how this supports instructors? What kind of feedback is provided to instructors and maybe how instructors are using this in their teaching.

Anna: One of the things I really like, we all know, anytime that we can even maybe think back to our own experiences in classrooms, it’s a struggle getting students to read. But a lot of these classes, I mean, really all of our classes, if we’re assigning some sort of book, some reading material, we want them to read it. So how do we get them to engage? Well, that’s where the accountability comes in. So we’re giving them this tool, and then their instructor can see, “Okay, they’ve made it through this material, they engage with this.” So the instructor could choose to then reiterate that material in class, or they could choose to maybe take an active learning approach in class. And okay, now that you’ve had this background, everybody made it through, we’re going to apply it. And maybe not everybody got to 100% on every question, but maybe we got to about over 90% completion, which is what I would typically see in my classes. So you would have students who, even after a few attempts, would sometimes miss some of those mastering questions, but generally, it was pretty high. And so I could see that before I went into class. Okay, so students, as a whole, on average have got this. So I can take it a step further, where I can go back to those questions that were really challenging. So you get to track progress through each module, you can also dive a little deeper with individual students. So a student comes to you and says, “I’m really struggling,” the instructor can go in there, they can look at their pathway. Were they accessing the support material? Did they take those quizzes a few times? Where were they spending their time? Or if the instructor wanted them to cover it on let’s say, Tuesday night, were they doing it all Tuesday at 9pm? Right? Like you could actually see all of that. So you can kind of work with them like, “Well, I see you started this that night, let’s think about how we could maybe back that up. Like maybe we should pace this out at least a few days ahead of time, which is a really nice way to work with students.” And it also syncs with the LMS, the learning management system, so it really takes that burden off of instructors as well. So it’s talking to the platform that we get there. So we get this easy back and forth, which is really nice. So we can nudge students along with that, I would often encourage students to visit those support pages if they were struggling, like, “Look, I know this is really challenging,” or, “Hey, there’s more practice, if you just want a little bit more practice, you can go to some of those support pages to get that.” And the other nice thing is students can actually email right from there, which I think is pretty unique. So if a student emails me, I could see okay, they were having problems in statistics with variability and standard deviation. And it will take me as the instructor right to that page. And so then I can see that and I can say, “Oh, well, why don’t you try these examples here,” which was really nice. Instead of just a student saying, “I don’t know, I don’t get this,” they can let you know exactly where they’re struggling. So it provides a lot of options for instructors.

John: And do instructors get aggregate statistics on what areas students are struggling in addition to data on individual students?

Anna: Absolutely. So you can see that on the dashboard. You can see if there were chunks of mastering questions, for example, or a specific question that students struggled with. So you could choose to review that and maybe even go over some of those in class or go over specific topics in more detail.

John: How are instructors combining this with other face-to-face learning activities, for example, in face-to-face classes. As I understand it, most people use this as a textbook replacement, except a much more powerful replacement to a textbook. What other things will people often do to provide more of a sense of community or a social component to the learning?

Anna: Yeah, so, I think a lot of instructors are using it, just as you said, as a textbook replacement. And that’s how I have used it for statistics in particular. So it was taking the place of my other textbook, which actually was a print textbook that was online. And so I don’t feel like there were any losses. But we were gaining the ability to say, “Okay, we’re all on the same page. I know that everybody’s at least had some exposure to this. So now let’s talk about it. I can see where you were struggling. So I know we’re going to need more examples here. I know we’re going to need more follow up here.” Or “why was this question challenging? Why was this hard?” So I think drawing on those parts are how we can maintain those social ties and the social interactions we want whether it’s online, whether it’s face to face, or in any capacity.

Linda: I’ll just go ahead and point out as well that part of the content package that we’re making available to instructors who adopt, PsycLearn course material is a set of student activities that sort of exist outside of the platform itself and are available for instructors to assign or to bring to the class. They’re typically designed again to align with specific learning objectives and to give the instructor options for an in- class activity or an additional assignment activity. And that’s accessible to the instructor when they’re using the dashboard.

Rebecca: Sounds like some really great support materials. Can you talk a little bit about how this platform has affected equity gaps that we might be seeing?

Alan: Sure, I think there are two ways that PsycLearn is addressing issues of equity. First, we are designing PsycLearn to be culturally inclusive, that is we work to make sure that through examples, images, photos, figures, every student can see themselves in the product. Plus, our goal is to include the research of diverse psychologists and psychologists of color. And then I think the second way that we strive to be equitable is to design for universal access. We want the product to be accessible to all students, and so we make great efforts to do so. We use typography that’s particularly accessible. We incorporate transcripts and closed captioning, we have text-based alternatives for non text elements. And our efforts are well beyond what the minimum guidelines would be, well beyond what typical expectations would be, and I want to say that this is because we value this process so highly. We are keenly interested in making an accessible, inclusive product, and I think we’re really working hard to do that.

John: Have there been any studies of the overall efficacy of this program compared to alternatives?

