291. Navigating Teaching Inequities

While women faculty of color are underrepresented in the professoriate, they are responsible for a disproportionate share of faculty workload. In this episode, Chavella Pittman joins us to discuss strategies that can be used by individual faculty and by institutions to create a more equitable workload distribution. Chavella is a Professor of Sociology at Dominican University. She is also the founder of Effective & Efficient Faculty, a faculty development company that works extensively with faculty and campuses across the country to help them develop strategies for inclusive learning environments and the retention of diverse students and faculty. Her research interests and expertise include higher education, interpersonal interactions and marginalized statuses, research methods, and statistics. Chavella is also the author of a chapter in Picture a Professor, edited by Jessamyn Neuhaus.

Show Notes

  • Effective & Efficient Faculty
  • Neuhaus, J. (Ed.). (2022). Picture a Professor: Interrupting Biases about Faculty and Increasing Student Learning. West Virginia University Press.
  • Pittman, Chavella (2022). “Strategizing for Success: Women Faculty of Color Navigating Teaching Inequities in Higher Ed” in Picture a Professor: Interrupting Biases about Faculty and Increasing Student Learning. Ed. by Jessamyn NeuhausWest Virginia University Press.
  • Winklemes, Mary-Ann (2023). “Transparency in Learning and Teaching.” Tea for Teaching Podcast. Episode 290. May 24.


John: While women faculty of color are underrepresented in the professoriate, they are responsible for a disproportionate share of faculty workload. In this episode, we discuss strategies that can be used by individual faculty and by institutions to create a more equitable workload distribution.


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 Chavella Pittman. Chavella is a Professor of Sociology at Dominican University. She is also the founder of Effective & Efficient Faculty, a faculty development company that works extensively with faculty and campuses across the country to help them develop strategies for inclusive learning environments and the retention of diverse students and faculty. Her research interests and expertise include higher education, interpersonal interactions and marginalized statuses, research methods, and statistics. Chevella is also the author of a chapter in Picture a Professor, edited by our friend Jessamyn Neuhaus, and that’s what we’ll be talking about here today. Welcome back, Chavella.

Chavella: Thank you. Thank you so much for having me back. I enjoyed my last conversation, so I’m looking forward to this one.

John: We did too. And it’s about time we have your back on again.

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

Chavella: I am. I have a lemon and ginger tea today.

Rebecca: Oh, that sounds so delightful.

John: And I am drinking a Dragon Oolong tea today.

Rebecca: Oh, that’s a difference for you, John.

John: It is. it’s been in the office for a while and it’s been sitting there feeling lonely. [LAUGHTER]

Rebecca: We have a good variety today because I have a hot cinnamon spice tea.

Chavella: Oooh. [LAUGHTER]

John: Very nice.

Rebecca: We couldn’t get I think many more different options today. [LAUGHTER]

John: We’ve invited you here today to discuss your chapter in Picture a Professor entitled “Empowered Strategies for Women Faculty of Color: Navigating Teaching Inequities in Higher Ed.” While most colleges have substantially increased the diversity of their student body in the last decade or so, faculty still remained substantially less diverse. Could you talk a bit about the representation of women faculty of color among college faculty?

Chavella: Yes, absolutely. I think that people think that there are more of us than there are. [LAUGHTER] I think people know the numbers are low, but I don’t think they realize like how low the numbers are. So specifically, when you take a look, I think if we’re looking just at women, white women are 35% of US college faculty and women of color are about 7% total. So across all the groups, there’s about 7% of us. So 3%, Asian, about 2%, black, less than 1% of Latinos and about, you know, less than 1%, of Native American. So I think that with all of the talk of diversity, the valuing of diversity, the saying, “we’re going to do the this and the that,” people think that our numbers are much, much larger, and they are really, really low. And they don’t match the population in the US. That’s usually the measure of whether or not groups are underrepresented or not, if they match the numbers in the population. And so yes, there is very few of us out there.

Rebecca: So we were just talking about how faculty of color are disproportionately underrepresented among faculty generally, but also among tenured faculty. And while this might be partly the result of recent increased efforts to diversify the professoriate, you note that this is also due to many women faculty of color leaving academia because of the higher demands placed on them. Can you talk a little bit about the additional labor that’s required of women faculty of color in particular?

Chavella: Yes. One thing I didn’t say before, is that, and this sort of, I think, lay’s upon this question as well, is that even though we’re underrepresented in college faculty, we’re over-represented in certain types of roles. So more of us are likely to be contingent faculty, we’re more likely to be at minority-serving institutions, we’re more likely to be at community colleges, we’re more likely to be at the lower ranks if we’re tenure track at all. So part of the reason I’m adding it here is because it connects a little bit to the additional labor that’s required by women faculty of color, or just women instructors of color, which is that we tend to have teaching overloads, we tend to have like actual higher teaching loads. Somebody might be teaching like one niche course on their research topic, like a seminar, like five to 10 students, but then women faculty of color are teaching, if they’re teaching one course, it’s like a service course. So like, you know, 75 to 300 students. So even if the load is the same, what the load looks like is different because we end up in a lot of these service courses, but in actuality, the load usually is not the same. We usually have the higher load. A lot of faculty that are from privileged statuses, they’re buying out of their teaching in some way, shape, or form. They’re reassigned in some sort of leadership role. So that person really might have a load of one course, whereas a woman of color, who’s an instructor of faculty might have a load of 3, 4, 5, 6 courses, if they’re teaching an overload to sort of make up for whatever… financial things sometimes usually… but sometimes it’s just the way people are assigning us. In addition to actually having a higher teaching load, they tend to have more labor dealing with colleague and student resistance to their teaching. So that takes effort, that takes cognitive load, that takes emotional load, that takes affective load, to deal with colleagues and students that are actively resisting your teaching. So that’s some of the additional labor, and in the prep that comes with sort of trying to navigate some of the inequities of like having too high of a teaching load, and having people who are on a regular basis, challenging your teaching. There’s all sorts of ways in which labor ends up sort of multiplying, but those are the ways that sort of makes the most sense to discuss straight out: teaching overload, student challenges, and then like navigating all of the things. [LAUGHTER]

Rebecca: I’m sure some of that also includes increased mentorship among certain populations of students, getting asked to provide service on certain kinds of committees, that your colleagues are not being asked to do.

Chavella: Absolutely. And in sitting on all the committees that have anything to do with curriculum or pedagogy. And the funny thing is, I rarely mention those. I mean, obviously, the research shows that the women of color are the ones that are providing a lot of that advising, not just to students of color, and students that are marginalized, they’re providing that advising to all of the students, they’re providing that mentoring to all of the students, I tend to not mention those because a lot of times, allies or administrators think that it’s our choice, and sometimes it is our choice. But give us credit for that. We’re doing the labor that the institution says that it values, but we’re not given credit for that. And then sometimes it actually isn’t our choice. A lot of people are asked to be on all of those committees, they’re asked to write those letters, they’re asked to mentor those students. And because we tend to be in these contingent, lower status roles, we don’t often feel that we have the space to say no, even if we are actually overwhelmed by that labor.

John: So in addition to resistance that may be due to racist attitudes, you also note that one of the reasons why there may be some resistance is that women faculty of color often use somewhat different teaching techniques than the general college faculty. Could you talk a little bit about some of the differences in terms of the methods of teaching that are often adopted by women faculty of color?

Chavella: Yes, absolutely, and it’s one of the reasons I wrote this chapter is because a lot of times, the narratives that women faculty of color hear about their teaching are negative, and they’re deficiency based. And it’s because a lot of us don’t know the scholarship of teaching and learning. We don’t know the pedagogy stuff. We are experts in our discipline, but not of the practices that we’re actually using. And so I wrote this chapter, because I wanted people to really see all of the wonderful beauties and benefits and all the fantastic things they’re doing in theirteaching. So I really wanted women faculty of color, to have a different narrative about their teaching. So the research is pretty clear about a couple of features about the pedagogy for women faculty of color. We tend to use more innovative, evidence-based and transformative pedagogy. We’re more likely to do things like active learning, or collaborative teaching, we’re more likely to focus on higher-order cognitive skills, instead of surface learning. We’re more likely to have assignments that are connected to the real world. We’re also more likely to have assignments that are connected to diversity in some way, shape, or form. We’re also more likely to focus on learning goals that are beyond just the straight knowledge and the straight skills, we’re more likely to include things that are about affective emotional, moral, or civic development of students. We’re more likely to encourage them to think critically, and to think about society in structural ways. So those are just a couple of examples. And I think that sometimes when folks hear that list or allies, they’re like, “Oh, I do that, too.” I’m like “Ok.” Yes, no one is saying you don’t do that. [LAUGHTER] But as a group, women faculty of color are doing that at a higher rate. They’re doing it more often, it’s woven through all of their courses. It’s not just the courseware, they happen to have some sort of diversity topic. And so we’re engaging in all of these pedagogies that are shown to be transformative, to have like high payoffs for student learning. But no one is acknowledging that. And so I’m glad that you asked that question because it is one of the reasons that I wrote the chapter. I want women faculty of color to sort of stick their chest out a little bit and be proud [LAUGHTER] of all the fantastic things they’re doing.

John: And those are things that teaching centers have long been advocating that all faculty do, so it sounds really great.

CHVELLA: Yes, absolutely.

Rebecca: So you talk about these kinds of teaching strategies that are maybe less common and that we certainly advocate for in the teaching center and on this podcast: evidence-based practices, active learning, etc. But we also know that faculty who are using these teaching methods face resistance from students, in student feedback, for example. Can you talk a little bit about the bias that we see in student evaluations and peer evaluations, when looking at these teaching strategies?

Chavella: Yeah, at the end of the day, our colleagues and our students are used to what’s familiar, which a lot of times is not what’s best practice. So people, they might be used to being taught a particular way. So then when you come in doing active learning, when they’re used to being in a more of a passive scenario, they’re going to resist, they are now thinking you’ve done something wrong. They already think that you’re not credible in some sort of way. And so the fact that you’re doing something different, they’re using that as evidence that you don’t know what you’re doing. And it’s the same thing with our peers, our peers very much so think that the way that they’ve been doing it is the way that it is to be done. So the moment that you start having some sort of active learning instead of standing in front of the classroom lecturing in a very non-interactive way for like an hour, they’re now thinking that you have done something wrong as well. So all of that stuff gets baked into the formal evaluation of teaching. So this is how we end up with these negative narratives of women faculty of colors, teaching, because colleagues are like, “What are you doing? You’re doing something that’s wrong and disruptive, and it’s not what I’m doing.” And then students are complaining to those same colleagues that, “Hey, this person is doing something that’s different, that’s wrong, and it’s disruptive that I don’t like,” but then that gets baked into the narrative of “The teacher is incompetent, they don’t know what they’re doing. They’re getting low evaluations. Their peers evaluating them in ways that are negative.” And so it’s not aligned at all, because what we’re doing is actually what the research says we’re supposed to be doing, it’s just not common practice.

John: And peer evaluations are generally not done by people who have been trained in effective teaching methods or in effective peer evaluation. And they’re often more senior members of the faculty who are likely to be using more lecture in their classes. So that problem is a pretty serious one, it would be nice if we could somehow improve on in the institution.

Chavella: It’s insane. It’s totally insane. And the point that you just made, very often, that’s who’s giving feedback to the faculty that I work with, faculty that come to me as clients is that it is the senior person, it’s the chair in their department that’s like giving them teaching advice. And I’m like, “That’s bonkers, [LAUGHTER] like what they’re suggesting, no one would tell you to do,” but that person is just so gung ho that they know what that person needs to do, and usually it’s like, flat out wrong. It’s not even like halfway in the ballpark. It’s like completely wrong. So yes, I wish we could solve that.

Rebecca: And I think there are faculty in power, who can help to start to solve that, and we need to advocate for evaluations that reflect good teaching and evidence-based practices that in and of itself, will move the needle.

Chavella: Absolutely. I mean, I say the same five things over and over again, that institutions should be doing: the need to sort of monitor and adjust course assignment, you can keep an eye on what those loads actually are for people; to establish a policy for disruptive student classroom behavior, so that there’s some recourse for faculty who are dealing with students who are resisting; promote faculty development opportunities, and reward effective pedagogy, so actually make it a practice so that people know that these are the best practices, and that they’re actually rewarded for using them; provide training on how to interpret the student ratings, which the student evaluations are their own beast, which is why I separate that from implementing sound practices to evaluate teaching for tenure and promotion, that’s more of a holistic thing. And then some campuses don’t have teaching centers, or they’re overwhelmed with other things, or they have a specialty on something other than diverse faculty, or evaluating teaching, which is why I think places should also allocate resources for faculty to get that sort of support off campus, like every teaching center, they can’t be everything to everybody. And so I say those same things over and over again, those are the six sort of pieces of advice that I give to institutions over and over again, to sort of deal with the teaching inequities that women faculty of color, and a lot of other diverse faculty, face.

John: In this chapter. You also note that women faculty of color provide many benefits to the students besides the effective teaching methods that they’re using in their classes in preparing students for a future career and life in a diverse world. Could you talk a little bit about that?

Chavella: Oh, yeah, absolutely. I think that people get stuck on the idea of college being a place where students come, you teach them the ABCs and math, they come in, they go out and that’s the end of it. When you really look at the purpose of college, it’s actually a much more broad set of outcomes that we want for our students. Unfortunately, are more traditional colleagues are focusing on the ABCs and the math, but the faculty that tend to come from diverse backgrounds, including women, faculty of color, are focusing on that broader range of skills. So I’ll give an example just to make it concrete so I’m not just saying things that are abstract. The AACU has their essential learning outcomes. And whether you abide by these or not, it’s a useful framing. There are four categories. I think most people focus on the knowledge of human cultures and the physical and natural world. That’s where you actually learned the ABCs and the math, essentially. And then the intellectual and practical skills, people start inching a little bit into that category. So the critical thinking, writing, those things that skill, teamwork, but very few people actually focus on teamwork and problem solving, in terms of goals for college which faculty are trying to do. But there are two other categories: personal and social responsibility, and integrative and applied learning. And the personal and social responsibility are the things that are meant to benefit society. One of the goals of college is to set our students up so that they can actually do well in society, but also to continue society and for it to do well. So some of the goals there are like: civic knowledge and engagement, intercultural knowledge, ethical reasoning, foundations and skills for lifelong learning. So those are the things that our women faculty of color are also focusing on in addition to those other categories. The last category is about applying all of the other categories to the real world, which I mentioned in some of their pedagogy. So they absolutely are, like, “Great, you’ve learned the ABCs, you’ve learned how to do some math, how to communicate ethical reasoning, now we’re going to take a look at how does that apply to the water crisis in Flint.” So using all the things that they’ve learned to apply them to new contexts and to complicated problems. So they’re doing that as well. So that’s how they benefit society by making sure that they’re developing well-rounded folks, versus just teaching them the ABCs and one, two, three.

Rebecca: So we’ve talked a lot about the great contributions women faculty of color have in higher education. And we also talked a bit about some of the resistance and barriers that they face. What are some strategies that you offer to faculty of color to overcome some of these biases and inequities, or at least push against them, and give a little bit of a leg up.

Chavella: The other reason that I wrote this chapter is because in addition to wanting women faculty of color, to be able to stick their chest out and be proud, I wanted them to actually be able to be proactive and push back a little bit. Because the teaching isn’t just about the student learning, like these are people’s careers, they just depend on these things for their livelihood. And so the last thing I want is for them to face these inequities and then be out of a job. Essentially, you can’t just talk about student learning, and not talk about the actual reality of a pending review. So whether it’s a review for renewal, a review for tenure, or a review for promotion, and so I made it a point to have a couple of strategies in the chapter of what people can do to sort of deal with these things. And they’re, I don’t want to say basic, but they’re easily attainable, keeping in mind that they already have all this other labor on their shoulders and that institutions should actually be coming up with these solutions, but they’re not, immediately. So the first thing that I encourage people to do is to have a very intentional teaching narrative, which means most of the people that women faculty of color are going to interact with, they aren’t going to actually know the research on our teaching, they are going to have either a neutral or a negative view on our teaching. So you have to have a narrative that’s very explicit, you have to have a narrative that’s informing people, that’s teaching people, that’s educating people about what it is that you’re doing. So you need to be able to say, “I engage in these types of pedagogy, they’re evidence-based, here are the learning goals that I’m trying to achieve with these pedagogies, here’s how this is aligned with the university mission.” So you have to have a very intentional narrative about your teaching, you can’t just be casual about it, you have to be intentional, just to be strategic. And then you have to actually share that narrative. You can’t just sort of get it together for your own edification, and only in your circles that are trusted. You need to be telling that to allies, to administrators, etc., because that’s part of educating and informing people that what you’re doing is not being an agitator, or an outlier. Well, [LAUGHTER] you probably are an agitator or an outlier. But the thing is, you’re doing it right. So, [LAUGHTER] that’s what you need to be informed that you’re actually doing it right. So that narrative has to actually be floating around, because otherwise the only narrative out there is that you’re deficient in some way, shape, or form. And because the way that people currently assess teaching quality is primarily through student evals, which we’ve already talked, people don’t know how to do the numbers, the way they do peer reviews is horrible, you have to have some other sort of evidence that what you’re doing is effective. And so you have to document student learning. So you have to have a way that you’re collecting and analyzing and sharing data that shows that what you’re actually doing in your classroom is successful. And you can’t leave that up to someone else. Because those others probably aren’t going to have a lot of experience dealing with folks who have teaching inequities. They’re not used to it being make or break for your career. So you have to be in a habit of collecting your own data, or analyzing your data, communicating your own data on student learning. And it could be simple stuff, it could be like a pre-post test, maybe the first day of class, you give students like a 10 item quiz of things that they should know by the middle of the class, end of class and then you give a post test, it could be doing something similar at the beginning and end of a course session, you could have students write multiple drafts, and you do an analysis of an early draft, and you do one of a later draft. So it doesn’t have to be labor intensive. But you do have to have your own data. Because unfortunately, the data that people are using of student learning isn’t actual evidence of student learning. So those are the things that I would suggest that women faculty of color do until allies and institutions come to speed about the other suggestions that I made.

Rebecca: I love that you’re advocating building it into your process, that it’s not an add on, but can be really informative to what you’re doing. And therefore it’s just part of what you’re doing. Because otherwise it often feels like so much extra.

Chavella: Yes. I feel so guilty, sometimes telling folks like, “Yes, you’re juggling an actual teaching overload. Yes, you’re juggling a mentoring overload. Yes, you’re having to deal with all this resistance. And let me add this extra thing to your plate.” But it’s required, because it’s going to give you a little bit of space to reflect on what you’re doing, breathe, be acknowledged for it, instead of being punished for it, I guess, so to speak. But yes, very much so baked into what you’re already doing. So I like to tell people the easy lift things to do.

Rebecca: I like that strategy.

John: One of the nice things of this approach is that to the extent to which faculty are sharing teaching narratives about effective practice and documenting student learning, that can have some nice… well, in economics, we refer to them as externalities… that, while they benefit the students directly from the use of these techniques, to the extent to which he is shared with other faculty members who then can learn about more effective ways of increasing student learning, those practices can become more diffuse in the institution, which is something I think many of us would like to see.

Chavella: Absolutely. I talk about that explicitly, because that’s what I want allied colleagues and that’s what I want faculty developers to do, I’m suggesting things at the institutional level, for sure. But the things that people could do at an individual level are to mimic these practices to make them normal. So that it’s not just the diverse faculty or the marginalized faculty or the women faculty of color that are doing these things, but so that everybody’s doing it. So the more normative it gets it would benefit student learning and teaching all around, but it very much still would make it be much more of a mainstream practice, it would just be beneficial to everybody,

Rebecca: I think it’s helpful too to have a box of strategies that you can use as an individual and with your colleagues to kind of have a ground up approach as well as institutional strategies from the top down so that maybe we can meet somewhere in the middle. [LAUGHTER]

Chavella: Absolutely. I love the middle. I’m a social psychologist, so I love the middle. [LAUGHTER] I think so many things honestly get done at the middle. I mean, exactly because of what you just said. I think of an example of that, one of the things I was suggesting that institutions can do to deal with these inequities is for them to establish a policy for disruptive student classroom behavior. That’s very much one that an allied colleague could do in their own classroom, that a faculty developer could suggest to a whole bunch of faculty, like a cohort or two of faculty, that if the policy doesn’t come from the top, it can very much still come from the bottom. As people start to see it, it becomes more normative. Students start to realize different things help and inhibit my learning and different professors. It just makes it normative, that it’s not the wild, wild west, essentially, in the classroom.

Rebecca: I love this reflective approach too, in terms of having your own teaching narrative and sharing that, especially when sometimes you really do feel beaten down, taken advantage of, tossed around. It gives time and space and requires time and space to recognize success or to recognize that what you have done has actually made a difference and to see that other narrative.

Chavella: Absolutely, and it’s one of the things I love most about working with faculty is women of color will tell me like “Oh, you know, I do this thing in my class,” and they’ll describe just the logistics of what they’re doing and what they’re trying to do, and I usually have like a term for it. Like I’m like, “Oh, that’s XYZ pedagogy and like, that’s the goal” and they’re like, “Oh!” So they’re doing all this fantastic stuff, they just don’t always have the language for it, to be able to talk about it sort of out front. So I love being able to give them the language and say, “Hey, this thing that you’re doing that students are very clear that they hate [LAUGHTER] and are telling everybody that they hate, that this is actually the right thing to do, and here’s how you can communicate it to your colleagues that this is what you’re doing. This is where you’re trying to get students to go. And this is why it’s important for you to do it.” Those conversations. are the best for me, because people seem to just like intuitively know how to bring folks into the learning a lot of times from their own experiences either being taught well, or not being taught well as diverse folks. So being able to give them the language in the scholarship of teaching and learning has been a very powerful thing for people to experience.

Rebecca: One of the things I wanted to follow up on, is we talked about sharing the teaching narrative with colleagues, but what about sharing with students? Would you recommend that to women faculty of color?

Chavella: Absolutely. I always recommend this to my diverse faculty. And first of all, I have them put it on their syllabus, usually as an abbreviated teaching philosophy statement. There’s a lot of research about like transparency in learning and how it aids students learning. And I think what it does is it makes it really plain to students that what you’re doing is backed up in the research. So even if it’s not familiar to them, it’s an evidence-based practice. It also makes it really plain to students that the learning goals that you have for them, again, are backed up by the research, because some of the resistance that students give women faculty of color, sometimes, they’ll say, “Oh, this is your opinion, or this is an agenda.” It’s like, no, that’s not what’s going on here at all, I’m trying to actually build your skill in this particular way. And this is the goal, I’m not trying to convert you to a way of thinking. I’m trying to get you to achieve this particular skill. to have this particular outcome. So I always advise diverse faculty to put these things on their syllabus as a way of communicating to students that these are evidence-based practices, these are known and lauded learning outcomes. So I very much will always make sure that they engage in a particular practice on their syllabus. Again, it’s strategic, but it’s very helpful. [LAUGHTER]

John: And we can put a plug in for that we just recorded with Mary-Ann Winklemes, who talks about transparency and learning and teaching and the benefits that result from that. So that’s a nice tie in.

Chavella: Absolutely. Her work is what I’m usually reading about TILT. So yes, I love her work. [LAUGHTER]

Rebecca: You know, Chavella, I think we often see underrepresented faculty having a lot of struggle. But we also know that this group of faculty is really passionate about what they do. That’s why they explore different kinds of pedagogies and believe in evidence-based practices. What advice do you have to help us all see that joy in teaching and have a really positive way of looking at our roles as faculty members at our institutions,

Chavella: What I would really like to see and where my work has always existed, but where it’s about to go more fully on the front stage, like this is the backstage version of my work, is that I would love for this work to be more about faculty wellness, about faculty development and success, instead of just about faculty productivity. So I’m very much interested in whole faculty development. So work is one part of what we do, but we actually have to have full, rewarding, sustaining lives away from work in order for us to even bring the best version of ourselves and for us to be able to contribute at work. So that’s what I would like people to be much more open about in the front stage and to think about much more in the front stage, is sort of faculty wellness overall. And the timing couldn’t be better for these conversations. Burnout was already existing for a lot of our women faculty of color, a lot of our diverse faculty. The pandemic, George Floyd, like all of these things made it worse. And so maybe this is the point where institutions will really be curious to pursue it, as they see that people are quiet quitting and great resignation and burning out, browning out, etc. Maybe this will be the time for them to actually start investing in the development and the wellness of faculty as humans, not just as cogs in the machine.

Rebecca: It’s interesting when you’re framing it like that, Chevella, because we often talk about things being really student centered. And I’m always thinking like, “Why aren’t we making it people centered, because faculty and staff are also part of the bigger community of learning and making sure that learning kind of is happening up and down and around.” And that’s really what higher ed is about, but sometimes it doesn’t feel that way.

Chavella: No, it doesn’t at all, and depending on what day you catch me, [LAUGHTER] I’ll tell you… well I’m saying it in a flip way… I will say I care less about the students, I care more about the faculty. But for me caring for the faculty is caring for the students. So it doesn’t mean that I don’t care about the students and I’m not focused on them. I’m focused on them by being focused on the faculty. So I’m very, very, very faculty centered in what I do and staff centered as well, but just trying to shift the lens so that we’re not just only looking at students, because like you said, there are other parts of that equation.

Rebecca: Come to find out we’re all human.

Chavella: Yes, turns out. [LAUGHTER] Who knew? [LAUGHTER]

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

Chavella: Well, again, my book is still forthcoming. So I have an entire book that’s for women faculty of color, about navigating these teaching inequities. So that chapter is just sort of a sliver of perspective shifting and strategic advice so that women faculty of color can be successful. And then the book is like a much larger version, a much more in-depth version, for how people can, again, have a shift in lens on their teaching, protect themselves from inequities. And there is a chapter in it about joy, about engaging in joy. So that’s the thing that’s what’s next, and I’ll continue to do things that promote for faculty to be whole, well, happy people, not just cogs in a machine. [LAUGHTER]

Rebecca: Yeah, I’m in it for the joy. Let’s have more joy. [LAUGHTER]

John: Joy is good.

Chavella: Absolutely.

Rebecca: We’re looking forward to talking to you again when your book is ready to come out.

Chavella: Absolutely. I’ll be back here with bells on ready to chat about it.

John: Well, thank you. It’s always great talking to you. And we’re looking forward to that next conversation.

Chavella: Absolutely. Thank you so much for having me on.

Rebecca: It’s always our pleasure.


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


290. Transparency in Learning and Teaching

While instructors know what they expect from students, these expectations are not always clear to their students. In this episode, Mary-Ann Winkelmes joins us to discuss what happens when instructors make their expectations transparent to their students.  Mary-Ann has served in leadership roles at campus teaching centers at Harvard, the University of Chicago, the University of Illinois, the University of Nevada – Las Vegas, and Brandeis University and is the Founder and Director of TILTHigherEd.


John:While instructors know what they expect from students, these expectations are not always clear to their students. In this episode, we explore what happens when instructors make their expectations transparent to 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.


Rebecca: Our guest today is Mary-Ann Winkelmes. She has served in leadership roles at campus teaching centers at Harvard, the University of Chicago, the University of Illinois, the University of Nevada – Las Vegas, and Brandeis University and is the Founder and Director of TILTHigherEd. TILT is an acronym for Transparency in Learning and Teaching in Higher Ed. We are very much fans of the TILT approach and have referred to it often in workshops on our campus (and on previous podcast episodes). Welcome, Mary-Ann.

Mary-Ann: Thank you. I’m really delighted to be here with you. And I appreciate the opportunity to speak with you on Tea for Teaching.

John:We’re very happy to have you here. You’ve long been on the list of people we’ve wanted to invite. So we’re very pleased that you’re here today. Today’s teas are:… Mary-Ann, are you drinking tea?

Mary-Ann: I am indeed. And I’m drinking a Sencha green tea today. That’s my new favorite kind of green tea, Sencha.

Rebecca: Nice. I have English breakfast today.

John:And I am drinking a mixed berry Twinings black tea…

Rebecca: Hmmm.

John:…which I haven’t had in a long time. I wanted to mix it up a little bit today.

Rebecca: …mixing it up with mixed berries. So, Mary-Ann, can you tell us a little bit about how the TILT project came about?

Mary-Ann: Sure. This was years back, I want to say in the early 2000s, late 1990s, where I was working at the BOK Center for Teaching and Learning at Harvard University. And I was leading a seminar group discussions about teaching and learning. And we began to think about the question: “What happens when you tell students why you’re teaching how you’re teaching, just what happens when you tell the students more about your choices as an instructor, how you’re choosing to shape the learning experiences for the students?” And that’s not often something that we think about first when we’re thinking about what’s the content of the course. But we began to think about that a lot. And we had a kind of metaphor about the Wizard of Oz, and pulling back the curtain to show what was happening behind the scenes to build the experience. And then somehow through that conversation, the word transparency emerged. And that became the word that we used pretty regularly from that time on. When I moved to the University of Chicago, that was the word we were using, and it kind of stuck. So that’s kind of where it started. And it started alongside of my career as an educational developer. And it’s kind of been, for me, in the background or on the side, as something that I’ve been kind of tracking along with as a project. It’s still there, it keeps going. And just about a year ago, I began to work on TILT as my full-time job, which I’m really happy to be doing now because it gives me an opportunity, not just to do a guest talk here or there, or a keynote address, which is usually a one time-interaction. But now I have the flexibility to connect with institutions around a longer-term project. So if there’s a faculty learning community that emerges from a first talk that I would give, I get to follow up with them later and see what’s happening and check in with them. Sometimes I get to see the assignments before and after, which I really like. And I invite those now, because we’d like to publish some of those on the TILThighered.com website. And there are some schools that I’ve been working with in the state of Washington for several years now running with their TILT projects. And that emerged from a project we did with the entire state system of Community and Technical Colleges in Washington State. So I have opportunities now like that, where I can work with larger scale TILT projects that take more time, because this is my full-time job now. And I’m really happy about how that’s working, because I feel like it’s getting larger beneficial impact for students in a way that’s more efficient than when my full-time job was at an individual institution.

John:Could you give us an overview of the TILT framework?

Mary-Ann: Absolutely. So the TILT framework is meant to be a very simple tool that is a framework for an ongoing kind of communication among teachers and students. And in all of our studies, we asked teachers to use this framework in their own way at their own discretion, because we know that it’s not really possible to expect that people would do the exact same things with it. So our research is based on the premise that people are using this framework in their own way, at their own discretion, in a way that feels consistent with their teaching style. So there are three parts to this framework: purpose, task, and criteria. And what we ask in all of our studies is for teachers to engage students in conversation about three aspects of a particular assignment or a project or even an in-class activity. Before the students do a piece of work that we want them to complete, we’re asking for teachers and students to have a conversation about three aspects of the work before the students start working on it. And those three aspects are the purpose, the task and the criteria. Now the purpose kind of consists of two pieces. The first part is talking about the skills that students will practice while they’re working on the assignment. And then how are those skills useful, not just now in this course, or maybe in college and other courses, but how are these lifelong learning skills that will be useful for the student in their careers after college or in their lives ongoing? And then the second part of the purpose is about the content knowledge. What new information or what disciplinary information will the students be researching, or gaining, or applying when they’re working on the assignment? And how will that be also similarly useful to them, not just now, or in college, but beyond in their lives? The task, that’s the second part of the TILT framework, and the task is sort of about what are the teacher’s expectations about how students will approach the work? And for the students, it’s kind of like mapping out their game plan, like, what’s the first thing they will do? Will they Google something? Will they go to office hours? Will they go seek out a research librarian? Will they go into the lab and start mixing something like, what’s the first thing they’ll do? And then a sequence of what they plan to do after that until they submit the work. In an ideal world, the teachers and the students would have similar expectations about how that would go. In some cases, though, teachers have a pretty legitimate pedagogical reason for hiding that, that they don’t want students to know how to do the task. And I found this to be the case, particularly in fields where creativity is really important: performing arts, studio arts, even engineering or some STEM courses, where teachers really want students to cast about for a while and kind of use their imagination and see if they can come up with something unique, if not into the discipline, at least unique for the student to try to figure out some new process. And there’s value in that. When teachers want to do that, we did have some pushback from teachers in our original TILT research studies, where they said, “What happens if we don’t want to tell students how to do the work, like part of the task is for them to figure out how to do the work?” So in that case, we asked for those teachers to just say something like, “Part of the purpose of this assignment, in addition to the skills and the knowledge we’ve talked about, part of the purpose is for you to struggle and feel confused, while you invent your own approach to the question.” And we think this is what helps to preserve the student’s sense of confidence and their sense of belonging. Because instead of having that moment of panic of “Oh, no, I don’t actually know how to do this, I don’t even know where to start, I don’t know where the resources are, I don’t know what I’m doing. Maybe I shouldn’t be doing this, maybe this isn’t for me, maybe I shouldn’t be in this major, or in this course.” Instead of going to blaming it on themself or to questioning whether they’re up to the task at all, students can say instead, “I am totally lost right now. And that is exactly where I’m supposed to be. I know I’m on track. I’m doing great. This is the confusion part that comes before the clarity. And I know that because we talked about that and the professor said, this is part of what we expect to happen. This is intentional, this confusion, you’re supposed to feel lost right now.” So that’s sort of what we can say about the task. And the benefit of students knowing upfront what the task is, or knowing how they plan to approach the assignment or the project, the benefit there is that students get to spend 100% of the time they’ve allocated to work on this project, doing their best quality work, and they don’t lose time trying different approaches to see if this or that is going to work or looking for resources that aren’t what the teacher intended for them to be using. Instead of losing time, on the “how,” students get to spend their time so that what teachers receive then is most of the time what we’re looking for, which is “What is the student’s highest capacity right now?” Let’s see an example of the best work that the student can do right now, so we know where they’re at and we can bring them further so that they can advance in their learning. But if we accidentally end up in a situation where a teacher didn’t intend for the students to be confused, they expected the students to take a particular approach that they may have even mentioned at some point in class. So that’s why they think the students know that that’s the expected approach. I don’t want to say the correct approach but at least what they expect students to do. So if we think that students know how to do what we expect them to do, and the students don’t know what we’re expecting them to do, then there’s this chunk of lost time, where what we’re measuring then in the end is what happens after the students spend a chunk of their time lost trying to figure out how to approach the work, and then whatever time is left after that doing their best quality work in the amount of limited time that’s left. So part of the “task” piece of the framework is about what do we want to measure? Right? Do we want to be assessing the best quality work that students can do? Or do we want to be assessing what happens when you give a really varied, diverse group of students a particular assignment to do and you don’t give them 100% clarity about how to do it, and then kind of what you’re measuring is which students have, through no fault of their own, not encountered that information in their lives before coming to this course. And then you also get to identify who are the students that maybe because they had some other kinds of privileges that not all the students had, who are the students that can figure it out faster, because they come equipped with those privileges. So you can begin to see that this is an equity issue. So if talking about the purpose of the assignment kind of speaks to the student’s motivation, and to the value that they will gain from doing the work, and maybe to their ability to assess if they’re getting that value while they’re doing the work, the task speaks to even more of an equity situation where we’re trying to get all of the students to the same starting line of understanding of how to do it, and of having all the resources they would need to do the work to complete the work. And we want to make sure that students are all at that same starting line before they start the assignment. So that’s kind of the equity piece of this. And then finally, the third part of the framework is about criteria. We want students to be able to understand while they’re doing the work, how well are they doing. We want them to be able to make corrections, if they end up with a finished version that doesn’t look like what successful work would look like in this kind of a scenario. But if the students have never seen what successful work looks like, and they probably haven’t, because why would you assign them to do something that they’ve already seen many examples of; they wouldn’t be learning anything new. So kind of by definition, students aren’t going to know what successful work looks like when it meets this or that criterion in the discipline. So what we encourage teachers and students to do there when they’re considering the criteria is to offer students more than just a checklist or a rubric, because the words on a rubric or checklist might mean something different to the student who hasn’t done this kind of work than they do to the teacher who’s really immersed in this kind of work. An example I sometimes offer is, let’s say, I asked students to write up an analysis of a 15th century wooden painted sculpture of the Madonna and child from when I was teaching Italian Renaissance art history courses. In an art history course, the word analyze, like the tasks, the actions that you take when you are analyzing something, that’s a very, very different activity than analyze in the context of an economics course, or in the context of a chemistry course. But if the student hasn’t done this kind of analysis before, you can’t know for sure that they know what you’re asking them to do. So we kind of have to talk that through and students are going to need to see some examples of real world work in the discipline so that they can, with you, in a class meeting, talk about how do we evaluate analysis in this example from the real world, or in that example from the real world. And you won’t find any one example that matches every criterion of the assignment you’re asking students to do, usually, so you need several examples. The benefit of several examples is also that you can begin to talk about the relative success with which different examples are meeting a particular criterion as well. So once we’re in a conversation with students, and we hear back from them, that they’re telling us, what we had hoped they would understand about the skills they’ll practice and the knowledge they’ll gain, that purpose, about how they’re going to approach the work, the task, and about how they’ll know that they’re doing good quality work, the criteria, once we hear students telling us that, that’s the moment that things have become transparent. It is that activity of communication, that conversation with students about purposes, tasks, and criteria, that’s where the transparency comes from. And when we are done with that conversation, we know that students are at the same starting line of readiness In terms of their understanding of what they’re going to do, and also, in terms of their confidence that everyone has the resources that they need, in order to complete that work

Rebecca: What faculty believe is important for students to learn doesn’t always align with the goals of students. Can you talk a little bit about some strategies for bringing these into better alignment?

Mary-Ann: Sure, I think that this kind of speaks to the purpose part of the transparency framework. And often teachers are expecting students to learn something that is very valuable, we wouldn’t spend our time teaching things that don’t have a lot of benefit for students or that they would only use today and it wouldn’t be useful to them later in life. We like to teach things that have value. And so, when we are communicating with students about that value, we’re talking about the skills that students will be practicing. They won’t perfect them on this assignment, but they will begin to strengthen a particular kind of skill set. And they will gain some sort of disciplinary knowledge that can be useful to them later. And we know that sometimes disciplinary knowledge changes over the years as people discover new things and publish new things in any field. Sometimes that knowledge changes. But having some knowledge now does give you important value if you’re going to continue in that discipline or if you want to understand basic principles of a discipline that you might find useful elsewhere. So if students and teachers have a transparent conversation or communication, it could be a written communication, it could be something that they record and put on a website, it could be an asynchronous kind of conversation in an online course. But whatever form that communication takes, I think students and teachers when they’re on the same page about what the knowledge is, what the skills are, that are the focus of this assignment, students will feel more motivated to do the work, because they’ll see that it has benefit for them. And it doesn’t feel like a rote exercise, or just churning out another problem set or another art history analysis paper. There’s some value here that the students know upfront what that value is. And when the teachers hear the students reflecting back to them in this communication, that this is the value that they will be gaining, then we know that students have a kind of motivation to benefit from this assignment.

John:One other issue is that students have come up with some way of learning while they’ve been in elementary and secondary school. But those methods that they picked up are not generally the ones that are most effective. How can we encourage students to adopt learning strategies that they may be resistant to because for example, students, when there have been surveys of what types of learning strategies they found most productive, students often say they prefer to be lectured at, because they learn more from the professor that way. And also, many students don’t like active learning strategies. While they learn more, they don’t perceive it that way. Partly because of those desirable difficulties you referred to before, that when they’re struggling with something, it’s a little bit less pleasant than sitting there nodding and smiling and having everything seem to make sense. How can we encourage students to accept those desirable difficulties associated with learning so that they can learn more effectively,

Mary-Ann: I want to say that this is something that the TILT framework can definitely help us with. And this is not an uncommon phenomenon at all, I even find in my TILT workshops that I do with instructors, that instructors don’t love collaborative learning either. And in fact, many of these TILT workshops that I do will begin with some kind of a research review about “How do we know TILT works? What are the studies and what do they tell us and show us the data?” So we get off on this kind of role, where we’re almost in a traditional lecture format, where like someone’s delivering some information, and people are listening, and then they have questions about it. Or maybe they have challenges to say, “Wait, this doesn’t make sense, let’s talk about this.” And then I kind of switch the method that we’re using. And I’ll ask people to break off into small groups and begin to analyze a particular assignment and talk about where do they see the purposes, the tasks, and the criteria? Before I do that, I acknowledge the fact that we are shifting gears, and that we were doing fine with this sort of Q&A format. You know, look at the research and then think about it and talk about it. Ask questions. Why would I switch that up now? Like we were on a roll, we were doing great. Everybody was sort of on board. Why would I change that now? And so I use the TILT framework to talk about why we’re shifting gears now. What is my purpose in having you use this different method? So if it’s a peer learning method, as it is in the workshops, or as it might be with students in a class, we want to tell students: “Why are we now manipulating your learning experiences this way? Why would I do that to you when I know that sometimes students resist this, when I know that it can be uncomfortable, because I don’t personally always like to do it when I’m in a learning experience?” So if we can tell students, here’s why this is going to benefit you, because you don’t just hear it, but you have to struggle to apply it, you have to fit it not to the situation that I was talking about, where it all sort of makes sense when it rolls over you and you’re hearing it. But you now have to take the principle of what we were talking about, and apply it to this new unfamiliar scenario. And the benefit of that is that you will discover you will hit a barrier at some point in that process, where you will discover the exact piece of information that’s missing for you. You will discover exactly where you hit a barrier to your understanding. And you will have an opportunity right now, right here with me, the teacher in this class, to address that confusing point. And the benefit of doing that now, as opposed to later when you’re doing a graded assignment, is pretty obvious, you get the benefit of having the difficult learning experience in a safe environment that doesn’t lose you any sort of points on your grade. It doesn’t have any negative impact on you the way that it might if you waited until the end of the term to do some massive project and you hadn’t really done a lot of the homework or done a lot of the practices and so you didn’t really know what you didn’t understand until it was kind of too late to do anything about. So I think in short, what I’m trying to say is when we’re asking students to do something uncomfortable, that has a really solid pedagogical reason, that has evidence behind that, it is an evidence-based practice, we want students to know that upfront, because that then will increase their motivation to do it, because they see how they’re going to benefit if they do this thing.

