342. Infographics

When papers and projects are due at the end of the term, students often procrastinate even when the projects are carefully scaffolded. In this episode, Michelle Kukoleca Hammes joins us to discuss how a series of infographic assignments, combined with peer and instructor feedback, provide an engaging and productive learning experience. Michelle is an associate professor of political science and a CETL Fellow for the Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning at St. Cloud State University.

Show Notes


John: When papers and projects are due at the end of the term, students often procrastinate even when the projects are carefully scaffolded. In this episode, we discuss how a series of infographic assignments combined with peer and instructor feedback provide an engaging and productive learning experience.


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 Michelle Kukoleca Hammes. Michelle is an associate professor of political science and a CETL Fellow for the Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning at St. Cloud State University. Welcome, Michelle.

Michelle: Hi. Nice to be here.

John: We’re looking forward to talking to you. Today’s teas are:… Michelle, are you drinking tea?

Michelle: I am. I don’t always drink tea, but I made sure this morning I did. And so I’m actually just drinking a green tea, a milk tea. It’s not quite as good as others I’ve had. I have a colleague from Wales who makes the best green tea, but it’s good this morning.

John: …and Rebecca?

Rebecca: I have a Hunan Noir Tea, which is very tasty.

John: You left out the Pinot.

Rebecca: I know. [LAUGHTER]

John: Okay. And my tea is a black raspberry green tea.

Michelle: Sounds nice.

Rebecca: So we’ve invited you here today, Michelle, to discuss how you’ve been using infographic assignments in your online comparative politics classes. When you first started teaching this course, what kinds of assignments did you use?

Michelle: I use a variety of assignments. I’ve been teaching this course for 27 years now. And then this is mainly for my intro level comparative course. But I’ve adapted it for upper levels too, so mainly traditional assays early on. As I moved to the online environment, I would still have them do a major paper of a country study. And so pretty traditional assignments for the most part, but I wanted to make some changes for the online environment especially.

John: So what made you decide to change to infographics?

Michelle: Well, a few things. One is I felt that students were doing these papers that were quite lengthy in their country studies, and they would turn them in at the end of the semester. And we never really had a chance to talk about the elements of them in depth prior to that. And so I really wanted to change that. So it wasn’t just the end of the semester. And they weren’t sharing them with each other, because of the format of them as just being a lengthy paper, it wasn’t the kind of thing that they would be interested in exchanging with each other. And then frankly, I was getting a little bored, [LAUGHTER] the format, not so much the content or their insights, but the format just became very boring. We all know that when you’re working with one individual paper, it can be really exciting to have that dialogue with the student. But when you have a stack of papers, it suddenly becomes too daunting. And so I was just looking for a way to make us all happier, actually.

Rebecca: That sounds like a good motivation. [LAUGHTER] Can you talk a little bit about what the infographic assignment is?

Michelle: So I will talk about in terms of that intro level comparative politics class. One of the things that there’s not time to do in any semester is to really cover every country in the world, obviously. First of all, I wanted to make sure that students could pick their own country that they have an interest in, and that would broaden the number of countries we would cover. And then I switched it to infographic for the online component because there were a few things I wanted to do with it. One is to retain the goals I had in mind for them learning about a country. But also then I wanted to tie in some best practices for online presence in the classroom, for example. My discussions, I was also unsatisfied at the beginning, we learn as we go along, and my discussions tended to also be maybe a little stale, or I’d throw out a question and I would get very similar answers from everybody. They were going back to the textbook and giving me something rather than being creative or energetic in their own answers. And so the way the infographic works is I have about 10 through the semester that they have to do. And so it’s basically breaking up the country study into smaller pieces, so that they have different topics as we go along the different topics in the class. And then before they submit them to me, they submit them into the discussion for the appropriate week. And that way, all the other students can see them, it gives them a lot of different skills. One is that they are able to critique other people’s work, they are gaining more knowledge about a variety of countries. It allows them to practice skills on their own in terms of working together. So I don’t see these always as only individual assignments, although that’s how they’re graded, but kind of a group work assignment that they can all enhance each other. And so there were a lot of ways in which I wanted to bring different elements into the same assignment, particularly because I didn’t want to have to think of how to bring these elements in and do different assignments for each thing I wanted to bring into the classroom. Having one assignment that was consistent really helped them.

Rebecca: It sounds like by having a consistent assignment, you do have to learn how to do the assignment over and over again, that part of it is covered. You do it one time and then it’s clear how to do the assignment and then you can focus on the content and the material.

Michelle: Yeah, exactly. And one of the other things is, unlike just having one country study at the end, there was a lot more formative assessment that could go into it. So exactly that, where we’re able to help build skills up early on. Some of the content early on is pretty simple. The first one is making an infographic about the demographics of the country. And so it’s pretty simple, but it allows them to get the first skills if they’ve never used, for example, Canva, or other programs that allow them to make an infographic. So they get their feet wet with that. It allows them to think about how to communicate in a different way other than a paper, because I also began to think about my intro level students who many would become political science majors, but many wouldn’t. And so in a course that they were using for general education, they’re not going to be writing political science research papers. And so allowing them in different ways to express themselves I felt was another skill that they could bring.

Rebecca: It was nice to see this scaffolding, separating out some of the technical skills from the content, because often we’re doing all of those things at once. And it sometimes can be unclear whether or not it’s a technical skill that is lacking or the lack of understanding of something. So separating those out of it really does seem like it would help have a clearer sense of where students are. And, as we know, [LAUGHTER] if you try to ask students to do too many things in one bigger assignment, then certain things end up edited out. And that might be the thing that was really critical. So it’s nice to have those separate assignments to focus in on those.

Michelle: Yeah, exactly. And I really enjoy the fact that, rather than focusing on grading a long paper, I’m able to go through that process with them. And then also in discussions, it gives me so many opportunities to re-teach something. So if I’m noticing in someone’s infographic that they’ve made an error, or they have a misunderstanding of a concept we’re working with, then all the students in the class can see me correcting that and doing it in a gentle way, that seems a little bit less high stakes for students that because it is just this one assignment, and I’m making this one little correction here, but I think it benefits everybody.

John: So for those students who haven’t done much work with infographics or with graphics in general, do you provide any instructions or recommendations to them? You mentioned Canva, do most students use that? Or is it a mix of tools?

Michelle: They usually do end up using Canva, because that is one of the tools that I put in the directions. And so I have quite lengthy directions in terms of guiding them through accessing technology, allowing them to know that they can use various different technologies, depending on their accessibility to them. There are some really great programs that of course, cost money or pro versions. But I let them know that for our purposes, they can certainly just download a free version of a program. They could really even do it in the Microsoft Office Suite in a variety of ways if that’s where their skills lie. And of course, that’s something that all the students have access to on campus. And so I do get them lengthy directions, they’re not all my directions. I don’t feel like I need to reinvent the wheel. So I just include several videos from YouTube that talk about how to use Canva. And those are sufficient and actually probably better than I can do. And so I put those out there with other directions, I give them alternatives. And then of course, if they’re still stuck, then they can always work through it with me. We can have a Zoom meeting where they pull up their materials, and we work on putting it together.

Rebecca: You mentioned that students were sharing infographics with each other, it sounded like maybe through a learning management system or something. Can you talk a little bit more about what that sharing looks like and the kind of feedback that students are giving one another.

Michelle: So the learning management system we use here is D2L Brightspace, and there is of course, like in most learning management systems, there’s that built in discussion feature, so I just use what’s already there. I don’t mind using third-party applications., but it just tends to make things trickier. So I just use the discussion. Have them post it right to the discussion, and have them use the discussion tools, whether it be just typing in or using some audio or other tools to give feedback to each other. And I find that the discussions are so much more lively. Even more than I expected. The first time I used it, it was for a summer class and I thought “okay, I’m gonna try this now because it’s summer, and no one wants to be sitting writing a 20-page paper in summer. What am I going to do?” So I put it out there for the summer class and I thought, Okay, well, maybe they’re busy with other things or they’ve got excitement in their own life over the summer or they’re working a lot of hours. I had never had such lengthy discussions go on in any class before that. They really enjoyed looking at each other’s work rather than just from me. Many of the students chose countries that reflect an interest they have, maybe it’s somewhere that they’re actually from, although I usually try to encourage them to broaden a little bit. But that also brings such a benefit to the rest of the students. So we do have students who do that. I have students who maybe have gone on vacation somewhere or have a family connection somewhere, I’ve had some that have been stationed in the military, and come back, and they want to talk about what they noticed when they were there, so they put a lot of that in the infographics. I found just use the basic tool, but allow it to be opened up for them. And I also try in discussion, and I do this even in other discussions that I have online, because I usually try to hang back for the first bit, quite a bit. I allow that to be organic. And then I’ll go in and make sometimes just a summary of everything that’s been said or things that I need to correct. So that it’s not simply another lesson from me. But I have that ability to correct when I need to.

John: You mentioned the first infographic assignment had them work with demographic data and display that, to what extent are these assignments tied to the specific course work that you’re doing during each of the 10 assignments?

Michelle: For most of those 10, they’re directly tied to the material for the week. So for example, the textbook will have a chapter where we’re talking about government structures, presidential systems, parliamentary systems, et cetera. And so the infographic for that week will be directly related. So they’re going to do an infographic laying out the government structure. And then another module will be on political parties and how they work in various parts of the world. And so it’ll be directly tied to: “So show me your country, and show me the main political parties in your country. Tell me what their main ideology is. Tell me who’s in power now… which party? And what does that mean for the policies that get put forward?” Another one would be one on current events, the last one that they do is: “Well, what’s going on there now? …and “With everything you know about your country now, what do you predict for the future for them? How do you think they’re gonna solve this?” So a little bit more policy oriented… also, “look at what they’re actually doing in terms of legislation and implementation.” And I also do one… I don’t use the textbook anymore, but it’s something I used years ago that I retained the content in a module, which is to look at the concerns of any country in terms of every country’s concern with prosperity, security, and stability. And so I asked them to just put out an infographic that asks them to assess threats to those things, and looking at their country. And so it’s a little bit on the current events side, but it’s focused for them in terms of every country needs to be aware of its security… what’s happening?

Rebecca: You’ve hinted that students are really engaged in these assignments because of discussion forums. But can you elaborate on just the general sense of what students have been able to accomplish by shifting to this format, and also their engagement with one another?

Michelle: I think, several things, some of which I’ve mentioned. So the formative assessment part, I think they gain a lot from not just getting comments at the end of the semester, oftentimes handed in that last week. And then, frankly, I don’t expect that every student has even read my comments at that point. So just having the opportunity to fully engage throughout the entire semester, and so we’re not also dealing with, “Oh, I have three days before this paper is due. So let me think about it today, make a plan to think about it more tomorrow, [LAUGHTER] and then maybe I’ll do it the next day before it’s actually due.” And not that that’s all students, but I know when I was an undergrad that happened to me. So I think that just slowing them down, allowing them space to actually think about their country in multiple ways, and not have it be “Okay, we’re all working to doing your own country study at the end of the semester,” but having them actually engaged the whole time, I think is of great benefit to them. And I think they learn a lot more. I think that taking it in these smaller chunks, actually has made them research a little bit deeper on each of the topics because they’re not overwhelmed with “Okay, I’ve got all of these topics now to cover in this country study.” And so they tend to just do it in a way that is most efficient for them, let’s say. And so I think this gives them that way to back up a little bit and actually enjoy the process of learning rather than the process of an assignment only.

John: I think you’ve made a really good point there about students’ tendency to procrastinate. I was thinking back to when I was an undergraduate, and actually a graduate student as well. And I can’t recall a single time when I didn’t start writing the paper the day before it was due. I spent a lot of time gathering materials, taking notes, and organizing and putting an outline together, but the writing generally took place in just one day. So, [LAUGHTER] this is forcing students to engage in a little bit more spaced practice, to engage with the material regularly, and I think there’s a lot of benefits over that rather than the traditional way of just rushing through and getting it done right before it’s due.

Michelle: Yeah, exactly. And I’ve adopted that in other classes too, the idea of doing a lot of prewriting throughout the semester. So I’m a big believer in the prewriting process, and it’s very valuable, and it is doing work. But when I mentioned earlier, sort of they spend the day thinking about it, I’m thinking more of myself as an undergraduate thinking about not the assignment, but thinking about the fact I have to do an assignment.[LAUGHTER] So it’s more anxiety, not so much productive work on the content of what I’m doing. And so yeah, the prewriting work for any assignment is really great. So I’ve been trying to shift that mindset. I also teach a research methods course in my department and I teach our senior seminar. And so the senior seminar, especially, just making it about an entire semester-long process, I think, has taken a lot of pressure off of them. They seem a little relieved by the end, it’s not as daunting,

Rebecca: It definitely seems like it deepens the study and the engagement, not just because it’s broken into smaller pieces, but because it’s a consistent country the whole time and because it’s a consistent kind of assignment the whole time, it really provides a structure to be able to do that. I’m curious whether or not any of your other colleagues have also shifted to doing assignments in this format, or other similar kinds of strategies.

Michelle: I can’t really say. I know that in my department, we’ve talked about them a lot. And so I think people are adapting parts of them. I don’t think anybody does it the full way that I’ve described in terms of the full semester, but we have talked about just different ways of communicating. I think that’s going to shift again, obviously, AI is something that everybody is grappling with how to best use. So I think there’ll be some shifts coming. But I can tell you that I was Interim Director of the Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning, and now I’m a faculty fellow there. And I’ve talked to a lot of people across campus, and some of our off-campus partnerships about this assignment, because I get really excited about it. If you haven’t noticed, this is my favorite thing. And so I’ve talked to a lot of people, and I just can’t be sure how many have actually applied some of these things. But they certainly seem interested, and they’re certainly searching out the same types of things I was searching out: how to make things, first of all, more authentic for the students, how to engage the students more with themselves in an asynchronous class or with other students. Even in a synchronous class or on-the-ground class, you could still have the same assignments. You might want to introduce them differently, you might want the discussions to take place in the classroom, rather than obviously online, because you could engage in person that way. So you can do kind of a round robin around the room, maybe… any of those techniques. But I also let the students know that, for them, they will become a mini expert by the end on that particular country. So they should all understand the topic areas but. becoming an expert on the individual countries that’s all their own. And so I hope that colleagues, no matter what field they’re in, can find some way to utilize that. Otherwise, they’re probably just a little sick of hearing me talk about it. [LAUGHTER]

John: Speaking of fellow faculty, has anyone else shifted to using infographics at your institution as a result of your work with us?

Michelle: Yeah, I can’t be quite sure. But I do think that in talking to a lot of faculty that they are shifting modes of communication for students, and I have talked to people who are much more expert at creating infographics themselves. You can do it very, basically, but you can also get really creative and high level with it. And so I oftentimes collect infographics I see for other fields, so I share those with faculty. I’m not sure. It’s one of those things that I so appreciate a podcast like this because sometimes teaching can be a lonely endeavor. We’re a little bit maybe shy about sharing what we do, because we’re afraid it’s not measuring up necessarily to what others are doing. So it’s a good question, though, and I think that that’s something that maybe I want to engage… maybe in a workshop in the future on campus and bringing faculty in and seeing who’s doing this type of thing, or maybe another brand new idea that’s even better.

Rebecca: I think one question that often comes up from faculty when we’re talking about kind of alternative formats or unessays or other [LAUGHTER] ways of not necessarily doing a more traditional essay kind of assignment, is how you evaluate the work. So I wonder if you can talk a little bit about how you’re evaluating these assignments, just to give faculty a sense of what that might look like and what that feels like in comparison to a more traditional kind of assignment?

Michelle: Yes, that’s a great question. I’ve talked in many ways about why I did these assignments in terms of just making it a more engaging process. But in terms of measurable, assessable goals, I do use rubrics, and have laid out exactly what skills I’m assessing. So I do have a section of the rubric that is based on the skills of communication. I have a very low stakes, low number line for things just like visual engagement, because I don’t want it to be students worried about the visual engagement when they need to learn the political science concepts. but I want to let them know that that’s important. So I have in the rubric descriptions in each of the columns about visually engaging: Does it bring the reader in? Is it easy to read? So I have that skill section, I have a section specifically on the content itself: Do they understand the concepts? Are they using the language that we use in political science? And then I also have sections for pretty typical traditional looking at their writing and seeing if it’s appropriate writing levels, tell them take a look at other people’s infographics… go out in the world and look at the bottom, there will be the sources, you need to include those, you need to not leave those off. So even practice that they would get in papers about citing things, if they put a graph in, you still have to say where this graph came from. So the practice that they would normally get are the same skills. And so I just lay it out in a rubric for them, as I do with most of my assignments. Of course, the rubric is not secret to the students, that goes out with the very first assignment: this is what you should be looking for. I’m going to use it for grading, you can simply use it as a checklist. You can use it to evaluate other students and give them feedback and tell them where you think there could be improvement. And so I think that the assessment itself is pretty typical to what I would normally do when thinking about an assignment: What are my goals for the course? How does this assignment help to meet those goals? And then how do I convey to the students whether or not they’re meeting those goals? Or essentially where they’re at in the process of becoming expert in that goal.

John: Do you use one rubric for all the assignments? Or are there separate ones for each of the infographic assignments?

Michelle: So I’m a big believer in constructing the outline once and then using it, but having different content in it. And so I use the same basic rubric for each of the assignments. And then I give the feedback in that content area really is the main portion. In the content area, I will make some changes to what they need to do specific for that assignment. So if it’s political parties, I would have expectations about what types of things they’d understand about political parties. And so that will change but my basic outline of what that looks like. And I’m a big believer in that kind of consistency in everything. So I can tell you I do that also with just how I set up the modules. And so my modules always have the same outline. There’s an intro with the learning outcomes for that specific module: what can you expect to learn this week, then the section with textbook readings. So this is what you’re going to dig into and read in a very traditional way. Then there’s a whole separate content section, which might be a video I’ve created, it might be videos that I found online that they should be engaging in. And then I usually have a pre-test and post-test quiz, and then the assignment for the week. And in this case, always associated with that assignment discussion. And then always at the end, I have a section, another discussion, which is I just call “Ask the professor,” And it’s another space for it. I always have to tell them every time I put the same heading and I say, “Don’t ask personal questions here, [LAUGHTER] but if you have a question that everyone can benefit from on the topic this week.” So that’s just an example of how I feel that it just makes it easier for me to focus on what’s in each of those boxes, rather than recreating the format. And I think students really take a lot of comfort in knowing after a couple of week: this is the rhythm, this is what I’m expected to do. And so now they’re focused on different content, but they don’t have to relearn a different set of skills. So going back to your question about the rubric, and is it the same? I do that because then they get used to what skills they’re bringing, and then they can hone that same skill over time, they can go back and look at their rubric grading and see their improvement over time. And I’m also a liberal user of the comment section on rubrics. I know that a lot of people tout rubrics for the time-saving part of it. So oh, you can check these boxes, and it makes it easier. And there’s some of that. But I can’t stop myself from also than opening up that box and just writing a ton of things to them. So I think that, again, it’s one of those things where the rubric itself becomes a really good outline. And then it’s just a matter of what I choose to put into my grading when I do the rubric.

Rebecca: High structure is always helpful for folks, that’s for sure.

Michelle: That’s very reassuring.

Rebecca: I feel like there’s a story behind why infographics as opposed to something else. What led you to infographics as opposed to some other alternative format?

Michelle: So like I said, I’ve been at this 27 years, so maybe I’m just getting old, but I feel myself saying in my head: “Well, kids nowadays don’t have the attention span for writing a 20-page paper.” And that’s not necessarily true. But as I talked about before, maybe they just have to be taken through that process. It can’t be just one big thing. And that was long before the internet, people talking about decreased attention spans. But I do think there’s something to matching up with the way in which they use visuals in their daily life. So they utilize memes, they look at infographics in various formats, I find a lot of them in social media in different areas. So I try to structure discussions in a way that is very much like the way they’re already engaging on social media. So yeah, the story is really how could I find a way that it’s something that their mind is already used to, that they can then apply it in this way. And also the other story, my husband is the County Administrator here in our county. And so I was in his office one day, I was the Assistant County Administrator and I was in his office one day and from the League of Minnesota cities, they had an infographic, a stack of them on the front table about: what does county government do? And that was really the last push I needed because it was so well done. And I thought, “Okay, this is what we need, people need to understand what levels of government do.” People often come to the county with situations that have nothing to do with what counties are actually able to do for them, and so what does your county do? What can it do for you? And I just thought, “How brilliant is that? To put it in that way.” And so I just really was sold on on the idea that infographics can really be fairly deep teaching, if they’re done well. We get so used to the academy and everything has to be these long papers, but rather than bemoaning the fact that the attention span has gone away, I’m just finding a way to adapt to that. So how do students engage with each other? And let’s make that happen.

John: And I would imagine students are more likely in the future to be creating infographics than they are to be writing 20-page papers unless they’re going on to graduate study.

Michelle: Yes, absolutely. That was the other part of it is that this wasn’t really authentic… the 20 page paper… particularly in that intro, liberal education, general education course. That was not authentic to what they were going to be doing. And I felt that in political science, if they were going to be political science majors, they would get that deep research component in other courses and upper-level courses in their capstone. And so I felt that it wasn’t necessary to put them through a 20-page paper. And the reason I keep saying 20 pages is because I realized that the amount of content you need in the country study is pretty lengthy to really understand the country, and so it really was about 20 pages, I just felt that that wasn’t engaging to people, no one was engaging each other with a 20-page paper. And so it had to be something that you could look at more quickly, you have to have the skill of condensing the material, you really had to be really pithy with how you were presenting the material so that someone can get it in a very quick way. And so I feel that allowed them to engage. And then even if you assigned a student to engage with another student’s 20-page paper, pair them off, have them do peer evaluation, they weren’t going to do more than one at that length. Maybe if you cut it down to a 10-page paper, you could have them have a group where they exchange it among three or four people, but that’s still not as big as I’m able to get by having everybody in a class post their infographics so that you can all see huge variety of work in the span of scrolling through normal social media. And of course, I’m asking to do a little bit more, but in some ways, it’s almost that they don’t even notice that part of it because they’re just scrolling through and saying: “oh…” Comments that I get most on the first assignment have to do with “Oh, I’m so glad you chose to do that country, I’ve always wanted to go there. Have you ever been? …because it looks so interesting.” So it doesn’t start out as this deep political discussion. But because of those comments in the first week, I’m convinced of the engagement that starts to come from it. One part that I didn’t mention is I also put in the directions, that if they want to add something, like a fun fact, about the country on any of these infographics, they should, and I’m surprised at how many students then choose to do that on every single one of the infographics at the bottom. There’s a fun fact. And I’ve been amazed by what they’ve come up with. There are things that I don’t know about these countries. I thought, “this is fun.” So I do think that students take to it, they want to show other students their country, they want to say, “Hey, I learned this thing. Isn’t this cool?” And then I get to learn things I didn’t know.

Rebecca: Sounds like a great way to build community and to have a first interaction with a discipline, which sometimes can be off putting. And this sounds like a really positive way to get people interested in a discipline as well.

Michelle: Yeah, I think so, and I hope so. I hope that that does make students more likely to maybe take an upper level, look at us as a minor or major. And I will say, talking so positively about this assignment, because it’s worked so well. But I can also talk to you in a podcast about all the assignments that haven’t worked well, that I don’t get this excited about, that I can’t say were this level of success. And so when we were talking about coming on the podcast, I wanted to highlight this one, because of course, it’s the success. I wanted to show what has actually worked. But, of course, there’s a lot of ones that haven’t. So I do feel that I’ve hit on something here that can be very useful, that I’ve been really satisfied with, and my students seem to be really satisfied with.

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

Michelle: So that is a great question. I’ve been thinking about that for a while. How do I take this to the next level? So I think one thing that’s next is sharing this out more. We’ve talked a few times about looking at other faculty and seeing if they would adopt something similar to this. So I think that’s one aspect. I think another aspect is to just continue to refine the assignment in a way that gets the most student engagement. I’d also like to see these assignments, if we can have them maybe printed for my asynchronous online classes. This particular class I teach mainly online now, I rarely teach it in the classroom another colleague has those sections. And so, right now, it’s simply archived either as the students own individual file, or in D2 L. And so I’d like to think about ways in which maybe we can archive them, maybe print out them in poster form and have them in the department so that people can maybe again, engage, get interested, a student walking by who’s not in political science who’s hanging out in the hallway waiting for their next class to begin, and starts reading the stuff on the walls and start saying, “Oh, that’s kind of interesting,” and maybe starts to get engaged. So looking at it outside of the particular classroom, I think would be a really exciting way to go with it.

John: Well, thank you. I’ve really enjoyed hearing more about these assignments. And I think it’s something that could work in many disciplines.

Michelle: Yeah, I hope so. And exciting for me would be now to sit back and kind of watch what other people do with it. And oh, okay. I hadn’t thought of that. That’s really cool. That’s always the most exciting part for me from the CETL angle is really just seeing how people take off with something in a way that I wouldn’t expect. And it’s been a pleasure talking with both of you.

Rebecca: I always love a good conversation about interesting assignments. So thanks for chatting with us and sharing in depth how the assignments work over the course of the semester.

Michelle: You’re welcome. My pleasure.


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.

Ganesh: Editing assistance by Ganesh.


341. Learning Losses

The transition to remote instruction during the COVID19 pandemic resulted in dramatic learning losses. In this episode, Peace Bransberger joins us to discuss a report that analyzes the extent and persistence of these learning losses. She is the Interim Director, Programs and Evidence, Policy Analysis and Research, and Programs and Services at WICHE, the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education.

Show Notes


John: The transition to remote instruction during the COVID19 pandemic resulted in dramatic learning losses. In this episode, we discuss a report that analyzes the extent and persistence of these learning losses.


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 Peace Bransberger. She is the Interim Director, Programs and Evidence, Policy Analysis and Research, and Programs and Services at WICHE, the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education. Welcome, Peace.

Peace: Thank you.

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

Peace: I have drank tea and I ended my tea drinking portion of my day with a Trader Joe’s maple espresso tea.

Rebecca: That sounds interesting.

John: I’ve had some of their teas, but I’ve never had that one.

Rebecca: It sounds energizing.

Peace: Yeah, it’s a black tea, has a bit of a smokish coffee kind of impact from the espresso.

Rebecca: Interesting. That’s a new one. I don’t think we’ve had that one yet.

John: No, we haven’t. [LAUGHTER] Well, I have an old one here, a spring cherry green tea in the hopes that we will see spring here. We had a lot of snow in the past week. We’re recording this, we should note, in late March.

Rebecca: I have a Lady Grey today.

John: The Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education is focused primarily on post-secondary education, yet you issued a report which is titled “Navigating Learning Loss and Changing Demographics in Education” in February of this year. Could you tell us a little bit about why you had this focus on learning losses in elementary and secondary education?

Peace: Well, so my organization goes by the acronym, WICHE, you had it correct. We’re a Higher Education Commission. And one of the things we’re known for on the research side of things, because we do a whole bunch of other things to support the 15 Western states and then outlying Pacific territories, higher education systems, and one of the types of research that we’re known for our projections of the number of high school graduates. It goes under the long-standing title of “Knocking at the College Door,” and the projection of the number of high school graduates so that state and institutional planners can strategize around overall student flow trends. We last issued the update to that 40 year ongoing research in 2020, when COVID was first raging, and we issue these projections roughly every four to five years. So we’re in a prep year right now. As part of my job, and being the lead on the network, I am always monitoring K-12 trends data. So we’ll have a heads up about whether something would be monumentally different in the space of high school graduation. And as a result of what I was seeing, we decided in February to issue the report, kind of a summary brief, because the data were compounding and resoundingly indicating that yes, something is currently different, and might continue to be different about high schoolers, and younger K-12 populations as a result of COVID. We’ll go into detail on the learning loss side of things, but from the perspective that we really typically focus on,the numbers of high school graduates, the major demographic trends, the reason that we felt we needed get out in front of what we were seeing is because the learning loss, we see from that the potential that enough children and teens may have been so impacted by the learning disruptions and things that a quantitative impact on the actual high school graduation trend is possible. And that’s important to know, because it’s a second layer on something that I think we all kind of have on our minds, some people will call it demographic cliff, we don’t use that term, even though our data are used to depict the slope, the trend line, it’s the coming downturn in the number of high school graduates, because back in 2008, fewer babies started being born. And to this day, there has not been an uptick in the rate of fertility in the United States and across virtually all of the states. We know this, in fact, it could be next year’s high school graduating class that might begin to evidence some of that trend. And so people are front and center thinking about that demographic change, I would suggest, [LAUGHTER] at a minimum is a contraction in the youth population. I don’t know if what that means necessarily for higher education contraction, but we can talk about is learning loss going to do anything to help that? Are we gonna somehow see actually more high school graduates than we might have otherwise expected given C OVID? Or is it more like what I think we’ve probably all been waiting and worrying about, could it impact that trend and deepen it, amplify the downturn in high school graduates?

Rebecca: So you talked a little bit about the data suggesting losses in persistence of learning? Can you talk a little bit about what those losses look like?

Peace: Sure. And, just for our purposes here, I’ll speak to the national kind of overall results and trends. But I would strongly encourage your listeners, even just as a starting point, to go to the web page that I’m sure we’ll put in the show notes where the report resides. And within that page, I’ve been adding to the list where people can access more detailed data than the national trends. I’d go there because then you can poke around, based on your own institution, and get a sense of the kind of school districts that you might know, school districts that are kind of geographic areas that are really strongly important to your student populations. Because the detail is really important. It’s a really multifaceted, nuanced topic. So about the persistence of the learning losses, and this is in the K-12 pipeline. I mean, technically, we work in grades one through 12 data because kindergarten is not a universal requirement, so it can be hard to know what’s going on there, since the trend data could vary year to year. When I mentioned prior to COVID, or pre-COVID, in the K-12 school system, that would typically mean either the 2019-20 school year, or some folks go back as far as 2018-19, because the 2019 school year included the spring that was disrupted, but by then most learning and assessments had already occurred, and then the quote unquote, post-pandemic assessments that we have availability to summarize go through the spring of 2023. So that’s almost a year ago at this point. But by spring of 2023 students started, after a couple of years that we’ll discuss here about what really happened there, students started showing some resumption in the rate of annual learning and acquisition that was typical pre-COVID. So that’s just like, on average, in a given year, the assessments generally will say how close to on-grade-level and then was the amount of typical acquisition achieved. By spring of 2023, the good news was that annual rates, there was some evidence that students were a little bit more closer to back on track. The unfortunate problem, and otherwise not good news, is that students were definitely not on pace during the two previous years. So they lost total learning, and it sort of accumulated. Students would have needed to learn at really unprecedented rates in 2022- 2023, that year, where they are resuming sort of a typical rate, just to make up for two years of lost learning, if that’s even such a thing in learning, which is an accumulative kind of process. There are spring of 2023 results, there are some more recent results from several of the major assessment products for the fall of 2023, so getting into the current school year, beginning of the current school year, and they generally confirm what spring 2023 results showed, that students came into the year with the overall lost learning. At this point, it means that these K-12 students… and we’ll give some statistics by different grade levels and what have you, the nuance, but pretty much from the assessment results, you see the same trend virtually at every grade level, which is that students have been moving along, learning in the given grade that they’re at, but they’re still being bogged down by overall unremedied learning losses. And that’s for four years now, so that’s pretty substantial. One sort of point of reference for those students who were high school freshmen, as COVID was raging, their time is up. So four years, did they get back on pace? Were they able to stay on pace, such as I’ve just described? They’re gonna graduate now, and many of them will graduate, but not having been able to fully recoup what was lost. And so there’s not a lot of data that actually sort of compare, “Okay, so I’ve received my diploma, it was awarded to me. What amount am I behind?” And I think that’s part of the problem. In fact, there is increasing attention to the notion that grade inflation, that has always been something of investigation, but evidence that it may have really been at play during these past four years in a way that is really masking and complicating this issue, not making it clear whether students who are graduating from high school, would they be considered on par with previous cohorts that were emerging even prior to COVID?

John: So basically what’s happening is students seem to be learning at the same pace they were pre-COVID, but they’ve all been left behind fairly substantially as a result of that transition to remote learning. And they haven’t caught up to where they would have been had we not gone to that experience.

Peace: Yeah.

John: Were those losses roughly the same everywhere, or were they particularly bad in lower income communities?

Peace: Well, let me give you first even just a sense of the scale of losses, and some of this, you almost have to see it to comprehend it, but I think I can kind of show the scale. So this is high school, stick with high school students, and so they’re the ones most immediate to our faculty might see. It was reported in October, the high school students’ scores on the ACT College Admissions Test had dropped to their lowest point in more than three decades. And that was describing therefore the class of 2023, some of which are presumably in college right now. And they were in their first year of high school when COVID hit. The average ACT composite score for U.S. students was 19.5 out of 36, for that class of 2023, which was down from the prior year 19.8, which we’re talking already that those were some score levels that might not have been ideal to begin with. For as regards to SAT, total score declined for the class of 2023 as well down to 1028 compared to 1050, for the class of 2022 and compared to 1060 for the class of 2021. So really, those are just a couple of data points about this notion that schools are graduating students but what that means when they’ve graduated could appear very different by the time they arrive to college. Now, it’s hard. Sometimes people might poke holes on those type of data because ACT and SAT are not taken by every single student. So the other thing I’ll point out is that we’re focusing on COVID impacts here. But it’s important to point out that in those two assessment instruments, ACT and SAT, scores had been falling prior to the pandemic. And so the pandemic just accelerated those declines, accelerated and amplified them. Since we work in the demographic space, on demographics research, I’ve been talking to other researchers about possible reasons for that pre-COVID decline trend, and just, frankly, how hard it is to reconcile with graduation rates that had continued to increase over the same years, and then the grade inflation, so we don’t have conclusive answers on that. But it’s worth noting, we’re talking COVID. The question might be for faculty and instructors is, do things feel particularly difficult with incoming freshmen at this point, in some way, shape, or form, and probably in very nuanced ways, depending on discipline. But then it’s also like, are they feeling pretty good, prior to COVID, were they where you want them to be anyway? So assessment results from elementary and middle school grades, the one that provides some of the most normed results, and therefore can be compared over time and as a universal sort of indicator, is the National Assessment of Educational Progress, or NAEP for short. They’re the thing that really caught my attention. We tried to highlight where the score drops for 13 year olds, they’re no more or less important than any other grade level, or school age. But those are the next in line coming through high school. So we’ve just seen what was going on with the high school age students during that period. Well, the NAEP 50th percentile mathematics score in 2022, was 282. In 2023, it was 274. That was at the 50th percentile, so an eight point decrease at the middle, the decrease on the already relatively higher scores at a 90th percentile was six point decrease. So even the highest percentile, 90th percentile, had a pretty dramatic decrease between those years. And at the 25th percentile, it was a 12-point score drop between 20 and 2023. NAEP reading score declines ranged between three point drops at the 90th percentile to six point drops at the 25th percentile between those years 2020 to 2023. And so there, it gets to the topic that I’ll provide a few more thoughts on about the variability. Were all students affected by this? Which ones more or less so? Right there, that was a statement of a twice as large score drop for those at the 25th percentile, compared to those at the 90th percentile. And this is already on the 90th percentile, they already being, perhaps at or above a proficiency level compared to a 25th percentile, which might not actually be at a proficiency level. And on top of that, you have a steep drop. It’s also worth noting, just like with the SATs, and the ACT scores, that the NAEP scores in that 2023 school year, were just an amplified continuation, some declines that were already emerging pre-COVID, such that in the composite reading score it had by 2023, it was the total average, so at the 50th percentile, seven points lower in 2023 than a decade prior. So over the course of a decade, it was already reducing, and then 14 points in mathematics. So some of these things that we’re talking about is, I don’t know if you want to say learning loss or just what the best word to say it is, because it’s nuanced, but they were approaching prior to the COVID period. And so I really want to highlight that because kind of just in am analogy, prior to the pandemic, schools and students are already losing historical ground. So they were already maybe not in the best shape, so to speak. And now they have to also recover from COVID. And so that can definitely explain some of the lack of recovery and a slow recovery.

John: Going back to the issue of SATs and ACT scores, you mentioned some complications. I’m guessing the major complication is that fewer people are taking the SATs and ACT since at many colleges scores became optional, and the people who are most likely to avoid taking it are those who might on average, expect to do less well on the SATs or ACTs, so that may suggest that the losses would be even greater if we had the same proportion of students taking the SATs and ACT tests as pre-COVID when a larger proportion of schools required them for admissions.

