345. New Era – New Urgency

Public confidence in the U.S. educational system has been declining while reports of student disengagement have been rising. In this episode, Deborah Pomeroy and F. Joseph Merlino join us to discuss the possibility of repurposing our educational system to better support the needs of our students and our society.

Deborah has over 50 years of education experience and is professor emeritus at Arcadia University. She has co-directed a Dewitt-Wallace grant, Students at the Center, for inner-city schools in Philadelphia and was actively engaged in the Bioko Biodiversity program in Equatorial Guinea. Joe Merlino has spent 39 years in education. He has been a principal or co-principal investigator and/or project director on numerous federal grants. He currently directs a seven-year USAID grant in Egypt where a team of US faculty are co-developing 180 new undergraduate STEM teacher-preparation courses for five large Egyptian universities.

Deborah and Joe are co-founders of The 21st Century Partnership for STEM Education where Joe has served as president since its founding in 2007. They are also the co-authors of New Era – New Urgency: The Case for Repurposing Education, which was recently released by Lexington Books.

Show Notes


John: Public confidence in the U.S. educational system has been declining while reports of student disengagement have been rising. In this episode, we discuss the possibility of repurposing our educational system to better support the needs of our students and our society.


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

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

John: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer…

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


John: Our guests today are Deborah Pomeroy and F. Joseph Merlino. Deborah has over 50 years of education experience and is professor emeritus at Arcadia University. She has co-directed a Dewitt-Wallace grant, Students at the Center, for inner-city schools in Philadelphia and was actively engaged in the Bioko Biodiversity program in Equatorial Guinea. Joe Merlino has spent 39 years in education. He has been a principal or co-principal investigator and/or project director on numerous federal grants. He currently directs a seven-year USAID grant in Egypt where a team of US faculty are co-developing 180 new undergraduate STEM teacher-preparation courses for five large Egyptian universities.

Deborah and Joe are co-founders of The 21st Century Partnership for STEM Education where Joe has served as president since its founding in 2007. They are also the co-authors of New Era – New Urgency: The Case for Repurposing Education, which was recently released by Lexington Books.

Welcome, Deborah and Joe.

Deborah: It’s great to be here. Thank you so much.

Joe: Thank you.

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

Deborah: I am. I have a cup of chai right in front of me.

Rebecca: Perfect. How about you, Joe?

Joe: Yes, this is English breakfast tea.

Rebecca: Oh, yum.

John: And I have a black raspberry green tea today.

Rebecca: Nice. We got green tea in the office today. I have a raspberry Jasmine green tea today.

John: We’ve invited you here today to talk about your new book. Could you tell us a little bit about the origin of New Era – New Urgency: The case for repurposing education?

Deborah: Well, that’s an interesting story. We actually started the book over 14 years ago when we were working on the math-science partnership for Greater Philadelphia. And it was the culmination of work that both Joe and I had been doing, both independently and collaboratively, in education reform. And we were beginning to develop our ideas about education reform. And we’ll go into those in more detail later. But we started the book, and we actually got quite a bit of the book written. And then we were interrupted by a meeting with the Minister of Education from Egypt, who came to Philadelphia with a group of colleagues to study STEM schools in the US. And as a result of that meeting, we ended up working on this USAID project in Egypt, helping the ministry develop a series of model STEM schools. And when we got into the work there, which was basically 24/7, 365 days, and we were joking around that many times, it felt like we were drinking water from a firehose, it was so intensive. And we were never able to go back and finish our book. But as we were doing the work, we sort of looked at each other a number of times, sort of laughing and saying, “This is the last chapter of our book,” because in the last chapter, we hit envisioned what real transformation could be in education, and we were actually doing it and it was so exciting. And so we decided that we needed to recast the first part of the book, and then add this whole latter part of it, because we actually have a case where our ideas have been able to be put into place and have worked just amazingly well. And so the book is actually a total of 14 years in the making.

Rebecca: So I’m really curious about the word choice of repurposing because you could have probably picked many, many titles. Can you talk a little bit about why repurposing is your word choice in the title?

Joe: We felt, through our reform efforts that were difficult to implement, that the single most durable element that prevented reform from happening was the inability of teachers and students to articulate why they were teaching what they were teaching, as opposed to all the other possibilities of what you could teach per subject. So why are you teaching algebra? Why not statistics or probability? Why are you teaching it the way you’re teaching? So the idea of purpose, which is answering the why, was what we found to be lacking. That’s why we felt purpose was the central idea of the book.

Rebecca: I knew there was a key reason.

Deborah: When we started work in Egypt, the first questions that we asked them were: What are your aspirations for the future? And for the outcome of these schools? In other words, what do you dream these graduates could do and become, and when they were able to start to articulate that, and we’ll go into that in more detail later, then we built the entire curriculum and assessment system around that purpose. And so we found that that, in fact, was the linchpin for this transformative reform.

Joe: After our meeting in August of 2011. This is like a year after the Arab Spring in Egypt, that’s when the Egyptian delegation came to Philadelphia. Four months later, we found ourselves in Cairo, I did, and two other colleagues of mine. And so we’re sitting in the first school, which is outside of Giza, and it’s in the middle of nowhere. I mean, it’s 30 miles, it’s just dirt and dust in this building. And we’re sitting in the principal’s office, and looking around wondering what’s happening and in bursts the first deputy minister of education in Egypt, and he says, “Welcome to the dream.” [LAUGHTER] And we’re looking around, and we’re saying “there’s nothing here.” So we had the opportunity to rethink things, and for them to rethink things. And I’ll just say one other thing real quick, is that the purposes of education derives from your aspirations for your country or for your community, and that defines what your purpose is. And that’s what we did in Egypt.

John: And you begin the book by talking about how the purpose of education has evolved over time with a little bit of lag, because educational systems tend to adjust slowly. Could you describe how educational systems have responded to changing societal needs?