Rebecca: One of the things that students often struggle with is when they start new courses with new faculty, and new ways of doing things and determining what the instructor will expect out of them and out of that learning experience. Can you talk a little bit about how the TILT framework could allow students to shift their focus to learning if it was adopted in the design of the course rather than just an individual single assignments?

Mary-Ann: Yes. And in fact, this is a way that lots of faculty are using the TILT framework, is to think about how do I TILT not just a single assignment, but a whole course. So usually, when people are introduced to the TILT framework, the original ask for all our research studies is would you please do this two times in an academic term, just twice? Because we wanted to see how little change could you make and have a beneficial impact on students’ learning, because small change is much more likely to happen than massive change. But once you’ve made that small change as an instructor, and you see that when you do this with two assignments, there’s some real benefit for students. And on the TILThighered.com website, there are publications by faculty who talk about not just how the quality of students’ work increases, but how the teachers experience in grading, or in responding to students, or in how many students will ask for an extension at the last minute, like these difficulties that teachers often face are diminished, while the benefits for students and the quality of students work increases. So once you begin to see this in the small scale of assignments, teachers then, maybe in the subsequent term, will think about what else could I TILT? Could I TILT in-class activities? Could I TILT a unit of this course? Could I TILT the whole course? And then the effects or the applications can grow. So we can apply this to a single assignment, we could TILT a whole course, we could TILT a curriculum in a department, we could TILT a program, we could TILT an institution’s learning outcomes and thread them through not just all the courses, but through all the co-curriculars too so that students might discover in their work-study job that they’re practicing one of the critical thinking outcomes, that’s a goal for the whole university that connects with what they were doing in their accounting class. And then we can even think about this in terms of a national framework of learning outcomes as well. So there are many scales at which you can apply that to a framework. And one of the things that I’m really enjoying about doing TILT full time, is that I can work with groups of schools, groups of institutions, so not just the Washington State group that I mentioned to you, but several weeks ago I was in the state of Kentucky where working with teams of teachers from institutions across the state, for the whole state system, to think about aspects of how do you map out a path for students to succeed in fulfilling their curriculum? And then how do you pursue that path? How do you complete that path? And in that case, we were using the TILT framework as a strategic planning framework to think about once we know what the plan is, like, once we’ve mapped out our plan for how students can effectively complete their degrees, how do we then communicate the value of that degree, not just to the students who are doing the degree, not just to the students’ families who may be contributing to the costs of doing that degree, not just the costs of the student’s tuition, but the cost of the student not being an earner in that family. And we want to communicate this to all the stakeholders, so the students, their parents, faculty, and staff at the institution, to state legislators who may be voting on packages of funding to higher education in their state, to individual grantors who might be funding particular scholarships. And we want to be able to communicate the value of this degree to every stakeholder in a state system that way. And the TILT framework is very helpful for thinking across multiple audiences, because that’s a pretty difficult task to communicate clearly to all of those different kinds of audiences. But it’s pretty essential for the success of higher education in this country. And so we spent a couple of days using the TILT framework as a strategic planning framework to think about how do you communicate the value of a degree? There are lots of ways that you can apply the TILT framework. Another example is I was working with a school in Texas over the summer, and they were TILTing their entire college success course. Many institutions have that kind of course in the first year, and some of them had TILTed individual assignments. And they decided they wanted to put the team of all the teachers together, and then subdivide that so that a smaller team of teachers was working on each week of the course. And then all the assignments and the lectures or discussions that would go into that week. And then we use the TILT framework as a larger framework to connect that whole course. So that from week to week, the purposes, tasks, and criteria were pretty clear. And students understood the path for all of their learning across that course.

John:Have you tried taking on the Florida Legislature? [LAUGHTER]

Mary-Ann: I have not.

John:That’s a real challenge, I suspect.

Mary-Ann: Yeah, I have worked with schools in Wisconsin. Last week, I was working with a school in Tennessee, right after a couple of their legislators were expelled temporarily. This kind of a framework, I think, can be effective in a lot of different higher education systems and contexts. That’s one of the beauties of it. Because this is something that teachers can do, starting right now, to complement any kind of larger, institutionally driven or federally funded program that might focus on student success. A lot of the time, those programs don’t necessarily feel like they’re directly connected to what faculty members are doing in the day to day in their classes. But using this TILT framework is something that you can do that will advance students’ success that will then make you feel more like you’re connected to these larger ongoing efforts that might be focusing on something that you don’t do directly, like targeted scholarship funding, for example. But that’s part of the beauty of the TILT framework is that it can work in many, many different contexts, and across different scale sizes of projects, as well.

John:And it works nicely for faculty because you end up getting work of the quality and the type that you expect, rather than getting student work that you find disappointing. And similarly, students end up doing work that they’re much more happy with, because they were not guessing at what the instructors want. So it just seems really, really logical. But it’s not always so widely practiced. Your efforts are really helpful for all of this.

Mary-Ann: I think one of the reasons why people might be hesitant to use the TILT framework, you don’t necessarily want to try doing something different that could suck up time that could take time away from delivering important content in the course, and what teachers have discovered and written about and published in the National Teaching and Learning Forum and other places you can see on the TILThighered.com website, what teachers have discovered is that if you take some class time to talk about the purposes, tasks, and criteria for a project before students do it, by the time that practice is completed, everyone has saved time; that time gets recouped, and students have learned a larger quantity of what we had hoped they we’d learn because when we deliver content in a course, we don’t know that students are absorbing it the way that we’d hoped or that they could apply it the way that we’d hoped. So I think by the end of the course, if you’ve used the TILT framework a couple of times, you’re in a situation where you’ve worked in a way that is more time efficient, somewhat, and you arrive at a place that, as you say, is more satisfying for students and teachers, because more of the time has been spent with the students doing the highest quality work possible.

Rebecca: I think one of the things that can be challenging for faculty initially is that if you’ve never communicated in this way, it’s hard to do it the first time, because anything you do the first time is difficult. But once you have a little practice doing it, it’s easy to adopt and expand across a course or across a set of courses.

Mary-Ann: That’s so true. And I think that the way that we’ve structured the TILT framework, it looks so simple, it’s a three-part framework. Applying it then gets you into some complexities that are important to clarify. I think you’re absolutely right, the first time we try anything that’s unfamiliar, just like for students, it’s more difficult. And then we kind of get the hang of it. And then it comes much smoother, and much easier. The TILT framework for starters, is pretty simple. It’s got three parts, right? And I think you could probably share a link to the one-page version of the framework that we give to students, that sort of spells out the framework: purpose, tasks, criteria, the knowledge and the skills. And then at the bottom, there are some of the evidence behind why we know this works and some footnotes, so that students can see on one page, this is a real thing. It works, it helps you. It is, in some cases, equitable, and it is probably worth giving it a try. And if you can see all that on one page as a student, then you might be more willing, especially in a context where a teacher is describing to you why this will be good for you, why this is a benefit for all of us. And then for teachers who have not encountered the TILT framework, when students can bring in this one pager that has some studies listed at the bottom and footnotes, they can see that when the student is asking me, why should I bother? This is actually a legitimate question. This is not a troublemaker student, this is a student who actually knows that they will benefit from knowing a little bit more in advance about this assignment that they’re planning to do. So we try to make it as easy as possible to implement. And then we also try to say only a little bit of this will make a statistically significant difference for students’ learning, so that you only have to try it a couple of times in a whole term. And you’ll probably see the kind of differences that we saw in terms of increases to students’ confidence and their sense of belonging, and their metacognitive awareness of the skills that they were practicing and developing. So if you’re doing anything new or different for the first time, yes, there’s some difficulty to that, but this one is a very, very desirable difficulty. [LAUGHTER]

John:We’ll share a link to that one-sheet document as well as to your website in general. And you do have a lot of research cited on your website. And there’s also some ongoing projects. Could you talk a little bit about those?

Mary-Ann: Yes, we are sharing all the resources that we possibly can on the TILT higher ed website, because we want for everyone to have access to this. Some of the places that benefit most are places that might have the least amount of money that is allocated for faculty development or educational development. So we want to make sure that this is accessible to anyone who would want to try it. And then the studies that we’ve done in the past, there are a few studies that have indicated to us a number of the benefits of TILT. One of the first studies we did was the national study we ran with the Association of American Colleges and Universities. It was funded by TG Philanthropy and my colleagues working on that project were Tia Brown McNair and Ashley Finley. And what we did there was we worked with a group of seven minority-serving institutions from across the country that represented every possible type of minority-serving institution, as well as a range of educational contexts like urban and rural, two-year, four-year, research university, really small in scale, large, residential and non residential campuses because we wanted for teachers to look at our results and see, “Oh, well, this worked for those faculty at that institution, and there are students like my students in that mix, so maybe this would work for my students. And in that study, we started with 35 professors at seven schools and we surveyed about 1200 students and we saw that, for the students who received the more transparent instruction, their competence and their sense of belonging and their metacognitive awareness of the skills that they were developing, those increased, those were higher for the students who got more transparent instruction than for those who got less transparent instruction. And then we also saw in that study some differences that showed us that while all the students were benefiting to a statistically significant level, underserved students were benefitting slightly more. So first-generation students in their family to attend college and ethnically underrepresented students and low-income students have slightly larger benefits than the benefits for the whole group. And then in our second study, we focused on how long does this effect last. So we worked with a group of University of Nevada – Las Vegas students. At the time we were working with that study, University of Nevada – Las Vegas had the most diverse undergraduate student population in the nation, according to US News and World Report. And we know from other studies, like Walton and Cohen’s, 2011, Science Magazine article, for example, we know that when students’ confidence increases, when their sense of belonging increases, they tend to persist longer in a course. So in courses that have higher levels of confidence and belonging, fewer of the students would drop the course, for example, more of them more likely to complete the course. And we wanted to see how long does that last. Is it just that course? And some studies indicate that this could last for a year. And what we did was we kept looking at the retention rates of these students to see how many of them were still registered a semester later, a year later, two years later. And we saw that by the time students were in their third year of university as undergraduates, those students who had received transparent instruction in one of their large gateway intro courses in their first year, those students were a little bit more likely to be still registered as students in their third year. And we’re now tracking that out to six-year graduation rates. So we saw that not only does transparency have a beneficial effect, it’s statistically significant, but that effect lasts for a good long time. And then in the state of Washington, we’re now writing up that study I mentioned with the Community and Technical College System. And I think that TILT is particularly helpful in that environment, because the population of community colleges and technical colleges is a little bit more diverse. And we have more students who belong to that underserved category of students, first-generation, low income, ethnically underrepresented. And what we’re finding from that study is we’re understanding a little more about how does transparency work, and I want to thank all of the researchers who are contributing to all of these studies too, because I’m not an educational statistician, so Daniel Richard, and Carolyn Weisz and Kathryn Oleson are contributing to this study and doing a lot of the analysis, along with help from some graduate students who have been working on this project over the years. What they’re discovering is that transparent instruction has a direct impact on students’ awareness of the skills that they’re learning, and it has a direct impact, similarly beneficial, on students’ sense of belonging. And then separately, sense of belonging has a direct impact on students’ metacognitive awareness and skills that they’re developing. So TILT has this direct effect. And then there’s this other effect between belonging and skill development as well. So we’re finding out more about precisely how TILT works for the benefit of students in these studies. And I think in terms of next studies, I want to be asking questions that really matter to populations of faculty and students around the country. So we open up the TILT research team to anybody who’s curious about this, and a number of faculty have asked about, can we say something more about how this works in an online setting, in an online synchronous setting in an online asynchronous setting, and we’ve got a few publications up on the website about that, but others are looking at that a bit more. And then we have another person who’s looking into just the impact on low-income students to see if we can find out more there about the details of how this works. And I’m really curious to see if we can work with large state systems, what can we find about the most time efficient, most beneficial ways to apply transparency and learning and teaching in community college settings. And I’ve also noticed that as I begin to do more work internationally, because I now have more flexible time to be able to do that, the colleges of applied sciences, like in the European Union, for example, they have a kind of three-year degree that is similarly focused on students’ learning something from their degree like they do here in a community or technical college that will lead them on a path into sustainable long-term employment and a career. So I think that this is going to be a really beneficial place to focus TILT efforts and to do some more research about how can we long term have an impact on not just students’ education, but how that is a pathway into a career. And I’m hopeful that we can find out more about that, like the longer long-term effect of TILT. But I’m also really open to inviting anyone who wants to do more research with the mountains of data that we’re sitting on, to discover something that is of interest to them about how students are learning, and how we can help students succeed more.

Rebecca: I really love all the resources and examples and research materials, worksheets, that are on the website. They’re really handy for folks who are starting out. We always wrap up by asking: “What’s next?”

Mary-Ann: What’s next for me, and then what might be next for teachers and students too. So we’ve talked a lot in detail about how TILT works, and how we know it works, and what more we want to discover about how it works. But I want people to remember that this is really a small effort, it’s a very easy lift that has a really large benefit from the size of that lift. And so I would really encourage teachers and students, if they’re going to do anything at all, even if they have no time to adjust any assignment prompts or to adjust anything about the way that they’re teaching or learning in a classroom. If you use any one single thing, I would say use that framework that we built for the students that has the footnotes at the bottom, and it’s called the “unwritten rules” and that framework, and I think you could probably provide a link to it, that’s what I would hope people would do next, just take that framework with you to anywhere that you’re communicating with your students. And the students will tell you how to make the work more transparent for them. Ask students what they see as the purpose, the task, and the criteria. And you’ll discover very quickly, very efficiently, how you can make that work more transparent so that all students are starting to do the work with the same understanding about what’s expected and with the same set of resources that they need in order to do it. So that’s what I hope is next for teachers and students.

Rebecca: And I hear all the faculty cheering about efficiency, and quick. [LAUGHTER]

Mary-Ann: That’s good. Yeah. So that would be the most time efficient thing to do, I think is to have students teach us more about how to be more transparent. And then in terms of researchers, I’m hoping that researchers will think about what can we learn more about? Can we learn more about what motivates students? Or what forms students’ sense of belonging? Is there anything in our survey data that would shed light on any kind of work you’re doing around that? Is there anything in our survey data that would shed light on more of the research on neuroscience and how that’s impacting learning? Or is there anything in the research that we have in our survey data that might help clarify what would be most beneficial for the very most at-risk students? So if we look at federal government statistics, National Center for Education Statistics about retention rates and graduation rates of different populations of students? Can we double down and look at those students with the very lowest graduation rates? And can we find something about TILT that would be the most beneficial for that population of students? To me, that’s a really important and interesting question. And then I really do want to be finding more locations where TILT could be useful, small scale for teachers and students, large scale for state systems or national systems to be thinking about how to apply this all for the good of students success, and for the satisfaction and time efficiency for teachers work as well.

John:If you’re finding these results of long-term persistent effects from just a single intro course, imagine what would happen if all intro courses use the TILT approach. I imagine the effect would be magnified if it was adopted at a broader level and it is being adopted at many institutions at a broader level.

Mary-Ann: I absolutely agree with you that applying TILT across the largest introductory gateway required courses at any institution would be probably the most efficient way to improve retention and graduation rates. Because if you go for the largest group of students as they enter, and you reduce the number of those students who might be thinking or doubting or wondering if they should continue, and if you increase the number of students who feel confident, who are aware of the value of what they’re learning, in terms of skills and knowledge, and if you increase the number of students who persist from the first year on, then that’s where you’re going to have the best success in increasing retention and graduation rates. I agree with you. I think that’s a really strategically wise place to invest TILT effort.

Rebecca: Well thank you so much. We’re looking forward to sharing this with our listeners.

Mary-Ann: And thank you so much for the opportunity to talk with you this afternoon, I really appreciate it

John:Thank you for all the work you’re doing.


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.


289. The Cognition-Motivation Connection

Emotions can have both positive and negative impacts on learning. In this episode, Michelle Miller joins us to explore the relationships that exist between emotions and learning.

Michelle is a Professor of Psychological Sciences and President’s Distinguished Teaching Fellow at Northern Arizona University.  She is the author of Minds Online: Teaching Effectively with Technology and Remembering and Forgetting in the Age of Technology: Teaching, Learning, and the Science of Memory in a Wired World. Michelle is also a co-editor, with James Lang, of the superb West Virginia University Press series on teaching and learning.

Show Notes

  • Miller, Michelle (2023). “Revisiting the cognition-motivation connection: What the latest research says about engaging students in the work of learning.”  March 3.
  • Miller, Michelle (2022). “Ungrading Light: 4 Simple Ways to Ease the Spotlight off Points.” The Chronicle of Higher Education. August 2.
  • Remind
  • Transparency in Teaching and Learning (TILT)
  • Sathy, V., & Hogan, K. A. (2022). Inclusive teaching: Strategies for promoting equity in the college classroom. West Virginia University Press.
  • Ariely, D., & Wertenbroch, K. (2002). Procrastination, Deadlines, and Performance: Self-Control by Precommitment. Psychological Science, 13(3), 219–224.
  • Abel, M., & Bäuml, K. H. T. (2020). Would you like to learn more? Retrieval practice plus feedback can increase motivation to keep on studying. Cognition, 201, 104316.
  • McDaniel, M. A., & Einstein, G. O. (2020). Training learning strategies to promote self-regulation and transfer: The knowledge, belief, commitment, and planning framework. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 15(6), 1363-1381.
  • Miller, Michelle (2019). Attention Matters. Tea for Teaching Podcast. Episode 86. June 19.
  • Michelle Miller’s R3 Newsletter
  • Sarah Rose Cavanagh’s Once More, With Feeling substack
  • Cavanagh, S. R. (2016). The Spark of Learning: Energizing the college classroom with the science of emotion. West Virginia University Press.
  • Cavanagh, S. R. (2023). Mind over Monsters: Supporting Youth Mental Health with Compassionate Challenge. Beacon Press.


John: Emotions can have both positive and negative impacts on learning. In this episode, we explore the relationships that exist between emotions and 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 Michelle Miller. Michelle is a Professor of Psychological Sciences and President’s Distinguished Teaching Fellow at Northern Arizona University. She is the author of Minds Online: Teaching Effectively with Technology and Remembering and Forgetting in the Age of Technology: Teaching, Learning, and the Science of Memory in a Wired World. Michelle is also a co-editor, with James Lang, of the superb West Virginia University Press series on teaching and learning. Welcome back, Michelle.

Michelle: Oh, thanks for having me. It’s great to be here today.

Rebecca: Today’s teas are:… Michelle, do you have some tea?

Michelle: Well, not exactly. I’ve started hydrating with fruity water today. So, I’ve got my water jug and I’m working on it.

John: And I have just a little bit of a peppermint-spearmint tea blend here. And the reason is just a little bit as this is our third podcast of the day today. So I didn’t have a chance in between them to go back to my office and get some new tea or some new hot water. So I do have a little bit to get us started here.

Rebecca: A tiny bit left from my pot of blue sapphire tea.

John: …which is much more colorful.

Rebecca: It is, but not in my cup, only in the pot.

John: We’ve invited you here to discuss your March 3 blog post, addressing the relationship between cognition and emotion. In general, how is cognition influenced by emotion,

Michelle: I’ve been interested in this connection for a while and watching the evolution from within my field of cognitive psychology and kind of moving away from the approach that I came up with when I was just starting out as a graduate student, which is I recall was this kind of oil and water conception of cognition and emotion that here on the one side, we’ve got thought processes, we’ve got memory, and so on. And on the other side [LAUGHTER], we’ve got the emotions and so on. And we’re just going to really work from in our subfield to try to get our arms around just these cognitive processes, and don’t worry about the rest of it. And now, I think that most cognitive psychology theorists in the field would say that, yeah, our cognitive processes are definitely shaped by and infused by what’s going on kind of over in the emotional processing systems of our mind and in our brain. And if I had to describe, just from my own perspective, what I see is a change over time and an evolution in our field, we’ve kind of gone from really talking about parts of the mind in this very compartmentalized modular way, where different parts do different things pretty much independently. And now you see more discussion of how these different parts have interplay with each other, how they give what I would think of as a sort of a soft input to other subsystems, or even set some constraints on what those other systems are doing without totally determining them. So I think we are moving into this more nuanced view of how those two things work together. So that, yeah, our emotions affect what we believe, they also serve as a way to almost elevate or suppress different aspects of what we’re processing so we might remember things in a particular way, or think about them in a particular way. And it’s neat to me too, as somebody in the field, because I look and I see clinical psychologists, the people in the area of psychology who work on how do we help people in therapy and help people with different disorders and challenges. They’ve known this for quite some time, but they’ve looked at it sort of in reverse. So if you’ve ever heard the school of thought known as cognitive therapy, or cognitive behavioral therapy, one of the core tenets of that approach is that the emotional side of how we function, our emotions, are affected by our cognition. So what we feel, even our mood states and so on, that’s fundamentally driven by things like what we believe. And so they’ve come up with these really exciting and powerful techniques for addressing beliefs that people have and thereby affecting their emotions. So we can take a cue from that and have this more nuanced view of the interplay. So back to cognitive psychology. I also come at this really philosophically as what we would call a functionalist, [LAUGHTER] that’s sort of a lens through which I see how we address questions in psychology. So when we say, “Well, why does the mind work in this particular way? Why does it have this component or why does it do this in this way?” I would look at and say, “Well, how does that help us survive? What’s the function for helping us really survive and thrive in our world?” And when we look at things like emotions, our emotions are there for very functional reasons. I believe our emotions exist in order to kind of move us towards things that help us in our survival and move us away from things that are going to be a threat to our survival. And also they serve in this way to kind of alert us to what’s relevant. So it’s almost like a relevance mechanism. So if something provokes an emotional response in us, that may be an old shortcut that our mind has to say, “Yes, this is something that’s important. This is something that maybe you want to remember and that you want to pay attention to.” So I see emotions as kind of a feel for relevance, and that’s something I’m sure we’ll get into in our conversation about teaching and learning. later. And all of this is a practical issue too. I tell the story sometimes about Minds Online, and writing that book, where I got to about midway through the book and literally had this crisis, I remembered it happening like in the middle of the night, there’s something huge that’s missing right around this point in the book. And that book, for those who have taken a look at it, it takes a very cognitive view of how we select and use technologies. But I came to this realization, we can’t really talk about how to maximize the effectiveness of those approaches, unless we also talk about why students are going to do them in the first place, and how we can get them motivated to do them. So, in that book, I ended up covering some very basic elementary foundational concepts in motivation and motivation theory with that idea of what are just the essentials that every teacher needs to know and how might that also get involved in how do we choose certain technologies? How do we set things up in a particular way, for example, in an online course to keep students moving and that keep them putting in that productive effort. And so that’s been around in the back of my mind for quite some time. But now I’m reading all these new articles and this wave of interesting new research that is finding yet more connections between those two sides of the mind. And so how to get students to engage in strategies that work from a cognitive perspective and how to direct that feel for relevance. And early on in my career, as I mentioned in that blog post, I look back and it seems so harsh now, like, well, how do we get students to be accountable. And now I’ve kind of shifted that along with many others towards really looking more at the support side of this and bringing in things like empathy for our students, I don’t think I’ve ever been one of those super punitive “look to your left, look to your right” kinds of teachers, nor have I ever really advised that to their faculty. But I’m realizing that in this really critical case that I’m looking at this relationship in new ways, and I’m excited to share that.

Rebecca: So there’s been a lot of discussion about student motivation and engagement…, a crisis in it. [LAUGHTER] A lot of faculty have reported students being less engaged or less motivated. How can we, as faculty, address some of the challenges that people are experiencing at this moment?

Michelle: And it is such a pressing question, and that’s another thing that’s just really been registering as I’ve had my antenna up about what are people talking about right now? What are they bringing into conferences, and so on? And first off, as a little bit of a skeptic, I have to say, “Well, I think that we still need some more information to nail down exactly what the extent and the nature of the engagement crisis is.” And I think all three of us are attuned to what I guess you can call the fallacy of “students these days.” [LAUGHTER] So as so many people have observed, it’s so tempting to have that filter on of like, “Well, back when I was a student, I was always intrinsically engaged in my classes, I didn’t miss assignments, and so on and there’s a downward trend.” So there’s something about that. I put on my skeptic filter when I see that. But that said, we do have these experiences. And I don’t think regardless, even if we look back and say, “Well, maybe this wasn’t really part of a bigger trend as we thought.” Even if that were to happen, are we gonna look back and say, “Well, we shouldn’t have worried so much about engaging our students, we can almost always stand to engage them more.” So with that big caveat, I think that we should also be really reflecting on and separating out, as much as it’s really possible to do so, disengagement from other related things like prioritizing. I don’t have the capacity to cover all that I need to as a student, and perhaps also as a family member, a parent, a worker, and so on. So here’s how I’m going to go at it, or even just straight up overwhelm, and I think we can look at that from our own perspective, too, and say, “Well, right.” I think we’ve also seen quite a few faculty professional development directors and others who work with other faculty to say, “Oh my gosh, I put up a half a dozen workshops, and I’m having trouble filling them. So we too, as a lot of our demands have converged over the last couple of years, and as we’ve coped with those stresses, we too. It’s not that we’re disengaged from what we’re doing, but we’re having to make some different choices out of necessity. We have the economic costs of college and that whole dynamic that’s going on as well. I’m no expert in that. But I think we all know that students today are working more jobs, succeeding at every single course and getting through as quickly as possible is an economic necessity and so on. So the stakes are very, very high for students, and students are dealing with that. And so that’s one also very important thing to think about when we’re looking at this. So with that, though, have students been more disengaged? I mean, my experience immediately coming back to in-person teaching, I found myself that students were really excited. At the risk of sounding very strange here, it was like a box of excited puppies: Oh my goodness, we’re all here in the classroom together. And I felt the same way in some ways too. But really directing that in some, again, productive ways is what we have to do as the leaders of our classes. Now to practical tips for what can we do. If there’s a disengagement, students are elsewhere, they’re not doing the work, or they’re all excited but they don’t know how to manage that. But here’s a couple things that I think are very practical. So I’m a big advocate these days for flexibility and approachability in what we do. So I wrote a piece last year titled, “Ungrading Light…” I think that was the catchphrase in the title… which talks about “Okay, without sort of throwing out grades and say, ‘Well, students have the wrong motivation when it’s all about the grades.’” If we’re still going to have grades, what are some positive ways to keep students really focused on the learning and engaged with the learning and not just like, checkpoint, checkpoint, how do I get through this? And I do think that even some basic changes to policy can help here. So things like I really have gotten very flexible on deadlines. The caution here that this is going to look very different for people with different course sizes, section sizes, different disciplines, what the learning objectives really are in your course. So I don’t want to imply that everybody just can do this in the same way. And as I also mentioned in the piece, things like very flexible deadline policies can present a professional risk for people who do not have the security of, for example, tenure, and people who are historically minoritized, and are going to elicit different kinds of reactions from students to play out on things like end-of-semester evaluations. So for example, faculty of color. So with those big cautions in mind, now, here’s been my experience is I communicate with students… I say, “I want to be approachable,” I want to really show them and not just tell them that if you come to me and say, “I was pulling double shifts all weekend, and I need to do this paper draft, and I know that, but I need another two days,” that I’m not going to come down on them in a harder, personal way. And if they do that, just not all the time, I will say, “Yeah,” and then my catchphrase right now is, “Take the time, you need to do your best work.” And that turns out actually to be really good for my motivation, too, because I would really rather read what they put together [LAUGHTER] with a little bit of more time, that’s all about I want to do something I can be proud of in this course, and actually walk away with great knowledge. It’s more geared towards that and less geared towards “Oh my gosh, didn’t come in until 11:58 when it’s due at midnight, and I sort of just checked that box again. So that is something as well and other ways to be approachable, that can also elicit more engagement. How do we know students are engaged? Well, when they reach out to us. And so, here again, different individuals have to decide their appropriate comfort level and parameters. But I have a syllabus statement that says here are all the different ways to get in touch with me. If you’ve got a long question, and we need to talk, I’ve got a scheduling program, you click a button, and boom, now you have access to my calendar, and you can get on my calendar the same way my colleagues can. And that’s good. If you have a really quick question like, “Oh my gosh, there’s one thing I need to do in order to finish this assignment and actually be successful, then you can text me or send me a message in a program such as Remind, which can kind of buffer so we’re not trading phone numbers. But, that immediacy, it has not really resulted in this giant pile up of lots of inappropriate communications, which is what I was always warned about when I was coming up as a teacher. But instead, students get the question answered and then they can kind of stay engaged with the flow of what they’re doing. So just basic ideas, but ones that I think can help move us back towards a more engaged setting where students are excited to be there and so am I. If I could add one other thing here, too, we can also take a page out of the transparency philosophy. So if you’re familiar with Transparency in Teaching and Learning, the TILT framework, it’s so powerful. And it’s all about giving more explicit directions to students, as well. What you may read as disengagement or not caring, might be “I don’t know where to start and now, I really am feeling either alienated, overwhelmed, or something in between.” And I think that’s another we can all relate to is, we’re a lot more likely to take the first step down the path and keep going if that first step is lit up, or maybe if the whole path is lit up. So taking that little bit of extra time to say “And here’s where to start and if you get stuck, here’s what to do.” That can also help.

John: I’ve been observing the same sort of issue that many people have reported of students not completing work. I’ve seen students being much more excited to be back in the classroom, and they tend to be fairly engaged in classroom activity. But what I’ve been seeing and what a lot of faculty have been saying is that students aren’t doing the work outside of class at the same rates that they used to do. And one of the concerns in terms of making your classes more flexible, in some cases, you can do that really well and I do allow that with many of the assignments. But in classes where the material builds from week to week, if students start getting behind early in the semester, they’re going to be struggling a lot more later. So I have different policies depending on whether they’re producing something, some type of educational project… a podcast or something similar… as they do in some of my classes, then they can have more time. And I give them as much time as they need to do that with multiple iterations. But with other things like reading the materials online, where there’s some embedded questions, and so forth, there, I do insist that they get it done by a certain time, because then when they come into class and they’re asked clicker questions, some of which they’re graded on, they’re not going to be successful in that if they haven’t done the basic reading. And that’s where I’m seeing a lack of engagement, outside of class. I’ve had many fewer students complete the readings before class, or even weeks after they were due, they’re still not completing some of those readings. And that’s the concern that I’m having. And I have to say that I’ve also observed some of this with faculty too, that attendance at professional development workshops have been a lot lower this year than in the last couple of years. And some of it may be because of burnout after the pandemic. And I should note that on my campus, we’re also transitioning to a new learning management system. And a lot of people have been struggling with that, which takes up a lot of their time, reducing the amount of time they have to learn other new things while they’re struggling to learn the new system. But this issue of engagement does seem to be impacting the amount of learning that I’m seeing, at least in my large intro classes, I’m not seeing it so much in my upper-level classes. But I’m wondering if some of this may be because we have students who’ve spent a year or two with remote learning in schools that often had very few resources to do that, well and students may have just gotten out of practice with doing a lot of work, because in many school systems, students were just passed on to the next grade level without necessarily learning very much in many classes.

Michelle: Yeah, I’ve seen this dynamic, actually even at my upper levels as well became rather glaring the first time that we went back to an in person symposium, it was the kind of capstone experience in this class was to bring some research to the symposium. It’s a wonderful experience, but it dawned on me partway through the semester to step back and just say, “Okay, how many of you have never done a presentation like this before?” And yeah, previously, most of the class would have had some experience either in an in-person research lab that they were in, or in a methods class or something like that. It was one of those head slapping moments, at least for me, feeling, “Of course, of course they don’t know.” And I try to come at it like, “Well, this is the time to do what I probably should have always done for what was previously a small group of students. But it’s still an important group of students who are sitting in the back going, ‘Oh, my gosh, I feel lost. I don’t want to even raise my hand. I don’t know what she’s talking about with the poster or participation or even things like what to wear.’” And so I did, I went back and dusted off and created a few stopgap materials. I found some things out on the web that actually demonstrated a poster presentation that was in progress and what to do and not to do. So it can be an opportunity to do more of that transparency and kind of scaffolding and bringing everybody up. But yeah, it can be shocking to stand back and say, “Okay, who has not actually done this thing that I kind of always assumed would be the case by this level,” regardless of what that is.

Rebecca: I’ve experienced this, even with graduate students, this lack of knowledge of certain kinds of academic experiences, in part because they were learning online or not doing things in person, and now they’re in in-person classes and having any in-person experiences. So I had the same experience, Michelle, but with graduate students, and needing to really build in some transparency there that maybe didn’t need to be there before because in their undergraduate experience, they were very likely to have had a similar experience.

John: And as you said, Michelle, giving students more structure and more support is something that we probably should be doing anyway. We just finished a reading group on Viji Sathy and Kelly Hogan’s book on inclusive teaching. And that’s the message at the heart of that book: that giving students support will help all students at least some and will especially help those students who come from backgrounds that provide less preparation for success in college. So to the extent to which we as faculty all learn that lesson, that giving students more support is useful, it’ll be a better environment.

Michelle: I agree and what seems implicit in that., how you’ve put that too is, instead of like, “Oh my gosh, another thing I have to cram into the semester” …for our motivation and our engagement is to say, this is part of one of the most noble pursuits that we can have as educators, to give it that meaningful frame. So yes, a hearty I agree with that book, in particular, and their framework. And for me, that helps me kind of say, like, “Okay, yeah, this is not just an extra add on, this is what we’re here for.” And if I’m trimming back a few extra articles, or chapters, and I have done that, to some extent, in favor of being able to go more deep and into content, and be more supportive in these positive ways, I think that’s a win.

Rebecca: I think one of the things that I’ve noticed or experienced recently with students is high engagement in class, high engagement in the subject matter, but we’ve had really interesting conversations about procrastination or not doing things outside of class, largely due to a lack of confidence, or striving for perfection that doesn’t exist. And there’s a lot of that emotion around that. And so a lot of my students have talked about that, or shared that with me, which I’m grateful that they’ve shared that with me. But that’s what’s preventing them from getting started.

Michelle: Absolutely. And I think folks who follow the research on procrastination out there, it’s not as much in my specialty area, but I do think it’s fascinating. And it’s another one of these touch points between what we believe, what we feel, what we’re motivated to do, and then in turn, what we remember and what we learn. So I think that for people who are interested in this whole topic of procrastination, why does it happen? What are some really good ways to talk about it, and address it, there’s new stuff coming out. And it’s a good thing to talk about with students as well, I think years back, it was almost a taboo subject. But now from what I hear you saying, you just bring it up with students, and we can all talk about it not as like, “Oh, that’s some terrible thing that other people, bad students, are doing. This is all of us, right? [LAUGHTER] We live in a world of abundance, but also abundant distractions, and so many things competing for our time. So I like this idea of opening up that line of communication, saying, “What do we all do to tackle this when it occurs?”

John: Dan Ariely had a paper a number of years ago, where he did an experiment in class, I think it was an economics class, actually, where students wrote papers. And he and some co authors had two sections of the class, where in one section, students had three papers with fixed due dates spread evenly through the semester. And in the other section, students were able to pick their own due dates. And there was a penalty in either case of one percentage point a day for each day the work was submitted late. And what was found in that study is that the students did best who either had fixed due dates, they had higher quality papers, and higher quality work, and so forth, they wrote more, and the quality of the work was much better when they had fixed due dates, or when they chose evenly spaced due dates. From an economist’s perspective, the rational thing to do would be to put all three due dates on the last day of class, because then you could still plan to do it evenly throughout the semester, but you would have no cost of doing that. So if something came up, you could postpone it. But what happened is the people who put all their due dates at the end of the semester ended up procrastinating, turning in work later, the papers were shorter, they were lower quality, and in general, they didn’t do quite as well. So that’s one study, I often will cite to students when we talk about due dates and deadlines, and so forth. But it’s an interesting study. And I haven’t seen anything else in economics journals, at least, related to that, but I’m sure there’s more that I haven’t seen in the literature.

Michelle: Fascinating stuff from across the disciplines.

John: One of the things you talk about in your blog post is that the strategies that students use for learning are not the strategies that evidence tells us are most effective. Students tend to use strategies that provide some short-term benefit, and seem to be easier, rather than the strategies that require them to struggle a little bit more with the content. One of the things you talk about are some ways that we could encourage students to adopt strategies that may not feel quite as good in the short run, but result in more learning. How can we motivate students to use evidence-based learning strategies?

Rebecca: …motivate them to struggle? [LAUGHTER]

Michelle: Right, but that is really what we’re talking about here. And I do want to go into this… big qualification here… I don’t think that students are just out there wanting to get the best grade and for the least effort necessarily, that’s just not a narrative about students that I buy into. So, I don’t think students are trying to do low-effort strategies. But, just like the rest of us, we don’t have a very good or accurate view always, a very empirical view, of what actually pays off in terms of learning. It’s pretty rare that we sit down and actually kind of do the math and say, “Well, I did this, I systematically changed the approach in this way, and here’s the outcome.” So we don’t come at it that way. So no wonder that over time, we end up with kind of a distorted view of what actually does work. So that’s a big piece of it. And it is true at the same time that these strategies we’re talking about… well, let’s take one, for example, of blocked study. Now this is a term that I also want to unpack a little bit too, it’s not super intuitive. So this has to do with the principle of interleaving, which I always say it doesn’t always apply in all studying, but to cases where you’re learning how to apply different problem solving strategies and you have to choose from several when you’re having to categorize and learn to discriminate among categories. So that is a subset of what students are sometimes learning. And the thing is, we have this great powerful line of research that shows that actually mixing it up in an unpredictable way, the different problem types or category types, means it’s going to be a lot more memorable when you actually work through those practice problems or practice sets. And if that’s the case, the unpredictability of like, well, something’s gonna pop up categorizing different painting styles, I have no idea [LAUGHTER] if it’s going to be a Renoir or a Monet, what could be next? It’s that unpredictability. So people sometimes confuse it with just like mixing up topics or having variety, but it really refers to the systematic principle. Now, when students are offered the opportunity to structure their own study, what do you know, they tend to go with blocked study, and again, it’s not because there’s some dispositional factor, they don’t want to do their homework or something like that. Really when you look at it intuitively, it’s like an illusion, block study feels so effective. I’m going to work through all of this one painter or all of this one way of solving a statistics problem. And then I’ll go into the next and our textbooks are organized that way, too. So students have seen that, and so that’s what they fall back on. And there’s some recent work that I’ve talked about in that blog post and in a few other places, that has really studied in a very granular fashion… it’s presented students with different alternatives, like here’s a blocked study schedule. Here’s an interleaved one. We don’t use the technical terms, we show them both options, and say, “Okay, let’s pretend you have a math test coming up. Which one of these do you want to do? And why?” And yeah, students, they gravitate towards the blocked one. And they say, I perceive that this is going to be easier, first of all, and that’s fine. We want to use the most efficient strategy. So they say, this is gonna look easy and also, it feels more effective. Because I feel like, “Oh, yeah, I’ve got it.” But as we all know, sometimes that’s a false sense of security. So that’s the example as it lays out in that one case, and I think that that is a larger kind of big dynamic, that we do have to be aware of what looks easy, what feels easy, what looks effective, what feels effective. Sometimes, your brain is kind of playing tricks on you. And that becomes very serious when it is the case that things like interleaved study are more effortful, but they’re going to pay off more for the time invested. Retrieval practice, which I and a lot of other folks in the space talk about so much, that’s another that it’s gonna require a different level of effort and engagement to close my book and say, “Alright, instead of rereading this chapter, what did I actually get out of it, or maybe I can seek out a quiz.” And to me, I also think it’s not just the effort involved, and research, by the way, it’s also showing students also to look at this and go, “that looks difficult.” It also kind of emotionally, I mean, I was feeling okay about this chapter, and now, I can’t really kid myself any more. So to the extent that students might be kind of saying, “Yeah, yeah, I’ve got it, I’ve got it.” …like, we might all do this, this will kind of bust that unjustified optimism, and that doesn’t always feel great in the short term. So if that’s the case, I mean, we can set up these wonderful learning activities, and if students aren’t going to do them, then they’re not doing them or us any good or any benefit. So, that’s the case as well. And so if they have a sense of the value, and a lot of these strategies that maybe we can touch on, do have to do with exposing and revealing and convincing about the value, and finding ways to draw students into exactly those techniques. So just because these are difficult, I do want to make sure everybody doesn’t get this terrible impression of like, “Ah, studying is going to be this miserable slog, no pain, no gain,” …it’s more subtle than that. And they really do work, you really are gonna get so much more out of the time that you put in and for students who really are stretched really thin as we’ve touched on. That’s an important powerful message.

Rebecca: You mentioned a number of specific examples in your post, do oyu want to dive into some of those and share something like the snowball effect or self-determination theory, or some of your other really awesome examples?