Linda: Well, we have conducted some impact surveys, surveys of student users to gauge their impressions of the impact of PsycLearn on certain important aspects of their experience. Through surveying students, we looked at the impact on their knowledge gains, on their confidence in their ability to use that knowledge, and on motivation to complete assigned activities. And on the questions that we asked, to sort of tease out each of these thematic areas, we did receive very positive response. Now, these are, albeit, impressions of students. That’s sort of the first line of study available to us. And we feel pretty motivated ourselves by what we’re learning, by what we’re hearing from students. These surveys did also include some open text entry questions. And very interestingly, some of the criticisms that we heard were often this is a lot of time, this is a lot of work. But by the same token, we’ll hear in the very same response, but it’s very worth my time, and it really helps. And I feel confident when I go into the class, and I already know what my instructor is going to talk about, I feel more relaxed, I feel more able to pay attention. That kind of response has been very rewarding to receive from these student surveys.

John: With some other platforms, there have been studies that have looked at the impact on equity gaps, and they relate very much to what you just said, that basically, students come into our classes with very different backgrounds. Some come in with a very rich and strong background from prior courses, others come in with a somewhat weaker background. But to make it through an adaptive learning platform, the students who come in with less background can acquire mastery, but it takes a bit more time and effort. And the students who come in with a stronger background can race through a little bit more quickly. But much of the research does suggest that those equity gaps tend to be reduced. But it is at the cost of additional effort by those students who come in with a little bit less prior knowledge or prior experience with some of the material. And so I think that’s one of those real strengths of adaptive learning platforms compared to other formats like textbooks and lectures and so forth, where everyone is expected to move at the same pace. But as Chuck Dziuban, on a previous podcast has said, in a traditional course, everyone spends the same amount of time with the material, but they learn different amounts, when they’re working with adaptive learning platforms, they have to spend different amounts of time, but they all can achieve the same learning outcomes, they can all reach the same outcomes. But it may take more time to do so.

Linda: That’s certainly our hope, and some of what motivates the work that we’re doing. I feel like having respect for the time that our students need to spend is top of mind. We need to make sure that what we’re asking them to do is a good use of their time. And therefore this mode of delivery and the kind of content that we make available through the multiple activities and so on that Anna was describing. We’re giving our students opportunities to do that self testing that reiterative process and not simply trying to digest a narrative.

Anna: I always think back to a student I actually had in class a number of years ago, and this student went through the same class multiple times. And it was a class that was needed to get to other upper-level classes and was very frustrated, of course. And then we came to find out that this student in the multiple times of taking the class, the book was listed as required, but with either a digital or print textbook, you really don’t have any way to monitor that. You don’t know if the student’s using the book even if they have it. But this student had never got the book, just never occurred to them that, okay, this could be a really valuable tool. And so that’s really a benefit. I see. Like you were talking about equity, let’s give them this tool. But let’s make it something that’s valuable, that can really help them and if they need that added support, they’ll get it. But kind of level the playing field a little bit.

Rebecca: How do you see this platform evolving over time.

Linda: So we are able to work fairly closely with our platform partner, CogBooks. We’re able to contribute to their roadmap planning to some degree. We’ve collected feedback through a variety of channels, also, not only the student surveys that I’ve mentioned, but we also, in the past year, conducted a qualitative study that included student interviews and observations of students who were assigned to use PsycLearn. And this exercise gave us really valuable insight into how and where students focus their time and attention. And so for instance, through that process, we were able to get some real good insight into how they approach the summary of each module. And as a result, we’ll be able to give some greater attention, we’ve got some plans to enrich and make more accessible, the content that we placed there, because we were able to learn that they highly value that for later test preparation. So that’s just an example. We’re hoping to be able to continue to do those observational and interview studies.

Rebecca: So I’m really curious for each of you to answer this question. But what makes you really excited about PsycLearn?

Anna: I’m happy to go first, because I am a very energetic instructor. I will be at the front of the room, and I bring a lot of energy. And what makes me excited about PsycLearn is just the ability of students to be active consumers of their learning. I would love for them to take away something that is memorable, that feels unique. And so PsycLearn frees me up as an instructor, that I don’t have to go through every bit of background information in the way I use it in class, I can assume they’ve had things. Let’s spend time on things that are interesting. Let’s dive deeper into things. Let’s do more exercises for things that are challenging. And so the students get to think about and apply new ways of learning and engaging the material from the very first moment that they encounter the content.

Alan: Yeah, for me, it’s really about the inclusion of metacognition, I think it’s really helpful to have students be able to evaluate their own learning. I think this makes them do better on exams, and I think it makes them more successful in their entire college career. It’s also an important part of my own teaching. I have a lot of activities in class where students can answer and identify how well they know what they’re supposed to know. And what I often find is that students study, but they don’t know how much to study, they don’t know: “Do I know it as well as I need to know it.” And this product gives them a lot of feedback, really helps them understand if they understand the material as well as they need to. And PsycLearn really can do that in ways that regular textbooks cannot.

Linda: I would say that my excitement really comes from the big picture, the opportunity for us to deliver on these experiences that Anna and Alan are describing. But we’re going to be able to do that across the foundational courses in the curriculum. And so that larger picture future horizon is pretty exciting.

John: Well, you’ve already addressed some of this, at least in terms of PsycLearn, but we always end with the question: “What’s next?”