Joe: Okay, I’ll try to do this in 60 seconds, if I can, the 400 years. [LAUGHTER] For me, it was a tremendous learning experience. We have, in our time, the ability to have the internet, to have digitized libraries, and search engines. So you can go back and actually look at primary sources. So it became a real learning experience for me as I went through it. But we started with the idea that we’ve been in this business for a while now, from the early 80s to now, and we could see the development of the Nation at Risk archetype that has defined our era here. And we wondered about, are there other archetypes? Have there been other paradigms? Have there been other purposes of education other than, right now, preparing kids for the global economy, which was the idea of the Nation at Risk? So we started by looking at the earliest instances of purposes, and we found it was the religious schools in New England, the Calvinist idea of preparing kids to be a part of a religious community, salvation was the key. And then we looked at, “Well, why did that happen? Why was it salvation?” So we looked at the English history and why people came to the United States was to form a new Israel. That was the vision of the Puritans. And then we looked at how this may have changed over a single lifetime. We talk about in our lifetime, how much change there has been if you think about yourselves and your grandparents. So we looked at history through the lens of five lifetimes, laid end to end. We said, “Well, what happened during these lifetimes?” And you see a tremendous amount of change that happened, that’s what we described in each lifetime, but along with those changes have been associated changes in the purposes of education. So I’ll just give you a quick example. So from this idea of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, from this idea of a religious community, came the idea that as more immigrants came in, there was different religious sects. And there was conflict between these sects, so much so that when William Penn came to Philadelphia in 1682, he brought the Quaker ethos, the idea of the Quaker schools which was based on religious tolerance, and peace. And so it became another purpose of education. And he founded the first Quaker school here in Philadelphia. So that’s an example. Another example is the industrial revolution. There couldn’t be industrial education if there wasn’t an industrial revolution. So that’s what we did.

Rebecca: It’s really done a good job of setting the stage of how change has occurred over time. Can you talk a little bit about how the current system aligns or does not align with our current societal needs?

Deborah: Right now, the paradigm that is pretty much driving education in the US is college and career success. And many schools that I’ve worked in, for instance, have that plus perhaps lifelong learning as part of their school mission and vision. But how does that define the curriculum as such, and there’s really a mismatch, and what would a curriculum look like if we’re really focused on lifelong learning? And while the college and career success is driven so much by standards and by test scores that really are quite empty when it comes to looking at what we need as a society going forward. And going forward, we need people who can collaborate together, we need people who are very well versed in assessing the truthfulness of information and resources, we need people who can listen, we need people who are critical thinkers in terms of being able to deconstruct problems and analyze them and look at their resources and so forth. We need people who know how to recover from a failure and actually see failure as a source of learning and from which positive things can come. Those qualities are not served by high test scores in math and reading and by a curriculum which is so focused on teaching a course to prepare students for the next course. Where does life come in? …students who understand citizenship, who understand the civics of our country, and the government, and our system of checks and balances within our nation and what it really means to be a responsible voter. And on top of that, our students are in a culture in which they are dealing with the effects of pandemics, they’re in a media culture, they’re in a culture of diversity, because our kids below the age of 18 are more brown than white, that demographic is increasing in the country and we’re going to become more and more diverse. We’re dealing already with major effects of climate change. On a more personal level, the kids are dealing with bullying and Infowars, drugs, gun violence, immigration, you name it, and where on earth does the current curriculum prepare students to deal with the culture that they are facing in their own lives and what we need as a country going forward?

John: And I think everything you’ve said are things that everyone would agree need to be addressed. And there have been lots of attempts to bring these things into the school system in terms of an emphasis on lifelong learning, critical thinking, an ability to interpret information, and yet we still see the same basic curriculum being used. Why have previous efforts at reform failed?

Joe: That was the basis of the book. That’s why we wrote the book, because we’ve been doing reform efforts for decades. But we’ve been operating within this bubble of this Nation at Risk archetype, and it’s not relevant to where students are and where our country is. So the curriculum has been set, and then there’s justifications for it, rather than starting at a blank slate and saying: What’s our aspirations? What do you want to do? and then working backwards and deconstructing the subjects to fit that purpose? Like, I’m a math teacher, or I used to be a math teacher. I’m a recovering math teacher, [LAUGHTER] but I also was a philosopher and a cognitive developmental psychology, etc. There are so many different subjects and areas of interest that could be taught, not just in math, but in everything. So why this? Why this curriculum? So when we redesigned the STEM teacher preparation program in Egypt, we had to design an entirely new program. So I went to Cal Poly who was one of our partners, and we had a design session with them. And so it was a group of people at Cal Poly. And I said to them, “we’re going to design a new teacher preparation program.” And I said, “Imagine a teacher preparation program with no courses. What would it look like?” And they were stunned at the question, but eventually, they came around and after three hours, they started to think about it. And they actually did come up with courses, but it was a whole different program than they would have done otherwise. And so I would challenge people to say, what if in high school, there was no college as there was in the first half of the 20th century, it was mostly just high school, there was no college. So what would high school look like? Why would it be there? So the impediment to reform when you get right down to it is the lack of a coordinated coherent philosophy of a school that can inform the curriculum choices that are made. And that this curriculum, that biology talks to chemistry and math talks to each, the humanities are included as a central idea of a school because one of the big problems of people is getting along with each other. So you need history, you need literature, you need to understand human behavior and what triggers you. This is absent, you’re not going to get that from precalculus. And I’m not saying that precalculus isn’t important. But Latin teachers would argue that Latin is important for different reasons. So this is why it comes down to what’s your vision for the kind of life you want to live and the kind of world you want to live in? And then let’s package that in a way that relates and is integral to a child’s life.