Michelle: Oh, thank you, I appreciate that. And, after all, the big philosophy and approach matters, but let’s get down to the actual techniques. So I’ve referenced something called the “snowball effect,” and this is just my informal term, but really, the more you know, the more that you want to know. And the more that you know, because of the way memory works, the more you know about a particular domain or subject area, the easier it is to acquire new facts. And like I always throw out the example of folks we know who are just really committed to some hobby or area of interest, the sports fanatics and so on, they can run into a fact one time and boom, they’ve got it, they’ve maybe got it for life, and they don’t have to study [LAUGHTER] or do anything like that. And so there is that snowball, or rich get richer effect, just because of some factors about how memory is set up and how it works. From a very practical angle, like I ran into this really intriguing study. And it’s not one where we’ve got piles of research yet, but this really got me thinking. So they did a study where they had students through retrieval practice, learn some basic facts about an area that they picked. And they were able to systematically track that when students did learn this foundational information more solidly, then when they had the option, “Oh, would you like to know more about this subject?” …students were more likely to say yes. And that’s totally voluntary. And that’s the sort of thing that makes our hearts go pitter pat, as teachers we want students leaving and going, “Oh, my gosh, now I really want to read that next reading that Dr. Kane assigned, for example.” And like when you were talking about, students are coming into class, and we’re trying to get them into the next level of conceptual stuff and exciting things they can do, if they don’t have the facts, it’s gonna be really, really tough, so it also really points up the importance of doing that. And it also, I think, addresses one of these big myths about memory. And this is one that I’ve talked about in some of my recent workshops, and so on, and I mentioned in my last book, this big myth that if we do focus on having students concentrate on remembering foundational information, we’re going to turn them off of learning: “Oh, it’s going to be this sort of these nightmare of drills.” And, “sure, they’ll know it for the test, but they’ll walk out and they’ll never want to be engaged with the subject again. So it’s a big loss, [LAUGHTER] right?” And this is really calling that into question, saying that sometimes knowing some of these cool initial facts can start to set you down that path and then maybe someday, you will be that expert who can hear a fact one time in this area and we’ve got it. Why? Because we already know so much about it. So again, that whole Interplay there. There’s also the role of choice and autonomy. And this is one that I think a lot of really intuitive, committed, teachers really hit on early, even if they never really have some of the more formal terminology for it. So when there’s choice, not only are students more invested in what they’re doing, there’s possibly a role of curiosity here. So I talk about, in this blog post, this sham lottery study, it was one of these, where if you look at it on the face of it, you’re like, “What are they doing?” But as a psychologist, I’m like, “Ah, that’s really clever.” So basically, they had research participants going through this little pretend lottery of like, “Okay, you’re selecting out of this bucket of red balls, and so on. And what do you think it’s going to come up?” And the one twist that they put in there, is sometimes people chose which of these two little buckets, there are these little random drawings, that they were going to focus on? And then it’s like, okay, well, we can either just move on with the study, or you can see how it came out? Well, they want to know how it came out when they chose… even this incredibly arbitrary [LAUGHTER] low-stakes situation. So I think that’s also another kind of natural, emotional process, motivational process, that we can tie into… setting up curiosities or questions, but also having students say, “Well, which of these two projects do you want to do?” These days I offer options whenever I can. Would you like to write a term paper? The sort of formal paper? Or would you like to put together a slideshow that you can narrate and share? Big learning objectives are probably similar, but students can pick and I always present in practical terms, I say, “Well, if you are going to graduate school next year, and you need a writing sample for your portfolio, this is a great opportunity to do that orr if you’d like to stretch your skills with oral presentations, maybe because of the last few years, you haven’t gotten to do that as much, then you can choose this,” …but simply by having them make a choice, the research would predict that they are going to be more invested, and they’re going to be involved in these more effective things. So that’s one and oh, I’m really excited to see what’s coming out in this whole sub area of “Okay, we’ve done all the research we know that things like retrieval practice and interleaved study, all this engaged stuff. We know it works. We put it on a tip sheet, we gave it to students, nothing happened.” Uh oh.[LAUGHTER] Now what? So not just the like, “Okay, what should students be doing?” But “how do we get them to do those very things?” And, boy, if there was ever a time when we realize, yeah, my ability to just sort of exhort you and make you do things because I say so is limited, this is the time. Because I don’t get to go home with students [LAUGHTER] and say like, “Alright, that whole thing about quiz yourself. And so now you really have to do it.” So there’s this relatively new framework that’s come out too from some cognitive psychologists that I really admire, Mark McDaniels and his team. The knowledge, belief, commitment, and planning approach, KBCP. So this pulls in from some other research on intentional behavior change that’s also been perking along just all on its own for years and years. We know so much about how people set a course and decide to change their behaviors. And study skills are, after all, kind of an entrenched pattern of behavior for many students by the time they get to us. How do we go in and change it? And yeah, it’s absolutely not through my least favorite technique, which is put together a list of random tips and hope for the best. So they say, alright, knowledge is the first step. So just telling students like, “Hey, there’s all this research that shows that if you close the book and quiz yourself, you’re going to get more out of this. If you do the reading quiz that I set up for you, and do it as many times as you possibly can, that’s going to help you retain the foundational information.” I’ve told them, I’ve shared it with them, or something like interleaved study, if you’ve got different problem types, mix them up. But it doesn’t stop there. That’s only the first step. So the next step is belief. And that means changing beliefs, which means persuasion. So we kind of dust off a whole bunch of other things out of the psychologist’s toolkit. How do you persuade people? Well, you show, don’t tell. So this team proposes doing things like “Well, let’s run a head-to-head comparison, like a Pepsi Challenge, in class. Sure, your brain tells you that you learned a ton just from reviewing, but did you? Let’s try it.” And this takes some time. I mean, this is not easy. But this is one of the things they propose: commitment. So now that I’ve persuaded you that this is the way to study, now, what’s your next step? So getting your students to say, “Yeah, I actually authentically believe this. And I see how it’s going to help me and I’m going to try it.” And then of course planning. So instead of just like, “I will do this,” right? Those of us who are veterans of New Year’s resolutions of yor [LAUGHTER] know that that is not the way to go. So yeah, saying “Okay, but here’s what I’m going to actually do. So I’ve got a test coming up, I’m going to maybe set up a study schedule, instead of just cramming it all in the last minute, which is [LAUGHTER] a really good empirically grounded strategy. I’m going to find these practice quizzes, or maybe I’ll get together with a study group and do that. So here’s my plan.” And then if possible, circling back and say, “Well, did it work.?” And hey, if we’re right, then students will actually try it, they’ll say, “Wow, in less time, I knocked the top out of this test that I was really worried about.” And that is going to feed that virtuous cycle of going right back to those effective strategies. So KPCB, I love it too, because I’ve been doing something similar in the Attention Matters Project that I think I’ve talked about on some previous episodes as well, which is all about having students themselves come in and see how their attention is limited, learn about the effects of things like distraction on their learning. But we don’t stop there. We give them a few rudimentary tools as well, we say, “Okay, what is going to be your plan if things are dragging in class and your mom is texting you? That’s tough. How are you going to get through [LAUGHTER] that without then checking out of your class? What are you going to do if your neighbors are watching who knows what on their laptop or they’re texting and it’s bothering you? What is going to be your plan?” So getting students to really think ahead to those things, commit to doing them in a way that works for them, and puts that newfound knowledge into practice. So those are some of the things that I’m really experimenting with and excited about right now.

Rebecca: So in that approach, it seems really necessary to help set up a structure for students and then circle back and have a reflective piece so that maybe they will do that on their own next time.

Michelle: And there’s some exciting suggestions from research here, too. I mean, I know it’s easy sometimes as faculty, especially at the end of a long year, like this one, to say, “Ah, well, did it actually stick with them?” But there’s a couple of different projects out there that have kind of converging on this idea that once students really do see something like retrieval practice, active studying, and so on, and once they really experienced that, as part of the structure of one course, they absolutely will run with it. So they will go into the next class, whether in your discipline or not, and say, “Well, from now on, I’m actually going to have a study plan that’s set up in this particular way and I’m going to do this.” So I personally find that very, very encouraging that “Yeah, it takes some work to do this stuff, but the payoff, even if you personally don’t see it right in front of your eyes, the payoff is likely there.”

John: And so the more faculty you start doing these things too, the more likely it is that students will adopt new approaches. So spreading this more widely is helpful.

Michelle: Yes, yes, a hearty I agree to that statement. And I can test on my own campus, I’ve seen more faculty bringing in more structure, things like online reading quizzes, I have noticed that, so I guess that’s a counterpoint to the “Wow, my lived experience is telling me that there’s these issues in engagement. Maybe so, but my lived experience is also telling me that students are coming to me more ready to be proactive about their study, they need a little less persuasion to do things like reading quizzes, because they at least they’ve seen them before. So yeah, I think it absolutely can work that way you’re describing.

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

Michelle: Wow, well, these days, I’m working a lot on my substack newsletter, it’s called the R3 Newsletter. And I think this is the mechanism by which we connected on some of these new topics. So I love that it’s already starting these great dialogues. And if you haven’t seen substack at all, it’s a bit of a blogging platform. And my substack is free, some subtasks are paid, but mine is definitely free. And so, for example, if you’re interested in this topic, I would definitely tell your listeners to check out Sarah Rose Cavanagh’s substack, as well, it’s called “Once More, with Feeling” and I also want to affirm that she is and her work are really at the forefront of this whole topic of motivation and emotion and particular in learning so a great other substack to follow it and buy her book, Spark of Learning is also just an absolute modern classic in this. So I decided to get in the fray since I saw these wonderful thinkers around me also doing this. And this has been a really good platform, and a way to structure for myself something that I felt needed a refresh, which was my reading of the literature that’s coming out. So what I do is twice a month, approximately, I’ve been putting out discussions of research that I’m reading. My little heuristic is anything that was published in approximately the last year, really privileging the new stuff. And I’ve historically just seen that then when I really get into the nitty gritty of the research and what it says and what it doesn’t and parsing that for folks, especially those who may be outside of social sciences, that’s where I get the most affirmation from folks and people saying, “Yeah, this was really helpful.” So I decided to run with that. And so that’s a big project ight now. I’ve been really happy with the reception and just working on that. I’ve been writing and thinking more about this topic of motivation and cognition. So as we mentioned at the top of our conversation, it’s one that goes back to kind of my initial ponderings, thrashing around as a beginning graduate student of like, “How does this all work?” Coming back to that, and really finding new ways that I can share that with my fellow faculty. So getting the word out there. I have a few new projects that I’m working on that tie back to that attention issue. So that’s another perpetual area of interest for me. So I have a few new writing and research projects that are going on with that and kind of in the development phase. And this summer, I am going to be catching up on a stack of books, just an epic number of these great books and works that are coming out. Seems like every week, there’s a new thing that goes on that list. So I look forward to a few weeks or more to really concentrate on that.

John: And we should note this is the second podcast that has come out of things we’ve seen posted on your substack blog.

Michelle: Oh, wonderful.

John: One other thing. Sarah Rose Cavanaugh has a new book coming out that we were fortunate enough to get a draft copy of and it should be out this summer: Mind over Monsters, if you’d like to see more about this topic.

Michelle: Oh, absolutely. Alright. It’s on the stack now.

Rebecca: That pile keeps growing.

Michelle: Yes, it does.

Rebecca: Better add on another week. [LAUGHTER]

John: We could all use an extra week or summer.

Rebecca: Right? Yeah.

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

Michelle: Oh, my pleasure, you as well.

Rebecca: Thanks, Michelle.


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.


288. Mobile-Mindful Teaching and Learning

Faculty generally design courses on their computers, but many students interact with courses through mobile devices. In this episode, Christina Moore joins us to discuss the benefits of being mobile mindful in course design.

Christina is the Associate Director of the Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning at Oakland University in Rochester, Michigan. She is the author of Mobile-Mindful Teaching and Learning: Harnessing the Technology that Students Use Most, which was recently released by Stylus Publishing.

Show Notes


John: Faculty generally design courses on their computers, but many students interact with courses through mobile devices. In this episode, we discuss the benefits of being mobile mindful in 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 guest today is Christina Moore. Christina is the Associate Director of the Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning at Oakland University in Rochester, Michigan. She is the author of Mobile-Mindful Teaching and Learning: Harnessing the Technology that Students Use Most, which was recently released by Stylus Publishing. Welcome, Christina.

Christina: Thank you so much. So glad to be here.

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

Christina: I am.

Rebecca: Woohoo,what kind? [LAUGHTER]

Christina: I have to, of course. I am having honey vanilla chamomile tea. Just something refreshing and light.

Rebecca: That sounds perfect for a Friday afternoon. [LAUGHTER]

John: And I have one of my usuals, ginger peach green tea, today.

Rebecca: I just got a new shipment of my blue sapphire tea pack. So I’m back to drinking that. It’s a good spring tea.

John: And it’s all sparkly, isn’t it?

Rebecca: It’s not sparkly, it’s blue sapphire.

Christina: I never heard of sparkly tea, but I’m intrigued.

Rebecca: There is. We need to get our hands on some.

John: It was the same episode where you describe that tea. We’ve invited you here to discuss Mobile-Mindful Teaching and Learning. You note that you started writing this book on your phone? Can you tell us a little bit about the origin of this book project?

Christina: Yes. So probably the very first step is my interest in Universal Design for Learning. I find it to be a really useful framework for thinking as expansively as possible about how students can learn and how we, as instructors, can be involved. So my very first interest into mobile-mindful teaching in earnest was reading Tom Tobin and Kirsten Behling’s Reach Everyone, Teach Everyone: UDL in Higher Ed, and they have a chapter on “Meet the Mobile Learners” that was really this important call to learning with our phones and how, as educators, we’re really missing out if we’re not willing to consider the role that that could play, and I thought the argument was really convincing. So I started to do just a little bit of exploration into the topic. And that was probably in January 2020. And then a couple months later, COVID hit in earnest. It really upended our lives. I’m a mother of two young kids, and they were two and four at the time. So it was sometime in late March or early April, that we had been so cooped up, and we had used the family minivan so seldomly that we decided just to play in the car, that that would be the activity; not moving in the van anywhere, just playing in there. The kids would crawl around, listen to the radio… it was just one of those really comical moments just totally different than life in general. And it was really during those days that I was using my phone for work a lot more than I ever had before, because I just sometimes needed to keep things moving while we didn’t have childcare. I would read articles, I would take notes on how they might apply to something else I needed to write or work on that day, or it would spark an idea. And it was really at that point that I realized, it’s not just 18-, 19-, 20-year olds who want to learn on their phones, it’s really something that all of us, at least the vast majority of us, take advantage of. And during certain periods of our life, we need to lean on them more heavily. So I actually started to realize this while I’m sitting in the van, and I started writing down some notes about this experience. I was connecting back to some of the things I started to read and work on earlier. And then I sent the piece to EDUCAUSE and they were really interested in publishing it. It was a really short piece, but I was really surprised with how many people resonated with that, because mobile learning is still something that tends not to excite most instructors, it just feels like this distraction device, something people don’t want to think about, we’re already frustrated about it. But a lot of people recognize themselves, I think, in the story that I told and in some of the practical places to start. So in many ways that was sort of the seed to what would become this book, because honestly, while my interest has been in educational technology for a while, I would not have guessed, I would have written this book, but really it was the need to address something that I think we’ve been ignoring, or just haven’t been able to find a really accessible entry point to as far as a really good learning opportunity and even a good teaching opportunity for us. I was really inspired in this book to say “Okay, let’s come up with a starting point for at least considering what role mobile learning can play. And let’s start developing our curiosity and see where we go from there.

Rebecca: Can you talk a little bit about who the audience of the book is?

Christina: I really tried to make this book to the person who is excited about teaching, they really care about their students’ learning experience, even if they’re not so excited about the idea of students learning on a mobile device. And I would describe the audience that way, because I think that’s the audience that a lot of the enthusiasm around mobile learning has been missing. And we haven’t had that critical mass of instructors who are finding a good entry point in. So I would say it’s like the learner first, tech second, type of instructor who uses technology, normally, because they see it has a real benefit for students. And they may not always be comfortable with it, but they’re willing to try things as long it isn’t too overwhelming. So with that audience in mind, I really tried to take a beginner approach to tech. I explain how QR codes work, how you can create one, might even explain what the share icon is, because that’s really important for fluid learning and connecting our learning experiences. But I also allow space to dive into more course activities and possibilities that you can do with students, even if you don’t feel completely mobile tech savvy, because I’m somewhat in that boat as well. Of course, I learned a lot through this book, but I hope I did some of the learning and pre work so that faculty readers and other educators can just feel free to try things out, even if they’re not totally sure how they feel about these things.

Rebecca: Can you define what you mean by mobile learning, just to make sure that we’re all on the same page early on the conversation?

Christina: Yeah. So mobile learning, first and foremost, makes us think of learning on a smartphone, which mobile learning can sometimes mean like tablets, and even non-smartphones. But we’re normally talking about smartphones, phones that have the capability to connect to the internet, especially because increasingly, most people, most adults, have mobile phones. But I do think a little bit larger about mobile learning as well, just acknowledging the fact that we learn in motion. I think a lot of us sit in front of a computer for a lot of the work that we do. But what I try to guide us to think about is the fact that we learn and work in multiple places, with our laptop, with our phones, while we’re on a walk, while we’re on a drive. We do not stop learning or stop thinking the second that we are no longer in front of a screen officially working on things. So I also try to tease out that much larger idea of we are learners in motion and that we are learning and responding to our environments.

John: And smartphone ownership by students is close to being ubiquitous, nearly all students have a smartphone. And they normally have them with them all the time. And they use them regularly for learning. Yet there is some faculty resistance to students using smartphones in the classroom. How do you address that when faculty say “I don’t allow smartphone use in my classes?”

Christina: I think I take a balanced approach to this. So first, I acknowledge that and understand. I think even our students don’t really like how distracted they constantly feel by technology. Our institution actually just facilitated a student engagement panel with students talking about creating a collaboration around student engagement and learning with faculty. And even that was expressed by the students themselves. And that was corroborated by the research that I looked into. So, I think, and I have this mantra a lot throughout the book, which is somewhat the mindful aspect of it as “Well it’s okay, let’s acknowledge and notice that we have that skeptical feeling, but sort of suspend it and just be a bit curious.” So my first piece of advice is to talk with students directly about this issue, because our classes look different. They’re small, they’re large, they’re gen ed classes or major classes. So I think it helps to first talk with the students, maybe on the first day, if you’re discussing the course syllabus, “What should tech use look like in the class?” It can either be in class or in an anonymous form where you’re saying: “Some research has found that cell phones can be distracting not only to the person using it, but to the person next to them. How do you feel about this and your learning environment?” Then that can help at least bring them into the discussion, so that with whatever you decide, they feel like they have had some say and input, or at least some understanding of why you do what you do. That being said, I would definitely not support just a total tech ban. And that’s because, and the book does get into some of this research, there’s pretty strong indication that students are using these phones for e-texts, sometimes they are caregivers who really feel anxious if they don’t feel like they’re going to know right away if there’s an issue and they’re the primary contact. So there’s lots of evidence that by banning this technology altogether, we can do real harm to the students who really need it the most, which overwhelmingly are women, or people of color, and people with disabilities. So I wouldn’t encourage a total tech ban, a conversation with students, and really, similar to what James Lang has talked about in his book Distracted, that we don’t have to take an either/or stance, it’s not really reasonable to expect totally undivided attention. I mean, think of any faculty meeting and how many phones are even out during those. So just thinking realistically, but also maybe guiding your students, like, which point in class do you think it’s really important to put away the phones because you’re just talking to one another, and then maybe prompting students to do that. Whereas other active learning situations, you might not worry so much about the technology being used, because the activity itself is so engaging that you don’t really have to worry about that. So overall, I actually encourage us to think more about the mobile learning possibilities outside of a classroom, because I actually think that that’s where its virtues come out a lot more than it’s vices.

Rebecca: I’m really struck by the idea of this fluid learning and learning on the go. [LAUGHTER] And having learning in your pocket and work in your pocket. Your story was reminding me that just the other day, I was enjoying the nice weather, but had a lot of work to do, so I got out my mobile device and I talked through the presentation I needed to give so I could get an outline done while I was on a walk without having to be at a computer. And there’s lots of ways that we can use our devices. We talked a little bit about QR codes, and that might be one obvious way to use a mobile device in a classroom, but what are some of these other ways to use a phone that are in these other spaces that we don’t always expect?

Christina: So I think your example of being on a walk is one that I talk through, because part of the book, a fairly large section of the book is called “Start with Self.” And this is really guiding us through the basics of what it means to be a mobile learner, what are some basic skills that will help you actually become more familiar with what it is to be a mobile learner firsthand, because we’re really not used to thinking of ourselves in that way. And I like the walking to sort of get a break, but you’re still actually being very productive. And maybe you’re being more productive because you’re breaking up your thinking, your body is moving, your muscles are moving, so your brain is likely going to be better and more responsive. But I think, for most of us, we have to sort of walk through the steps of “Okay, but how do I make that happen? How do I use voice to text in order to be able to speak into the phone and have the text written out? Where do I do that? What app do I use?” And along with fluid learning, which is the idea that we design learning activities so that if we do our learning in one place, we can then access it in a useful way, in a different context, a different device, in a different situation. So it gets into that decision of am I taking my notes in a app that I can easily access when I do decide to sit back down at the computer? So I think going through those simple steps of “Okay, what buttons do I have to press? How do I find out how to do that? What tools and processes are going to work best for me?” I think is something that we have to start with, because many of us aren’t used to putting all of those pieces together. But just to use this example, again, the idea of being able to walk and learn in a productive way, is a really good example of something that’s good for our bodies that in a way actually takes us away from screens a little bit because we’re not so focused, even on the screen in front of us, we’re just using it basically as a recording device. And that’s why I do like us to think a little bit broader about mobile learning because yes, it is learning that is made possible because of phones but it is not always just us with our thumbs staring at this teeny tiny screen, but it’s also how it allows us to take pictures of things that we find so that we are actually connecting whatever we’re talking about in class to something that we are seeing in a completely different context. And if we think about the application that we make possible, how much more powerful is that learning that we’re able to take it from our environment, and then find some way to share it with our classmates, such as a shared messaging platform or a shared folder where people can put their pictures, I’ve heard really amazing examples, especially in like biology and STEM fields, where instructors are using, whether it’s something like social media or just a shared photo folder, where both the instructors are sharing photos and asking their students to identify them, sometimes on a daily basis, where also students are actively collecting samples via photos. And then they are working as a class together to label the genus or species of whatever leaf, plant, or whatever that they have identified. So I think that answer was a little bit mobile in and of itself, it might have kept going, but I think it provides some examples.

John: In the title of your book, you use mobile mindful, rather than mobile learning. Why is that distinction important?

Christina: Even stepping back to when I was thinking of mobile learning directly, I was really wanting to use my phone more productively so less mindlessly, because I was noticing I was just going to my phone to pass the time. And I was doing things I wasn’t even interested in or was consciously thinking of. So I began thinking, “Okay, how can I redirect this habit into something that is more intentional?” So that’s one reason for the use of the word mobile mindful is this idea of intention, and using our phones for the things we actually want to do rather than just for this pure distraction. But I also use the word mindful with it as a hopefully less intimidating and less techie sounding approach to it. So when I think of mobile mindful, I think of something that’s mobile aware, or mobile-ish, or it’s an adding a piece to our already existing rich ecology for learning that we create in our classroom. And just adding this as like an extra tool, an extra really powerful way to connect all of these pieces together and help our students learn more often and think about the content more often. So it’s a mindful approach to mobile learning, but also like, let’s start with mobile aware before we like go diving into mobile learning. So I contrast it with mobile first learning, which some people are doing amazing work on, which is putting in the constraint and challenge of let’s try to create a whole learning environment that can take place on a phone. That is not the approach that I take in this book. I think it’s productive for most college and university instructors to first start with, “Well, how can this be one piece and one delightful added element to all of the good work that we’re already doing?”

Rebecca: I’m curious in your role as an instructor and in a teaching center and your interactions with students, what are some of the most interesting ways you’ve seen that students have just adapted to using their phones to help with learning?

Christina: Well, I’ll answer the question, but I’ll also add something to it that I think is important for us to realize, that once we go through the learning process of being a mobile learner ourselves, there may need to be a little bit of prep work that we also do with students. Well, a lot of our students have only known the world that is mobile phone capable, it doesn’t always mean that they are ready to be mobile learners. They have definitely internalized messages that phones are bad for them, phones shouldn’t be in the classroom, even though they bring them in anyway. So there’s very much this vice type of attitude towards it. And therefore they haven’t had always a lot of opportunities to use their phones as these powerful learning devices. So I would add sort of the caveat of “Yes, students are doing amazing things and can do amazing things, but they may need to be guided into it a little bit just as much as we do.” So with that being said, I would say that some of the exciting things that students are doing and going back to QR codes, I really liked the example of audio essays that were taken to specific places. And again, QR codes have become so much easier to both use and create. You can basically create them from any browser. The QR codes in my book are purposely created for free by right clicking on any website and there’s a drop down option that says create a QR code. You can create fancier logo specific ones, but I decided to just use the default one as sort of a demonstration of the fact that they are really easy to create, and that’s how I went about it. So I think even just adding an element to maybe research presentations or things for a specific audience where you say, “Okay, how could you use a QR code to direct people to a different learning element?” And so it might be directing them to a piece of audio where you’re explaining something that is in a very specific environment. So again, thinking about learning being mobile is you are creating learning experiences that take place in very specific locations, or could take them to a form that they fill out or a petition or something like that. So I think it creates a lot of convenience and thinking about your audience and makes it a little bit more creative. And then the one other really interesting use that I cover, and I talk about the ethics of mobile phone use and inviting students to use their mobile phones. That’s actually a really good opportunity to get students to think more critically about the data being collected on them. So some faculty have done really interesting work in places like statistics, or other data analysis type of classes, and students have been invited to download the data that is collected about them on social media or on Pokemon Go, especially those that are mobile dependent, like especially Pokemon Go. It not only teaches the students a really useful content skill and applies it, but it helps them be a little bit more critical about what is actually going on behind the scenes when they don’t actively take a role in limiting data sharing about what they’re doing and where they are. So I think that type of application of getting students to think and actually dig into their own data is a really good example of what I think faculty could start to find as really exciting about mobile-mindful teaching, as they start to see that there is a lot they can have students do that really isn’t as possible in other ways.

John: You mentioned QR codes. When they first came out, they were really useful tools, but you had to dig up a specific application to scan them. Once smartphone manufacturers allowed the cameras to directly read and respond to QR codes, it became such a game changer in terms of their use. I don’t think I’ve given any presentations, either in class or at a conference in the last three or four years, except during the time when all instruction was remote, and then I was more likely to drop URLs in the chat. And it just opened up so many great possibilities for sharing resources with students, with colleagues, and so forth. I’m still amazed at the number of faculty who don’t know how to use QR codes. And I was really glad to see you had a discussion of that in the book in terms of how instructors could use those within their classes. You mentioned a little bit about the use of QR codes, but how might instructors use that in their class?

Christina: Yeah, so and just as a funny note, back to the audience, my mother is reading my book, and I asked if she’s tried any of the QR codes yet. And she said, “What’s a QR code?” [LAUGHTER] And I said, “Oh, maybe you haven’t gotten that far in the book yet.” But then I was explaining it to her. And she’s like, “Oh, it’s what’s been on all of the restaurant menus.” I was like, “Yep, those are the ones.” So I also think of like, you don’t know what a QR code is and you’ve seen it, but you haven’t connected the dots. I’m hoping that this book will connect a lot of the dots. So I will give a couple of really useful examples of an instructor intentionally using QR codes. So, I think in the spirit of Universal Design for Learning, it can be really nice to add QR codes to print handouts, because I think sometimes students do like to have print handouts because it helps them resist some of the distraction that comes with phones. They like having something tactile, but by putting a QR code on them, if they would rather consult something on a phone and take digital notes, they immediately have that option. So I think that’s something that’s fairly easy that can be done if you use print handouts, but want to be conscious of people potentially using mobile phones, or directing people intentionally to other websites by using their phones. My other favorite, which I think is also useful in other contexts, is when you want to get quick feedback from your audience, such as students, displaying a really big QR code on a projector. And then even in a really large class, they can pretty easily scan it and then they can give you some really useful feedback that you have in a digital form that can be automatically analyzed or you can quickly go through it. So I think of some of the really classic active learning strategies that we may be familiar with such as exit tickets, what you want to know from students at the end of class. It might be the muddiest point, where you want to know what students are still confused on, or one-minute papers, where you want a really quick reflection about what they’ve learned in the class. So by displaying that QR code, students can take the form there, and then you quickly have all the data. Inversely, you can also do this at the beginning of a class, if you want to ask students, either three review questions, or you want to ask them three questions that are just going to prime the pump of whatever you’re about to discuss to sort of see what they know before you’ve even covered it. While I didn’t do it with the QR code, this was one of my favorite mobile learning activities that I tried the last time that I teach. Because it was an asynchronous online course, I wanted to get a sense of students feeling like I am responding to what they’re learning and thinking. So I would start the week with a really short form and say, “This will take you five minutes, I just want to know what has your experience been doing primary research? Do you know the difference between primary and secondary research?” And then I could address that feedback directly into my instructional video. So it would create that sense of presence, even though it was an asynchronous course. And by telling them it would take them five minutes, they did it right away. So like, that’s kind of the magic of micro learning, which is, I think, one of the superpowers of mobile-mindful learning is if you can break things down into smaller chunks, students will do it. And that’s kind of the interesting course design pedagogical challenges, to figure out how to get things into smaller pieces.

Rebecca: I think one of the things that we often assume is that the students who are using their phones for learning or to complete work are more traditional aged college students. But from my experience, [LAUGHTER] it’s often adult learners who are using their phones the most, because they’re often double timing as your example in the van [LAUGHTER], or at soccer practice or during swim lessons and trying to complete a module or reading the captions on a video, or [LAUGHTER] any number of other things, getting a start on a paper or trying to edit or providing feedback to peers or something. So they’re taking it with them, and often maybe in an environment where there’s other things going on, but trying to make progress on something in the little snippets of time, those small chunks of time that might be available.

Christina: And that’s what I think is useful about thinking of this fluid learning environment is, of course, we don’t always want to be learning in that context. We want our students to think deeply, we want them to have time to really mull over ideas and work in larger chunks of time. But what I’ve come to realize is that there really is quality learning that can happen in those snippets of time, mostly by frequency. Because I think a lot of times with the way activities and courses are set up is that the students are cramming right before class, the last possible minute, to do everything they were supposed to do over the last week. And we know from experience that this does not produce quality work. And it doesn’t bring into our class, a really curious thinker who’s really been mulling over these ideas. So I think if we reframe this sort of micro learning as “How would your students think differently, if they thought about your course content four times a day, even if it was in really small snippets?” They would probably be a lot more prepared and have more interesting things to say once they do sit down with that hour to work on things. So even if we sort of dread and don’t love the idea of our students doing things while waiting in line for five minutes, or being in a waiting room for 10 minutes, I think reframing it as like this is a piece that will contribute to a longer work period. I think that’s a lot more inspiring.

Rebecca: You know, from my own experience, I get more reading done, because sometimes I have my device read to me and I can do that in the car or in other places… maybe not good for research kind of reading but good if I’m trying to get background knowledge on something or keep up with something that’s current.

Christina: Rebecca, you’re narrating and describing exactly the types of things that I want readers to notice about themselves, about how they learn, because I think we normally don’t notice these things. We just sort of do them because we’re trying to just do what we can. And what we want to get students to notice about their own learning emotion as well.

Rebecca: I mean, I’m a designer who designs for mobile devices, so I’m already sold. [LAUGHTER] But I think it’s important that we recognize how often people are using their devices already, and all the ways that we could use them that we don’t always know that we can. My students are often really surprised when I show them some of the features that are available to them on their phone that make their lives easier.

Christina: Yes. Exactly. And that’s why we have to take students along with us and pointing things out like, “Oh, do you know how to do this? Do you know that the learning management system has an app? Do you know that it will give you push notifications when I message you, so you don’t have to worry about catching up on my emails as much?” I think those little nudges like, “Oh, did you know or how do you keep notes on a phone?” I think those types of nudges and getting them in the right direction will help in your class and throughout their whole lives.

John: And you mentioned that you got started on this through a UDL approach. And smartphones enable a lot of assignments that can be done in multiple modes. Could you talk to us a little bit about how instructors might use that to give students multiple ways of demonstrating their learning?

Christina: Yeah, this reminds me of a course activity that I propose in the book. And it’s called “untethering the research presentation,” because I predominantly teach writing and rhetoric to first-year students, they’re required courses. So I think students are really used to doing slide presentations for their classes. And I think they do that because we’re comfortable with them and so it just becomes this routine thing that doesn’t have a lot of love and spirit behind them. So I think this idea of untethering the research presentation is like, let’s think of this in a little bit of a different way. If we’re not using slides, what else can you do? Is it a really engaging discussion without technology? Is it a video? Is it coming up with a social media campaign. And what I like about that idea is not only is it a more creative and authentic way to put whatever they’ve been researching into action with a real audience, but it gets them to think in a different way about how that information lives. So I think mobile learning can be a really important part of this, especially if students are thinking about who their audience is. They may determine that their audience is going to best be reached on a mobile device. So if they’re doing a video, and they determine that their audience is most likely going to look at this on a phone, how are they going to design that video accordingly? If it’s on social media, then doing something in portrait might be the best because it scrolls through better that way. So I think prompting our students to also be, depending on their field, be prepared to be mobile practitioners and how they can reach a mobile audience. Another example I use is if you are a math educator, we hear about the new math and reaching out to parents about how to guide them through that. How many of your parents are likely going to maybe be smartphone dependent, meaning that the only reliable internet they have at home is on a phone? So how are they going to use that sitting next to their child helping them with math? So I think by posing those types of ways of presenting information for a specific audience, is a good example of both inviting students to express their learning in a way that they are comfortable with and excited about and speaks to their strengths, but also getting them to think about the audience for the work that they’re doing too, and how to demonstrate that learning to an audience in a way that is relatable and accessible to them.

Rebecca: So one of the things that got me really curious about how students are using mobile devices is actually, how they might even engage in the learning management system. So we talked a little bit about having an app, but also sometimes there’s a web version that’s made responsively, and also exists on the mobile device. And what I’ve discovered often is that those are sometimes different, or the way you even get to information material is different. So that’s always something that I start talking to my students about is like, “Okay, if you’re using the app, you can do this one thing, if you use the website, you can use this other thing.” I’m mentioning this, in part, because the way that students are engaging with their materials sometimes is really different if they’re in the app of a learning management system versus the website version of it. We might have micro lessons or small activities that we’re doing on our devices, like videos and things and those experiences might be really different. I’m curious about the ways that we can help faculty become more aware of the different ways our students are using their learning management systems, even on our mobile devices.

Christina: Yeah, so that’s great. And I’m glad we’re bringing it up. I highly encourage us to regularly take mobile test drives through our materials. I think it’s a really good place to start. So pull up your syllabus on a phone, what does it look like? How easy is it to navigate how when you open up links that are there? How many clicks does it take or how many taps if we’re thinking mobile mindful? How many taps does it take for them to get to the content that they want to get to? So I think actually going through the tactile experience of going through your course materials on a phone is really insightful, because I actually hope that you’ll find things work a lot better than you expect, because I think mobile accessibility has gotten a lot better. And I think sometimes we might still be thinking in like a 2004, even 2012, realm of like, where everything just looked terrible on the phone. I think we might be surprised when we actually go through that things scale, and are more responsive than we expect. So I think that that’s a great place to start. If you use the learning management system at your institution, and you’ve never looked into whether they have an app, you can do that. Download it. You might discover things, like I mentioned sort of offhand earlier, that there are push notifications whenever you use the announcements forum, or whatever it’s called in your learning management system. So students get that right away, rather than hoping that they get into their email. So you may discover that there are certain surveys that work okay, but if you maybe used a slightly different tool, or you broke up the question in a different way, it might be even more responsive. And that might make you think, “Okay, if I actually just break this one 30-question quiz into three 10-question quizzes and open up that access so that they can take it as many times as they want, and then I tell them in class, I want you to do these, you can do them on your phone, it’ll probably only take you 10 minutes a day, I mean, then you start to think of how much they’re practicing and reviewing the material so that they don’t even have to think about it anymore, they can get right into the more complex thinking. I think even that test drive mentality of like, “Okay, let’s see how it looks,” then I can sort of guide students on what I think works well on a mobile phone and what I think doesn’t work well on a mobile phone. And then even, and this is what I was doing throughout the book, is taking screenshots that I wanted to save and show in class, okay, this is how it looks. It really helps reinforce that for students, and then going through your course texts, trying to identify what works well, on a mobile device, tell students to do that. You might also feel free to say: “This one text, it really doesn’t respond on mobile well, that’s something I would say to do on your computer, to do offline.” I think talking students through those options really gives them a lot more agency, because I think a lot of our impulse is to say, “Don’t use your phone for the course, it’s not designed that way.” But they are, for different reasons. Sometimes, they’re just going to do it that way. So if instead we can say, “Well, the discussion forums work well if you do a video post, but otherwise, if you need to cite things it might not.” So by giving them an action and plan, rather than just saying, “Don’t do it,” I think that’s gonna get us a lot farther. And I know that in doing this test drive and thinking about how we can leverage those five and ten minutes, it actually got me really excited to think about quiz design, how I get feedback from students, and even how I design my instructional videos. In the UDL mindset, I started to record my videos the same, but I would just pass them on to YouTube as well, instead of just in the learning management system, and then I would have a link that says access on YouTube. And then I would make that into a playlist. It’s not really any extra work, it’s just organizing them into one list. And then it gives students the opportunity to just keep playing through, which we probably know, as mobile consumers ourselves, is that it’s easy to get us to buy in, if it’s only a three-minute video. But then we’re like, “Okay, let’s just do one more three-minute video. And then we’ve been watching videos for a half hour very easily. So if we can use that capability for good, [LAUGHTER] I think that can be something exciting for us.

Rebecca: Christina, did you just suggest designing a learning rabbit hole? [LAUGHTER]

Christina: I sure did.[LAUGHTER]

John: We gave a workshop recently where we encouraged people if they were using videos in their class to do the embed, rather than sending students to YouTube, because that rabbit hole could often take them in directions away from the course. But if you’re directing them to a playlist with a whole series of videos, then having that rabbit hole could be very useful.

Rebecca: That’s downright sneaky.

Christina: Yeah, but let’s use the sneakiness for good. But, doing the test drive, we can also recognize where things are distracting if we tried to take them to a mobile device. And we might just be transparent about that, and for that reason, suggest that they don’t go in that direction. So it’s why it’s this mindful approach. It’s just being aware of what works well and what doesn’t, and giving our students some direction accordingly.

Rebecca: Sometimes that test drive can reveal even little details like should this open in the same window or a different window?

Christina: Mm hmm.

Rebecca: Because some tools are fine on a desktop, but as soon as you try to do it on the mobile device inside of the learning management system, it’s a nightmare.

Christina: I think that’s actually a really good example of how I think going through this thought process will reduce friction, and overall just improve the teaching design in general, because we found that with online teaching, too, is that when people began teaching online overall…I mean, as long as they did it, right, of course, and took a good approach… it actually often increased the quality of their in-person or on-ground learning as well, because it was just a different way of thinking about it. And it helped you see where there were barriers that you could take away. So I think that’s a good example of, it just helps you pay attention to the learning experience in a different way that could give you really good insight overall.

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

Christina: Well, first is, a little bit of a break. [LAUGHTER] I definitely want to talk about the book, and I will be, but I’m taking just a little bit of a pause. But during this pause, I’m actually putting together content for a blog to kind of be the “what’s next” of the book, because the book is an invitation and it’s a framework for us to get started with mobile learning. But from there, I know that there are people doing brilliant things with mobile learning, or they’re going to have lots of light bulbs that go off because of this book. So I want to continue the conversation. I didn’t want it to end with the book. So I plan on contributing content myself, but also inviting people to share their mobile learning strategies, victories, challenges, stories. So I may provide my email address so that people can feel free to contact me if they would like to contribute something. I’m gathering up goodies so that I can start to share them out into the world. And then I also want to work with faculty to research how the application of these strategies are going, because I’d like to see the evidence and put them out in more formalized ways so that we can really build and make this a practice that is more common, more accepted and really is convincing that it is what students need and provide guidance on how to do it well.

Rebecca: Well, thank you so much for the book and really thinking about introductory audience.

Christina: Thanks a lot. This was great.

John: I really enjoyed reading the book and I’m really happy we can share this with our listeners.


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.


287. COIL Virtual Exchange

Studying abroad can help students develop intercultural competency skills to prepare them for a future in an increasingly globalized environment, but many students cannot afford international travel. In this episode, Jon Rubin joins us to discuss how collaborative online international learning programs can provide rich international experiences without the cost of travel. Jon is an Associate Professor Emeritus of Film at Purchase College. His media work has been displayed at the Museum of Modern Art and the Whitney Museum in New York City. Jon is the recipient of Guggenheim, National Endowment of the Arts, Ford Foundation, and Fulbright Fellowships. He is also the founder of the SUNY Collaborative Online International Learning (or COIL) program at SUNY. He is one of the editors and contributors to The Guide to COIL Virtual Exchange: Implementing, Growing, and Sustaining Collaborative Online International Learning, which was recently released by Stylus Publishing.

Show Notes


John: Studying abroad can help students develop intercultural competency skills to prepare them for a future in an increasingly globalized environment, but many students cannot afford international travel. In this episode, we discuss how collaborative online international learning programs can provide rich international experiences without the cost of travel.


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&hellip

John: &hellipand Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer&hellip

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


Rebecca: Our guest today is Jon Rubin. Jon is an Associate Professor Emeritus of Film at Purchase College. His media work has been displayed at the Museum of Modern Art and the Whitney Museum in New York City. Jon is the recipient of Guggenheim, National Endowment of the Arts, Ford Foundation, and Fulbright Fellowships. He is also the founder of the SUNY Collaborative Online International Learning (or COIL) program at SUNY. He is one of the editors and contributors to The Guide to COIL Virtual Exchange: Implementing, Growing, and Sustaining Collaborative Online International Learning, which was recently released by Stylus Publishing. Welcome, Jon.

Jon: Thank you.

John: It’s good to see you again. Today’s teas are:&hellip Jon, are you drinking tea?

Jon: I’m actually drinking coffee, which I just brewed just in time for this interview.

John: That’s one of the favorite teas among our guests.

Rebecca: Definitely. I have an English breakfast today.

John: And I have an oolong tea.

Rebecca: Oh, nice, John. So we’ve invited you here today to discuss the development of COIL virtual exchange programs and your new book on the topic. Could you provide a definition of a COIL course for our listeners?

Jon: Well, I’ll define it really loosely. It’s a course where two professors engage each other, two professors, usually from different countries and cultures, but occasionally, just from two different perspectives and together they create a conjoined class where there are two groups of students who will later on meet spend 4, 5, 6, 7 weeks collaborating and sharing ideas.

John: How did the COIL program get started?