Peace: Yes, that is true. However, the 2023 SAT scores, the participation was the highest ever. So maybe the 2022 that could have been a somewhat more appropriate consideration. It remains the case. We don’t know the underlying distribution of the students necessarily, and if they change year over year in consequential sorts of ways. But I think you’re right. I’m really looking for some good news on this topic. So I can be something other than a Debbie Downer. But the truth is, I don’t think we can look at this and pick away at the data. We went out because it was like if you download the PDF, and you’re not convinced just like access the 30 different year points or different reference tests, and what have you, and see if you’re convinced that this has happened, it really has. It’s pretty affirmative at this point, we’d love to see it turn around, but I don’t think we can just ignore it.

Rebecca: I think it’s really helpful too to point out that it’s not just COVID, the fact that you’ve underscored that, and it might be exacerbated by COVID is really important, because there’s a lot of blaming of COVID on many experiences that we have in the classroom, that may or may not actually be the cause.

Peace: I’d argue they are the cause of what’s seen with the past four years, but we can’t just pretend that that because it was so consequential over those time periods that even a return to normal would be where we want to be.

Rebecca: Oh, of course.

Peace: I think that’s the emphasis, normal wasn’t a good normal. And maybe we didn’t all look at it. It wasn’t so stark, somehow, different people might have been emphasizing it from an equity perspective. I would emphasize it from an economic perspective, because what I won’t highlight here is that there are researchers like Brookings, some of the think tanks, and then in other cases, some more consulting sorts of research organizations that are kind of putting out there, this has implications for the economy. I mean, we can talk about the implications for higher ed, and that part of the economy, but I mean, I just don’t think we can ignore past this, there might have been something brewing, that this was just a perverse sort of way to get our attention on some of it about what the youth of today need? Where do they stand? Are they getting prepared well enough in a way that we need to support the workforce of tomorrow. That’s not the only reason for higher education, but as you and I decide to go take our retirement, these are the kids who will be supporting the country’s economy, and there will be fewer of them. So their ability to do that is really important. So I think, if nothing else, it could be a wake up call. We should really wake up, but we don’t have to wake up screaming and yelling in the house like the fire alarm going off, we need to figure out what to do.

Rebecca: One of the other issues that your report underscored was some high rates of absenteeism. And that’s certainly something I’ve heard my colleagues talk about as well. Can you talk a little bit about some of the potential causes for that?

Peace: Yeah, I will. I also do then want to make a note about something else, but I’ll respond to the absenteeism. So the statistic, 30% of students nationwide were chronically absent in the 2021-2022 school year. So that’s two years into the quote unquote, pandemic period, which is double the pre-COVID19 average. And while not comprehensive, the preponderance of data, were suggesting only minor improvement in the most recent completed school year, 2022 to 2023. That’s huge. Now, chronic absenteeism is different than like average daily attendance and what have you. But still it was a doubling. Absenteeism is the question. I mean, the question is, is it a symptom or is it a cause? And it’s a little bit of both. Prior to COVID students with more day-to-day life or learning challenges were on average, more likely to be absent from school, and a real reason to be absent from school, especially given the kind of hysteria that was almost necessary. As a parent, I got this during COVID. I’m like I was sending my kid to school if they met the temperature well enough for them to go. But being sick is a valid reason for absence. And that was made so much more evident with COVID. And some households and students are just simply more likely to be sick or not recovered as solidly. Now, of course, some of them might already be vulnerable students by virtue of a health condition, but you’ve got students and families that due to their living conditions, or health care access, might be more likely to be absent. One of the phenomenon, if you will, or factors, is social prejudices, and hostile environments for some students more than others. So the Asian and Pacific Islander communities experienced more of that during COVID and that may be lingering in their attendance decisions and the Black Lives movement put in the spotlight the types of stresses that black students might face at school. It can be rational to avoid school, and at this point, some fatigue with that might have set in. So, but even let’s talk about the marginalized students, and is the average student’s disposition to attend school affected by this point in some way, because if it is, then it’s amplified for marginalized students. So school and education that we as adults just talk about and encourage our children to, try to guide them through, pull them through, whatever. They might have become synonymous with very easily influenced young children and their emotional memory with online learning and masking and fear of sneezes and coughs, let alone than what it felt like go back after being socially isolated. And my kid experienced, even in the higher achieving classes, just an unusual rate of disruptions from students transitioning back socially and stuff like that. So these are children. And that can be a far more formative experience. I’m not a psychologist, I can’t say trauma, what have you. But that can be something that that’s all you know, for some of them or a big part of your recent memory. And that can be all you can think of as school, so to ask me to go tomorrow, I might be relying on that recent memory. So I can understand any student in K-12 to some extent, also. Hopefully, as you mature into an adult, you’re able to sort of equip yourself to move past those things. But some of these young adults really having a lot of emotional memory that makes this a real sticky issue, the absenteeism or the lack of kind of bringing their best to the educational setting. I mean, if you want more factors, if that’s not enough, school transportation issues for the past two years and kids literally not having a way to get to school. You’ve got teacher fatigue, and we know how important instructors are in the classroom and what you can bring to it, your ability to do that. And if it couldn’t get worse, because I lived through this with my kid, you still got an unrelenting possibility of like school violence and mass shootings. So there’s a lot of reasons that school does not feel like running through the corridor anything, you know, that maybe we all might have felt as a more positive thing. Now, things hopefully, the last, maybe a year or so where kids are able to start washing some of that out of their memory, and it being replaced with a more normal environment. And hopefully, that’s a good thing for them.

John: One of the things that shows up in the data is while there were learning losses across the board, I believe the learning losses were a bit worse in the area of math. And those seem to be having a pretty significant effect, or at least from what I’ve seen in the classroom, that’s been having quite a bit of an effect on our incoming student body and may have a significant effect on their choice of majors. And we know the rate of return to education in the STEM fields is dramatically higher than it is in other areas. And in terms of the state of the economy, that’s something that could have a very negative impact unless we provide some ways of helping students get caught up in some way. What can colleges and universities do to try to bridge that gap, to take students who, on average are coming in at lower levels, and get them up to the level that they need to be at to be successful?

Peace: As you and I must have been reading some of the most recent coverage on this topic, even just this week. So I can dive into your second question through the lens of STEM. So yes, I had seen some stuff about it more from a HBCU perspective, Jill Barshay of The Hechinger Report, she often does deep data dives. And so earlier this week, she released some interpretations highlighting how the NAEP, those national scores for the K-12 population, those and similar results could conceivably suggest a narrowing of the STEM pipeline for what you’ve mentioned. And so it feels like there are a couple of really interesting points on that… math, at the very least, although clearly, reading comprehension is also very important for sciences and anything, obviously, but those more technical reading types of disciplines. Reading, it cannot be forgotten. So what’s maybe most worth thinking about from what she highlighted was the top students, the NAEP results, you’ve got it 75th percentile 90th percentile, what have you. Top students are staying on grade level, according to those data. And those top students, of course, are maybe definitely the front of the line on the STEM pipeline. But the eighth grade NAEP shows that far fewer of even those who are in the top portion are hitting an advanced performance level or even proficient. So just because you’re in the top, it’s a grading curve, so to speak. Top might not mean what we need for STEM types of disciplines. So, there were learning losses across the board, math scores among the top performers dropped as steeply as did the scores among lower percentile scores. Okay, they call out even the scores of students at Catholic schools. So we understand that that might be a place where some of the STEM students could be concentrated. Otherwise, the scores from those schools would indicate that they weathered the pandemic pretty well. But scores in eighth grade math plummeted. And I just think that that’s another one of these big wake up calls, and it’s in the microenvironment of STEM, but the importance of it to the economy, obviously to the colleges and universities for which that’s a key focus. Now, what might you do even just on this topic, because then I think we can get into a little broader discussion about what to do. I would just ask STEM faculty, if this is the case, if these are the facts, it’s the real fact of the matter. Let’s just free think a little bit and see, to what extent could you meet students at a lower proficiency level if needed. So if it can be quantified, they’re 10% off what you think should be the criteria for even beginning the STEM disciplines, then what have you? If that’s what you have, if that’s going to be sort of the circumstance of even your top applicants, can you do something differently to allow them to actually be admitted? …get on track? What can you do? What would you need to do to actually maybe bridge that distance? If it’s larger, I mean, then obviously, you have to go a little bit, quote, unquote, deeper into the pool or the topic. But if you haven’t, for a while, really look at some of those criteria, sort of indicators and stuff. Because otherwise, we go through the admission cycle, and you might for an entire year of students miss some who could really, with the right approach, potentially continue on their aspiration to STEM. I’d also say, and I don’t really know how this plays out for faculty, and maybe it’s a pie in the sky kind of idea. But we’ve kind of been hearing it from some of our state folks who run the boards of regents and these other sorts of things, which is recognizing that this has occurred, recognizing that it’s always been questionable or difficult necessarily to know, if you could get a guaranteed STEM pipeline, to what extent colleges start reaching backward a little further into the actual high schools and be part of their exposure to and understanding that I might be like, let’s say the eighth or ninth grader, I actually have really, really loved the idea of becoming a scientist or going into medicine or something like that. But I’m starting to waver with my math skills or something. And so these kids aren’t really quite aware. And they’re probably already thinking college and that kind of thing, even at that young age. And if they get a sense that they wouldn’t be admitted, or I’m going to be a failure that early, then they just lose the aspiration, among other things that kind of erode aspiration sometimes in the STEM disciplines. We’ve been hearing from some of the stakeholders, maybe just a real need to actually start acknowledging out loud, whether we can meet students where they are, could we meet them where they are, because they’re the ones who lived this, they know how hard it was. And so their sensitivity to maybe that kind of like, work really hard, and then not actually be able to get into the program they desire and stuff like that. So much of it’s the right thing. But it really comes down to the emotional reaction and decision, as much as quantitatively, could they be close enough to be accommodated, which would be in our better interest if that’s even a possibility? We have to be looking at, I can’t say up front, revise anything, but we should really be, in light of what’s occurred in COVID impacts in K-12, I think we should really be looking at what are some of the hard and fast admission criteria and stuff where they exist. Now, it’s true, like less selective institutions may just end up dealing with the majority of students who have experienced learning impacts, as they always have, but given the fact that even among top performers, there was learning loss evidence, I think we can’t, in any institution, sit back and say, well, it won’t be our problem. So what is within the realm of possibility to meet students where they are, which might be somewhat off of what we would hope. But if it’s not drastically off, for example, then at least we’re taking one step in the direction of meeting them. Because I don’t know how controversial that is. [LAUGHTER] I’m a data person, so from a data perspective, it is one of the few things that I see as a real possibility as you try to make those data points overlap.

Rebecca: So we focused a bit on STEM, if we broaden that a little bit to what universities can do. We talked about admissions criteria, are there other things that we should be thinking about to help our pipelines for all of our fields and disciplines and thinking about the future.

Peace: Yes. What can we do? There’s a sort of like current and then future tense implied by that question. What I would say is, we should have already been doing something. And the reason I say that is because “Okay, so we hear that there might have been some observable, pre-COVID developments on how prepared students were based on those pre-COVID assessment score declines.” So I would ask the question, “Was this not something that folks already were having to, in the margins, sort of deal with? And did they start doing something?” Because if so, do more. Look at the possibility that there should be a sustained, broader perspective. The other thing is that, prior to COVID, the rates of college enrollment, for example, among some of the previously lesser served student populations, Hispanic students, and two or more races, the rates of enrollment were really going up. So were colleges already having to address something about what had already been a changed student population, but for some reasons other than COVID. So again, if you hadn’t been, I think it’s really compelling, you’re going to have to now, but we can kind of maybe step back and say, “Well, what did we do?” Sometimes we forget, we were just dealing with stuff in the moment. And so if we look back, just go back to prior to 2020, and then start thinking about, “Oh, what have we tweaked over there or something,” if that was happening, that would give evidence of what you might consider doing now. Because you might have already been making some adjustments, You might have been piloting some things, you might have only been piloting them with the expectation that it wasn’t something that needed to go full scale, see if they’re there, and approach it from that perspective. As regards to helping students with academic preparation needs, it’s a different situation, but it overlaps with the topic of other types of student supports, because student attention, even if they have the aptitude, might be missing some of the content knowledge. But if they have the aptitude, if their attention is distracted from not only the perennial sorts of things, that some students have to deal with, work demands or lesser educational advantages of many different perspectives. Now, they also might have that academic learning loss, that if we do put some of that supportive environment in place, then could you, STEM or otherwise, meet students at a slightly lower bar, and then still get them successfully where they need to be. We’ve been trying to do that for different student populations for a while, but some of the data would suggest just do more of the same, and until something comes, for example, K-12 data about what to expect with incoming freshmen, expect to sustain it is what I would say. I listened to some of the podcasts that you pointed me to from previous episodes. And I will say one that really resonated with me was the one about relationship-rich education. And then there were several other ones, each of which really kind of touched on various aspects. But I think that relationship-rich education episode, it was specific sorts of interventions, a lot of which, as it suggests, are not specific academic intervention. But they’re the things that we are creating learning spaces, and whether we mean them to be punitive or not, they can be sensed as punitive for students who just really had a difficult four or five years, that about they’re sensitive, so to speak. But to be intentional about learning environments, that don’t take a lot of specific kind of empirically vetted interventions even but intentionality about airing some of this, I would say, with students, like if it can be a discussion point, and you have students who are really feeling the spotlight is going to be on them because it felt like it was really hard to get through my senior year and now I’m going to give this a go. And I know it’s supposed to be challenging and stuff, but maybe they know what part of their senior year or math class was the most difficult for them, if they’re given the space to kind of articulate these sorts of things, it doesn’t have to be in an open discussion forum in a classroom, maybe not, depending on what you need to talk about. But just making it clear to students that they can actually identify some of those needs, that they will be required to be the most responsible for their own learning, but even though we’re going to keep emphasizing standards, and do everything, that we actually do mean to support them, and that we see their success in our best interest, and therefore we’re open to listening, to hearing, to believing what they say. So I would say believe it. On a spectrum, there will always be some people who are maybe struggling the most or otherwise, we would maybe take a general approach that anyone who’s saying some of this is complaining. I would say the evidence would suggest believe [LAUGHTER] that whether we thought it should have been easier for the kids, it impacted them. And so believe it and open up the possibility that if they say what they need, they might be able to identify something for us to do, it could be far simpler and smaller. Some of it can be more time consuming, but maybe if it just becomes common practice to imbue our classrooms with this sense. Students themselves can support each other, that we can hear what they say they need to support them, and it might not be half of the things that we’re worried to mention out loud because we can’t promise it. It’s nothing brilliant, I apologize. And I wouldn’t be the person to speak to in instructional sorts of research, but it definitely resonates with these academic impacts as a result of something that was a societal experience, that we need to be in the space, not just of academics, but of what part of learning methods actually are important for learners. And I’m an adult educator. I have been an adult educator. I wonder, because when I listened to some things that are more about like instructional approaches for equity and for other sorts of things for adult learners, and just what I know about the science of adult learners is I wonder if some extent, this current, quote unquote, generation… I don’t know if it’s an entire generation, but certainly, maybe 10 years worth of students… have actually had adultified in ways that maybe bring them into a space where some of the methodologies that we use in our learning environments, we might learn something from actually thinking about those adult learning and education methods. I think to have to grapple with some of the things that some students, that the entire spectrum of students, it wasn’t just pockets of students have had to deal with, maybe they’ve adultified in some ways, and then yet are not showing it because they don’t have the skills they need from school, I might advise if people kind of consult with what are some things that would be different in an adult kind of focused classroom compared to some of the classrooms that are more typically going to be populated by younger students. There might be some methods there that they can be common sense, but they’re not obvious.

John: One other topic that has come up recently is that colleges were a little bit more flexible during the pandemic in terms of dealing with things like administrative holds, and so forth. Many colleges are starting to put those back in. And one of the implications of that is that students may not be able to register for classes at the start of the term and they may be coming into classes after other students have already been in a class for a while. And I’ve seen that myself this semester, in a way I haven’t seen it since COVID. Is that something that colleges perhaps should be a little bit more careful with?

Peace: For reasons that probably don’t have to do with COVID or anything… but yes, as most things go with COVID, it just amplified possibly. I’d say yes. So on an entirely different sort of research project that I’ve recently worked with, WICHE, my organization, led a action research study of sorts with 12 public colleges and universities. And they each did their own comprehensive data analysis on this topic of every single possible hold a student could get. I mean, it would be a registration hold, like limiting their registration, or maybe access to records or something, but it could be for academic probation, and it could be for paperwork of any sort, it could be for financial aid administration, advising holds that restrict registration. They went comprehensive, they dug deep. And in the first post-COVID academic year, which was 2021-2022, by which I mean, mostly removed from the funding supplements, more than 265,000 holds were placed on roughly 125,000 students across those 12 institutions. And there is wide variation across institutions on per student rates, and stuff like that, and the reasons for them and the observed outcomes that they appear to be having on even just the next-term persistence for students. But by and large, every single institution, we’re able to, by looking at the data, find certain segments of students, part time, certain colleges and disciplines that really needed some attention for what’s a wide-scale, maybe not problem, but certainly a wide-scale sort of thing that each of the institutions would say they didn’t know how to control it. One University, for example, found that a single academic department and this, of course relates to our faculty listeners, place the bulk of all the advising holds, and a significantly higher rate per student than any other academic department or college. And it turned out that these advising holes were well intended, had developed over time as a way to manage the major requirements. But the college never got a bird’s eye view of the whole picture about how they were just sort of being administered. So when the research team at that university brought the data to the Dean, the Dean immediately recognized the holds were not operating as they were intended and took action to substantially revise how they were used. That’s advising holds, and that’s one of the most frequently used type of holds, even though financial holds get a lot of attention for the right reasons. Institutions from those 12 are also reconsidering the exact timing of registration holds within a semester in case that they’re just being too preemptive. Like, it’s easy to just be like “Mark all XYZ-term students not to be able to register until advising” and what have you. I mean, it’s cost effective, it’s kind of solution at scale, if you will. One institution experimented giving a small cohort of students, those who are at risk of academic probation, the ability to actually register at the usual time during the semester with all other students. And then they only denied the registration at very end of the semester for the very small portion actually, even from those students who were still failing. And that small experiment for that university indicated that there wasn’t a difference and no benefit from preemptively limiting registration for the whole swath of students. So why not consider changing that? …especially if unknown, some of those students might have otherwise been impeded. And I want to really mention that this is for everyone, because you, in your seat, you don’t know what other holds are being used around the institution. So any given student is not only receiving the results of the one that you’re using for the right purposes, I’m sure, but they’re receiving any number of these. And if you dial back and see the full scope, often, at least at first glance, you got like low-hanging fruit all over the place that you can reduce them. There was repeated evidence in this study that some registration holds actually did the opposite of what they’re supposed to do, or intended to do, which was to advise students so that they would take the courses that they needed. So then we heard from students, and then some of the evidence that institutions started investigating, that the mere fact of not allowing the students to register during the peak registration period when other students were competing for classes, led them to register late and take classes they don’t need. I mean, they were going to take credits anyway. And could that actual hold be the reason that they end up taking and paying for these courses that they don’t need? Now, we know that’s not what we intended, we intended that they’re taking the right courses, so there are just different way to arrive at that. And then finally, on this topic, the FAFSA… well, I’m going to have to use the word that I see in the press, it’s not my opinion… mess, that I think we need to be ready, at least in this coming fall term, that there will be students and they would be students who have financial aid, who may experience untold, even if they’ve made it through the process they choose to enroll, they could face untold additional ripple effects, one of which is that holds on records and registration are part of the financial aid administration process, so if that has been delayed, and God knows what kind of other sorts of messes have accumulated in that space, if summer is the period during which most of this should be resolved, but students may not be engaging, definitely not as be accessible during summer, I think we need to be ready. And this includes even faculty being aware of what might be happening, or something you don’t know about a given student is struggling with just something like a paperwork mess that’s distracting from their studies. It’s distracting from their attendance and what have you. The more aware we are that could be happening, and it’s told even just through the data with holds, I think it’s just one of those things to be like, why not be that aware? Why not put it out there and be like, “If something other than your coursework, for example, even your financial aid administration after a kind of rough… you know, whatever, say the right words, to characterize it… please let me know so that I can be aware and you can move past that sort of thing.” These things that just add up and distract students who might otherwise be capable in the academic content. So just a lot of different things, honestly, about administrative processes, that really well intentioned, and in many cases can be proven to help support students in that, but just the administration of them, in this case it’s evidence through like holds, needs to be revised continually and kind of perpetually revised, because at the very least, each of the institutions and it wasn’t just these 12 I mean, research by the American Association of collegiate Registrars (AACRAO), and then also ITHAKA S+R had done some research on the topic, just revealing the scope of those administrative processes. Administrative processes should not be almost like a second admissions requirement for students, if they’ve been academically admitted, they shouldn’t be derailed by having to decipher something that literally just may not be well managed, because it’s accumulated over time.

John: And we think that would disproportionately affect first-generation students, where parents are not giving them as much guidance, perhaps, in terms of navigating all those little hoops that they have to jump through.

Peace: Yes, one example here, we’ve got financial aid recipients, which are not just first-generation students. I am a first-generation college graduate. And I only know now what I didn’t know, and thank God, that kind of thing did not stop me because I can look back and go like, “Wow, that was decades ago.” What I would say is the experience that I had, and I may be the case study of one having been exposed to some of these findings with the holds, I as a parent will not stand for that. If I get wind of it with my kid when she goes to college. Whether I would or not, since she’ll have to manage her own affair and stuff like that. But she actually knows about it now too. And just that’s no more than I would stand for a lot of things with my health insurance that were giving me hassles or my paycheck or anything else that’s really super important to me. When it comes to the administration, this is not again, it’s not like pointing fingers or anything. Things just develop over time, and they need to be revised and revisited. Not least of which because you have a new generation of people, but also just because the computer gets buggy and all of a sudden it’s really standing in the way.

Rebecca: You’’ve given us lots to think about. Thanks so much for all the work that you do, Peace, and deciphering it for us as well.

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

Peace: Well on an organizational news level, we’ll be planning to really see update of the high school graduate projections in the last quarter of this year, 2024. That’s a big huge thing, especially given what I’ve just revealed to you. It’s hard to make projections or predictions about anything, I still don’t feel very much on solid ground there. And you know, I just want to mention on a personal level, me here sitting in my office, not a faculty office in the outside world, so to speak. I’m just really being intentional nowadays, like, I never have been before about compassion with myself and my colleagues. If I had students it would be compassion with my students, because it just really feels like things… zs we know, again, we just had the Debbie Downer discussion… things have been pretty frantic for years now, and it doesn’t feel like there’s any end in sight, because we’ve got some things looming on the horizon. But I’ve been really noticing that a few moments of silence and reflection, like literally just a couple, two to three moments, it goes a long way to getting me further than the two or three hours of just unrelenting pounding away at work that I also end up doing, so I mention that. We have to be kind with ourselves, no matter what we’re doing, and with our colleagues, and I would advocate for that, the compassion and kindness, bringing that to the learning environments can really go a long way, I think.

Rebecca: That’s a really good reminder, when it feels like there’s so much work to be done for sure.

Peace: We can do it.

John: …and having data on incoming students can help prepare us for what’s to come. So thank you for your work on this.

Peace: 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.

Ganesh: Editing assistance by Ganesh.


340. The Alan Alda Center

Graduate programs prepare students to communicate with other scholars in their discipline, but do not generally prepare them to communicate with public audiences. In this episode, Brenda Hoffman joins us to discuss a program designed to help scientists develop effective public communication skills. Brenda is Associate Dean for Academic Affairs and Graduate Program Director for the School of Communication and Journalism at Stony Brook University.

Show Notes


John: Graduate programs prepare students to communicate with other scholars in their discipline, but do not generally prepare them to communicate with public audiences. In this episode, we discuss a program designed to help scientists develop effective public communication skills.


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

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

John: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer…

Rebecca: …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 Brenda Hoffman. Brenda Hoffman is Associate Dean for Academic Affairs and Graduate Program Director for the School of Communication and Journalism at Stony Brook University. Welcome, Brenda.

Brenda: Thank you for having me.

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

Brenda: I have water. [LAUGHTER]

Rebecca: …as we always say, the fundamental ingredient of tea.

Brenda: If I start drinking tea, I’m probably going to cough and have to [LAUGHTER] put it aside and it’s going to burn my throat and I gotta stay safe with the water. Know your audience is always my number one. [LAUGHTER] So I’m knowing myself… [LAUGHTER]… sticking with the water, but usually my tea of choice is spearmint.

John: Nice.

Rebecca: Oh, yum.

Rebecca: John, today I have a Scottish afternoon tea.

John: And it is afternoon, so that’s very appropriate. And I have…

Rebecca: …for once…

John: … a Tea Forte Black Currant tea?

Rebecca: Cool. So we’ve invited you here today, Brenda, to discuss the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science and the Science Communication Graduate Program at Stony Brook. Could you tell us a little bit about the origins of the Alan Alda Center and the Graduate Program in Science Communication?

Brenda: Yeah, so the Alan Alda Center started with Alan Alda and his idea about creating a training center for scientists. A lot of people know him from M.A.S.H., but what he’s also well known for is a TV show called Scientific American Frontiers, where he was interviewing scientists and learning about their work. And he found it so interesting as they were talking, just to have that conversation. And he always describes it as “They started very closed off, and then the more I talked to them and asked questions and they felt more comfortable, their guard came down, and they were more willing to talk.” So his idea was how can we train scientists to do that sort of thing, and talk in a more conversational way without having someone on the other end having to pull that out of them. So he shopped around this idea for a training center, and it landed here at Stony Brook University, and that was ages ago at this point, it feels like. And at this point, we’ve trained over 20,000 scientists, healthcare professionals all around the world.

John: And as part of that you also now have a graduate program in science communication, could you tell us a little bit about that, and how it connects to the Alan Alda Center.

Brenda: Yeah, so the School of Communication and Journalism is really the umbrella here at Stony Brook. And we offer a Master of Science in science communication. And we also offer an advanced graduate certificate in science communication for our graduate students here at Stony Brook that may be enrolled in science programs and want a four class add on to their program just to have that extra communication expertise and training and just some time to practice and get some feedback while they’re still in school. So those programs are really closely aligned, they’re very focused on training students to become professional science communicators. So that’s not to say that students couldn’t go on for a PhD after, but that’s not the focus of training students to become researchers and academic writers. The focus of these programs really is for students to either take their own science, their own social sciences included in that, their own research, or someone else’s, and help that person to translate that really complex information into ways that the lay public can understand, and ensuring the integrity of the science while doing that, and the accuracy of the science rather than just what we would say, dumbing it down, but really simplifying it and making it easier to understand.

Rebecca: There’s a lot of science discussions that happen in the media, on social media as well, from climate issues, to COVID treatments, and many other topics. But a lot of this is done with people with little or no training in science. So why aren’t scientists more engaged in public discussions on such issues?

Brenda: Well, you’d have to ask a lot of them because I’m sure their answers would differ. If I had to guess, I think a part of that would have to do with cancel culture, there’s this pressure to communicate with absolute certainty, or else. And so this idea of communicating uncertainty can be very intimidating. And so that’s one of the things that the Alda Center really focuses on in training scientists and medical professionals is how to communicate what science is and how it works and where it may not be 100%. And what does that margin of error look like? And what does it actually mean? I think. probably comes into play a lot. And so the center is really focused on helping scientists who are interested in engaging with different audiences really share their work and inspire others in ways that are meaningful for them.

John: In terms of the master’s program in science communication, what are the career objectives of most of the students? You mentioned that many of them are not scientists, per se, but they’re focused on some career in science communication, what type of careers are they going into?

Brenda: A lot of them are going into or already in these careers as professional science communicators. Which is not a term that you can plug into a job search engine and find. These careers go by lots of different names. Often it’s in the communications departments, but it could be within actual labs, people who are being those connector pieces that are working with the marketers and the communications teams, and they’re the middle person between those teams and the scientists or they could be going into careers where they’re content creators. A lot of students recently are interested in podcasting and webinars and that sort of realm. So I see that becoming a big career path as well. Social media, and again, those careers are going to go by lots of different names, depending on what company, what region you’re in. But I would say a lot of our students are are looking to fill those gaps, and they have a real passion for helping people communicate that science, I think that was one of the things that really was interesting for us is we were expecting a lot of scientists coming into our program saying, “I want to learn how to communicate my science.” And while that is a decent chunk of our students, we also have a lot of social scientists coming to the table saying, “I want to help. I want to take my communication skills or my psychology skills, and I want to advance them and I want to learn how to practice this. And I want to learn how to work with these people and do a lot of what Alan was doing in that Scientific American Frontier show.” How do you get the important pieces out of these people and put it into a coherent story and then work with them to get some feedback, to ensure that in that translation process, the information and the science is still upheld in that. I would say a lot of the students are looking for those kinds of careers, where they’re what we call boundary spanners, and again, that’s a newer term, this is an entirely newer field. So I think students are going to be really looking for those types of careers.

Rebecca: One thing that I think about is the importance of people in these roles in actually generating interest for science programs and to become scientists. Because if the science is inaccessible, then it’s not necessarily something people understand or know exactly what it means to be a scientist, or what the study of science is like. I know that at my household, I have a small kid, and we watch lots of videos in media about science. And when it’s delivered in a way that we all can understand, we all get much more engaged.

Brenda: People think about science as scary, oftentimes, and especially when you’re thinking about that K-12 demographic, where they’re really starting to shape those ideas. I think that’s where, if they don’t understand something, or the class is a little bit harder, they get scared of it. And if they’re actually able to engage with scientists, I think their viewpoints will actually change, because when you start working with these people, it’s like, “Oh, they’re just like me, they’re not all wearing white lab coats and have a Petri dish.” [LAUGHTER] So I think breaking some of those barriers, and really overcoming those challenges, and those norms and expectations can be very helpful.

Rebecca: Yeah, that exact example happened yesterday. My daughter came home so excited that one of our SUNY Oswego scientists was at her school talking about the eclipse, so that they could understand the history of that. And she came home so excited and told me all about getting to meet a scientist and how cool that was. [LAUGHTER]

Brenda: Aaahhh. That’s what we need to do more of.

Rebecca: Yeah. [LAUGHTER]

John: On the other side of that, in most graduate science training, and most social science graduate training, one thing we’ve noted in past podcasts is there’s not a lot of preparation in terms of teaching skills, but there’s also not a lot of preparation in terms of communicating to a public audience. Graduate programs are very effective in teaching people how to present papers at professional conferences when they’re only talking to other scientists, but, in general, there’s very little work in preparing students to talk to the public. So it sounds as if this program might be the type of thing that many of those people in graduate programs could benefit from.

Brenda: Yeah, I think so. You know, you think about different cultures and different graduate programs in different fields. The expectations are all over the map. I mean, if you look at health care, you really see that come full circle in terms of bringing communication to the forefront and bringing it to medical student training. Even pre-COVID, this was really becoming more important, you were starting to see schools adopted, even if it was just one class in communication training or bedside manner, what we call patient-centered communication, or provider-patient communication, that was really becoming part of the norm. And if you look now, almost all graduate schools have some sort of communication woven in, even if it’s through like a grand rounds or something like that. So I think we’re starting to see that shift with science as well, at least on our own campus. We have a lot of graduate programs coming to us saying, “Hey, can you come in and do some sort of workshop with us? Can our students join your classes?” Our foundational science communication class, we have a number of programs on our campus that actually require that one class as part of the graduate program, so I’m hoping that We’re gonna start to see that shift more broadly as well.

Rebecca: So we’ve talked a little bit about the graduate program and the certificate program and how that might support students who are in science programs. But also, you have the Alan Alda Center, can you talk a little bit about the difference between your graduate programs and the Center?

Brenda: Yeah, so the center is very external facing in that we go out to government labs, other universities, corporations, and we train people as groups in teams who are already in their careers all the way from graduate students up to senior scientists. And we have two-day modules in person, and then we also offer a number of online three-hour modules. The Graduate Program uses some of that, but it’s much more academic based, in that students go through a foundational science communication course where they learn the science of science communication as a field, and they read some of that literature. How is the field developed? Where is it now? Where is it heading? They take a research methods class, where they can just learn about basic social science research methods, so that they can really look at a study and be able to judge is this a good study to talk about or report on? Was it done ethically from what you can tell? How many people were in their sample? How generalizable are these results. And then they also take classes in diversity. And they can pick from a number of electives having to do with science policy, podcasting, things like that. And so they do get the benefit of the Alda Center. So we have this program where we integrate the Alda offerings into our coursework. So all the students when they come, in that foundational required class, they will learn the Alda method, the ins and outs of basically what would happen in the morning of the first day of our science communication program. And that introduces them to the method, understanding how is improv used with communication theory and practice and research, and how is that all intertwined. And then throughout their coursework, they will receive some of the actual online modules that we offer to external clients as somewhat of a guest lecture, so our Alda facilitators will come into a class period or two and go through that module, whichever makes sense. For example, there’s a class on communicating science and health risks to the public. And so our media interviews module fits really nicely into that as students are preparing for public briefings and dealing with questions. They get that media interviews experience as part of that class to prepare them for that final assignment. So there is a lot of integration, and I think it’s one of the benefits of our program that the students actually do get to experience that. The Alda Center does not offer programs for individuals. So if I’m over at this university on the west coast, and I decided, “You know what, I just want to go through a program.” At this point in time, that’s not offered. We do programming for groups, mostly, and anywhere from 16 to 32, so if you are going to get a master’s degree or go on for some professional development, I think that’s what sets our program apart is students do get that experience and they get to work with our facilitators, and they are experiencing that actual training. It’s not like they’re getting a different version of that.

Rebecca: So you mentioned the Alda method. Can you talk a little bit about what that is?

Brenda: Yeah. So, when I started at the Alda Center, I had communication training. I knew how to give a talk, I knew how to engage people, I knew how to do this didactic sort of training. And when I came to the Alda center, I had this idea of what it was going to be. And I think this is a lot of people’s experience of there’s going to be some sort of lecture portion and an activity and then I’m going to do something at the end. And it really flipped all of that on its head for me when I saw what it was, because it combines traditional improvisation theater training that actors would get to help them connect with a scene partner. So I love this line that Alan always says, “When I was on a show, or I’m reading a script or something, I’m acting out those lines, I’m saying those lines because they were meaningful to me, the other actor was drawing those lines out of me. It’s not because the lines were on the page, there was some sort of connection between those two actors that really made that experience feel more authentic.” So we put our scientists through that training, that improvisation training, with really no information upfront about necessarily what they’re going to experience. We tell them to bring comfy clothes and you’re going to be standing a lot, you’re going to be interacting with different people, you’re going to be making direct eye contact and a lot of those activities seem very abstract. It’s kind of like “What are we doing? Why are we doing this in the moment?” And then what we do is we debrief the exercise at the end and relate it back to communication theory, communication, research, evidence-based findings of what works and how to make connections with people. It’s very experiential in that way, which I think is what makes it different. It’s one thing for me to tell you: “make eye contact and smile and move around the stage.” It’s another thing to actually make the eye contact with someone and feel what that feels like and get over that hump of the awkwardness and then be able to really benefit from what it’s like to make that connection with someone, whether you’re in person or even whether you’re online. So I think that’s what makes it really unique and unexpected to some.

Rebecca: We recently had the actors from the London stage come and do a workshop with some of our graduate students using some improv techniques that we didn’t warn them about either. [LAUGHTER] And it was really powerful. Can you give an example of what a couple of those activities might be like, just to make it come alive for some folks that maybe have never experienced improv training?

Brenda: Yeah, of course. So probably the most fundamental one is something that we call “mirror.” And basically, we have partners stand across from each other, they start with their hands up, almost like they’re going to high five each other both hands, and one person is the leader, the other person is the follower, and there’s no talking in the exercise. So we say, “Alright, one person just start moving, do whatever feels comfortable to you, and the other person is going to mirror you exactly, almost like you were looking at your reflection in a mirror.” And so they’re like, “Okay, why am I doing this?” And you get over that awkward stage, and then it gets a little funny, some people start doing the macarena. They realize, oh, this is something that maybe the other person knows, right? And so that makes it a little bit easier, breaks the ice. But really what they’re doing is this idea of the norm of reciprocity, they’re being able to match somebody else’s movements. And we almost do that in conversation as well. If I’m telling you a certain level of information about myself, you would probably match that with the similar level of information about yourself. It also helps you to connect with an audience and to be able to really focus on them and recognize when they’re understanding something, when they’re liking something, when they’re not, when they might be confused. And that gives you a sense of when you may need to stop and shift your approach a little bit. I think a lot of times people are told, just look at the back wall and talk to the wall. And what that ends up doing is it disconnects you from your audience, because you’re not able to actually get that feedback in real time from them about what’s working and what’s not. If they have a question about something or they’re not understanding, or they just seem upset about something you said, that may be something that you want to stop and address, and in showing them that you’re a real person and you care and you want to be connected with your audience. That’s a really important step to take. So being able to experience that fully through this exercise, I think just gives them a different perspective to think about when they’re on that stage, and they’re feeling uncomfortable, and they’re trying to quell those nerves, they can think back to these exercises of “Oh, yeah, I did this here and that was the takeaway.”