Linda: Well, we have sort of talked a little bit about future and what’s next and our opportunity to be iterative. The digital platform allows us to be continually rethinking what is the best activity to offer to reinforce or bolster certain concepts. And so that’s certainly something that is ongoing. We can take feedback from students on how well they feel various content is supporting them. We’ll be looking at what we can do to encourage a greater level and engagement with that support material, so that students aren’t feeling like, “Oh, that’s extra, I don’t really need to go there.” Indeed, it’s extra. But it’s really vital, especially for students who might sort of marginally understand. And so the opportunity for us to deliver a reframe of a concept can make all the difference at that tipping point.

Anna: Yeah, and I think what Linda had said about using the support material is really important to us. So we’re really interested in applying these learning science principles that Alan had talked about to say, “Okay, what is the best way to get students to engage with this.” We want them to see that cool stuff we’re putting on those pages, if they feel like they could benefit of it. So we want to reach the students that need that support. So I think just diving in a little deeper and figuring out the best ways to reach them, to get them to say, “Okay, yeah, I could use a little practice.” Or “I could use another example,” snd really assess that learning of their own. It’s a challenge. It’s a challenge we have constantly, especially when students are new at something, they tend to think, “Oh, yeah, I got this. I know it all.” And so getting better at that metacognition, I think, is really exciting to us.

Alan: Yeah, and I think for us, it has a lot to do with making a better and better product. I think about what it was like the first time I taught a course. And I equate that to the first iteration of a PsycLearn product. And then I think about what was it like the fifth time I taught that course or the 10th time I taught it, and how richer and deeper it was. And I think the same thing will happen with PsycLearn. We’re going to keep on creating a product that gets richer, more inclusive, and more likely to help students succeed.

John: I was really excited to hear about PsycLearn, and everything you’ve talked about makes me even more excited about the opportunity for this and I hope that other disciplines will start working on similar materials for their basic courses, because the benefits from this have been well established in terms of improving student learning and reducing some of the equity gaps. Thank you.

Linda: Thank you.

Alan: Thank you.

Anna: Thank you.


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

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


256. Sharing Our Stories

Students do not always recognize the expertise of faculty who do not match their cultural stereotype of what a professor looks like. In this episode, Sarah Mayes-Tang joins us to discuss how she has used personal narratives to address these student biases. Sarah is an Assistant Professor in the Mathematics Department at the St. George Campus of the University of Toronto. She is also the author of a chapter in the Picture a Professor project, edited by Jessamyn Neuhaus.

Show Notes

  • Neuhaus, Jessamyn (forthcoming, 2022). Picture a Professor: Interrupting Biases about Faculty and Increasing Student Learning. West Virginia University Press.
  • Peterson, D. A., Biederman, L. A., Andersen, D., Ditonto, T. M., & Roe, K. (2019). Mitigating gender bias in student evaluations of teaching. PloS one, 14(5), e0216241. (A study that suggests that reminding students of bias in course evaluations may reduce bias.)
  • Perusall
  • Ogawa, Y. (2009). The Housekeeper and the Professor: A Novel. Picador.
  • Borges, J. L. (1998). The library of Babel. Collect


John: Students do not always recognize the expertise of faculty who do not match their cultural stereotype of what a professor looks like. In this episode, we examine one professor’s strategies to address these student biases.


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: …and features guests doing important research and advocacy work to make higher education more inclusive and supportive of all learners.


Rebecca: Our guest today is Sarah Mayes-Tang. Sarah is an Assistant Professor in the Mathematics Department at the St. George Campus of the University of Toronto. She is also the author of a chapter in the Picture a Professor project, edited by Jessamyn Neuhaus.
Welcome, Sarah.

Sarah: Thank you so much. It’s wonderful to be here and to see both of you. [LAUGHTER]

John: Thanks for joining us. Our teas today are… Are you drinking tea?

Sarah: I am drinking tea. I have a…

Rebecca: Yay!

Sarah: …I wouldn’t miss it. …it’s a chocolate mint black tea by Sloane tea. They’re a Toronto tea company.

Rebecca: Awesome.

John: Very nice.

Rebecca: I have a very standard [LAUGHTER] English breakfast today.

John: And I have a Prince of Wales tea today.

Rebecca: Oh, I haven’t had that in a while. John. We’ve invited you here today to discuss your chapter in Picture a Professor. Your chapter’s entitled “Sharing Our Stories to Build Community, Highlight Bias, and Address Challenges to Authority.” Can you tell us a little bit about this chapter?