Jon: Well, that’s kind of a long story. I’ll tell the short part of it. But even that short part is fairly long. Well, my background, as you referenced at the beginning, was as a media artist and a filmmaker. And in a strange way, this led to my work with COIL. I was on a Fulbright in the country of Belarus over 20 years ago. And my supposed topic as a Fulbrighter was American Studies. But what I did is bring some digital video cameras, and I had my students make short videos, much like my freshman would have at Purchase college where I was teaching. And I noted that the videos that they made were remarkably different. And I don’t mean in terms of what was in front of the camera, because a landscape looked different. They simply made very, very different choices. And when I came back to the States after the Fulbright and tried to explain to my students what might have been interesting on my trip, they were generally not at all interested. So eventually, I showed them some of these short videos that my Belarusian students had made and they became very captivated. And all of a sudden wanted to know everything they could about Belarus, and I realized that my students in Belarus had communicated with my students in the US sort of unbeknownst to me, because I hadn’t planned this, and that it occurred to me that it would be interesting to then develop a dialogue, using video between my students at SUNY and students elsewhere, for example, back in Belarus. So I created over a period of time, a course called cross-cultural video production, and the structure of it was exactly that. The students would meet, although back in 2002, when we first did this meeting online was a stretch, there was no Zoom, there was very little way to actually meet synchronously back then. But they were able to communicate primarily through email and a little bit through Blackboard and agreed on a theme that they would explore together. And then what happened was one of the student teams on one side or the other would make the first scene of a video on that theme, and post it, 10 days later, the team on the other side was supposed to make the next scene of the video. And this continued for four to six scenes, depending on the different iterations I had developed. So the students were doing a strange kind of serial collaboration, a sequential collaboration, with a small amount of back channel communication, but primarily they were communicating through these videos. And it was a pretty wonderful process. It was not always happy because sometimes the students were actually competitive. In other words, it was kind of like, well, you think that’s strange, I’m going to show you something even stranger, or whatever. [LAUGHTER] They were very varied. They were all over the map, in fact. And since the US students, for the most part, had never heard of Bellarus, while the Belarusian students, of course, had heard of the US and had their own, sometimes mistaken impressions about it. These videos were really remarkable. And the course was exciting. The students were excited by it. And I sort of said, “Geez, this is a model of international collaboration. None of these students are getting on a plane. The Belarusian students probably could never afford to. This is maybe a new modality of exchange.” And I sort of then tried to find ways to propagate this model.

John: How did it grow out of your course to the larger scale SUNY program?

Jon: Well, this is again a long story to be kept short here. And it’s not even necessarily easy to answer that question, what I would do is first step back and say, to create a new program or to innovate at the university, and here I’m speaking generally, I’m not saying SUNY, is difficult. It’s something that I’ve learned, others have learned, that universities are inherently fairly conservative structures. They’re about setting standards, as are grades, etc., and degrees. And they’re a little bit hesitant to open their doors to something really new for fear that somehow, I don’t know, it won’t set the proper standard. And here I was with a model that involves a classroom in the US, in this case, it’s SUNY, actually collaborating for like half the semester with a class in another country, and their teachers and students had never been vetted, accepted, never paid tuition, nothing, they were just sort of partners in the interactivity. That, for a lot of people, was very strange. So to really get down to the nitty gritty, I sort of mounted a campaign, I guess, to do this, and my immediate peers and colleagues at Purchase college in the film program, were very supportive. But the direction this was going would have meant that they would have lost me partially or entirely, if I were to take over this new COIL Center that I had proposed. So they even were sort of against it, because they didn’t want to have to deal with their local repercussions of losing me. In the university context, you lose somebody, you might not get them even replaced. So there’s a lot of that kind of thinking. And so it was a campaign that lasted a couple of years. Ultimately, the man who was back then managing the international office at SUNY system was very, very sympathetic. And he helped turn this around by providing some direct funding at the system level. So it meant that my campus, in fact, could adjunct me. And that got rid of some of the fears of my colleagues, at least I wouldn’t just be missing in action, there would be somebody else who would be paid to take over my spot. And over a period of these couple of years, eventually, also, with the strong voice of a new provost, who arrived in the middle of this kind of conflagration, a decision was made that the SUNY COIL Center would be launched, I would be its first director. But at the outset, it was just me on three-quarter leave, and a tiny amount of money to hire a part-time student to help. So that was the format in which it launched back in 2006.

John: I think it was pretty close to the time when I first met you, when you visited our campus… you visited a number of campuses to talk about this… and you also sponsored a number of COIL conferences at your campus.

Jon: Yes, I think it was one of the good things, good ideas, although it was very difficult to pull off in the early days, because there was no staff or anything and doing a conference is a lot of work. But we began right away, in 2007, was the first COIL conference. And yeah, that was great. The first conference was almost entirely SUNY people, which is, of course appropriate, but many not from Purchase College like yourself, people coming from across the state. And this conference continued for about 11 years, and growing larger and larger and inviting people from a wider and wider range of people. The last COIL conference that I participated in was in 2017, and we had 450 attending. Whereas the first one that you attended, we had about 80 attending. So it grew. And I’d even say to this day, without getting too far afield, soon after I left SUNY, it was decided that maybe this SUNY conference was a bit too much for SUNY. And it should, in fact, become shared with other players at other campuses. And so an entity called International Virtual Exchange Conference was created. And IVEC, as it’s known, began holding comparable conferences, and SUNY kind of went out of the COIL conference business.

John: But more international partner organizations became active in it, so the whole thing has spread quite a bit since then, right?

Jon: Yeah, it’s a pretty remarkable story. Since at the outset, it was a few SUNY campuses reaching out to a few partner campuses around the world. I mean, it was successful in a way, but it was a bit of a battle all the time. For one thing, international offices on campuses… and this is not a SUNY thing, either, it’s somewhat of a US thing… they need to support themselves. And usually their institutions only offer limited funds and they actually generate funds by the international programs that they sponsor, whether it be their students studying abroad and paying them a fee, or in recruiting international students who pay a higher tuition, etc., there’s an economic piece in international education. Nothing wrong with that, but at the outset, nobody could find any economic piece to COIL. And therefore, getting international offices that were primarily dedicated to moving people out of the country or into the country to have this lived experience, it was difficult to convince people beyond a very limited engagement to support COIL at a deep level. So what was happening in those earlier years, say from 2006, to two-thousand, let’s say, 15-ish, was the COIL grew a little bit, little bit each year, rarely was any one school offering any large number of COIL courses, maybe three, maybe four, maybe five. So the number of students who was involved with this new practice was small. The good thing was that there were gradually becoming practitioners in different countries who understood the dynamics of these classrooms, which are quite unusual, although they overlap with online learning, in terms of both the software used and their, let’s say, dynamics, they were quite different because they were co-taught classrooms, and the process of the teachers engaging each other, and developing a module that they could comfortably share with both groups of students, that was quite radical. And so this was a kind of gestation period, I guess, where during this time, although the growth was slow, it was steady, and the knowledge was spreading. And more researchers began to get involved. Because people always said things such as: “Really, do students get anything out of that? or more typically, and more problematically, “Is this as good as study abroad?” which was a false question, in a sense, because nobody ever said it was as good as or better than as or anything as. It was really its own experience, it was really a separate matter. But of course, those people managing study abroad programs, felt a tad threatened by it. And in some cases, I guess I would say, looked down their nose at it, because in those days, anything online was looked down upon by many people, not all, but many. It was seen as an inferior kind of education. And so it did have these growing pains and had to prove itself, and it gradually did.

John: So people in international offices were worried about this being a substitute for their programs, but from what I’ve seen, it’s expanded the number of students who participate in international activities, particularly those students who might not be able to afford international travel, either in terms of the time or the financial costs.

Jon: Yeah, I mean, for sure it does. I don’t see any negative at all of that kind. But the problem is to do COIL requires not just the two teachers, but it requires some level of management or facilitation. Particularly, if you get past the first couple of early adopter faculty who just jump in and do it ‘cause they love it. If you want to grow it, you need somebody, usually now call a COIL coordinator, as a minimum, who actually has a job, it might not be full time, but part of their commitment is actually bringing together teachers from different schools, finding new partners, helping train teachers, so they’re comfortable working in this new modality. And that piece, which was central, had a price tag. And so as soon as you’re saying, “Well, we need a new hire,” all of a sudden, then all of the concerns of the institution come up and people say “How the heck are we going to do that? We’re going to let go of somebody else?” And you get the zero-sum game being played. And that was often really a hard piece at the outset. And in fact, I think one of the things that my position created was actually the reality on the ground that here was one person, at least, this guy Jon Rubin, who was kind of getting paid to do this. And as there were so few who are being paid to do this, that was important, then it was something that I began to focus on. In other words, the center of COIL, of course, are the teachers developing the collaboration and the students engaging each other. That’s what it’s about. But if the management piece isn’t there, then it won’t grow, and then it really will not be successful. So as the Director of the SUNY COIL center, I think I was one of the first people to focus on that piece and say, “Okay, what does an institution need to do to create a COIL program?” Not just how do you successfully do a COIL course but how do you develop a program? And I would say that this was successfully growing, but slowly. I would also say, without getting into the details, that after doing this at SUNY for 10, 11 years, I was beginning to see that things are happening in other schools, other countries. And maybe it would be interesting to help promote COIL at other institutions to find another way to help carry this work forward. So, in 2017, I retired from SUNY and began, what I wasn’t very confident, would be a consulting career. That is, I wasn’t really confident that anybody would call me up and ask for my services. Fortunately, I had one client very early on, Florida International University, who was already very enthusiastic about this, and hadn’t quite taken the big leap. And so I was fortunate, because they’re such an interesting University. So they hired me on as a consultant, right at this juncture where I really wasn’t sure it was going to happen. And then various things happened over the next years. I’m not sure which sub story to jump into next.

Rebecca: I’m sure there’s plenty of options, but we’re hoping you can talk a little bit about how the Guide to COIL Virtual Exchange got started, how did your book come to be?

Jon: This is interesting, and it was indirectly also connected to Florida International University. My colleague there, Stephanie Doscher, had developed a global learning program at FIU. And around this time, she published a book on global learning, which was an academic book, but quite successful. And she was in a conversation with her publisher, Stylus Publishing, who had recently heard about COIL and said to her, “Well, Stephanie, I think maybe it’s time for there to be a COIL book, who might be the right person to write it?” And she suggested me. And the irony was that, at this moment, and I don’t want to get into a dour story, but I was actually in a hospital bed. I had gone through a period where I had become quite sick, and it was somewhat mysterious. In fact, the illness I had, it wasn’t really clear what was going on. And I literally read this email from Stylus in my hospital bed. And I thought, “Damn, do I want to commit to writing a book while I’m lying on my back, and I don’t know whether I’m gonna get out of here?” So long story short, I wrote back and I said, “Give me three or four months, see if I’ve got my strength back, and if I feel good about it, then sure I’ll take it on.” And so indeed, I had a wonderful recovery, I was in fine shape. And by encouraging my friend Sarah Guth, who I had written a couple of chapters with, I convinced her to work on the book with me, which made me feel okay, because I’d never written a book. I’d written a few chapters, I can write, but a whole book was like, “Oh my God.” It was not something that my career had prepared me for. So we agreed. And what’s really interesting about that story is that we started to do this in late 2018. And as soon as we started to think about the book, we realized that some of the subjects that we’d like to write about, which indeed were: “How are institutions adopting this, integrating it, supporting their faculty?” …the infrastructure piece that had always been my interest, we realized there was not much research on that. There had begun to be research on student learning in COIL classes and related areas, but in terms of its integration and development, no. So we said, well, we’ve got to do research. So we spent really the first year of the project doing as large a survey as we could manage. And it wasn’t that easy, because it wasn’t commonly known who were the practitioners. That is, we knew a lot of people, but beyond that, there was absolutely no organization that listed who does COIL or virtual exchange. So, it took research to even find the people to talk to. So we did this, I’d say, rather extensive survey, it was a bit new to me, I’m not a trained researcher. So that was even a learning process for me. And we started to develop some really interesting data. We found there were only six institutions around the world, as best as we could find, that were offering 30 or more COIL courses in a year. And so our initial jumping off point was, how did it happen? Why did these six institutions, why are they more successful than others in terms of at least scope and scale? And we then started to flush out the book, and guess what, then the pandemic occurred. And so all of a sudden, we’re about, I don’t know, a quarter of the way, an eighth of the way, into writing this book, and everything changes. So we got kind of set back on our heels at first, as the whole world did. We didn’t really know what to make of it. No one did. We were all at a loss, but two things occurred. One is that a lot of people who frowned on online learning were all of a sudden forced to do online learning, because that’s all that was available. So there was a huge transition, and a great number of people, some against their will almost, others happily turning this corner finally, that became at least aware of the tools and processes for teaching online. And that had been a blocking point to COIL development, because it was a small minority of teachers who had those skills and that experience. And over the period of a couple of years, it became most teachers had that experience. The second piece being that mobility was frozen. So all the students who were able to be mobile, mind you, that’s only 5 or 6% of American university students, but nevertheless, they were either locked in place somewhere they didn’t want to be for two years, they had trouble getting back, and mobility kind of stopped. So a lot of the same international offices, who before were sort of pretending they weren’t there when I knocked on their door, were all of a sudden calling me up and calling others up and saying, “You know what, we really better learn this thing, because it’s something we can do during the pandemic. And it’s a way to keep international exchange going,” …which was actually strange for me, because did I really want to be responsive to people who are doing this only because they were forced to, in a sense, or in some cases, were actually describing it as a temporary pivot, when in fact, to me, I knew that to really do COIL well, would take a couple year commitment to really develop a program and develop training and professional development and find your partners and all the pieces of the puzzle. But nevertheless, I mostly went along with it. And so what happened was, I became a full-time consultant, I was sometimes working with six or seven schools at once, and I stopped writing the book, because I couldn’t do everything at once. Everybody’s hiding, everybody’s masked, nobody dares go out and see each other. And here I am working more than full time after I retired. It was just completely unexpected. And so just to sort of finish telling this part of the story, because it is a story, I put the book aside, mostly for a year during this time, because I couldn’t do it all. And then I said, I better get back to this book, because everybody’s asking for it. Now I have all these potential buyers of this book, all these people who need a guide, and there’s not a single guidebook out there. No one had ever written it. So I got back to work on the guide, I started telling people “No,” when they asked me to do a consulting job, and then I realized, “Oh, my God, the field has changed.” The people I was writing about two years earlier, well, they’re mostly still doing it, thank God. But there are a whole lot of newbies who are coming in the door doing this, and with a different attitude and mind than the people who had started this kind of movement. And that was mostly a good thing. But it meant that some of the research we had done, maybe wasn’t completely accurate anymore. And so still another challenge was how to really complete the writing of this book, once the pandemic experience had sort of transformed the landscape.

Rebecca: It’s interesting how the pandemic has forced many virtual or digital initiatives to mature at a very quick pace. [LAUGHTER]

Jon: Yes, definitely, not just COIL, but I think COIL was particularly well placed in a sense because it had been developed as a format far enough. So it didn’t have to be like created then, it was really a matter of being developed and extended then. But it was an issue for me through that period, and I would say up to this day, if people are doing this because it’s a pivot and because it’s a way to do something they couldn’t do anymore. What will they do when mobility returns and the pandemic recedes? Is this something that they will continue? Is this something that will change? How will this evolve over time? So at any rate, we managed to finish the book with that question totally, of course unanswered. The writing of the book was finished about a year ago, in 2022. It then took three or four months to go through the editorial process of turning it into an actual book, which came out in September of last year. And really that was, you could say the beginning of the first academic year that one might consider, although I don’t know if this is accurate, post pandemic, since that’s very arguable. Are we even post pandemic today? I don’t think so. But anyway, where people are at least trying to get their footing back on the ground, people were willing to get on an airplane, etc. And we’re beginning to move on. And so there’s some hypothesizing in the book [LAUGHTER] about the future. But I think the future that I was just talking about is only just arriving right now. And we’re just starting to see that future, which is soon to become our present. And it’s quite interesting.

Rebecca: I think it will be interesting to see how many people adopted the practice, maybe because they saw it as a pivot or a necessity, who may have been converted, [LAUGHTER] and want to continue that work moving forward. I think it’s an interesting space to be in. And we’ve seen it in some other digital spaces as well, that the adoption that was done out of necessity, has just really changed people’s perspectives on what it means to teach you what it means to collaborate and what it means to have certain kinds of experiences for students.

Jon: It’s actually been incredibly interesting, because what was also trying to happen at the same time, I don’t think it had quite the momentum earlier, was the idea of curricular internationalization, or internationalization at home. There are a number of terms, which are all speaking to a related problem, which is: very few students can study abroad. And should we only have that experience be what we call internationalization? And many people, and it wasn’t just people doing COIL or virtual exchange, were questioning that and saying, “No, no, we have to develop other practices and policies at our universities that will support that.” So what happened was a broader context than understanding, far from universal, but nevertheless, was growing. And so it provides context for COIL. COIL was often, when people started to think this way, it was sometimes a little difficult to say, “Okay, we want to internationalize our campus and the curriculum. But how do we do that? What does that mean? What’s a practice that will allow us to do it,” and COIL was so specific, that people could say, “Well, we can do COIL.” And so it kind of became the tip of the spear, a slightly aggressive [LAUGHTER] expression. But nevertheless, it was something people could grasp, they could see, they could act upon. And it could be part of, in some cases, a larger global learning program, let’s say. And that’s certainly the path that my colleague Stephanie Doscher took, she was doing global learning and then was doing COIL. And now she’s director of a COIL Center at FIU, very much like the COIL Center at SUNY, because these things are so linked. And what was really interesting is how it also expanded, and transmogrified, culturally. So let me give one example that’s really amazing to me. So in the earlier days of the SUNYi COIL center, for a number of reasons, we did a number of projects in Mexico and Latin America. And the projects we did partly came because we were able to get funding. At one point, the US Embassy in Mexico City had some funds to do something International and wasn’t sure what to do. So we kind of talked them into doing COIL, and some other opportunities came our way at a time when there was no actual funding for this, there was nobody providing funds under this name. So we did a number of projects, particularly in Mexico and Brazil, and to some extent in Colombia. But in those early days, even though we said this doesn’t all have to be in English, in fact, to do it with a US university in general, did need to at least be largely in English. So we had this, I would say asymmetrical relationship with partners in Latin America, where the students and, in many cases, the teachers were primarily Spanish speakers, working with us, some of whom spoke Spanish, but the majority didn’t. And so it was a really an unequal relationship. And it was something we talked about, we struggled with, we spoke of that it doesn’t have to be in English. And guess what happened during the pandemic, a lot of Latin American universities found each other and began doing Spanish and Portuguese language COIL, and it’s exploded in Latin America. In Latin America, I would say, best estimate, there is more COIL than anywhere else in the world. And it’s because they’ve owned it. And they do it in their own terms. The number of students in Latin America who are physically mobile, able to study abroad, is even less than in the US. And they have very much adopted ideas like internationalization at home. And by working between Chile and Mexico, or Bolivia and Uruguay or Spain, they’re doing really interesting work. And it’s become a real center for this work. Indeed, the IVEC conference that I mentioned a while ago, this year, is going to take place in Sao Paulo, Brazil. And one of the reasons is because there’s so much activity in Latin America. So I don’t know that anybody predicted this one, thinking about the future, but definitely, the movement has shifted, it has its own life. And so Latin America has become one of the centers of this work.

John: We do live in a global economy. I sat in on a class quite a few years ago with Susan Coultrap-McQuin, our former provost here, when she was teaching a COIL course. And the students were discussing their response to it and what they took away from it. And one of the things they mentioned is that they expected that, in the future, they’d be working with international partners in whatever sort of job or career they were going to have. And they saw it just as a natural part of their future lives. And one of the things that’s happened is the technology has changed to make these types of exchanges and collaborative projects so much easier than it was when you first started.

Jon: Yes, this is interesting… technology. Because I think it’s mostly, of course, to the present time, been all for the best. And you’re right. I mean, when we were first doing that video exchange with Belarus, the Belarusian students, the only way they could send their videos to us was when their university shut down in the evening at 8pm. The students would traipse into their IT office, give them, on some kind of disk, probably a CD at that point, their video. They would put it on send, and leave for the night. And by the morning, their videos would reach the US because it would take hours for each video to get sent bit by bit. So that’s an extreme case. Now we’re used to YouTube and streaming video. So it’s mostly for the best on almost every level. But I think there are a couple things that are issues. So one is, and I’m not the first to bring this one up, Zoom fatigue. That there is the issue of people having spent a lot of time in this modality and to some extent wishing to be where they could hug the person they’re talking to, having their physical closeness be available to them. So I think this is an issue. I don’t think it’s in any way in the way of virtual exchange and COIL. By the way, you asked me at the very beginning, what is COIL, let me just do a slight definition here, rather late in this podcast, because these are the two terms that people are primarily using now: virtual exchange and COIL. And so I’ll just say for myself, and I think many are taking this up, virtual exchange is the broader term, it means kind of any educational sharing primarily between youth, that takes place using this kind of online format. Whereas COIL is a more specific model that has particularly to do usually with universities, and with these conjoined classrooms where the students’ work is actually been done for credit, and where this central collaborative project is part of the deal. That’s why in the book, I call it COIL virtual exchange, because it’s to me, like basketball is a sport, so virtual exchange is like the word sport, COIL is like the word basketball. That’s the relationship they kind of have. And you can train and study for basketball, you can become better fit, maybe, for sports, but you can’t quite train for sports. So I think that’s a difference that holds. So at any rate, one of the issues going forward, one of the many questions, is this issue of spending too much time online going to negatively affect the future of this work? I don’t think it will, by itself. I think there’s enough dynamics to working in these collaborative groups, it’s exciting. That’s not going to go away, it’s different than talking to your sister on Zoom, because you haven’t seen her for a year, because of the COVID thing. It’s a different project than a lot of our use of it. But, in fact, real mobility is returning. And so I think there is a bit of tension, the tension that I described, that existed prior to the pandemic. And there’s some of that back. But many are also seeing, as you mentioned, John, earlier, that COIL also can be very motivating. So people do COIL, and then they say, “Damn, I’d like to study abroad.” Whereas before, it never even occurred to them that this was an option, either for one reason or another. So I think for a lot of people, they’re now connecting the dots. And they’re seeing these as two things that support each other. But in terms of technology, I just want to bring up a point, this has really been on my mind lately. So this is sort of getting to my current thoughts.These are kind of concerns, I would sa,y about the future, which otherwise I think is bright for this work. One of the issues with doing COIL or any intensive online engagement is the risk of what I call disembodiment, that is that we’re functioning intellectually and visually, but our physical bodies are sort of left out. And that’s okay. I mean, a lot of things we do are like that. But I think there is a risk, a general risk, that we don’t sense each other’s presence the same way online. And that’s why it’s so important in COIL courses for students to explore where they live, how they live, to look at things in their lived environment, food, etc. They really need to bring the lived life into the course even if the course is not about cooking. It’s very important to get this physical presence and sense of each other. It’s something to work for, but what’s happening now, and this is an audio only exchange. So there’s no way we can verify this on this podcast, but that very many people use digital backgrounds. And the reason is that where they’re sitting in their Zoom is a mess. And they’d rather not display their mess. So they create a digital background. Well, that’s fairly innocuous, but it does mean that that person is talking to you from something that isn’t a room any longer. It’s a creation, which could be anywhere. There’s nothing terrible about this, but I feel this begins to add to the disembodiment. You’re then seeing a kind of head or head and shoulders that isn’t in a real room, but is in a virtual space that doesn’t really have much character. And now I want to make the leap into the future, the paranoid future, maybe. And it’s a topic that we’re all talking about too much, but I just going to try to connect it to COIL. So it’s AI, this is the topic of the month, whatever, everybody’s talking about AI and they’re talking about from many different angles. But what is beginning to happen through AI, and it’s not, I think, the main venue of our conversation, generally, is that AI added to other tools, graphic tools, visual tools, can actually change the way we look. And I have a concern, I was in a Tik Tok exchange with somebody and they demonstrated to me something called teenage look, which is not available on Zoom, it’s still being played within Tik Tok land, and it’s very scary. Teenage look literally scans you and makes you look approximately 20 years old. And it does it so well that it’s stuck to you. So you talk, you stand up, you turn around, you’re 20 years old at all moments. It’s not like an avatar, where there’s some kind of goofy little figure that represents you in some bad 3D world. This looks like you, except young. And I don’t know what it does if you’re already very young, I haven’t explored it that far. So my concern is, and I realized this is going down a very small rabbit hole, but I think it’s not irrelevant. What if we’re in a world in a couple years, where the people we talk to in Zoom are in a completely illusionary background, and the face we’re looking at is not them either. And yet, we cannot tell. We cannot tell that this is a facsimile. If we reach that kind of point, I do have concerns that this model of COIL virtual exchange could be undermined, just as a lot of our reality and truth is being undermined by lies and fictions that are being proposed as reality. And I think it’s an interesting moment at any rate.

John: But instructors could still address some of those concerns by bringing in aspects of culture that would not be faked into the assignments or the interactions that students are doing. So in a world in which we do have that fake reality for any synchronous interactions, I think there still could be a lot of benefits from the cultural exchange, as long as that remains a substantial focus of the courses.

Jon: Yes, there are a lot of creative ways that this could be utilized. So I’m not trying to blanket speak from the negative. There have been tools before, what was that tool? Second Life? …where people were existing, in a much cruder, three dimensional space. And some people took great advantage of it and did some really interesting things. So I think if you have enough of a grasp, and you’re doing it very consciously, it could be very interesting. Sometimes I’m beginning to feel that unless I can go up and touch somebody, I don’t know if they’re real. And I’m just saying, in the future, that I think some of the great advances we’re making with technology may be setting traps for us at the same time. And so we’ll have to be that much more ingenious, to keep the real and the unreal. And I think there are other issues around virtual exchange, some of which are more promising. One I’ll just throw out, which is beginning to be taken up in a small way. When I first started doing COIL, I actually had a conversation with the same man up at SUNY, who helped get this thing going. And I said, it’s interesting, because I think what we’re doing is partially about diversity, and being with and meeting with people who are different than us. Shouldn’t we talk to people who are beginning to start diversity programs, back then this was a, let’s say, much less advanced element of the university than it has become. And my colleague said, “Oh, no, we can’t do that, because then we’ll be competing with them and maybe horning in on their territory.” And so it was like international and diversity were, because of funding, partially, seen as competitors for cash to run their offices, which is, again, the problematics of university life. But that always stayed with me. And I think I’ve seen a few examples, and I’ve tried to promote when I do a consultation, that you don’t have to do a COIL with somebody in another country. You can do a COIL with somebody in another state. You can do a COIL with somebody in another town. You can do COIL with somebody three miles away, that’s living a really different life than you are because rural and urban are so different in our country. The idea of bringing difference together through this channel, I think, has a lot of potential beyond the international. And I hope that gets developed, it’s a little bit of a question of international has defined itself as an element of higher education. And to some extent, I don’t know if it will want to back up and say, “Well, what we’re doing applies locally too.” I think some see that and some don’t. So, I don’t know, this is to me the sort of new world of COIL, which is edging into some plus some minus, but it’s generally growing. And just one other thing I have to put a plug in for, because it’s important, I think, to the field, and certainly where my energy has been lately. As I was doing this consulting work I was speaking about earlier, the first thing that would come up if I was, let’s say, engaged by an institution that was very new to this was “Well, with whom can we do this?” Now, of course, there we are just talking international again, so I’m backpedaling a little bit. And I realized that there was no place really where you could find who else was doing this. Now, certainly, the SUNY COIL Center had a global, and has still, a global partner network. And so there was a way through, if you’re at SUNY, where you could reach out to partners. There was a structure in place, but there wasn’t anything like this for a small community college in British Columbia to know where to go. They had no place. So I got this idea and worked with some colleagues and a programmer. And we started to build this website, which at the initial stages, it’s called COIL Connect for virtual exchange, it’s just coilconnect.org, if you want to find it. The purpose was to just create a directory of COILing institutions, so that you could go to this website and look around and say, “Oh, here’s somebody in Turkey that’s doing this. Here’s somebody in New York that’s doing this.” It was just to be a directory, but the website has grown, and we’ve added partnering tools to the website, and a number of other features. So it’s become a pretty interesting hub. There are now 260 universities that are members from something like 40 countries. There are something like 1500 individual members, I think it’s grown so fast, partly because it’s free. So it makes it easy, which also might make the longevity of the site a little questionable. We’re trying to figure that one out right now. We grew so quickly, with so little funding that we need to find some way to bring in some funding to keep it growing. But anyway, at the moment, I think it’s an interesting place to visit. If you happen to be hearing this podcast, and curious who the heck is doing this stuff this guy’s talking about, you can go there, and you’ll see a lot of data. The site is primarily user created. That is, the site opens the doors to individuals to indicate what they’re doing and to share it with the world. And so there’s a lot of data, a lot of courses, a lot of institutions, a lot of individuals sharing what they’re doing in this field. So I invite you all to come visit the site when you have a chance.

John: And we’ll include a link to that in the show notes for this episode, so that people can just click on the link and go there. Would you recommend that institutions that are thinking of building a COIL program or creating a COIL program should perhaps pick up a copy of your book? And maybe take a look at the site?

Jon: Yes, of course. Yeah, it is still the only real guide. There are now some other books coming out, I think. But I think both of those would be helpful to doing this, and engage with other people who are doing this, especially who are doing it successfully. There’s a lot to learn about how to develop and manage a COIL initiative or project. And it takes a little learning, a little training, and there are now a lot of people out there doing that. Indeed, on the COIL Connect site, there’s a small area that we’re growing called organizations that support COIL. And if you go to that particular menu item, you can find about a dozen organizations that will provide professional development and other support for new initiatives, which is, I think, a key piece when you’re trying to get something rolling. And yeah, buy the book, for sure.

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

Jon: Well, I think I kind of jumped ahead of you here, because I was sort of doing a bit of “what next” already. I think. So I am not sure beyond the things that I’ve said. For me, what’s next is actually trying to be a little more retired. I mean, I supposedly retired almost six years ago now. And yet, I’ve been probably just about as busy as I was when I was at SUNY, and trying to find that balance is not easy. I’m a slightly compulsive person. I’m still involved, obviously, with this COIL thing. I’m trying to step back very, very slowly, but it’s hard. And I love kayaking and bicycling, and so I’m trying to do more kayaking and bicycling, but right now in March in Brooklyn, neither of those [LAUGHTER] are ideal endeavors. So sometimes I try to escape to places that are warmer, so where I can do that. So I don’t know. That’s not really what you’re asking, but that’s gonna have to be my answer for now.

Rebecca: I think it’s a good answer. I hope that you’re able to really embrace the authentic retired experience soon. [LAUGHTER]

Jon: Whatever that is… it’s definitely trying to find a balance and people talk about this. I’m finally enmeshed in this point in life where I don’t want to give up the work I’m doing entirely. I’m not going to. But yeah, once I put my toe in pretty soon I’m swimming and that’s the problem.

John: You’re benefiting a lot of people and as long as you enjoy doing it, we’re awfully grateful that you are.

Rebecca: Yeah, we’re glad that that’s part of your retirement plan.

Jon: And thank you for inviting me to this podcast.


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.


286. Grading for Growth

Traditional grading systems provide incentives for students to focus on maximizing their grades, rather than their learning. In this episode, David Clark and Robert Talbert join us to discuss alternative grading systems that encourage students to recognize that learning from mistakes is a normal part of the learning process.

Robert is a Professor of Mathematics at Grand Valley State University and the author of Flipped Learning: A Guide for Higher Education Faculty. David is an Associate Professor of Mathematics, also at Grand Valley State University. Robert and David are co-authors of Grading for Growth: A Guide to Alternative Grading Practices that Promote Authentic Learning and Student Engagement in Higher Education, which will be published this summer by Stylus Publishing.

Show Notes

  • Talbert, R. (2017). Flipped learning: A guide for higher education faculty. Stylus Publishing, LLC.
  • Talbert, Robert and David Clark (2023, forthcoming). Grading for Growth: A Guide to Alternative Grading Practices that Promote Authentic Learning and Student Engagement in Higher Education, Stylus Publishing.
  • Nilson, L. B. (2015). Specifications grading: Restoring rigor, motivating students, and saving faculty time. Stylus Publishing, LLC.
  • Grading for Growth blog
  • Robert Talbert’s other blog


John: Traditional grading systems provide incentives for students to focus on maximizing their grades, rather than their learning. In this episode, we discuss alternative grading systems that encourage students to recognize that learning from mistakes is a normal part of the learning process.


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

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

John: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer…

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


Rebecca: Our guests today are Robert Talbert and David Clark. Robert is a Professor of Mathematics at Grand Valley State University and the author of Flipped Learning: A Guide for Higher Education Faculty. David is an Associate Professor of Mathematics, also at Grand Valley State University. Robert and David are co-authors of Grading for Growth: A Guide to Alternative Grading Practices that Promote Authentic Learning and Student Engagement in Higher Education, which will be published later this year by Stylus Publishing. Welcome, Robert. And David.

David: Good to be here.

Robert: Thanks for having us.

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

David: I am.

Robert: I am drinking tea. I’m more of a coffee guy normally, but I figured for the occasion I would bust the tea out.

John: What type of tea are you drinking?

David: I have, because its afternoon, a really lovely almost white jasmine right here.

Rebecca: Nice.

David: …really delicate and anybody who cares about tea is going to be horrified that I sweetened it with honey,

Rebecca: But it is in a really nice polka dotted mug. It is a lovely mug. Thanks.

Robert: And I have cheap stuff from the grocery store, because that’s my brand. This is a Bengal Spice by Celestial Seasoning, and my wife and I are addicted to this tea. We drink probably four or five cups a day of it, though to be honest when it’s cold out, but it usually is [LAUGHTER] here in Michigan.

Rebecca: And I have Jasmine dragon pearls today.

David: Oh, nice choice. Both Jasmine.

John: And I have spring cherry green tea. It’s a very cold wintry day here as we approach spring in upstate New York. We’re recording this a bit before it’ll be released, so by the time you hear this, we should be having the beginning of spring both here and Michigan, I’m hoping.

David: We hope, yeah..

Rebecca: Your tea choice is definitely a big wish for spring. [LAUGHTER] So we’ve invited you here today to discuss Grading for Growth. Can you talk a little bit about how this book came to be?

David: I don’t remember, Robert, if we were in person, or on a Zoom call or something, but I remember you saying at some point, I got a phrase for you: academic book about alternative grading. And I said, “You know, I need a project for my sabbatical.” And then I think it just happened from there [LAUGHTER], and so…

Robert: Yeah, we were in person, David. David and I, we’re not on the same hallway, we’re kind of on opposite arms of a T-shaped hallway. And so we run into each other, sometimes literally, at the intersection of these two hallways, and that happened one day. It was pre-pandemic, I guess. And it was just like, “Hey, Dave, I have this idea, Somebody should write a book about alternative grading. Because David and I have been using various forms of alternative grading in our classes for a while. And he was like, “Yeah,” and that was it. [LAUGHTER] But I think we were also tapping into some stuff that we have been hearing and around our Math Department and elsewhere, our colleagues outside of Grand Valley that started growing even three years ago, just a growing interest or dissatisfaction with the way grading is working. And we’ve been trying some stuff and thought, don’t you know, the best way to make change is to just get your ideas out there. And so this seems like the right place, right time for us.

John: So what types of alternative grading systems do you discuss in this book?

David: A pretty wide variety. And actually, something I’ll say, I think, both Robert and I tend to try to avoid labels too much for these, like there’s useful names to describe different approaches. But we do things like standards-based grading, specifications grading, ungrading, standards-based assessment. standards-based testing, but we look at a really wide variety of alternative grading approaches. And we’ve actually tried to come up with a framework that sort of describes what their common elements are, so that we don’t have to worry as much about names as what the useful features of them are. We found that people can really get locked into an idea of what, for example, upgrading means, and it’s not always a super useful thing to argue about with them.

Robert: Yeah, I would echo that too. Being mathematicians, Dave and I are both really into abstraction and so we look at these specific things that we see, but we’re more interested in the big, general overarching unification principles like what are all these models that are all good, and all applicable, in different places, to different levels of success, and what do they all have in common? And we do discuss ungrading, we do discuss specifications grading, standards-based grading, and a whole lot of approaches that are kind of in the in-between interstitial space, mostly through other people’s stories. I think the heart of this book and David’s real amazing contribution, what you really spend your sabbatical doing, Dave, was interviewing dozens and dozens and dozens of actual real life frontline professors, nobody is in one camp exclusively, everybody’s using some kind of combination, some kind of mix of all these different ideas. And so I think, to me, what the real contribution that our book makes is showing how different things can look, you can start from these basic building blocks, but real people with all kinds of different classes and life situations and professional situations are making this work by listening to their students and adapting appropriately.

David: I can’t emphasize enough how much variety there is in the people we’ve interviewed and the disciplines that they’re in, the types of classes they’re teaching, like it was an amazing thing to talk with all these people and see, okay, they’re able to use different types of alternative grading but absolutely across the board: in labs, in huge classes and tiny classes, and upper-level classes, and absolute freshman-level intro classes. And so it’s been just fantastic to hear how everyone’s doing this and try to put it together into something that could work for anyone, that everyone will find something useful.

Robert: Yeah, no two of them are alike either. And what’s even more amazing to me is that we had to cut a lot of those case studies. And we almost have enough material for a second book just for the case studies. We’re going to keep it on the blog, I think, unless Stylus wants us to do it. But, I mean, there was a lot out there that we don’t talk about in the book. So there’s more where that stuff comes from.

Rebecca: You mentioned that these alternative methods have some common themes or common threads. And maybe it would be helpful to talk about those common threads in relationship to the problems with traditional grading that lead people to these other alternative methods. Can you talk a little bit about that?

Robert: Well, I think one of the places that you begin to see some of the shortcomings of traditional grading is just looking at the history of where traditional grading came from. And it’s sort of a weird and checkered, and very short, history. Many of your listeners might be surprised to know that the current system of points based A-B-C-D-E-F, 4.0 GPA type of grading system is only about 100 years old. It’s a relatively recent innovation in higher education. Higher education, formally, is about 1000 years old. 1088 was the first university and the first readily identifiable grading system that we know of now is like 1890s. So it showed up very, very late to the party. And immediately it was co-opted by Industrial Revolution era approaches to teaching and learning which treated students more or less as subjects. The word “grading” really comes from agriculture, when it comes to like grading Grade A beef and grading grain and flour and that kind of thing. And pretty soon it became entrenched. And we have a situation now where when you look at where grading has led us, it’s highly questionable whether grades really do what we want them to do. And it seems almost certain that they do some things that we don’t want them to do. They lead to issues with ranking and sorting students, pitting students against each other. It’s not clear to me that the statistical validity of points-based grading is even well established. I mean, we put points on things, but they’re not really numerical data in any sense. Computing an average of points across a system of exams does not necessarily tell you how much a student knows. And that, to me, in my view, is the fundamental issue that I have with traditional grading, why I moved away from it. I just didn’t feel like the data was telling me anything.

David: I’d like to jump in on that one, in particular. A thought experiment that I think is really helpful for anybody to do is, let’s say you give a big exam, and a student takes it and they get 60%. So, most systems, that’s basically failing. What does that 60% tell you? What did they know? What don’t they know? Why did they do that poorly? Did they actually do poorly? Do they know 60% of the things that you’ve covered on that exam really well, and the other 40% not at all? Do they have a mediocre level of understanding of everything? Maybe they understand absolutely everything great, and they had a terrible day, and they had to get the kids to Grandma’s house or their work had to keep them late. Maybe they’re sick. All those things are wrapped up together, in that 60% and you just don’t know what it means. And then to add to that, if that student learns, and they really show great effort, and they can tell you later on, “Hey, I’ve got all this stuff, and let me show you how, maybe on like a cumulative final, that 60% is still averaged in and it’s going to permanently weigh them down and their final grade won’t represent what they actually came to know.

Robert: Right. And so grading really cuts against the very process that humans engage in when they learn anything. When I’m learning how to play a song on my bass guitar, and I play it once and I do terribly at it, if I eventually learn how to play it, people should not be looking back at the first time I tried it, [LAUGHTER] they should be looking at the last time I tried or the maybe the best time I tried it. That’s not how recording artists record. It’s not how athletes are ranked, and so forth. And it’s all because of this sort of Industrial Revolution era routes where we have everything measured and sorted out and put together and it inhibits growth. It sort of poisons our relationship with students, it leads to all these extrinsic goals that students now have. Rather than focusing on learning and growth, students get the idea that it’s wrong to fail at things the first time, whereas it’s actually normal to fail at things the first time and then grow from it. And I guess that’s where the name of our book came from, I forget where that phrase “Grading for Growth” popped up. It was way before we were asked for a title for our book. But it’s like that’s what we really want. We want to have a system, even if we must call it grading, we want it to be a system evaluating student work that focuses on and encourages growth as you are learning because that’s one of the great things about being human is that we do grow and we do learn from our mistakes. So where is it in our assessment systems? That’s kind of the fundamental question we’re asking.

David: So it might be helpful if we talk a little bit about this four pillars framework that we have in terms of where we go with that. We kind of spent a while trashing traditional grading here, and I could do that all day. So what did you do instead? What are the things you want to do instead of these things you don’t? And so from my point of view, the most important thing I want to know out of a grade is what does the student actually know? What do they learn? And so, as I said, we have this four pillars model, we talked about four pillars that any good rating system should have and one of those is really a clearly defined description of what it is you’re assessing. So we call it clearly defined standards. I don’t want to catch on to the name standards too much there, but a description of what it is you’re assessing and what it is that matters in that assessment. So how do you know that the student has achieved it? And what is it that the student has achieved? So in that way, that takes care of this issue of what does that 60% mean? 60% of what? And if you’re grading based on a specific thing that you’re testing a student about, then you can say, okay, maybe they’re achieved that or they have not achieved that specific goal. And then we try to incorporate in our other pillars, this idea of feedback loops. So humans work on feedback, they work on trying things multiple times, they work on trying and failing, and having to come back again, and that it should be the ultimate level of what they know, that really matters. So focusing on feedback, rather than focusing on numerical rates. So focusing heavily on feedback, on what’s happened, and how that relates to the standards or the specifications, or whatever the description is that they were trying to reach, and then making that feedback actionable so the student has a chance to actually act on that, and either through a new attempt show that they’ve got that idea, or through revising previous work, show that they come to understand it in a way that counts fully, so that they’re not penalized for needing multiple attempts, just like Robert was talking about with his bass, we’re not going to look at well, the first time you tried, it didn’t work out, too bad. We want to know, ultimately, where were they, so we shouldn’t penalize multiple attempts at understanding something. And finally, it feels like a technical thing, but it’s actually a really big move, moving away from points or percentages and instead, if you’re gonna put a grade on work at all, to make that grade something that’s sort of a descriptor of the feedback, something that basically says, you’ve met this standard or you’ve met these requirements or you haven’t and gives the students an idea of where to go next: you need to revise this, you should try this again, you’ve made it, something like that.