Rebecca: Can you talk a little bit about what the debrief is like after one of those exercises?

Brenda: Yeah, so the debrief is actually a lot like a flipped classroom. So rather than us just lecturing at you, it’s really a lot of questions, almost like a podcast, where you’re asking someone questions, and they’re answering. And so we’re almost trying to draw it out of them. What was that experience like? We start very surface level. What did it feel like? What did you like? What did you not like? And then we start to get deeper? Well, what does this have to do with science? Why are we doing this abstract activity of follow the leader with your arms? And then maybe one person will have a slight idea, and then they’ll start to build on it, and we’ll filter in as well. And then we really get to that translational piece of “Okay, now, how can you take these concepts and apply it to the work that you’re doing?” And that’s where they’re really making those connections for themselves, whether that’s as a group or whether that’s at smaller teams within that larger group, or whether that’s just for them individually in the work that they’re doing? So it’s a lot like a conversation, but we’re drawing those inferences from them, and then adding in the information as well.

John: How do people respond to this training? How do they react afterwards?

Rebecca: Or how did you respond at first? [LAUGHTER]

John: Yeah.

Brenda: I’ve liked to think that I’m very open to new things. Even I was standing there like “Guys, what in the heck? What are we doing?” First of all, no one told me how to dress for the day. So I was in like a pencil skirt and blazer that didn’t allow me to really move my arms and heels. So I was already kind of like “What’s happening?” But by the end of the day, I almost had no words. It was just such a different experience from anything that I had experienced. And I think with a lot of people, that’s what we see. They’re kind of like “What is this?” They’re a little nervous. When people get nervous or anxious about something or uncomfortable, they tend to just be like, “I don’t like this.” And then most of them will get to this place where they’re like, “Wow, that was transformational and I’ve never experienced anything like this before.” And then you will have others that are just very standoffish and are uncomfortable. They don’t want to do the exercises, they want to know what’s going to happen before it happens. And that’s something you have to work with. And a lot of times you’ll see the people next to them, like, “Hey, it’s fine, just do it, just do it. It’ll be okay. And they’ll grit through it.” But you definitely have to be open to something new. And for me, it was a breath of fresh air, it was something completely different. And I think that’s probably the most common experience that we hear of.

John: You mentioned working with graduate students or with people who are already out there? What are some of the other connections you make with people on campus?

Brenda: Yes, so we really like to offer something back to the campus community, because so much of the work that the Alda Center does is off campus. And so a big part of that is the Graduate Certificate in Science Communication, and obviously, the master’s program as well. But we also do a number of talks around campus for faculty, for postdocs who aren’t necessarily enrolled in our program or teaching in the program, but who are just interested in taking a class or experiencing the Alda method. And we also use it as a ground for training our instructors as well. So we have a new program that is being developed and being piloted. Nothing we put out is just slapped together and sold to a client. Everything is pilot tested. We get feedback from the audience, we go back, we adjust. And so it’s a pretty lengthy process. And so a lot of times we have people on campus that are like, “Look, I can’t devote a whole two days to the science communication experience. But I would just like to experience a workshop or I’d like to be involved.” And so when we have those pilot programs, we do them right here on our campus. We have an open call. So we’ll have everyone from faculty, to postdocs, graduate students, and even some of the campus leadership that will participate. Word has really gotten out. So we’re starting to see, as new leaders come to campus, they’re like, “We’ve heard of this Alda Center, and we feel like we want to take a workshop.” So we’d like to integrate our own community in in that way as well.

Rebecca: Sounds like a really great opportunity for professional development for faculty and staff. It probably provide some interesting ideas for their own classrooms.

Brenda: It’s a lot of fun when you do it on a campus where everyone works, because when we travel out people will come in from different units that are located in different parts of the country, and they don’t necessarily work together. But when you’re on a campus where everyone works together, it’s really nice because you start to see during lunch, during the breaks, and even at the end of the session, they’ll start to be making connections and building working groups and talking about research ideas or grants they should write together. And so I think that’s a really nice outcome of the Alda Center as well is just building connections between scientists. We’ve heard some organizations that we were at 5, 6, 7, 8 years ago, are still having working sessions and working groups. They do this on their own. They’ll have the group of folks who went through the workshop together, come back once a semester, once a month even, sometimes, and just have it be a brainstorming brown bag session where they bounce ideas, or they say, “Hey, I have a presentation coming up, can I do this and get some feedback from all of you?” So it’s really nice to see those types of relationships evolve and maintain over time as well.

John: Do you think faculty should do more improv in their classes [LAUGHTER] to help break down some of the barriers with students? I mention that partly because we had a reading group on campus this past year in the fall of 2023 with Sarah Rose Cavanagh’s book, Mind over Monsters, and she has a chapter on using improv to help students make connections with each other and to help build a community. Do you think that type of activity might be useful in general?

Brenda: Yeah, I think anytime you can change up the expectation of what’s going to happen in a classroom, that’s an A+ plus for you as the instructor. I will say that we used to do discussions and activities and the students liked those well enough. And after COVID, when everyone went online, and the classes all became the same, it all became post to a discussion board and then do this and then do that. When we came back from COVID, we really had a flip everything on its head and start over because the students just weren’t as engaged. Those activities that once were super fun, and they loved doing, they just were burnt out and exhausted from doing those. So I think anytime you can have those conversations where students get to just let their hair down for a little bit. There’s so much pressure on our students now to find jobs and get the internships because there’s so much competition and the more you can have real discussions and show students that you’re a real person too, they can be really helpful. So again, you have to know your audience. You have to know what students are expecting and which improv exercise might take it a little too far and be a little too abstract. Something, maybe [LAUGHTER] that you would try in a communication class, you wouldn’t go that far in a chemistry class. But there are exercises, they run the gamut of how intense they’re going to be. So even just starting out with a little activity could really go a long way to having students break that ice and open up.

Rebecca: Is there a place where using the Alda Method would be particularly beneficial to embed? If you had a magic wand and you could embed it somewhere, where would it have the most impact?

Brenda: I would say federal funding. As part of federal funding, when people get grants, you’re starting to see the shift of what are the broader impacts of this project, we’re starting to see more interdisciplinary work come together and really be the requirement for some of these funding opportunities. And so actually coming in and having the Alda Method be part of an award, [LAUGHTER] a post-award requirement, have your research team and your community partners all go through this training together, learn how to not just do the research, but disseminate it out. Communicating it out is half the battle. If you’re doing all this research and you’re publishing in journals that the general public isn’t reading, how much impact does it really have? So being able to not just present it in the ways that we’re used to, but also to have conversations about it. I think a lot of people are not as comfortable with presentation in general, but then when you get into a conversation with interviews, or the media where it’s a little more uncertain, we’re just not trained in that, especially in a lot of the science fields, there’s just not a lot of training and expectations of that even in classes, so being able to weave it in. I would say in a perfect world, if I could put it anywhere, that’s probably where I’d put it to really give these teams who are being awarded all this money, an extra tool in their toolkit to really be able to go out and disseminate that amazing work once they’re finished and throughout the process.

John: And as you were saying that, I was thinking back to COVID, when I was reading any scientific article by epidemiologists, or by other researchers, but then I’d hop on Facebook, or I’d look at Twitter and the discussions there seem to be somewhat different than the ones that were showing up in the journals or in the working papers. And I think you make a really good point there about suggesting that when people are going to do publicly funded research, having them develop skills in disseminating that information to the public could be a really useful public service.

Brenda: Well, I think what that also shows is the importance of knowing your audience. I think a lot of times we get up and we give presentations, because we think that’s what people need to know, and what people want to know. And when you actually start talking to them, that’s not actually what they’re interested in. So being able to have those conversations and break those walls down could really give scientists a whole new way of knowing and a whole new way of understanding their audience and what’s meaningful for them.

Rebecca: I like that you’re also kind of pointing out that the audience might be curious about things. I think sometimes we’re so in our own discipline or our own lane, that we forget that people outside of that lane might be curious about what we’re doing, or about what we’re studying, but don’t always have the language or a way to ask those questions or have access to that information.

Brenda: I think we take a lot for granted too. At the Alda Center, we call it the curse of knowledge. You don’t know what it’s like to not know something, once you know it. [LAUGHTER] It’s training we give doctors a lot. Remember what it was like the first time you heard this information. And imagine that it’s the first time for your audience. So even in talking about academic programs, there was this one time I was sitting next to a guy on an airplane, of course. And I said “oh, I do communication research.” And he’s like, “Oh, well tell me more about it.” And so I wanted to talk about my research into teams and healthcare. And I started talking and he was like, “Okay, so health communication, what is that?” And so our whole conversation evolved into a discussion of just defining health communication, something that, for me, was just part of my everyday vocabulary. So it wasn’t jargon to me. But in talking to someone else, it was a good reminder that hey, not everyone knows what this means. This is great. Like, let’s talk about it.

Rebecca: There’s been lots of things for us to think about in this conversation. So thank you so much for all of the food for thought. And we always wrap up with one final question, which is: “What’s next?”

Brenda: Well, that’s the million dollar question. For our graduate programs. I think we’re hoping one day to be able to build out a PhD program in communication so that we would have a professional pathway but we’d also have an academic pathway for those that are interested in that. For the center, continuing to build new programming and listening to the audience’s needs. What was important 5-10 years ago is not necessarily the same thing that’s important today, and what’s important today won’t be the same thing that is top of mind 10 years from now. So think just continuing to be present and listening to our audience’s needs, whether that’s public, whether that’s potential students, and just being able to respond to that and staying true to our mission and staying true to the science, I think will make a better world for everybody.

John: Well, thank you. We’re looking forward to seeing more informed science communication out there in the world. And it’s great that you’re doing this and I hope this spreads.

Brenda: Yeah, thank you so much for having me.

Rebecca: 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.

Ganesh: Editing assistance by Ganesh.


339. Industry to Faculty

Some faculty begin teaching as a second career, after working in industry. In this episode, Kevin McCullen and Michael Walters join us to discuss how their prior careers in industry helped prepare them to design authentic learning experiences for their students.

Kevin is an Associate Professor of Computer Science at SUNY Plattsburgh. Prior to joining the computer science department at Plattsburgh, Kevin worked for several years at IBM. Michael is an Associate Professor and Chair of the Physics Department at SUNY Plattsburgh. Prior to joining the Physics faculty, Michael was the CEO of EISWorks Technologies and a metrology engineer for Corning Inc.

Show Notes

  • Design Automation Conference (DAC)
  • Consortium for Computing Sciences in Colleges (CCSCNE)
  • Clark, D., & Talbert, R. (2023). Grading for growth: A guide to alternative grading practices that promote authentic learning and student engagement in higher education. Taylor & Francis.
  • Lang, J. M. (2008). On course: A week-by-week guide to your first semester of college teaching. Harvard University Press.
  • CircuitPython
  • R.P. Colwell, At random – Employee Performance Reviews, IEEE Computer, 35(9), 12-15, Sept 2002


John: Some faculty begin teaching as a second career, after working in industry. In this episode, we discuss how prior careers can prepare faculty to design authentic learning experiences for their students.


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 Kevin McCullen and Michael Walters. Kevin is an Associate Professor of Computer Science at SUNY Plattsburgh. Prior to joining the computer science department at Plattsburgh, Kevin worked for several years at IBM. Michael is an Associate Professor and Chair of the Physics Department at SUNY Plattsburgh. Prior to joining the Physics faculty, Michael was the CEO of EISWorks Technologies and a metrology engineer for Corning Inc. Welcome Kevin and Mike.

Mike: Thank you.

Kevin: Hello. I will just say 32 years is several.

John: It is. [LAUGHTER]

Rebecca: I think that’s the official definition. Well, today’s teas are:… Kevin, are you drinking any tea?

Kevin: I have Harney and Son’s Hot Cinnamon Sunset.

Rebecca: Oh, that’s a good one.

Kevin: It’s my go to tea.

Mike: And I accidentally left my tea in the car, but I do have a cinnamon tea that is by Tazo.

Rebecca: Yum..

John: Very nice.

Rebecca: Cinnamon’s are a favorite at my house.

John: I have that too, and I enjoy that one. Today, though, I have a spring cherry green tea.

Rebecca: And today I have Hunan Noir, which is very tasty.

John: Each of you received a PhD and worked in industry for a number of years before joining the professoriate. We’ve invited you here to discuss the transition from industry to academia. Many of us just went to school and never left. And we thought it would be interesting to hear the perspective of people who’ve been out there working and returned to academia. Could you tell us a little bit about your initial careers in industry?

Kevin: Well, actually, I took the roundabout path in that I joined IBM after my bachelor’s degree and IBM paid for my graduate work through programs that they don’t have so much anymore. And I always wanted to teach. And when I graduated as an undergraduate many years ago, I was kind of burned out on school. And then it gets hard to leave after a while because it becomes very comfortable. But eventually I kind of felt like it was time. I was becoming I would say more uncomfortable in the situation I was in in industry and opportunity presented itself. I had actually been looking for a number of years for a good local opportunity because I didn’t want to relocate. My wife still works for IBM. And Plattsburgh had an opening and I applied for it. And there’s a very funny story in there with the conversations with my management over that. But I applied for it, and they accepted me, and it’s been a lot of fun.

John: You mentioned a funny story, I think [LAUGHTER] that requires a follow up.

Kevin: Oh, it was just that I had submitted a presentation to an industry conference. So I’d gone through all the clearance work to get it approved, patent clearance and all those things, and it was not accepted. And then when the position opened up, and I applied for it, and Plattsburgh invited me to come over and give a presentation, I went to my manager, and I said, “So do you remember that presentation that we got approved for DAC? Can I go give it at SUNY Plattsburgh?” And she said, “Why?” And I said, “Well, they have an opening, and I’d like to apply for it.” And I said, “Don’t worry too much about it, because my guess is that they can’t afford me, even if they do give me an offer.” And she said, “Sure, go ahead and do it.” So I came back to her about a month later. And I said, “Good news or bad news. The bad news is they can’t afford me. The good news is I’m going to take the job anyway.” And we parted on good terms.

Mike: So I did get my PhD before starting in industry. And I sort of backed my way into industry. I was thinking about staying in teaching, but I was worried I wasn’t a good enough physicist to actually go for it. I have impostor syndrome very badly. And so I looked at going into industry because I was worried I was going to only teach freshman physics for the rest of my life, because that’s the only thing anybody would trust me to do. I went into industry for nine years, I did not have to approach anybody to see if it was time to leave, because they approached me and said, “Congratulations, you work your way into a research position at a production facility. That’s a pretty awesome job. And now we’re in a recession. So we don’t need you. Goodbye.” [LAUGHTER] I applied to a couple places in industry, had a position semi-offered to me at a solar panel facility in Oregon. And I could not say to the person who’s trying to hire, “Do you want this job?” He asked me three times. And after the third time, his shoulders just slumped and said, “You can just tell, okay, that was done.” And on my way home, my wife asked me, “Well, how did it go?” I’m like, “ah, I didn’t get that job.” I told her what happened. She’s like, “That’s lovely, dear. You have to figure out what you want to be when you grow up because we need a paycheck.” And at that time, I said, “Do you mind if I tried to go back into teaching? I think I really want to go back to it. Maybe I can not teach just freshman physics.” And so I adjuncted for a year at two institutions near my parents’ house. And SUNY Plattsburgh was looking for somebody who had a physics background but had engineering experience for their engineering three plus two program. I was a visiting professor for a year and then worked my way into a regular position.

Rebecca: I think there’s a lot of folks that are considering moving around and shifting careers at different points in their career. Can you talk a little bit about what that actual transition felt like that first year, maybe, back in academia?

Mike:Well, I can say three things that strike me when I was moving back into academia. Number one, I surprised myself finding out I can teach something besides freshman physics, so that was a great thing to figure out in getting some confidence there. The second thing was, and Kevin and I have joked around about this before, the pressures of academia in general, compared to the pressures in industry are at different scales. [LAUGHTER] And so we used to have fun when people would come up and talk about the pressures of doing stuff, we’d sort of chuckle a little bit, and go,”Yeah, this is pressure,” and I respect it, because there is definitely pressures in academia. But we can also talk about the times when you’re sitting around the office going, “Am I on the cutting block this time around?” …because you know, layoffs are coming this month, or even if you’re not on the cutting block, looking around at your friends and going, “Who’s not going to be here next month?” …is not a pleasant feeling. So being in academia made me feel more relaxed. I didn’t have tenure yet, but just the idea of knowing you belong, and you would know, hopefully, coming up if something was going to happen that way. And lastly, the camaraderie of the department … I am blessed to be in a department that was a very close-knit department. They were very supporting, they felt bad that initially, my office was in the middle of nowhere in a closet, basically, because that’s all the space they had. Kevin, I was on the fourth floor in one of those little side cubby holes. I only could see the sky from a skylight, literally everything else was cement.

Kevin: I thought you were talking about the office I first saw you in which also resembled a closet.

Mike: Yes, well, that was a different closet, [LAUGHTER] but it was a better closet. But anyhow, it was great having that camaraderie and having that trust, and that trust grew into a new major, because they trusted me to go ahead and take out the robotics major, and kick the wheels and let it go out for a spin.

Kevin: For me, it’s autonomy. I see a lot of people, I read the Chronicle and such, and it’s like making the transition to industry, and I’m thinking they’re going to have an interesting end of the year when they sit down with their manager to talk about how they did against their goals for that year, because it can be a little head spinning. My first year, I kind of felt a little lost, because it’s like if you had a guide, if everything you do is coming down from above, even if we get to a relatively high level in an organization like IBM, you’re driven by strategies that are sent to you and you are a piece of that strategy. And now you’re kind of an independent agent. And it took me a little while to get comfortable with that. But Mike and I both know people who really, really are struggling with the pressures of academia and all the things. I feel like I have a lot more ability to say “JNo,” and to say, “No, this is my limit of how much I am willing to take on and so I’m just going to steady on here.

John: I was talking to one of my advisees, who’s planning to go into a PhD program. And he said he was researching the market for a PhD economist, and he noted that jobs in industry paid a lot more than jobs in academia, and jobs in the government was somewhere in between academic jobs, and that, and he asked why there was such a big difference. And I used basically the argument that you just used, that you get a lot more autonomy when you’re in an academic setting, in terms of research, in terms of what you teach, in terms of what you focus on. And that’s something that I think we all value quite a bit. Was there anything that was surprising when you made the transition to an academic environment full time?

Mike: I’ll go with the autonomy. I mean, that was really surprising. Where all of a sudden nobody was breathing down my back. Where are the deliverables that you were supposed to get here? Other than getting classes together and doing your best that way? Yeah.

Kevin: I’m gonna go back to actually, it was a funny question I asked the Dean when I was hired, because I have kind of a long commute, as does Mike. And I was a little concerned about doing a commute from Vermont to New York five days a week on the ferry. And I asked the Dean, what are the expectations in terms of like, where you work, because even at IBM into the 2000s, we did a lot of working from home, pretty flexible work environment. And he said, one of the biggest changes when he moved out of teaching into administration was an expectation that he was in his office. And it’s the freedom and the flexibility. I’ll say one other thing, that was kind of weird, though. It’s the summers, and I’m a volunteer with several organizations. And immediately there was an assumption that I had nothing to do during the summer, and that I would immediately become available to them. And what I’ve taken to telling people is, the way that summers work is, I have a lot of things to do, but nowhere I have to be. And by the way, biggest surprise is that from what I have observed, we have the whole summer and everyone still does their syllabus three days before the semester starts.

Rebecca: We’re deadline driven, [LAUGHTER] just like our students. We are no different and that’s for sure. Can you talk a little bit about how your prior work experience has shaped your teaching practices.

Mike: So when I first came back into teaching, I taught in a very traditional sense. I would have the PowerPoint slides, I would have the graded homework, I would have the tests and exams in class so we can make sure everything is all above board and all that other fun stuff. And then as I go through, I think more and more back on what was important when I was working, and how that work environment operated. I now have moved as far away from trying to test as minimally as possible, if not never, and do much more project-based learning because that’s what I did. And even when I give a test, I would give a two-fold piece of the test. The first bullet piece is the closed book portion, which never ever had a calculation in it. And I told my students, when I was at a meeting, I was there as a knowledge source. And so I’d have to know somethings off the top of my head. That’s what they paid me the money for . And then if they asked me a question about X, Y, or Z, that had to have some calculations based into it, we’ve never had to do it right there on the table. That was not something you did. You could go back to your office, you could use all your resources, you could pull together the things you needed for that project. And so I tried now to model my classroom along those points, I will tell them, these are the things you need to know off the top of your head, this is the stuff that they’re going to pay you for that boom, boom, boom, you need to know. But everything else, Google is your friend, having your textbook there is your friend. And so on any of that stuff it’s open book, open notes. It’s a little harder with AI now. I’m not going to lie. But still, in general, if I was in industry, that would probably be where I would start as well. Oh, I need to do this. Okay, “Hey Google blah, blah, blah, blah, blah.” There’s my starting point. Now let’s move on forward.

Kevin: I think two things. So I spent the 32 years that I was at IBM, I spent one year doing microprocessor design and the other 31 years, I was in software development. And I’m a big believer in soft skills. And some of that comes from also being an ex-Scoutmaster, and heavily involved in scouting. But I tell my students, I try to instill in them the idea that your communication skills are vital to your advancement in your career. Everybody can code, but as you advance in your career, as you go further up the ladder, you’ll have larger responsibilities and you have more communication responsibilities, till you reach a certain point in which you live from being as technical toward being more in terms of communication. But one of the last things I worked on was I was basically project managing the, what they call the enablement for a test site, which is to say, just getting all the pieces together to build an experimental chip and a new technology. And that was primarily a communication job, it was a project management kind of thing. The other thing is the importance of group work and project work. And being able to work with other people that those, I think, as well as for my computer science students, algorithms really do matter. And anybody can write code that slow. But it’s important that you understand enough of the algorithms. And that’s because I entered industry as an electrical engineer, I had no background in any of those things. And I wrote some spectacularly bad code, when I was back in my 20s, before I started taking some graduate courses and going, “Oh, wow, there’s a better way to do this.” And so those are kind of the things that I think are important.

Mike: I want to piggyback on the group work part, I do a lot of group work as well. And one of the things I tell my students because I will always get the “Well, I’m the strongest person on this team, I’m doing all the work.” And I go to a “Yeah, congratulations. I said there was never a project that was less than $20,000 I worked on by myself. You’re always part of a team, you’re never a loan problem solver, if there’s money involved, because they want the others to be part of it and keep track of it and make sure it happens as fast as possible.” So group work where sometimes we let them off because of the whole stigma of “I’m going to be the only person working on it. Everybody is going to be a hanger on.” Well, when you get paid, that’s going to happen too and all you have to do is smile and say, “Yay, thank you,” and keep going [LAUGHTER] because you’re getting paid to do the thing.

Kevin: But I’ll just add that there’s no industry group I’ve ever worked on, where there weren’t checkpoints and communication of where things were. And so I know Mike does a lot of these kinds of things as well, which is the idea that what happened when we were undergrads where they basically say, “alright, you’re in a group, go do this, and then deliver the product.” So even in student groups, the importance of having checkpoints, and I basically have them write progress reports like you would do in industry along the way. It’s not “Here’s the project, go do it. Now here’s an end result.” It’s more like “Okay, you’ve gone for a week. What has each person done? What’s your next step?” Those kinds of things.

Mike: And while we’re trying to develop these skills for students going into industry, we think that there… well, I say, and probably Kevin will agree, they’re important no matter where you’re going to go into, including academia or any of the other spots. So I don’t want to make it sound like we’re trying to educate students just to go into a particular engineering job. But this is more of a realistic facet of life in general.

Rebecca: Do you think you both would have found this same path in teaching had you not had the industry experience and kind of underscoring and value some of the same things that you do now?

Mike: Absolutely not. You like what you’ve seen, and so we would have seen “sage on the stage,” and that is what we’d do. And to a point, that’s where we all start, right? I mean, there’s that sage on the stage piece, and then you start saying, “Okay, there’s got to be something better, because I’m not reaching all my students.” So how can I do that with the knowledge that you never will reach all of your students, but you got to give it the best bet you can.

Kevin: I think when I started, one of the big differences was the deference that people showed, it’s like, “Oh, you’re a faculty member, oh…”, and I worry, actually, if I had been 28, and started teaching at that point, that that would have gone to my head, and I would have started to believe my own PR. I don’t see people around me with that problem, but kind of a stereotype of academia. And you do read stories about actual faculty who are like that. But working in industry can give you a good strong sense of humility, because you have successes, and you have failures along the way.

Mike: So I will say in industry, there was still some of that out there. I mean, I used to get emails from my PhD colleagues down in Painted post, who would talk down to me because I was at a plant saying, “Oh, let me explain this to you in very simple terms.” In the very next email, I would just respond. “Well, thank you so much for your guided steps. Dr. Michael Walters, PhD da da da da da.” it was amazing. The next email was much more as an equal instead of I will talk down to you because you are way out there in the hinterlands. Do you know how to rub two sticks together to get fired, because you might need that you’re in the cold part of the country.

John: That reminds me of a time when I was coaching soccer for my sons’ teams. And there was another child who was on the same team three or four times over a space of four or five years. And there was an article that mentioned me in a local newspaper, and this mother came up to me and said, “Well, I knew you worked at the college, but I assumed you were a janitor there.” It was an interesting experience, because she always saw me out there in sweatpants and t-shirts and just assumed “Well, that’s not how a professor looks.” I think maybe that attitude is more common in elite private institutions, Ivy League, and so forth. I don’t think I’ve seen it at Oswego, which is very much like Plattsburgh, in terms of being a four-year comprehensive college.

Kevin: Well, if you wanted to, you could have coached in the tweed jacket with the elbow patches, and then they’d have all known.

Mike: And a pipe, you gotta have the pipe. You don’t have to put anything in the pipe, because that’s bad. But just the pipe itself.

John: I actually had one of those sports jackets. And it was a running joke with some of my students back in the 1980s, [LAUGHTER] because I just had that one sports jacket, and I wore it whenever there were honors, awards, and so forth. And they still ask me about it 35 years later. [LAUGHTER] But you know, one of the things I’m hearing from both of you is that you’re both doing some authentic assessments, which is something that we’re trying to encourage faculty to do in general, to move beyond the traditional types of teaching. How do you find that students react to these types of group projects or the teamwork or other things that you’re having them do?

Kevin: I’ve had, I think, a lot of success with it. I can’t think of any really bad experiences. Mike’s nodding his head. But I have a poster actually coming up at CCSCNE on our tech startup class, that actually, Dr. Del Hart, our department chair, the person who kind of came up with this idea, and then he came to me and he said, “So you’ve worked in industry, and you’ve been a Scoutmaster, how would you like to try leading this class, and it’s a multi-level multi-semester class where students basically can take on different roles based on whether they’re 400, 300, or 200 level in the class, and projects can run for multiple semesters?” And it’s probably one of the most fun classes I’ve ever taught. Because a lot of times I found myself, I don’t teach it now, but I found myself actually telling them “Slow down a little bit. Let’s establish some realistic goals. I know you’re very excited about what you want to do here.” But I think generally, I find the project work goes really well. But I do try really hard to make sure that I’m aware of what they think is going on with their team through various assignments that I collect that are like reflections or statuses.

Mike: I’ve had overall success. There have been times where there’s been failures, one or two semi spectacularly. We do a intermediate robotics lab, which is a project-based group class and at the beginning of the semester I give them what I call a 90% google-able project and say “Okay, from here on out, your group is now doing this for the rest of the semester. If you get done with part A, there is a part B you can have as a stretch goal if you want, but this is what you need to do.” And I try to emphasize that failure still means you can get an A, it just means that you failed at trying to get the project to work. The 10% is the hardest part of the whole project for any of these projects. Working for Corning, I was working on the bleeding edge of technology. And so I was always a horrible person till then in saying how long it’s gonna take to do something because I’ll say “it takes two weeks,” because it looks simple. And at the end of the two weeks, my boss would come back to me, “How’s that going?”” I got the first step kind of done.”” What do you mean kind of done?” “We’re still inventing something brand new, it didn’t happen as fast as I was hoping.” So when the project does work, this 90% thing, it’s great to see the students get excited, they see progress, they keep moving. And then what’s funny is then the cockiness will come out and say we can get this done in that three weeks, I’m like, “Yep, you’re just like me, we’ll see you at the end of the semester.” And sure enough, [LAUGHTER] that’s when it’ll happen, because they’ll run into wall after wall after wall because that last 10% is hard. But I do get sometimes, like this past semester, where the project I picked ended up being a failure. By the end of the semester, it did not work the way it was supposed to work, they could not get the robot to do the thing. And you can tell that towards the end, they were getting really down. I mean, really, really down. And at our final session where we basically talked about what worked and what didn’t work for the project, basically, I told them, “This is what happens probably 25 to 50% of the time in industry. You’re going to work on a project, work on a project, and it’s not going to work.” And there’s times when you got to sit down and say why doesn’t this work? And then go to your boss and say, “Well, you either a didn’t give us enough information, or enough resources or a combination of the two.” And I told them, “I didn’t give them enough resources to make it happen.” But we got to this point. So I pumped them up like, “Here’s the teamwork that you did, this is all great.” And they all got their “A” because every single person contributed and worked towards it. But those failures can sometimes be problematic. On the flip side of it, doing so much non-assessing means I go ahead and give them a lot of homework assignments that once again, are graded basically, “did you hand it in?” Did it kind of do the thing was supposed to do? Yay, you get all the points. And what’s funny is I thought this semester where I cut up all my tests. I have no test this semester whatsoever. Everything is you have homework, classwork, and a project. That’s it. And the beginning of semester, I was nervous. I was like, how am I going to differentiate? Not that I care. If all the students get As I’m happy. But I just want to know if I had to differentiate, how am I going to do the differentiation based on the system? Well, my students have proven to me that they can self select, because they stopped doing assignments. So they stopped doing whatever. And it’s like, “okay, this is how self selection will work.” It’s not that I don’t even come to them, say, “by the way, you haven’t handled this in…” “yeah, I’ll get to it.” We’re human, they’re not going to get to it. And that’s fine, too. But it ends up being almost more psychological of “You didn’t prove to me, not only that you didn’t know the material, but you also showed that you didn’t have the discipline to get that piece done.” And whether that is the focus of my class or not, I don’t know. That’s the negative to this type of assessment. I can’t tell if it’s because they didn’t know the material. So therefore, they didn’t feel comfortable trying to finish the assignment, or whether life happened. And that’s the only negative I’ve seen so far about using this assessment, because you see them not be so stressed, because there’s a test coming up and not be so focused “I’ve got to cram this thing together,” then five minutes later don’t know a single thing when you go talk to me in the hallway about what I put on the piece of paper.

Kevin: It’s funny in that class that I started by actually did something that would be called ungrading. And I used something I’d found in an article years ago, I could find the reference if I had to, but it was how Intel assessed people is managers would come in initially with a sheaf of overhead slides, then they’d have “this person should be promoted.” And you look at it’s here slide 1 of 60 kind of thing. And they went to this thing, I think they call it three up, three down, where you had to give three positive and three negative for the person and then summarize. And I actually had my students in that class for their midterm and their final grade, they had to do those. They had to do a self assessment, they had to tell me three things they were proud of, three things they could have done better or they didn’t do well, what they thought their final grade shouldn’t be and why. That class, though, that was a pretty much a highly selective class, that it was very, very seldom that a student checked out. And part of that was because the person in charge of their project was the 400 level student who they had agreed to work on that project with. And so there was a lot of peer interaction that led to just generally, I think, really good outcomes. Dr. Lecky’s teaching the class now, and from what I hear, he’s having a very similar experience with that course sequence.

John: One of the things we’re doing right now, and I know Kevin, you’ve already been participating in this, is a reading group on Grading for Growth by Robert Talbert and David Clark. And one of the points they make in their book is that, while we’re so used to traditional grading because we grew up with it, and that’s what we’ve always done in some way, one issue is the only time people tend to be graded this way is in academia, when they’re working in industry, they’re reviewed, but they don’t get grades, they either meet the requirements or they don’t, or if they exceed them, there are chances of promotion and so forth. But in pretty much everything else, including our own careers, we get renewed, we get tenure at some point, and there may be some other additional pay increases based on how well you’ve done. But we don’t get letter grades. And we don’t get numeric grades every year. And one of the things I’m noticing is you’re both doing some types of grading that are closer to the types of experience that you’d find in industry. Do you think that made you perhaps more willing to try these types of things that a lot of faculty have been really reluctant to experiment with?

Mike: I think so. When we talk about the industry thing it brought back a story, I one time was in a review, and I was rather well paid at this plant. And so they had high expectations for the salary they were paying me. I remember, I was talking to the plant managing engineer and they even brought the plant manager in during my review. So either this was gonna be a really good thing or a really bad thing. When I walk into the room. It’s like, okay, which way is this gonna go? I thought it was a bad thing. But what’s funny was they gave me a “met expectations.” But the plant manager turned to me he and he goes “I expected you to “exceed expectations.” I’m like, “Well, how am I supposed to exceed expectations? By default, you’re saying that is your expectation. So therefore, I either met the expectation or I didn’t.” And we got into a heated verbal argument for a little while. And eventually, I said, “Look, you either give me met expectations, or I didn’t meet expectations, I don’t care. But what you just said makes no sense.” And she threw up her hands and left, and I got “met expectations.” But it was just one of those things. It’s like even using these types of methodologies, sometimes you get conflicting viewpoints that goes forward. As to what your question asks, yeah, I think with the industry, this is why I’m gravitated towards that. I teach a class called fundamentals of engineering design. And when I tell the students why this class is there, I said, it’s everything I wish I knew as an engineer, before I became one. I was a physicist, I didn’t go through any of these preparatory courses, and then boom, here’s an engineering role, go run with it. And so being able to help my students be in a better situation when they go out into industry, which I assume most of my students are going to do, is a good thing. And any of the skills they pick up because of this isn’t bad if they stay in academia. Maybe this helps break the cycle of, we only can test and do homework for grades. By the way, I’m just gonna throw out my pet peeve for all of you out there listening. My biggest pet peeve is if you grade homework like a test, and count it, where are the students supposed to make the mistakes? That’s the thing that always used to tick me off. Where do I practice and get legitimate feedback on my practice, to know where I’m making a mistake such that when I go ahead and then perform, I know I’m performing at a higher level. That part always bothered me when I was an undergraduate. That was from day one, when I started adjuncting, I said, I’m not going to do that. Homework is going to be: did you try it or did you not try it, period, That’s it.

Kevin: I’m gonna make just one little thing. IBM really, really tried very hard for a long time to just grade people. We had a system where you had an appraisal or a personal business commitment. And at the end of the year, your manager basically gave you a score from one to five. The system changed many times over my years, but: one was, you’re on track, we’re going to promote you, you’re doing awesome, and a five was it was nice knowing you, but you generally knew where you were going to fall. And I won’t get into all of the arguments over the years as to whether there were ratios or stacked ranking, and at what level in the organization, there was a quota on how many could be at each thing. Actually, those kinds of systems caused a lot of the negativity that made me think that maybe I wanted to go to teach. I think, for me, one of the really big things has been, as soon as I started teaching, I started trying to learn how to teach, because I walked in the door, I adjuncted for one class at the University of Vermont, it was a graduate-level course and I really enjoyed it, and it was great. But I realized how much I didn’t know about teaching. I had my teaching statement when I applied for the job, actually leaned really, really heavily on stuff I’d learned as a boy scout leader, and then like a leadership course called wood badge, a six day leadership program. And I had learned a lot of what was basically active learning as part of that program, something called the edge method: Explain, Demonstrate, Guide, Enable sort of thing. And so I had kind of this foundation that came from a very non-traditional place in terms of pedagogy. And I came in and I started out doing exactly what I had experienced, which was you stand up, you lecture, you use PowerPoint, it’s really cool, you give homeworks but at the same time I started reading stuff and a lot of it was James Lang’s books. I think I’ve read all of his books, because the first one I read was On Course, and I think that they should give every new faculty member a copy of that book during orientation, because it got me through my first year. I have a copy in my office that I think has got a thousand post it notes stuck in it. And then I started reading his other books. And then I started reading the books he was talking about. And these days, I love to teach my classes in our programming lab, because when I can, it takes more prep time, but it makes actually the class easier for me in a lot of ways to do a little bit of lecturing and then say, “Okay, now you get the computer in front of you, go make JavaScript to do this.” And I’m going to walk around the room and help you do it. And so you’re kind of turning even lecture sections into labs, in that sense. And I find that’s a lot of fun for me. And I think the students find it more interesting, because some of them kind of struggle. But the thing is, there’s me, and there’s the other students around them. Like when I give quizzes, now I hand out a quiz, I say, “Take about 10 minutes and work on this.” And I say, “Okay, now compare your notes with your neighbors.” And then I say, “alright, let’s discuss it.” And at the end, I collect it, and basically say, “There you go, you get credit for being here, because you did this.” And I have a couple of students and Mike would know their names, I won’t mention them, they sit there, and when I give him one of these things, they’re way beyond anything I’ve even envisioned, they’ve gone off. But other students, I have to sit with them and help them. And I just find that’s a lot more satisfying for me as a teacher than to stand at a whiteboard and scribble on it for 50 minutes, or mine are all an hour and 15 minutes this way I set my schedule up.