Sarah: Yeah, sure. I think that my chapter might be the most obvious kind of strategy in this book. So a lot of the authors are sharing really inventive, or new strategies that I hadn’t thought of. Mine is all about just talking to other people about the challenges that we face when we don’t look like other professors in the academy, or at least what students might picture as their idea of a professor, what might you picture when you Google a professor? So my strategy is all about talking to people. First of all, starting by talking to colleagues, in particular, colleagues that might face similar challenges. So first of all, I should say, I’m a white woman, so I can’t speak to the full challenges that, for example, people of color might face, but I’m a math professor, and I present pretty feminine, and I teach mathematics in I guess, like a pretty serious math department. And so I certainly don’t look like what students expect when they come into a big math class. So for me, and I think for a lot of other people that I work with, it really came as a huge shock, when students started to question even my basic mathematical ability, 18 year olds dealing with probably their own insecurities about mathematics, but it was coming out as like, she doesn’t know what she’s doing. And then the reaction from my superiors who are mainly white men, would be to act more authoritative, basically act ways that were more like them. And the way that I felt was just like, there was something very, very wrong with me. I felt very ashamed. And even though I sensed that it had something to do with my identity, I knew they wouldn’t question me in the same way, if I was a typical looking professor, I also thought I did have to change something about myself. And there’s such tremendous shame in that. And it wasn’t until I, at the end of the year, whispered a little bit about it. And then another colleague said this exact same thing happened to me, the exact same thing. And the whole year, we were going through parallel experiences. And knowing that changed my life, it changed my profession. I would have left the academy if it hadn’t been for that. And then over time developing a group of cheerleaders who I could go to, and then kind of gain more confidence. My chapter also addresses being able to speak to colleagues and being able to speak to our students, because it’s important that they understand the challenges that we face, because we don’t just have white men who we teach, we teach a variety of students. And I think if we can talk about our personal challenges, and they can see that we also have faced challenges that they might be facing, then that can really be very transformative. So that’s kind of a brief summary of some of the things that I talk about.

Rebecca: Can you talk a little bit about how that unfolds in a classroom when you’re having those kinds of conversations with students in a math class?

Sarah: Yeah, so sometimes it unfolds very naturally, by some prompt that might happen. Yeah, there might be an extreme example. This past semester, I had another professor, he came in, and it was like, clear gender issue. And so I used that, in the next day actually, it took me a little while to react to it. And then the next day, we had a very deep conversation about gender in the classroom. But it might be before student evaluations, that has taken me a long time to come to, but how do you address the research about what students do in evaluations? Sometimes I assign reading about mathematicians’ experiences, I try to assign readings of biographies of diverse mathematicians, and then we relate it to their own experiences. And then if it’s appropriate, I don’t want to be all about me. But if it’s appropriate, I sometimes talk about what I’ve experienced. So those are some of the ways that it comes out. But I try to make my classrooms not just about the mathematics, because that’s really where the transformative stuff happens.

John: In terms of the teaching evaluations, have you addressed that issue specifically with students in terms of gender bias on evaluations before the evaluations? And has that helped? …because there is some research that making students aware of biases tends to reduce the amount of bias that shows up in the actual evaluations.

Sarah: It’s really hard for me to say if it helps.

John: …there’s no control group.

Sarah: Exactly. So even though I teach gigantic classes, you’d think that I’d be able to do some sort of like statistical thing, I have no idea if it really helps. I do get comments, after, if I do address it. I know that some students will say, “I’m not just saying this because she’s a woman.” So there is some backlash in that. So it’s unclear. I try not to do it right before the student evaluations, but like a few weeks before. I also do evaluations throughout the semester. And yes, it’s difficult to see if it impacts the evaluations or not. However, what is meaningful to me is not whether it impacts my evaluations, I think, but again, reaching the students who might not fall into those majority groups and helping them see that some bias stuff may be going on and it’s not all in my head and that is impacting my experience, and there’s actual research behind that.

Rebecca: I can imagine that students in a math class don’t expect to talk about identity. Can you talk a little bit about the student response to some of these conversations that you’ve had with students.

Sarah: It varies. I find that students are more and more open to it. I’ve taught a lot of first-year classes. So as they go through first year, they’re more open to it. Because at first, they’re like, “I just need all the math and they find a big change between high school and university in terms of the contact hours. So like you’re wasting our time talking about this stuff. But by upper-year classes, they find it such a refreshing change, because they’ve been in so many math classes, where it’s just all content, content, content. A lot of lectures. And so I really didn’t react to any of that backlash. And it’s almost like a breath of fresh air. And another aspect of identity that I think has been meaningful, like, has maybe come very naturally, the idea of like, “Are you a math person?” …because that’s another type of identity that’s really common in our society. And even that, it certainly linked gender and race, but it’s something that isn’t directly gender or race. And so talking about how that fits into their identity has also been a key to unlocking more personal conversation and getting them to really reflect on themselves in a mathematics classroom. Yeah, and I think one of the keys is like having them watch a mathematician talk about their work and how their identity is linked to their work. And then they comment, for example, Perusall or something where they can annotate the text, and then they start to get involved in some conversations, I can bring those comments into class and then we can have some pretty dynamic conversations.

Rebecca: I can imagine teaching first-year students in math with a societal “I’m not a math person” problem. I know, I teach in art and design, so we have a lot of students that claim that identity, “I’m not a math person, I don’t do math,” and are afraid. Can you talk about some of the ways that you have reduced the fear, allowed people to see themselves as being math people, even though they’ve never seen themselves in that way? I know you’ve had some really interesting things that you’ve done.