Deborah: So, in schools today, many teachers do try to include projects and problem solving with their kids. And we know that that’s very much a part of the pedagogy in many schools today. But the problem solving and the projects are, may be related to the subject matter, and may be of interest to the kids, and maybe not. But the way we did it in Egypt is the schools were designed around the premise that the graduates would be prepared to address the grand challenges of Egypt. And we have grand challenges like climate change, alternative energy, population growth, urban congestion, disease prevention, and so forth and so on. And so all of the courses are designed to provide students with the concepts and skills necessary to address these grand challenges. And so the projects that the students do are projects that are directly related to these grand challenges. And these challenges are things that the kids see every single day when they look out the windows or on their way to school. There are problems that are so pervasive that everyone in Egypt [LAUGHTER] looks around and says “Can’t we solve these problems.” And so what we’re doing is we told the kids, this is what we’re preparing you to do. And so when the kids undertake a project, or work on problems, they’re real, and they’re urgent, and the kids are empowered to think about the fact that they could become agents of change in their country. And that is so different from the kind of projects that we do in our schools today. And when I talk about all the challenges that we face in our society, and the kids are facing in their lives every day, those could be some of the kinds of challenges and problems that a curriculum is trying to address. And those are things that are very, very real and meaningful to the kids. And it sort of takes the kids back to when they were five and six years old and wanted to make lemonade stands to meet the needs of somebody in the community who needs money or something. That altruism, that wonderful altruism of smaller children that somehow gets taught out of them, or many of them, not all of them, certainly. But anyway, I’m trying to take what Joe is saying here and putting it into some very, very specific kinds of things that are so different between a school which is purpose driven, with a purpose which is meaningful, as opposed to a purpose which is really meaningless.

Rebecca: You described in Egypt kind of a context that was ripe for change, and ready to re-envision, repurpose, what would need to happen here to better align our schools for today’s needs in the US?

Joe: I’m glad you asked that. So we brought the process that we used back here to Philadelphia, and we convened a group of 120 people in eight design studios. We had a small grant to do this. And we asked them that question, we said, “What’s your vision for the greater Philadelphia area? What kind of society would you like to live in in the next 10 years?” And we spent time articulating that and then out of that came different purposes of education. It was, you might say, a mission statement… or more than a mission, it was a purpose statement that came out of that vision. And there was like eight elements of that purpose. I’ll give you two of those elements. One had to do with diversity, “how do you live in a diverse society?” And then the second one was, “What are the unifying elements for that diversity?” So if that is your top line theme, you might say then if you’re in biology, how would you exemplify that theme? Well, you talk about biodiversity. And then you talk about evolution as being the unifying principle of biology as one of those things. For chemistry, the diversity of the material world through the elements. And well, what’s the unifying principles to that? So you look at the natural world diversity, which is immense, and then you look at the human world of diversity. What unites us? We have tremendous diversities, not just around race and religion, but personalities and cognitive abilities. So it gets to then how do we live together among all of this kind of human and natural diversity? What unifies us? Kids want to know that. They have to deal with all of us, otherwise, you just get gangs. So that theme of unity and diversity can cut through all of the subjects, look at music, my God, and yet there’s a unifying principle. So those are the two elements, and so when you then sit a group of experts in a room that have diverse subjects, and you say, “Alright, here’s your theme: diversity, unity, you’re a biologist, tell us how would you structure the subjects along those two themes?” And we did the same. And out of that, then we create a curriculum. So it’s like a rug, warp and woof, the threads of a rug becomes an integrated curriculum from that, so that when a student comes into that school, they understand what the school is about, and why they’re learning what they’re learning.

John: How has that worked? How have the changes been received?

Joe: The people who participated were really amazed by the process, and they got a lot out of it. The next step in that is then developing the curriculum, and then implementing it. So we attempted to do that with the School District of Philadelphia. And they were not interested, even though we had this process. But why we were so thrilled and still are thrilled with our work in Egypt is that we talked directly to the Minister of Education, we were in meetings with him, we had his first deputy minister, who is still directing the project. So at the very highest level we had buy in. President El-Sisi visited one of our schools in Minya, Egypt and said, “My God, these students are amazing. I want 100 More of these schools.” And more recently, the minister and the head of the Parliament said we want to have this idea throughout all of our schools,17 million in Egypt, the elements of that idea. So what the biggest change has been in this process is, and the students will tell you, not me, the students will tell you is that they came in as individuals in a competitive environment. They came out of it, they had a personal transformation of seeing something greater than themselves, cooperating with each other, and thinking of it as “we” rather than “me.” And boy, wouldn’t that be great in this country if we had that spirit of let’s just work on this together?

Rebecca: I think your story really attests to the importance of some of the grassroots kind of components of reform as well as real support from leadership.

Joe: Exactly.

Rebecca: You also ventured into Bosnia Herzegovina. Can you talk a little bit about what that project was like there?

Joe: So a lot of this stuff happens through serendipity. We didn’t go out and apply for Egypt, they came to us, quite by accident. So the same thing happened in Bosnia Herzegovina which, as you know, it was a terrible situation back in 1991 with the breakup of Yugoslavia and tremendous genocide there. Save the Children had been working there on a USAID grant to work on a STEM school. This is in 2017. And it wasn’t working out too well. So they called on us, based upon our work in Egypt, and we went over there. And we did the same process with a group of university people and other officials of this design studio. We said, “What’s your aspiration for your country?” And their aspiration was: we want peace, and we have tremendous unemployment, and also people are leaving the country. So we want to be able to have peace, have people work together and not fight each other and be employed. So for them, they came up with the idea that the purpose of education is to be equipped to participate in a knowledge-based economy (KBE). I said fine. Well, what are they? So they listed 10 sectors of a knowledge-based economy? I said, “Fine, alright, so we have design studios, where we list these sectors and the elements of the sectors and then across this matrix was the subjects. And from that they developed a K to 13 curriculum that was integrated around these KBE sectors. So our role there was not to develop the curriculum, but to consult on the process by which they could do it themselves. And so we worked there for a couple of years. And we developed the curriculum app, an application, that was a relational database that had all of this curriculum in four different languages. So, it was interesting.

John: In your book, you advocate moving towards a more purpose-driven curriculum, but we’re living in a country where there’s a tremendous amount of political polarization and a lot of divisions, where there is a already a lot of pressure on schools to move in different directions tied to the local politics of people in that community. What can be done to move towards a consensus on the goals of the educational system in the US.