John: I know you’ve experimented with a variety of alternative grading systems. Could you talk a little bit about how you view some alternative grading systems in your own classes?

Robert: Sure, I’ll jump in on that. So around 2017, I described this in the book in my origin story where I came from with this. I had just taught a calculus class and I had just a terrible experience with grades. One student in particular, a fantastic student, she was the epitome of what we’re discussing here. She was on a 10 day delay from the rest of the class and after those 10 days were up, she’d be at the top of the class, but the exam is today, and so her exam scores just went down, down, down, down, down. It was just an awful way for a student to experience my subject. And so I started casting about and I read this book that had just come out by Linda Nilson, who is a legend in the area of professional development, and my former boss at Vanderbilt University. And it’s called specifications grading, and I said “What is specifications grading?” So I read this book, and I was converted on the spot. And I’ve been using specifications grading in almost all of my classes, except for one instance of ungrading last year, ever since. And so, I’m in various forms, and always tweaking, always experimenting, and trying to change things up. But, specifications grading is exactly along the lines of these four pillars that David is mentioning. There are clear content standards that we call specifications. The idea is not to give like points, but marks, to use a sort of a non-American term for those, marks that indicate progress, like you’ve met the standard, that’s what you get instead of a 10. Or you’re progressing, that’s what you get instead of a five, and giving lots of helpful feedback and especially letting students retry things without penalizing them for retry. To me, that’s like the thing that drives the loops. That’s been my main sort of area ever since for the last several years,

David: I’ve used a pretty wide variety of different alternatives. It’s come to the point for me where I think about all these different types of alternative grading systems that have names like standards-based grading, or specifications, or ungrading as elements to put in and they may be appropriate in some classes and not in others, depending on a whole bunch of factors. For example, I’ve taught intro level classes where I use a lot of standards-based grading where that means I’ve sort of divided up the topics into fairly fine-grained standards describing what a specific skill is, and what it would look like for a student to achieve it. And then the grade is essentially based on have they shown me that they thoroughly understand that, they can do the thing described in each of these standards and grades are based on meeting or not meeting those standards. And that can look like pretty traditional assessments, quizzes or exams or homework or such things. But instead of getting an overall grade, they get a mark, like Robert was talking about, for each standard. Yup, you’ve achieved this. Nope, you haven’t yet. Maybe they need to do it a few times. But that’s one element. It’s really useful for sort of discrete skills, intro level things. I’ve used specifications in a similar way that Robert is talking about. One of the strengths of specifications is that you sort of look at a student’s work holistically and say, “Have they overall shown me they can put these ideas together, understand the concepts, use all the different things that I think matter within this assignment,” and that works really well on written work… We’re mathematicians where students write proofs, it’s a detailed explanations of why something’s true, or in a project or in a portfolio or something longer than that. It’s really useful, maybe in upper-level classes or in places where I want students to show synthesis. And I’ve gotten pretty deeply into ungrading, or at least as I use the word ungrading, meaning removing grades entirely, even marks, in the way we’ve been talking about as another element that can be useful either in an entire class or just as individual things to do within some assignment. So I’ve covered a lot of this, I continue to push on what’s most appropriate in different classroom situations and different student situations.

John: I’ve tried some of the same things too. But one concern from a lot of faculty who have tried mastery grading systems or mastery quizzing and those types of things, is that it can put a lot more work on the instructor to do the grading on multiple attempts. In Linda Nilsen book, she suggests giving students a certain number of attempts, but limiting those. How do you keep the work manageable so that you’re not spending all of your time grading additional attempts, as students are working towards mastery.

David: Yeah, the thing you mentioned from Linda Nilson’s book, attempts without penalty doesn’t mean attempts without limits, and that is really important. And yeah, limits like that are one way to do it. There can be limits on number of attempts, or on frequency of re-attempting something or revising something once per week, once total, something like that. Those sorts of limits can just be really useful. And I know, I always encourage new instructors or people just starting to use these systems to start out limited, and then add flexibility because that way, they will be able to do it if they need to, and not do it if they don’t want to.

Robert: Yeah, you know, another thing too is, not just in the reassessments, but in your overall design of your course, including the grading system, you got to keep things as simple as humanly possible. This is something David and I just hammer home constantly, like every other paragraph ends with keep it simple, because people who want to mess around with grading systems are people who like tinkering with systems, and I am one of those people, and I know that when you start tinkering, it’s very hard to stop. And you end up with this massive Rube Goldberg like device that is your class and to you, it looks beautiful, but when you face it towards students… I mean, the first time I did specs breeding, I had 68 learning objectives that students had to meet throughout the semester and it was a nightmare. At the first of the semester, I thought, I’m a genius. I mean, look at this beautiful grading system I’ve devised. It’s going to revolutionize everything. And the only thing it did was give me a grading jail for four months. Just keep it as simple as humanly possible, and you’ve got to cut the work off at the source, I think. David and I wrote a book about grading, but we don’t like grading. I mean, nobody really likes the process of it. But it can be made at least a fulfilling undertaking if you are orienting it towards growth. But you still don’t want to be doing it 8-10 hours a day. So keep things as simple as humanly possible and put some limits on that. It’s okay to create a little bit of scarcity when it comes to the reattempt side of things. The feedback needs to be helpful that you give to students, but it doesn’t have to be incredibly lengthy. It might just be a couple of sentences, it might just be: “You did this really well, and this needs work.” …to kind of keep it right to the point, and then that helps the students who are on the other end of this too also experiencing a workflow possibly overload. And I worry more about them than I worry about myself. And so this makes it more likely they’re going to read your feedback if it’s shorter, more concise, and it makes it shorter to give.

David: Yeah, I want to emphasize that it can be a lot of work for students as well. Something that I suggest a lot is, if you want to use a system that emphasizes these pillars, especially reattempts without penalty, you’ve got to then think about those re-attempts as part of the regular workload of your class. Really what it means is you’ve got to think about the process of learning, that whole process, is part of the time that students are going to have to invest into it, and that you need to value that in your timeline for the class. So I like to think of maybe if you expect a student to work, however many hours per week on your class, account for whatever time each assessment takes, add another half for how much they might need to do revising or reassessing or reworking on things. And that can lead to really difficult decisions. You’ve got to cut stuff out if that’s going to happen. I don’t know, basically, anybody who looks at a classroom teaching and says, you know, there’s not enough in here. And so you got to make those difficult decisions, but it is worth it. Because what comes out of it is a student knowing things that are still in there way better than they would have otherwise.

Rebecca: I think one other barrier that faculty sometimes face is learning management systems, and how they guide you towards particular kinds of grading systems and evaluation systems. I wonder if you can share some tips that you have from your own experience of dealing with a learning management system to help you and your process rather than getting in the way of implementing some of these techniques.

Robert: We’re a Blackboard campus, and we’re making a transition right now and I’m honestly not sure how the new system handles those. But in at least the next to most recent version of Blackboard there was a thing called a schema, which is basically a way of going into your gradebook and defining a way to map number inputs to text outputs. And so I can set an assignment up to be graded on zero or one point. And then I can only enter in zero or one. But I could tell Blackboard if I enter in a one put “meets expectations” in the gradebook, and if I’ve put a zero put “does not meet expectations” or a happy face emoji and a frowny face emoji or whatever I feel like doing. And I have zero experience with any other learning management systems over the last 15 years, so I can’t really speak to that. But I know that many memory management systems allow you to customize the way that your numerical inputs present themselves in the students’ gradebook. And if you can find out how to do that, that’s the way to go, as far as I’m concerned.

David: And even if you can’t, the thing Robert mentioned, that essentially everything is a zero or a one, these systems all want to use points. So just refusing to play that game by making everything a zero or one. Even if students are seeing the zero or the one, it’s a lot easier to interpret the zero or one as success or not, than it is if you have points showing up somewhere else, and you’re trying to convince students No, no, no, when I put in a five, that meant something that doesn’t mean five points, that’s not going to fly. So limiting it to just a zero or one, a complete or incomplete, something like that works pretty well. That’s also true for spreadsheets. So if you just want to keep your info in a spreadsheet, they still want to work with numbers for the most part, but you can think of everything as a zero or a one. And then you start to change your mind from averaging or totaling things to counting. So I’m counting how many standards a student has completed, I’m counting how many assignments they’ve met the specifications on. And that’s really the same as saying, how many ones do I see here? One last thing is, everybody seems to have a different LMS. Even those of us who use the same one don’t quite use the same version of it [LAUGHTER]. So the best thing to do is to find someone who knows it really well and talk with them and say, “How do I make this type of thing display?” …and they probably know a way,

Rebecca: I’m gonna have this conversation with John about our LMS.

John: We’re using Brightspace from Desire to Learn, and it does have those capabilities.

Robert: And one thing I would say is that these days, as the ideas about alternative grading get more and more airplay, I think the tech companies are starting to listen to these things. I mean, you’re actually starting to build these things in as a competitive device like “Ah, you should adopt our LMS, because we can let you do ungrading and you don’t have to deal with all the hassle of hacking your own LMS. So I feel like ed tech companies should be paying attention to all this great interest that’s swelling up, it’s like this is a way to earn customers, honestly.

David: Something I’lll say most LMS’s do seem to do pretty well is to allow you to get feedback in a variety of ways. And so if you can de-emphasize that grade portion, just 0-1 or hide it or something, especially like I accept all assignments through Blackboard nowadays, giving feedback’s pretty easy on that. So that, in my mind, is a benefit.

Robert: Yeah, Blackboard does a really well, actually, that if you submit a PDF into Blackboard as an assignment, it’s easy to leave comments on it, and it keeps all the versions of it. So you can go back and easily see the students trajectory from the very first draft that they do all the way to the present day. And I think that’s really powerful, actually.

Rebecca: I’ve used rubrics to set up essentially specifications as well, like it’s met or not met.

David: Absolutely, yeah. If you know what you’re doing setting up rubrics, I don’t, that’s the problem for me. But if you know what you’re doing, that’s fantastic and it can also save you time.

John: Since the pandemic, there’s been an explosion of interest in ungrading. Does this approach work as well in all contexts, and for all students?

Robert: People are starting to use ungrading to mean anything other than traditional grading. And I think that’s leading to a lot of confusion, honestly. I was working with some teachers recently who were saying that, “Oh, I’m using ungrading but don’t have time, I’m being overwhelmed by all these quests for reattempts.” And it turns out, they weren’t using ungrading at all, they were totally grading thing. When we say ungrading, we mean like a specific approach to evaluating student work where nothing gets a mark, literally ungrading. You get a letter grade at the end of the semester, because most places require that, but it’s all based on a term that’s come up recently, that I really prefer, is collaborative grading. You’re working together with the students throughout the semester to talk about the quality of work, but nothing is getting a mark on it. I have a comment for you and you can either choose to iterate on that comment with a feedback loop or leave it alone. At the end of the semester, you’re going to sit down together and collaboratively determine what your course grade is based on the body of work that you’ve accumulated in some sort of portfolio situation with some clear standards for what an A would look like, a B would look like, and so forth. So that’s what we mean by ungrading. The explosion of interest in “ungrading” may or may not be all about ungrading the way we’re referring to it. So I just want to be clear about the terms before we answer this question.

David: And just add even another thing, it’s both that sort of umbrella term and what Robert just said and the general philosophy and a buzzword that people attempt to apply to random things they use. It’s unclear what someone means when they say ungrading.

John: When we’ve been talking about it, we’ve been talking about it exactly as you described as an extreme form of alternative grading where there are no grades other than one that is decided in consultation with the student at the end of the semester. And sometimes at midterm if that’s required in the institution. From what we’ve seen, this is used quite a bit in humanities fields, but it tends not to be used very much in the STEM fields. What are some of the barriers or some of the concerns that might be raised for ungrading in terms of in what contexts it may not work as well.

Robert: I have tried to fully ungrade a course once, and I might use it again. But the issue that I was coming up with with my students, is what I say is that ungradiing works precisely as well as students’ ability to self assess. If you have students who are struggling with the ability to self assess, or they’ve never tried it, or they’re new students, or younger students who maybe are still emerging with that idea… the whole thing about ungraded is that it’s predicated on students looking at their own work and self evaluating. And if that’s an issue, then I’m not totally sure that ungrading, as we’re defining it, best serves that population. I know I struggled with it. And this can be more me than anything else. Maybe I just don’t know how to draw students out and I need to work on that. It’s an area of growth for me, certainly. But if you have a population of students, for whatever reason, whose ability to self regulate or self evaluate is questionable, or kind of low, we’re not going to say bad students, because we’re all growing… it’s the whole point of our book… if you deploy ungrading with that population, you might be sort of targeting the weakest point in your class. And so maybe, in that case, some marks wouldn’t be such a bad thing, like use a specifications grading approach where the marks are just like: you’re progressing or you’ve met the standard. Just some kind of simple mile marker that shows students where they are. When I used this, once, it was an upper-level class, it did have a lot of writing in it, a math class. I would leave comments on their paper and I would just get questions like, so does it meet the standard or not. And I didn’t like to sort of be telling students this, but I felt like this is the way I helped them. I said like, “hasn’t met our standard yet, here is what you need to do.” So I thought, if I’m going to do that, why don’t I just put a mark on it? It seems like I’m just beating around the bush and trying to be cool by not giving marks and it’s like I’m thinking more about myself than I am about the students at that point.

David: I think that a general thing that everybody needs to think about when using any kind of alternative grading is, this is something new for students… almost guaranteed. And like any other new thing, it needs time to learn, you need to encounter it a few ways, you need to try to make sense of and probably fail initially, and then come back and you’ve got to work to understand it. Ungrading is sort of an extreme form of that. There’s more that needs to be understood about how it works, there’s more skills that need to be built. And I think, as instructors, we need to think about that and think about teaching how our evaluation systems are working and how the grading is going to work. And think about what skills we need students to build up in order to successfully engage with those. And ungrading asks a large amount of that. And I say this, as I very much enjoy using ungrading also in some upper-level math classes and I think it’s worked pretty successfully for me. But this sounds funny to say about something called ungrading, it requires scaffolding, it requires helping students build up that ability to self evaluate, advocate for themselves, to be able to understand what it is that matters in that particular system. But what I just said is also equally true for standards-based grading or for specifications grading, but with different skills that they’re building up. It’s also true for traditional grading, although it feels more familiar to students, but it still requires some scaffolding for them to understand what exactly is going on in the evaluation in this class.

Rebecca: Can you talk a little bit about some of your own experiences with ungrading and how you have done some of that scaffolding, what some of those early stages of scaffolding might look like, to understand the system.

David: So initially, I was having I think it was three check in meetings per semester, where I would meet with every single student in my class, like a 10- or 15-minute discussion, and we would talk about where they’re at. And that inevitably brings out students’ questions, and they don’t understand this part of they don’t know what that is about. And so that was one thing that I did, right? Those were the collaborative aspects of ungrading, and it was overwhelming, it was too much to meet with every single student that often. I still love being able to meet with students. And I use that as one of the tools in the toolbox. But nowadays, to sort of help build that up, I have a system where… this is actually done through homeworks for me… it’s like periodic homeworks and there’s some mathematical content. And there’s also some little additional thing where I ask a question, and early on, it might be something like, “Okay, what is a specific goal related to… and then I might have some of the math related content in the class or as a specific goal you’d like to work on related to this.” And that’s a fairly small thing. I ask students to say something along the lines of “I really want to work on improving my understanding of this one thing” and I can either respond to that as “Okay, great. Here’s the way I can suggest that you work on that,” or I can respond to it as… well, I don’t say it this way, but… “I can see that you’re having trouble elucidating the goal and so let’s talk about that” instead. And then another week or two down the line, there’s another maybe slightly higher-level task having to do with assessing themselves or thinking about their progress in the class. And so they’re scaffolded and I can, at each stage, see if a student is succeeding, in sort of the way that I’m looking for them to be thinking about their progress. And if not, then I can pull in a, “Hey, let’s actually meet and talk about this. And then I’m gonna give you a task to practice with that.” It’s really individualized, which can be a tough thing. But for me, it’s really fun to actually see students grow in that particular way, in addition to growing in the mathematical content.

Rebecca: So faculty that want to move to less traditional methods, what are some small steps a faculty could take to get started?

Robert: Well, I really appreciate that question. Because we don’t ever want to give the impression that you have to go all in on one particular grading system in order to like, be cool, or be a good professor or whatever, because everybody’s in a different position. Some people may not be in a position to ungrade, and we are never going to come out and say, “If you really care about students, you will do ungrading or you’ll do standards-based grading or whatever.” It’s like people care about students all over the place and just can’t or have mitigating circumstances. So I would say we laid out these four pillars: clear content standards, helpful feedback, marks that indicate progress, and reattempts without penalty. If a professor takes one of those pillars, and kind of drills into it on just a handful of assignments, that’s definitely progress in the right direction. So for example, you could take your next test you’re gonna give, experiment with letting students reattempt it, or reattempt different versions of it. So go one test, one class, allow reattempts without penalty, or give feedback that really gets to the point, not gives points, but gets to the point of what’s being done well and what isn’t being done well. Just pick one of these four pillars and just go with it. There are some small scale methods you might think about, let’s say, instead of grading your final exam, how about ungrading your final exam. Just say you need to lay out some standards for what constitutes successful work on your final exam and maybe that’s like 70% on the content. And then you got to write some reflective essays, and say, if you don’t meet expectations on the final exam, that’s a minus on your course grade, or something like that. So you can roll in aspects of alternative grading systems, whatever seems to resonate with you on small-scale individual assignments. And that’s really good progress. It’s really good data for you as the instructor too. You run these experiments, you ask students how it went, and then you just make notes and you iterate on that. It’s exactly the same thing that we asked students to do in these grading systems. You try something, you get feedback on it from a trusted third party, you iterate on it and try again.

David: I want to add one thing, because this is something that I always see happen when people first start using some kinds of alternative grading. Just for yourself, write a really quick list of what you think the major topics are in your class, aim for 10 to 20 things that are the important things to get out of the class, and then go pick some of your exams or quizzes, or whatever, and match them up. “Oh, on this one I was addressing these things and on this one, I was addressing those things.” And that can help you actually think about, “Oh, you know, I’m not really addressing this thing in my assessments at all, that I said was really important.” Or “Holy Moly, I have hit this one thing over and over and over all the assessments at the cost of not covering a bunch of others.” The first time you do this, even if you’re not showing students what the standards are, it can be amazing. “Wow, I’m not assessing what I say matters.” And that can adjust just how your assessments are focused.

John: Sounds like you’re advocating a backwards-design process where you start out with clearly defined objectives, and then you make sure that there’s alignment. And also, I think it might be important to make sure that students see the connection between those things, and that it’s a transparent process, which I know is something you’ve advocated in terms of your work on assessment.

David: Absolutely. And sharing your reasoning with students I think is very valuable, bringing something in from above and saying we shall now do it this way, because I said so, doesn’t work and you’re gonna get a lot of pushback, but talking with students about why you’re doing things and how it’s good for them, that makes a huge difference.

Robert: And don’t call it an experiment, okay. [LAUGHTER]

David: Yeah.

Robert: I’ve read some syllabi lately. It says, I’m going to be experimenting with this experimental new experimental grading system. And of course, you know what that is going to sound like to students… that I’m the subject of an experiment. What am I doing here? And so you’ve instantly killed your buy-in.

David: I’ll actually say, I don’t even give names to what I’m doing. So I am ungrading a class this semester, I have never used the word ungrading or any other name for it. I find that giving a name to things like that can help people sort of reduce it down to like a one dimensional idea, rather than engaging with what it actually is. I’m just “Oh, this is what we’re doing, and here’s why we’re doing it this way.”

Robert: Yeah, I have to share this story. When I started doing specs grading I did actually put we are using a thing called specifications grading on my syllabus. So, I got a call from our research office on our campus, they had gotten a call from the parent of one of my students complaining to them that I was experimenting on their child without informed consent, that I needed to give an informed consent form to my students before this happened. And I thought, well, that’s a weird flex from a parent and they call up the Office of Research Compliance [LAUGHTER] and complain about the Professor, but as you can just see even just the barest mention… Just tell students what you’re doing, and why you’re doing it. If I have to name it, nobody cares what the name is, it may not even have a name. And all this we mentioned before, that most of the people we interviewed for the book are not using any sort of canonical form of anything. It’s just like a little bit of this, a little bit of that, like cooking in your kitchen, you don’t use just one spice, you combine them, that’s where you get your unique flavor of what you’re doing.

John: Would it be fair to say that, given the title of your book and focusing on grading for growth, that one of the things you’re addressing is how to shift students from focusing on trying to maximize their grades to maximizing their learning?

Robert: Yeah, absolutely, yeah. I think a lot of frustration that I know I feel and I hear from other faculty is students tend to spend an order of magnitude more time talking about what they have to get on exam X to get grade Y than they talk about the actual content in the course. And we teach math, and I think some of the students who struggle the most with our math are doing like these amazing statistical calculations to try to figure out what the average has to work out to be. It’s like, “where was this in my actual math lesson?” I remember riding the bus home one day, from our downtown campus back to where we live, and I overheard this conversation and I said “Oh, this is this has got to come to an end.” [LAUGHTER] And absolutely, we want students to focus on their growth and I think students want to focus on their growth, too. I mean, students really, in the end, don’t want to think about all this stuff. They want to think about, “How am I growing as a human being? Is when I’m doing really meaningful? Where am I as a learner? Do I have any value in this vast educational system that I’m entering into?” And so if we can even just orient one small thing, like our grading system, towards convincing students that they have value, and are human beings in a stage of development, I think that’s worth it.

David: And that means we need to believe it, too. So I like to tell people who are thinking of using an alternative grading system, think about why you’re doing it, and what your students are going to get out of it. But definitely approach it as like, “Okay, I care about my students, and I want them to succeed.” And we’ll sometimes talk about incentives… grading systems set incentives in a class, and that can feel sort of like you’re trying to mess around with people and then incentivize you to do things a certain way. Traditional grading systems set incentives that are really kind of perverse towards learning. And if we can change those incentives, or just remove some of the ones that aren’t as good, that’s really a lot of what we’re aiming for here. And yeah, just respecting how people naturally want to learn anyway, that just allows them to do what they are as human beings going to do anyhow, or what they would naturally do.

Rebecca: So everyone wants to know, when can we have your book in our hands?

Robert: Well, it looks like on the Stylus website, it says July. So that’s what we’re going with for now. [LAUGHTER] I guess it’s sort of out of our hands at this point. We have one more round of copy edits to do. But it says July, you can preorder it now through the Stylus website and should be in your hands this summer.

John: My preorder has already been sent in. [LAUGHTER] So I’m waiting for a copy.

David: Awesome.

Robert: Awesome. Thank you.

Rebecca: And you mentioned earlier something about a blog. Do you want to tell us a little bit about that?

David: Yeah, if you’re interested in some of our ideas, go check out our blog, it’s gratingforgrowth.com …all spelled out. So, Robert and I started this sort of as a way to workshop some of our ideas for the book. So you can see proto-ideas. And we’ve also posted some examples of some of the case studies of some of these interviews that I have done with people using a lot of different alternative grading systems there. Every week, we post something new, or we have guest posters. There’s a really huge variety of ideas that show up on there.

Robert: And if any listener wants to contribute a guest post, we are accepting applications at this time… not really applications, just reach out. And we’re looking to hear. Now that the book is kind of close to coming out, we’ve had this discussion, you and I, David about where does the blog go from here once the book is out, and I feel like a great use of our time is to elevate the voices of other people. I mean, there are so many people out there doing great work, who are not education rockstars, they’re not on the lecture circuit or whatever. They’re just rank and file heads down people doing great work in the classroom. I love those people getting their ideas out there and seeing what they’re doing. So to me, that’s been a really rewarding experience.

David: So gradingforgrowth.com.

Robert: Right. It’s actually a substack. You can subscribe to it. It is free. It’s never going to cost anything and it comes every Monday. Except for taking planned breaks for holidays, we haven’t missed a Monday in two years.

David: Well, now you’ve cursed us, Robert. [LAUGHTER]

Robert: No, I put the pressure on me because then I got to step up. I think I’m next, actually. No, you’re next.

David: Oh, crap. [LAUGHTER]

Robert: Sorry, Dave.

John: We will put a link to that in our show notes.

Robert: Great.

John: Are there any other topics that you’d like to emphasize?

Robert: Well, I think I would just re emphasize simplicity. I mean, simplicity is the ultimate sophistication. I think Leonardo da Vinci said that. And so, when you’re designing a class simplify as much as humanly possible, and no more. But I think your students are going to be well served by less, honestly. I think we tried to do way too much in our classes, and we will be well served by this too. I mean, I have another blog that deals with productivity and time management in academia. And that’s the key thing. I mean, a lot of faculty struggle with overwork and burnout or just doing too much and there’s a lot of stuff you can say no to and I think keep things very, very simple and that can be a whole lot. podcast about how to simplify your life in higher education, especially applyied to course design and grading systems. You don’t want to make choices in July when you’re planning your fall courses that you end up regretting by October.

David: I will say that something that did come up earlier, briefly, but there’s not one right way to do it. You should not feel like you must go all out ungrading, you shouldn’t feel like you have to do specifications grading exactly the right way. Find something that works for you, look for models, pick and choose the things. If you look at something and say, “How could that possibly work?” then don’t do that. And yeah, we’re not judging you. Find something that works well and it’s going to be good beer students.

Robert: Yeah, and especially the last thing you just said, David is so important. All this stuff is predicated on actually communicating with your students. Don’t just sort of wait for the course evaluations. You have to really get in and talk, actually talk with your students on a regular basis and get feedback and see how things are going. And that’s one of the great strengths of all these four pillars sort of oriented approaches is that it really does get students talking with each other and with their faculty members. And I think that’s, maybe in the end, the best thing about all this.

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

Robert: Well, for me, I know I’ve been spending the last two years not only as a faculty member, but working in our president’s office under what’s called a presidential fellowship. And I’ve been coordinating large-scale institutional cross-institutional teaching and learning initiatives, mostly focused on active learning spaces. And so that’s been a particular focus of mine for a few years. That is wrapping up now. But we’re looking at maybe some interesting and exciting extensions of that idea where we’re going to try to surface and looking for what our faculty are already doing in terms of instructional innovation. There’s a lot of stuff out there, like we said earlier, but even in our own institution, a lot of faculty are doing really innovative and creative things and effective things but are kind of working under the radar. So the President and I, and those around us, are kind of thinking how can we look and find these faculty, get them together, elevate what they’re doing, and sort of make Instructional Innovation a normative practice at our university. So that’s that’s kind of what’s next for me is figuring out how to make that work on a practical level.

John: Sounds like a wonderful plan. I know, we’ve been talking about some ways of doing the same thing at SUNY-Oswego. And it’s a challenge.

Rebecca: It’s no small task. [LAUGHTER]

Robert: It is, it is.

David: Something that I am getting more and more interested in is what helps instructors be successful in any kind of educational innovation, not just alternative grading and changes in their pedagogy, anything like that. But especially when it comes to grading, there’s so many variations. And in so many different situations where instructors are working, what are the things that help them best succeed? And what are the things they do that help their students buy in and succeed most? And so looking at those sort of things from a more fine grain perspective, I think it’s going to be somewhere that I’m going next.

Rebecca: That sounds exciting.

John: It does. And I hope you’re both come back and talk about the success of these initiatives in future podcasts.

Robert: We’d very much like to.

David: Absolutely.

Rebecca: Well, thank you so much for joining us and sharing your stories. And I know that many people are looking forward to your book.

Robert: Thanks a lot for having us.

David: Yeah, it was great to be here. 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.

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


285. The First-Year Experience Movement

Far too many students enter college without sufficient preparation to successfully navigate the college environment. In this episode, John Gardner joins us to discuss how first-year experience courses have been developed and adopted at thousands of colleges globally to reduce equity gaps and improve student success.

John is the recipient of numerous awards for his innovative work on first-year student success programs. In 3 studies, he was listed as one of the 10 most noteworthy innovators in higher ed. John is the author or co-author of numerous books and articles related to college student transitions. With his wife, Betsy Barefoot, he is the co-author of a series of textbooks for first-year student success classes. He is also the founder of the annual Conference on The First-year Experience as well as the Gardner Institute, a nonprofit organization that has served more than 500 colleges and universities. John is the author of Launching the First-Year Experience Movement: The Founder’s Journey.

Show Notes

  • Barefoot, B. O., Gardner, J. N., Cutright, M., Morris, L. V., Schroeder, C. C., Siegel, M. J., … & Swing, R. L. (2010). Achieving and sustaining institutional excellence for the first year of college. John Wiley & Sons.
  • Felten, P., Gardner, J. N., Schroeder, C. C., Lambert, L. M., Barefoot, B. O., & Hrabowski, F. A. (2016). The undergraduate experience: Focusing institutions on what matters most. John Wiley & Sons.
  • Gardner, J. N., Barefoot, B. O., & Swing, R. L. (2001). Guidelines for Evaluating… The First-Year Experience at Two-Year Colleges.
  • Gardner, J. N., & Barefoot, B. O. (2011). Your college experience: Strategies for success. Macmillan.
  • Gardner, J. N., Barefoot, B. O., & Swing, R. L. (2001). Guidelines for Evaluating… The First-Year Experience at Four-Year Colleges.
  • Gardner, J. N., & Barefoot, B. O. (2017). Understanding writing transfer: Implications for transformative student learning in higher education. Stylus Publishing, LLC.
  • Upcraft, M. L., Gardner, J. N., & Barefoot, B. O. (2005). Challenging and supporting the first-year student: A handbook for improving the first year of college (Vol. 254). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
  • Gardner, J. N. (2023). Launching the First-Year Experience Movement: The Founder’s Journey. Stylus Publishing, LLC.
  • Annual Conference on the First-Year Experience.
  • Gardner Institute
  • David Brightman (LinkedIn)
  • Marietta College
  • Federal TRIO Programs
  • Office Hours with John Gardner podcast


John K: Far too many students enter college without sufficient preparation to successfully navigate the college environment. In this episode, we examine how first-year experience courses have been developed and adopted at thousands of colleges globally to reduce equity gaps and improve student success.


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

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

John K: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer…

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


John K: Our guest today is John Gardner. He is the recipient of numerous awards for his innovative work on first-year student success programs. In 3 studies, he was listed as one of the 10 most noteworthy innovators in higher ed. John is the author or co-author of numerous books and articles related to college student transitions. With his wife, Betsy Barefoot, he is the co-author of a series of textbooks for first-year student success classes. He is also the founder of the annual Conference on The First-year Experience as well as the Gardner Institute, a nonprofit organization that has served more than 500 colleges and universities. John is also the author of Launching the First-Year Experience Movement: The Founder’s Journey, which we’ll be talking about here today.

Rebecca: Welcome, John.

John G: Thank you, folks. Glad to be here.

Rebecca: Today’s teas are:… John, are you drinking tea with us today?

John G: I’m not able to drink… well, I guess I could, but recently, a physician told me I needed to stop drinking tea. There is some substance that is not good for the plumbing, and so I’ve switched to coffee, so I did have a cup of coffee before this, although I didn’t need the caffeine, but I’m already pretty alert. [LAUGHTER] But, if I were drinking tea, I’d be drinking a black tea, caffeinated, and I love tea.

Rebecca: That’s just my style. That’s so sad not to be able to drink it anymore.

John G: Well, I lived in Canada for five years as a child and I learned to do it up there. A lot of them have emulated their British Commonwealth forbearers and drank tea in the afternoons. And even as a middle school child in a Canadian school, we were served tea. So I really learned to like it.

Rebecca: No choice, no choice at all.

John K: And I mostly started switching to tea to cut back on caffeine because I was having so much of it. There was a bit less in tea than coffee and other things I was drinking. Today I’m drinking a ginger peach black tea from the Republic of Tea.

Rebecca: And John, I have your back. I have a fairly highly caffeinated black tea. It’s an English Afternoon. [LAUGHTER]

John K: So we’ve invited you here today to discuss Launching the First-Year Experience Movement. Could you talk a little bit about the motivation for writing this book?

John G: For one thing, I think it’s the only book I’ve done as a single co-author, it’s been my preference for my entire career always to partner with others in my writing, I just find it goes better and I like the sharing collaborative process. And I had done I think eight books previously with an editor that was the editor for this book. So he knew me very well. His name is David Brightman. And David’s the best editor for this kind of work I’ve ever encountered. And he was with Stylus Publishing but Stylus has just been sold to the Routledge Publishing house. But David had been talking to me about doing a book to try to really accomplish a number of things, but to tell the story of the launching of what’s now a global movement to pay more attention to first-year students, and also to connect that to other things that were going on in the world, and especially in the United States from the 1980s on and also to tell my own story and how I was prepared to do this kind of work even though I didn’t set out to do this at all. I didn’t set out initially to launch a global movement on behalf of a sector of students. But there were several developments in more recent years that I think influenced this and one was, the longer I’ve gone on in my career, and as the higher education community has become what our critics call “more woke,” I increasingly felt I was encountering, rather arbitrarily and irrespective of anything I might have said in any meeting, a level of hostility from people who were other than white males. And it was hostility that I think white men deserve for all the injustices we have wreaked on the American way of life. But I didn’t cause those. And I increasingly felt that there was a growing attitude that if you were white and male and especially privileged, that you just couldn’t understand the current needs of students the way you needed to, to really make a difference for them. And I began to feel more defensive, but generally, I didn’t acknowledge it publicly. So one of the things I wanted to do in this book was to argue that everyone needs to be involved in this movement, including privileged white men. And I wanted to lay out how I overcame all the blinders that I grew up with in a family of significant affluence, where the last thing my family would have wanted me to become, what some regard me as, which is an equity warrior. And by the time I was in my middle 20s, there wasn’t a cause I didn’t want to be part of. I had served in the armed forces during the Vietnam era, I had the coveted honorable discharge, which every young, healthy, able bodied American male like me wanted to have. And I was single and I had no debt and no dependents that I knew of, and there was just nothing I felt I couldn’t do. And so I became a really active civil rights warrior. And that cost me my first job. I was fired in my first job in higher education because of that, and that resolved me to be even more determined about how I pursue this. And so anyway, the book was about how did higher education change me? I want to use a word that some of us use trepidatiously, how did higher education transform me to be able to do this kind of work? Because I believe that higher education can and should transform far more than just me. And that speaks to the power of it. So this book is about the transformative power of higher education.

Rebecca: So in your book, Launching the First-Year Experience, you describe some of those challenges that you face as a first-year college student. Can you talk a little bit about how those experiences helped shape your future work?

John G: I went to a private liberal arts college in Ohio, Marietta College. I had a very traditional college experience, four years of residence, living on campus, did not work except for one brief period. Essentially, I was a non-employed student while I was in college during the regular part of the years. I never met a transfer student, I didn’t know they existed. there were only three persons that I can remember in my first-year class of about 500 students that were not white. So to say that I had a very traditional undergraduate experience was to understate the matter. And in the book that you’ve referenced, I devote the first four chapters to what happened to me as an undergraduate student starting in the first year, and the second year, the third year, and the fourth year, and it was a process of transformation. So in the first-year, I was a year younger than most of my peers, I was only 17. I did not want to go to college. It was an agreement I had made with my father, I was what we call now in contemporary higher ed language, I was a counter dependent adolescent, meaning I wanted to do the opposite of what adult authority figures wanted me to do. And my adult authority figure was my father. He’d attended an Ivy League institution, so that’s what I was supposed to do. And then I was supposed to go work in corporate America like he did and make a lot of money. It wasn’t that I was opposed to making money, but I didn’t want to work in corporate America. And I thought, one of the things I’d done as a high school kid was I had created a little landscaping service business, I had six other adolescent males who worked for me and I went out and got the jobs and then supervised them. And I loved working outdoors and having people satisfied by the work I did. I thought I could love doing this. And my father was horrified that I was earning a bit of money and I had this as a vocational aspiration. So I made a deal with him. And that is that he’d get off my back about going to college, if we could agree that I would go one year, and then I could quit. And so it really didn’t matter at that point where I wanted to go to college, as long as I didn’t go to college where he wanted me to go to college. So I went to college. And I got on academic probation pretty rapidly. I was 17, lonely, homesick, clinically depressed. The environment there was truly what we call sink or swim. And as a matter of fact, at the opening convocation, the President boasted about how if we look to the left and look to the right, we wouldn’t see the person sitting on either side of us four years later. And initially, I said, “Well, okay, when I graduate, I won’t see these two guys,” and then it dawned on me: “Wait a minute, both of them looked at me.” And I looked up at this man. He was proud of it. He was grinning. And what I later learned, of course, was that a benchmark of quality in the early 1960s… this was 1961… was the number of students you flunked out. That was a measure, that was a yardstick, and they were very good at it. And so therefore, there was no support services like we have today, no first-year experience, first-year college success course, no Learning Center, no tutoring. It was absolutely sink or swim. They did have advising. My first academic advisor told me, twice as a matter of fact, not once, but he told me twice, and I quote, “Mr. Gardner, you’re the stupidest kid I’ve ever advised.” And I thought about that…that guy’s probably advised hundreds of students, could I really be the stupidest? And that’s a bit far fetched. I wasn’t doing well, but anyway, maybe I better get another advisor. So I changed advisors. And that was one of the steps to my transformation. But my first semester grades were awful, and I got on academic probation. And of course, now, many institutions, when they put a student on probation, there’s a structure you have to comply with, or you complete the probationary period, but there was no structure. It was just a technical status. But somehow I managed to pull my performance up. And I thank the faculty for that, I finally discovered the four out of five faculty that second term that really got me engaged intellectually, but I had a student friend who befriended me, he adopted me. It was a student who was one year older, and of course confirmed that everything I’ve learned in the next 56 years in my career is that the greatest influence on students while they’re in college is the influence of other students. And now we try to deliberately get our high-performing students in positions where they can influence new students. That wasn’t done in Marietta at that time. But anyway, this student was taking a class with me, he was a year older, he was a sophomore by which the Greeks meant “wise fool.” And he said to me one day after class, “John, I noticed you’re not taking any notes.” And I said “So?” And he said, “Well, let me show you my notebook.” And it was like a fundamentalist opening any page of the sacred book, putting his finger down, And there was the revealed word. This guy had every word the professor had said. And so he showed me how one could predict the questions that you’d get on an exam by looking at the professorial notes. And he showed me how he could organize, or I could organize, my notes to make them coherent, and put headings and subheadings. And that I could predict the questions by observing what the professor said, repetitively, and therefore what he believed or she believed was important. By the way, it was almost always a he. I have done account fairly recently, in the 40 courses I took as an undergraduate, only three were taught by women, 37 to three, and one of the things I introspect around is, how would I be different if I had had more female faculty, that’s one of the ways I was cheated. I was disproportionately mentored by men. And we have made some progress in that regard. I can tell you a lot more first-year anecdotes, one I have in my book was and I should tell you this, other than having to wear freshman beanies… I burned mine… the most memorable thing that happened to me in my the first few weeks of college was something I didn’t do. And it was one of the most important decisions I ever made. It was a fraternity that rushed all the new males to try to find new members. And what they had been doing, apparently for years, was offering new young men like me, an all expenses paid trip to a brothel. And the brothel was about 90 miles up the Ohio River in Wheeling, West Virginia. And I was offered this experience. And while I was 17, I was interested in sex, I thought, “Do I really want to do this? No, I don’t.” And then I thought “Do I want to join a group that would put me in this position, and pay some women to service me? How denigrating. I don’t want anything to do with them.” And so I developed a real aversion to the whole so-called Greek letter social fraternity experience. And to fast forward to my junior year, that guy that influenced me in my sophomore year, once I started emulating his note taking my grades went up dramatically. A profound influence, and I never would have gotten through college, I don’t think, if that guy hadn’t taught me how to take notes. Marietta College today has an outstanding academic support service. And they don’t leave that to random. They want to teach the students how to do that. But anyway, this guy that saved me, we stayed in touch, he gave me a lot of advice on what courses to take. And he taught me to choose my courses by professor. That was more important than the subject, who I could really connect with, who would get in there and rattle my cage intellectually. So in my junior year, he persuaded me that I should join him in a campaign to persuade the college to abolish the fraternity system. And Don Quixote-like we challenged the fraternities to a public debate in the student union building to justify their existence in a liberal arts community. We took out ads in the student newspaper, we put up posters, and the day of the debate came around. And they taught me a very important lesson about politics. They taught me something about stonewalling, not a single one of them showed up. And there we were alone in the rented room in the student union building, and no students came, they all thought we were nuts, we were so counterculture. And I don’t know that I realized that then, but the perfect environment for somebody like me, who has some wild idea that may be really out of sync, the perfect place for me is the Academy. We are made for people like me. And so I went on and found other causes for the balance of my undergraduate career. I should say, parenthetically, that it’s been some years later in my career, that I’ve learned that Greek-affiliated males and females have significantly higher probability of graduation than non-affiliated undergraduate students, they give more money as alumni, and they learn, as my father told me I would learn. He wanted me to join a fraternity. And his reason was, and I quote, “Son, you join a fraternity, and you’ll learn how to run a company,” like he did. And that was not an aspiration. When I was at the University of South Carolina as a faculty member, a student affairs Dean came up to me one day and said, “John, I know you’re going to tell me no, but please listen to me, hear me out. I would like you to consider being a faculty advisor to a brand new fraternity.” I said, “Mark, you gotta be kidding. Why in the world would I do that?” He said, “Well, John, this group is different. They are not going to practice a white Christian membership drive, there will be no singing dirty songs in public and no hazing and no secret rituals. They’re going to be a different kind of fraternity. So would you at least meet with these guys once? They’re trying to organize this as a new fraternity” I thought “I gotta meet a group of guys like this” and he kept it up by saying that the President of this group is an art major. And I said “He’s got to be the only fraternity chair in the country who’s an art major. I got to meet him.” So I met with these guys, and they won me over and I agreed to become their faculty advisor and I did it for 16 years. And I learned from that, that it’s a lot easier to sit back and criticize the behaviors of undergraduate students, rather than trying to do something constructive with them. And so for 16 years, I did a lot of constructive things with them, and they were good for me too.