Sarah: Yeah, I love reaching those people. And it’s a lot more difficult now in my job at a big university than it was when I was teaching at a liberal arts school, where all students are required to take a math course. So maybe I’ll talk a little bit about my experiences at the liberal arts school to start. So I was at Quest University Canada, a small school, about 500 to 700 students. It kind of started as an experiment. And so we are encouraged to do all sorts of things. And we had a lot of students who were so afraid, just as you describe, of their mathematics course. And they were putting it off, putting it off, putting it off. And I think one of the things that really traps them is the idea that everything has to build on the thing before and a lot of them got lost somewhere in early elementary school and they never recovered. And it was some sort of threat to their identity, probably some like quick quiz or something. Someone said something, and they were lost, forever. So it’s trying to show them that well, there’s actually parts of mathematics that math majors don’t see until their fourth year that you can do right now. And that’s usually how I try to approach it. So I think one of the things is just addressing that head on, talking about their experiences in mathematics and telling them we’re going to do something different. You’re not going to see numbers, you’re not going to see arithmetic even, this is going to be about shapes and space and ideas, and maybe even accessing points of connection with individual students. So I can give examples of particular projects if you’d like or particular courses.

Rebecca: I’d love to hear an example of a project.

Sarah: Sure. I’m a firm believer that the things that you think are going to be total train wrecks can either turn out to be the best things you’ve ever done or they could be trainwrecks. But definitely my best things have been the wild ideas. So I was teaching a course on mathematical creativity. And it was going to attract a lot of students that were totally afraid of math because they had to take it as part of a series of courses on creativity. So they got to take a social science course on creativity and a chemistry course on creativity. But they also had to take this, in their minds, terrible math course on creativity. So I was really excited to teach it. But how would you describe the feeling of creating something new in mathematics. And for me, and for most mathematicians, if you hear like these quotes about mathematics, they’re like mathematicians will say “math is like poetry. Math is like…” …they give all these analogies with very creative analogies. But most students don’t access that until graduate school, because there’s not this freedom of exploration. So I spend a lot of time just wondering, how do I feel creative? How do students feel creative? And it was really only on research that I felt really creative? So, how can I model research for students? So what I ultimately did was, I asked them, first of all, I didn’t tell them where we were going, cause there’s going to be a two-stage project centerpiece of this course. And first stage is you have to define something from geometry, but it can’t be like anything you’ve ever defined before. So one group defined, they called it like an ice cream cone shape. So it was a triangle with like a circle in it. And then we really worked on making their definition mathematically. So how does the triangle touch the circle, another group to defined a caterpillar shape in a precise way. And then the second part of the project, after they have their definition they couldn’t change was to discover as much about that object as they could. And they were only graded on how, on their journals, how much time they spent thinking about it, and how much they talk to other people. And I’m telling you, the ideas that these students had, and the level of mathematics that these totally math-phobic students did, was incredible. It was what I would expect from fourth-year students. And they were starting to use the word theorems and proofs. I said, you don’t have to prove anything, I just want you to like discover things, but they were coming to it naturally. And it was amazing. I could just gush about all the things that they did forever, like all of the discoveries that they made for themselves. And I still hear from these students about the impact that this project had from them, I don’t know, six or seven years ago now. So yeah, that’s one of my favorites. But at the time, I thought, Oh, this might go really poorly.

Rebecca: It’s amazing how the freedom to explore and discover can really open up the freedom to see yourself in a new way, or to be a researcher in a different way. As you were talking, I’m remembering an opportunity I had as an early faculty member workshop. And it was a multi-day workshop with mathematicians, and I was the non-mathematician, to help develop curriculum. And I had never hung out with math folks that much before. But it was really interesting. And we had really interesting conversations about creativity and the overlaps of our work that neither of us had recognized before. So it’s really interesting how those opportunities to have those conversations, whether with students or with colleagues can open up so many possibilities.

Sarah: Yeah, there’s so much and I’ve learned so much from my first year-students who are interested in some very diverse things, and they brought a lot to, like I was gonna say, my teaching, but like, also, just me personally, [LAUGHTER] I think they really enrich my life.

John: And you have taught some interesting classes, including a first-year seminar course in math and literature and poetry. And another one was women’s mathematics. Could you tell us a little bit about each of those classes and how you’ve used that to get students more engaged with math?

Sarah: Sure. So both of them are at the University of Toronto, I will probably do it as U of T at some point, which is not University of Texas for American listeners. And in part they were written to try to attract students who might not traditionally sign up for a math course, all of our first-year courses are massive at U of T, except for these first-year seminars, which are capped at, I think, 25. So really, students’ opportunity for a small class experience. So the math of literature and poetry, I think some of the seeds were planted, actually, by one of the students in that math creativity class. She was a poet, and she identified herself as a poet as a first-year student, and she was also very afraid of math, but she kept finding linkages. And she said, “You know, I think this can help me with my poetry.” And I am totally not a poetry person at all, or I certainly wasn’t, I’m maybe more now. And so that started to get me thinking about like, maybe if I combine math with like a poetry course, I could engage some other students. And she’s one of those students that I still talk to you and she just got her MFA in poetry and still using her math. So I talked to her actually, in developing this course. She helped me a little bit on the poetry side, also a key part in the math and literature and poetry is I had a TA from English because, again, I’m not a specialist. So I needed someone to help me and she was wonderful, a PhD student in literature. So I think another source of inspiration that was also integrated into it was that I had taught novels previously and seen how novels helped students relate to mathematicians or see themselves as mathematicians. I was just amazed at like how much empathy they had for the characters. So we read novels like about mathematicians, like the Housekeeper and the Professor, a really great Japanese novel in translation. And then there was mathematics from novels. So for example, one of our key novels, or a story, of the Library of Babel by Borges and you can actually ask, what is the shape of this library? What could the topology of it be in mathematical language? So then that was a key for investigating topology.