Deborah: There are a couple of principles that we need to deal with. One is that conversations have to happen across the sectors of community, whether we’re talking a local community, as a community of as large as a state, or national. One of the things of course, we don’t have a national education system as such here. The closest we get to a system is at the state level, but really, decisions are made much more at a local level. And we have tremendous diversity, even within the state of New York, for instance. I mean, you have one of the largest urban areas in the world, and then you have extremely rural areas, and with levels of affluence and poverty at the greatest extremes of the continuum. But conversations need to happen, but they need to be carefully facilitated, because you just don’t get in and say, “Well, what are we going to do?” You have to have very careful guidance and structure in this kind of design studio with everybody buying into the idea that things need to change. And we need to be able to really discuss freely and openly. And I think one of our beliefs is that when you have these discussions, I believe personally, and I’m a bit of an optimist in this respect, that we’ll find that many people, even from very diverse sectors, whether it’s politically or demographically or whatever, really have the same aspirations. I think the key is to identify the shared aspirations, and maybe where they aren’t shared, maybe there’s a way to forge unity between those. So I’m going to stop at this point, and then let Joe continue on with that.

Joe: I think that’s true. I think the key is to have a diversity of voices, and not just the loudest voices. And it needs to be, as Deborah said, very well facilitated in a process that doesn’t allow just the loudest voices to dominate. So that’s part of the process of developing that. But I think you also see that if you do a design studio in Oswego, for example, and then you also did it in Rochester, New York, and you did it in Hazleton, Pennsylvania, I would bet a bag of bagels that you’re going to find a lot more commonality [LAUGHTER] than you would usually think of it, because a lot of people just want to live, they want to have a family or they want to have success. There’s common human aspirations. But we live in a different time period than we did 1800s. So those aspirations have got to reflect the technology and the culture and the context of the times. And why that’s necessary is that you just can’t come in and impose a curriculum, you have to have buy in and acceptance… not to go back to Egypt, what we did was, we had to make sure that it was accepted. So if you have these aspirations, then you design the curriculum, you get affirmation from the curriculum, and everybody knows what the goal is. And once you decide you want to do it, and you have the authorization, if you will, from the decision makers at the policy level, financially, you can do it within a couple of years.

Rebecca: I love that you have great stories about success, and that it’s possible, because I think a lot of times it feels impossible when there’s a lot of division. One of the things that we’ve focused a lot on is the K-12 arena. What role does higher ed have in these conversations? Or what part of the conversation should we contribute to? Most of our audience are faculty and staff, administrators and things in higher ed institutions?

Deborah: I think higher ed has a huge role in several respects. Number one is if you change the way you’re teaching students so that they come out of their high schools with different sets of skills, and a different knowledge base and these kids go into their traditional university classes, there’s going to be a major disconnect. And again, I don’t want to beat the drum about Egypt, but very quickly a story that our students every semester, do a major semester-long, what we call a capstone project. And these are evaluated by outside evaluators. The very first time we did this, among the outside evaluators was a dean of engineering at the University of Cairo. And afterwards, she said, “Oh, my goodness, these kids are at the level of my master’s students or even above, and here they are just sophomores.” She said, “This is just amazing.” And I turned to her and I said, “These kids are going to be coming to your university in a couple of years. What are you going to do?” And she looks stunned. She was absolutely silent. She recognized the disconnect. And so that’s what we would call sort of a ground-up push for change, but there have to be other changes as well. Faculty need to be provided with a kind of support to do their own transformations in their courses and their pedagogy. And that has to be a huge change. But that won’t happen unless they see the need for change. And so that’s why we think actually starting in the high school is a great place to do that. But it also has to come from the leadership of the universities themselves from the top down, so we have all three working together. And of course, the first change has to be on teacher preparation. But changes have to happen in other courses as well, and those will be slower and probably take longer to implement. But the teacher preparation implications for this kind of curriculum, this kind of way of pedagogy and his way of assessment… we haven’t talked about that yet… are really quite significant.

Joe: You’re not going to be able to redesign schools, like we’ve been talking about, without the participation of universities for a number of reasons. One is that people look to universities for permission to think differently, they trust the expertise of professors. So they want to make sure that if they do this, it’s not going to hurt their child’s chances of college. So you need a partnership, a very strong partnership with the University to make that happen. And you need leadership from the President and Provost to give it the heft to make it happen. And so universities have been and would be indispensable to making this thing happen.

John: And many of the discussions at universities are along the same lines, in terms of the purposes that you’ve mentioned at the start of this recording session, it just hasn’t quite made it into the curriculum to the extent which might be needed to truly affect that type of change.

Joe: So in part of my research, I came across the report on general education that was done at Harvard in 1945, after World War Two, and it was about what you needed to live in a free society. And it was a very strong statement about the need to prepare students both at the college and secondary levels to live in a free society and what that meant, and how central the humanities were in that process, but also, that you cannot just teach math or the sciences for their own sake, that there has to be a moral arrow to it as well, because we saw in Germany in World War Two, how engineers and scientists were used in nefarious purposes. And I think universities are caught in this dilemma that students want to come to universities because they want to get a better job. But universities have a social mission too, and it’s more than just private gain that you’re doing with a student, you really want to transform that student into something more than who they are already and to enculturate them with a grander sense of obligation and duty. That’s really the value of higher education and the institutions, as I see it. And I see them as indispensable. So we wrote this book in a way to give a history and a sense of permission and a way to begin talking about these issues with some common language. That’s why we wrote it, because we realize universities have the same problem. Your Gen Ed courses, what do you have in those? But also institutionally, where are you going? What are you about?

Rebecca: I definitely agree with all the things that you’re saying. And I’m appreciative that you’ve written this book. One thing that Deborah had mentioned was assessment. So I wanted to see if we could pick up on that thread very quickly. So when we’re thinking about a purpose-driven mission and curriculum, how does that change the way we assess things? Assessment has been a big subject on the podcast more recently. And so I think it ties nicely into a lot of the things that we’ve been exploring.

Deborah: Well, I’m really glad you picked up on that, because that was absolutely critical. But what we have to do is we first have to decide what is success? And we can’t answer that question until we know what the purpose is. And I was just in a group of educators last night, and they were talking about what are the challenges of grade inflation. I said, “Well, what happens if we change the way we grade so that there can’t be such a thing as grade inflation?” And so what we’re talking about is a way to so radically change things like through the kind of evaluation I was mentioning, where students do projects and they have outside evaluators, is it complicated? Yes. Is it challenging? Yes. Is it worth it? Absolutely. Can you have grade inflation when you use rubrics and do blind evaluation and so forth? Yeah, yeah, you can get rid of those things. But the bottom line question is: how do you define success? And that has to be driven by the purpose which has been, as we have mentioned, deconstructed into what are the skills and concepts necessary to achieve your aspirations?