Mike: I’ll agree with that, and I’m actually moving more and more of my courses over to, I will give you the bare minimum that you need to do what I’m about to ask you to do, and then go do this thing. And practice it there. And I’ll walk around, I’ll help out, we’ll talk to everybody, make it much more of a laboratory class, even though it’s not a laboratory class, just because the interaction between their peers, their interaction with me, becomes more of a one on one instead of one on many. Way back when, I used to start off my class, when I would teach introductory physics with saying, “You could learn from the book everything I’m about to show you, and that’d be great. And if you never show up and just show up for the test, you could do that. Awesome, congratulations, we’ll see these dates and have a great time. I know. But if you come here and just listen to me, that gives you the book and me. But here’s the more important thing, look around the room, there’s 40 other people here. So that’s me, 39 other people and you. All of a sudden you have lots of teachers that could work with you. And as long as I help facilitate you being able to use that resource, you have many, many more options, because I might not have the analogy you need. But your friend next to you or the one over two rows from you might have that analogy you need to make that connection.”

John: Could you each share some of your favorite teaching activities that you use in your classes?

Mike: I’m trying to teach them brainstorming methods, especially technical brainstorming. I have 1 2 3 4 5 6 whiteboards in my room. And I’m going to ask in front of each whiteboard, “I want three technologies, just random three technologies.” I’ll keep writing them down without telling them what’s happening, three technologies on every whiteboard. And then I break them up into groups and give them each one color markers. They always use their color marker and say, “Okay, now the six groups go to each of your boards, you now have two minutes to write every single technology product you can come up with, that’s a combination of some sort, matter, or form of those three technologies.” And sometimes like it could be weird stuff like ice cream, rocketry, and such and such, and I’m like, “Yep, now you got to figure out how you’re going to combine those three.” And I tell them, “Okay, so if you’re the first person on the board, you’re gonna put a one next to your thing, you only get one point for every one you come up with. Then you’re gonna draw a line and the next group comes up, they get two points per thing they come up with, they can’t come up with something that you already have, all the way up to that final group, where now five of the groups that brainstormed, but everything you come up with now is worth six points.” So it’s like you get one or two things you just made up for your first board and second board without a problem. But it really shows them, sometimes those six pointers at the end, when you’re really just grasping at straws, become the things that you want to move forward on. It goes to writing even. So I know when I do my writing, it’s like that first draft, you did all the easy stuff. Now throw out all the easy stuff, and I’ll start putting the second and third order stuff that might make it much more interesting.

Rebecca: That’s a great exercise. It’s really hard to get students to get to that further step. They want to stop at step one or two.

Mike: Oh exactly, and making it a competition of which team can get the most points, get some of them, their juices flowing. And it’ll be funny because at the end, we go through everybody’s stuff like “is this a legitimate idea?” No, cross it off. Then it doesn’t count. That’s a group response of rating, basically, of the thing. And it’s funny because at the end, most of the time, I can’t get through all six boards by the end, and they’ll be sitting there going: “We got to finish this. I want to know who won.”

Kevin: …favorite teaching activities. I really do like and I do it a lot now, which is to give the students little coding challenges in C++ or JavaScript class, which is to basically hand out something that looks like a quiz, but it’s basically: here’s some coding, let’s do do this simple coding thing in class, because if I handed out as a homework, well, they could try using ChatGPT. Although I have to at some point talk with Mike about the fact that one of my students tried that and ChatGPT hallucinated a library for circuit Python that doesn’t exist. And as I said, on social media to my friends, I’m happy to set up a PayPal account, if ChatGPT wants to hire me as a consultant to debug their program’s mistakes, because the poor student had no idea what to do, because the code he was given was incomprehensible. But I really like giving the students an exercise to do in class. The second place I would say, was, when I taught our ethics course, I did a lot of debates in class. And sometimes I would let them self select what side they wanted to be on the issue like drone warfare things, other times, I would kind of assign them. And when they balk at that, I’d kind of lean hard into my own experience and say, “Well, you know, I debated in high school, and you didn’t get to choose what side you were on. And it helps sharpen your brain to argue something that you don’t necessarily agree with, to try to logically follow it.” I would say for in classroom, those would be for out of classroom, like project kind of things, the posters, having students do a poster session, at the end of the semester, actually printing the posters, and putting them up in the lobby of our building. And then having kind of a little session where people can walk around, just like a conference poster session.

Rebecca: it’s really great to hear the different ways that both of you have incorporated your industry experience into the classroom from changing grading systems to thinking about consistent feedback throughout the semester so that students can learn and always being on that verge of not quite knowing what’s coming next, like you are often when you’re in a tech field and having to constantly learn or have professional development or try things that are brand new to you. But we always wrap up by asking: “what’s next?”

Kevin: I am, as the phrase goes, playing with house money. I was at IBM for 32 years, my wife still works there. I continue to do this because I really enjoy it. And I love all three aspects of the job in academia, I love the research, which we do research, I think I would say with a small r,, not like R1 with a capital R. I love the research, I really liked the service. All that time I did at IBM, I can do committees like you wouldn’t believe. I know how to do that kind of stuff. And I know how to be helpful in that way. And I love the teaching. I mean, I’m teaching an honors seminar on algorithmic bias this fall that I’ve taught once before. I really enjoy teaching a new class every once in a while or creating a class. It’s a very intellectually stimulating field. And I’ll just do it until my wife and I decide it’s time to be able to go to Disney World in September or something. And my guess is that a few years down the road, I’ll probably retire. And I will continue to adjunct because the great thing about adjuncting is you can keep an email address and you can also still get discounts on software. [LAUGHTER] I kid you not. It’s kind of like “Hey, I’ve got all of the Adobe tools and I was playing with Dreamweaver for my JavaScript class and generative AI creating images the other day.” I’m so curiosity driven that continuing to teach as long as I’m enjoying it.

Mike: My “what’s next” is to try to become a better evangelizer for the robotics major here at Plattsburgh. We’ve been growing it slowly, and I firmly believe in what opportunities it allows people to have it going towards the future. I run a not for profit here in Plattsburgh that works with middle schoolers and high schoolers to give them robotics opportunities on Saturdays. I do this major, I’m chair just so I can make sure I have the time to devote to doing things. It is fun, starting something and watching it grow up. And I’m just having a ball with it. All the stresses and anxiety that come with that as well. But yeah, that’s my what’s next.

John: And going back to Kevin’s comment, before you make the decision to go to Disney World in September. If you start teaching online or doing some more work teaching online, there is the Online Learning Consortium, which has a conference at Disney World in November, which is a really great time to leave the Northeast. And it’s a four-day conference, but you get the special conference rates at the hotel for a couple of days before and a couple of days after. So you might be able to combine those things.

Kevin: I will have to look into that because the best conference I ever went to is Design Automation Conference, it was held at the San Diego Convention Center and I went to that a couple times for IBM for CAD software and it’s one of those 6000-person trade show conferences, top end technical conference and on the trade show floor, everybody’s collecting polo shirts and desk-y gadgets, that kind of thing. It can be a lot of fun. And I have stories about that that are actually very funny as well, because when you’re at one of those and the part of the company you work for actually competes with many of the companies you’re visiting, eventually they kind of figure out that you’re asking questions that an ordinary customer would not ask. [LAUGHTER] And they’re kind of like, what exactly do you do for them?

Rebecca: Well, thank you so much for joining us. It was great to get a chance to talk to you in more depth.

Kevin: This was fun.

Mike: 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.

Ganesh: Editing assistance by Ganesh.


338. Diversifying the Education Pipeline

Diversifying various fields and disciplines requires intentional work to create and support a pipeline of practitioners. In this episode, Laura Spenceley joins us to discuss specific initiatives to increase inclusion in the PK-12 sector. Laura is the Dean of the School of Education here at SUNY Oswego. She is an Impact Academy Fellow through the national non-profit organization Deans for Impact which works to strengthen and diversify the educator workforce.


John: Diversifying various fields and disciplines requires intentional work to create and support a pipeline of practitioners. In this episode, we talk about specific initiatives to increase inclusion in the PK-12 sector


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 Laura Spenceley. Laura is the Dean of the School of Education here at SUNY Oswego. She is an Impact Academy Fellow through the national non-profit organization Deans for Impact which works to strengthen and diversify the educator workforce. Welcome, Laura.

Laura: So great to be with you two today. I’m really excited for our conversation.

John: It’s overdue. We’re really happy to be talking to you today. And we’re talking to you from a new room which the School of Education has graciously loaned to us because we lost our old recording space, and we’re now able to keep the podcast going. So thank you.

Laura: You’re most welcome. And truly, I can’t think of a more symbiotic relationship between Tea for Teaching, the opportunity to host you here in the School of Education, and continue this great work and digging into pedagogy issues across the education continuum. And having you right here in-house makes a lot of sense.

John: Our teas today are:… Laura, are you drinking any tea?

Laura: I am not a tea drinker. But I do have a robust French roast in my mug today.

Rebecca: A popular flavor of tea, as we’ve noted multiple times here on the podcast. I have Hunan Jig today, John, I thought it was a good celebratory sounding tea.

John: And I have a spring cherry green tea in a brand new School of Education mug, which I just received today. Thank you.

Laura: You’re welcome.

Rebecca: In your role as the Dean of the School of Education, you’re involved in the entire P-20 pathway. The School of Education has received two large grants to help support students pursuing careers in education. Could you tell us a little bit about these grants?

Laura: I’m thrilled to talk more about these opportunities. And these two projects are our teacher opportunity core grant, that’s our TOC grant and our Cultivating Representation in School Psychology grant. Both of these grants are, as their name may imply, designed to help us recruit, support, retain and move through into careers, teachers and school psychologists from a wide range of backgrounds. It’s a well known fact across most educational spaces that folks who are delivering instruction or providing support services don’t always represent the constituent student populations with whom they work. And each of these programs are designed to 1. help ensure that we have a representative and diverse education workforce. But more importantly than that, they’re also designed to ensure that as we recruit and matriculate students into our teacher preparation programs and school psychology program, that we’re investing in those candidates along the way, recognizing that students from historically marginalized groups are often more likely to have challenges in persisting through their academic programs, both undergraduate and graduate. So each of these programs has some similar foundational elements. That includes financial support along the continuum of their educational program, again, undergraduate or graduate, support for things like transportation, professional development opportunities. And those professional development opportunities are really designed to empower our students from those historically marginalized or underrepresented spaces in their fields with contemporary activities that will help them address systemic discrepancies in schools. So making classrooms more responsive to the needs of the multicultural communities in which they reside, helping ensure that our future psychologists and educators have opportunities to work with people along the way that look like them, that share their lived experiences, and build that really continuum of care around their success. It’s also a great opportunity for us as educators, leaders, teachers, to be invested in those spaces with them and hearing from their mouths, what their challenges are, what their opportunities are in districts and really working to empower them for a career in education.

John: And the School of Education has always been engaged in working with students from all these marginalized groups that you’ve mentioned. What other types of support, though, have you been working on developing in the School of Ed for students who are first-gen students, Pell-eligible students, or from historically minoritized groups?

Laura: It’s a great question, John, and I’m so thankful to have the opportunity to chat about it because I think sometimes, as is human nature, we want to create responses or programming from a perspective of “all first gen-students might need this thing” or “all Pell-eligible students might need this thing” and we’ve been certainly sensitive to the realities that those populations experience, but also have tried to take a step back and take a more nuanced approach to that work. I’ve had the opportunity to be in the Dean’s position for about three years now. And when I came in the door, it was the year after the global pandemic. And so, so much of what we knew here on a college campus and in our P-12 spaces in the community had just been turned on its head. So when I came into the dean’s office, one of the things that was really important was to hear from our students, our candidates pursuing their degrees, what are the challenges that you’re experiencing? And I need to give a shout out to Dr. Nicole Brown, our director of our clinical practice and partnerships office, she really had this vision of surveying students, engaging in some listening sessions with those students. And we took the opportunity to deploy a survey about how students were experiencing their programs, but also the challenges that they were experiencing. And those data were humbling, to say the least. We learned back in 2021-22, about one in five of our students was having to make the choice between eating and paying for gas to get to their placements. About one in four of our students had to go without a meal at a certain point so that they would be able to engage. We recognize, and this was not a new problem, but just how challenging transportation to and from their clinical sites was becoming particularly in a time where we were very sensitive to being in enclosed spaces. And so we took that opportunity to reflect on the ways we weren’t just to use quotes, “utilizing the resources,” like our teacher opportunity core program, but to really recalibrate the way we were engaging with all students. And so what that looks like right now is we’ve really taken an approach to engage with our students from the time they’re prospective students all the way through graduation and career placement. And so what that has looked like is we’ve had active faculty and administrator presence at recruitment events, helping prospective students and their families understand not just the phenomenal financial aid resources available to them, but demystifying grant programs like the Teach Grant program, like public service loan forgiveness, which is available to many of our graduates after a period of time, it’s also about helping those families understand what contemporary classrooms and contemporary educational careers look like. There’s so much animus in public media and in the dialogue around what’s going on in schools and giving our prospective students the opportunity to hear from our current students and our partners, what they can actually expect, not just out of their degree program, but the field, has been really impactful. On a more nuanced level, as a result of that survey, we have utilized a range of resources to help offset some of those specific concerns regarding transportation, costs related to certification, and food instability. I do need to call out our amazing student affairs team on campus that has made enormous investments in this space as well. And I think always connecting students to the most local resources has been a really effective way to ensure they can take advantage of those supports in a way that makes sense to them. For us, I was lucky enough to inherit a 12-passenger van that had been purchased right before the pandemic, and we’ve taken the opportunity to hire student drivers. We offer daily routes to and from the Syracuse area at no cost to our students, leveraging the generosity of our alumni and donors who have invested in the School of Education, we have made a commitment for any candidate that needs to get to or from their site and can’t use the van, that we’ve created an Uber voucher system. And so we’ve been able to put those funds directly in front of students. We’ve expanded our supports for certification exams and fingerprinting through really simply asking students: “Are these barriers?” and creating a process again, through our foundation funds, that we’ve been able to offset those costs in time of need. And then lastly, I think another part of this is helping our faculty understand the realities that our candidates are experiencing as they move through their degree programs. Bringing those data back from not just the survey but listening sessions we continue to offer as an open forum for students to share their concerns, bringing that back to our faculty and helping them understand in both a formative and accurate sort of way, what the experiences of our students are in looking to make changes, whether it’s to our core sequences, the way that we administer fees, encouraging open-access resources, building resource libraries within our departments, so that we can continue to wrap our arms around students, give them a great experience, and also ensure that something like a meal isn’t getting in the way of their ability to get to and from their site.

John: And one thing we should note is that Syracuse is about 40 miles or so from here. So the commute time for a student would probably be about 45 minutes to 55 minutes, depending on where the school is located. So transportation would be relatively expensive for students.

Laura: Yes, and it’s such a good point to make, and I know we’re likely to talk about partnerships later, being where we are here in Oswego, we are lucky enough to have amazing partners along the I-81 corridor from Syracuse to Oswego, almost to Utica, almost to Rochester. And so it is not unusual that our candidates are driving up to an hour each way. So absolutely.

Rebecca: And it’s a problem that campuses that are in a more rural context experience when they’re doing any kind of placements, whether it’s internships, student teaching, or service learning, or anything like that. It’s very different than an urban context.

Laura: Absolutely. And I think we’re really committed, we embrace the idea that we are a rural educator preparation program, while also embracing the fact we have large urban partners just down the road. And we see that as an opportunity to diversify our candidates’ experience and give them a broad sampling of school structures, organizations, what’s possible, both in large districts, small and the in-betweens. And so that’s been a really critical part of our preparation framework for many, many years here in the School of Education.

Rebecca: It’s always great to hear stories, and we’ve heard more of these since COVID, of schools really paying attention to the actual needs of students and what barriers they’re facing, and really being responsive to them and finding ways to solve the barriers that they’re facing. Because often, the barriers are great, but often there are solutions that we can put into place that aren’t actually that complicated when we get down to what they are.

Laura: Rebecca, I love so much how you framed that, because one of the driving mantras that I often remind myself is we can solve problems if we choose to. And I think to solve problems, we need to be able to describe the problem, we need to understand it from a compassionate perspective. Recognizing every candidate that declares a School of Ed major sees themselves as a future educator in one form or another, and partnering with them, to actualize that vision is the best part of my job.

Rebecca: Well, and we would hope they want to do the same thing for their students. So modeling what we’re hoping to bring into the land of education is certainly a good place to be. We talked before COVID, with the School of Education about some of the really great partnerships you all have both locally and regionally, both as school districts and community organizations. Can you talk a little bit more about some of the outreach you’re continuing to do in those spaces?

Laura: Absolutely. And frankly, we would not be a school of education without partners. Every program housed within the School of Ed requires an applied learning experience. And so even our non-teacher preparation programs in counseling psychology and management programs require some sort of applied experience. And so strong relationships and a strong understanding of the context for our partners is really important to our success and our candidates’ success. So I’ll talk about a few examples since there are many day to day here in the School of Education. For context, in 2020-23, for example, we placed more than 1000 candidates across I believe 246 different settings, kindergarten all the way up through high school. Don’t quote me on the number, but I think I’m close. But we have made a couple of purposeful efforts over the last few years. And in particular around our professional development schools. These are schools where we have an agreement to focus professional development activities for our pre-service teachers, in-service teachers, so folks who are classroom teachers in that district, and align that with our faculty areas of expertise to create what are called that third space for learning, where we were bringing in a range of expertise and perspectives. Here in Oswego County, we have professional development school partnerships with six of our nine local districts. And those partnerships have focused on strengthening support for technology and STEM-oriented initiatives at the junior high and high school level. In another district, it’s included a dedicated focus on early elementary school literacy outcomes and improving the way we’re preparing kids to read and write. Other districts have focused on more systems-level change with strengthening the way that we identify students who are struggling before that becomes a significant impediment to their learning, and organizing teacher and leader responses to ensure that those processes are unbiased, that we’re making decisions that help us put resources around what kids need to thrive. But that’s just a sampling of the types of partnerships that we have with local districts. I think, given the fact that education continues to be a domain where the public dialogue is not always framed as positive, partnerships with our local practitioners and districts, give us opportunities to 1. change that narrative and help people in our communities understand the value that schools can bring to that community. And Rebecca, you mentioned the way that, coming through the pandemic, schools are really regarded as kind of community centers. And I think we’ve seen those types of initiatives be really effective, whether that is including opportunities for families to access medical care, dental care, social services and supports when they’re in district, we have something to offer to that conversation because of the range of our preparation programs here on campus. And so we really tried to engage with our partners in the P-12 sector to ensure that we are operating as a true continuum of care for our communities.

John: During the pandemic, there were some fairly substantial learning losses that disproportionately affected students from low-income households, and low-income school districts. And a study was just released by WICHE in February of 2024, which found that those learning losses are still persisting, which means the students who are teaching in schools are going to face students with a fairly wide variance in their prior preparation. What types of things do you do to help prepare students to address the diversity of student backgrounds in terms of how much they come into the classes with?

Laura: Coming through the pandemic, one of the things we were reminded of was the power of a direct positive relationship between a student and an adult in the building, that can look like a wide range of folks, coaches, teachers, mentors, administrators, volunteers. But that’s something we have continued to embed in our curriculum and helping our candidates understand that day to day, the way that we make students feel is often the thing that will be really critical and helping ensure that they walk through the door the next morning, the next day, or ask for help when they’re having a tough situation. And so empowering our students to respect the dignity of people’s lived experiences, we embed before they move into their clinical experiences in schools, quite a bit of reflection, self-reflection on their own lived experiences, what education has meant for them, the spaces where they have been privileged or perhaps oppressed through educational structures, protocols or policies, and building that capacity of our students to both identify and address bias or embedded bias in the spaces where they work. Getting down into the curricular focus, it is frankly staggering to see how children have been impacted, particularly in the early elementary levels and the older adolescence ages when we think about both academic skills, but socioemotional skills, wellbeing, and I think one of the things that I try to celebrate is the resilience that’s been built into this generation of learners. On the other hand, that comes with a certain amount of exhaustion, anxiety, uncertainty about their future, and so coming back to that element of relationship building, it’s so key. At the curricular level, there is an enormous focus here in New York on the ways that we can do a better job in preparing children to be literate, contributing members of a just society. So right now in New York, there’s a lot of focus on the science of reading. And I want to be really clear to listeners, the science of reading isn’t about a curriculum, it is about embracing the empirical evidence towards a systemic approach to the instruction of reading, writing, and literacy across grades. There’s an enormous amount of energy around this work right now recognizing that we can do better in preparing kids to be literate. And I’m starting to see an equal attention to a focus on math and frankly, STEM preparation. Here in our community in central New York industry has returned with a bang. And there are wonderful opportunities for employment for students with a wide range of educational experiences starting right out of high school for gainful and lifelong employment in these sectors. But what we’ve heard is that math proficiency is often a barrier for those students. And so trying to incorporate elements of curiosity and creativity, bringing science, technology, and math into creative spaces, like art, design, dance, helping students understand that math and science, quite frankly, isn’t just about memorizing equations, or knowing your multiplication tables. But there are a range of application of math, science in our day-to-day lives. When I think about when I was a kid, we had a great lesson on fractals, and we went outside and we found fractals in nature. I remember it to this day, almost like it was yesterday, trying to engage students in their learning, that incorporates their lived experiences, having access to textbooks, readings that reflect their family structures, their linguistic background, the realities of their lives. And so our students ,when they move into those first teaching positions, carrying with them that, I’ll go back to respect for the dignity of all persons, that recognition that kids carry much more with them into a classroom than a backpack, and finding ways that we can empower their learning not just through curriculum, but through curriculum that is delivered at their level, that celebrates individual students growth, that isn’t anchored in some specific outcome, but recognizes individual student’ s growth as meaningful. And I’m really proud to say our data suggests our students do move into their first teaching careers with those skills. And I think the next phase of the conversation starts to focus on how can we, as an educator preparation program, be part of the community in delivering professional development? How can we bring the great work that’s going on in schools to our faculty and have that kind of recursive flow of information, and also ensuring that we are preparing school leaders to create conditions that help us achieve all of these goals. And with our programming here in the School of Education, we’re uniquely positioned because we offer those range of preparation programs and have the luxury of great relationships with partners.

Rebecca: We’ve talked a little bit about learning losses in K-12. But obviously, that has an impact on our college students as well. They also survived the pandemic and are here. What are some of the things that your faculty are doing to help these candidates feel like they have what they need to go into the community having maybe had some experiences of remote learning or challenges with some of these subjects too?

Laura: This is a really important question. And I think it’s one I’ll both answer from the school of education perspective, but also the broader campus perspective, frankly, because we don’t do this work in a vacuum or in a silo. And so I’ll pick up on some of the elements of the last answer, which is making sure that we on campus are framing the opportunity to serve our students as a positive one. We have an opportunity to meet students where they are and that will look different for different students. On the other hand, I think our faculty have been eager to try to crack this code, so to speak, on bridging our lived experiences in K through 12 and transition to college through the framework of the contemporary student experience and those are not parallel for many of us or really even comparable. I have been trying to, as dean of the school, make sure that we are approaching this from a perspective of strength. What students do come to us with us is a resilience that students of prior generations may not have. They come to us with skills and knowledge of technology and how to leverage it in a way that students didn’t in the past. And frankly, it was because they had to learn how to use that technology. Students coming to our campus today have access to more information at their fingertips than any generation of student has ever had in the past. And where we have opportunities is to help students both identify where they may have gaps, whether in their knowledge or experience, put those experiences in front of our candidates, and also help them navigate this world where it’s not always easy to identify what is good information and bad information. Now, let’s drill into some more specific examples there. I think one of the most critical things that we have done in the last few years and again, I’ll give kudos where they’re due to our student orientation groups. We have been embedding ourselves into some of those opening week sessions, where we’ve had the opportunity to talk to our future majors and undeclared students around college- level expectations. And while that might sound silly, I think when students can hear from us, from me, from my faculty colleagues, our stories that many of us are first-gen, were Pell-eligible, have student loans, worked while we were in college, struggled to purchase textbooks, come from different backgrounds, are new to the state or the country. I think that goes a long way as a formative first step in building that trust in the relationship with our candidates. It also gives us the opportunity to begin to plant those seeds around what supports are available to them. Whether that is to help them address their mental and physical health needs, their academic needs through our tutoring center, our office of learning services, the embedded tutoring services, and also come to see us as people that are here to help support them and what their vision for their success looks like. I had a young person come up at the end of our first orientation and said, “I’ve never had someone like you say, you walked in the same path as I have.” And it was really a moment where I understood that coming to the table and being authentic with our students is so critical at this point. The other piece of it, John and Rebecca, is recalibrating the way that we orient our classrooms to continue to give students frameworks for utilizing technology and AI and the wide range of information, also helping them become critical consumers of that information, providing formative feedback to their assignments in real time, flipping our classrooms and allowing students to lead the conversation. I think providing choice as much as possible around what literature students choose to present in classes, for example, have been ways that we have said to students, both overtly and more discreetly, you matter, your story matters and you and my classroom matters. I’ll also share we have been taking a look at the way we offer our curriculum to try to identify, and again as part of a larger campus focus on retention and success for our first-year students, where are the pain points, so to speak, in their degree program, particularly for transfer students, we’ve heard that there isn’t always as seamless of a transition to campus as we may assume. And so really starting to tackle some changes in our course sequence to ensure that our academic programs are set up in a structured sequential way that also gives enough flexibility for students to pursue some of their areas of interest, be student athletes ,be club leaders, or frankly, support their family, which many of our students need to do.

John: Recently, we’ve seen a lot of attacks on education at all levels, with books being banned in the classroom, removed from libraries, and restrictions on the types of topics and the types of history that can be taught in classes. What are some of the things that you do in the School of Education to help prepare students for a world in which they may be facing more challenges from parents and political pressures?

Laura: This is a critically important question and will be critically important action. I hope I could say in the next year, but I have a feeling this will be a long road. Too often I hear colleagues, neighbors, friends say, “Well, Laura, at least we’re in New York, you don’t have to deal with this in the same way.” And while it is true, I am proud to be in a state that has been very overt about people’s lived experience, respecting the civil rights of all persons here in the state. It is also the case that that can change very quickly in an election cycle. And frankly, we have seen that across the country. I’m particularly concerned right now about the way that civil rights discussions have been framed. And there are some cases in litigation right now around bullying initiatives and carving out exclusions or exceptions in those bullying protocols or policies that would allow, for example, trans students to be targeted without recourse. We see that replicated in both sports spaces, but also classroom spaces. I’m deeply troubled that this is a place that we’re going in a country that was frankly built upon public education and access. And we haven’t always gotten that access piece right. Many of our school policies and procedures have been built on an exclusionary clause rather than an inclusionary mission. On the other hand, we’ve made such great gains over the last 10 to 20 years in ensuring that schools are more responsive, supportive, dignifying places. I’m really troubled by this work. For our students, we have a commitment to social justice embedded in the framework of the School of Education. And that is more than transactional or it goes beyond the words social justice. Our curriculum prior to students going into schools is focused on those ways that schools have been exclusive spaces, have not always dignified the realities of the people who walk through the doors. And so for our students, what we tried to do is help them understand the threats or attacks on people’s civil rights or their histories is not new. On the other hand, it’s taken a very different tone in the way that it’s being implemented. So 1., it’s giving them the tools in knowledge and understanding of history to understand schools don’t have to be exclusive places, schools can be responsive, welcoming, encouraging spaces for all students from all backgrounds. It’s also about helping students understand that I want to be a teacher, I don’t want to be a politician is not a reality in which they will live as an educator. We try to empower them without encouraging them to engage in any particular behavior, to stay attuned to the realities of how legislative efforts, school board votes, and other sorts of community oriented book bans and dialogues might impact their ability to teach a particular lesson, utilize a particular academic resource. So you may have seen coming out of Florida, among other things in the last few weeks, a school district teacher had thought that it was prudent to send home a permission slip to alert the parents, that their children were going to be exposed to a black author. It wasn’t about the content of the book, it was simply the fact that they were going to be reading a book from an African- American author. I can’t think of a better example to highlight the importance that an apolitical stance is not one that classroom teachers can take, that school leaders can take. And that’s not about voting for a particular person or a particular party. But it is standing up to ensure as educational experts who have preparation, expertise, and insights that the community may not, to share them and be vocal about the ways that diverse learning materials, accurate historical representations of the world are critical towards ensuring that we do not replicate them. And so I am both incredibly disheartened at the turn that this discourse has taken. I’m also incredibly optimistic when I look at how young people, how educators, how experts have shown up and linked arms to say: “This is not right. We are not going to correct the wrongs of our history by limiting access to that history or by building smaller tables with fewer voices.” And so I tried to stay in that headspace as much as possible.

Rebecca: Definitely some good reminders and things for all of us to be thinking about in our role as educators. So we always ramp up by asking what’s next?

Laura: I love that question, because I could probably read you a laundry list of the things that we’re thinking about in our School of Education. Right now, here in New York, there’s a lot of robust conversation around, what does a high-quality teacher look like? What are they ready to do in their classrooms? And there’s a lot of engagement there. And again, this relates to helping the public understand not just what we do day to day or what the outcomes are, but the opportunity space towards preparing children for lifetimes of success. Here in the School of Education, we’ve got a range of new programs that we’re lifting in the fall of 2024, including our new master’s degree in behavioral health and wellness. And frankly, I think we have a range of new programs. As we talked about industry thriving here in central New York. There’s also a lot of energy in the school of education around our career and technical educator preparation programs, and of course, our technology education programs, some great investments in our lab spaces, looking at opportunities to do more in partnership in and with local districts to ensure, as we were talking about kids across Oswego County, have great opportunities to engage with science and technology and math in ways that bring them out of the classroom and into the world and creative spaces. So I’m really excited to see what the year ahead is going to look like for us.

Rebecca: Well, thank you so much for joining us, Dean Spenceley and for our wonderful space.

John: …and we’ll be talking to you much more in the future.

Laura: I look forward to the opportunity. Thank you both.


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.

Ganesh: Editing assistance by Ganesh.


337. Pre-College Programs

The transition from high school to college can be challenging for many students. In this episode, Sally Starrfield joins us to discuss the role pre-college programs can play in preparing students for college. Sally is a traveling Corporate Facilitator as well as an HR and Educational Consultant based in Durham, NC. She consults with precolleges to create revenue streams and identify courses and faculty that are appealing to academically curious middle and high school students. She has worked in a variety of instructional and administrative roles in North Carolina public schools. She designed professional development curriculum and provides career counseling for seasonal employees at Duke University. Sally served as the Assistant Director of Academic Affairs at the Duke University Talent Identification Program from 2009 to 2018 and then worked as an HR Specialist, Assistant Director, and then the Director of precollege programs at Duke University from 2019 through 2023.

Show Notes


John: The transition from high school to college can be challenging for many students. In this episode, we discuss the role pre-college programs can play in preparing students for college.


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 Sally Starrfield. Sally is a traveling Corporate Facilitator as well as an HR and Educational Consultant based in Durham, NC. She consults with precolleges to create revenue streams and identify courses and faculty that are appealing to academically curious middle and high school students. She has worked in a variety of instructional and administrative roles in North Carolina public schools. She designed professional development curriculum and provides career counseling for seasonal employees at Duke University. Sally served as the Assistant Director of Academic Affairs at the Duke University Talent Identification Program from 2009 to 2018 and then worked as an HR Specialist, Assistant Director, and then the Director of precollege programs at Duke University from 2019 through 2023.
Welcome, Sally.

Sally: Thank you, John. Good to see you. Hi, Rebecca.

Rebecca: Hi.Today’s teas are:… Sally, are you drinking some tea with us today?

Sally: I am. I am drinking Mandarin ginger on this cold day in North Carolina.

Rebecca: Nice. I was just thinking it was like a heatwave here. I walked outside in the nice sunshine.

John: Yes, and the temperature here is I think was about 19 when I came on campus this morning as part of that heatwave. But we did see this big yellow thing in the sky, which we hadn’t seen for a while, so that was kind of nice.

Rebecca: How about you, John? [LAUGHTER]

John: I am drinking ginger peach green tea today.

Rebecca: Nice, and I have a jasmine green.

John: I suppose that we should note that I met Sally through my work at the Talent Identification Program and then at pre-college programs. So we’ve invited you here today, Sally, to discuss the role that pre-college programs can play in helping prepare students for college. Most secondary and much college instruction is targeted at the average students in a class. And we’ve talked a lot in this podcast about those students who are not very well prepared by their schools for the academic challenges they will face in college. But might this also sometimes occur for students who are quote unquote, gifted and talented?

Sally: Absolutely. We all know that differentiating instruction for each student is difficult no matter if they are at one end of the academic spectrum or the other. We all know of those stories of highly gifted, curious, academically inclined individuals who are not successful in school. Oftentimes, school is not designed for kids who are really energized by one subject or one topic. A lot of times schools are designed to make adult pleasers out of kids from a young age: “Sit in this desk in this row for this amount of time until you are called on.” And that doesn’t work for all students, and especially as they get older, and they start to think for themselves and question for themselves. So we do have a lot of academically gifted students who fall through the cracks, and who just are not successful in regular schools. And we see with the burgeoning online schools and various options, a lot of those students are opting out of traditional schools. And that’s why pre-college programs are often a really good answer for some of that curiosity that they have intellectually, and without the pressure of grades that traditional schools require, as the gatekeeper to go on to the next grade, or that’s how success is defined, is by a grade,

Rebecca: Do some students become bored and perhaps just give up in the K-12 system?

Sally: Oh, yeah, absolutely, and John and I have talked about this. We have witnessed this multiple times through the years in programs with our summer students. And we also know of a very successful award-winning professor at a prestigious university who was one of those students when he was a kid and just barely getting through seventh grade and then came to an academically gifted program at Duke in the summer. And when his parents met with the instructor at the end of the summer, and the instructor was talking about how he was just one of the most gifted students and such a good leader and really took on the serious roles in the classroom of leading the other students and using the university library and using every resource the university had to further his curiosity and his intellectual drive. His mom repeated the name of the kid [LAUGHTER] and said “No, my son is usually the one who’s in trouble, who’s told to sit in his seat, and to not question authority.” And he was like, “Well, that doesn’t apply here. He used this opportunity to lead.” And so that changed his whole trajectory in school because his mom knew that he had the capability. And he went back to the school and she went back to the school and said, “We’ve got to do better for him. This traditional way is not working for him. When he is allowed to lead, when he is allowed to question and go deep into a subject, he can really be successful.” And we know that’s true for a lot of our gifted kids who get bored. What we know about gifted students is that they want to go in depth into a subject, not just the wide breadth. When they’re in traditional schools, they’re in a classroom for 45 minutes to maybe an hour and a half, maybe four classes to eight classes a day, depending on the school schedule. And when we’re looking at students in pre-college programs, they are in a class anywhere from three to maybe even six or seven hours a day, and it’s one subject. So they’re going into that depth and really learning and satisfying those intellectual questions that they have, those big questions that so many of our academically inclined students, maybe not students who are driven by grades, but students who want to know the answers to their burning academic curiosity.

John: One other thing that I’ve often observed is that there have been some students who were told they’re gifted and talented while they’re in K through 12, and they can just coast through their classes without really doing a lot of work, without really facing very much challenge. And many of them, when they come to college, get really surprised when they’re faced with their first really substantial challenge. Might that be another role for pre-college progams in just giving them this sort of challenge that they’ve never been exposed to, so that they learn strategies for dealing with that, and perhaps develop a bit more of a growth mindset? Because if they’ve been told all through their K through 12 career, that they’re just really bright and really talented, it’s really easy to get this fixed mindset. And then when they face their first challenging course, sometimes they just give up and disappear.

Sally: Absolutely.