John: Was a library closed or open?

Sarah: Yeah, [LAUGHTER], exactly, that sort of question. We can start to narrow it down. So that was the math in literature and poetry course, in terms of content. The woman’s mathematics course is still kind of growing in my mind. It’s been in the works for a really long time. I just like us to center it almost like an experiential learning course, where the object of study was the university or like the mathematics in our university itself. And so as a result of both history and modern mathematics, and all sorts of things, I decided one of our units was going to be on data visualization, which is a little bit more number focus than I often have in first-year seminars, but people are often surprised that like Florence Nightingale was not just a friendly nurse, she was [LAUGHTER] an amazing data scientist. And she was really one of the first people to bring some of these amazing data visualizations, and she’s an amazing statistician, all these things. And there’s also a lot of women in this space currently. So their project was like, well take some data about the math department, maybe, or students in the math department and find an appropriate visualization for it. And they generated stuff that we really haven’t seen, like, what does it look like in our departments to have 13% woman faculty. You can say it all you want, but to actually see it with like the people, it is actually pretty startling to me. And then another project with that course, was we worked with a university archivist, and went into the university archives. So our university has a long and storied history, we hold ourselves up as a great research university. So we have many illustrious women in the past who have studied here, but people don’t know about them. And since I would say, we have a pretty bad situation with women in our department now, people kind of assume, after this archives project, I would go around and I would ask people, “When do you think the first woman president of the math student union was?” and people would say, “Oh, there’s never been a woman president. Like, are you kidding?” Because that’s the way it looks like now. But the answer is actually 1910 or something. And there were strong women, like way back when. And so students went to the University Archives, they looked at student records, they looked at faculty records, they looked at photos, and they told some stories from that. So that’s a project that’s gonna continue for a future class.

Rebecca: Sounds really interesting, and a great way to get students engaged with many different mathematical ideas, but also really engaged with this idea of identity related to disciplines.

Sarah: Yeah. And another thing that it did is it also helped them see themselves as part of the university because it was the first semester of the academic year, they were first-year students, and so it helped them see themselves as part of the community.

Rebecca: We don’t, in our curricula, look at the history of our university as part of what’s informing our work or informing the students. And so I can imagine that that’s a really unique kind of experience that could happen in any discipline, that would be a really interesting opportunity for students to just better understand their traditions that they’re coming out of.

Sarah: And I think our university archivist wants to work with classes, like they’re so excited to see, especially first year classes, get us to coming there and being part of that aspect of the university. I’m always a big fan of all of our librarians and I know that you guys are too,

Rebecca: You should see my notepad right now. It actually says “go see our archivist” because him and I had a conversation about a project we could do with my class. [LAUGHTER]

Sarah: Yeah, they’re wonderful.

John: Often, archivists are working in rooms all alone by themselves. And in fact, ours do work in the basement. And the opportunity to engage with students is good for them, as well as for students. That sounds like a really engaging project.

Rebecca: I’m ready to sign up for all of these classes. So I hope you have room.

Sarah: You are welcome to come and even speak and spread your wisdom, I would love that. [LAUGHTER]

John: Speaking of room… you also have taught some introductory calculus classes with up to 3000 students in them and you transformed them into an online environment along with a colleague during COVID. Could you tell us a little bit about how that course was structured and how it changed when you went to remote teaching?

Rebecca: It sounds so daunting.