Joe: In the book we talked about the tyranny of math scores, that and English language arts has been the sine qua non of achievement and value in schools, and if you look at New York’s test scores, for example, for grades three to grade eight, math and science scores, the gap between low income and non-low income people stays the same from third grade all the way to eighth. And that’s predominantly the black and brown, so the gap remains the same. And if you just focus on math, you’re always going to be in a situation where you see these kids as deficient in some way. Whereas if you have the idea that there’s many different things that you can measure, other than math scores, that are of value, you open up the possibility of trying to find assets within students. And you also, through your assessment, you have to allow students to fail, and then to recover from that failure by learning something new, and not feeling that they are labeled… you know, it’s the growth mindset idea. So there has to be assessments that do that. And I’ll just say one last thing, you know, whenever someone learns something, particularly if it’s a misconception they have, and then they come to a correct understanding, there is a moment of vulnerability, where they say, “If I’m going to learn, I have to open myself up to different ways of thinking.” That’s an extremely vulnerable state. So if you have an assessment system that is judgmental, kids are not going to be learning, that’s why it stays the same in terms of the achievement gap.

John: I think there’s growing recognition of that in higher ed, which is why there’s so much discussion of alternative grading systems that encourage students to recognize that making mistakes is part of learning, and not penalizing them by what they come in not knowing but evaluating them based on their achievement by the end of the term.

Joe: Well, we’ve submitted a proposal with UC Berkeley on elementary assessment schemes using learning progressions as a framework so that if you’re traveling from Oswego to Albany, for example, let’s say Erie, Pennsylvania, you have a roadmap of where you’re going. And if you’re not quite in Erie, you’re somewhere in the middle. Well, that’s where you are. It’s not that you’re a failure to go to Erie. That’s where you are. So having this sense of measuring progress, but not evaluating it in terms of whether you’re failing or not, but you’re informing the student, “Okay, you have achieved this much. Here’s where you need to go next.”

Rebecca: Well, I’ve loved our conversation today. There’s lots to think about at an individual level and a social level, institutional level, policy level, there’s a lot of levels. But we always wrap up by asking what’s next?

Deborah: Well, our book has just come out. And so we are really interested in trying to start these conversations, just as you have given us the opportunity to do today and get people to start to think about the ideas that we have. We wrote it with a general audience in mind. But although it’s an academic book, definitely in that respect, it’s being marketed by our publisher as an academic book, but we really want to try to reach a more general audience and get these conversations started. So we want to spread the word, we want people to start thinking about some of these ideas, and maybe talking amongst each other in small book groups or something as: “What do you think the purpose should be?” …and start it both as a grassroots and at all levels, get these conversations going?

Joe: Yeah, for me, it’s not about telling someone what their purpose should be, or giving them our idea of what the purpose should be. I mean, I have my private idea, but more it’s the process by which it’s arrived at in a sense that it can be done. So we look at this as a sharing of our ideas and opportunities. We’ve been struggling with this for many, many years. So when we’ve had this kind of success through this process, that we want to share it. We don’t want to own it, we’re giving it away. That’s what the whole idea of the academy is about. So we’re hoping that through these interviews that we’re doing here, that people will find value in these and will read our book and have discussions about the process and about how things are in their own places. And that there hopefully will be a critical mass developed. So that’s what we’re doing right now.

John: Well, thank you for joining us. You’ve raised so many interesting questions that need to be addressed for education to be more effective. Thank you.

Deborah: Thank you.

Joe: Thank you. You’ve been tremendous hosts.


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.


344. Failing Our Future

The traditional grading system that we are all used to is of relatively recent historical origin. In this episode, Josh Eyler joins us to discuss research on problems associated with traditional grading systems and possible solutions at different scales and in different educational contexts.

Josh is the Director of Faculty Development, the Director of the ThinkForward Quality Enhancement Plan, and a faculty member in the Department of Teacher Education at the University of Mississippi. He is the author of How Humans Learn: The Science and Stories behind Effective Teaching and a forthcoming  book, Failing Our Future: How Grades Harm Students, and What We Can Do About It.

Show Notes

  • Eyler, Joshua R. (2024, forthcoming). Failing Our FutureL: How Grades Harm Students, and What We Can Do about It. John Hopkins University Press (pre-order link)
  • Eyler, J. R. (2018). How humans learn: The science and stories behind effective college teaching. West Virginia University Press.
  • Brookhart, S. M., Guskey, T. R., Bowers, A. J., McMillan, J. H., Smith, J. K., Smith, L. F., … & Welsh, M. E. (2016). A century of grading research: Meaning and value in the most common educational measure. Review of educational research, 86(4), 803-848.


John: The traditional grading system that we are all used to is of relatively recent historical origin. In this episode, we explore research on problems associated with traditional grading systems and possible solutions at different scales and in different educational contexts.


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 Josh Eyler. Josh is the Director of Faculty Development, the Director of the ThinkForward Quality Enhancement Plan, and a faculty member in the Department of Teacher Education at the University of Mississippi. He is the author of How Humans Learn: The Science and Stories behind Effective Teaching and a forthcoming book, Failing Our Future: How Grades Harm Students, and What We Can Do About It. Welcome back, Josh.

Josh: Thank you. Thank you. Great to be here.

John: We’re happy to talk to you. And it’s been a while. Today’s teas are:… Josh, are you drinking tea with us today?

Josh: Well, you know how I roll, you guys, I don’t have tea, but I have some lovely water. [LAUGHTER]

Rebecca: So tasty. I have a Scottish afternoon today.

John: And I’m trying to cut back on caffeine, so I just have a peppermint tea today.