John: Might pre-college programs be effective in giving students a challenge without them having to worry about grades, without them getting to a college class where they haven’t learned any of those strategies, and they might end up not doing so well in college?

Sally: Yes, absolutely. I think that one of the beautiful things about pre-college programs is most of them do not offer grades, there are some that are designed to give college credit. Those do have grades associated with them. Sometimes they are just pass/fail, but the majority of the programs for academically and intellectually gifted students and pre-college programs, they are for the sake of learning, they are for the sake of enrichment, based on courses that students want to take. And so, without that pressure of grades, learning for the sake of learning, it just frees up a lot of that emotional energy, that angsty-ness [LAUGHTER] that’s associated with high-pressure situations in schools and with parents, and all that tension is just gone when you’re learning for the sake of learning and when you’re with like-minded peers. But John, to your earlier point, yes, there are a lot of students who are often the smartest kid in their class, maybe even in their school, maybe even in their town. They’re used to winning the science fair. They’re used to winning the state spelling bee and things like that. And then they get to a pre-college program, and they say, “Oh, these are all the other kids [LAUGHTER] from the other States and around the world who are doing the same thing.” And it can be little fish in a big pond, as they say. And they can have impostor syndrome. And you and I have both seen this. There are some emotional response sometimes from the kids, and they’re like, “I’m not supposed to be here.” And so that challenge sometimes is disconcerting at first, but it is what all of us need. We don’t grow in our comfort zone. We grow when we’re challenged. And that’s true of our students as well.

Rebecca: In addition to maybe not having grades, what are some other ways that these kinds of programs provide some of that emotional support or that growth in that area?

Sally: Yeah, I think a lot of it starts with just being aware that like-minded people, your age-mates are not always your idea-mates. And we put kids in schools with kids who are just their age. And so when we put them in classes that they have selected, that they are interested in, and the kids are in an age range of maybe eight through 10th grade, and they’re all studying econometrics, which is not something they would study in most of their middle schools and high schools, or astronautical engineering, they are finding these like-minded peers, and they have these discussions that they couldn’t have in their regular schools with their peers. And also, the discussions are different with their instructors, and rather than what they would be in their regular schools with their teachers… who are trained teachers… but when we’re looking at our instructors, they’re subject matter experts, who most of them have taught on the college level, even if they’re graduate students, they’ve taught some undergraduate classes. If they’re faculty they are used to teaching undergrad or even graduate students. So that helps our students in pre-college programs as well.

Rebecca: I Imagine another aspect of these pre-college programs is living on a campus and living away from home. Can you talk about that aspect of the program and some of the transitions or learning that happens for students in that aspect as well.

Sally: Test driving college is a big part of a pre-college program. So even learning to do their laundry, living in a dorm, sharing a room with a roommate. Most pre-college programs, students do share a room with a roommate. And that’s where a lot of their learning and their growth comes from. Because sometimes they’re meeting people from another country. Most pre-college programs do attract a global audience. And so even for a lot of our students, just meeting kids from other states or kids with different interests, because the kids usually who are sharing a room, they are not always in the same class, and anywhere from 8 to 20 classes offered, depending on how large the program is, each term in a pre-college program. So yes, there’s a lot of exposure there. And we do replicate the college experience where they have office hours, so they can be with their instructors. And we encourage that. And so it’s that test drive of college that helps them be more prepared wherever they end up at university.

John: One of the big topics in higher ed, and we’ve been talking about it quite a bit on the podcast is the use of alternative grading approaches compared to the traditional grades with letter grades or numeric grades and so forth. And much of the discussion focuses on extrinsic versus intrinsic motivation. In the Duke TIP program, and the later pre-college program, how was learning generally assessed?

Sally: So, if your listeners haven’t listened to the Unessay episode that you all did, it’s my favorite episode, by far, because that was new information for a lot of people. Pre-college programs, they haven’t been calling it that unessay necessarily, but they’ve been doing alternative assessment for years. So in a pre-college program, that’s one week to three weeks long, there’s not a lot of turnaround time for grading and all that; there’s not a full semester. So it’s very rare to assign a traditional research paper. But the students have the same access. They have the Library, University librarians, and for our students, many of them have never been to a university library. And there’s this vast difference between a middle school and high school library and a university library. They have access to our laboratories, very often for the science classes, and to law libraries, for law classes, and courtrooms and things like that. So when they are in these real-life simulations, and often going out into the community to experience, for an architecture class, they usually end up going to an architectural firm and interviewing architects. So having these conversations, these interviews, working with librarians, working with people who are working in the field, working alongside doctors for modern medicine, disease, and immunology class using patient simulators that the med school students are using at the university, all of those things, that is learning and that can be assessed just with the students in office hours talking to their instructor, they can be assessed with their reflection journals at the end of the day. They can do presentations, and I’ve seen some really creative ones too. Kids make up a series of memes about their experience they had going to a water treatment plant for an environmental science class. So there’s no limit on the way to assess their learning. And especially when we’re looking at classes that are not for credit, they’re truly for enrichment. And make no mistake, it doesn’t mean that it’s less important in their academic career, or in their preparation for their professional careers and for their college career, because this deep seated yearning that they have to learn these topics often propel them to the success they later achieve in life. And John, you can tell so many stories about that, from your former Duke TIP students and Duke pre-college students who have gone on to do amazing things academically and career wise, and books they’ve written, and you stay in touch with a lot of your students. So the relationships and networking they’ve created.

John: We’ve had several of them on the podcast. I think our most frequent guest on the podcast was in one of the early cohorts at the Talent Identification Program before I started there. I didn’t start until 1987. But the first cohort was in 1981. And I also knew many of the other people from the early years because many of them came back on staff for several years. So I got to know quite a few people from the early cohorts as well as the students I worked with later. It’s a really impressive group of people.

Rebecca: I think it would be interesting to have John talk a little bit about his assessments and his classes too, because I know he’s done some really interesting things in the classes he’s taught.

John: Well, long before, there wasn’t even a term called on essays, I used to do the same thing in the TIP program, where I told students, they had this capstone project, and it could be in any format they want. And some of them did debates. Some of them wrote songs, they created a wide variety of ways of demonstrating their learning. And one of the things I had given them as an option, based on the Dance Your PhD competition was I said, “if you want, you could do some type of interpretive dance illustrating some concept.” And for several years, they didn’t take me up on that. But then for three years in a row students did, they wrote a song that they performed or sung, while they were doing the dance to illustrate some of the concepts they had learned. They had a lot of fun with that, and I recorded all those, and I let them share it with their parents, and so forth. More recently, I’ve been teaching in the pre-college program, which is a shorter program. So there’s not as much time to prepare such things. But students do presentations at the end, where they present their research, and parents are able to attend either in person if they’re picking up the child at the end of the term, or they can watch it over Zoom. So most of the parents were able to watch the students do their final presentations. And that’s something that both the students in the program and the parents have really enjoyed.

Rebecca: Such good examples, right?

Sally: And we have to remind your listeners that you’re talking about doing interpretive dances about economics and economic terms and econometrics. And so there’s just a creativity that the unessay, if we want to give it a label, allows for and the other thing that I think that these type of assessments do is, I think a lot of times in our traditional schools… and I say this as a career educator, I had started out as an English teacher, I was a literacy specialist, I was an assistant principal before I worked at Duke… and so I think that what we do is, in our efforts to be creative, we tell the kids “Oh, do a group project,” and we all have been in those group projects that are just absolutely terrible experiences. And they’re not about learning, and it’s just about getting through. But a lot of times we think, “Oh, this student, they can take on different roles, and they can work from their strengths.” And when we’re asking adolescents to work with other students who they may or may not [LAUGHTER] get along with, and that they’re still trying to figure out their own strengths. And then we’re putting them in these simulations. It can be really difficult and just kill the joy of learning. So I like the unessay and the non-traditional assignments for assessment, especially when students have the option to work individually, or to work with a group, but I am not a believer in forced group work for adolescents. We all do it in graduate school. I’m sure you have MBA students listening and I know what your life is like. And so it is all group work all the time for a lot of you. So we do want students to thrive individually in their assignments, and still allow creativity there.

Rebecca: So, programs like this are expensive. [LAUGHTER] What role do need-based scholarships play in offering some equitable access?

Sally: They are so expensive. And the majority of the expense is feeding and housing the students. And so for most of the programs more than 80% of the cost, and this can be $5,000 for a week sometimes. And that can be daunting to families, but more than 80% of that is feeding them and housing them. And remember, they have round-the-clock supervision. So there’s a lot of staffing that goes into it. So yes, having financial aid is essential. And most pre-college programs do have some sort of financial aid. And there are also community-based organizations that will often support students in their summer programs, and you can Google community-based organizations support for pre-college programs. And it just depends on the community you live in. Here in North Carolina and the Research Triangle Park area, some of our larger companies are tech companies, some of them are pharmaceutical companies, support students when they write and just ask for it. And they write essays about why they want to study at a pre-college. And also pre colleges, they’re associated with universities, usually, and so the universities have a vested interest in this as well. And they want students to want to go to their universities. And so sometimes there’s support from certain departments, a lot of times there is an endowment, especially if it’s a long running pre-college program. And so there are options for financial aid, and most of them offer, sometimes the term “scholarship” is used, but a lot of times “financial aid” is used. And I think a lot of people are surprised, I’m in touch with a lot of families who are surprised and like, “Oh, I think our family might make too much money.” But what they do is they look at this the way a lot of universities are looking at financial aid now, it’s depending on how many children you have, how many children you have in college. And so if you have a family two to more children, and you already have a student in college, they’re often taking that into account and are able to provide at least partial financial aid often.

John: Both the TIP program and the pre-college programs primarily serve students with high levels of academic performance. Might students also benefit from pre-college programs targeted at first-gen students and students from school districts that are not well equipped to adequately prepare students for college-level work?

Sally: Absolutely. I will say that because students know going into a pre-college program, especially the ones where you’re taking one class for maybe six to eight hours a day, a minimum three hours a day, it’s pretty self selecting. It’s usually students who are very academically curious at least. And there are a lot of first-gen students who come through, a lot of them just need to be told about the opportunity. So maybe they haven’t learned about it from their siblings or their parents at home. But we have a due diligence as pre-college providers to make sure that we are talking to the guidance counselors, we are talking to the organizations that are working with first-gen students, that are working with students from less advantaged communities, socio-economically. And so, yes, there’s definitely a place for making sure that there is full access. And that starts with just making sure that our marketing materials are inclusive, they need to be inclusive. You will often find that there are people working in pre-colleges who will translate for parents. Our courses are taught in English here in the US in pre-college programs. But many pre-colleges have assistants for working with parents who their first language is not English, whether they’re based here in the US or globally. So yes, definitely, we want to have that replication of the college experience where students are meeting diverse people. And so that’s going to be socioeconomically and where they’re from.

Rebecca: So we’ve talked a little bit about potential enrollment funnels that might come out of pre-colleges, but what are some of the other benefits to colleges and universities for offering these pre-college programs in the first place?

Sally: So, highlighting what their strengths are and using their resources that they have. If they have an MBA school, and if they have…, I can think of one university that has a Bloomberg simulation center for stock market trading… and so highlighting, that students remember that, that’s just great advertising in what they offer, and getting it known to students from other parts of the country or parts of the world. But also a big benefit is the employment that can come for the university from this. Undergraduate students are needed to be teaching associates, they’re needed to be residential assistants in the dorms, they’re just essential to helping the pre-college students acclimate to the campus and showing them around, making them feel comfortable, making sure they’re safe. And having graduate students test drive their own teaching. And it’s really important for us to remember that many of the pre-college programs really focus heavily on STEM, and a lot of our graduate students have been research assistants, but a lot of them haven’t been to Asia. And so this is a good opportunity for them to be TAs, to then learn how to be instructors and most pre-college programs have a really strong pedagogical training, where they are bringing in the staff ahead of time, they are teaching them online before they come in, and doing a lot of professional development with them about teaching and pedagogy and assessment. So it can bring a lot of revenue to a university, it can bring a lot of jobs to the undergraduates, the graduate students, the faculty, postdocs, and so it’s quite the revenue arm for many universities.

John: And along the lines of graduate students and undergraduate students benefit. I’ve had quite a few students who were undergraduate students, sometimes from Oswego some were from other institutions, who, by working in the Talent Identification Program, were able to use that in the graduate applications, which increased their chances of getting teaching assistantships. I can think of at least six or seven of my former students who wrote that up in their applications and it certainly didn’t hurt their chances for being accepted and getting funding in grad school.

Sally: Yes, I often serve as a reference for our staff. And I was contacted by a prestigious law school, there was a student who was kind of on the bubble, but they looked at his experience working with pre-college students in the summer and how much he had done with mock trial simulations with the students, and that pushed him over the edge. And now he’s doing very well. And I think you and I both have seen him on CNN multiple times. John, I think you know who I’m talking about. So I know that there’s a lot of benefit from hiring undergrads through postdocs to work with pre-college students. And often some are hired from the university where the program is located. But most often they are brought in from across the country and sometimes from across the world. And that just adds to the richness of diversity for the program for the students. And it’s such a great networking opportunity for the employees of the program to learn about other people and their experiences within different subject area disciplines and what their university experiences have been.

Rebecca: So we’ve talked a lot about STEM programs, Sally, what about the humanities and the arts?

Sally: Yes. So when I started working with these programs in 2009, it was common to have a class on Shakespeare for a seventh grader. And remember that these classes, we want to make sure that pre-colleges are offering classes that they wouldn’t typically have access to in their regular schools. But as we have seen the STEM revolution, that’s what parents want to pay for. That’s what these pre- college programs are predominantly offering. And oftentimes when humanities and arts classes are offered, they don’t fill and they sometimes end up getting cancelled. And so we are looking at pre-colleges as revenue streams for universities, so they’re going to usually offer what parents are going to pay for and where the demand is. And so with the rise of STEAM, there were some arts classes and some humanities that were interwoven in with some of the science and technology. We have a long way to go there to go back to where we were even 20 years ago, to highlight the arts and humanities, and so we have to show value to the parents who are paying for it and to universities. We don’t always just offer the most popular classes, we can offer classes with a smaller number of students. And so just finding that balance is tricky.

Rebecca: And it’s a continuing problem in all of higher ed as well to continue to make the argument for arts and humanities and the importance that it has and the place that it has in our society.

Sally: Absolutely. And I think pre-college programs are a way to do this. Pre-college programs, we know can be funnels for university admissions. And so if we have a student get really excited about a theater program, or some arts or humanities course, they can end up pursuing that at a university. And so it’s definitely worth pursuing, I think, from a pre-college curriculum perspective, writing the curriculum for it, and from a university perspective of offering it.

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

Sally: So what’s next, I just really believe in pre-college programs, because I know that they are life changing for so many students, and as many have told me, life saving for some. And so what I am doing now, as I am doing a lot of consultation work with different pre-colleges and looking at their goals, looking at ways that they can use their universities’ resources to create revenue streams, to create programs that are appealing to students, and also how they can partner with their admissions departments. Where do they want to highlight their strength as a university, as a college? And where are they being inclusive to these students so that they want to try it out for a summer and then possibly as their undergraduate experience? So yeah, my consultation work, my consulting, is really fun and having that experience from the education side and also from the HR side, makes it a really deep dive that’s rewarding.

Rebecca: Well, thanks so much for sharing a little bit about pre- college programs with us today.

John: Thank you, Sally. It’s always great talking to you.

Sally: Thanks, John. I’ve enjoyed our many many many summers together. Great to talk with you Rebecca you as well.


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.

Ganesh Editing assistance by Ganesh.


336. The Multi-Disciplinary Instructional Designer

Instructional design is a discipline that people often discover and pursue as a second career. In this episode, Chris Gamrat and Megan Kohler are the editors of The Multi-Disciplinary Instructional Designer: Integrating Specialized Skills into Design Toolkits, which discusses how prior backgrounds and careers can contribute to the process of course design.

Show Notes


John: Instructional design is a discipline that people often discover and pursue as a second career. In this episode, we discuss how prior backgrounds and careers can contribute to the process of course design.


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 Megan Kohler and Chris Gamrat. Megan is an Assistant Teaching Professor and Learning Designer in the John A. Dutton e-Education Institute at Penn State. She is the recipient of the Marion G. Mitchell Award for Innovative Teaching and is conducting research, funded by a Schreyer Institute Scholarship, on supporting neurodivergent learners in higher education. Chris is an Assistant Teaching Professor in the College of Information Sciences and Technology at Penn State. Chris and Megan are co-editors of The Multi-Disciplinary Instructional Designer: Integrating Specialized Skills into Design Toolkits.
Welcome, Megan and Chris.

Megan: Thank you. We’re happy to be here.

Chris: Thank you.

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

Chris: I’m having coffee right now. But tea will be coming later.

Rebecca: Alright, good.

Chris: …still waking up.

Rebecca: Coffee is one of our most popular tea flavors. How about you Megan?

Megan: I am drinking a chai tea this morning in my lovely mug. [LAUGHTER]

Rebecca: I like it. It says “Hello Gorgeous” on her mug. [LAUGHTER] John, would you like to talk about your blasphemous tea this morning? [LAUGHTER]

John: I am drinking a hazelnut coffee tea today {HORRIFIED SOUND]. Coffee does seem to be a popular tea. But what happened was, we’re in a new recording room. And I came here early to set some things up. And I realized they did not have time to get back to my office to make some tea. And so I stopped at a nearby cafe. And it turned out they did not have tea there. I didn’t have any other alternatives. They didn’t even have iced tea that I could see.

Rebecca: John has only not had tea two times… once was water. And once is today

John: …and the other time was a day when we lost [LAUGHTER] our old recording studio and I just didn’t have time to get the tea made after my class.

Rebecca: Today I have a Scottish afternoon tea.

John: That’s better.

Rebecca: Yeah, it’s really smooth. I really liked this particular kind. Brodie’s is the brand.

John: We’ve invited you here today to discuss The Multidisciplinary Instructional Designer. Before we discuss this, though, it might be helpful to just talk about the various roles that instructional designers play in supporting instruction. And it seems like that role varies quite a bit from campus to campus, and even from school to school on campuses. So could you talk a little bit about that to help set the stage for the rest of our discussion.

Chris: I was an Instructional Designer for eight and a half years here. When I met with new faculty, I would explain that I serve kind of two functions. And the first is that I was a little bit like Q from the James Bond franchise, where I was in the background, doing research and developing new tools and things that they could use out in the field. And all the faculty tended to really like that analogy, because then that made them like a double 0 agent. They’re like, “Oh, yeah, that sounds good.” And then the second is concierge. So they will be able to come in and say, “I’m really running into this issue. What do you suggest?” Or “How am I gonna get around this, given the tool sets that we have available.” And so using the depth of knowledge I have, and the exposure I have from my own teaching and from working with many other faculty, I’d be able to make recommendations for them. So those are the ways that I would explain to our faculty

Megan: My explanation is not nearly as cool as a double 0 seven agent. [LAUGHTER] My explanation is that I think a bit more functional, from the perspective of instructional designers when we’re working on projects tend to be the glue that holds everything together. And we also end up being the conduit or the avenue by which a lot of information gets communicated. So we really help the faculty members think through how they want to present this content to the students, what’s the best way to do that, what types of media are best going to support and reinforce that instruction, and also what’s going to be the best options for students in terms of how they consume and retain that information. But there’s a lot of other components that come into this mix as well. So there’s graphic designers, there’s videographers, there’s so many different elements that go into this… project management too, is another really big one that a lot of people don’t really understand is a really critical skill for an instructional designer to have. And so we have to have all of this knowledge, even programming and basic coding, communicating with programmers in order to help them understand what a specific vision is. So we need to know enough about all of these different areas in order to be able to communicate effectively. And also, our primary focus ends up being on the pedagogical pieces. So we really wear a lot of different hats, and have a lot of responsibilities in the course design process.

Rebecca: I first heard about your book when I was at EDUCAUSE and Chris and I connected there. Can you tell us a little bit about how this book came about? I know that I was really interested in it the second I saw it.

Chris: That’s a Megan story for sure. [LAUGHTER]

Megan: Yeah, it actually came about somewhat organically. My background is in theater. I was a professional actor for many, many years, like 12 or 15 years, before transitioning over into the field of instructional technology. And Chris was participating on one of our professional development communities for our instructional designers here at Penn State. And one of the topics that came up was how do we help learning designers improve their presentation skills? And Chris was like, “I know exactly who I’m going to ping [LAUGHTER] to see if they can help with that.” And so he reached out to me, and he said, “Hey, Megan, can you come and give a presentation on how to help instructional designers refine and upskill their presentation skills.” And I was like, “Of course.” And so I went, I gave the session, and it was really well received. And I think Chris and I both walked away from that, with this little idea in the back of our minds that there might be something more to this, but we didn’t really pursue it. And then two-ish years later, Chris pinged me. And he was like, “Hey, I think this is a book.” And I was like, “I love it. Let’s do it.” So then we just sat down and pulled together ideas for the book. And here we are. This is about, what, a year, year and a half work. But now we have our book in hand, and it’s very exciting.

John: In your book, you note that instructional designers bring a wide variety of backgrounds into the work. And a major theme throughout your book is how instructional design can benefit from the specialized knowledge that each instructional designer brings from their academic training or from prior work experience? Could you share some examples of that with our listeners?

Chris: Yeah, I can talk about some of my experience. In my chapter, we talked about concepts around crisis management. So prior to working in the College of Information Sciences,and Technology here, I worked for NASA for about five and a half years. I was on a grant for them, and we were doing professional development for teachers across the country. So we were doing workshops for probably 10s of 1000s of teachers every year, maybe even more than that. So that entered in like a lot of room for failure, just things don’t work out. And the thing that I thought was really interesting, that permeated even into the culture of NASA education was that attitude failures, not an option, there always has to be: there’s a plan and a back-up plan and plan all the way up out through Z. That, really, we need to have a way of making things resilient. And so I had like that nugget of an idea from my work with it. And then it came to the college of IST, and we have a program called security and risk analysis. And inside of that, we really do spend a lot of time focused on teaching in building out resilience for any number of organizations. A lot of our students end up working for the federal government and other institutions that cannot do their job. And so I started to acquire more and more of that language on this concept, to really be able to describe the things that we were doing back when I was working on that project. And for the entire time that I was on my learning design team here at Penn State, we realized that we were building in this resilience without even necessarily naming it. So my colleagues and I spent our chapter really more formally defining, here are some of the processes that you can take advantage of. And there are really well-defined techniques that go into that that are being used by FEMA, the CIA, any number of huge and really critical parts of our government. So that was something that I realized, like, “Wow, this could be really powerful.” And when I started to flush out that chapter, I said to Megan, I think people are going to really have a good time reading this, and they’re going to get stuff out of it. So I really, even just in the writing process… and normally, writing is kind of like the hard part…that was fun.

Rebecca: …always nice when that lands as fun. [LAUGHTER]

Megan: Absolutely. Yeah. So I’ll just tag on to what Chris said a little bit by sharing some more pointed examples from the book itself. When we put out a call, we really were looking for people who had unique perspectives and backgrounds that we wanted to capture as part of this overarching story of the uniqueness, but also the variety that goes into the field of instructional design. And it’s especially relevant right now, because there are so many people that are transitioning out of different positions, a lot of K through 12 teachers, actually, right now are transitioning and looking at the field of instructional design. But really, for anybody who’s interested in this, you might think, well, this is a completely different shift in the skill set that I have. How on earth would I even make this transition? And the reality is that so much of what we do as instructional designers can draw on other fields. And one of my favorite examples that I always love to pull from, my friend, Paul, saw that we put out this call and he was like, “Hey, would you be interested in hearing my perspective on a military background?” And I was like “Submit a proposal.” He did. And then we reviewed it and what he had to say blew us away. His chapter is called “Out of the frying pan into the fire, the unintended and amazing consequences of risk taking in the practice of instructional design.” And I think that that’s something that is so wonderful to keep in mind, because instructional design becomes all about our processes and procedures, we have all of these things in place to ensure success. So when you think about the notion of risk taking, that doesn’t always seem like it’s something that pairs well with instructional design. But in his chapter, he makes a phenomenal case for why we need to be willing to take those risks as instructional designers and ways that we can go about doing that. In addition to what Paul has written, we’ve got chapters about how choreography from ballet can contribute to our design thinking processes. We’ve got stories about feminism, and how they can impact what we do as instructional designers. So it really is this piece of work that has such varied and amazing perspectives. And hopefully, people when they read this, they won’t just view it as, like, here’s a new set of skills that I can apply, because it’s definitely that but it’s so much more; it’s about how we can feel more impassioned about what we do as instructional designers, and how we can help share those passions from our prior fields into the work that we do today and then share that back with the faculty members in order to help engage them and inspire them as they go about these design processes as well.

Rebecca: I really love hearing you guys talk about the interdisciplinary nature, because as an interaction designer, or someone who’s in the design field as a whole, I see the design field as just being a very interdisciplinary place that’s borrowed from many different places over time to kind of make its own set of rules and principles that we follow in the big bucket of design. So it’s nice to hear how all these different disciplines and fields continue to make the discipline of design evolve. Can you talk a little bit about who you see the audience of this book being?

Megan: Sure, I think the reality is that this book can appeal to anyone in the instructional design field, as well as people who are even just curious or interested about transitioning into it. Because even if you’re a seasoned instructional designer, there’s perspectives in this book that you’re not going to have, that can help enrich your own toolkit. So if somebody doesn’t have a military background, they can read Paul’s chapter and learn about different skills, risk taking, resilience, many, many others. I do not have any kind of a background in feminism, but yet, when I read Jackie’s chapter, I learned a lot of different things that I will then go forth and apply. So I think it can really help seasoned designers build up their skills from incorporating new perspectives, but also somebody who’s just kind of curious, like I kind of mentioned before, people are transitioning fields post pandemic, and somebody is questioning, is this the right field for me? How would I even go about fitting into this? Or how would I go about making that transition? This kind of a book is a great read for them, because hopefully, they’ll see how these other different skill sets could be leveraged, and then maybe there’ll be inspired. And they’ll think about how their own skill sets could be leveraged as they move or transition into the field of instructional designer, instructional technology.

Chris: First off, I think, Megan captured it really well. I do think it’s very much a book for people who are just professionally curious, I think there’s an appetite for wanting to know a little bit to that. One of the things I describe as valuable a skill as a designer is being like a professional novice, when talking with a subject matter expert, knowing the kinds of questions to ask, to tease out being able to explain something well and effectively, and I think these chapters get to that, because for basically everyone who contributed a chapter to this, that was a different life, an entirely different way of thinking. And they’re able to provide it in a really consumable way for this audience. So I think anybody who is interested in that would greatly benefit from these chapters, because they’re designed to be picked up and run with.

John: Might a case also be made that this could be useful for administrators who might not always understand the role of instructional designers, especially if they’re looking at ways of improving instruction? And might it also be useful for faculty who do not always have instructional design support on their campus to consider various ways in which they can bring other knowledge and skills into the ways in which they design courses.

Megan: Yes, 100%. That’s a great perspective. Thank you.

Chris: Yeah, actually, one of my co-authors is a faculty member that I’ve worked with quite closely over the years. And that was something that he made a comment on, it was just like, “I didn’t realize that this skill set is impacting how I’m teaching.” And it’s just like that, revealing that what’s maybe obvious, that it’s actually already embedded in your practices. So I think ,absolutely, many subject matter experts would benefit from this for sure.

Rebecca: Both of you authored chapters or co-authored chapters in the book. And I’m hoping we can dig into a little bit of the content of some of those chapters so that folks can really see the benefit of the content. So Chris, you already hinted that your chapter talks about your time at NASA, and you kind of develop a resilience plan, a process that people can follow. Can you talk a little bit about what you mean by resilience and crisis management? And what that process might look like for folks?

Chris: Yeah. So when I’m teaching, I think about designing my courses in a way that fails gracefully. So day one, I think about when we have our very first class… okay, well, obviously, we’re going to talk about the syllabus, but also at the same time, literally everyone on campus, all 50 some thousand students and faculty are logging in to our learning management system all at the same time. So it becomes super slow. So how can I avoid, “Oh, we’re in class, I wanted to talk about my syllabus, but it can’t, because things not loading?” Well, I can be able to anticipate that because for sure it’s gonna happen. So I print it out, and I have a copy with me so I at least have that as a backup. And there are other things that I can think about where if the resources are down, if something happens in the class, how do we pivot? Many years ago, when I was still working on that professional development committee, the one that we asked Megan to come in, we did a session with the idea around being able to pivot gracefully, with that concept of like, all the snow days. One had just happened, so we’re thinking like, okay, let’s plan ahead. And we did that session, I think in November of 2019, we were not thinking about what else we might have to pivot around. So it really became a subject that a lot of people were suddenly way more interested. And so when we start to inject more of a methodical approach to that, you start to brainstorm, “okay, what are possible disruptions that might happen?” Well, students could get sick, that’s definitely going to happen, I could get sick, how do I deal with that? so on and so forth, and you put out all those ideas, and then you attach a weight to them. And the weight for that is calculated by likelihood of it happening, and how much it might provide an impact to the class. So if one student is out, maybe no big deal, if a lot of students start to get sick, well, then you have to really adjust. Or if I get sick, that would be a big impact. Because I might not necessarily have like, something else to do for a given day. So those are things that you would outline and identify, Okay, these are the top three that are going to be the biggest impact. Those are the ones that we build into our design. So that way you can adjust around those. That was, I think, a really valuable takeaway from this. And to prepare for the chapter, I was reading up on how actually standardized that description is for likelihood of risk. So basically, there is documentation that talks you through how you can attach a weight of like, well, that’s like 80% versus 60, etc. So there’s really a lot of detail that you can dive into, and be able to, again, provide a rubric for likelihood of risk. So when I say rubric, that’s my jam, so that has already piqued my interest as well. So those are a couple of things that I really took out of preparing this chapter and getting those prepared.

John: Megan, you already mentioned that you were an actor before. Could you talk about how that’s informed your work as an instructional designer? You have a chapter on that in the book?

Megan: Yeah, definitely. One of the things that I think people don’t always realize is how communication is a critical piece of what we do as an actor. People are probably thinking, “Well, you go in and you read a script, how is that freeform communication?” But the reality is that all of the communication that occurs in order to get the production up and running is very extensive. And I think one of the greatest examples that I can pull from in order to help people understand how critical communication is in a theatrical setting is in the context of stage fighting. So you figure you get swords on stage [LAUGHTER], and people are learning how to choreograph. Well, I mean, someone will come in and someone will choreograph a fight scene for a set of actors, and then they will have to enact it. But people have to feel comfortable speaking up and saying, I’m not comfortable with how this is working, could we try something different? And it is a really important skill to be able to communicate and to advocate for yourself as an actor, and something that I feel like a lot of instructional designers don’t always fully understand how to build as a skill. I think a lot of times a lot of instructional designers can sort of default to the “Oh, I have this blueprint, and then I’m just going to ask the faculty member to fill out this blueprint, and I’ll explain to them what this blueprint is about.” But the reality is, we need to be able to provide things that are out of context in order to help make connections between different things for faculty members. So I have a great example. In addition to working at Penn State I also have a consulting firm, I do consulting work on the side. And I was just working with some faculty members the other day, we’re designing a micro learning course. And they were having a really difficult time stepping away from the notion of, “Well, we’re just going to provide them with some bullet points, and then we’ll talk to those bullet points in the synchronous sessions that are going to accompany these micro learning experiences.” I was like, “Okay, but let’s think about the breadth of information that you’re covering, you’ve got seven different modules, and they’re full of bullet points. How are you going to cover all of those bullet points in one synchronous session?” And they were just really struggling with that concept of stepping away from the expert perspective and into that perspective of a novice. So how are they gonna help draw those connections or expand upon that information, so that it’s not just bullet points that there’s actual content there? And I gave them an example of like throwing a dinner party, I’m like, “Okay, well, let’s say we’re throwing a dinner party, I’m gonna send you to the grocery store, and I need you to pick up items for dinner and dessert and a nice drink to go along with it.” And I said, “What are you going to pick up?” And they’’re like, “We don’t know.” “That’s exactly where your learners are right now. You need to be able to identify what all of the ingredients are, and explain how those things are going to come together in order to form the dish that you’re going to serve at the dinner party.” And then they were like, “Oh, now we get it.” And so that communication is just such a critical element of what we do. And if you’re not communicating, well, your project is going to fail. They say there’s statistics that show that the communication is the fail point of every project and 80% of every project is communication, and the other 20% is the actual work. So it’s really a critical component of what we do. And I think the skills that we learn as actors can help build those skill sets for instructional designers. So that’s what the chapter that I wrote with Penny Ralston-Berg is all about.

Rebecca: It’s really interesting, and this exact moment in time, Megan, hearing you talk about this actor perspective, because our Graduate Studies Division is having the actors of the London stage come in and do a workshop for our graduate students, a professional development workshop on communication. [LAUGHTER] And really, everything you just outlined is exactly the kinds of things that our graduate students are hoping to dig into as well. But it really comes from this disciplinary background and providing some new tools to our students.

Megan: Yeah, I’m not sure if you’re familiar with this, but Alan Alda, he’s very famous from being an actor on MASH, he has a communication program for scientists that’s based in theatrical principles. And so he goes in, he has this training session that he runs with scientists at different institutions and organizations all over the world, but it helps them understand how to become better communicators. So yeah, it’s just definitely something that people can leverage. You can always become a better communicator.[LAUGHTER]

Rebecca: Definitely. [LAUGHTER]

John: And one of the things you also just said was that one of the roles of an instructional designer is to remind faculty of what it’s like to look at their content from a perspective of a new learner. Does the fact that the instructional designers are not generally in the same discipline as the instructors provide that sort of assistance that faculty might lose? Because once you become an expert in some discipline, it’s really easy to lose perspective on what novices know, and how quickly they can absorb material.

Megan: Yeah, absolutely. That’s 100% true. One of the things that I always tell faculty, when I meet with them, is “I get to be your sample student.” And that really is a gift to the faculty member when we’re working with them, because we’re going to be looking for things in which there are gaps, or there are overlaps. And that’s what we do as instructional designers, or part of what we do as instructional designers. But we also have that ability to communicate that back to the faculty member, whereas their students, they’re not going to do that. They’re going to take the information as it comes in, and they’re going to try and work with it as best they can. But having that sounding board or that ability to get that feedback from an instructional designer, in terms of “I don’t fully understand what it is that you’re trying to communicate here. Can you explain this to me a little more deeply?” Or “Can you expand upon this?” or “Let’s add some details in,” or “let’s add a graphic in that’s going to help convey this concept.” It’s absolutely a piece of the puzzle in terms of instructional design.

Chris: That just reinforces what I said earlier, which is I very much believe an instructional designer is an expert novice, among other things. [LAUGHTER]

Rebecca: It seems like to be able to share that information back to faculty, there has to be a level of trust between the faculty member and the instructional designer. Can you talk a little bit about that?

Chris: I agree that there is a huge amount of relationship building in design work. I’ve worked with different faculty where they were skeptical of me, skeptical of getting help, didn’t necessarily need to see that there was value, and being able to explain the process, how things work. how I can provide those needs, in the different ways that we talked about, can really push it over the edge to go from me showing up and checking in with them weekly or whatever is a burden to I’m looking forward to talking with Chris. And when they realized that that help can be whatever they need it to be, and that it can take many different shapes, that really changes the tone or the conversation. There are some faculty where I would meet with them for a few minutes to talk about the course and progress that they’re making, they would ask me about what’s going on. At the time, we were switching from our old LMS to our current one, and they would ask, like, “Oh, what do you know about this or that?” and I’d fill them in on the kind of like, university gossip almost of like, “yeah, transitions going on at this pace. And here’s what you need to know.” And that was valuable to them. So they were responsive to it, and that meant that went from having one kind of okay development process to three in the span of about four months. They were receptive to that by the end, like they wanted to work with me. So I definitely think there’s huge amounts of benefit. And I think they had been exposed to what we have in our book of like, “Here’s all these different things that we can bring to the party,” they would have warmed up a lot faster.

Megan: Trust is a piece that Penny and I also talk about in our book chapter on theater. And it’s really interesting, because as an actor, a lot of times you’ll be hired to be part of a show. And you’ll come in and you’ve never met any of these people before. But yet, suddenly, you have to work with them, and you have to be efficient, because you have limited times, I mean, sometimes you will have maybe a few weeks, sometimes you’re fortunate enough that you have like a two-month rehearsal time period, but you need to figure out how to learn to trust one another and work with one another very quickly. And so anybody who’s interested in learning some more skills in terms of how you could leverage that from a theater perspective, I definitely encourage you to get a copy of the book and check it out.

John: In each of the chapters, you have the authors introduce themselves and their background. Could you talk a little bit about why you chose that approach?