Sarah: Oh, okay. So COVID for everyone has been really, really tough. And especially that I always have to go back and think what year was that? 2020 to 21 academic year…, everyone had it really, really tough. So we all like deserve, like hero badges or something, and I’m ready for a break. So I think we all need to catch up on our rest still from that. But I was fortunate because before the pandemic was on anyone’s radar, we had already arranged kind of a transition point in my job where I was going to be going from coordinating this gigantic introductory calculus class to not coordinating it. And the new coordinator, my colleague, Bernardo Galvao-Sousa, he was going to take over it. We were going to have a one year overlap, so he could kind of see how I did it and just like everything was gonna go normal and then he was gonna take over. So that overlap year was to be the 2020 to 21 academic year. So it was fortunate that we were both able to work on it, I don’t know how it would have happened otherwise. I had already been in a period of transforming this class, it had been basically the same from no one really knows, like, as far as anyone could remember, it had been the same. And I was basically brought on and hired at University of Toronto, to bring it to the 21st-century. So over the past three years before that, I had been changing it completely. And then, of course, we went online, which required it to be rethought because you can’t teach a course for 1000s of students the same way. So what was the course like before? Well, we have a lot of rules in our university for first-year courses, in that they have to have a midterm, they have to have a final exam worth a certain weight, there were three one-hour lectures a week, one one-hour tutorial, kind of the whole structure was pretty traditional. But I had been introducing some innovative projects, we were shaking things up in how we did them in tutorials. And the whole curriculum was really modernized. So I’ll give an example of one aspect of the course, the applied communication task, and how we transformed that aspect of the course, to put it online and still give students hopefully as good of an experiences as they could online. So applied communication tasks were this word project. So first semester, they were three separate projects, second semester it was one project, they were applied, and they were about mathematical communication. And I’m a big believer that I don’t really invent many new ideas, I just kind of like look at the needs of my students in my place and try to adapt things from elsewhere. So I had talked to every department that took my students after so this was like a calculus course for science students. And so they were going, the majority to life sciences, but they were also going to chemistry, they were going to physics, some are going to earth sciences. And then some are going to psychology and some at some other smaller departments, not smaller departments, but smaller portions are going to other departments. I guess economics was another big one. And I talked to them about like, what skills don’t students have that they should have from calculus? And one of the big themes was that students were afraid, they were just afraid to approach math in new context. So they could solve all the problems that were traditional, but they couldn’t if they saw a scientific paper, and there’s math, they were like, “I’m not familiar with this math, what do I do?” So I really took that as inspiration like, well, we should have students do that very thing. So as an aside, I put questions like that in exams, like, you know, take problems from scientific papers, give them information and put them on exams. But then also, in the second semester, have them find a scientific paper that has a mathematical model. And ultimately, the goal is to communicate something about that scientific model. Now, what form should that communication be in? Well, one common form that scientists use is a scientific poster. And the advantage of that is that it could be kind of an event, it can be kind of a grand finale for the course in tutorials. So we had a bunch of mini-poster sessions with about 100 students each. And so each of the posters presented models. They got into groups, kind of halfway through the semester, they combined some of their papers, but that took them through the experience of talking to a librarian and having to deal with databases. It got them through finding what’s important and what’s not. Well, I don’t understand… really this is way over my head in terms of math… what can I say from this model, and so all those skills like that, and then also the kind of communication. And it also combined oral communication where they have to talk about their poster and written communication, they had to write about their poster and they really worked on different drafts of different parts of their poster, and they have to read. First semester, the projects prepare them for that. They had a project that was focused on written communication, that was writing a proposal to their city council based on population projections from their hometown. They had a reading task and that’s changed a little bit over the years. So that’s what it was. What we did online is we basically kept the same projects, except instead of having the sprinkled in the tutorial, like every second or third tutorial was about the project, now we knew that they’re at home, they do not have any resources, any people around, we really need to make these be focused tutorial and make the structure very, very, very clear. Because otherwise, this really complex project is just gonna get completely confusing. We structured the first semester in that the first three tutorials were focused on writing. And the second three tutorials were focused on reading. And the third three tutorials were focused on oral communication. And then within that, the first tutorial had the same structure, the second tutorial had the same structure. And the third tutorial had the same structure. So they kind of had something much more predictable. And there was like a lot more evenness, and we didn’t try to give them as many skills as we did in the in-person, we cut down the expectations, we trimmed as much as possible. And then something similar in the second semester, we trimmed a lot, we focused a lot, we didn’t aim as high on the exams, in terms of all of those questions from scientific papers. We didn’t have exams, instead of exams, we had three different types of quizzes, the fun type was reflection quizzes, which had them reflect on their learning sometimes, or maybe conduct some sort of experiment at home, and then use that and make a model or something to like, go on a walk, this was in the deep COVID In the fall of 2020. And so like go on a walk, if you can’t go on a walk outside, go on a walk around your house and find something to model. So some people are modeling bird chirps or whatever. And then you create your own scientific models. And if you have two to three thousand students spread around the world, obviously, cheating is a huge concern. So we tried as much as possible to make it interesting. And for me, like, yes, academic integrity is big, but it was the perception of academic integrity amongst the students. Like we really wanted to keep them engaged.

John: So how did you assess and evaluate all those quizzes? Did you have a large team of TAs?

Sarah: We had very limited TA hours actually. So I think that’s another part of big course stuff that we don’t talk about a lot. It’s actually something I’ve been writing about, I’m just not sure where to send it because we don’t talk about it. It’s like management, like how do you manage a large organization? So we have about 50 people. How do you distribute your resources, and we have very limited resources. So we wanted to do these quizzes, we want to them very well, we have very few TAs and we still wanted TAs to teach tutorials. What are we gonna do? So what we ended up doing is redistributed our instructor resources. And normally students would be in classes of 200 in person. And we had them in classes of 400 online, because we figured the difference between an online class of 200 and an online class of 400 was not going to make a big difference. And technology, I can go into all the technological challenges. Now, the technology is all there. But August 2020, breakout rooms for this large of groups, impossible. So we had to do all these Zoom, and it’s crazy stuff. That’s how we managed is we had instructors who were like just in charge of quizzes. And that’s how we did it. And then every third quiz was kind of the automatically graded kind.

Rebecca: I think it’s important to bring up some of these logistics or project management skills the faculty have to have, especially when coordinating such big courses. And I appreciate that you’re sharing some of those things, because you’re right, we don’t talk about it. Just like we don’t talk about those same experiences that we have as young female faculty in the classroom or whatever kind of identities that impact our experiences.