John K: The impact of fraternities and sororities are probably mostly because they form those connections that you were talking about. Those connections can be positive or negative, as in the case of some of the fraternity behavior you describe, like some of the hazing issues and so forth, which were pretty pervasive at that time.

John G: Well, they’re still very pervasive, many of them have been driven underground. But these are the elements of the traditions of American higher education that were created by white men in the late 18th century, early 19th century, and they endure, they’re powerful. The system was designed for people like me, white New England property owning Protestant males.

John K: So you mentioned that your first-year of college did not provide students with a lot of support in terms of how to learn effectively, how to take notes, and so forth. Did high schools provide much preparation for college at the time, or today for that matter?

John G: Well, I think there’s a difference, then I think they did a better job for white students anyway, particularly in school districts that had high tax bases, which is where I lived, I lived in one of the wealthiest communities in the United States, New Canaan, Connecticut, where I went to an outstanding high school. So yeah, I had great experience in critical thinking and reading and writing. As a matter of fact, one of the aspirations my father had for each of the three children was that each of us had a library, he wanted each child to have a library. And so I had bookshelves in my room, and I read a lot. And of course, he thought that we would read more if we didn’t have television, so he deliberately eschewed any television in the house. And when the last kid went to college, he bought three televisions. So yeah, I was well prepared intellectually for college, but I was not well prepared in terms of my maturity, or my attitudes. And this is important, I think, to the larger focus of your podcast series, because even the students that are well prepared can have developmental issues that impede their progress in college. And I was definitely structured for lack of success. And it had not been for especially a fellow student and the faculty that took me under their wing, I would never have made it and I owe them everything. And there’s a huge unpaid debt on my part. Years later, I became a trustee at my alma mater. I did that for twelve years, I’m still connected to alma mater, and working with them on several things. So yes, your question about my preparation had been outstanding, it was necessary but not sufficient, because the transition to college is not only an intellectual one, it’s a psychosocial, physical, spiritual, emotional process. And I wasn’t ready in many of those respects.

Rebecca: One of the things that you describe in your book is your military experience in the Air Force. And you indicated that that was more equitable than society as a whole. Can you tell us a little bit about that, and how that experience may have impacted the work that you’ve done moving forward?

John G: Well, I was a college student from undergraduate from 61 to 65. And during that period, the only good thing I ever heard about the military from my professors was praise for the veterans who had come to Marietta College after World War Two, those largely, in many cases entirely, men, they were so good. I couldn’t believe they were real, but the attitude about them was that the military was conservative, it was reactionary, pro war. I had negative attitudes about that whole class of people that do this, even though I was living in college in a town, Marietta, Ohio, that was founded by military veterans of the American Revolution, who were the recipients of the first largesse from the new government of the United States that didn’t have the currency to pay them. And so they gave them land grants. And this notion of the government owing something to the men and women who serve us in the military, it was a foundation for a tradition. And of course, after World War Two, you had over 12 million GIs who received the GI Bill, and I was in college, and I graduated in a terrible year to graduate from college, 1965, If you were male, and able bodied, and mentally competent, you were fodder for the American draft. And so young men like me who were moving towards graduation in the year 1965, we were strategizing about what we could do to keep out of the army because the buildup was occurring, and young men like me were being sent to die, and many of us were dying. And so what you did was you tried to get a so called deferment, and you could get a deferment for going to graduate school, for being married, for going to seminary, or working for a defense contractor. Those were the four criteria. And I had several women that I considered whether or not I could marry, not simultaneously, but I wisely decided I was not mature enough, that that would have been unjust of me to do that. But many of my classmates did exactly that. They married women to stay out of the military. And eventually, as the war went on, it wasn’t sufficient just to be married, then you had to have dependent children, and we even got to the point where they were drafting them with dependent children. But at the time I graduated, ‘65, if you were married, you would not have been drafted. I didn’t want to go to seminary, I was not a conventionally religious person. College had eradicated the Christianity I’d been grown up. I was skeptical, agnostic.So, I don’t want to become a minister. And I didn’t want to work for a defense contractor. My father was a very senior executive who managed 60 factories in the United States. And they produced war materials, he could have arranged for me like President Bush, 41, arranged for his son to stay out of the military, but I didn’t do that. So anyway, I went to graduate school, like I’d been an undergraduate, I liked so many things intellectually, I never chose a major. So I had gotten an interdisciplinary major, and I found there was a graduate field where I could do the same thing, it’s called American Studies, and I could study American literature, history, sociology, and I did that. And I thought, “Okay, I’m safe.” But Uncle Sam had a surprise for me. My second semester of graduate school, I got my draft notice, because in my draft jurisdiction in Connecticut, there were not enough unemployed, uneducated young men to draft. They started drafting college graduates in 1965, one of whom, a friend of mine, was killed in Vietnam. So I was about to be drafted, and so I decided I got to leverage my odds here. And so I opted to go into the Air Force, Air Force officer training, and the Air Force, in its infinite wisdom, made me something I had never been. They trained me as a psychiatric social worker, and assigned me to a base in South Carolina as one of two personnel in the base hospital psychiatric clinic. We have one psychiatrist and one social worker. Now the military, to specifically answer your question, was like going into another planet. Growing up in a very affluent white community, and nobody who didn’t look like me in college and graduate school, I had never been in an environment that was significantly racially integrated, or that was significantly integrated in terms of social class. In the military, it was very different. I was surrounded by people who weren’t like me, and I was living with them and serving with them. That had a huge impact on me. My first day on my base, my squadron commander called me in. He braced me at attention. I looked down over my glasses, and I saw that I was standing very properly alert in front of a black man. And I said, “Wow, this is going to be different, John. The only black people you’ve been around are people that work for your family. This man you work for.” And I had to do what he told me to do. And he gave me this homily. He said, “Gardner, although we’re in the Air Force, we’re an occupying army, and we’re occupying the state of South Carolina. This is only two and a half years after the Civil Rights Act, and we are going to do the best we can to transform South Carolina.” And I will tell you, when you went on the base, it was like going into another country. I left a totally segregated environment at the base gate, on the base, everything was racially integrated: drinking fountains, toilets, residential accommodation, schools, golf course, PX, movie theater, bowling alley, everything. And it was just transformative. And my commander also said to me, “Gardner, you’re the most educated person in the squadron other than the physicians.” And I didn’t know he was going somewhere with this and I said, “Yes, sir.” And he said, “Gardner, that means you’re going to do community service.” And I said, “Yes, sir. What is that?” Now, I would hope that nobody who listens to your podcast and who’s a higher educator or any kind of citizen will allow somebody to get to be 22 years old, and never have said to them, “You have some obligation to perform community service.” I didn’t know what that meant. So I told him, I said, “Sir, yes sir. But what is that, sir?” And he said, “Gardener, it’s exactly what I tell you. I own you. The Air Force owns you, seven days a week, 24 hours a day.” “Yes, sir.” He said, “And Gardner. In your case, community service is going to be teaching at night when you’re off duty in an on-base program we have for the University of South Carolina, for our active duty military personnel to earn college degrees while they’re in the Air Force.” “Yes, sir, But sir, I’ve never taught anything. I’m not prepared to do that.” “Gardner, the Air Force needs people like you to do this, you will do this.” “Okay.” Two weeks later, I started teaching my first class. And that was an epiphany. At the same time, my patients were overwhelmingly male. They were white, and they were black. And they all had something in common. They were all anxious because they were all going to Vietnam, not all of them because some of them were coming back from Vietnam because our base had a very specialized function that was only performed at this base. This base was responsible for the reconnaissance mission over Vietnam, the photography that was done to plot the bombing runs, and these were very specialized functions. And so we saw these troops before they went over and when they came back. And when they came back, of course, they were profoundly different. They all had VD and they had, oh my God, all kinds of types of dysfunctions that they didn’t have before they went over. I taught on the military base, I taught off the base at a rural regional campus at the University of South Carolina where all my students were mill workers, or children of mill workers. They were so different from me. And they had courage to be there, nobody in their family had ever been to college, but they were, in effect almost untouched previously by education, they were so deprived of the kind of education that I had had. But they had such enormous potential. And it was so exciting teaching these students. I just loved it. And I look forward to going to class, I was teaching five nights a week and Saturday mornings. I was really busy. And I found that college teaching and this is something we do with undergraduate students… We asked undergraduate students, can you think of anything that you really love to do that you could convert to a legal living and support yourself and your family, and that would have socially redeeming value, and maybe contribute to our country. And as I started teaching, I thought, I love to do four things. And the first, when you’re a college teacher, you get to talk, and they were paying me to talk… never thought that I could earn a living talking, I got a D and speech 101 in college. a Secondly, in order to talk, you have to have something to say you have to prepare to talk. So how do you prepare? You read. Oh, my God, they were paying me for reading, I love to read. And then you read and you wrote something. You had to have a script. And I never thought I could earn a living writing. And the fourth thing was helping people. I was talking, reading, writing, helping people, all together. And the other thing, talk about a benchmark, when I compared it to sex, I thought, God, this lasts a lot longer. I can do this with all kinds of people. There are no complications from this, well, maybe some but anyway, I want to do this for life. And so the Air Force was a laboratory in social justice. It was the military that expanded opportunity for black people in this country. It was the military that provided opportunities for women that they had never had before. I was in an environment where, for many people, what mattered was their competence: could they perform? …and that was revolutionary. So I got a hint of the fact that we could do better. And a very important lesson from this was, and I’ve carried this through my work as an educator, that what transformed South Carolina ultimately, to the extent it’s been transformed, and it’s backsliding right now, because of the Republican right, but it’s going to get over that, it’s going to join the United States again. But what transformed it was policy, law, the law changed in 1964, by mandating that based on the interpretation, previously, of the Supreme Court and then the enactment by Congress, there would be no discrimination in terms of employment and housing and health care and a number of other areas as a function of race and ethnicity. And unbeknownst to many Americans, at the same time, Congress slipped in gender in the middle of the night, that made it into the bill. And so now, we didn’t instantly desegregate South Carolina. but the process began. The South Carolina State Government fought desegregation of public education until 1970, it took 16 years to integrate the public schools. But when you get the policy right, policy sets parameters for people’s behaviors, and a lot of the work I do now with colleges and universities is trying to get the policies right, trying to get the rules that students operate under that get them either to do or not do certain things. And if you get them to do things, certain things, they’re going to be more successful. So the big takeaway lesson there was that, if you get the rules right, to create a really democratic, more egalitarian culture where everybody gets an opportunity, well, you can transform things. So the Air Force, it gave me my profession, I love the psychiatric social work, but I decided I didn’t want to do that as an occupation, and that I could take a lot that I learned from that into my work as an educator: how to talk to people, listen to people, coach people, advise people… the advice giving process, just be willing to listen to people and offer them different perspectives on their lives. That’s what college faculty do. There’s a long body of research now that students who interact with college faculty outside of class, they have qualitatively different kinds of experience in college. And I learned that that’s what I want to do.

John K: So after leaving the military, you moved into college teaching. And you mentioned already that you had some issues because of your advocacy for civil rights. Would you like to talk a little bit about that?

John G: Yeah, what I did was I was a faculty member at a state supported all female college in Rock Hill, South Carolina, what is now Winthrop University, and myself and another radical young professor, we decided that what this little town needs is a chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union. So we formed a chapter of the ACLU and proceeded to sue several prominent members of the community for doing what we thought was violating the Constitution. The problem was, I wasn’t too careful about determining whom I might get ACLU attorneys to sue for us, and I ended up suing the Chairman of the Board of Trustees of the college that employed me, because he was practicing racial discrimination, the assignment of employment duties and wages and other working conditions to members of a black church whose pastor came to us and asked if we would intervene so we sued this company and when the owner of the company found out who was behind that he contacted the president of the college and who promptly fired me. Now we don’t of course fire people usually promptly in the academy, we give them a notice of non-renewal. So I had the rest of the year to work out my appointment and I had to get another job. And at that point, thankfully, the folks at the University of South Carolina remembered me well, because of my adjunct teaching when I was in the Air Force. And so I got a job at the University of South Carolina where I worked for the next 30 years and rose from the rank of instructor to distinguished professor and had a wonderful career there and was treated with total respect for my academic freedom, and was never muzzled in any way. And I have nothing but respect and appreciation for that university for giving me the opportunities to do the national and global work which I’ve been doing ever since. So that’s what happened to me in that starting experience.

Rebecca: Can you talk a little bit about how the university 101 course was developed at USC?

John G: I better define that. University 101 is the University of South Carolina version of a type of course that has been in the American college curriculum since 1882… 1882. But it’s evolved and waxed and waned, and it had a resurrection in the 1970s, thanks to something the University of South Carolina did. And the course, University 101, has been replicated now at hundreds of institutions…1000s, actually… primarily in the United States, but in a number of other countries as well, Canada most notably but in other versions of what’s done in 101 with a number of nations, Europe and elsewhere. University 101 is a three credit hour letter graded course, where we introduce students to how to be a successful college student, we teach them the knowledge and the skills and the behaviors and the attitudes to be successful in college. Why did we do this? We did this because in May of 1970, the week that the United States invaded the sovereign nation of Cambodia, there was a protest on the university campus, over 1000 students demonstrated, the governor called out the National Guard, the South Carolina National Guard and tear gassed the students. They went into the building with the president, occupied his office. They set the building on fire. They made him sit in for 24 hours after the Fire Department put out the fire. And he emerged from this by saying something very profound in a press conference he held. He said that: “The students have given me an extended opportunity for reflection on the meaning of student behavior.” That’s the key. You look at students, you look at their behavior, and you say, “What do you learn from that? What do you learn about what students need and what kind of experiences are they having?” And what we learned was, they were furious. They were angry. And so the question institutionally became, instead of producing angry students, how might you produce happy campers? And so the President had this radical idea he said, It was like he was channeling me or I was channeling him. Because in the Air Force, I learned you could teach anybody any set of attitudes you want. You could teach him to hate, to kill, to help, to learn, to grow, to regress. What do you want to teach them to do? And he decided, What if we tried, at the University of South Carolina, to teach students to “love,” the active verb, love, love the University? How would you do that? If they loved the University, they wouldn’t riot anymore, and they would stay longer, and they would flourish, and they’d get degrees, and they would serve South Carolina, the public. So we set out to redesign the first year and I was one of 25 faculty and staff that this man called on the phone, had me paged, gave me, like I was back in the Air Force again, a direct order that I was to go to a workshop to learn how to humanize the University of South Carolina. And so we spent three hours an afternoon five afternoons a week for three weeks, this President and 25 faculty and student affairs staff, to create this concept of University 101. University 101 has just celebrated its 50th anniversary, going stronger than ever, even though, maybe and because of the fact that I have not been its director for 25 years. But I did become the director after the first two years. And it was the joy of my life to develop this experience, which has helped 1000s of students and significantly increased our success rates. So that’s what university 101 is.

Rebecca: Can you talk a little bit about what some of the most critical components of a successful first-year experience are?

John G: Yes, the most critical components are certain types of knowledge that you acquire, certain skills, and certain types of behaviors that you practice. One of the biggest enemies of first-year student success is making stupid decisions with all the freedom you get in college. So we focus a lot on this theme of freedom versus responsibility. Yes, we’re giving you a great deal of freedom to be here, it’s one of the gifts you get when you join a university or college family. The question is, what are you doing with your freedom, what kind of choices that you’re making? So we put a lot of emphasis on decision making. We also know that there are a set of core academic skills, like I didn’t have when I started, like note taking, that you can teach students. We know that if you engage in certain behaviors in college, you’re more likely to persist. If you participate in certain organizations, if you have what we call in American culture, a support group, if you can find a mentor, if you can find people who you admire and want to become like, and not only if you learn about what are the helping services and resources, but if you use them. So we’re trying to get students to engage in what we call assistance-seeking behavior. And that’s much harder to do for men than it is for women, which is one of the reasons that women persist and graduate at higher rates than men. And so there’s no question we know what to do to make students successful. We just, as an institution, have to have the will and the intentionality to do this. is deliberately. Hugely important is making students feel like they belong. This is a home for them, they fit, F-I-T, and there are lots of ways you can help students fit. And that’s what we try to do in what has become known as the first-year experience. That’s a succinct answer to your question.

John K: One of the things that I found interesting about your description of the University 101 class was the time spent in professional development, because I don’t think that’s very common for most college faculty, before teaching a course, that there was a lot of professional development. And it was interesting to see that happening so early. Could you talk to us a little bit about why that was put into the process.

John G: This all goes back to my President at the time, it was his vision. He was a native Mississippian, who had managed to get a scholarship to a high school completer, to go to, of all places, to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology where he become an engineer, he went on from there, he became dean of engineering at Purdue. He came to the University of South Carolina in 1962, let it 12 years, presided over the peaceful integration of the university. We were one of the few southern universities that did not need federal marshals or troops or sheriff’s deputies to integrate. What he learned from this was that in the period, particularly after the Higher Education Act of 1965, when we were expanding higher education, creating larger and larger institutions, that these environments became less friendly to undergraduate students. And so what he learned was that we had to, “humanize” the university environment to be more accommodating to first-generation students who did not come from college-educated families. And the principal agents of humanization were the faculty because they had the most interaction with students. But in their graduate school preparation, that’s not what they’ve been taught to do. They’ve been produced as experts in a discipline, and they’ve not had any experiences and how to teach that discipline other than to emulate their mentors. And so his vision was, if you wanted to humanize a whole university environment, you had to change the behavior of the students. But to change the behavior of the students, you had to change the behavior of the faculty. So he used this course as an excuse to require the instructors who taught this course to go through a 45 hour professional development human relations training seminar, to get them to learn new ways to understand college students and learning principles and theory and more about psychosocial adjustment transitions and new communication and pedagogical strategies for undergraduate students. And his hope was, “Well, if you completed the professional development, you could use what you learned in the other things you did for students, you wouldn’t use them just in the University 101 course. So we established the finish, and that is alive and well 50 years later, nobody teaches this course without having gone through the training. And we’re still doing the training. And that is really the secret sauce to the success of this. And I can confidently predict over the next 50 years, we’re not going to give that up because we’ve seen what it can do. So the mission then of the University 101 program became really twofold: it was to develop students, but in order to develop the students we had to develop the faculty and staff who taught them in ways that they had not been developed in graduate school.

John K: One of the other things you talked about was how the success of the program was evaluated. Could you talk a little bit about what the results were in terms of the impact on student outcomes, in terms of student success?

John G: The founding president, to say the least, was rather controversial. And the university had tried to absorb 12 years of extraordinary change. And when he left the university to go to MIT to become their Executive VP for Research, we got an interim president for three years, and he made his hallmark for his interregnum, the idea of evaluating a number of the initiatives of his predecessor. We didn’t call that assessment then, but that’s exactly what it was. Matter of fact, the University of South Carolina has been really a forerunner and a pioneer in the assessment movement. So the new President, the first candidate he picked for evaluation was the President’s pet, and that was the University 101 course. And he announced this in the faculty senate meeting in September of 1974 and I was the brand new director of the course, and I was then untenured. So it was a shock to my system to know that what I had been asked to lead was about to be on the presidential evaluation chopping block. And so the university had to figure out how might you evaluate this. And they stipulated that I was not to do the evaluation because I was not objective about it, I was the leader of it. So what they did was they did a careful examination of what were the goals of the course. What were we telling students and their families and ourselves on the faculty and staff are the goals of the course and how might you measure the attainment of the goals? So we did a number of things. First of all, we developed a first time ever software adjustment in the university’s computing capacity to trace the proportion of first-year students who took University 101 to be able to compare them to students who didn’t take University 101, and we wanted to compare those two populations in terms of their predicted grade point averages, how well our algorithms were predicting they would do in the first-year of college versus how well they actually did. And we wanted to disaggregate the differences. We wanted to look at white students, black students, male students, female students, residential students, non-residential students, as many variables as we could think of to see who fared better than others. We also wanted to figure out what might the similarities and differences be between what students actually did, what were their behavioral choices in the first-year of college. And so we developed a survey that we administered in the required course for all students, first-year composition. University 101 was not a required course at that time, it was an elective. It’s still an elective, as a matter of fact, now it’s taken by about 85% of the first-year class, then less than 20. it was a very, very small population. There were about 275 students the first time we did it in 17 sections. But these questions we asked on the survey that we gave out in the freshman English class in which we did not tell the students who are taking the survey that the purpose of the survey was to evaluate the University 101 course, because we didn’t want there to be any kind of spillover halo effect. And so we asked them a whole set of questions about what did they know about the services that had been designed to help university students? And then we asked them which of these services had they used? And we asked them, what kind of groups had they joined? We asked them if they went to plays, concerts, lectures outside of class? We asked them about their relationships with their advisor. We asked them about the level of satisfaction and benefit they received in orientation. So we looked at all their answers, and we differentiated two populations. What did University 101 participants tell us? And what did the students tell us that hadn’t been in University 101, And, oh my God, we were shocked at the differences. The University 101 students were much more likely, not only to have known where to go get help, they actually went to get help. They were much more likely to have join groups. They’re more likely to have gone to extra co-curricular activities outside of class. And the biggest difference of all was that the students who elected to take this optional course, they had a lower predicted potential, meaning a lower predicted grade point average, which is a weighted factor of the high school rank in class and score on the SAT than students who didn’t take the course. In other words, the students who didn’t take the course were better prepared, and therefore we predicted they would have a higher grade point average and a higher persistence rate in the first year. What we found was exactly the opposite. The students with the lower predicted grade point average fared better and longer than the students with a higher predicted grade point average, they had higher retention rates. That was stunning, totally unanticipated. So of course, we wanted to know why… what explains this? Well, the explanations were in the things that students told us they were doing. And so we realized, if you do certain things for first-year students by design and not leaving it to chance, you’re more likely to get more of them to stay longer. One of the biggest takeaways of all was that the students who were initially predicting to do less well, it was a function of race and ethnicity. And we found that the gaps between how they were predicted to perform and how they actually performed were the greatest in the black students. And 50 years later, we’re still finding that the developmental changes and evolution of these students during, not only the first-year, but the undergraduate experience, that changes are greatest for the black students at the University of South Carolina. They are reporting the highest levels of involvement and engagement, which is astonishing, given the fact that it’s a predominantly white institution and the proportion of black students has been declining, I’m sad to say. And this is true of research universities all over the country where we are, perhaps unintentionally, I think some of us would say intentionally, re-segregating these organizations. So anyway, we learned a great deal about what you have to do to make first-year college students successful. And that body of research has been picked up and adopted by hundreds of other institutions now that do the same things we’re trying to do. They don’t always do them the same way. But they’ve got the same lessons. And so we know now what to do to make more students more successful in college, if we don’t leave it to chance.

John K: And by doing those things, you’re closing some of those equity gaps and providing more equitable rates of student success across all groups.

John G: Absolutely. We’re showing it can be done. There were pockets where we knew that before. As a matter of fact, when I learned about a campus before I visit a campus… I’ve been on 500 campuses, give or take, in my career… and generally the two highest performing groups on any campus are the honors population and, if the institution is so fortunate, students who participate in what are called TRIO programs, TRIO programs are provided by the federal government. There used to be three of them, hence, TRIO. There are now eight of them. But these are restricted to the criteria for eligibility, which has primarily revolved around Pell eligibility and financial means. And what we find is the lowest financial ability populations are doing as well as the honors populations who are disproportionately the more affluent middle, upper-middle class students. And why? …because in both those populations, they are getting levels of attention and support that the majority of students are not getting. So for any of us who cared to look, the TRIO programs were authorized in 1965. And we’ve known that if you do certain things for the students who are the least well advantaged, they are going to flourish. But we don’t do those things, many of us, for the majority of college students. Now at the University of South Carolina, that’s not true. We do all those things for all the students that want it. And most of them participate, about 85% of our first-year students have this, what we call, a First-Year Experience Program. So we know it can be done and American higher education just needs to be more intentional about doing that, has to have the will, the political will.

John K: And you mentioned visiting about 500 institutions, it sounds like this has spread quite a bit within the US and globally.

John G: It has, and the principal means for dissemination was a set of conferences that we began in 1982. And this is a really simple idea, but any of our listeners could do this. And when you really get immersed in something you’re doing in higher education, and you’re getting to know what students want and what they respond positively to, you look at that and you say, “What of this, could we tweak? What adjustment could we make? What are we not seeing that if we did something different, we could boost the outcomes.” And in my case, I looked at our higher ed enterprise in the early 80s and I thought if we wanted to learn more about first-year college students, and what colleges and universities were doing with them, and for them, how would you do that? There were no conferences, there was no literature base, no research, no journals, and I thought, “Damn, why don’t we just get people together to talk about this?” And so that was my rocket science idea. Why don’t we create a meeting to bring faculty academic administrators, state and Student Affairs people together? And we did such a meeting for the first time in 1982. And I want you to know that the state that sent the largest proportion of educators to that first national convening around the first-year experience was the state of New York. I thought, why was that the case? Well, hell, it snows up there, they want to get out of New York State in February to come down to South Carolina to see if we wear shoes in the winter and play golf, and I don’t care why they come down. As long as they come to the conference, they can do other things. Don’t blame them. And so we had a disproportionate representation of the colder climates in the United States when we started this work. We also had a significant contingent of Canadians who came to the initial meeting. Well, we’ve done 42 of these annual meetings since then, one a year, plus a lot of other meetings, and we founded a National Center at the University of South Carolina, it’s the National Resource Center for the first-year experience and students in transition. I founded that, actually, and left in 1999. But my successors have done a marvelous job with that. And when I left, I founded, with my wife, Betsy Barefoot, a new national organization that does not replicate the activities of the University of South Carolina. And we’re not offering a course, we don’t provide instruction, we’re not on a campus. But it is about focusing on the success of undergraduate students. Initially, your principal mechanism for espousing and disseminating this first-year experience concept was through a series of conferences. But, in addition, the other mechanism which has reached even more people is publishing, writing. In the higher ed community publishing is the currency of the realm. If you’re doing any legitimate work, you’ve got to write about it, and somebody’s got to want to read it, somebody’s got to publish it. And so my work, as it’s evolved, well actually long before I left University of South Carolina, has been significantly focused on publishing about this work, to get more people to read it and consider it, and decide how they could replicate it in their own fashion,

John K: With the success of these programs and with the training that’s often provided to faculty teaching them, those faculty often teach other classes, and the lessons learned in developing these classes and working with them have been spreading more widely throughout higher ed.

John G: Yeah, and that’s been documented. We wanted to know “Okay, you go through this training, you teach a first-year Seminar, do you use these pedagogies in any other context? Does it affect your attitudes towards students? Do you learn things that you wouldn’t have learned otherwise?” I’ll give you an example of that. This may sound prurient, but I think it’s appropriate. We, America, the world, we discovered the AIDS epidemic in 1981 and nobody was prepared for that. But the thoughtful institutions, particularly research universities said, “Well, what can we do about this? This is killing people. And part of it’s a medical challenge, but it’s also a behavioral one, and what can we do in the realm of preventive medicine?” And so we decided that a purpose of the first-year seminar is to sustain and extend life and to help people lead lives of different qualities. And so we thought, “Okay, here in the conservative South Carolina, the students are not getting sex education in the public school system. What are we going to do when they come to university?” They are at their… not peak, but their prime of sexual activity. They have a lot of freedom, privacy, curiosity, creativity, and they’re in good health, but they’re doing things that are very unhealthy. They’re making poor decisions, health wise. So we in effect had to become educators in preventive health medicine, which we did, and that was transformative for our work and so It meant that the people who were teaching this course had to learn more about sex than they had ever known in order to facilitate the discussion and the absorption of the information that we were getting from our medical school and our public health, all those experts that universities have, that we put together an educational intervention like this to literally save people’s lives. And so that’s another function of these courses. The basic purpose of higher education is to help people live longer and healthier, and more fulfilling lives. And you got to lay the foundation of that in the first year to help people stop making stupid decisions.

John K: And we know that sometimes first-year students do make stupid decisions, as we know, from our own experiences, as well as what we’ve observed.

John G: Absolutely, yeah.

John K: And I think that’s a good note to wrap up on. We always end with the question: What’s next?

John G: I started a year ago, what you’re doing, I started a podcast series, and it’s called Office Hours with John Gardner. And I’m interested in one primary question, which is innovation in higher education. How do some people become innovators and what sustains them and what’s the impact? And so I’m going to take these interviews that I’ve been doing, and I’m going to convert them into some kind of book and hopefully develop theory around higher education innovation. So that’s going to be my next writing project. But my next crusade is around graduate school education. We made a tremendous contribution starting in the early 80s by looking at the first-year student experience. I’m working with a small group of colleagues right now to figure out how to launch a national set of conversations around the graduate student experience. And I want to do that because we’re losing huge numbers of graduate students who fall out of the pipelines. But the public’s largely unaware of this, because the federal government does not make institutions report that. It’s not in the domain of public data. And most families are more interested, understandably so, can I get my kid into undergraduate school, get them through undergraduate school, but now for many of them, undergraduate education is not enough. And we know that the same inequities that operate in undergraduate school, they are present in graduate education. And so we got to get more people who don’t look like me, and for whom graduate education was not designed, to flourish in graduate education. And graduate education is the most traditional component of university college life. We are more likely to be doing that the same way we’ve been doing it for several centuries than anything else we do. And so I’d like to do that. Another project is I’m working with the Association of Governing Boards on a model to get college and university trustees working in more partnership with higher education campus based leaders to better understand and support student success efforts. I’m doing a lot of work around transfer. The transfer outcomes, and our student outcomes in our country are shameful, and I should have started much earlier in my career. On that, 80% of entering community college students indicate that their ultimate goal is to earn a baccalaureate degree and only about 14% of them do. Shocking, shocking failure rates that if we were a hospital we would be shut down. So I got lots of things to work on, lots of needs in the academy. The academy is a wonderful environment. I’m privileged to work in it with people like you who are trying to disseminate the ideas and experiences of others to help our fellow educators. And I thank you for your role in that.

John K: Thank you for all the work that you’ve done in building programs that allow more of our students to be successful.

Rebecca: I really appreciate the opportunity to learn from you, John, thanks for sharing your stories with us.


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

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


284. Learning That Matters

Many graduates describe their college experience as being transformative, changing how they view the world and their role in it. In this episode, Caralyn Zehnder, Karynne Kleine, Julia Metzker, and Cynthia Alby join us to explore the role that college faculty can play in creating transformative learning experiences.

Caralyn is a senior lecturer in biology at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, Karynne is the former Dean of the Division of Education at Young Harris College, Julia is the Director of the Washington Center for Undergraduate Education at Evergreen St College, and Cynthia is a Professor of Education at Georgia College. They are the authors of Learning that Matters: A Field Guide to Course Design for Transformative Education.

Show Notes

  • Zehnder, C., Alby, C., Kleine, K., & Metzker, J. (2021). Learning that matters: A field guide to course design for transformative education. Myers Education Press.
  • Mezirow, J. (1991). Transformative Dimensions of Adult Learning. Jossey-Bass.
  • Selingo, J. J. (2013). College (un) bound: The future of higher education and what it means for students. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
  • Selingo, J. The Future Learners. Pearson.
  • Learning that Matters website
  • Learning that Matters: The Course Design Institute


John: Many graduates describe their college experience as being transformative, changing how they view the world and their role in it. In this episode, we explore the role that college faculty can play in creating transformative learning experiences.


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

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

John: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer…

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


Rebecca: Our guests today are Caralyn Zehnder, Karynne Kleine, Julia Metzker, and Cynthia Alby. Caralyn is a senior lecturer in biology at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, Karynne is the former Dean of the Division of Education at Young Harris College, Julia is the Director of the Washington Center for Undergraduate Education at Evergreen St College, and Cynthia is a Professor of Education at Georgia College. They are the authors of Learning that Matters: A Field Guide to Course Design for Transformative Education. Welcome Caralyn, Karynne, Julia, and Cynthia.

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

Karynne: I am and I was joking yesterday that I would have to go to Starbucks and get mine because all I have is Lipton, and I did. And so I’m having some Earl Grey [LAUGHTER] in my Hawaii Cup.

Rebecca: …where I would really like to be during our impending snowstorm. [LAUGHTER]

John: Julia?

JULIA: No, actually I am drinking coffee out of my trusty thermos as I do every morning. [LAUGHTER]

Rebecca: …there’s always one ,Julia.

John: Well, at least one.. And Cynthia? [LAUGHTER]

Cynthia: I am drinking a Tazo tea called glazed lemon loaf.

John: I haven’t seen that one.

Rebecca: It smells really tasty. I’ve had it. The smell though, is what really gets it.

John: And Caralyn?

Caralyn: I have a handpicked hand dried sweet fern and sassafras tea that my 10 year old who’s now into wild foraging blended for me.

John: Wonderful.

Rebecca: Well, that’s amazing. Can I have I have 10-year old? [LAUGHTER] I have some Awake tea today, despite the fact that it’s two o’clock in the afternoon.

John: And I have Darjeeling tea today.

Rebecca: That’s a different choice for you, John.

John: It is. I was looking for things I haven’t had recently. So I picked that one.

Rebecca: Score one for you, fail for Rebecca. So we’ve invited you here today to discuss Learning that Matters. Can you talk a little bit about how this book came about?

Caralyn: Well, we, many years ago, were all faculty together at Georgia College. And it started with Julia and Cynthia started a group focused on course design. And it morphed into what became the innovative course building group. It was this grassroots… sort of bottom up… we wanted more support, and collaborative work towards teaching. And we all began working together through this and doing workshops. And so we decided to write the book that we wished we had had, when we had first started teaching. We wanted it to be based in theory, but really practical, have a lot of strategies, be really conversational, and be collaborative, and really encourage people to work together. Because we found that sometimes teaching could be so isolating that working together and talking with other people was just something that gave us so much support and we enjoyed, and we wanted that for others.

John: This book is designed to help faculty create transformative learning experiences. What constitutes a transformative learning experience?

Karynne: Well, for our book, we actually used a Mezirow’s theory and then work really from John Dewey. And our definition is about fundamental change that learners undergo, if it is a transformative education, whereby they see themselves and they see the world differently. I taught teachers and I would always tell them, the person you will be when you leave this program is not the person who you are now. So it involves a lot of reflection, whereby you have an experience, you process that experience, and then you make meaning of that. And that changes how you are viewing yourself and the world.

Rebecca: So reflection is a critical part of that practice.

Karynne: Absolutely. And that’s really what we get from Dewey is the importance of that for learning

Rebecca: So, you start a chapter with a pre-flection. Could you explain to our listeners, what this is and why you use this approach? And how we could use it in our classes?

Cynthia: Yes. So it’s one or more questions that we have at the very beginning of the chapter. And I feel like they are just gold. I thought that for a long time. I’ve always enjoyed having individuals do some thinking upfront really before we dive in. But then in a recent study, I’m going to say it was probably 2021, around there, students who took a practice test, who answered questions before learning the material, outperformed their peers who studied it more traditionally, by 49% on a follow-up test. So then I thought, well, heck, I think these pre-questions are even more valuable than I ever imagined. And when you think about why, it makes a lot of sense, because first of all, some pre-questions, some pre-flection, gets people in a good headspace and it’s got them thinking along with what it is you’re about to introduce. I think it stimulates anticipation, because now that you’ve answered some questions, you’re curious to see are the authors going to agree with me? Disagree? What’s going to happen? And I think it can highlight gaps in your knowledge that if you answered some questions previously, and then as you read, you might think, “Okay, well, yes, I said that in my pre-flection. And oh, yes, I said that, oh, but I didn’t think about that piece.” I think it kind of shines a light on those pieces that maybe you hadn’t thought of before. So I just really, really highly recommend that not only does it make good sense for a book like thispre-free questions. And when I have students reading something for homework, I always have some pre-questions that I asked them to answer before they even ever start reading.

John: One argument for it too, is that it helps activate prior knowledge, it gets students starting to make connections, recalling what they already know, and sets a frame for them to put new material into that framework and elaborate on what they already do know. It’s a wonderful strategy and I should do more of it myself. [LAUGHTER] I advocate that very often. And I don’t do it as much as I should.

Rebecca: I know one of the things that I’ve discovered in using some of those strategies is that sometimes a topic is familiar [LAUGHTER] and so familiar is different than knowing. And so sometimes doing an activity like that can help someone recognize that it’s something they’ve heard of before, but they don’t actually know that much about it.

Cynthia: Absolutely.

Caralyn: And especially if it’s something where you know that there’s going to be some misconceptions or things like where the topic, how it’s described, maybe outside of your discipline is not the same as how it is inside, or the terminology has specific meanings. And it’s so good for uncovering that and so much more powerful than me standing up in front of the room, just talking about it.

John: One of the anchor concepts in your book is the principle of teaching towards equity. What are some of the ways in which faculty can work towards creating a more equitable classroom environment?

JULIA: One thing I want to start off by saying is that sometimes, because the stakes around equity are so high, we get a little overwhelmed. And when we start to think about how do I teach towards equity, and one of my lifelong goals as a faculty developer is to demystify the concept of teaching for equity. And so I like to say, at its core, it’s the process of humanizing the learning environment. And so what I mean by that is just approaching each and every student as a unique human with their own story and understanding that the story that they bring into the classroom will impact and influence how they learn, when they learn, what they learn. And then I also want to say to these folks, because I was there, and this idea, like how am I going to make the world more equitable? It’s such a big job. But really, we all as human beings have the innate tools to do this, because we’re social beings that live in a social environment. And we have a lot of practice in all kinds of parts of our lives, learning how to create relationships, how to build communities, how to live in relationship with each other. But it can be challenging in teaching, because we’re working against some pretty powerful social forces that lead us to treat students in our classes as if they’re a monolith. In particular, there’s a powerful collective story about who goes to college and why. And many of us have unconsciously absorbed this story about who goes to college and why and it does not relate to reality. It doesn’t reflect the reality of who’s in our classes. So a big part of what we need to do is understand how to make visible the rich complexity of the stories of learners in our classroom. So my advice is to start with the things you know, which is, if this is something that’s new to you, the very first thing I would say is just make space and provide value for building relationships in your class. So by that, I mean like devote some time where you’re building relationships, where students are building relationships with one another, and put some value on that. So if the currency in your classroom is points, make some points that are associated with building relationships so you’re communicating that this is actually a highly valued part of the learning. And if you’ve already done that, then I should say the second step would be thinking about structure and transparency. So building structures that are clear and transparent for students. So the transparent syllabus and assignments are a great way to start with that, the idea of making what’s hidden, visible for students, and that helps us unpack those stories, because that collective story that many of us have absorbed is the students that are coming to college already know what it means to go to college and for many of our students, that’s not true. So helping make visible what’s hidden. And then the third thing I would say, which is like a thread throughout the whole book, which is grab a friend or some friends and sit down and have some conversations about it, get a book, read it together, but find some partners in crime in here to help you figure out how how you’re gonna teach towards equity and what it might mean for you to teach toward equity. So you can find some really firm grounding and footing for that.

Rebecca: One of the things I really like about how you’re describing teaching toward equity is that it’s a spectrum. And that it’s not equitable or not, but you’re teaching towards it, or you’re moving in that direction, or you’re pushing the needle there. And I think that’s a much more palatable approach than something that feels absolute. And we all know, it’s not actually absolute anyways.

Karynne: Yeah, I think that’s actually woven throughout the book. We really try to encourage folks to take the smallest step regarding anything. And then we also very much encourage collaboration. So find a friend to do this with somebody who’s like minded, and you’re never going to get there. So we’re not there. But this mindset that you’re moving in that direction is really helpful. And I think that’s, like I said, woven throughout the book.

Cynthia: I just think so often, when we think about equity, we think of it sometimes only in terms of content, like the authors I’m teaching, the scientists I’m including, and so forth. But we also like to think about equity in terms of the strategies, not just the what we teach, but the how we teach. And I think oftentimes, that’s an area of equity that people haven’t thought that much about.

Rebecca: Those are all really good points.

John: So one area where perhaps there might be some inequities is in terms of class discussions, because some students would like to talk all the time, other students are a bit more cautious, and sometimes even think about what they want to say before they say anything. What would you suggest to create a more equitable environment for discussions.

JULIA: I’ll jump in and say, my favorite for this, and first, I would say practice in very low risk [LAUGHTER] situations. First is the circle of voices. So this idea that you’re moving around in a circle, and everybody has a chance to speak uninterrupted, so that you’ve lowered the barrier to entry, and that you’re practicing this regularly, so that every student has a lived embodied experience of what it feels like to speak before you let go of those structures, then they’re much more likely to engage once they’ve had that kind of an experience. And then any kind of structured protocol where students are not spending their cognitive power, trying to think about how they’re gonna navigate the space, because it’s really clear how to navigate the space. So they can think about the ideas and do deep listening.

Karynne: Another that we all tend to use, is having community agreements. And we’ll probably talk more about that. But going through that experience with learners, and saying, “This is what we are committing to, and this is what we will abide by.” And that way, those for whom it’s just really, really difficult to speak in a large group won’t feel put upon to do that. If your community says we’re gonna encourage people, but we’re not going to require that or we’re going to ask people to be mindful of how much they are speaking, but we’re not going to close them off if they feel the need to say a second thing.