Chris: Yeah. So when we first started meeting, we realized that there was tremendous power in getting to know the backgrounds of the contributing authors, not just the topic, or the subject matter of this is their background, here’s why journalism can help you, here’s why theater can help you, etc. But really getting to know them and understanding their experiences was very powerful. We asked each of our contributing authors to contribute somewhere in the neighborhood of a page or so introduction that is more of a narrative or story about here’s how I got to where I am, and how I use these types of tools. And I think Megan and I probably talked about this after the fact, which is just that I feel like even though most of these authors we’ve never met in person, I feel like I’m a lot closer to them, [LAUGHTER] just having read those chapters. So I think that that’s super powerful. And one thing I’m really proud about with this book.

Megan: Yeah, and I want to tag on to what Chris said, because another reason why we wanted to capture the stories of these people’s journeys, was because we wanted to also remind people that instructional design isn’t just about the skill sets and the tools and the technologies, that we are human beings, and that we all have something valuable that we bring to the table. We all have journeys that we have walked through, we all have bumps and bruises as well as highlights and glimmering moments. And we wanted to try and capture that in this book as well, so that when someone was picking up this book, and they were reading through it, they felt connected to the people who were sharing this information so that it wasn’t just a series of strategies that you can include in your toolbox. But it was more like you were having a conversation with a mentor or a friend who was giving you advice in terms of how you could build your skill set based on the knowledge that they have to share with you.

Rebecca: I think one of the things that’s really interesting about the narrative approach, or really the diverse group of instructional designers that are represented in your book and the disciplines that they come from, is that it’s not like we wake up necessarily thinking, “Hey, I want to be an instructional designer when I grow up.” [LAUGHTER] It’s not necessarily one of those fields that are obvious, especially when you’re making those first choices for your college education, for example, and maybe not even later on. A lot of folks change fields or end up here at a later time.

Megan: Yeah, that’s absolutely true. And I know that that was definitely the case for me. [LAUGHTER] Life is full of interesting twists and turns, isn’t it?

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

Chris: That is my absolute favorite question. [LAUGHTER] In large part, I really do like to have a what’s next. When I was working with NASA, we would go to school districts and do big workshops with teachers, and they would get so excited about the thing. And they come up with like, “Oh, what can we do after this?” And for a while, in the early days, the answer was, “Well, maybe we can come back in a year.” And to put a wet blanket like that on the passion for learning, for being able to explore and do new things, is really upsetting. And so I really took that to heart. I always like to have something for students, for colleagues that I’m working with, like, “What is that next thing?” …whether it’s a new project or a different angle for research or whatever or another class that they could take. So I love the question. Megan and I have talked about a second edition, possibly. Meghan, I don’t know, if you want to throw out some other things that you’ve been thinking about.

Megan: Sure. From the book perspective, definitely, we would love to do another edition and possibly even a third edition, because there’s just so many different perspectives. As we’ve been talking about this book, one thing that we realized that was missing from this, there’s many different professions and fields that are missing from this, but one that really sort of surprised us as we were having conversations with people, and quite frankly, it shouldn’t have. But we were having a conversation with a stay-at-home mom, who was interested in instructional technology. And she’s like, “When I think about this, all I do is manage people all day long.” She’s like, “That’s what I do, I manage people.” And we were like, “Yes, you do. [LAUGHTER] “You 100 percent do.” And that’s a perspective that I would love to circle back around and capture in a new edition. And there’s just so many other people who have interesting and varied backgrounds that have a story to tell and have different skills that they can share, and about how those skills can help us be better designers. So from that perspective, hopefully, the book will sell really well. And the publishers will come back and be like, “Yes, another edition. Let’s do it.” For me professionally, I’m doing a lot of work with neurodiversity in higher education, and how we can support neurodivergent learners in higher education contexts. I have a couple of workshops coming up with that, as well as some other speaking events. So we’ll see how that pans out. [LAUGHTER]

Rebecca: It’s always nice to have adventures on the horizon, right?

Megan: Oh, absolutely.

John: Well, thank you for joining us. I enjoyed reading through much of your book. I haven’t yet had a chance to finish it. But it was really interesting. And I’m looking forward to reading the rest.

Rebecca: Yeah, it was great to hear your stories and to share your work with everyone. Thank you so much.

Megan: Yeah, thank you. And maybe there’s a chapter in the next edition about podcasting and how you can leverage those skills as an instructional designer,

John: Well, we began this for professional development purposes. And that is a large part of the role of instructional designers.

Megan: Absolutely. Well, thank you so much. We really had a wonderful time talking with you today.

Chris: Thank you for having 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.

Ganesh: Editing assistance by Ganesh.


335. The Abundant University

The cost and the benefit of investing in a college education have been increasingly questioned outside of the academy. In this episode, Michael D. Smith joins us to discuss whether the traditional college model can survive in a world in which technological change has expanded the possibilities of  alternative education and credentialing mechanisms.

Michael is the J. Erik Jonnson Professor of Information Technology at Carnegie Mellon University’s Heinz College of Public Policy and Management and the author of The Abundant University: Remaking Higher Education for a Digital World. He is also a co-author of Streaming, Sharing, Stealing: Big Data and the Future of Entertainment.

Show Notes


John: The cost and the benefit of investing in a college education have been increasingly questioned outside of the academy. In this episode, we discuss whether the traditional college model can survive in a world in which technological change has expanded the possibilities of alternative education and credentialing mechanisms.


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 Michael D. Smith. Michael is the J. Erik Jonnson Professor of Information Technology at Carnegie Mellon University’s Heinz College of Public Policy and Management and the author of The Abundant University: Remaking Higher Education for a Digital World. He is also a co-author of Streaming, Sharing, Stealing: Big Data and the Future of Entertainment. Welcome, Michael.

Michael: It’s great to be here, John, Rebecca. Thanks for having me so much.

John: We’re really pleased that you could join us. Today’s teas are:… Michael, are you drinking tea?

Michael: I did earlier today, my wife makes this lovely herbal tea that you put in a little strainer. So I still have that in my memory. [LAUGHTER]

Rebecca: I haven’t English breakfast. I was a little bit on the go today. [LAUGHTER]

John: An unusual circumstance that has only happened, I believe, once before… I also have English breakfast. So this is twice so far out of 330 some episodes, I think, that we’ve been drinking the same tea.

Rebecca: It’s rare. We’re not exactly the same, yeah. [LAUGHTER]

Michael: Alright, what are the odds?

John: 100% today? [LAUGHTER]

Rebecca: Yeah. [LAUGHTER] So we invited you here today, Michael,to discuss The Abundant University? You note that the current system of higher education was created in an environment in which educational institutions provided access to scarce educational resources to a privileged few and the perceived quality of colleges and universities was judged primarily by their selectivity. Can you explain the role that scarcity has long played in the structure of higher ed?

Michael: Yeah, so we created a system of higher education in a particular time and with a particular set of technologies. Specifically, you need to sit in my class, if you’re going to hear me, and I think both our expectations about privilege, and our technologies have changed in ways that mean that we desperately need to change how we deliver higher education. So one of the things I talk about in the book is just if you look at what defines power, what defines market power in the university, it comes from being able to control access to the scarce seats in your classroom, being able to control access to the scarce faculty experts, whatever the heck that means. And then being able to control access to who gets the credential, the highly valuable credential, that’s going to help you rise in the work world. I think those things are starting to change in ways that we in higher education ought to wake up to.

John: One example that you use to illustrate the issue of scarcity involves Joyce Carol Oates. Could you describe this example for our listeners?

Michael: Joyce Carol Oates is a great example. She’s an absolute rock star. She’s written 60 different novels, she’s won a National Book Award, O. Henry awards, she’s been nominated for the Pulitzer, all these wonderful things. And so you’d think we’d want to get as many students exposed to Joyce Carol Oates and her knowledge as possible. The problem is within the existing system, to get exposed to Joyce Carol Oates, you’ve got to get admitted to Princeton, which has an acceptance rate of like 4%, then you’ve got to be able to pay the tuition at Princeton, which is without aid, something like $80,000 a year. And then, even if you do those first two things, you’ve got to get up at five in the morning and stand in a long line of students to get access to one of the 10 seats in Joyce Carol Oates’s class. So we’re taking this incredibly valuable resource and we’re making it incredibly scarce. Could we do better? Well, we are in some sense, because Joyce Carol Oates has a class on the streaming service Masterclass, where for 15 bucks a month you can get access to Joyce Carol Oates’s knowledge. Now is it the same as what you get at Princeton? No, but it’s better than nothing. My daughter and I sat and took the class together, and it’s actually quite good. And that’s the contrast between scarcity and abundance I’m trying to draw out in the book. Are there ways we can use technology to make resources that used to be scarce, abundant in ways that could benefit students?

John: And that scarcity made a lot of sense when it was one lecturer sitting in a seminar room or in a lecture hall running a class and there was no way of distributing that information more widely. Things have changed a little bit since then, haven’t they?

Michael: They’ve changed a little bit and I talk about in the book, there’s something kind of odd about the way we define expertise in universities and the way we distribute that expertise. So to get tenure, I had to become the world’s recognized expert, whatever that means, in this incredibly narrow part of my discipline. So my value to the university is: I’m a specialist. And that’s great, except when I teach I teach like a generalist. I teach all these different topics where Erik Brynjolfsson is the expert or Catherine Tucker is the expert or Natalia Lavina or Ed McFowland. Wouldn’t it be cool if you could learn that topic from them? We’ve never been able to do that because it’s hard to bring them into the classroom. But now, we can create that sort of experience in ways that I think could really benefit our students. One of the examples I talked about in the book is Anita Elberse at Harvard Business School and I have both studied a particular area and we actually disagree, our conclusions disagree. When I teach it, I’m pretty sure I’m giving short shrift to Anita’s position. Wouldn’t it be cool if you could bring both of us into the classroom and I give my position she gives her position and the students decide for themselves. We’ve never been able to do that. I think we can now.

Rebecca: …really pointing to how technology is offering the opportunity for more inclusion. And that’s certainly been a topic that’s been happening throughout higher ed with Inclusive pedagogy and topics about UDL and digital accessibility and things like this. But you point to a number of structural barriers that impede this from actually happening in higher ed generally. Can you talk about these barriers and what it would take to make them go away?

Michael: Yeah, this was one of the hardest parts about writing this book is sort of taking a cold, honest look at our business model, for lack of a better word. And when I was giving this talk in front of a particular audience, and somebody said, “Mike, all the research shows…” and they were right… “all the research shows that the best way to become wealthy later in life is to get a four-year college degree from an elite school, and so we should be encouraging students to do that.” I’m like, “yes, and no, you’re absolutely right, the best way to become wealthy is to get a four-year college degree from an elite school. The problem is, the best way to get a four-year degree from an elite school is to be wealthy.” And when you add those two things together, we’ve created this terrible feedback loop that just exacerbates social inequality. Now, you might say, “Why do I say being wealthy is key to getting a four-year degree from an elite school?” And in the book, I talk a lot about some of Raj Chetty’s research, which shows that kids born in the top 1% of the income distribution have a one in four chance of getting admitted to an elite school, top 80 school, kids born in the bottom 20% of the income distribution have a one in 300 chance of getting admitted to the same elite school. And so what I say to my friends who are economists is, “Hey, I’m trained as an economist too, I believe in the efficient allocation of scarce resources. If we in higher education genuinely believe that rich kids just happen to be 77 times more likely to be capable of an elite education than the system’s working fine. But if we don’t believe that, and I don’t know anyone who does, then this is a terrible way, a terribly unjust way of allocating access to the scarce resource.” I don’t mean to pick on Princeton, but let me pick on Princeton since we talked about Joyce Carol Oates. Princeton admits more students from the top 0.1% of the income distribution… families making more than $2 million a year… than the combined number of students they admit from the bottom 20% of the income distribution… families making less than $25,000 a year. Is that because Princeton is biased against the poor? I don’t think so. I think it’s because all of our incentives encourage us to make decisions that are highly correlated with wealth. And I could expand on that if you want, but one example I think a lot about and talk in the book about is Georgia State University in 2009, made some very intentional efforts to increase access to their campus, they ended up increasing the number of Pell-eligible students that they admitted from 32% to 60%, which meant they had three times more Pell-eligible students at Georgia State University than the entire Ivy League combined. So great news for access and inclusivity. The only problem is by doing that, they dropped 30 places in the US News and World Report rankings because their SATs scores, their alumni giving, all these other things, fell. The system is rewarding us for doing things that we all know are bad for society. And so a key part of the argument of the book is we’re not going to solve this by tweaking the existing system. We’re going to solve this by creating a new system that rewards people for inclusivity and diversity.

John: As you’ve just said, part of the issue is that all of the agents there are pursuing what’s rational for them. Their parents from high-income families spend a lot of resources in preparing for that. And we’ll include a link in the show notes to an earlier podcast we issued a few weeks back where we interviewed John Friedman, who is one of Raj Chetty’s co-authors on several of those studies. So we do address some of that in that podcast, and I encourage people to go back and listen to that if you haven’t seen that. But we have a system where it’s currently self-reinforcing, that institutions are doing what’s best for them, faculty are doing what’s best for them, and parents are doing the best they can, given the constraints that they’re facing. How are we going to get past those incentives to move to a more inclusive environment, or that would reward institutions for becoming more inclusive,

Michael: It’s going to be really hard within the existing system, I think there’s two options we’ve got. One is to rely on folks like Paul LeBlanc and Raj Chetty and Zvi Galil at Georgia Tech University, people who are willing to say, I want to create this, and I’m going to do it, even though I know it’s not aligned with my self interests, and I’m going to create a online educational experience, because I’m focused on the needs of my student base, rather than what the market is telling me to do. And I think that’s possible if we rediscover our mission. And the reason I say that is because you mentioned one of my previous books, and a lot of my previous research was about the entertainment industry and how technological change affected the entertainment industry. In looking at that, what I found really interesting is the industry initially opposed technological change, because they saw it, correctly, as a threat to their business model, their way of doing business. At some point, I had this really interesting conversation with a pretty senior creative person at one of the studios. And we were sitting in the lunch room, and he sort of leaned forward and quietly, so none of his colleagues could hear, said, “Mike, a year ago, we sold my show to Netflix, I want you to look at the season of my show that Netflix just put out, and you’re gonna see that it is in every way superior to what we did on the lot. The storytelling is better, the cinematography is better, and I just can’t figure it out.” They told themselves, the technology companies are going to make stuff that’s inferior than what we do, and what they were seeing with their own eyes, and not to mention at the award shows, the technology companies were actually making great entertainment. And I think it was that realization, where they said, “You know what, you’re right. Technology is a threat to my business model. But my mission is different than my model, my mission is creating great entertainment, and getting that entertainment in front of an audience. And my mission is so important to me, that I’m willing to blow up my model to pursue it.” I think that’s exactly what we’ve seen in entertainment. What’s the parallel here? What’s our mission in higher education, friends? if our mission is helping rich kids get a leg up in the job market, everything’s working just fine. But that’s not our mission. Our mission is helping people from all socio-economic backgrounds discover their talents, develop those talents, so they can use those talents to the benefit of society. I think we’re leaving a lot of people behind. And I would love for us to get excited about that mission, so excited that we’re willing to blow up the model.

Rebecca: We’re undergoing strategic planning at our institution. We’ve been having lots of interesting conversations about many of these things, actually, some of which are really inspiring to think about, like, what is the mission? If we’re really thinking about equity-informed student success, what are those metrics? How would we need to change how we’re looking at things to even know that we’ve achieved success? And what I’m hearing you talk about is there’s the difference between the institutional change that needs to happen, and then the broader machine of higher education. But when I think about cultural change, I think about bottom up and top down change. There’s regulation kind of change, but there’s also that grassroots change. And it’s almost like many institutions need to have this discovering independently to make some of that start happening. And force, bigger systematic change.

Michael: Yeah, I think we need bottom-up change in the sense of, I’m tired of being trapped in a system that forces me to make decisions to exclude people solely because they grew up in the wrong zip code. I think the other thing we need is some top-down change. And there what I talk about in the book is, back in the early 2010s, a lot of really smart, prominent people, including Clay Christensen, who I have a world of respect for, said that in 5 to 10 years colleges are going to be in real trouble, because we have this new technology. It’s 15 years later, that hasn’t happened. So I think a lot of people sort of roll their eyes when they hear technology is going to change our business. In the book, I try to argue, respectfully that I think part of the reason Clay Christensen was wrong, is he wasn’t using the right model of disruption. So his model says this technology comes in, and it’s going to create an inferior product and the incumbents are going to ignore it. What I’m trying to argue is that MOOCs and other online learning, if you think back to those three factors I talked about earlier, scarcity in the classroom scarcity in the experts, and scarcity in the credential. What online learning so far has done is its created abundance in who can get access and abundance to the faculty. What it hasn’t changed is the credential, the credential is still scarce. If you go to a Princeton or Harvard, or let me just eat my own dog food, Carnegie Mellon, people are going to assume you’re smarter than someone who went to a different school. What if we changed the way we did credentials? What if we would change the way we did credentials from this very brand-oriented credential that we have now to something that is closer to the student’s actual capabilities, actual skills? What the heck am I talking about? So the story I’ll tell is on my whiteboard as I was writing this paper, I had “brand” circled with a big question mark next to it. If the university brand name is the brand, how do you change the value of brand names? It’s really hard. So I’m scratching my head about this. And later that day, I was buying a really expensive scanner from a manufacturer I’d never heard of before, solely because it had a 4.9 star rating on Amazon and a bunch of really positive reviews. I was like, “Oh, crap, that’s how you change brand names. You add in objective information about the quality of the product.” I’ll stay in complete strangers’ homes, because they have a good rating on Airbnb, I’ll drive home with complete strangers, because they have a good rating on Uber. We see this in all these areas of society, could we bring that into the academy so that instead of judging people based on the name of their school, we start to judge them based on their actual skills? Wouldn’t that be cool. The other thing I’ll say, just to roll this out a little bit more is one of the things I think we’ve seen in these other areas of the economy is when you didn’t have the brand name, when you were an independent hotel no one had heard of, I’m going to assume you’ve got lousy rooms, and I’m gonna stay at the Hilton instead. Once we created a way to signal your quality, all of a sudden, a whole bunch of people who didn’t have the brand name had the incentives to invest in quality. We’ve got a whole bunch of places that aren’t Hilton, who are investing a lot in creating great room experiences. What’s the parallel? If we were to open up a way for students to signal their true skills, might we create a whole bunch of incentives for students to invest in those skills in ways that they just can’t right now, because I’m going to be judged based on the brand name of my school, instead of my actual knowledge?

John: Going back to the issue of markets, currently markets encourage institutions to maintain the scarcity. But they’re also subject to the Baumol disease of increasing relative costs, which is inherent in anything where labor is a major component of the production of the service. And with rising costs, while that maintains scarcity, it also opens up the market for other alternatives that can provide credentialing as an alternative to the traditional institutions. Could you talk a little bit about the Baumol disease and also perhaps, how that might encourage institutions to start shifting to other less expensive methods of credentialing?

Michael: Let me answer the second question first, and then come back to Baumol. Can we imagine ways that we could have new ways of credentialing students, and the example I used in the book is a guy named Gilberto Titericz. He worked for the Brazilian state oil company graduated from the 12th ranked Brazilian engineering college. And it just so happened in the evening, he liked to play around with Kaggle, which is an online place where you can go and provides awards for people to solve analytics challenges. And he got good enough that he had risen to the top of the worldwide leaderboard. And all of a sudden, Silicon Valley companies were recruiting him not because of his degree, not because of his work experience, not because of the GPA, but solely because they could see an objective signal that this guy’s really smart at analytics. I told this story to a buddy of mine who works in journalism, and he said, “You know what, Mike, I won’t hire anybody unless I can see their substack. I want to see if you can write. I don’t care if you graduated from Columbia’s journalism school, I want to know whether you can write.” And I think we’re seeing a lot of areas where you can have these signals. As an economist, it warms my heart that you would bring up Baumol’s cost disease. What Baumol’s cost disease says is that if every other sector of the economy is increasing productivity and economists define productivity as output divided by input. So you’re creating more output with less input. If you’re in a sector where every other sector is increasing productivity and your productivity isn’t changing, then your costs are naturally going to go up. And that’s very consistent with what we’ve seen in higher education. We’ve seen over the last 60 years, prices in higher education have increased at four times the rate of inflation, Or said another way, if they kept pace with inflation, college would cost 25% of what it is today. How do you change that? How do you improve efficiency? Well, you got to create more output with less input. I don’t see how we do that within the bounds of the existing classroom. We might be able to do that if we intelligently adopt technology in ways that allow us to educate more students with fewer resources than what we’re using today. The problem is, that’s really scary for a lot of my colleagues, and myself, as I’m very transparent in the book that this poses a threat to me too. And I think this brings us to the point where we’ve got to figure out what’s my core value here. One of the quotes I have in the book is a colleague who, a bit tongue in cheek, and I’m going to use it with permission but without attribution, said, “You know what, Mike, the professor has to have an incentive to adopt the technology. I’m a tenured old fart, I can ride out this technological change until I retire. Technological adoption will occur one funeral at a time.” And again, I know he was being cheeky, but I think in the back of our minds, a lot of us are like, “I’m just going to try to hang on to the existing thing for as long as I can.” I’m not sure we’re going to be proud of that decision 15 years from now. Congratulations, you’ve presided over an institution that you know is leaving deserving kids behind solely because they grew up in the wrong zip code. You’ve benefited yourself, are you proud of the outcome? I don’t think we’re gonna be.

Rebecca: It’s really hard to make those choices, of course, when you’re feeling very comfortable, and those choices may make you very uncomfortable. But I think that’s just in terms of the personal impact versus that bigger social impact that I think many of us are really committed to, but then our actions don’t always follow that commitment.

Michael: Yeah. And again, I try to be transparent as possible in the book that I’m as subject to this as anyone, friends. It wasn’t until I started staring at this, that I really had this “Oh, crap” moment of “I’m doing things, we’re doing things that are contrary to our values. Maybe we need to start questioning the structure and thinking more about those values.”

Rebecca: What role do faculty have in starting to initiate these changes?

Michael: It’s a great question, I think we need to start questioning the assumptions. Here’s a good starting point for that. I was talking to another colleague about this. And what she said, and this is going to be close to a direct quote, was, she said, “We train our students to identify and dismantle unjust social structures in every aspect of society, except our own.” I would love for us to start thinking about our own unjust social structure, and how can we change it in a way that creates more justice for students who deserve it. And the only way I’ve been able to come up with ideas about how to do that is by changing the structure. I just don’t see how we do it from within the existing structure where I teach 35 students for 80 minutes at a time twice a week, blah, blah, blah. The cool thing is, I actually think we have a decent number of examples of success, success, not only in creating more equity, but also in creating a viable and sustainable system. If you look at what Paul LeBlanc is doing in Southern New Hampshire University, if you look at what Mike Crow is doing at Arizona State University, if you look at what Zvi Gali did at Georgia Tech with his online master’s in computer science program, I think they’ve all been very successful at increasing equity, and also very successful at creating a sustainable business model.

John: So what should other institutions consider doing to transform their institutions into one which is more sustainable?

Michael: This is where we get into strategy. And, again, I teach technological change and economics and strategy. I honestly think, if you’re looking at this as we want to create mass market four-year degrees, I think Southern New Hampshire and Arizona State have a big lead in the market, and it’s going to be hard to catch up to. But if you’re looking at niches, if you’re looking at specific degree programs, I still think there’s a whole bunch of opportunity out there to say: “Can I create a program that appeals to a specific market engineering, for example, that is delivered online, but it’s delivered online in a very high quality way.” And I’m going to even pause there for a second and say, delivered online is probably too strong. So in my technological change course, I bring in the head of data analytics at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center to talk to my students about how data is changing health care. And right after the pandemic, he came in and said, “You know what, Mike, we’ve looked at our data and what we’ve discovered is that for most doctor-patient interactions, telehealth yields equivalent health outcomes as you coming into the office. There’s some things you’ve got to come into the office for, but most things, telehealth works just fine.” What’s the parallel? I think there are a lot of things we do in higher education that can be delivered perfectly well remotely. Some things need to be done in person, and I would love for us as educators to think really hard about what are the things that have to be done in person, and what are the things that can be done perfectly well online, maybe even better online? So it’s not 100% in either direction. And then I’ll have people say, well, there’s some things trying to get it more in the in person side. And the example I think of there is I talked to Ara Austin, who’s the professor at Arizona State, who teaches organic chemistry remotely. You say, “How the heck do you teach organic chemistry online? Are you mailing hydrochloric acid to students’ homes, and hoping they have a fume hood somewhere available?” And the answer is, what they did is they looked at their curriculum, and they discovered that 13 weeks of the 14-week semester can work perfectly well online. For the labs, they actually bring students on campus, and they do a one-week intensive organic chemistry lab experience, you do two labs a day for six days. And what they’ve discovered in serving the students is that the online students’ knowledge of organic chemistry is equivalent to the residential students, but they walk out with a higher identity as scientists. There’s something about doing two O-chem labs a day for six days that you walk out and say, “I’m a scientist, I can do this,” that you wouldn’t get if you did those same labs, one lab a week, over the course of a 12-week semester. I think there are a bunch of things out there where I’d love for us to get excited about saying how can we redesign the classroom in a way that might even create better educational outcomes, while also including a whole bunch of students who otherwise would have been excluded.

John: One of the challenges is that student bodies have become increasingly diverse, but instruction is often aimed at the student in the middle of the distribution. One of the things Carnegie Mellon is known for is the Open Learning Initiative and the development of adaptive learning platforms. Is that something that colleges might be able to leverage to increase the scale of classes to lower the cost per student?

Michael: Yes. And heck, yes. So let me go back to my roots studying the entertainment industry. One of the really interesting things about the rise of streaming platforms is… we’ve actually got a paper coming out showing that we’ve seen an increased diversity in casts on streaming platforms, because you’re not tied to the mass market delivery. When I teach a class, and I talk about this in the book, of 30 students, I’m pretty sure 10% of them are bored, and 10% of them are completely lost. The problem is that, in that delivery modality, I have no time for the 10%. I’m trying to keep the middle 80% of the class happy. Wouldn’t it be cool if I could identify the 10% of students who are bored and say, “Alright, let’s go on to the next topic,” and identify the 10% of the students who are lost and say, “Alright, let’s spend a little bit more time on this topic so that you get it before we go on.” We can’t do that in the traditional delivery model. But we can online. There are a lot of ways to say I’m going to personalize this in the same way that streaming platforms say I’m going to personalize what’s being shown to your preferences and needs. I think we can personalize the way the education is delivered to the preferences and needs of the individual student.

John: And I could see a system where that results in recommendations for students for their next courses. You’ve done well in this, you may want to consider these alternatives for next semester.

Michael: Yeah, I talked to a colleague in the business school who got his degree in electrical engineering. And as I was talking about this, he said, “You know what, I just saw a YouTube video and for the first time understood what a Fourier transform was, and what it was used for.” This is this key concept in electrical engineering and signals. 20 years later, he saw a video, he’s like, “Oh, that’s what it’s for. I can do it mechanically, but I never really understood.” Wouldn’t it be cool if we could have a set of different ways of explaining a concept and match the different ways of explaining to the students to what we think the student is likely to resonate with? The other way of thinking about this is students’ preferences for faculty. Here’s what I mean by that. When my daughter was president of the STEMinest club at her high school, so take feminism and combine it with STEM and you have STEMinism. And when she was going into her senior year, my STEMinest daughter wanted to take AP physics. And the high school said, you can’t take AP physics because you don’t have AP calculus, you can’t take AP Calculus, because you don’t have precalculus. And you can’t take precalculus, because we’re not offering it this summer, I’m sorry. And that didn’t really work for me and my wife. And because of the research I was doing, I knew that there’s a site called Outlier.org that delivers a whole bunch of classes, including calculus. And by the way, if you pass the class, you get credit at the University of Pittsburgh. So my going back position was, “Hey, if my daughter passes this class that gives her credit at the University of Pittsburgh, are you really telling me that’s not good enough for high school calculus?” Anyway, we won that argument. What was really interesting about the way Outlier designed her class is they had three different teachers teaching the same modules in their own voice. So Tim Chartier, a white guy like me, calculus professor at Davidson; John Urschel, African American scholar, who just finished his PhD in math at MIT, and by the way, before he started his PhD, was the starting guard for the Baltimore Ravens. So munch on that for a second; and then Hannah Fry, University College London. And they each teach the same topics in their own voice. And you, as the student, can choose which of these professors do I take? Guess which Professor my STEMinest daughter gravitated towards. She immediately gravitates towards Hannah Fry. And I mentioned this to a colleague, and what my colleague said, “Oh, Mike, there’s a bunch of research that shows that, in general, men do better than women in quant- related classes, and that difference goes away when the class is taught by a woman, and by the way, the same thing is true for underrepresented minorities. In general, lower performance, and that difference goes away when the class is taught by someone who looks like them.” Wouldn’t it be cool if we can allow students to self select into the teaching style or the background of the professor that’s most going to resonate with them? It’s really hard to do that in the traditional environment, but we can online.

Rebecca: Yeah, I think this personalization is something that I’ve also been thinking a lot about, and it’s super possible. We have the technology to do it, just our institutions aren’t keeping up. And as a designer, I am always thinking about audience. And when I’m working with my students, we’re constantly talking about how it’s impossible to design for everybody. Like there’s no such audience as everybody, [LAUGHTER] there are specific people who are in your audience, and the more specific you can get, the better you can design the experience. And that’s exactly what you’re describing.

Michael: Exactly. Yeah. And it’s gonna be really hard if we take the existing 30 person twice a week delivery model as a given. But if you relax that assumption, there’s a whole bunch of really cool things you can do.

John: Changing the focus a little bit, you talk about how faculty perceive the role that we play in preparing students for their future careers in education. But you also present some evidence on how employers and the public and students perceive the way in which we prepare students for their futures. Could you talk a little bit about that?

Michael: Yeah, there’s this huge disconnect, respectfully to my colleagues, between how we perceive ourselves and how the outside world perceives us. In 2020, I wrote a piece in The Atlantic, basically saying that higher education in 2020 looks a lot like the entertainment industry did in 2015. We are fat and happy and completely unaware that technology is about to change how we deliver our product, for lack of a better word. What was really interesting is the feedback on that piece from outside the academy was overwhelmingly positive, and frequently expressed a great deal of anger and frustration towards the institution of higher education. The feedback from within the academy was overwhelmingly negative and frequently expressed a great deal of anger and frustration towards anyone who would question the institution of higher education. Like there’s this enormous disconnect. It almost reminds me of early in the demise of the cable subscriptions. So there’s a guy named Chase Carey, he was the COO of 21st Century Fox, and in 2013, he was asked at an investor’s conference, “Are you at all worried about people canceling their cable subscriptions?” And he said, “Not at all. People will give up food and a roof over their head before they give up cable television.” And my guess is he said that because he had surveys showing that people will get behind on their mortgage and behind on the credit card payment, beforer they get behind on their cable bill. But it wasn’t because they loved cable, it was because they had no other alternatives. I think we, in higher education, look at “people keep showing up. People keep showing up and paying my high prices, they must love my product.” I think there’s another way to interpret that data and it is they have no other options than to paying us a whole bunch of money. The smart thing for us to do from the perspective of the business model is to eliminate any other options for students. But I think the right thing for us to do from the perspective of society and our own moral standards, is to want to create other ways for students to get the knowledge they need so they can just demonstrate that knowledge in the workforce. That’s the change that I think needs to happen in how we look at these things.

John: That’s a message I think that we all need to hear a bit more often, because it’s really easy to become complacent with where you are and what you’re doing and just assuming that it’s serving everyone’s needs, and we don’t want to be in the position of the cable companies or the traditional print newspapers and so forth in response to a changing environment that may make us obsolete unless we adapt.

Michael: That’s the hard part. What’s interesting to me is how hard it is for market leaders to identify and respond to change. And when I teach this in class, if you teach it really well, disruption is an incredibly depressing topic because the last slide in every good disruption story is “and the incumbent died.” Blockbuster, dead; BlackBerry, dead; Britannica, dead. And if you teach it really well, there’s some kid in the back of the class who’s gonna go: “Can you get any example of an industry that responded well to technological change?” And for a long time, I sort of mumbled that answer, but now I’m starting to say “the entertainment industry.” If you look at what Bob Iger did at Disney, he blew up their organizational structure to go after this new opportunity. I’ve got this really interesting quote of Bob Iger saying, “When I launched streaming and Disney plus, I looked at my organizational structure, and I realized that it didn’t make sense anymore.” And if you sort of dig down, every entertainment company has a president of home entertainment, president of television, president of theatrical, president of international and all those peoples’ jobs is to protect the old way of doing business. Bob Iger blew that up and created an organizational structure that looked a lot like Netflix. What’s the parallel here? I think we need to think really hard about our incentives and our organizational structure, if you will. I was talking to Zvi Galil at Georgia Tech, and what he said is, “I got the faculty to adopt this online teaching method by changing their incentives and making it in their financial interests to teach online.” I think, leaders at the top, if we want to adopt this, you’re gonna have to think really hard about what’s my existing incentives, and how can I change those incentives in a way that encourages faculty to adopt this new innovation?

Rebecca: In your book, you have an interesting story about a president who gave a talk about why it cost $60,000 to attend my university. Can you share that story with us?

Michael: Love to. I’ve given this talk at a bunch of different universities, and when you give this talk, you have these interesting side conversations with people and one of those side conversations was someone who had heard their President give a talk to a local community group titled “Why does it cost $60,000 to attend university X?” and the President said, three reasons. Number one, technology doesn’t lower my cost, it actually increases it because I still have to maintain all the big buildings and now I have to invest in new technological systems. Number two reason that it cost $60,000 to attend my university is because I got to keep up with the Joneses. If all of my competitors are building big, beautiful dorms and big, beautiful buildings, I’ve got to build those same buildings if I want to remain competitive, and the number three reason because I f’ing can, although he didn’t use f’ing, he used the actual word… because I f’ing can. And he went on to say, “Every year I raise my prices, and every year I get the same number of students, if not more.” And while he didn’t use those words, what he’s saying is, I’m not on the elastic point in the demand curve, my market is inelastic to price increases, why shouldn’t I increase my prices? And so I came home and shared this story with my wife, which I found pretty compelling. And my wife who has an MBA and a Master’s of Public Policy, she doesn’t leave me to mansplain price elasticity to her. She listens patiently and nods. And then at the end, she says, “So, let me see if I’ve got this straight.” And after 30 years of marriage, what I’ve realized is, “let me see if I’ve got this straight” is shorthand for I’m about to destroy you rhetorically. “So this university is a 501-C3 nonprofit.” “Yeah.” “So that means they’ve taken tax-exempt status from the government in exchange for an agreement to act in a way that is consistent with the public good.” “Oh… yeah.” And she said, “I’m fine if they want to behave like a profit-maximizing monopolist, just give back the tax-exempt status.” I don’t mean to pick on any university presidents. They’re doing what their incentives tell them to do. I would love for us to come back and say, “What’s my mission?” If my mission is to increase my prices, because I’m not on the elastic point of the demand curve then go for it, but give back the tax-exempt status. The tax-exempt status implies that my mission ought to be bigger than that, ought to be doing what’s right for society. And I think that’s going to require a lot of change.

Rebecca: Thank you just underscored our call to action for this episode.[LAUGHTER]

Michael: I hope so.

Rebecca: Perhaps this is a great moment then to switch to our last question, which is: “What’s next?”

Michael: What’s next?, I think what’s next Inside colleges, is for us to get more excited about our mission, and then changing our model to best support that mission. And like I said, I think that’s going to require a lot more technological adoption than what we’re seeing today. Honestly, I think what’s next outside of higher education is for employers to start to adopt more hiring practices that, frankly, de-emphasize the four-year degree in favor of emphasizing skills. “Do you have the skill? I don’t care where you got it from.” I think we’re starting to see that. And when I give this presentation, I’ve got a slide in the presentation that has a bunch of headlines from press outlets saying this or that company is de-emphasizing the four-year degree in their hiring practices. The next build of that slide is a quote from each of those articles saying, “and they’re doing it because they want a more diverse workforce. And they’ve recognized that I can’t get that diversity if I continue to rely on elite colleges.” A, I think that means employers are starting to pick up on the fact that colleges aren’t delivering the students that I want , but B, I think that ought to be a call to action for us in higher education. Because if you think about it, what it means is that the evil capitalists in the business market are further along than we are in terms of embracing diversity. Maybe now’s the time for us to try to catch up.

Rebecca: Well, thank you for such a great conversation and many things for us to be thinking about as perpetuators [LAUGHTER] of the higher ed system as it exists. So I think there’s a lot of room for us to each, individually, make small moves to start shifting things.