Rebecca: Well, if you wanted to cut back on caffeine, you could join Josh with water. [LAUGHTER]

Josh: That’s true. [LAUGHTER] Come join the club, John. [LAUGHTER]

John: I suppose that probably would not be an unhealthy thing to do. [LAUGHTER] And I have been drinking a lot more water recently.

Rebecca: So, we invited you here today to discuss Failing our Future. Could you tell us a little bit about how this book project came about?

Josh: Sure. Yes. So it has a couple of origin stories, actually. One is that when I was writing How Humans Learn a few years ago, I was working on the final chapter on failure. And I kept coming across research on grades and grading and the obstacles that they set up to learning. And certainly if you’re thinking about failure as a tool for learning, you immediately are confronted with the fact that in systems that prioritize grades, they push back on the natural cycle of learning, where we try something, we fail, we get feedback, we try it again. Grades are set up in the opposite direction, they arrest that process before it can really play out. And so that is what piqued my interest. And I don’t know that I could say honestly that I thought I was going to write a book about grades at that point. But I knew that it was an important element of what I was discussing. So I’d say a few years after that, I think what we were seeing was a lot of discussion about grades, a lot more experimentation with it. That led me to want to write a book for a broader audience, one that certainly included educators, but one that cut across the K-12, higher ed divide one that was also for parents and policymakers and students, one that really took a bird’s eye view of the larger conversation about grades, trying to pull all of what we know together so that we could move forward as a community to try and enact change. So that’s what got us here. And the process was certainly longer than I expected due to the pandemic, but it was also just a very illuminating process. And I heard some heartbreaking stories as I did interviews for this. But overall, I’m really proud of the work.

John: And you mentioned addressing this through the entire educational spectrum. And I think it’s important to address it through the whole system. Because by the time we see students in college, they’ve already been indoctrinated into a system of grades, and there’s a lot of resistance to change, and also a lot of damage, perhaps, may have been done by the use of grading systems early. Could you talk a little bit about how we ended up with this system of grading, which has been so much a part of the educational culture from kindergarten on up?

Josh: Sure, yeah. And you’re right about the fact that students are conditioned for at least 12 years before they get to us to think about grades as being the most important thing about education. So how did we end up here, we could have a podcast episode that would last five hours if we really wanted to dig into that. But I’ll focus really on the more recent history. And that is that the A through F letter grade scale that we have is really about 125 years old. Our first records of a full letter grading scale come from Mount Holyoke in the 1890s. So they were the first to implement it. Back then it was A through E. They later dropped the E because they were afraid that people would think that they were excellent when they were not, you know, God forbid that we allow people to think that they’re excellent. And so they dropped the E and added a letter where there could be no mistake about what it meant, and that was an F, for failure. So that’s when it began. But that system, the letter grade system, was not formalized, or standardized, really until the 1940s. That is when you see a majority, in fact, of school districts and colleges and universities adopt that system. And what I think is most important about that, actually two things. One is that none of this has ever been inevitable, that the 1940s is less than 100 years ago, so this is not something that was cast in stone at the minute the American educational system began; it has changed and can be changed. The second thing, though, is that all of these schools, districts, all of these colleges adopted that system, not because they thought it was the best way to document student learning, but simply because it was the easiest way to communicate across institutions. They felt that if they had a common system that they could communicate more effectively between themselves. So it was not about student learning. It was not about student progress or growth or development. It was simply about communicating. That’s how we got here. And now we’re trying to figure out where do we go next? How do we undo some of the damage that has happened since that time?

Rebecca: Speaking of damage, do you want to underscore what some of that damage is? [LAUGHTER]

Josh: Sure, and I know that there’s room for reasonable debate about the terms that we use here. But I honestly really do think we can use the framing of damage and harm when it comes to grades. And in the book, I have several categories. The first and most obvious category for that damage has to do with learning, that grades set up obstacles to learning. They inhibit curiosity, they inhibit creativity, they inhibit risk taking, they affect intrinsic motivation. This is painfully obvious, but grades are classic extrinsic motivators, which means that they are very good for getting people to do things that they would not otherwise want to do. Extrinsic motivators operate effectively, if your goal is compliance, you want to get people in seats, you want to get people to turn things in on time, you want to get people to say things in class, grades work for that. But if what you’re interested in is learning and quality, that’s what you need intrinsic motivation for. The grades can get people into learning spaces, but they in no way ever guarantee that a student will learn even though they are actually in the environment. So that’s really important. Environments that prioritize grades also incentivize cheating, and they just stand in the way of a lot of different things. But that’s just the academic part of it. Obviously, those are important, but to me, they’re less important than some of the effects of grades on students’ lives and wellbeing. Grades magnify and mirror inequities that have always been a part of the American educational system. For example, students who attend poorly resourced high schools have fewer educational opportunities, fewer textbooks, more teacher turnover, all the things that are tied to less-resourced schools. And what that means often when they get to college, they have experienced what we call opportunity gaps, which show up in their grades, especially in Gen Ed courses. So those grades that you see in the first couple of years of a student’s college experience, one who has experienced opportunity gaps, those are reflections of the past, they’re not indications of the student’s potential. They are indicators of systemic inequity. So that’s just one of many examples that we could rifle through. Grades are surveillance technologies. They’re often used for punishment, especially in high school, but kind of across the board. So that’s another category. inequities. And then the final one, the one that we’re getting more and more research on now, maybe than we’ve had in the past, and one that I personally care a lot about is that we have evidence now that grades are a contributing factor to the mental health crisis in teenagers and young adults, the academic stress caused by grades. We have a number of research studies pointing us toward the significant contribution of grades to that mental health crisis. So lots of areas here, I think, beyond the classroom. And that’s really our central idea of this book that grades have long afterlives, well beyond a semester, well beyond the classroom, that affect people’s lives, sometimes just in the short term, but often in the longer term as well.

Rebecca: Josh, you went from going from grades are no fun to grades are a super downer. [LAUGHTER]

Josh: Yeah, well, that’s the message. It’s a happy book, Rebecca. [LAUGHTER] It’s not going to win any awards for a happy smiley story, that’s for sure. [LAUGHTER]

John: One concern that some faculty have about moving to alternative grading systems is that, while intrinsic motivation is something we’d all really love to see in our students, there may be some tasks in our disciplines that students have to master which may not be as intrinsically rewarding as others, but they might still be foundational for students to be successful. If we move away from grading systems, what type of motivation can be provided to help students master those tasks that may seem tedious and may not be quite as intrinsically rewarding as other areas that students just find much more interesting?