Caralyn: And I say that sometimes we think about discussions, and we just envision like, okay, we’re all sitting around a table having a classroom discussion, but opening it up, thinking about Universal Design for Learning, and that multiple ways for students to express themselves. So maybe it is an online forum, or maybe one is this synchronous or asynchronous, so that it’s not a, okay, you need to get up and speak in front of 20 people, but maybe you get some time to write. And here’s where the pre-flection questions can really help too, because having some time to think and write beforehand can make for such a richer discussion.

Rebecca: I think the pre-flection also offers that opportunity to transition into a space. You’ve been in this other place, or I was at lunch, or I had this thing, or I had this other conflict on my mind. But then here’s some time to get in this space of what it is that we’re talking about, which does allow people to focus more. So you also advocate for a strategy of “dilemma-issue-question.” Can you talk a little bit about what this is and how it’s a useful strategy?

Caralyn: The dilemmas issues questions, or DIQ approach is basically a framework or a model for putting the course content or the skills that you’re helping students master into a big framing question or a societal issue that students care about. Because we need to provide the “why” we need to provide the “here’s the purpose,” the reason for learning this. So if I’m teaching evolution by natural selection, rather than just diving into “here are the criteria,” maybe pose the question of “which species will be able to evolve in response to climate change?” because now we care about learning about what do we need to know to be able to answer that important question. It helps students connect. It’s an equitable practice because they’re bringing their own lived experiences. They can see where the knowledge and skills are useful, and they get to be creative and do creative thinking, critical thinking, and it’s so much more interesting and fun to teach. You can just take it in so many different ways. And we don’t have to look too far outside of our ivory towers to see big societal issues that we’re all going to be facing, especially many of our students. And if we want to have hope for those things getting solved, then I think providing students with that sort of training and modeling that in the classroom is just so important.

Karynne: Not just the importance of doing this, but really changing your mindset about what is important content in your class. We’ve done a lot of work with other faculty on the content doesn’t have to be these 9 million things that you’re going to be tested on at the end of your chemistry degree, but rather, this ability to think in the present and in the future and solve problems that really, really matter. Hence, learning that matters. I think that’s important to point out. So I think it’s a jazzy name that we’ve come up with, for a dilemma issue and question, DIQs. But I also think this mindset is just so important to develop.

John: And students, I think, would find it easier to learn about things that they care about, where they see the intrinsic value of what they’re working on.

Caralyn: Yeah, because that’s all of us. I feel like every other article in the Chronicle or Faculty Focus, it’s like,” Oh, do we have a student engagement crisis?” And it’s like, “okay, well, how do we engage people?” We engage them by having things that they’re interested in and passionate about, and find purpose in, and that’s where you can have projects where students, they’ll blow you away with what they’re doing, and how much work and time they’ll put into it because they care.

John: One of the issues that people have been complaining about for the last couple of years, since we move back to face-to-face instruction is what appears to be a lack of student motivation. So one way of addressing it is asking students to work on things that they find interesting, and that they can see the value of. Are there any other strategies to increase student engagement and motivation?

Cynthia: Well, I want to start by saying that I really think the decline is real. When I’ve been at national conferences and just talking to faculty from all over, it just seems like it’s what is on everyone’s mind. I have absolutely seen it. It’s interesting to think about why is there this decline? Some of the students I’ve talked to have said, it’s just really hard for them to pay attention for such long stretches of time, when they got used to only paying attention, maybe for short periods of time, I think some began to question the importance of learning at all, especially in high schools. There were often times where teachers were told if the students do anything at all, pass them. And so what message does that send to our students? But a couple of really interesting things I’ve heard from students recently. One student said to me, sometimes I don’t think you professors recognize that these cutesy assignments you give us aren’t really preparing us for the future. And so I feel like anything that helps students better face uncertainty, deal with authentic problems, as opposed to ones that we’ve kind of created in the classroom. Those make a really big difference. And then, of course, some of my graduate students told me this. They had been undergraduates when the pandemic hit, they said, during the pandemic, we learned to cheat, we learn to cheat well. They were just right up front about it. And these are excellent students. And now we’ve of course, got ChatGPT, which makes it even easier if you want to cheat. And that’s something I’ve been studying a lot. And through studying chatGPT, oddly where I came out, after weeks and weeks of study was that students valuing the learning Is everything. Students, valuing the learning is everything. It’s the answer. It’s the foundational answer. And so the learning must matter. And so I’ve been thinking a lot about what we know about intrinsic motivation, and what makes someone value learning. They value learning when they have more autonomy, how can we increase autonomy? They value learning more when they feel a sense of mastery over what they’re learning. They value learning more when they see the purpose. And often the relationship-rich type of classroom also makes them value learning more. So every once in a while, I think, would we have written a different book if we’d written it post pandemic? If we’ve written it post ChatGPT? And I think the answer is no, I think we would have written the same book, because everything in the book is geared toward that type of teaching and learning that is so focused on intrinsic motivation and engagement and relationship building and connecting to the world beyond the classroom. It’s almost like we saw this stuff coming. I don’t know. [LAUGHTER]

Rebecca: I had an interesting conversation with a colleague yesterday about a conversation she had had with some graduate students that talked about why the students were in graduate school. And they said, “Well, I kind of got cheated out of my undergrad. I didn’t get the undergrad experience because of the pandemic.” And so the motivations that we might assume, that are not necessarily real, of why someone’s in school in the first place, it was just kind of interesting to hear the perspective that they’re not here necessarily to get a particular kind of experience, they feel like they didn’t get. So finding a way to get them to value the learning is really important. And knowing they’re not here because they are motivated, because they’re so excited about a particular topic, which you might expect of a graduate student, I think is really an interesting insight to consider.

Caralyn: And I think it connects back to what Julia was saying, we need to know our students in order to understand: What are their motivations? Why are they here? …and we can’t just assume that they’re coming in with the same reasons we did. We need to take the time, build the time into our courses, to get to know students and have those relationships.

JULIA: I’d also add, if we’re really serious about making students the agents of their own education, we really need to look at the structures of how our institutions are set up, because they’re just so patronizing in every way. Like when students come, there’s so many ways in which they get messages about how they are not able to make decisions about what they can and cannot do that the institution, the professor, that they all know best, and that they need to fit themselves in the mold of that. And that mold is often defined by that story I was talking about earlier, that one story about who goes to college and why? And there’s a lot of unlearning we need to do in higher education to create institutions that actually center student agency.

Rebecca: So we know that institutional change isn’t fast, and requires a lot of people to push against the current structure to change the structure. And one of the ways we can do that is thinking about our own courses, a place that we do have control over. So can you talk a little bit about some of the strategies we can encourage faculty to adopt or practice in the spaces they do have control over, that would help us move into this transformative space and move towards equity.

JULIA: One of the ways in which we do this in the book is we do it in thinking about designing learning experiences from a liberatory framework. And I’ll back up and say backward design has been a really valuable tool in faculty development and teacher preparation, and really has helped change the way in which we think about how we teach. So instead of allowing a textbook or some other driving force, determine what the order is, and the pathway for teaching, we’ve thought backwards about what are the goals we want. One of the challenges with that, I think, leans into what I was just saying is that centers, the faculty member’s thinking very much. It’s a faculty centered thinking design process. And so something that we really tried to do in the book is think about how might you decenter the faculty member in that process some, so that you can bring in some of those student perspectives. And so we did this in a couple of ways. I won’t talk about all of them, because it would take a really long time, but one I want to mention is using design thinking as an approach to complicate that backward design process. So design thinking is an approach that we borrowed, not just us, but lots of folks in higher education now are borrowing from product and software design. And design thinking really starts with centering the user of the design. So if you were a product designer, you would start by trying to empathize with the user. So for example, if you are a toy designer, you’d want to observe children in play and engaging with toys to understand how they engage with toys. You might also want to dig into some research about child development in your target age group so that you could think about developing that toy to be appropriately developmental. And so we translate this in an activity in our book using an empathy map. And the way that we did this, which I think is quite powerful, is we built some composite student personas that tell different stories about students in college, but they’re based on data. To build these I use the institutional data from our institution. And also if you’re familiar with Jeffrey Selingo’s student segments, we use those as well to build, I think there are five of them, that tell different stories about students in college, their histories or herstories, and also their goals for being in college. And then the exercise asked the educators to center themselves in that narrative, and think about what kind of messages might that student be getting from their family, from the college, from the society at large? What kind of goals might they have for themselves, and really think deeply about these before you write your learning goals and decide what activities you’re going to do and set up your learning environment so that process of backward design can really be influenced by having a deeper understanding of the types of students that are actually in your classroom. I’ll just say with a caveat, these student personas were derived from our data and every institution is different. So it really helps to make your own. And from the concept of design thinking, the best approach is to have access to the actual users, which is not always practical in higher education. But another way you might do this is to interview students who’ve been through your class to think about a redesign, you might interview them to understand how they engage with the material. And this is a great way to use an assessment technique through an empathy map.

Karynne: Could I add a couple of things? One is about the process and why we liked this design process. And that is iterative. And the more I talk, the more I’ve realized, oh, everything is just iterative. And so I really liked that we get to embrace that and realize that, okay, it’ll be different next time, it may get closer to the mark if I do this. The other thing I was going to comment on is, and we’ve all done this as well… So it’s not always practical to design the course, but sometimes co-designing with students is really, really powerful. And we’ve tried to take advantage of that when we have that opportunity, just again to send that message, like it’s not about the professor’s experience, it’s about the learners’ experience.

JULIA: Even taking little pieces and co-designing them… I taught a general chemistry class for years and years. And I had a rubric for the final grade and we just co-designed that every year. But it was the only thing we co-designed because we didn’t have time to do the whole course. But that was a pretty powerful thing to co-design at the beginning.

Rebecca: As a designer, I appreciate everybody talking about design thinking. [LAUGHTER]

Caralyn: It took us a while to get there when we think about higher ed, but it makes so much sense. Who do we really want to be thinking about? …and it’s the learner and their experience.

Cynthia: And I often think about the who that we’re designing for, and that all too often novice professors, I find, tend to design for a younger version of themselves. Older professors tend to design for kind of an average student. And then every once in a while someone is designing for an anomaly, where they had a student a previous semester who did something terrible, and now they’re redesigning the course ao that never happens again. And I think any one of those can be problematic, and that we’re often better off trying to design with a variety of students in mind, and not just a single concept.

Rebecca: You mean, we don’t have just one student?

Cynthia: it turns out, we don’t. [LAUGHTER] ibut that would be nice.

Rebecca: It would be a lot easier.

JULIA:Getting specific is important here. The generalities are, I think, the problem. And so what the personas do is they provide some really specific cases to think towards. So you’re not thinking in general about a group of people that morph together, but you’ve got like, one of them is Juwan. And he’s a military veteran, and he can only go to school part time, and he needs to work two days a week. Just getting those details in your mind when you’re thinking about the design are really, really valuable.

John: Might it be helpful also, to get data from your specific students? Do a survey of them asking about their life experiences, about what has worked well for them in the past, and what challenges they’ve had in prior classes or where things didn’t work so well, so that you can address some of those in designing your course, perhaps co-designing, or at least responding to, the students expressed concerns.

Caralyn: There’s so much information there, and it helps going back to building those relationships, they want to be able to talk about who they are, especially if they see that you’re responding to their feedback and changing something because of it. That models such awesome behavior.

John: And if you know some of the things your students are interested in, you can use that sometimes to design activities that may appeal to the specific mix of students you have in your class. So you’re not teaching to that generic student, you’re working with the actual students in your class,

Cynthia: You could design even the assessments around those students sitting in front of you.

Rebecca: What? [LAUGHTER] Tell me more about that.

Caralyn: When we get into assessment, and this is where, when we were writing and that was this collaborative writing process, where I learned so much from Julia, Karynne, and Cynthia about this, and I feel like assessment is the area where there’s so much I can do, personally in my own courses, but also where I look at like that’s where we can have some of the biggest impact because I think our assessment practices have not been well designed and we have done harm and we need to fix that. And I think we advocate for connected assessment. So assessments where they are aligned with learning outcomes, of course, but also working and designing for the whole student. So they’re holistic, they’re affirming, so we’re not trying to be punitive. We’re not trying to like here, let’s go in looking for those mistakes. But we’re looking at, “Hey, where’s the growth happening? Where’s the learning?” …and highlighting that, and being so much more focused on giving feedback and process, so, “Here’s how you’re going and here’s how you move forward” and not just like, “Okay, here’s the percentage and you should know what to do with that,” because it turns out most of us don’t. And being able to have authentic experiences, and the end, like was mentioned earlier, being really transparent. Having examples, having models, being really clear about “here are the steps.” Because if we have, “okay, here’s a project, you’re going to write a lab report,” but I don’t describe actually what goes into that, and what are the steps in how to do it, well, then I really shouldn’t be surprised when the final products are not awesome, because I didn’t provide enough scaffolding to get there. And this is someplace where I’m still doing a lot of work here thinking about my values in teaching and how if I’m looking at that, now, for me, it might be that reading table on the syllabus, like here’s where the points are, here’s where things are coming from. How does that align with my values? How does that align with the message that I want to send students? And where we can being as intentional there as possible, and talking to students about what is the message they’re getting, because what I am intending might not be what is being communicated. And then where we can, really thinking about and being open to taking a risk with some alternative grading strategies. Maybe it’s ungrading, maybe it’s specifications grading, but there are so many more resources and great smart people doing so much work in this area. And every single one I’ve ever talked to or reached out to is always super excited and willing to share their ideas and share what worked and what didn’t, because it can just really change the entire feeling in a classroom when we take away the power of grades, because they’ve really been used to stop learning and oppress in many cases. And if we get rid of that, it really opens up the space for some honest relationships.

Cynthia: Unfortunately, you have to end a book at a certain point and publish it, it turns out, and one of the things that we didn’t really get to talk a lot in the book about was ungrading. We got more into it right after the book came out. But that’s where having a website that goes along with the book has been such a great help, because we were able to put so many fantastic resources about ungraving or minimizing grades on that website. And that made me feel a lot better. Because for myself personally, getting involved with ungrading has been one of the most important things I’ve ever done for my teaching. No one told me it was going to change everything. [LAUGHTER] I thought it was just going to change one little piece, but it changed everything.

Karynne: One of the things that I’ve tried to do with the ungrading is to share with learners… mine’s a view, it’s not the only view… and I never want to be punitive with grading. If you feel like I’m punishing you with grades, please, we need to talk so that I can know more about your assets, know more about your desires, and help you head in the right direction not punish you because you don’t know something. It’s like that’s what learning is. And so that’s just been a practice of mine.

John: We’ll share a link to the website for the book in the show notes so that people can explore some of the additional resources there. One of the things you advocate throughout the book is the use of active learning approaches. But you also note that you should probably expect some pushback from students. What are some of the most effective ways of addressing the pushback from students who prefer learning by being lectured at so they can sit there passively without having to actively think about the content?

Karynne: One strategy actually you can use is to be upfront about it. So students in this course before when I’ve used these things, some of them really don’t like it, they’re very uncomfortable. So I just want to tell you that I’m aware of that. And that’s actually a point where I bring in that idea that I don’t wish to be punitive regarding assessment, you’re going to have as much say in this as I do. So the other thing is to share the the literature and the research. And again, since I primarily teach people who are going to be teachers, they really need to know about what the literature has to say, what the research has to say about learning. And it occurs when there’s some space between absolute comfort and absolute chaos or uncertainty. There’s going to be some uncertainty, so we always try to share that with learners as well so that they can go back and tap into that research. Another thing that we really try to do is to use self assessment and reflection as much as possible, so that you’re letting us know where are the ways that you are growing. I may not be aware of all the things that are changing in you and if you are able to inform me of that, that’s a much more informative approach, then, okay, I’m going to do all of the assessment. We had to learn this ourselves, [LAUGHTER] to start expecting the push back. And then they think that you don’t like them, because you’re not teaching the way that they prefer. And emphasizing that collective, how we’re all changing, how we’re all growing here, I think is another approach that you can take.

JULIA: I would also add just tapping into their lived experience of learning something new. And often they can really embody that if it’s not something about school. So like, are you good at tennis? What did it feel like when you first picked up a racket? Or did you try and learn something and give up on it? Why was that? So understanding that actually getting really good at something does have this period of discomfort before it becomes a regular part of your life so that you understand that that is actually getting you to a point where you’re going to be a different person and transformed.

Cynthia: A friend of mine noted that her students at first they said their fear was that the assessments weren’t going to match the activities in class. And so that made me think, oh, that’s probably something I need to say right up front is, this is what the assessments are going to look like. Here’s how what we’re doing in class is going to feed into that, because I can see where there may have been professors they had in the past, who taught in a way that was very active, but then assessed in a way that was very passive, and students might have had trouble making the match.

Rebecca: Well, there’s been so much great insight in this conversation today. So thank you so much for that. We always wrap up by asking: hat’s next?

JULIA: Well, that’s an exciting question for us. And I actually want to start by talking a little bit about how we ended the book, because a thread in the book that we haven’t talked too much about is really focusing on the educators identity development as an educator being a really critical piece of this whole journey. So what you’re putting together for students and doing for students may often feel like it’s just all work that’s flowing out of you. But also a very important part of that is your own development over time. And so our last chapter is called “Your turn, self and collective efficacy,” and it was really important to us to end by saying to educators, it’s important to think about who you are as an educator, and invest in yourself that way. So that’s one thing that I just wanted to put out there and make sure that people understood that that was a value for us. And in terms of what’s next for us is we are really, really, really excited about launching a course design institute that’s based on the book, which we’re going to host in August, it’s August 4th to 7th, it’s called “Learning that Matters: the Course Design Institute.”Iit’ll be here in Olympia, Washington, a really lovely place to be in August. And we’re at Evergreen State College, which is a College in the Woods, very beautiful. We have a farm and a beach. And, [LAUGHTER] I know, we’re very lucky. But the idea is to have an immersive collaborative environment to design or redesign the courses that you’re going to teach in the next fall. And to do that with people who are not necessarily at your institution. So to get a variety of voices and feedbacks. We’ll have a lot of time for you to work on your own, but also a lot of time to talk with people from different kinds of institutions who are working on different kinds of problems, teaching different kinds of courses, to build that interdisciplinary approach to the work that you are doing in your classroom and also help you build a wider community. So this is something we’re super, super excited about. And we will share that link with you so you can put it in the show notes. And then as a little bit of a teaser, we’re doing a free virtual workshop on May 9, this is at nine o’clock Pacific Time, which is noon Eastern time. It’s called Making Courses Memorable Beginning and Ending and I’m not going to say more about it because I want your curiosity be sparked there.

Cynthia: And of course, we’re also always happy to zoom in with people who are using the book for book clubs.

Rebecca: Well, thank you so much for joining us. We look forward to sharing this and encouraging folks to pick up your book.

Caralyn: Thank you.

JULIA: Thank you.

Karynne: 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.


283. Neurodiverse Hiring Initiative

Neurodiverse students often struggle to get co-ops, internships, and their first job because they face significant social barriers during the process of securing such opportunities. In this episode, Kendra Evans joins us to discuss a program at the Rochester Institute of Technology that helps this population of students build the skills needed to navigate the hidden rules of interviewing and supports them through their internship experiences.

Kendra is the Coordinator of the Neurodiverse Hiring Initiative (or NHI) at the Rochester Institute of Technology [RIT]. NHI facilitates myriad programs that build the confidence and job readiness skills of autistic job seekers, provides guidance and support to employers, and creates unique opportunities connecting hiring managers with RIT’s highly-skilled neurodiverse applicant pool. Kendra is pursuing her MBA to better make the business case for neurodiverse affirming workplaces.

Show Notes


John: Neurodiverse students often struggle to get co-ops, internships, and their first job because they face significant social barriers during the process of securing such opportunities. In this episode, we discuss a program that helps this population of students build the skills needed to navigate the hidden rules of interviewing and supports them through their internship experiences.


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 Kendra Evans. Kendra is the Coordinator of the Neurodiverse Hiring Initiative (or NHI) at the Rochester Institute of Technology [RIT]. NHI facilitates myriad programs that build the confidence and job readiness skills of autistic job seekers, provides guidance and support to employers, and creates unique opportunities connecting hiring managers with RIT’s highly-skilled neurodiverse applicant pool. Kendra is pursuing her MBA to better make the business case for neurodiverse affirming workplaces. Outside of RIT, Kendra is a community organizer and serves on various boards. She has three teenage children and a springer doodle puppy, loves her Peloton and logic puzzles, and her last meal would be a soft pretzel and an IPA at a ballpark, preferably Wrigley Field. Welcome Kendra.

Kendra: Thank you for having me.

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

Kendra: I am drinking some tea. I was going to Ted Lasso you and saying I’m really more of a coffee gal. But for the occasion, I’m having a little Earl Grey here in the afternoon.

John: Many of our guests do drink coffee or Diet Coke or water.

Rebecca: I did have a silent share. I don’t know if you saw but I was cheering for the tea. I’m so excited that you had tea. [LAUGHTER]

John: And I have Prince of Wales tea today.

Rebecca: And John and I are on the same page because… this is very unusual… but I have the same tea as John.

Kendra: Well…

John: I think that’s the first time in over 280 podcasts.

Rebecca: We chose them independently, and then realized we had chosen the same.

John: We’ve invited you here today to discuss the Neurodiverse Hiring initiative at RIT. First, though, could you tell us a little bit about yourself and your path to becoming a coordinator of this program?

Kendra: Sure. I actually started my career as an elementary school teacher and started off very early, realizing that my training, my master’s degree in education, didn’t actually prepare me for the students in my classroom. And so I went on to get a number of different certifications for the teaching of reading to dyslexic students, for a Lindamood-Bell training for processing disorders. And the more I broadened my skill set for working with learning differences, the more and more I kept coming in contact, and was being referred to work with students on the autism spectrum, mostly because of my passion for executive functioning, and how to basically improve those skills in everyone. And so I started as an elementary school teacher, I did that for a few years, became a learning specialist. Then when we relocated to Rochester, I opened my own small business. And while I was working in my brick and mortar social learning environment, RIT found me, my supervisor, Laurie Ackles, and the rest is history. So that’s where I came from. And then of course, I can tell you about the program itself. But that’s my trajectory was basically I’ve taught students pre-K now through higher ed.

Rebecca: You’ve hinted a little bit at your passion towards this work. Can you tell us a little bit about the origin of the initiative?

Kendra: Sure, well RIT started helping students transition from high school to college back in 2008. And one of the reasons that many students choose the Rochester Institute of Technology is because of the career and cooperative placement, we have a very robust, it’s like an apprenticeship program. In order to get your degree and most of our majors, it’s required that you have onsite experiential learning. And after my team had really moved forward in helping students with their social and their self advocacy and executive functioning, and all of the things needed to succeed for the academics in college, we realized that many of our students, even though they had come to RIT for this job experience, were unable to get their foot in the door. And therefore, when you can’t get your co-op that’s required, even though you’ve successfully completed all of the other content area requirements, they weren’t graduating. So this became the next barrier to employment and purpose and belonging in that meaningful adult life that we’re hoping all of our students succeed at. And so, thankfully, we have a gift funded initiative, thanks to the many parents that are very supportive of the work that we’ve done over the years. And so in 2018, we received this gift and pretty much were given carte blanche in order to do the work as we saw what our students needed and what employers were looking for. And in 2018, we started getting our students those first co-ops by partnering with employers and working on job training, and it’s gone from there.

Rebecca: Can you talk a little bit about some of the barriers that you indicated that the students were having or facing trying to get their foot in the door for those co-op experiences?

Kendra: Sure. Well, interviewing is still a dominantly social process, right? We have to pick up on cues. We have to modulate our voice, we have to code switch, we have to dress appropriately. There’s all kinds of unspoken rules that our students are not prepared for. Even though they have the same hard skill set from RIT that their peers have, the social barriers were just really great. And so that’s one of the main difficulties with our students. Also, job descriptions can be a barrier for my students as well, because if employers are not distinguishing between “must-have” skills and “nice-to-have” skills, my students will often not apply to something if their exact major isn’t listed, if they’re like, “Oh, I’ve only had one course in C++, I haven’t had two, maybe that’s not enough.” Those were things that were keeping my students from even applying. There’s also things on the employer side that in addition to the way we’re looking to interview, when we’re looking for a best fit, that concept of best fit in the social aspect of the interviewer can inadvertently exclude this highly skilled talent pool simply because they don’t necessarily give you a warm and fuzzy, let’s say, or they don’t answer a question in an expected way. And so I often make the business case for: “Are you looking for expected? Aren’t you looking to get a job done and bring innovation, let’s talk about what is unique about my students, what they’re bringing that you already want, and what’s going to be different, that’s going to set your company apart.” And so those are some of the barriers in how I work with employers and with students to make that match and just make sure that we’re all speaking the same language,

John: what are some of the skills that the students you’re working with have that would be useful that are not generally recognized in an interview,

Kendra: There are so many. My students are passionate intellectual problem solvers. And I’m not saying that the rest of the RIT students aren’t. But that is definitely something that I will put forward. These are individuals who strive to do their best, they look at problems differently, and they’re going to stick with it. There’s a problem to solve, they’re going to follow it from beginning to end. I often say, and this is very general, but I’m neurotypical, I’m an extrovert, I’m going to spend time at work doing things not always just my work. Whereas I will tell you that my students can hyper focus on that task at hand, and they’re going to work very efficiently to get it done. So there’s just a multitude of things I could talk about, but their problem-solving skills, their stick-to-itiveness. And just their different way of approaching a problem. We don’t all want to be the same. It inhibits the creative process. And if you want to be innovative, we all know that you have to have creativity and a bunch of minds coming together.

Rebecca:So it sounds to me, based on what you’re describing is that you’re helping facilitate matching students to opportunities. Is that the role that the initiative is taking? How are the students getting the placements?

Kendra: So my role, when I describe it, it’s really three main goals. The first is to work with our students, to talk about those unspoken rules, to make them more job ready. The National Association of Colleges and Employers have identified 16 skills. So I work to let them know, “Hey, you’re actually being judged on these things. Let’s talk about them. Let’s practice and let’s teach you how to talk about your experience,” because oftentimes, they don’t realize that they have that. So I work with the job seeker. I work with the employer to implement universal design, so they’re not excluding anyone. And so actually, universal design helps all employees, not just autistic employees. And then yes, I’m the matchmaker, the bridge, the pipeline between the students and the employer. And we come up with creative ways to do that, including reverse job fairs, we partner with our career services office, we have information sessions that are low sensory and low stress, that’s a lot of what we do, is just to make sure that this is an environment that models best practice and how my student is going to be the best performer for your company. So those are the three main aspects of NHI.

John: You mentioned reverse job fairs. Could you explain what that is for people who have not heard of those before?

Kendra: So at RIT, we call it an affinity reception. And if you can picture a job fair, think back to our first jobs where you go into this large auditorium, you have 250 employers, and all the job seekers are dressed in their blazers like I happen to be today. And they go up to their 30 seconds of fame where they’ve got to give an elevator pitch, they got to wait in line, your recruiters are tired and cranky, and the sound is cacophony. It’s a lot. What we do is we bring our students and they sit at the table, we have fewer employers that are coming around which the students get to know who they are ahead of time. We prep for all of that. But then the employers circulate around the tables to our students as opposed to the reverse. And I’m also there as a facilitator to reach out to the employer: “Who are you? What is your name?” It makes the introduction. So I am frequently the matchmaker in all of these situations. And it really lowers the sensory overload, it reduces the stress factor, especially if you know who you’re going to see, you can prep for it. And you also don’t have to navigate, moving around, bumping into people, the crowds, the noise and we, even in that space, have a breakout room as well, so that students can take a break from the table, go refresh, have some water, regulate ourselves, and then come back out and do it again. So that’s kind of the theory as opposed to students coming to you, you’re coming to the job seeker.

Rebecca: We often talk about universal design for learning in a classroom setting but you were also talking about universal design in this interview setting. Can you talk a little bit about what that looks like?

Kendra: Absolutely. Just like we would translate an accommodation plan from college to career, the concept of universal design is universal, really. And so in this particular case, things that are very helpful for my autistic jobseekers, which I’ll be honest, very helpful for me, things like, “Could I please have the questions in advance so that I can prepare my best answer?” I’m not going to be surprised and therefore anxious and shut down when we’re going to have our conversation. Things like being able to disclose if I need to have a fidget under the table, and why I’m doing that, being able to talk about the lighting in the room, or like, “Where am I going to go? What can I expect? Who’s going to be there? How long is the day going to be?” …just various things like that. Those are some very small modifications to the process that universally help any job applicant feel comfortable, and therefore bring their most authentic and best self to the interview.

Rebecca: Sounds a lot better to me.

Kendra: Indeed. Ideally, we want an interview to be where we’re learning about each other, we’re learning about the job to be done, and we’re both assessing if we think this is going to be something that we want to engage in together. And the balance of power is always off in those interviews anyway, and especially for the first job out of college, or even co-ops, or before that, right? I’ve only been in college for a year and a half. And my students are already interviewing, right? They’re 20 years old, they’ve never had a job before. And now they’re going into this big data analyst co-op position. That’s a lot of stress for anyone. So anything we can do to minimize the stress and maximize the ability to share the skills that I have. And that’s another thing that companies are doing as well, is changing the interview process, so that instead of all of the questions, it’s “Alright, we’re going to bring you to campus, we’re going to give you a problem, we’re going to have you work on it with some of our other applicants in a team. And we’re going to see how you solve a problem, as opposed to how you talk about how you solve a problem.” So it really is much more skills based. Another thing that if you’re going to have not only getting the questions in advance, but breaking those questions down and making them single step, so that I don’t get lost in some huge, rambling answer is very helpful and making sure that they are less open ended and more, “What is the skill I’m trying to assess with these questions?” That’s another Universal Design tactic that helps a lot. And then one last thing that I’m seeing more and more companies use is, are platforms like HireVue, where they can record their answers. The virtual world, this way nobody has to fly to the new Microsoft campus anymore, we can do it from the comfort of our home offices and have as many recordings as we want. Again, all of us misspeak sometimes, it’s nice to have that do-over because I really am trying to showcase what I can bring to your company and my students bring a lot.

John: So it sounds as if employers are starting to recognize this and learn new skills. What role do you play in helping them learn alternative ways of interviewing?

Kendra: It really depends on the company. And we work with big anchor companies. I’ve talked about Microsoft, I’ve taught SAS, Southwest Airlines, they’re now big players in the field that are realizing that diversity, equity, and inclusion isn’t diverse enough if it doesn’t include neurodiversity. So there are some big dogs in the field that are bringing their HR programs, and they’re really working to make sure that they’re doing best practice. Companies like that will often come to me and say, “Hey, we’re doing this, who do you have for me in these fields?” And I am, in that case, mostly just a matchmaker, I help shepherd my jobseekers through the program. I check in with the recruiter: “How’s it going? Where are they in the process? Do you have any questions?” And I’m a matchmaker to make sure that that pipeline is direct, and they’re getting who they need. There are other companies, and these could be startups, these could be other big companies, but they come saying, “Hi, I’m an HR manager, I’m a data analyst, I’m someone right,” it could be anywhere in the company, that they have someone in their family in their network who’s autistic. And they realize, hey, this is something that would benefit my workplace. This is something that would benefit my person, what can we do? And so if you’re at the very beginning phase, I do a lot of nurturing with those companies talking about where can you get more information? Who are the models that you can look at. I’m here for a consult, do you want to interview some of my students, because a lot of what I do at that stage too, is destigmatizing. Autism, it is a spectrum, and so some people come in thinking that, “Oh, I’m going to do some charity work.” And that’s not at all what we’re doing. In fact, at this point, I’m doing you a favor. This is a talent pool in worker shortage. Trust me, companies really get it at this point in time.

Rebecca: You’ve match made, they’ve joined an organization for their co-op for their experience, how have you worked with companies to help that onboarding process and to make sure that they have a good experience once they’ve gotten the experience?

Kendra: One of the wonderful platforms that we partner with is an organization called Uptimize, and they do online trainings for employees, employers, and they have online training modules. I always give the disclaimer, we don’t know each other well, but I’m a highly critical person, and I hate to waste people’s time. So I don’t often send out professional development if I don’t truly believe in it. And I’ll tell you that I did these modules that were shared with us by Uptimize, and I learned things. And so one of the things that we have with them, because they have a whole suite of trainings, but we have Neurodiversity 101, and a basic module for hiring managers, for HR professionals, as well as supervisors. And so when a company is ready to take our students, I can give them unlimited licenses to share with the team, to share with the executives to share with everyone to try to build awareness, because the truth is, with the increase in diagnosis of autism, we’re all working in neurodiverse teams already, we just don’t always know it. So again, universal design is helping who you already have, and also opening up this talent pool that you’re not accessing currently. So there’s widespread benefits, and I’m giving it to you for free. If you want more, you can then go partner with Uptimize, and they’ll do all kinds of accessory training. But here’s a great introduction that we can give to our hiring managers. I often talk to them ahead of time before they take one of my students. The two main barriers once I have the job with you, would be housing, and transportation, learning how to navigate a new city, being comfortable navigating it, figuring out where you’re going to live for these 10 weeks. I remember doing that as a neurotypical, A-Type 20 year old. And so that’s hard for anyone, it’s exceptionally hard for my students. So that needs to be considered. companies aren’t really providing housing or transportation now, but if you’re going to boast about your neurodiversity hiring initiative, you at least need to have answers for me on how you’re going to direct them to these housing sites, here’s what we’re going to do, how is that going to work. And then I also just help make sure that my students are following through on all the onboarding paperwork and things from my end. And then if you’re an employer that we have a partnership with, I’m available to you. I’ll tell you that most of them don’t reach out to me during the co-ops, but I’m here. So if we need to troubleshoot, if something’s going better or worse than you expected, let me know, let’s take it to the next level. It’s about being the best supervisor you can, regardless, and I’m just an extra tool when you work with my students.

John: It’s wonderful that you have this program at RIT. But is this very common in the rest of academia?

Kendra: Well, there are about 75 to 80 programs across the country that are working in various ways at various levels, some are brand new, some have been around almost as long as we have, in order to help support students through this academic process of college. The goal of college is education, of course, and meaningful employment would be my objective at the end of college. So not all of them are handling it in the same way or have the same programming that we do. But that’s in total, there’s about 75 to 80 across the country at this moment in time, that support through the transition from high school to college. And just as I said, we started with that as well. And now we are helping transition into the workplace.

Rebecca: You mentioned early on about feeling not prepared to support the students you had when you were an elementary school teacher. And I have heard this many times, a faculty member at a college or university saying the same thing, maybe not prepared to teach [LAUGHTER] and then also not too prepared to support this particular group of students or many sets of students that are very different from one another. Can you talk a little bit about strategies that faculty might want to be aware of that could help support students like yours more effectively?

Kendra: Oh, absolutely. The more partnerships we can have with our professors and across campus, that’s one of the things when we talk about where this program is going, that’s something that is critically important, both to the academic success, and then, of course, into the workplace. So my students do very well with written communication, typically, and since most of us are using some kind of my Mycourses or online shell for information, please go ahead and upload those PowerPoint slides, please go ahead and put your notes online. Those are not crutches, if you will, those are actual accommodations that are just best practice. I let you all know that I’ve already got a master’s degree. I’m working on my business degree now. And I’m a graduate student in business. And I get that, as a neurotypical, like that’s just best practice so that I can go further than these notes. Doing those kinds of things, super important. Setting up a culture in your classroom where you can take a break if you need to, and just saying that out loud, so that it’s kind of a culture of the classroom, being aware of what could be overstimulating in your environment. In our lecture halls, it’s not as if we have a whole lot of control, but if you’re in a smaller setting, to just go ahead and look at those things. And sometimes some of us talk more than others. I talk a whole lot, we can have a neurotypical person that’s going to suck up the air in the room. That’s something that we’re used to. Giving students strategies ahead of time or if you notice that, pulling them aside, because they want to be their best selves. I’m constantly raising my hand because I love your topic. I’m very excited to please and I want to engage and if you say something, “I notice how excited you are Kendra, if you could pick just two times that you’re going to share out loud during class, and then write down everything else and email it to me, you can give it to me after class.” It’s just basic classroom management kinds of things. And it’s training our students not just to be good students, but to be good citizens, and to be good employees. And it’s how do we do that give and take that maybe some of us take for granted that we learned turn taking, and we were really good at it, and sometimes people need to be encouraged to take more turns, that would be the other end of the spectrum is that when I’m teaching my career ready bootcamp, the reason that I’m here, I usually have those two different groups. And that’s true among neurotypical people as well. So if I’m going to suck up the air, give me some strategies, so that I’m not alienating my classmates and I’m still engaging. And if I’m too afraid to talk, tell me how you want to hear from me, I can email you before class. Give strategies that show that you want them there and that teach them how to be part of the mix, regardless of whether you’re an introvert or an extrovert, or a neurotypical or neurodivergent. Those are some of the really best practices that I can say: share all of that written material, [LAUGHTER] and make sure that you’ve created a culture that just meets people where they are. And like I said, this is universal design. It doesn’t matter if you’re autistic or not. These are just best practices that help everyone. This is something I’m passionate about, and it traces back to my earliest days as a first-grade teacher. As I told you, I went through Orton-Gillingham training to teach dyslexic students because I came out with a master’s degree, and then had no idea how to teach reading. I had no idea what I was doing. That’s whole language, it’s all the stuff. And when I would come back from this very intense training that is specifically for dyslexic students, and I wanted to teach it in my private, high-end, elementary school, I had to justify why I was doing that. Well, why does my student need this particular program, and I was able to say, “Orton-Gillingham breaks language down into pieces. And if I teach this way, it’s the way that this particular subgroup requires in order to learn how to read, we’re keeping reading from them, if I don’t teach it in this one way, but for everybody else that gets it broken down, this is helping them with all of that language that you’re going to hit later on… the words that are not first-grade words, they’re going to be able to decode it, because that’s how their brain works, and I’m just giving them new pieces of the puzzle.” And so when I talk about how I’m teaching reading to first graders, or how I’m teaching job readiness to 22 year olds, it’s the same idea. It’s just: how do we help everyone? …and tailoring our design to be more inclusive, it’s just what we should all be doing.

John: Right now we’re running a reading group that focuses on Inclusive Teaching by Viji Sathy. And Kelly Hogan, and much of what you’re describing seems like the type of structure that they encourage people to use, and small group discussions and providing ways for all students to be comfortable. And we’re seeing that a lot, that there’s so many things converging in terms of things that are effective in helping people learn show up in many different approaches in terms of studies of how we learn, studies of effective teaching methods, studies of creating an inclusive environment. And pretty much all these methods benefit all students, but they particularly benefit those students who don’t do as well without the support provided. And it sounds like this is another form of inclusive teaching.

Kendra: It is. I couldn’t agree with you more. Regardless of the age, we all need to feel safe in the environment. And I’m not going to feel safe if someone’s interrupting me or talking over me. I’m not going to feel safe if I don’t feel like the teacher wants to hear what I have to say. I’m not going to feel safe. If I don’t understand the information or I have sensory overload. It doesn’t matter, we all need to feel safe first. Second, the next buzz would be belonging in higher education, and how am I connecting to my peers and connecting one on one to either my teacher or my professor? How is that working? And then you have the content that comes after all of that. So we really do have to work on our classroom management, we really do have to work on that personal relationship with our students. And then it’s the same in the workplace, we need a safe workplace where I don’t have to mask but I can be my authentic self and therefore I can bring my whole brain capacity to the job, I’m not worried about if somebody’s going to notice something about me or I’m going to feel uncomfortable or they’re going to feel uncomfortable. It translates across the lifespan of a learner.

Rebecca: And most of these things are not difficult.

Kendra: You’d asked about my relationship with either professors or with employers. And I’ll go back to the employer piece because the concept of ADA and IDEA can be scary and intimidating to human resource managers. And so when I talk about what is a reasonable accommodation for my students, most of the time, it’s me asking for a supervisor to just be a very direct and explicit supervisor. It’s things like: can they wear their noise-cancelling headphones while they’re working to kind of drown out some of this din? Are they able to work at home? Are there hybrid options that are available? Is it okay if they take their shoes off under the desk? These aren’t even things that cost the employer any money. These are just sensory regulatory issues, and then it goes into things like: Can you please set a regular weekly meeting with your employee so that my student knows when to come to you. And it goes back to that Which type of person am I? Do I ask way too many questions all the time? Or do I never ask a question and then it’s a barrier for me accomplishing the task. So if I know that I’m going to meet with Kendra every Monday, and I have to bring my list of questions that helps both sets. It also, as the employer, gives me the ability to check in on where you are and advance, because that’s the goal. Even if you’re not considered a teacher or professor anymore, that’s what a supervisor is. Our goal is to elevate our employees and help them reach the next level, at least, that’s my definition of what a supervisor does. So. I like to share that, yeah, and these things are not big cost. They’re big returns on your bottom line, is what it is. So if I can be myself at work, I’m going to work while I’m there. And that’s really what it is.

Rebecca: You talked a lot about at the beginning that the Institute started with the transition from high school to college. Can you talk about some of the things that are important to support neurodiverse students in that transition?