Michael: And I want to put a big caveat on a lot of what I’ve said here, I don’t know anybody in higher education who would say “I’m excited about excluding people,” I genuinely think we’re all on the same page. I just think we’ve gotten into this world where we assume that what we’ve always done in the past is the right thing to continue to do. And I’d like for us to question those assumptions.

John: Well, thank you. You’ve made a lot of really good arguments about the need for change. And I’m hoping that we all start thinking about ways in which we can adapt to create a more inclusive educational environment, and perhaps slow down that cost increase or find alternative routes to training our students to become productive members of society.

Michael: Thanks, John and Rebecca, it was wonderful being here with you and I really appreciate you having me on the show.


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.

Ganesh: Editing assistance by Ganesh.


334. Journey Toward UDL

Most faculty begin their teaching careers with little preparation in effective teaching practices. In this episode, Jeanne Anderson joins us to share her journey toward inclusive teaching practices and universal design for learning. Jeanne is a faculty development coordinator at Waubonsee Community College, and an adjunct faculty member in the English departments at Elgin and Waubonsee Community Colleges, and the College of DuPage. She teaches a mix of online, face-to-face, and hybrid writing courses.

Show Notes

  • Tea Tree
  • ACUE
  • 4 Connections Curriculum
  • Transparency in Learning and Teaching (TILTHigherEd)
  • Behling, K. T., & Tobin, T. J. (2018). Reach everyone, teach everyone: Universal design for learning in higher education. West Virginia University Press.
  • Tobin, Tom (2020). Pedagogies of Care: UDL. Tea for Teaching podcast. Episode 138. June 3.
  • Angelo, T. A., & Cross, K. P. (2012). Classroom assessment techniques. Jossey Bass Wiley.
  • Darby, F., & Lang, J. M. (2019). Small teaching online: Applying learning science in online classes. John Wiley & Sons.


John: Most faculty begin their teaching careers with little preparation in effective teaching practices. In this episode, one faculty member shares her journey toward inclusive teaching practices and universal design for 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 guest today is Jeanne Anderson. Jeanne is a faculty development coordinator at Waubonsee Community College, and an adjunct faculty member in the English departments at Elgin and Waubonsee Community Colleges, and the College of DuPage. She teaches a mix of online, face-to-face, and hybrid writing courses. Welcome, Jeanne.

Jeanne: Thank you, John.

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

Jeanne: I am. I was out and about today, and I stopped at the Tea Tree in downtown Batavia and told them I needed something tasty that would give me some endurance, because I’m a little tired today. I just got over COVID. And so they actually made me a cup of endurance tea.

Rebecca: Oh, look at that.

John: Excellent.

Rebecca: Who knew? [LAUGHTER]

Jeanne: It’s a mix of herbs that have been traditionally used for increasing stamina.

Rebecca: Well, I hope it works.

John: I do too.

John: And I have English breakfast tea today.

Rebecca: Oh, it must be a theme. I have Scottish afternoon tea. We’re all looking for a little energy. [LAUGHTER]

John: …which is a little more appropriate because we are recording in the afternoon, at least here on the East Coast. We met at the POD conference back in November and we sat at the same table at one of the sessions. And we talked a little bit about your practices. And we’ve invited you here to talk about how you’ve integrated inclusive teaching practices, including UDL into your writing classes. Could you tell us a little bit first about what prompted you to adopt a UDL approach in your classes?

Jeanne: Well, John, I have four kids between the ages of 14 and 21. And three of them are neurodiverse. And my 21-year old has autism. My 15 year old has dyslexia and my youngest has ADHD. I started teaching in 2000. I became a mom in 2003. And autism was a word that was introduced in my life in 2005, when my son was 21 months old. So throughout the time that I was starting to teach, and also then throughout the time that I was raising my son, there was a constant theme of having to meet him where he was at, because most normal kids, babies, you would put them in a stroller and go to the mall, and they’d sleep, where my son would cry and scream. But if I brought him home, and he went in his little swing, he was quiet and he was content and he was happy. And so there were just a lot of things that I had to give up at that time to be able to meet his needs. So I had an interview for an adjunct position while I was still in graduate school, at a college in Chicago on a Tuesday afternoon, right after Labor Day. And by mid-afternoon, they were walking me to HR, and I was being told that I would have a class very soon. And then the man I interviewed with, Mr. Haynes, he turned out to be one of my mentors, he came back and he said, “Oh, can you sub tonight? You get paid $150, all you have to do is pass out the syllabus and turn on a video.” And I was like, I could watch a movie for $150.” So I go down and I do my subbing thing. And he knocks on the door, and he hands me a set of books. And he says, “Okay, your class is Monday, Wednesday (it’s Tuesday night I won’t be home till 10). your class is monday, wednesday at eight o’clock in the morning, and you’re teaching Comm 101. And I’m thinking “this isn’t even my discipline.” And so I kind of got thrust in this classroom, not knowing how to teach, as many of us are, and we rely on the good or bad practices of our previous instructors in college. Really, one of the first principles that I talk about, one of the first things that I have to be intentional about, is meeting students where they’re at. And I do that because, at the time, I didn’t know what else to do with them. And so I would just gauge who they were and what their needs were and I would try to meet those needs. And so that’s really the first seven years of my teaching career, I kind of relied on that principle of just doing what my other teachers used to do, and meeting my students where they were at.

Rebecca: Definitely a good way to get involved in inclusive teaching and a good framework to dig into a lot of models that are out there.

Jeanne: Definitely, and this college, they didn’t have any remediation. And they really took a lot of students from Chicago Public Schools who truly needed the remediation. And so as a faculty member in these classes, I really had to figure out what their needs were. I couldn’t fix them, but I could give them the best college experience that I could in the courses that I was teaching. And so that’s really what I sought to do. It was also a very diverse group of students. Most of my students were either Hispanic or black. And so, again, another reason to just meet your students where you’re at, get to know them and make them feel comfortable. They’re in a setting where they feel like they don’t belong. And so years before I knew about imposter syndrome, I’m in a classroom having a severe case of impostor syndrome with a group of students who also have impostor syndrome, and that’s really been the bedrock of how I started working with students in the classroom, is making them feel comfortable. Some of the professional development that I’ve done has really informed my teaching practices in a new way over the last few years. The first third of my career was me just kind of figuring out how to teach and also having a child with autism, and using some of the skills that I picked up by raising him, applying those things to the classroom. Whether it’s slowing down my speech and being more intentional and direct in the things I say, that was one thing that I did with him. The second third of my career, we adopted two children, and so I kind of took a backseat. I was still teaching an insane amount of classes, but I wasn’t really making much movement in professional development. And that’s where I was working on getting diagnoses for dyslexia and ADHD, and trying to figure out in their education, like how does trauma inform their education? How are learning disabilities informing their education? How does the fact that they grew up in a Spanish speaking home for the first four to six years impact their education? These are all things that I can think about when I’m talking to my students, because as a writing instructor, especially since my first assignment in English 101 is a literacy narrative, they’re very open about if they grew up in the Spanish speaking home, or if they had a learning disability and they hated school, and the fact that they know that I have this background kind of fosters that engagement and connection. So the last five years, I’ve really focused more on professional development. And I took the ACUE courses. And then I became a Faculty Development Coordinator, and at College to DuPage, they offered a paid course for adjuncts. The curriculum was 4 Connections, that’s what the course was called. 4 Connections comes out of Odessa College in Texas. And the 4 connections are checking in with students regularly, practicing praxis (which means maintaining rigor, but also having flexibility), one-on-one check-ins, and learning students’ names. And so as far as inclusive teaching practices are concerned, again, these are all things that when I started teaching, they were almost frowned upon. You don’t want to engage with your students too much. You’re there to lecture, they’re there to learn, and there’s no late assignments, and if you plagiarize, then you’re out of here. And these were all habits of faculty back in the early 2000s that I grew up under, but that didn’t work for me. And so I looked at these 4 connections, and all of a sudden, it was very validating, because it was like, “Well, I’ve kind of been doing this all along, checking in regularly, that’s something that I do with students, the one-on-one meetings, that’s the one that always kind of enrages faculty, especially adjuncts because of how thinly we’re spread. But if you can get past the I don’t have to meet with every student one on one, I started that process by saying, Okay, we’re post pandemic, I’m comfortable with Zoom… I went from “Why are you taking an online class, if you want to talk to me, you should take an in-person class,” that was kind of the mentality of the early 2000s and mid 2010s. I went from that to, “Hey, it sounds like you could really use a zoom call. Let’s get together. Let’s have a one on one, let’s talk” and really just students getting to know me and me getting to know them a little bit really helped get them on track. They needed that engagement to get on track. The practicing praxis, I used to be told in my early years, “Oh, you’re too flexible. If it’s past the deadline, you shouldn’t take it, it’s a zero.” And in the culture that I was working in, nobody was turning things in on time. There were so many obstacles to the students I had in the beginning. Being a writing instructor, students definitely walk into your classroom not wanting to be there, and believing that you are judging them from the get go. And you kind of are. And so it’s always been my intention to make students feel comfortable so that I can get the best writing from them as well.

Rebecca: What are some of the strategies that you use to make students feel comfortable?

Jeanne: I was thinking about my teaching style, and how I would talk about it. I came up with four principles that I really follow: being intentional about meeting students where they’re at, so getting to know your students and meeting them where they’re at while also maintaining rigor and meeting those learning outcomes on the syllabus, because those are two very important components of getting your students through your college courses. I’m also very intentional about engagement. So when I start a class, whether it’s online or face to face, I want my students to know that they’re making friends in this class, and that they and their peers and myself were all part of a learning community, and I’m learning from them. I don’t necessarily call myself an expert. I have so much to learn. And a lot of things that I learned, I learned from my students. I give them an assignment, and they give it back to me, and then I learn about what are the good aspects of that assignment, and what parts of that assignment really need to go. My students teach me that. I can’t learn that on my own. And so having that rapport and that engagement in the classroom is very important to me, especially since the majority of the courses I teach are online. Being transparent is also very important. And I was introduced to the TILT framework (Transparency in Learning and Teaching). And as an English instructor, and as an online instructor, I have to give very clear guidelines to students, because I’m not in the classroom with them. So they have to be able to read the guidelines and follow them. And so I’ve always been pretty good at writing those assignments and getting that across. I’ve tweaked it over the years, being more intentional about letting them know the reason why we’re doing this assignment. I’ve never been a teacher to have like a bunch of readings just because we should have a bunch of readings. Whatever unit we’re in in the English 101 class, I want the exercises that we do in these classes to help them in their final destination of that research essay that they’re putting together for the course. And then the fourth principle has to do with the UDL implementation. And that’s really having that plus-one mindset. Adopting a plus-one mindset is really important, because there’s always one thing that I can do, maybe I’m just doing one thing this week, maybe I’m doing one thing a day, maybe I’m doing one thing a semester, but there’s only one way to improve my curriculum. There’s always one way to improve meeting students’ needs.

Rebecca: So for folks that are interested in that plus one mindset, it’s introduced in Reach Everyone, Teach Everyone by Tom Tobin and Kirsten Behling.

John: And we do have a podcast with Tom that we’ll share a link to in the show notes. Maybe you could talk a little bit about how you’ve implemented some of those UDL principles in your class, as you’ve continually done the plus one thing.

Jeanne: Well, they talk about multiple means of representation, multiple means of expression and multiple means of engagement. So I’m always looking at my curriculum and thinking, how can I better represent, how can my students better express what they know? And how can we improve engagement? For multiple means of representation, I started revising my syllabus, first of all. I tried to use more inclusive language, a little more colloquial, a little more warm, not having these really strict rules, but kindly sharing what was expected of students in a tone that reduced that imposter syndrome, telling students directly in my syllabus “you belong” is important. Another thing that I did, I learned about how to create like a visual graphics syllabus. For example, for my English 101 class, we have four papers that students write. And so on one page, I outline the entire course with what the whole course will look like and some of the things that they’ll be learning. Under each paper, I would talk about specific skills that they were going to pick up under that paper, during that unit. So they could see the entire class on one page. It will list the papers and what percentage they’re worth. And it’ll list a little description of what is involved. Our final paper in the English 101 class is a career analysis project. And so day one, I want them to know, “Hey, you’re going to be writing a paper about the career you’re interested in.” So let’s start thinking about that. And so a lot of the scaffolding that I put in place from paper to paper helps students follow the general outline of the course. I also use a skeletal outline. When I teach a face to face course, I actually set it up on whatever learning management system I’m using in the class. I set it up the same way I would an online class. I do that because I don’t want to forget anything. But at the beginning of class, I can go over the page and say, “Okay, these are all the things that we’re going to get through today.” And students know, and they’re not getting restless in their seats, especially because I mostly teach night classes. And you can just imagine By seven o’clock how much they want it to be over. And thankfully, I don’t have a ton of content that I have to get through. And so it’s like a half discussion/lecture, half of the class is us working together. And the other half is lab time. And as part of like an inclusive teaching practice, during lab time I meet with students regularly, one on one. And again, I’m getting to know them, I’m finding out “How was work today?” But I’m also finding out “Where are you at with your writing practice today?” And if you put something in place for one student, every student can benefit from that. So like if I have a blind student who needs her readings to be audio, the mother who is driving her kid to soccer practice can also benefit from having an audio version of the text. I’ve really embraced that idea of, when I put something in a course, trying to give them a graphic, trying to give them the text, and then trying to give them an audio or audio-visual component. I use Zoom a lot to create my videos. And so we have the closed captioning, they have the PowerPoint, they have the option of reading the transcript, maybe all those things can be overwhelming, but then turn off the closed captions and just have the PowerPoint and the talking. A lot of times I don’t even have the PowerPoint, I just have the screen for the learning management system, which is not always smart, because I use three different learning management systems, so that I have to keep re-recording those videos.

Rebecca: It sounds like those alternative formats are really helpful for students in giving options to explore the content and giving variety. And it sounds like you’re guiding them through picking and choosing which format works best for them.

Jeanne: Absolutely. And in 2010, when I got my big start in online teaching, I had completed a master’s certificate in online learning through Illinois Online Network. And actually, that was the first time I had ever heard about things like summative and formative assessments. So I was using classroom assessment techniques or CATs to check in with students. So those were things that I was learning in this class that I didn’t know about, then fast forward to last semester, and now I want to learn more about universal design for learning. So I started a digital accessibility for educators certificate. And we had a course for the foundations, we had a course where we just learned the basics of manipulating documents and making them accessible. I did another course that did the same for videos, and then the full eight-week UDL course, but the videos was interesting in that they actually recommended that your videos only be two to three minutes long, which if you’re used to teaching an hour and a half class, how do you get a two-minute video to educate your students. And I think part of that is students are used to watching shorter videos. And so if you have a 20-minute lecture, chunking it into four different videos can be very useful, because even when they have to go back, they know that that information that they want to review comes from video two, or video three, and it breaks things up for them. And you can set them up where one flows into the next

Rebecca: You were just summarizing the different ways that you were implementing multiple means of representation. You’ve talked a little bit about multiple forms in your syllabus, you talked about skeletal outlines, and then you were just talking about multiple formats for lectures. So one of the other UDL principles is thinking about multiple means of expression or ways that students can demonstrate their learning. Can you share some of the ways that you’ve implemented that into your teaching?

Jeanne: Sure, well, again, because I teach primarily online, I rely very heavily on the discussion boards. And so I do definitely start out with the icebreakers. And it’s not a best practice to answer every student on the discussion board, but for the icebreaker I do, because I want them to know that I heard them and that I have a response for them. And so I really tried to be very intentional. And then as the discussion boards increase throughout the semester, I back off and let my students engage with each other. But what I love about the discussion boards is it democratizes the classroom, because if a student is put on the spot right there in the classroom, they can’t always process the information quickly enough. They might be shy, they might feel like they just can’t come up with the answer right then and there. But when you’re on a discussion board, a student has the opportunity to read the question and thoughtfully respond in their own timing. And that really matches the work that I do. I’m definitely better at creating courses in writing and using instructional design techniques to lay out my classes and have everything set up, do all the writing of assignments, I’m much better at the organization than I am at getting up in front of students and lecturing. That’s just what I’m better at. And so I can really understand the idea of having a new concept introduced to me, and then having the opportunity to really think about it, maybe do a little research and pull my thoughts together before I respond. And so I think having those discussion boards, sometimes I even integrate them in my face-to-face classes just to give students other opportunities to engage. I have a literacy narrative assignment, where I allow students to either write the essay, or use another modality. So like, every once in a while, I’ll have a student who will want to make a video, I don’t have all the techniques of what video software you should use. Sometimes having all that information can be daunting. In today’s age, you know, my son, he’s 21, so he’s a junior in life and he’s working in the trades. So he’s not in college. But he started using a Chromebook in sixth grade. So we have students now who have capabilities in video production that I don’t have, just because they’ve been doing it in their elementary, middle school, and high school classes. So I also have an option for them to create a comic. Because we have an example in our textbook where somebody wrote a literacy narrative,as a graphic comic. Every once in a while, I get the drawers who want to have their literacy narrative that way. And so again, there’s just multiple ways. Writing class, you can’t always have a video, students have to write. But I can sometimes give options, the literacy narrative is a great place to give students the opportunity to showcase their story using another modality. I provide examples whenever possible. I ask my students “Can I use this?” and I get more and more questions from students about, “Can I have an example?” And sometimes I don’t want to give them one, I just want them to respond. It’s a low-stakes assignment, and I want them to think. I don’t want them to see somebody else’s response. I just want them to tell me what they know. But especially for larger essays, I want to make sure that they have those examples. We read a lot of essays from published authors, but having examples from their peers, and especially examples from peers that had me as their instructor, can be very helpful to students being able to then turn around and express their thoughts in writing. And this is also where that TILT model comes in, because I want to tell them why they’re doing the assignment, the literacy narrative, the purpose is for me to get to know you as a student, as a reader, as a writer. It’s an opportunity for you to tell me your story, and what the actual prompt is, what the skills they need, there’s always a rubric for them to follow to guide them. I give them an idea of what I expect in the final product. And sometimes I’ve been learning more and more that sometimes, using specifications grading, it’s either you met the objectives, or you didn’t can be very helpful in some of these writing assignments. One of my favorite writing assignments is… I got this at a conference at College DuPage, like maybe in 2016, and I adopted it, and I’ve been using it for years, but only in the face-to-face classroom. It’s students pairing up to groups of two or three, and they choose a movie and they do their own version of “At the Movies with English 101.” I don’t know if you’re old enough to remember this, Rebecca, I know John is, but Siskel and Ebert At the Movies on Sunday afternoon, I watched it with my dad every week and so I get to nerd out a little bit and do things I love and show them all these different clips of Siskel and Ebert. And then they get to pair with somebody and watch a film and write a script that they present to the class. And so what I’ve learned over the years is that it’s not even really necessary to grade this assignment, because I’m really only grading on grammar and punctuation because they work so hard on it because they’re presenting it to their peers, and they’re working with another classmate that it’s a pure learning experience. And last semester, I had a student who was talking to her partner, and she said, “This is so fun. This is like doing a podcast.” And I thought, oh my goodness, I can bridge. I tell them to write a script and they look at me like a deer in headlights. But if I say they’re gonna do a podcast about their favorite movie, now I’ve reframed the assignment in terms that they understand. So that’s what I’m going to do next time. And like I said, if you’ve done the assignment, you get full credit because I’ve never had a student not do the assignment. I do have a rubric for the person who takes advantage, just in case they’re out there. And really the only way to lose points is if you don’t present your individual reflection on the entire process. So I feel like that is just one of those ways to meet students where they’re at by giving them the freedom to work with somebody else and see what kind of writing they can produce without too many parameters. And they’re almost always successful.

John: You had mentioned something about a career analysis project. Could you tell us a little bit about that?

Jeanne: Sure. That came out last spring, I had a late start class. And they were supposed to be writing an editorial and I was barely getting film analysis and literacy narrative essays from them. They were really struggling as a class. And I was trying to figure out a way to motivate them. And I’m thinking, if I have them write an editorial, that’s not going to work for this group. And so I scrambled, and I thought, well, as a freshman in college, most of the students who take English 101, this is their first time in college, and thinking about the TILT model, what can they write that gives them purpose? And so I came up with “Well, every student’s going to want to get out of college with a career, and we can still meet the learning objectives in the class.” So the final product is the actual essay, and that is totally graded with a rubric and they have to meet all the learning objectives, work cited page, introduction, thesis statement, all those components of a basic essay, source integration, synthesis. We’re in the early stages of getting them ready for that English 102 class. And so they can write an essay about their career meeting all those objectives in the same way that they could write an editorial meeting those same objectives. And so I always start a paper like that with an annotated bibliography. And so I got the librarians to help me find websites where students could research their careers. And so the librarians put together a page for me that students can refer to, and I’ve since created short videos, where I explain the different databases to them. Right now, I think I have like a 12-minute video that I did. So the next step is, instead of talking about all the databases in one video, talk about different individual databases in two to three minutes, breaking that down and meeting them even better than I was with a 12-minute video. So they write their annotated bibliography, and that gives them an opportunity to work on MLA citations, work on summarizing, and thinking about how they’re going to use that material for the final essay. That’s part one. Part two is using ChatGPT to have a conversation, I call it a ChatGPT interview. And so now that students have done the research on their own, now they’re taking what they know and I give them a series of prompts. And I’m giving them the experience of using ChatGPT to inform their writing and the research. And so I’m not necessarily concerned about the interview. I’ve very recently learned that instead of them describing the process, they can send me a link to the actual interview. So it’s evolved from describing the process to: write an introduction, give me your link, and then write a reflection on what helped and what didn’t help and how you think this is a valuable tool in education, how you think that ChatGPT could derail you in your education. And so I know a lot of English faculty are very wary of AI in the classroom with good reason, because I’ve gotten a few of those papers. And I’ve probably gotten more than I think, and they’ve gotten under my nose. But it’s like the internet was 20 years ago. It’s a tool that’s not going anywhere. And so it is our responsibility as educators to introduce students to these tools and talk about the ethics of them. And so this is just an opportunity to kind of slip that in. And the feedback I’ve gotten from most students is “Oh, yeah, I got really good information. Some of it wasn’t accurate based on my research. I could tell from the tone of what I was reading that it was robotic, and I definitely wouldn’t want my writing to sound that way. But it was nice to put some ideas in and get some feedback from those ideas. So part one is the annotated bibliography. Part two is the ChatGPT interview. Part three is that final essay, and this semester, I’ve added a part four, because I wasn’t feeling like this assignment was robust enough. And I’ve also been in conversations about UDL, giving students multiple ways to express what they know. And so I actually went into ChatGPT and I put part of my assignment in it. And I asked him to write me guidelines for doing a media presentation. And so now they’re going to have to take what they’ve learned in their essay, or what they’ve written in their essay. And they have to take it a step further and do some kind of a PowerPoint or video or some kind of visual component, so that they can, I guess, bring what they know, it’s not just an essay, but they’re sharing it with the world in some respects, or they have something that they could share with the world. And so this will give me an opportunity to talk about portfolios, ‘cause some nursing students need those kinds of things. I know I did when I was in public relations, journalism was my major. And so I know when I got out of college, I needed a portfolio. And so this is just another opportunity for them to maybe have a little bit of fun with the content. And it brings them more into the 21st century. Our students, I’m sure many of them aspire to be influencers. They love their YouTube. So this is a way for them to live out that dream a little bit.

Rebecca: Sounds like an opportunity to think about audience as well.

Jeanne: Yes, definitely.

Rebecca: How have your students responded to these opportunities in the reconfiguring of this project?

Jeanne: They have responded really well, especially with this particular project, the feedback I’ve gotten is I really appreciated the opportunity to research something I need to know about anyway. And I appreciated that you created an assignment that I can relate to, that means something to me. Not every discipline can do that. But as a writing instructor, Comp 101, Comp 102, I do have a lot of flexibility with the content. And so I focus very much on the skills that students can attain… the Siskel and Ebert, they all are looking at me, like, I’m crazy for asking them to create this podcast. But as they go through the process, I give them a lot of time in class. And as they go through the process of creating the document, at the end of the day, they have another piece of writing that they’re really proud of. A lot of them say “I had fun doing this.” And I feel like if a student is having fun doing a writing assignment, I’m really going to get to see their best efforts. I find that a lot of kids come out of high school and they come to college with this idea that I have to write what my teacher wants me to write. And I have to figure out what that is. And during the pandemic, I really got a taste of that when I was helping my son with his research paper, because he didn’t really do any writing. He started by looking for quotes. And then he explained what those quotes meant. He started with main ideas, and then he’d find quotes, and then he’d explain the quotes. And then he’d slap in a bunch of transitions and call that a paper. But there was really no like, “What do I think about this?” It was more about how do I meet all the criteria that my instructors have given me to complete this assignment. And so it’s a real privilege in English 101 to be able to kind of deprogram that thinking and give students the opportunity to really know what it’s like to write what they think,

Rebecca: Maybe to move on from just efficient solutions to things to something that’s actually valuable to them.

Jeanne: Exactly. And they’re learning skills in high school for a reason. They just lack the opportunity to really put those skills together in a lot of regular classes, I think. It’s been my experience with my kids anyway, and with my students, that they are really just re-imagining graphic organizers and presenting them to their students with all the boxes checked.

John: In your professional development role have some of the techniques that you’ve been using been widely adopted at your institutions?

Jeanne: Well, at Waubonsee, they pay for faculty to take the ACUE courses, which is a certificate in effective college instruction. And I know that there are a lot of active learning modules, there’s modules that have to do with creating a classroom environment that is conducive to learning. And there’s also a course that’s separate from the effective college instruction that is fostering a culture of belonging. And so that is a really good course to get people thinking about those around them. And at College DuPage, I do a lot of book clubs. So that’s how I got introduced to Thomas Tobin’s work, Reach Everyone, Teach Everyone and Flower Darby’s work with Small Teaching Online. And in fact, Thomas is the one who introduced me to John, at one of his sessions. So I’m a little bit of a Thomas Tobin groupie, I guess. And so I do find that any opportunity for faculty to engage with each other is really key. I know this as an online faculty member, I know this as an adjunct faculty member. I probably spent a good 10 years in a silo while I was raising my kids, and developed very slowly as an instructor, because I was really just doing my own research and learning my own things. But bringing it out into the world and engaging with other people, it really does improve your teaching strategies and your abilities at a much faster rate. And so I have really enjoyed the privilege of working in faculty development and sharing the things that I’ve learned with others and constantly also learning from others.

Rebecca: That is one of the benefits to being in faculty development, is getting the opportunity to learn new things, and from other faculty and other developers on a regular basis. I think that’s one of the reasons why John and I like to do the podcast. [LAUGHTER] And that’s why I enjoy listening to the podcasts, too. I go in these stages where I just listen and listen and listen and listen and listen, and then I burn out and I gotta stop, or I think, “Okay, I’m not listening to another podcast until I apply something from the last one I’ve listened to.” Because you know, when you’re in the car, and you’re just driving around, it can be really easy to think, “Oh, this is great, and then you forget about it.”

John: And that is a bit of an occupational hazard for being a podcaster in this area. Because there’s so many great ideas that we hear from people that it’s really tempting to try to do all of them. And that can be quite overwhelming.

Jeanne: For sure.

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

Jeanne: I know and I keep thinking about that. My faculty development job is supposed to end because it’s a two-year fellowship, supposed to end in May. And so what’s next is there has been talk about keeping my fellow Adjunct Faculty Development Coordinator and I on staff. So I guess we’re waiting to figure out as we revamp that department if I will continue in faculty development. But the good news is I love teaching so much. And I love teaching online so much. And one thing that I’ve learned about the anxiety that I have with teaching in face-to-face classes is that I don’t do it enough. And if I do it more, that anxiety dissipates, because I’m in that community. So I don’t know what’s next.

John: Thank you for joining us. It’s been great talking to you again, and we look forward to hearing more about your continued evolution in terms of teaching.

Rebecca: Thank you for sharing your story.

Jeanne: Thank you so much for having me on. This was great.


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.

Ganesh: Editing assistance by Ganesh.


333. High Structure STEM Classes

Multiple studies have found that increasing course structure reduces equity gaps and provides benefits to all students. In this episode, Justin Shaffer joins us to discuss several ways to increase structure in STEM classes.

Justin is the Associate Dean for Undergraduate Studies and a Teaching Professor in Chemical and Biological Engineering and in Quantitative Biosciences and Engineering at the Colorado School of Mines. He has taught a variety of both small and large STEM classes in multiple modalities using evidence-based approaches and has won multiple teaching awards as a result of this work. Justin is also an active researcher with 16 peer-reviewed publications and serves as the editor for four STEM education journals. He is the author of a forthcoming book on high-structure course design coming in late 2024 or early 2025 from Macmillan.

Show Notes


John: Multiple studies have found that increasing course structure reduces equity gaps and provides benefits to all students. In this episode, we examine several ways to increase structure in STEM classes.


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 Justin Shaffer. Justin is the Associate Dean for Undergraduate Studies and a Teaching Professor in Chemical and Biological Engineering and in Quantitative Biosciences and Engineering at the Colorado School of Mines. He has taught a variety of both small and large STEM classes in multiple modalities using evidence-based approaches and has won multiple teaching awards as a result of this work. Justin is also an active researcher with 16 peer-reviewed publications and serves as the editor for four STEM education journals. He is the author of a forthcoming book on high-structure course design coming in late 2024 or early 2025 from Macmillan. Welcome, Justin.

Justin: Thanks for having me. I’m really excited to talk to you today.

John: We met at the POD conference back in November, and we talked about doing this but we finally got around to actually scheduling it. So thank you for joining us.

Justin: Thank you, John. Yeah, I saw you sitting there at a table by yourself. I knew your face from LinkedIn and I built up the courage to introduce myself and I’m glad I did.

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

Justin: I am drinking some tea. I got prepared. It’s from a small little coffee/tea shop in West Middlesex, Pennsylvania. I’m from the near that area in western Pennsylvania. We call it the Shenango Valley and it’s called O’Neill’s and they make lovely Western PA coffees and teas and I just have some nice black tea here. It is that time of day for me that I need some.

Rebecca: Today I have a jasmine green tea, John.

John: Very good, and today I have a Prince of Wales tea, and a peppermint tea because I didn’t have very much to drink today, and my throat was getting really dry in my econometrics class. So I wanted to be well hydrated. [LAUGHTER]

Rebecca: Lots of variety, too. So we’ve invited you here today, Justin, to talk about how you’ve implemented high-structure course design. And for listeners who might be new to the concept, can you talk a little bit about what you mean by high-structure course design?

Justin: Yeah, so just like I’ll tell you all like I tell my students, I didn’t come up with this term. I wish I did. But I’m building off the work of other giants in the field. So as far as I know, the term really came out in the mid-2000s, 5-, 6-, 7-ish range from the University of Washington in Seattle. There’s some pioneering folks, Scott Freeman and Mary Pat Wenderoth in biology and they use this term structure to think about, “Well, how do we scaffold student learning before class, during class, after class, and we’re continuously building as we go up through the three levels.” So pre-class involves some kind of content acquisition, that can be reading your textbook, reading journal articles, watching Khan Academy videos, other sources like that. And then some kind of formative assessment before class because we all know students need a little bit of a carrot there to get some of that work done sometimes, which is totally great, because you give them a lot of chances, sometimes even unlimited attempts… again, formative assessment before class, make sure everyone has the same solid foundation, then you come to class, high-structure course design, just like any good class nowadays should be really rooted in active learning. So we got a lot of activities going on: group work, problem solving, case studies, real-world connections, any kind of flavor you want to do there with your active learning as long as students are engaged. And the big thing here though, is that you’re aligned to what happens before a class. We’re building off what happens before a class, I’m not in class just repeating what happens ahead of time. Rather, I’m using the foundational material students acquire before class, we build that up with another level in class, and then we keep going. And then after class, there’s a bucket there, where students are going to be practicing those skill sets they’ve been developing through the before class and in-class buckets, applying their skills to new contexts, solving new problems, doing projects, essays, more authentic assignments, whatever you want it to be. And then there’s typically a frequent assessment piece with a high-structure course design too, whether that’s a multiple midterm model, weekly quizzes, every other weekly quizzes, things like that, in addition to some more authentic assessments, which is something I’ve tried to get more into this past year, by adding more realistic projects and course assignments in my high-structure courses.

John: Could you give us some examples of some of the authentic assessments that you use in your classes?

Justin: Yeah, thanks, John. So this is really new to me still, this past year. I know I’m behind the curve. I know this is a term has been around there for a while. I always like to think I’ve had some authenticity in my classes for a long time. I integrate news stories, I use case studies, I have this new thing I called pod cases where I take podcasts and combine them with case studies and we use those in the classroom. But I thought I could try to be a little bit more authentic, even still… getting that advice from my wife for my personal life. She always says that can be more authentic. So, maybe I can make my courses and my assessments more authentic too. One example I’m doing right now. I’m teaching introduction to biomedical engineering, and I’m having the students write the actual legit National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship proposal. Those of you familiar with that, there’s a personal statement part and there’s a technical kind of research proposal part. So we’re just doing that. It’s a two-page proposal, and we’re working on this in a structured way throughout the entire semester. Last week, students had to turn in the research topic and research question. This week, they’re turning in their hypothesis, in a couple weeks they’re turning in the literature review and experimental plan. We’re gonna have two rounds of a formal peer review of the entire proposal. And then we’re going to conclude with a mock panel discussion, just like you might have in the real NSF or the real NIH where students are going to be reviewing each other’s proposals and basically pitching them to each other and seeing if they should get, quote, unquote, funded or not. I don’t have any funds for them. Maybe we’ll bring candy on the last couple of days. But that’s kind of the idea of having a real thing that students could actually use some day if they’re going to graduate school. But even if they’re not, being able to write technically and persuasively in two pages on a proposal is a really important skill that they should be working on, in my opinion.

Rebecca: Sounds like you’re going to need some chocolate coins for that day.

Justin: That’s a great idea. I will get chocolate coins. [LAUGHTER] I didn’t think of that. [LAUGHTER]

Rebecca: Can you talk a little bit about what motivated you to attempt and move in the direction of high-structured course design.

Justin: I kind of started out this way, I kind of started in the deep end, if you will. So my postdoctoral program was called spire, S-P-I-R-E, and it’s one of these bigger programs called IRACDA through the NIH. They’re postdocs where you still do research. So I was a molecular biologist, biochemist at the time. I have a weird background in chemical engineering, bioengineering, molecular biology, but at the time, I was studying muscle proteins in squid, super fun stuff. And then I also got training, though, on how to teach evidence-based college science and engineering courses. In my postdoc, through great people like Ed Neil, Brian Ray Bozic, Leslie Lauria, and then also Kelly Hogan was someone that took me under her wing at the time, she was able to, along with the rest of the SPIRE team, helped me be introduced to using evidence-based course design practices, which included with high structure. So this was around 2010-11, right when these papers are starting to come out from Scott Freeman and Mary Pat Wenderoth. I started with high structure because the evidence shows it works. And that’s as a trained scientist, as a trained engineer, we like to go with evidence ideally to guide our decisions. And it’s no different with course design and teaching as it would be with thermodynamics or reactor design or anything else. The literature on high structure is really strong, even then it’s been growing over the years, some of my own data and a lot of other papers. The main gist, though, is that by having the scaffolding before class, in class, after class, students are able to really monitor their learning, develop self-regulated learning skills, be more metacognitive. And the data in a lot of papers shows all students are doing better in the class. But it’s not just everyone, using high structure and moving up in structure will start to close or reduce achievement gaps or performance gaps between historically underperforming students and their majority counterparts. So for example, female students and male students in physics, there has traditionally been a gap there, add some more structure to the class, those gaps tend to get smaller. And I’ve been participating in that kind of research here over the last many years with undergraduate students and my research team. And we found some similar results across different STEM disciplines. It’s really the evidence guiding me in these decisions to do it. I also think it’s a lot more fun. Once I have in mind one of my very first faculty interviews, oh a long time ago, now, I had an interviewer say to me, “Well, hey, I’ve looked at all the papers on active learning, and they’re all wrong. [LAUGHTER] All the statistics are wrong. What do you have to say about that?” And I paused for a second I said, “Well, even if that’s true, it’s a heck of a lot more fun to teach actively with active learning than not, I think the high-structure design model is more of a fun way to teach. And again, you’re helping the students with those study skills and metacognitive skills that they can then take forward to their future classes.”

John: There was a recent paper that did argue that many of the studies on active learning were flawed in some way in terms of a very strict methodological approach. However, there are so many of them, and the results are so remarkably consistent. I don’t really buy that argument in terms of the questions about methodology.