Josh: Well, that’s a great question. There are a couple of things I’d like to address about this. So first of all, it’s not that we’re talking about either having traditional grades or having no grades, and nothing in between. What a lot of people are doing in the area of alternative grading practices is experimenting with a whole range of models. And so particularly for the types of courses and disciplines that you’re talking about in that question, John, I have found that many faculty gravitate toward a model called standards-based grading, where you can identify the skills, the content knowledge, the disciplinary norms and necessities that are important for students to develop. And the grade for the course is based, not on individual performance on exams, but how many standards they meet, over the course of the semester. And as a feature of that particular model, often students are given multiple attempts and multiple ways to meet the standards. So that’s part of releasing the pressure valve a little bit for students that gives them room to grow and honors the fact that individuals learn at different paces. So it doesn’t matter when in the semester that they hit the number of standards in order to get their A or B, because the process is a fundamental part of that grading model. So I think that’s really important. Another thing that often comes up in these conversations, though, is the fact that we do in fact, have gradeless colleges in America. The one I feature in the book is Evergreen State College in Washington. And they don’t have any grades at all. They have fully narrative transcripts. They give only feedback over the course of the semester. And they teach all the disciplines. So they have found ways to heighten the intrinsic motivation, and to use feedback to really help students navigate the path toward the goals that they have for themselves and for the class. So there are ways to do this. You don’t need grades to keep people in the seats or to have them do things that might draw on less intrinsic motivation. I think there are ways to structure our learning environments that allow us to do similar work without the pressure of traditional grades. And I think that’s the ultimate point here. I think what a lot of folks in this area who are interested in grading reform are trying to promote is not necessarily just ditching grades outright, although we could talk about that if you want, but reorienting students relationship with grades, the messages that grades send to students, so that it’s not necessarily an evaluation, but a tool helping them develop their skills and to push their learning forward.

Rebecca: It’s always been interesting to me that the A through F system was meant to provide some standardized ways of communicating between institutions yet, if you look at any single institutions’ body of syllabi, you can see that the grades mean entirely different things [LAUGHTER] depending on a class, like some might be about attendance, some might be about success on a test, some might be about achieving learning objectives. So it seems like if it was meant to communicate anything [LAUGHTER] across institutions, it certainly isn’t meeting that objective. I don’t know what my question is. [LAUGHTER]

Josh: I’m so glad this up, though.

Rebecca: I had a question, but I think I lost it. [LAUGHTER]

Josh: No, I’ll answer it. There’s a question in there, Rebecca.

Rebecca: Thanks for helping.

Josh: What you’re talking about there is what I call the measurement fallacy. And so there has been more and more work over the last few years, including one that I absolutely love, called A Century of Grading Research, where a team of experts dives into a massive amount of material. And the conclusion that they come up with is that a grade is nothing more than a subjective indicator by an individual instructor on a student’s progress toward that individual’s goals for a particular course. So I set the goals for my course, a grade that I would give is nothing more than an indicator of how much progress a student has made on my goals for my course. They call them learning intentions in this paper. It is not in any way, a kind of universal certification of learning in a particular course or discipline. Nor does it mean that the student who gets a certain grade in my course would get the same grade from my colleague down the hall teaching the same course. It is a truly subjective indicator of progress. And because of that, we cannot really say that grades measure what we have been told that they measure and what our educational systems have assumed that they measure, which is learning. They’re not universal measurements of learning, they’re subjective indicators of progress in the course.

Rebecca: And yet they’re used to make all kinds of decisions about students.

Josh: They are, and you’re absolutely right.

Rebecca: It’s very interesting. [LAUGHTER]

Josh: So I think there has been a lot of ill placed weight on grades without a subsequent amount of investigation into what grades have meant, and continue to mean. This is also what fuels the furor over supposed grade inflation. And there are lots of other tendrils of problems, when you begin to put so much emphasis on grades to do so much work in our educational system.

John: You mentioned Evergreen State College, but another college that had gone in that direction, very successfully was New College, and I teach in a program at Duke in the summer, and I had two TAs from New College, and they were two of the brightest people I had ever worked with, and their mastery of the subject matter was very much equivalent to that of other students I had who came from institutions with very traditional grading systems. So they certainly didn’t seem to be damaged by that. And yet, there seemed to have been a bit of a hostile takeover of New College. [LAUGHTER]

Josh: Yes, there has been but there is not evidence yet that the hostile takeover has affected that gradeless model. There was some discussion that I read in transcripts of board meetings about that grading system, but it has not changed yet. And I’m glad you brought up New College, John, because, and they have this on their website, as recently as last year, they were able to boast that they were producing students who went on to get the highest percentage of STEM PhDs in the country, relative to their size as an institution, which says a lot. If you are a gradeless institution, and your students are succeeding at that rate in STEM PhDs, it means that they’re learning not just content, but also the skills that are necessary to do that level of advanced work. So I think that that says a lot for what is possible, even within systems that do not have anything close to a traditional grading system.

John: And I should note that one of those students did go on to a PhD in economics. And the other student went on and picked up a master’s degree in data analytics. And they’ve succeeded very nicely, despite the absence of grades [LAUGHTER] in their college career. [LAUGHTER]

Josh: Imagine that.

John: When we began this discussion, one of the things you noted was that under traditional grading systems, the grades at the end of courses often reflect differences in the opportunities that students face before they enter our classes. Can you talk a little bit more about that?