Sarah: Exactly. Yeah. And both of these are the things that really keep me awake at night. It’s not the actual teaching, it’s the “How am I going to possibly grade?” [LAUGHTER] Or like, “How can I negotiate with my chair for more hours per students?” Or “What are you going to do with that one TA who’s behaving inappropriately with students?” It’s all of these extra things. Very, very, very different if you’re doing even a class to 500 versus a class of a few 1000 is quite different because you can’t see it all.

Rebecca: Yeah, managing an equitable experience is a really different kind of thing. It just keeps scaling up. So finding that equity piece is a challenge.

John: But it is impressive that you did those reflection quizzes at that scale, because that’s something I’ve wanted to do, but have been a little reluctant to do in a class of 400 that I teach in the fall. And now this is suggesting maybe I should do some of that. [LAUGHTER] Providing the feedback is the main concern that I have.

Sarah: Yeah, well, I think for gigantic classes. I don’t know however, we defined gigantic, like I guess gigantic versus the thing that you want to do. It’s often like what’s really the priority here and then what can you sacrifice, like, there’s always going to have to be a sacrifice. So I can’t provide the same feedback on a quiz to a group of 2,000 students as I can for a group of 20 students, or the classes that I had this year were in the low hundreds. And I can’t provide them the level of feedback that I had like on everything. But using peer feedback can be helpful, or just explaining to them, I can’t provide you feedback on this. If you want more feedback, you’re going to have to seek it, which is hard I know and not ideal. However, these are the things that we face, or just like deciding that the grading scale is going to be really generous and loose. I experimented this last semester in class of like 300-ish students with not ungrading, but more this [LAUGHTER] direction, letting them determine a lot more of their achievement levels, trusting them to say, “Oh, yes, I have mastered this actually.”

Rebecca: Well, now you’ve piqued our interest and we need to know more about it.

Sarah: Yeah, like, I’m still kind of thinking about how to describe it or characterize it because I started off with a structure. And then I really let the semester go on and adjusted as I saw my students change and as I changed myself. So I don’t have a lot of eloquent ways to discuss it. This is a upper-year course for group theory. And I wanted to do a lot of things that I just didn’t have the resources for. So I had to make a lot of tough decisions. And also, we are in a super grade-intensive university. And by the time they’re in like, third year, this is so ingrained in their mind. And this particular course has a very high percentage of international students, probably over 80% international students. And in my university, I think that they tend to be more concerned about grades because they have to be and somehow, just like not giving them grades on anything. [LAUGHTER] Like saying, “Okay, you’ve either mastered this, or you’re excellent on this, or you’re not there yet” was really difficult at first, a lot of them dropped the course immediately, because they didn’t understand it. They were like, “what percentage is this?” And I’m like, “Well, there is no percent.” “Well, is it 100?” I think they did not understand the concept of it at all. So I wanted to focus on oral skills, and oral skills are so hard to assess. But I want to give them the opportunity to develop their oral skills, I didn’t really want to assess them as much as I wanted to make sure that they were speaking about math and they were talking about math to other people. They could reattempt any assignment they wanted. So, they did a test, they could show me that they had actually learned the material on the test. But they had to talk to other people about it, they had to demonstrate they had spoken to other people, a lot of the main things like videos, and one group organized a mini conference on the topics for the weekend. They did a lot of amazing thing as a result of this. And the TAs provided very targeted feedback. So we’ve provided feedback on the skills that we knew students needed feedback on. So, they needed feedback on particular cognitive skills that they were not able to assess, like research has shown that they are not able to assess their own proofs, or students are not able to provide that same feedback. That’s what we assess. But we didn’t bother assessing things we didn’t care about.

Rebecca: It’s an interesting way of thinking about it. I know that I also was experimenting a little bit with ungrading this past semester, and also found that international students are the most like, “I don’t know what this means.”

Sarah: [LAUGHTER] Yeah, you have to just admit, sometimes, you don’t really understand it. Also a good opportunity for discussion for students, and talking about what that means when we don’t really understand.

Rebecca: Yeah, I think it’s good to model that.

John: We always end with the question, what’s next?

Sarah: Well, I just submitted my tenure file two days ago.

Rebecca: YAY!

Sarah: So I need to catch up on a couple of things, but then rest. I have not had a good opportunity since the beginning [LAUGHTER] of the pandemic, so I think that that’s going to be my answer. Yeah. [LAUGHTER]

John: That sounds like a wonderful plan. [LAUGHTER]

Rebecca: And great advice for everybody listening. [LAUGHTER] We can all use a little rest.

Sarah: We all need that reminder.

John: And we should note that this is the first time that Rebecca and I have recorded in the same room since March of 2020. So this is sort of a return to normalcy for us.

Rebecca: Yeah. So it was nice to share this experience with you, Sarah.

Sarah: Yeah, it was so nice to talk to both of you and to see you together. [LAUGHTER] So, I know that listeners can’t see you, but I have enjoyed seeing you and speaking with you.

Rebecca: Well, thanks so much for joining us. Thank you


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

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