Justin: You’re right, it was a big deal, I think it was either Beckie Supiano or Beth McMurtrie in the Chronicle had articles on this going around for sure. And that’s the thing though, with us, as DBER folks… I want to introduce a new term, DBER – discipline-based education researchers… which I consider myself to be in. So I’m in the discipline. I’m in chemical engineering, I’m in biology, I’m in Biomedical Engineering, and I do the education research from that lens, but also from that training background. I’ve never been formally trained in education research methods in psychology or social sciences or psychometrics. I am, totally honest, I fake it. I do what I can. I know my boundaries. I know when I need a collaborator in the true social science disciplines that helped me with my studies. And so I think that paper was getting some of that. Sometimes the folks like us that are doing this work, whether we call ourselves DBER people, or Scholarship of Teaching and Learning (SOTL) people, we might not have that true background, and therefore the rigor of the paper, the methodologies, aren’t as advanced as maybe they should be. But like you said, there’s so many studies showing benefits of this, whether it’s simple correlational studies… sometimes they get to the mixed methods, even quasi-experimental studies, but the evidence just keeps mounting and mounting and mounting. And that key paper there was the 2014 one from Scott Freeman that PNAS meta-analysis showing that hundreds of papers, hundreds of studies… again, they have their flaws, don’t get me wrong… but you start to see these themes everywhere and you think, well, there must be an effect, something’s going on.

John: And we will include a link to that paper in the show notes, if anyone would like to follow up. But the fact that there may be these flaws in some of the research methodology suggests that maybe we need to see more people doing work in this area, and that there’s a lot of areas where there’s potential growth.

Justin: Totally agree.

John: And you’ve done quite a bit of research already.

Justin: I’ve tried, as a teaching faculty member now for this is going on year 12-ish, but I’ve always made that a part of my career. Before I was at Mines, I was at University of California, Irvine, where we did have a scholarship expectation or to earn tenure as teaching faculty. The UC system is one of the few in the country where you have actually tenure-stream teaching faculty, which was really cool. So I earned that, but I only had tenure about a month because then I left and came to Colorado, which… no regrets, I love it here at Mines… but I don’t have tenure here. But there’s still some expectations for scholarship, but not as high as it was in the California system. But I continue to make that part of my career, because, again, as a scientist and engineer, I think going based on data, based on evidence to guide your decisions, moving forward is a really important thing to improve what you have, because that’s all it comes down to really whether you call it SOTL or DBER or whatever, we’re trying to improve our courses, we’re trying to improve our students’ experiences. And yeah, so I’ve tried to do what I can over the years. And now I’m at the point where I want to help other people too. So I work with faculty individually, I do workshops via my side business, and even at Mines this semester, starting next week, I have a three-part getting started in DBER series kicking off for about 25 faculty on campus. I’m going to help them get started, get their feet wet in this field, and then we’ll see where it goes. Because I think a lot of folks, like you said, John, want to do this work, they’re interested in it, they might not have the time, they might not know how to, but you kind of give them the start, hold their hand a little bit and then see where it goes, and we’ll get even more evidence to support these claims.

Rebecca: I think a lot of faculty have an inclination to have a reflective practice and continuous improvement. They’re wanting to do SOTL work, but just don’t know how to formalize that practice. And we can certainly lean into helping people move in that direction.

Justin: 100% Rebecca, even when I started, I didn’t know what I was doing. If it wasn’t for Kelly Hogan and a few other folks at Carolina and then moving on from there at UC Irvine folks like Brian Sato, Diane O’Dowd, Adrianne Williams, they really helped me understand the field more. And then you start going to conferences and going to meetings and learning more about the tricks of the trades.

Rebecca: Can you talk a little bit about ways that a high-structure synchronous course might be different from a high-structure asynchronous course?

Justin: So I think the high structure while what I described earlier, you might be thinking of okay, a Monday, Wednesday, Friday class meeting at two o’clock in a lecture hall works great. I think it works even better in online for some cases, because you think about an online situation, whether again, it’s synchronous or asynchronous, your students you’re not really seeing and there’s that human connection of having eyeball to eyeball being able to understand, “Okay, I’m here I’m motivated, I’m ready to learn.” But whether it’s the recording, that’s the worst case scenario, when it’s totally up to you, or if it’s going to be on that live Zoom remote, where you can make your screen black, and who knows what else you’re doing. I’m guilty of that in meetings for sure. But having the structure though, having that scaffolding, having the clear deliverables of what is due when and seeing that step up from pre-class, in-class, after class, whether it’s the in-class is out again, synchronous Zoom session, or the recorded video you do on your own time, there’s that scaffolding helps students stay more connected with material, they understand more of what’s going on, when it’s due, what is due, how I’m being assessed, because that’s the nice thing about with structure. And just to be clear, I’m from the STEM disciplines, but you could do this any field. The research on high structure, as far as I know, is only been published in the STEM fields. I bet it’s being done in art history, I bet it’s being done in the languages, I just don’t know about it. So if anyone listening does this kind of teaching or research, I’d love to hear from you. But you can use that scaffolding again to help students be more transparent with the course. And that’s a word that I think comes through with high structure and is really true in that online environment, especially as transparency. I always tell my students, I want to know what you know, not what you think I want you to know. And by being uber clear with the learning objectives, starting with backwards design, just a clear Canvas website for the online cases can be really helpful for that. One distinction, though, with the async online versus synchronous online, is that kind of active learning piece, because we’re not there together. So one tip I like to share with faculty is that okay, if you’re recording a video for the in class, mimic, because you’re not actually meeting in class. What I always say is “okay, well make the video, but if there’s a point where you’d want them to answer a clicker question… I’m a big clicker guy… or if you want them to do an activity, just say, Okay, everyone, pause the video here. Take a couple minutes, think about this problem, what’s the answer or work on this, whatever it might be. When you’re ready, unpause the video and keep going. That’s a way that you can add the active learning to an online asynchronous class as part of the bigger high-structure model. I find when I have to record an online video, if I have traveling for a conference because I have to miss a day of class. I’ll have a 50 minute in-person class, when I make the video recording it’s only about 20 to 25 minutes, because all the active learning I don’t do in the video recording, but I give that tip… I tell my students, hey, pause the video here, answer this quick clicker question, solve this problem, come back when you’re ready. And so that’s a way to build the active learning into the asynchronous part, which again, is part of the overall high-structure piece.

John: And also, if you want to take it a little bit beyond that, you could use one of the tools where you can embed the questions directly in the video, and have them auto graded. I use PlayPosit for that, and it’s possible in Panopto, and EdPuzzle is another alternative that many people use. PlayPosit works really well. And I’ve been using it for a couple of years.

Justin: I just learned about PlayPosit maybe three weeks ago, I was doing a workshop at CU Boulder on clickers. And I kept hearing PlayPosit, it does seem like a very powerful tool to automate that active learning in the video piece, which I really like. I just haven’t had a chance to play with it.

Rebecca: So you did just mention that you’re a clicker guy, I believe. So do you use a flipped classroom approach in all of your synchronous classes? And how are you using clickers in your classes?

Justin: Yeah, I think that’s the technical term these days, clicker guy. So, I’ll go with that. I’ve been using them for as long as I’ve been teaching in various platforms. You name the platform, I’ve used it. I’ve primarily been using iClicker, just because that was the platform we had at UC Irvine and the platform we have here at Mines as well. Yes, I love using them. I think it’s really important. And you mentioned the flipped classroom design there, too, Rebecca. So when you think of high structure, you might think, “Oh, it sounds like a flipped classroom.” And it kind of is because we’re having students do stuff ahead of time. In class, they’re very active, but there’s still that structure piece even within class. I guess maybe I haven’t seen a truly flipped class because I think flipped classes, I think in class is like purely work time, purely activities, purely worksheets, homework type assignments, whereas I do a series of clicker questions, discussions before or after numerical problem solving, if it’s more of my engineering classes that I teach in thermodynamics, or material and energy balances, more conceptual sometimes if it’s biology or anatomy and physiology, but I’m breaking up a lot of activities and any talking with clickers. And so the clickers… I love all the modern bells and whistles that they have as that’s the another technical term I use, moving beyond multiple choice. And when I do workshops for faculty with clickers, that’s what I triy to get them to do. Okay, yes, you know, you can do A B C D E, but can you do multiple answers? Can you do target questions or hotspot where you touch the screen? Can you do ranking or ordering? numerical answers? …and I’m trying to get this traction on my own campus too. So even this semester, my first five questions of the semester, which I didn’t do intentionally, but after I wrote them, I realized, oh, I should do this every class now… my first five questions in my introduction to biomedical engineering class, each one was a different question type. So we did multiple choice, we did multiple answers, we did short answer, text entry, we did numerical, and we did target or touch the screen. And when I was done, I asked my students, “Hey, who’s ever used those other question types before?” And maybe four hands went up, I said, “Cool. What class did you do them in?” and they said, “Oh, your class last semester.” I seem to be the one and only that I know of on my campus that’s trying out these other tools, although like I said, I’m trying to change that. So yeah, if you’re using any kind of device like this, any type of ed tech, for that matter, make sure you justify it, justify the cost, and you make use of those bells and whistles in class. Or if it’s out of class, courseware, whatever it might be, just make good use of the tool, and you’ll find your students that are going to be able to buy into it and use it more effectively, and hopefully learn more from it.

John: And one option that we have here is a campus license, which actually is much less costly per student. And that reduces that barrier of students having to pay for it, which has led to a pretty rapid expansion in the use of it on campus.

Rebecca: One of the things that I really like about your example of the five questions is that extra level of scaffolding, of introducing all of the question types right away, and giving everybody an opportunity to practice those question types that you’re going to be using all semester. And so I just wanted to make explicit that other layer of scaffolding that you have built in there.

Justin: Yes, teaching students how to use the tools is very important. Thanks, Rebecca, for mentioning that, because whether it’s the app now on your phone for these clicker devices, or if it was the old physical device, there’s a learning curve with them. And same thing, even if it’s computational tool, or like Desmos, or something for a calc class. Yeah, you got to be able to teach students how to use the technology properly first, before you expect them to use it well. I will say though, with the learning curve of the clickers, when I was at Irvine, the app wasn’t really there yet. So everyone had the physical iClicker remote, and this was the iClicker w, so you could do text entry, and you could do number entry, but you had these up and down arrows, which you had to click to go through the alphabet. So I do the type of clicker question where I like to give four statements on the screen, and I say, “Okay, well tell me if they’re true or false, and you have to click in all four.” So you would click in a string of T’s and F, so it’s like TTFT, or FFFT, whatever it might be. And so when I would do this in intro bio there with 440 students, it sounds like a swarm of locusts, all the clicking to get to the T’s and then someone says, oh, you should change it. Just make A be true and B be false? I said “Great idea, I’ll do that.” But now with the app, we lose the sound effects and iyou can just type in T’s and F’s and it’s a little bit easier to use.

John: One thing I haven’t tried with iClicker, and I do plan to do it this semester is allowing students to rate their confidence in their answers. Have you tried that yet?

Justin: I did just last week. So I just found out that was available this semester, and I gave it a shot. And it was kind of fun. Like the first day I turned it on, they’re like, Oh, look at this, this question was 80% confident, and now it’s down to 40% confident and it kinda reflected the percent answers that were correct. So like the one that was 80% confident it was a single multiple choice answer. And it was pretty much most people got it right. The one that was lower confidence, like 40%, was a multiple select answer. So they had five options, but two or three could have been correct. And so the confidence goes way down through a different question types even. So, I think it was really fun for a day or two, and then kind of the novelty wore off, unfortunately. [LAUGHTER] So I’m going to try to revisit it maybe more in targeted times and targeted questions rather than doing it for every single one. But it was fun to try it. I’d encourage you to do it, too.

John: One of the reasons I was considering it is that it might help students improve their metacognition a little bit by reflecting on how well they thought they knew something and then getting fairly immediate feedback on whether their expectations about how well they knew it actually matched the response, [LAUGHTER] or the feedback to the response.

Justin: Absolutely.

Rebecca: When you’re using clickers, are you also using strategies like think-pair-share as part of your implementation?

Justin: Yeah, absolutely. And there’s that sweet spot of clicker responses that lead to that. So the best practices, I’d say, and a lot of this work came from Carl Wieman Science Education Institute, which I believe is still housed through Vancouver, British Columbia, but he’s at Stanford now. But there’s this great flyer they made like this trifold flyer that kind of walks you through how to use clickers properly, or best practices suggested, and then what are the possible outcomes? Typically, you’d start off with that silence. Okay, click in on your own at first, I tell them I want to hear crickets, just click in by yourself, and then I’m able to see on the app the distribution and so at that point, there’s typically kind of three outcomes. So one is maybe 80-90% have the correct answer. At that point I’ll say “Okay, let’s move on.” But I make sure to take time to have students respond and say, “Okay, well, why is it C?” or to have a little discussion about why it’s not the other answers. Because even though you get 90% correct, there’s still 10% of students who got it wrong. So we want to make sure that everyone’s on the same board. The next option is usually that kind of random distribution. Let’s say if it’s a multiple choice question, you get ABCD each are in the 20 to 30% range. At that point, I call that Hmmm, what’s going on? Was it a really hard question? Did I goof the question? Is there a chemistry exam this evening, so there’s some reason why maybe it didn’t click? And then what I call the Goldilocks case is when you get the kind of 50-50. So maybe you’re split between two answers. And I love actually, when it’s exactly 50-50, I’ll show that on the screen. But sometimes I don’t, and I’ll say “Okay, at this point, now, you’ve all had a chance to try on your own, now talk to each other.” So that’s kind of the think-pair-share that’s built into the clicker there. So this is peer instruction at its best. This was pioneered by Eric Mazur at Harvard, people like Jenny Knight at CU Boulder have studied this. And she actually has a Science paper with Carl and a few others that showed when students are doing this… So you give them some quick information on their own. Don’t show them the answer, have them talk to each other. They put a bunch of microphones around the lecture halls at CU Boulder, and they listened into their conversations. And they actually found students are legitimately teaching each other and debriefing the topic, discussing it, tearing it apart. It’s not just the one student says, “Oh, it’s A ,everyone else, click A.” They’re actually debating it and talking about it, so that you get that true peer teaching and peer instruction going on. And then typically, you see everyone moving more towards the positive correct response that you’re looking for, at which point you can say, “Hey, look, you don’t need me as your instructor, you’re teaching each other. You’re doing great. Kudos, keep up the good work.” Yeah, there’s so many ways to riff on clickers and use them in different respects. Whether it’s the more traditional question types, or now the more advanced question types, and no matter how you do it, you’re getting students more engaged, they’re having more fun with it. And fun actually is a word they use with clickers. I have a paper a few years ago from the HABS educator where I looked at clickers vs. Kahoot!s, and students rated Kahoot! and clickers both equally fun, where Kahoot! being the more gamified version with trophies and a podium and music and sound and stuff like that.

John: And both Eric Mazur and Carl Wieman and some co-authors had done some experiments on the use of clickers with that methodology with answering it individually and then discussing it and voting again. And they found some really substantial learning gains in both of those studies. And we’ll include links to those in the show notes. In all areas, we’ve been seeing some significant equity gaps, but I think since COVID, we’ve been seeing much worse equity gaps in terms of students because learning losses were pretty pronounced everywhere. And that’s especially in math and in the STEM fields, but they were especially large in lower-income communities where schools were not as well funded and where students did not have the equipment and so forth, needed to thrive as effectively in remote instruction. One of the things that some institutions have been using increasingly is co-requisites in place of prerequisites to help students who want to pursue a major in a STEM field, but who would otherwise fall way behind or take many years just to get up to the basic level of math needed for the entry level courses in the discipline. In 2021, though, you had done a study that did a comparison between the effects of prerequisites and co-requisites. Could you talk a little bit about that study and what you found?

Justin: Yeah, absolutely. We saw the same thing probably everyone else did with students struggling, returning from online instruction in high school and having online instruction here. I taught remote synchronous for three full semesters, even though at Mines we stayed open for business pretty much the whole time with in-person classes, just lower capacity. I had prior online instructional experience in my career, so I volunteered to do those online sections for our department. But with the co-rec/prereq issue, I think that’s really important to consider for a lot of reasons. And this work really started when I was at Irvine with Brian Sato and Pavan Kadandale and a few others, looking more in the biological sciences and “do prereqs matter?” It was kind of our big research question. And then I carried that over to Mines and applied that to chemical engineering too. The short answer is: it depends. So first of all, and kind of why do we even have prereqs or co-reqs? A lot of it seems to be more of a management thing. So if we want to control class sizes, moving from first year to second year, and so on, and so forth. But there’s definitely an idea of well conceptual understanding and carry forward for if you have Bio I, well, those skills you develop could be used and count for something when you get to Bio II or same thing with the calc series or whatever it might be. However, we don’t know. It’s unfortunate that I think programs don’t sometimes look at those connections, that vertical alignment, if you will, between courses in terms of prereq to the following class, or with the co-req issues. At Mines, what I did with the paper you’re referencing, John, in chemical engineering, we have these two courses. One is called material and energy balances, MEB, I’ll call it for short. And that’s kind of like our intro bio version for chemical engineering. It’s kind of like a survey course that covers a lot of different topics, gives you some foundational skills that you’re going to need as a chemical engineer. We also have introductory thermodynamics, and an intro thermo, it’s related to MEB, covers some same conceptual understanding and problem-solving skill development, but it’s more on the nature of energy, and that transformation understanding. So typically in chemical engineering curricula, and I’m getting in the weeds here, so apologies for anyone who’s tuning out cuz you’re not a chemie, but MEB comes first, that’s typically either the fall of sophomore or spring of sophomore, you take that. First, it’s kind of like your gateway class, and then that’s a prereq to intro thermo and everything else you take. At Mines though, we do a little bit different. Mines, we do intro thermo first, fall of sophomore year, and then in the spring of sophomore year, you take MEB and coming from that background myself as a student at Penn State, I wish I would have had that way because intro thermo is the more… I use the word gentle… it’s a gentler introduction to chemical engineering than material energy balances is. But the idea here is that you can take thermo as a prereq in the fall or as a co-req in the spring with MEB. So the natural question came up… it’s a nicely well organic experiment to test is, well, if you have the thermo as the prereq do you do better than if you take thermo as a co-req with MEB. And this has implications for advising and its implications for progression through our major through repeating classes, all sorts of things. So it’s a really worthy study and my student, Jordan Lopez, at the time, he was an undergraduate student in mechanical engineering, and I love working with undergraduates on these SOTL and DBER projects. Jordan came along with me for this we did a quantitative assessment to figure out okay, well if students in MEB, did you have thermo as a prereq or co-req? How’d you do in MEB? And then we also asked the students qualitatively “Okay, well, do you think having thermo as a prereq or co-req matters? And if so, what do you think? And what we found was there was actually a big deal. Students who took thermo as the prereq did significantly better in their overall course performance in MEB than if they took thermo as a co-req, and that’s using linear regression models controlling for incoming GPA and things like that. Students also felt the same way. They felt that if you have thermo as a prereq, you would do better than having thermo as the co-req with MEB, and again, the quantitative data bore that out. The reasons they gave for that was because they get some opportunity to get more familiar with the discipline, with how we approach chemical engineering, how we do problem-solving skills, and having that foundation in the prior class allows them to do better in the follow up MEB course. In this case, it mattered, prereq vs. co-req. However, in our studies at Irvine, with Brian and Pavan and others, we found it didn’t really matter so much whether you took for example, microbiology lecture before after microbiology lab, you would think those two would be highly correlated one as a prereq to the other, it didn’t really matter in the result. Same thing with anatomy and physiology sequences, it didn’t seem to matter too much, in other papers in which we cite in these studies looking at organic chemistry sequences, economic sequences, it’s kind of hit or miss with whether prereqs matter or not. Long-winded segment here, but I think we as programs should be taking careful look at our prereq sequences and core sequences in general to see what, if anything, our students carrying over from one course to the other, and maybe we should loosen that up a little bit, because if they don’t matter, that can help students be a little bit more flexible with their degree planning, and time to graduation and things like that.

Rebecca: Speaking of prerequisites, faculty are often complaining that students don’t necessarily recall [LAUGHTER] information from prerequisites as they go into a sequence like we might expect. In 2018, you conducted a study that investigated the effect of physiology prerequisites on the future anatomy and physiology courses. Can you talk a little bit about that study and what you found there?

Justin: Yeah, so that was what I was alluding to there, Rebecca, with some of the work I did with Brian and Pavan. And in those cases, there wasn’t too strong of an effect, if anything, with the sequencing and the ordering that students took these classes. At Irvine, we did have human physiology as a prereq to human anatomy. I know that sounds a little funny to those of you in the A&P space. But the reason we did that was because of kind of a controlling the size of things. Our physiology course there was a lecture-based course, it would have 3-4 hundred students in it every quarter… talking about over 1000 students a year taking this class, versus the anatomy class, which had a lab, we can only handle about 144 per quarter, so availability of seats in the human anatomy was much, much lower than physiology, and also not as many students wanted to take anatomy versus physiology. So that’s kind of why that ordering existed. And so we tested that, though, looking at with what Brian and Pavan and I came up with, we call it a familiarity scale. How do you do on questions that are based on how familiar you are with the content based on the prereq? What we did was we had the prereq instructors look at the follow up course exam questions and write them as very familiar or not familiar based on basically whether it was covered or not. And then we looked at student performance on those questions based on having the prereq or not, and we didn’t see much of a difference based on the very familiar versus not familiar questions. The way we designed those studies, we didn’t come up with any strong conclusions, again, on the biological sciences side saying that, yeah, these prereq sequences matter. But on the chemical engineering side, which I just described, that seemed to totally make a difference, the ordering of the classes.

Rebecca: It seems like it’s really important to think about why we’re structuring the curriculum in the way that we are. And is it just traffic control? Or is there actually a legitimate reason why we’re hoping that they are scaffolded in the discipline?

Justin: Yeah, I think it’s reality, a little bit of both that happens, which makes sense, kind of have that traffic control, but also making sure that that alignment occurs through our new programs or existing programs, and just taking the time as a program or department every so often to say, hey, let’s look back at this and see, why are we doing it this way? Things need to change in this modern day.

John: One thing I wonder a little bit, though, when instructors are complaining about how little students remember from the prerequisite courses that they’ve taken earlier, is how much of that may be due to the incentives provided to students. The way many courses are structured, not in the sense of the structure you were talking about, encourages students to do a lot of cramming before the high-stakes exams. And we know that that results in very little long-term recall. Might some of these issues be resolved if we could encourage students to adopt better learning strategies, and if we could design some of our courses at the lower level, perhaps, to build that in, using the type of structure that you’ve been talking about? Because at least from what I’ve seen, that’s not so common? You picked up this stuff fairly early, but I don’t think that’s part of the training of most of the faculty in STEM fields or in most disciplines.

Justin: Yeah, I agree with that. And there was even in 2018, I believe, in Science, a paper, I think they call it “The Anatomy of STEM Education in North America,” it was something along those lines, where they looked at a big survey a big swath of courses and trying to see who’s using Active Learning who’s not, they use the COPUS protocol, the observation tool to characterize what’s happening in the classroom, and they broke it down in these seven different buckets. And even at that time, a very small percentage of the courses surveyed in STEM were taught using these student-centered strategies, not necessarily high structure, but the active learning, student-centered ideas. But I completely agree with you, John, if we can get more faculty on board with using these types of evidence-based practices, which yes, it takes some time, takes some energy, takes some foresight to develop these courses. But you do the same thing with your research, it takes your time and energy and careful thought to put in your research experiments. We should put the same energy into our classes too. And if we can do that at the early stage, which again, there’s such a huge issue with loss of learning. Not only that, but also lots of students from the early stage. There’s a paper after paper for these bigger courses, taking them as quote unquote gateway classes, we get a lot of attrition at these levels especially of students who might not be as well represented in STEM. We can add high structure. We know that works. We know that helps students do better and succeed. It might not work the first time, don’t get frustrated everyone. There’s a great paper from Anne Casper and Scott Freeman about having True Grit with being able to try and try again. So in her case, she tried adopting high structure at a smaller school in Michigan, it took her about three tries to get the right formula for it to work for her students to see success. And that paper documents that trial and error over a few semesters. But if we can use these types of methods in our classes, ideally, our students are going to be better prepared then for future classes. I do these things called Reading guides, which again, another shout out to Kelly, I got a lot of inspiration from her at Carolina for these, these are just Word documents that I make. And I have a bunch of these on my professional website. If anyone’s interested to download them for free, go for it. They’re just Word documents that help students read the textbook and again be more transparent with what I want them to know. So it has them define terms, fill out tables, make little drawings, they answer checkpoint questions in the text, summarizing things in their own words. And with the reading guides, we’re able to help students again acquire that content and then use it in the class as needed. I’ve had students in follow-up classes say to their instructor, “Well, where the reading guides at?” And they’ll come to me like, “Hey, what are these things? What are they talking about?” So the point being with that story, though, is that I tell students that “Hey, even if you go to a follow-up class, where it’s not highly structured, you’ve developed so many great metacognitive skills, you’ve developed so many great self-regulated learning skills through this class that you can then apply it and add your own structure to follow-up classes, if needed. And these are the kinds of tips that I love working with faculty about to try to help them transform their classes when I visit a campus and do a workshop or work with faculty one on one or on Zoom or whatever, trying to take these practices, which again, are rooted in the evidence, they’re rooted in the literature, but we have to tweak them to your own personal situation, your own student body, your own courses and demographics and everything. You all know your students way better than I do. What I try to do is combine what I know from the literature and the evidence. And that says a lot of this is in the book I’m writing on high structure, it’s going to guide you through the course-design process, a lot of practical outcomes and deliverables. But you got to tweak it and match it with again, your unique circumstances to achieve those positive outcomes.

Rebecca: I think one of the nice things about introducing students to some strategies for high-structured learning and retaining information is that if you have things like your reading guide, and they show it to another instructor, now they might request that of their instructor and the other instructor might decide, “Hey, this is a good idea. This is a strategy I want to adopt too.” And that’s some of the best ways to get some of these techniques to spread.

Justin: It really is. It’s that camaraderie building through seeing each other’s practices, seeing what’s going on. I’ve been part of a project here at Mines since I got here almost six years ago now where we’ve been working on kind of revising how we evaluate, and what we consider effective instruction to be. So we’re trying to take a more holistic review of how we take into account the best practices of teaching and student learning. And one of the big pieces there is peer observation. So we’re actually rolling that out, as of this week and last week with doing departmental trainings and helping faculty see how we can do peer observation to learn from each other. I learned so much from going into another person’s classroom or looking at their Canvas site, or their syllabi or their materials. And I really got this from Malcolm Campbell, who was at Davidson College in North Carolina, when I was a postdoc, this is going back 14 years or so. And Malcolm told me once on the phone, he said, “Find someone who you consider to be a master teacher, and go watch him teach.” But he said “don’t go just once, go a lot. Once a week, if you can for several weeks, and you’ll get to see them handle different situations, you get to see the ups and downs of the semester, you get to see what it’s like on the day where the midterm gets passed back. Or you get to see what it’s like when they’re getting to a really difficult topic or there’s some kind of disruption that class and how they handle it.” That’s the one great thing about peer observation is that if I go to your classes, sure, I’ll be able to give you some comments or feedback on what I saw, but I’m going to learn probably more from seeing you two teach than whatever I could give you and then I’m able to incorporate that into some of my lessons and my teaching style. If we can just change that culture, make it a little bit more okay sometimes to talk about teaching, share teaching strategies, see each other teach and have fun with it really and learn from each other, I think that can go a long ways towards, again, improving student outcomes and helping them do better in all aspects of college and life.

Rebecca: I found one of the most fun opportunities for observations is doing observations outside of your own discipline. It’s really informative to see how people in wildly different disciplines approach teaching and the way that they operate their classroom. I remember visiting a dance instruction classroom when I was at Marymount, at my prior institution, and it was really interesting, it was fascinating to me about how specific and transparent every little move was and how to correct things and the anatomy that was being discussed and just the level of depth that you might not realize how something transpires in a classroom unless you’ve actually had the opportunity to observe it.

Justin: I’m going to play that some for my faculty Rebecca. I thank you, because that’s what we’re trying to do at Mines is not intra-departmental, but rather inter-departmental observation. So getting across the disciplines for sure. Because yeah, you learn so many different things. And even if you’re just going from mechanical to electrical engineering, there’s still a lot of differences between those types of courses, you might see what’s going on. And I’ve learned that myself, I’ve watched some economics instructors teach at Mines, no idea. I feel like I maybe should know this stuff to be a better financially literate person myself, but I learned so many cool ways about how they’re teaching, but I also learned some cool concepts.

John: We do have an open classroom project here on our campus, we keep hoping more people will open their classes and more people will attend. But the people who have participated have found it universally to be valuable. So we’re going to keep doing it, and we just hope to see it become more a part of the culture.

Rebecca: Sometimes just indicating to a faculty member that you’re interested in their content, and you just want to sit in because you’re curious is a great way to learn new content, and maybe get an opportunity to observe someone teaching. [LAUGHTER]

Justin: And yeah, I definitely pitch it that way. Like I want to learn from you. And you get some new ideas. And I feel like in that case, faculty are more than willing to have you in. Well, yeah, Best of luck with that open classroom project. I’ve seen those types of programs in the country kind of sometimes hit sometimes miss. But best of luck with that.

John: One of the things you’ve done is just some research or some experiments involving two-stage exams. Could you talk a little bit about how you implement them, and what you found in general? And how did students react to the two-stage exams?

Justin: Yes, so I’ll try to be brief on these because I could spend probably 45 minutes on these myself. But yeah, two-stage collaborative exams, or more affectionately called group quizzes or group exams for short. There’s been a ton of literature on this Jim Cook, UC San Diego, he really helped me get started in this about five years or so now. But it’s all disciplines. You look it up, and the one paper I have, you mentioned in the intro, there’s a lot of references to different STEM disciplines that use them and some non-STEM too. The idea, though, is that we push active learning, we push group work, we push collaboration, but then we assess you by yourself with a pencil and paper and a calculator on a piece of paper, so why not change the dynamic there a little bit. And the two-stage idea is that first you have students take an individual quiz or individual exam, and I personally have gone to a weekly quiz model with my high-structure courses. I don’t do midterms anymore, I don’t do finals sometimes even. I know that’s taboo sometimes, but it depends on the class and I might not even do that. My colleague in Irvine Adrienne Williams says with high structure by going to the weekly quiz model, instead of having these giant peaks of anxiety with the two or three midterms, we just have a smooth level of anxiety the entire semester, and spread it out a little bit. But, for me, group quizzes then, what they look like is students take the individual quiz, turn it in, then they get in a group, this is a predetermined group, they know who their group is going to be. And then I give them a group quiz. That group quiz in the paper that you referenced was an identical one. So they took the identical two problems. And this was a MEB material energy balance class. So it was just two numerical problems, problem solving. They did that again as a group. However, my other courses now I do a different quiz. It’s either an isomorphic question, so slightly similar, but a little bit different, maybe in intro thermo or if it’s biology or anatomy and physiology, completely different set of questions. Then they do it as a group. The reason we do this, again, was trying to get this collaborative piece in the group setting. But also, when do you find students are most excited to talk about a quiz or an exam? It’s as soon as it’s over, they go walk out, the hallways abuzz, everyone’s all excited, good or bad excited, but they’re talking. So let’s capture that energy and do it in the classroom through that group assignment. Now, the group quiz is usually a fraction of the weight. In the literature, you’ll see, it’s usually let’s say you call the whole experience 100%, the individual quiz, maybe 80%, the group quiz is 20%. But that can vary from 75 up to 95, however you want to do it. And again, they’re covering the same kind of concepts just in that group dynamic. And so when I did this the first time, I got some consultations from my co-instructors, Rachel Morrish, Dave Marr at Mines, and I was a little bit nervous to see how it would go. But it was a hit. It was an absolute blast. The energy in the room is one thing I cannot describe it strongly enough here through audio, it’s just you got to see it. The students are energized, they’re talking, they’re debating. They’re working through the problems together. They’re trying to figure out, I will use the F word here. It is fun. It is a very fun experience to see. I’ve had students tell me that after the quiz is over, like that was a lot of fun. Talking about spreading things on campus. This is one thing that has spread a little bit at least within my department of chemical engineering, a few other classes have been using them now. And I collected some data on this, which I published, showing that… which makes sense, there was no shock… but the group quiz score is higher than the individual score because you’re tackling this together right away. And then also though, students strongly preferred it. The affect, the positive attitude response was through the roof. Both of those results, these are replicated from other disciplines, they see the same kind of things. I think it’s a really nice way to promote that community in the class, show that you’re working together, add that active part to the assessment. However, I’ll end with saying there can be some resistance to this, especially from students who might feel like “hey, I can do it all on my own, I’m fine.” And then they have to work together with maybe some students, they don’t know as well. You might get some resistance from students saying that I don’t want to work with someone else, I wanted this on my own. So be prepared for that. Also, accommodations with testing, if you have students who get extra time, that can be difficult to manage. I will say though, from doing this now about five years and four different classes at Mines, I’ve never had a single issue with students and extra time. What I typically do is I’ll have students get the extra time for the individual part, then they come join us for the group part and have the normal amount of time because in that group setting the students with extra time, they’ve always told me and I always ask them, I say, “are you okay with this?” And they’re like, “Yeah, it’s fine to have the normal time because I’m in a group.” So just some things to be aware of, if you’re going to try them out. And again, I could go on and on with these, so if anyone wants to learn more, hit me up. I’m happy to chat with ya.

Rebecca: Sounds like a good day to visit a classroom, huh?

Justin: It’s an energetic day for sure. Although you might not see much teaching going on if it’s just the assessment part. But it’s fun to drop in and see what’s happening.

John: There is a lot of teaching going on in their second stage, though.

Justin: Absolutely.

John: In fact, when I first did it, I was so excited about it, I made a short video recording and sent it to Rebecca, so she could see the dynamics of that interaction.

Rebecca: And hear it.

John: It was just really, really different than going over a quiz, where some of them would be really happy, but not that focused. And the students who did poorly were generally pretty disengaged when we went over a quiz ift they didn’t do so well. But when they were explaining it to each other, it was so much more positive.

Justin: Yeah. And you’re right, the teaching is happening. It’s coming from the students to each other. Not for me necessarily, but it’s coming from them. And it’s so powerful to see… absolutely to hear that live.

Rebecca: But you’ve set up the structure to facilitate it. So therefore, you’ve done the teaching.

Justin: [LAUGHTER] Thank you. Yeah.

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

Justin: Yeah. So for me, what’s next? You mentioned at the top, John, I have this new position, I’m Associate Dean of Undergraduate Studies. And I mentioned in passing, I have a side business I called Recombinant Education. I do workshops for faculty. I’m writing a book. For me, I don’t know what happened, but last year, I had a birthday the ends in zero. Things have been a little wonky in my brain lately. And I listened to Taylor Swift now, sometimes. I never used to, but I think a lot of people do that. So it’s not just me turning that age. But the point being is that I’ve been doing this enough time now that I feel like I have things to share. And I’m trying to do more of that. So I’m trying to, and I’m still nervous to do things like this kind of stick my neck out and even talk to folks like yourselves, but I want to share best practices with teaching and learning, specifically with STEM education, because I still hear from students and I still see it from time to time, students are just not getting the best classroom experience they should be getting. College keeps getting more and more expensive. Students don’t deserve to have less than excellent experiences, in my opinion. I’m doing what I can on my own to share these best practices. Someone called me a one man teaching and learning center, it’s probably a fair way to say it. One of my students said, “Oh, you’re teaching teachers how to teach,” and that’s, I guess, another fair way to say it. But again, I got the energy for it now. I kinda have this midlife crisis going on too where I want to make some bigger impacts on the world outside of my own bubble, whether it’s at the administrative level at Mines now or across the country, or even the world. So I love working with other faculty on all these different areas. And that’s what I’m trying to make a big part of my day-to-day life now. But I’m still in the trenches. I’m still teaching classes every semester, because that really keeps me rooted, lets me try some new things out, still doing the DBER work and the SOTL work, working with students and just trying to have a blast and do what I can here in the time I have left.

John: Well, thank you for joining us. And we’re really looking forward to that book. And I hope you’ll come back and talk to us again when the book is close to coming out. Or sooner.

Justin: I would be honored to come back anytime John and Rebecca and if both of you are ever in the Denver golden area, please let me know. I’d be happy to show you around out here.

Rebecca: Well, thank you so much for joining us. It was fun to talk to you and to hear about the fun happening in your class.

John: More F words.

Rebecca: Yeah, [LAUGHTER] a lot of F words.

Justin: Yes. [LAUGHTER] Thank you both. I appreciate it. It was fun.


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.

GANESH: Editing assistance by Ganesh.