Kendra: Oh, definitely. So there are five pillars to the program. And the one that we’ve talked about would be career and co-op. So we’ll go ahead and move that to the side. Social is a really big piece, that sense of belonging, self advocacy, how do I ask my professor? What are the deadlines? Can I leave the room? Self advocacy and all of those areas. Wellness and health is a really big deal. And the fifth one is executive functioning, where I’ve done all of my studying. That’s what we do, is a lot of executive functioning. So those are the five pillars of the program to help them transition. And we do a lot of work. Also, just like we onboard for a job, we do special onboarding for our students as they come in and their parents. And I think that’s a really important shout out is that oftentimes the support system for all of us gets overlooked… it’s our partners in life, it’s our children, it’s our parents, it’s all of those people. And for students on the spectrum, these are parents that have had to be varsity parents for a really long time to navigate the 504s and the IEPs and all of the social learning that has to happen in K through 12. And so onboarding the parents that this is a young adult, they’ve gotten into RIT, you did this. They’re here, they got this, and we’ve got them. So to do that transition on: “here’s what to expect.” And it’s all the same things. It’s like, “Where are you going to go? Who’s your point person? How are you going to do this when a problem arises… because it’s going to… where do you go?” …and I don’t say that, because you’re autistic, I say that because I can look at both of you and say, something’s going to happen that we have to navigate. And we have to stay emotionally regulated, and we have to problem solve, and we need to know who to ask for help. These are life skills for any person. Again, it’s back to universal design. But that’s part of what SSP, our spectrum support program does, specifically for our parents and students, is a lot of that onboarding and letting them know that we’re here and you earned this, you did this, you’re going to be okay, you’re going to survive, you’re going to thrive, this is going to be great for you.

Rebecca: Can you talk a little bit more about the executive function part of the program?

Kendra: Well, I always like to talk about executive functioning. So the first thing I’m going to do is tell you my favorite executive functioning 101. I want you to picture a stop sign, S T O P, and when we’re talking about executive functioning, we’re talking about space, time, objects, and people. So if I need to function in any environment, I need to stop and think about those things. Think about an elevator, what’s the space like? How long am I going to be there? Am I supposed to talk to the person? You go through space, time objects, people, and when you transition into college, it’s a big difference, because in K through 12, a lot of that’s managed for you. And then you get sent off to college. Oh my gosh, the schedule changes, the classrooms are different. I have to get from my room to all of this. And I have to factor in travel time. How long do these long papers take? How do I chunk those assignments? So everything we do is space, time, objects, people, and I’ve been using that since I was a first-grade teacher and all the way up because you can chew on that, everybody can understand this is what I’m thinking about in this environment. And so we do a lot of visual scheduling so that you can see your “must dues.” Where are your blocks? How do you plug in the things that you need to accomplish? We do planning on here are all the assignments that are coming up. How long do you think this will take? Time management is often a hiccup for my students. Again, think about the people in your lives. Some of us are really good at some pieces of executive functioning, and some of us are not. I can tell the time down to the second most places, people think I’m a savant, but I can’t organize to save my life. I have 22 tabs open right now on my computer. I struggle with that, and I’m neurotypical and high achieving and mid career and all of those things that you’re supposed to check the boxes off. So when we’re helping our students transition from high school to college, how do you navigate those four things? And some of them you’re going to be stronger at than others. Everybody is. So what are the tools so that you can be independent and accomplish your goals here? And that’s a lot of what we do. And of course, as I told you, there are those five pillars, so when it comes to career and co-op, I have a whole other set of how we’re talking about space, time objects, people. We also talk a lot, as I said, about social and about well being. I remember being horribly homesick. I didn’t like my roommate. There’s all of those things that all of us have to navigate. And so when you don’t like your roommate, because you didn’t get that single, what do you do? How do you navigate this? When you’re lonely, what does that feel like? What are the alternatives? And then of course, if something does happen, we always plug the students into those campus resources. So how are you doing? What do you think? Let’s walk down to counseling. Let’s just walk down together right now. They know they can advocate for themselves, but they also have somebody that’s going to walk on this journey with them, and that’s really important. And it brings, I think, peace of mind, both to the student and, of course, to their families that they’re sending out of the nest for the first time.

Rebecca: I think the things that you’re talking about in terms of executive function should be an all first-year classes, [LAUGHTER] it should be built into the curriculum.

Kendra: I think every professor would thank me, if it was, [LAUGHTER] and I say that about my career ready bootcamp. I would have been so much better off, if I’d have this kind of training going into my first job. It’s universal design. If we were doing this kind of prep for everyone, I think every employer would be happier. But my students specifically need the explicit instruction on “This is what they’re looking for. When you do this behavior, this is how they feel, and this is the outcome when that happens.” You need those behavior maps in order to teach the lesson that is not coming in through osmosis. And to be fair, one of the reasons there’s such an employment divide is, autistic students and adults, they’re not getting jobs, they don’t have any work experience at all. So if you’ve never been in a work environment, how are you supposed to know how to behave in one. I remember, again, as a learning specialist in elementary school, we would go over social situations like a birthday party, any birthday party, I don’t care who it is or what age, there are certain components that you can expect so you can stay self regulated. You can know how much time it’s going to take, you’re going to know you have to bring a gift of some sort, again, space, time, objects, people and here are the classic things. It translates into adulthood and the workplace. Like you need to know how do you code switch? What does that even mean in this new environment? And you can show how you’ve mastered it through your lifespan and here’s just the next frontier. We spend a lot of time doing this, and I will just say, in terms of our program, I’m excited that we have this funding, I’m excited to be able to do this at RIT and for that kind of buy in. In this last year, we used to offer career ready bootcamp, just once per year. I was able, being full time and with the buy in now, we offer it three times, which means if the average incoming population that works with SSP is about 30 students and I was able to get 24 students through the career ready boot camp in this first year. So that’s something that they’re all going to get to take. And so now that we’ve got this model that’s working really well and is self sustainable and that we hope we can take to other colleges to do this. We’re working on different ways to support the student across their learning journey at RIT. And so we’re doing some alternative, like a spring break trip, I’m actually taking a cohort of eight students to New York City in March so that we can go visit four different employer sites. And we’re gonna go over beforehand the T chart of what do you see? And what do you hear? And in these specific categories. Is it an open space, is everybody in a cubicle? Are they talking to one another? Or are they working by themselves in headphones? What is the culture that you observe? How are people talking with a list of, like, what are you looking for? Be a social detective, so that we can then come back and debrief and I’m intentionally going to very different environments, so that they probably haven’t been in a work environment before. And we’re going to some really big ones, and to be able to say for themselves, “Oh, I can do this.” I know what to expect. And not only can I do this, I know what I prefer, and I know why I prefer it. So again, it helps that self advocacy, it helps to be your authentic self. And these are employers that all have neurodiverse programs and want my students. And I have to tell you that that is the most rewarding part of teaching career ready boot camp is when I have SAS come to talk or Southwest Airlines and I get to set the stage with students of “You are wanted. I know you’ve spent your lives feeling other. No, no, they’re here early for you. It is August, they have not posted these jobs yet. They are here to get a front-row seat to my RIT talent.” And you can just see them, they just sit up so much straighter. And in all of the post career ready boot camp survey, that’s what they say… it was just I never thought that people were going to want me… never thought… or it felt so good to have someone come here. And they do, I mean these employers give a 45-minute presentation of how we are thinking about you and your needs and here’s how it’s really great. Oh, and here’s somebody that did it. Like Southwest Airlines started their program last summer and had one of my RIT students and brought her back to career ready boot camp… and to hear her share her experience and what it was like and the students were able to ask like, “What’s your one piece of advice? What do you think you did the best in the interview? What do you think you did the worst?” And this is my best piece of advice that I really want everybody to hear going into this interview. They want to know how you solve a problem. Just like in life. I just want to know that you’re listening to me and that you’re going to try,. I want to know your initiative and your problem solving and so the student comes back. And she says, “I got this question and I didn’t know the answer, and I started to panic. What I did is I took a deep breath and I looked down at my notepad, because we always say, have reasons, have ways to distract yourself. I looked down, and I composed myself, and I looked back up, and I said, ‘I honestly don’t know. But I’ve solved other problems. Here’s how I would approach that.’” And she went into what she would do next. She’s like, “I think that’s what got me the job.” Because again, it’s how do I solve some them? Am I going to give up? Am I going to whine? Am I going to complain? Or am I just going to get to work, because again, these are co-op positions. And then I talk about what a co-op is: “Think of it as a class. This is like the lab to your bio class. This is you getting out and putting those skills to work.”

Rebecca: This sounds like a really great program. We always wrap up our sessions by asking: “What’s next?”

Kendra: I love “what’s next?” I don’t know if you’re West Wing fans, but “what’s next?” is what’s asked by the President every time he’s ready to push the agenda forward. And so that is actually how I kind of live my life is “What’s next?” As I told you, we’ve expanded career ready bootcamp, we’re now doing alternative spring travel. And we’ll do winter term travel with our students to give these opportunities. What I’m most excited about, we’re always looking to increase the impact on our students, we’re always looking to increase the reach to the community, and how do we train the trainer. So that’s a big goal is to be able to take this career ready bootcamp to other universities and show them how they can make it their own and help their students. I’m also working with a lot of partnerships on campus, because that’s where creativity happens, because we were talking, it’s all cross disciplinary. And so we have a program called RIT certified that works with online options. And so this will reach not only within RIT, but wider. And so we’re going to have modules for managers. So if you’re taking an HR class, if you’re taking this managerial certificate, you’re going to get best practices and universal design, so that we can do the reach further. I’m also going to work with our business school to be able to have internship programs, leadership certificates, things like that. So that it’s not just helping the autistic student or the already employed, but we’re planting the seeds so that as each of these people go out into their various networks, it’s a wider spread awareness and knowledge. And so I think those are the main ways that we’re looking to take care of impact is cross collaboration and expanding the model.

John: You’re doing some wonderful work. And I hope we’ll see more campuses and more programs like this, because individuals who are autistic often have trouble finding those first jobs where they’re successful. And we’re wasting a lot of resources that can bring some real strengths to organizations and to businesses out there.

Kendra: That’s true. But as I said before, these are business solutions. This is an untapped talent pool that really the sky’s the limit here. In all spaces, we need to make a bigger table. We need to make room for everyone and make sure we all have a place. So that’s what we’re doing.

Rebecca: Well, I know that we’ll look forward to getting some updates maybe from you in the future about this program and the next things that you have planned.

Kendra: I would love that and maybe you can recommend some tea alternatives for me. [LAUGHTER]


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.


282. Moving the Needle

The study techniques that most college students adopt do not align with what research tells us about how we learn. In this episode, Sheela Vermu and Adrienne Williams join us to discuss what happens when an instructor in a community college biology class attempts to encourage students to adopt evidence-based study methods. Sheela is a biologist at Waubonsee Community College in Sugar Grove. Illinois. Adrienne is a biologist at the University of California, Irvine.

Show Notes


John: The study techniques that most college students adopt do not align with what research tells us about how we learn. In this episode, we discuss what happened when an instructor in a community college biology class attempts to encourage students to adopt evidence-based study methods.


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

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

John: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer…

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


Rebecca: Our guests today are Sheela Vermu and Adrienne Williams. Sheela is a biologist at Waubonsee Community College in Sugar Grove. Illinois. Adrienne is a biologist at the University of California, Irvine. They are co-authors of a study entitled “Moving the Needle: Evidence of an Effective Study Strategy Intervention in a Community College Biology Course.” Welcome, Sheela and Adrienne.

Sheela: Thank you.

Adrienne: Thank you.

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

Sheela: Yes, I am.

Adrienne: We heard that was a thing.

John: And what type of tea?

Sheela: I’m actually drinking my favorite tea. It’s called A Sama tea. It’s a calm relaxed, lavender, rose, chamomile and cardamom.

Rebecca: You just describing it just took my blood pressure down. It sounds very relaxing. [LAUGHTER]

Sheela: I was doing it for myself. [LAUGHTER]

Rebecca: Well, you helped me too. [LAUGHTER]

Adrienne: I can’t compete with that. But I have a classic Trader Joe’s pomegranate white tea.

John: Very nice.

Rebecca: I think, John, today was my closest call of not having tea. Because when I got home to record about an hour ago, we had no water at my house. The water was off, but it’s on now. And I have a Scottish afternoon tea.

John: And I have a black raspberry green tea, which I haven’t had for a while but it’s nice.

Rebecca: Yeah, that is one that you haven’t had in a while.

John: I had it last time when I was in quarantine at home, [LAUGHTER] which is where I am now with COVID.

Rebecca: It’s like you’ve established quarantine routines. [LAUGHTER]

John: Unfortunately, yes, this is my second time. We’ve invited you here today to discuss the study that you both worked on. One of the things that you noted in the study itself is that there’s relatively few studies of student study strategies at the community college level. Even though community colleges provide an introductory college experience to over half of all the students that graduate with a bachelor’s degree in STEM fields. Could you give us a brief overview of your study?

Sheela: Thank you, John, for asking that question. Because it sort of made me think about what really brought about my interest in studying this topic. It stemmed from me becoming a community college Bio Insights Fellow, and Insights is a network of community college instructors who are actually interested in investigating teaching and learning in their classroom. So when I became a fellow in that network, one of the goals was for us to think about what are some teaching practices that could inform the scholarship of teaching and learning in a community college setting. And I teach microbiology and anatomy and physiology at Waubonsee Community College. And while I was starting to teach, I realized that students really struggled to study effectively. And community colleges occupy a very important position in higher ed, especially in STEM because they provide low cost training and education for workforce training, preparation for transfer, and also recently an opportunity to reskill for many of our underemployed and our underserved students and population. So keeping that in mind and our classroom structure, we noticed that in the biology education field, papers or authorships for community college faculty, in a CC context was very few, only 1- 3% of all the biology education research articles had a community college context question or a community college. So this network sort of enriched me to think about what do I need to ask a question in the classroom that would encourage my students to use better study strategies? So in some ways, I wanted to ask this question, but it was the Insights that helped me think about this from the scholarship of teaching purposes. So the brief overview of what we see as the basic study of this paper, is we were really wanting to ask this question, what kind of study strategies students are using in a community college context right now in a biology classroom that I teach, that was one… and can an intervention of some kind from an instructor really intentionally encourage students to reflect upon their current study strategies and guide them in some ways to change their strategies to ones that have been shown through research to have high impact. So it was to just gauge the field, but also to see if we can gently intentionally guide that providing guiding practices. And that’s sort of the big picture of what we did. But we administered a pre- and a post- survey. The pre- and post- survey was taken from a previously published work. The survey actually asked questions about the study habits and the study strategies that students actually used. The intervention was administered. And one of the things that is really important is I was able to get approval from our college institutional effectiveness team, and those are the ones that serve as the institutional review board and they look at the studies research paper and also helped assist with gathering institutional data, because institutional data was very meaningful to our study. And Adrienne helped arrange the statistical power. That is what made a big difference in the study. And she also helped me wrap it up and write it up and get it published in the CBE Life Science Education journal.

Rebecca: So a lot of students enter college and plan to acquire a STEM degree but often change their mind or change their plans. Which students are disproportionately likely to give up on their planned STEM degree.

Adrienne: In general, regardless of institutions, students have a difficult time with a STEM degree. They tend to give lower grades and that can be very discouraging for students, even if they’ve done well in high school… when they get to college, and they start to not get A’s can be very discouraging. So there is a history for all undergraduates, when they enter even a four-year or a two-year program that they start to leave STEM. They find it less rewarding than they had thought, I would say community colleges have additional hurdles to overcome, because they are an open access system. And so they get students with a wide variety of past experiences. Some are people who’ve just come out of high school and are used to studying and are pretty on top of things… they remember their math, they’re accustomed to memorizing things. And then there are students that are adult learners, or perhaps have families, been in the military, perhaps they get a GED and have worked for awhile. And so there’s a lot of habits to relearn. That can cause problems, particularly in STEM where the grading is just historically rather harsh.

Sheela: I would agree with what you said about historically STEM attrition is pretty problematic. But the problem is also more exaggerated in marginalized and minoritized students who come from backgrounds that could have been a first generation, some kinds of a financial issues, students who probably did not have a whole lot of high school curriculum that prepared them well for a STEM field. And there’s been recent work in 2016, that talked about how the National Academies needed to look at improving underrepresented minority students persistence in STEM, not just entry into STEM, but for them to be able to stay in the pipeline, and successfully move on and build a career trajectory for themselves.

John: We saw similar results in an earlier podcast interview with Peter Arcidiacono from Duke. He was a co-author of a study that looked at the determinants of students’ continuation in STEM fields and found something very similar: that, holding other factors constant, females and students from historically minoritized groups were much more likely to change out of the STEM fields than students who were white males, even when they were doing relatively better in these classes, then the students who chose to remain in the discipline,

Adrienne: STEM classes, particularly, are not welcoming to many students, because the exams are difficult. Now, there’s just the culture that we’ve developed, not necessarily for good reasons but it does cause many students who are doing fine, who are scoring above the mean in the class, to feel like they’re not succeeding, because they’re only getting 70-80%. And that’s just kind of an unfortunate reality that we’re working to change. But in the meantime, we would like students to be as successful as possible on their exams.

Sheela: And recently, there’s been some studies that talk about some concrete steps to diversify the scientific workforce. And that came out last year in Science, and that talked about how students in the STEM field sometimes do get discouraged, and often feel really compartmentalized by the climate and some of the teaching methods and assessment, exactly what Adrienne was talking about in the STEM classroom. And there’s been an exodus of students, specifically from the underrepresented minority communities.

Rebecca: Can you talk a little bit about some of the study techniques that students were using before your intervention as part of your study?

Sheela: Yeah, so when I walked into the classroom, what I noticed were that students were typically cramming the night before the exam, or perhaps two days before the exam, and they would use one study session to just get all the notes that they could for that particular unit. The other thing that I noticed students doing were, they would be using a lot of flashcards, they would walk into the classroom with a whole bag of flashcards and sometimes it would all drop and they would have color-coded flashcards, different colored highlighters. And as the classes were going on, as I would see them studying, I would see them using most of these methods which was underlining key words in the textbook or terms or in the PowerPoint and in In some ways, creating some flashcards, and massing all of this study as they thought it was in one particular session, and then just go to the exams. And I saw them a little bit frustrated thinking that they had put in so many hours into it, and not having the results that they would have expected out of those exams.

John: Could you tell us a little bit about what study techniques you recommended to students and how you convey that information to students?

Sheela: So one of the key things that I did for myself was just to get familiarized with what were some high-impact study strategies, because this was not something that I was very familiar with. And one of the things I figured out was it was distributed spacing. And in the STEM fields, especially in the subjects that I teach, like microbiology, anatomy, and physiology, we wanted students to know one concept well, before they moved on to the second concept. So if they tried to do all of this studying the night before the exam, it’s very possible that they missed out one of the pieces in the Jenga, and the whole Jenga fell apart the day of the exam. So, something that I talked about was spacing, but also making sure that spacing is not just happening two days before, but it is distributed throughout the unit that we are actually covering. And the second high-impact practice that I asked students to think about was self testing. Self testing sometimes can be difficult for students to understand, especially at our community college setting, because the kinds of self testing that they’ve been exposed to in high school, is a teacher giving them a set of practice problems, or they having 50-60 questions in a test bank, and just going over those, and in some ways, just memorizing or flash carding and making it into a Quizlet. And they would think that is self testing. So I had to go back and walk them around and say that self testing would be to self test a concept. And to double check and see, do you really understand that concept by looking at a problem or a question, which is at the end of the chapter, before going on into the next particular concept? The other piece that is also very important that high impact practices that I talked about to the students was diagramming. And this was something that I wanted them to get away from, just trying to just reread chapters, condensing chapters, and summarizing chapters. I wanted them to get away from those kinds of practices and move on to something called diagramming.

John: So what did you find in terms of the use of self testing and spaced practice, as well as the drawing applications? Was there a significant change in the student use of these techniques over the course of the semester?

Sheela: So, in the beginning, there was some resistance from the students. Because this was something difficult for them to do, they had never heard of these kinds of strategies. And as we proceeded with the intervention, which was periodic, we found that students, over the period of the entire semester, improved their spacing, so they went from high levels of cramming to high levels of spacing. We also found that self testing, which was very low in the beginning, also improved at the end of the course. Students were not creating their own questions, but instead, they were using the questions that were at the end of the textbook that were desirable for comprehension. They were using questions that were problem-solving oriented, which were part of the assessment to test themselves and diagramming also improved by the time the semester finished.

Adrienne: Let me also say something that we noticed was students were willing to give up some strategies very easily. I do similar work at my large four-year R1 institution, and students also arrive in their first quarter at UC Irvine and they’re very fond of flashcards, and tend to also be fond of underlining and highlighting. And those are two study strategies that students see kind of quickly just don’t work. The exam questions that they get in college are just not associated with things that they did on flashcards and so they’re like, “Okay, boom,” and they drop them with very little resistance. Every year I check, every year, they come in high flashcards and they leave low flashcards. They’re like, “Nope, that didn’t work.” And they’re happy to drop that. Other study strategies like rereading their notes: they come in high rereading their notes, and we tell them, that won’t help. Yes, you have to understand the concepts, but stop rereading your notes, that is not an effective study strategy. And that one doesn’t move. They’re like, “Nope, still gotta reread my notes.” And so that’s been interesting for us. I talked to Sheela about that. I talked to students about that. And so some of these strategies are easier to move than others. And I think what’s going on… we’re going to foreshadow some metacognition here in students choosing what study strategies to use. They feel like when they start their study session, they have to decide what is it that I’m going to work on and so they reread their notes as a way to set themselves up with what needs to happen in the study strategy time they have coming up, but it just takes so long to reread all their notes that they know half their times gone by the time they finished doing the setup activity. And so they’re unable to do the more useful things of self testing, explaining to others, doing things from memory, painful things. It’s also just more encouraging and soothing to look at your notes and go “Yep, yep, I remember that. Yep. Okay, yep, I remember that.” And that feels like studying, even though not really.

John: That’s sometimes referred to as fluency illusion, that the notes are familiar, you see them, you remember the organization on the page, and it’s reassuring, even though it adds virtually nothing to your ability to either recall concepts or to transfer those concepts into different applications. But it’s hard for people to give that up, especially when they’ve been told to reread their notes and reread the materials over and over again, throughout all their prior educational experience.

Adrienne: Yeah. And it worked great for him in high school. So why would they believe us until they try it and find out that it doesn’t work? So some strategies are easy.

Rebecca: So much easier when your answers are in your notes, and not from learning?

Adrienne: Well, the ironic thing is, in my classes, I’m now all open note, open Google. And so they still think the notes will be the answer to all their problems. Now, it’s all application problems.and so you can’t find all that. So it’s hard, it’s difficult for students to change, even if they know like, one of the new things I’ve started to ask is, what do you think researchers say is more effective: spacing your studying or cramming? And all the students know that spacing is more effective. And then you ask, and what did you do for this test? And they’re like, “Well, I had to cram.” So a lot of it is not lack of understanding of what should happen, but just the difficulties associated with it, just like eating right and exercise, the difficulties with actually doing the difficult work.

Rebecca: I think often students mentioned that it’s difficult to plan their time, or to have the time to do the thing that they know is good for them.

Adrienne: Which is why we’re going to again, come back to metacognition, I think, that this talk about how we’re kind of moving forward out of just asking students, how are they studying, but thinking more broadly about metacognition.

John: Before we get to that, though, could faculty reduce the incentive to cram by using more low-stakes activities so that students don’t have that incentive to cram before a high-stakes exam and ignore studying the rest of the time.

Sheela: So John, in the courses that I am teaching, we have not just one high-stakes exam, we have many small unit exams. And these unit exams come every two to three weeks. But the material in STEM, as we speak, is so dense for the students that they have to move from lower order Bloom’s… just remembering terminology… all the way to concept analysis to an explanation very quickly, in a very brief period of time. And I think even having those low-stakes assignments is not enough for them. Because those assignments, they may not choose to use the high impact study strategies, they may get away by looking at a summary, or maybe looking at the notes in the low stakes. But when they come to these unit exams, even if it’s just two chapters, I found students in my college, in my classroom, really struggling, even if the low-stakes assignments were done at a 95% completion, which is what led me to think of this study and say, what is it that I can do as an instructor, I would love to change all the dynamics of higher ed, and move things seamlessly to make it a beautiful world for everyone. But I can only control what I can do in the classroom, which is the intervention. And I think a persuasive intervention through modular use over a period of time, which is consistent, and short and brief, is a possibility that faculty could use in order to shift students’ practices of study strategies. And for them to be cognitively aware that this is a good study strategy. I’m actually aware of it. And that’s the knowledge I have from the literature, which is what Adrienne was talking about. But then how do you implement it in the moment and modify just a little bit so that you can actually get good grades in that unit exam that’s coming? Because there are five of them, you just can’t afford to blow each one of them. You have to just get gooder and gooder if there is a word like that. [LAUGHTER]

John: You mentioned working to improve students’ metacognitive skills. Could you talk a little bit about how you built in metacognition into this approach.

Sheela: So when we did the intervention, my intervention was very simple. It was a PowerPoint presentation, and it was a PowerPoint presentation before and after each exam. And we have five big exams in that course. And we had an exam wrapper as well. So the PowerPoint presentation was not just this is what you need to do. It was things from the literature of high-impact study strategies, and also being aware of what is a low-impact study strategy. And the PowerPoint presentation was 15 minutes long, it had about 15 to 16 slides. But there were some examples of how to use those strategies and how not to use them. For example, if they were looking at muscle contraction, and if they were looking at how the skeletal muscles, students know that it’s a bicep, how does the bicep actually contract instead of just making 100 flashcards of every piece of that information, which is in that unit? How can we translate that into concept, and learn each concept and see how that moves into the next concept. For example, when we think about this, you think of a motor neuron that actually stimulates a skeletal muscle like a bicep, and there are multiple segments in this piece, the neuron has to send a signal, which is an action potential, so they need to know what’s an action potential. And they also need to know the structure of the neuron. So there are two big pieces there, then it sort of travels into a terminal, and it causes some channels to open, they need to know the kind of ions that actually travel through those channels, and what causes those ions to travel from A to B. And then through that influx of those ions, they need to know there is a release mechanism. And that release mechanism causes another set of ions to open postsynaptically in the muscle. And from there, they move on into understanding how it contracts the muscle tissue or cell. So there’s a sequential activity that goes on. And for students to be able to compartmentalize that and get good at understanding each concept before they move on to the next is something that my intervention was part of. And for them not to just make all of that into a highlighting flashcard, summarizing it into three sentences and say, the neuron travels and the bicep contracts. And in the middle, there is a gap. And that’s called a synapse. And that’s what they would do when they summarize. And that’s not effective, because the questions are not summary driven. The questions are application driven. What would you do when a drug blocks that particular channel? What would happen upstream? What would happen downstream? And now they’re like, “I never thought about this much detail.” So that was the intervention. But then there was also an exam wrapper. The exam wrapper, it was more of a reflective piece. I just thought it would give students an opportunity after every exam to self reflect and see what study strategies they used. How many hours did they spend studying? What would they like to change for the next exam? And I thought it was reflective, I gathered a lot of paper and I gathered a lot of data, it’s sort of gave a quiet moment for our students to reflect on exams. But talking with Adrienne and working on this for a little while, realized that the research on exam wrappers does not show… it’s not efficacious enough to change students on how they learn. So now I’m doing something a little bit different where I’m not just doing an exam wrapper and calling it as a check in point on Canvas for them to sort of reflect after the exam, but not just using exam as the main tool, which is what shifted us to think about the next steps, which is the metacognition, which Adrienne was talking about.

Rebecca: Adrienne, do you want to share some of the details about the metacognition side of it here?

Adrienne: Yeah, I do research on my students. And it’s just been fascinating how students seemed to choose to do strategies which didn’t seem helpful. And so in additional reading that we’ve done, Sheela and I have learned more about metacognition. And you can kind of break down metacognition, in knowing what good strategies are… like, do students know that spacing and retrieval practice and interleaving? And diagramming? Do they know that those are considered the good strategies? Second, do they have the metacognitive skills to use them at the right places, or even though they know spacing is good, they never actually set up time to do the studying days in advance. And then thirdly, metacognitive judgment, do they have a sense for yes, they now know this information, can they judge their learning? Is their appropriate judgment of learning that goes on? And so all of these are steps that we realized, all we knew was which strategy students chose. We didn’t know if they had the knowledge about which ones were good ones. And we didn’t know whether or not they recognize whether or not they were successful. And so we’ve expanded our questions to students: do you know which strategies are successful? …and pretty much they do. That doesn’t seem to be the missing link. It’s the scraping together, the organization time to actually apply them early enough that they can spend the time appropriately. And we’re also trying to determine can we help students? Give them regular feedback? The exam wrappers didn’t seem to work really well. There wasn’t a lot of evidence that they were really doing a lot of changing of student behavior. So, something I’m trying this quarter, particularly in my anatomy class, is to ask students: “If I said different study strategies were worth different amounts. I said, rereading your notes is only worth 0.2 points per hour and I said, explaining concepts to a neighbor or drawing diagrams by hand of the different systems and that’s worth 1.5 points per hour, will you change how you study in order to maximize your studying points? And so we’re in the middle of that right now to see is there anything that can motivate students to attempt to try new, difficult, painful, complicated things, other than the comforting things of rereading and rewatching videos? That’s a bigger metacog picture I’m working on, Sheela’s also doing that, kind of increasing our focus away from just single study strategies to this metacognitive view, do students have the metacognitive chops? And is there anything that we can do as instructors to help them with these applications? Because once you’ve told them that spacing is important, they’re like, ”Alright, spacing is important.” But that’s not solving the problem much. It’s an important initial first step, but are they actually going to figure out how can I schedule an hour a night on my anatomy, so that I have some chances to forget and relearning, and so that relearning really kind of nails down those mental pathways, and so it’s easier for them to do the work for application problems when they get to an exam? So we’re enjoying just trying different things as we move forward, to see can we expand our understanding of metacognition. help students understand? Can they tell us what they understand and don’t understand? And can they tell us what they really struggle with in the application so that we can help reward them for doing good studying? Happy to do that.

Rebecca: Have you tried sharing a study plan for the week just to see if they followed it to see if it worked?

Sheela: Yes. And I think that’s sort of the third part of metacognition, that Adrienne was just talking about. The knowledge is one, which is the strategies that they know, and whether they can actually apply those strategies when they are thinking or listening or reading difficult tasks. That’s very important, because you can apply these strategies when it’s in your comfort zone. It is the application of these high-impact strategies when you’re out of your comfort zone, and that is really important. And that’s where the planning comes in: having a calendar and making sure you plan it, and you’re putting in the hours. But what I found in my explanations with my students is that even though they planned the time, I had students who had devoted an X number of hours, they just didn’t know when they got to the muddiest point that they were even muddled. [LAUGHTER] And that is, to me, metacognitive judgment, right? You know, that you don’t know, and you know, that you need to do something that you don’t know, and students were like, they didn’t even know they were muddled. And so they didn’t go ahead and use the appropriate strategies, or change directions, or make some adjustments one week before the exam so that they can actually monitor their learning, which is where we are working on building the set of skills, and just making sure we ask our students and see if we can shift their practices to more of a judgment outside of just planning the time. Planning the time is very important, but it’s not just planning the time. What do you do with that time? And we couldn’t be with them all the time, to sort of shift it.

Adrienne: You’re probably familiar with the idea of high-structure courses, having many assessments. And I think that is really important. It’s a lot more work for the instructor to be building all of these assessments and managing them. But the more cases where you can help students get feedback on whether or not they’re learning successfully, the more likely they’re going to realize that the thing they thought would be fine is not actually working.

John: You talked a bit about ways in which we might be able to better improve student’s understanding of effective study strategies. But did you find any impacts of the techniques that were used during this experiment? Did it make a difference for some of the students?

Sheela: The drawing did. To me, the way I was thinking of drawing was, I was thinking of it as a visual representation of a science process. That’s how I was thinking of it. But the drawing was very meaningful to the students, because students before in my class, were sketching typically, or taking a diagram or a figure from a textbook. Because most science textbooks have beautiful colored large figures, they will just take that figure and translate it into a sketch and just draw some diagrams and draw some arrows and point to some facts. But drawing the process was very important. And not only drawing the process as a flowchart, but actually organizing the conceptual information and connecting the dots. So in some ways, the way I was using drawing representation was more like a concept mapping. But I also realized that students without a lot of encouragement on how to do these concept maps or how to do these representational drawings, were not getting a lot of feedback, because they were just drawing and maybe they’re drawing it beautifully. But they were not really using that drawing to really understand and self test themselves on some of the key concepts. So this semester, what I’m actually doing is asking for our students to show some of their drawings and upload it on Canvas. And I have two or three criteria before it’s accepted as a drawing. And one would be to make sure that they have some basic notes that they have talked about, some key concepts. And then they have also asked themselves a question, which would be like a feedback, like a retrieval question using that drawing. So they’re using the drawing as a practice. And they’re using the drawing as a self-retrieval practice to ask a question. And I’m hoping that it would have some change. But the literature in the drawing area is not very clear. And I would like to use it as an if and then statement, maybe, like, you know, if this happens to the sodium, and what happens to the action potential, or maybe like a causal effect kind of statement, or sometimes maybe even say, why and how, why does this happen? And how do you think you can make it better?

Adrienne: It really does take time and scaffolding for students to be effective at something like this. You can’t just assign them a drawing or tell students you should draw more when you study. But taking the time in class to assign something, give them appropriate scaffolding, give them feedback, show them what you were imagining it would look like, asking them a test question that should have been easy to answer if the diagram had been appropriately written. And just training students, we tend to do a lot of assumption that somebody before us did the training, and that’s just not appropriate in many cases. It is really helpful to make space during class time, either by flipping the class or by flipping 10 minutes of the class, moving that outside to pre-class work so that you have time in class to train students how to think carefully and study effectively so they can be more successful going forward.

Rebecca: I think one of the themes that I’m hearing both of you point to is helping students prioritize things, there might be a sequence to knowing or what might be most important versus kind of an extraneous detail that’s not as important until you have the big thing figured out. And a lot of times when you’re new to something, these are not obvious things. But when we model how to make a diagram and verbalize how we made a decision, or how we chose what might go in a diagram, it can be really helpful and enlightening to students because they’re seeing how that thought process might work. If they’ve not experienced it for themselves.

Adrienne: It’s not like students aren’t working hard. I think we tend to think that somehow students that are doing badly in the class are slacking, and that is often not the case, they’re working very hard. But if you’re spending hours making flashcards, that’s just not as useful a thing to spend time on

Rebecca: …for hours going down a rabbit hole that’s like not actually important… [LAUGHTER] which I sometimes have had conversations with my students like “You spent how long on that? Yeah, that’s not something to worry about. Maybe you should do this other thing instead. [LAUGHTER]”

Sheela: Yeah, and color coding. And our textbooks in the sciences have a lot of colors. And the textbooks also have a lot of highlights. So in some ways, I feel that some of these high-impact study strategies are not very, very clearly explained in our textbooks. So when they see the highlighted word in a textbook, or they see the color-coded diagrams, the students often believe that that’s the secret. In one of our exams recently, I asked them to bring that color-coded diagram and see if that helps them answer the questions. And they were surprised that they could only answer 50% of the questions on the exam with that color-coded diagram. The rest had to be some kind of retrieval practice, some kind of higher-order thinking which they had not spent the time doing, because there was spending more time drawing that thing out, like a sketch.

Rebecca: …and probably essentially just copying whatever they saw. [LAUGHTER]

Sheela: and just making it look prettier. That’s it.

Rebecca: Yeah. [LAUGHTER]

Adrienne: The good strategies are painful, they’re difficult and painful, and expose everything you don’t know. And they feel like you don’t understand things if you’re doing the good work. And that’s a difficult thing to fight through. Nobody likes to feel like they don’t understand.

John: I think we all face that challenge with our students.

Adrienne: Um hmm.

John: They like strategies where they could sit and passively listen to someone explain concepts to them. But that doesn’t really seem to help them remember it, but it feels good. It feels like they’re understanding every step of it. But when you’re trying something in active learning, and you’re getting feedback that tells you that “No, you don’t quite have that,” it’s certainly not as pleasant. And there’s no real way around that, other than perhaps reassuring students that that’s an important part of learning. I’ve been trying to explain that to students for years without complete success, because they much prefer to listen to a lecture or to read a book and assume that they know things until the professor tricks them with these questions that clearly are not a fair measure of their learning, and it’s a difficult cycle to break.

Adrienne: True for all humans. We like to minimize the calories we use in everything.

Rebecca: Is this a line of research you’re hoping to continue on?

Sheela: Yes, we are, as we speak, to fine tune what we learned from the study last year. By the time the study finishes and the time the paper comes out a whole long time has gone by. So that was a great time to sort of think about what are some areas and it was the exam wrappers that sort of prompted me to think about this metacognition, especially metacognitive judgment, because exam wrappers are self reported, they’re sort of reflective, and I found that students were reflecting the same thing, like I spent only 5%, doing X, it hasn’t changed from unit exam to the next unit exam. Then the question became, “Why is it that they were not able to monitor their studying, or make those adjustments as they moved forward?” So maybe for an exam on tissues, they spent 10 hours studying a certain way, but probably when they come to the nervous system, they probably need to modify that or adjust it, but students were not able to do that, based on the difficulty of the task. They were just steamrolling it. They were just doing the same thing over and over again, they said, Oh, “You told me to study X number of blocks, and you told me to study 12 hours and I’m just going to do those 12.” And that’s prompted us to think about the next steps. And we are asking this question in a community college classroom and see what kind of metacognitive skills students have. And we are dividing those skills into three parts, which is knowledge of the skill, are you aware of it, can you actually apply it, judgment would be can you apply it and monitor and change it when needed based on what’s happening in the moment, and then sort of plan and have a control on your self-regulated strategies? I think this is an uphill task, because the data that you get could be a little messy, just like most education research, but I think we’ll just have to continue and plod through it just like how we did the other one, before we get some kind of a baseline that suggests that whatever we are doing, whatever intervention we are planning to have in the classroom, has an effect. So I think of myself as a practitioner, Adrienne is also a practitioner, but she’s also a researcher. So for me, if it doesn’t make sense in the classroom, I’m very happy that it did make awesome sense in the world of research, but I would like it to really make sense in the classroom because I want to see our students benefit, move forward and have great STEM careers, however it may be.

Adrienne: I’m also doing projects. I’m continuing to work with Sheela on adding some metacognitive aspects to her class. A couple of things that I am trying to work on is an implementation strategy where I try to have students, each week, think back on the week that they’ve just completed, and how did they study on that week and so just regularly get feedback and to overtly tell them each week: these are high-impact strategies, these are low-impact, which ones did you use and what do you plan to do next? And a lot of hitting over the head, perhaps. But it takes a lot to change this for them. And secondly, I’m particularly interested in students who are studying with friends. I saw an interesting effect in my intro bio class a year ago, where students who really valued studying with friends were doing worse in the class. And so I’m attempting to figure out what’s going on there, because that was kind of non-intuitive to me. And I think it has something to do with some students really value studying with friends, because it’s an opportunity to have their friends explain the material to them. So what I’ve been asking students this past year was what do you do when you study with friends, they’re like, figure out what they’re actually spending their time doing. And some students are spending a lot of times explaining and others are spending time getting explained to and there’s different relationships in how they do in the course. That is pretty clear, though students that are in study groups in order to learn the material, that’s an indication they’ve got other struggles going on. They need help. So things like that, I’m still figuring out the best way to ask students and to figure out where the pain points are so that I, as an instructor, can say, “Alright, if you find that you like study groups because you really need somebody to help explain things to you, that is a sign that we need to help you understand the material more effectively, and get you extra help.” So both research and being a good practitioner as Sheela says.

Rebecca: I think one of the things that we don’t always recognize when we’re introducing students to strategies that are really new to them is that they’re learning that in addition to the course content at the same time, so there’s an extra layer of things that need to be learned and we need to do spaced practice and things on that, too. [LAUGHTER] Start building some habits and remember that that’s a thing that they’re also learning and remind them that that’s also a thing that they’re learning and that accounts for some time. It takes time to adopt a new set of practices. It takes time to plan [LAUGHTER] or whatever.

Adrienne: And I like to give students a small amount of points are doing it, because it’s part of the work of learning and I want to reward that, and frankly, they need the points.

Sheela: sAnd some study trategies are also discipline based. So it’s very difficult for our students, especially when they’re freshmen and sophomore, and they are in three or four different types of classes. Some are STEM-based, some are non-STEM-based, maybe their non-STEM faculties guiding them to read and create some kind of a graph or some kind of a writing narrative. And here in our STEM class, I’m saying, don’t just spend your time reading and rereading, while the other faculty is sort of giving them a different point of view.

Adrienne: They have a lot of bosses.

Sheela: Yes. And that can be very difficult for them, because they’re like, “What do I do? My other teachers telling me this, and this teacher is telling me this, and I don’t know, and I’ll just do what I know to do, which is flashcarding,”

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

Sheela: To me, what I would like to do is continue this kind of education research, which is classroom based, that also has an efficacy for student improvement. These three are very important to me. But I also have an overall goal because of the CC Bio Insights network that started me to think about biology education research, is to make sure that these kinds of questions that are community college centric, asking questions that are based from a community college classroom, are also being part of the education research and part of the biology education journals published so that people can actually see what’s going on in these classrooms, and perhaps build some credibility to the work that’s done in this area. So that would be sort of my big picture, giving back to the overall community of community college and how it affects higher ed.

Adrienne: That’s great, Sheela. Yeah, what’s next is always iterations on improving my teaching, new projects for research. But I thought working with Sheela on a project like this was super helpful, both for my career, because it benefits me to publish… that’s a really important part of my job… and I have a community of people with statistical skills and experience publishing, that if I can bring that to a partnership with a community college faculty person who has access to community college students, that’s a important connection that the community college students can benefit from the research finds for them, the faculty member in the community college isn’t overwhelmed attempting to learn a whole bunch of additional publishing skills that they don’t need for their career advancement, but they still want the message to get out that I can carry some of that burden in a way that benefits me. So it’s a win-win for me, for Sheela

Rebecca: Well, thank you so much for joining us. And we look forward to hearing what else you learn.

Adrienne: Thank you so much for having us.

John: And this is really important work that you’re doing because we lose so many students from the STEM fields, and the students we’re losing are the students who could gain the most if they were to be successful in the STEM fields because the rate of return to a degree in the STEM fields is so much higher than it is everywhere else and we face some serious shortages in these areas. So it’s an area in which the research could be really beneficial to a lot of people.

Adrienne:: We’ll do what we can.

Sheela: Yes, keep marching along and carry more with us.


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