Josh: Absolutely. So you have the reinforcing of those gaps, you have extensions of those gaps. So if you think about what happens to a student who comes into a college course with those opportunity gaps, and then is in a system, for example, where grades are curved, so not only then are they trying to bridge over those equity gaps, but their grades are really reflective of those gaps. But now they are also competing in a curved grade system with their other fellow students, many of whom have had more practice at the kinds of exams and the kinds of questions and the kinds of teaching strategies that they’ll see in those courses. So it just starts to pile on top of each other. And I think that this is something that we just don’t talk enough about, it’s just assumed, and many of these students are labeled unprepared or not ready for college, which places all the burden on them rather than this more systemic problem that I think we really need to face. Because we don’t talk enough about it, we assume that grades have to be a part of the landscape of education. And because of that, we, and I say we as the community in education, we’ve just been willing to tolerate all of the issues that grades have brought with them without really pulling back the curtain and looking at what the issues really are.

John: And we lose so many students in the first couple of years of college and many of the students we lose are those who come from low-income school districts, whose parents had less education, and who just come in with less preparation. And that’s not a very equitable way of providing an education.

Josh: Right, absolutely. And so this shows up on all kinds of metrics that colleges care about: retention, progress, graduation, all of which, by the way, are tied to grades and GPAs. That grades are the gatekeepers for keeping those students enrolled and moving through to graduation. So yes, that’s a major problem to address with respect to those students who are coming to us with fewer opportunities and from school districts with fewer resources. I think we need to really investigate the traditional ways of being In higher education, really look closely at them, reimagine them in order to create systems that have equity at the center and where we are actually, I think, invested in student success and helping those students from those different backgrounds to succeed.

Rebecca: I think the other thing to underscore related to equity issues is not only does an institution maybe have policies about grades and decisions are made at an institutional level, but at the federal level grades are used for financial aid. And so if you don’t hit a certain grade point average, and if you don’t have a certain number of classes that you complete successfully, so you’re not withdrawing from them, or having incompletes, etc, then you might not be eligible, you could lose financial aid. So whether or not a student has demonstrated growth in any kind of way doesn’t matter. It’s down to this idea of grades. And depending on the classes they’re enrolled in and the different things that grades mean, we’re essentially not allowing students to proceed because they can’t afford to.

Josh: That’s absolutely right. The more you really take the magnifying glass to this, the more you see how implanted grades are in all of these decisions, and all these key points in a student’s academic career, bringing in financial aid, I think, is a wonderful example of their gatekeeping function. And the idea that you’re raising there, that it doesn’t even give students a chance to try and bridge those equity gaps. It doesn’t honor their growth or development at all, it says you got less than a C average in your first year, therefore, we are not giving you any more money to move through the university, and so many leave, many dropout. And I think that there is a better way to do things.

John: And many of those students who leave end up with a fairly significant burden of student debt that they still have to pay, further increasing the inequity. What types of alternative grading systems do you discuss in your book, you mentioned standards based grading, but what are some of the other areas that you encourage faculty to consider?

Josh: Well, the book is divided into two parts. And the first half is all the problems and the second half is possible solutions. And so there’s a chapter for parents on what you can do in the home to help your children reorient their own approach to grades. And then the last chapter is about systemic change. But the one in between that is focused on what teachers in K-12 and faculty in higher ed are doing in their own individual classrooms to help with this. And so, there’s a whole range. There are the models that are related to standards-based grading, I call them the cousins: they’re standards-based grading, specifications grading, competency-based, mastery-based, proficiency-based, they’re all not very different from each other, they just have slightly different names, and maybe a few modestly different features to them. So that’s one bucket. Portfolio grading is one that I recommend for folks who just want to dip their toe in the world of alternative grading, because a portfolio model, you’re giving a lot of feedback throughout the semester, a lot of opportunity to revise and redo assignments. But ultimately, the portfolio that is turned in at the end of the semester gets a fairly traditional grade associated with it, it’s just that that grade honors the whole arc of the work for the semester. So that’s another one. Contract grading, and its various branches that we have recently seen. So classic contract model was developed in the middle of the 20th century. And it looks something like this: here’s a list of things to do for the course, if you do 15 of them at a satisfactory level… I’m just making up that number…if you do 15 at a satisfactory level, you get an A for the course, you do 12 you get a B, etc. That’s a contract model. More recently, there’s been a version of it called labor-based contract grading,…very prominent in writing studies… that tweaks it a little bit to emphasize more the amount of work, the amount of writing that students do over the course of the semester, and that is tied to fulfilling the particular contract. And then if we’re looking at a spectrum of grading models, with portfolio grading being one of the more conservative of the alternatives, on the other end of the spectrum you have what some people call ungrading and other people call collaborative grading where there are no grades throughout the semester, only feedback, lots of student self assessment, self evaluation, and then at the end of the semester, the students proposed their grade and the final grade is determined through a conference between the instructor and the student about that proposed grade. So there are lots of things that people are trying. I tried to send two messages about this, one is that my goal is hopefully to help faculty find models that will work best for them and their students, that it’s not a one-size-fits-all model. The same thing that works for me may not work for my colleague in the next classroom over. So that’s important. The other thing is that you do not need absolute fidelity to any one of these models. It’s not like Moses came down from the mountain, with tablets that you had to follow to the letter, lots of people are mixing and matching and taking elements from a host of different systems that they find works for them. So I’ve yet to find someone marching down the checklist for engraving or for contract grading, everyone’s kind of putting their own spin on it, and that’s good. Well, it’s actually not only good, it’s important since our contexts vary so significantly across higher ed.

Rebecca: As a lot of faculty start considering these different alternative models, collectively we can start to initiate culture change, kind of with a grassroots model. But systemic change requires policy change and other things as well. Can you talk a little bit about what role we might have in pushing forward some of those agendas as well?

Josh: Like I mentioned before, a major reason for writing this book was because my observation was that a lot of people are talking about grading reform, but they’re all coming at it, understandably, from their own perspective, the faculty perspective, the administrative perspective, the policymaker perspective, and the parent’s perspective. And I think that if we’re thinking seriously about systemic change, we need to have everyone on the same page collaborating to move change forward. All that is to say that I think about this question quite a lot. There’s certainly examples that we have of recent systemic change, some of the University of California schools have changed their grading systems in significant ways. Western Oregon just dropped the lowest grades on the scale, they’re no longer available to give. I just met someone a couple of weeks ago from Bryant University, they’re moving to collaborative grading at scale for their first-year seminar courses. So it is happening, what it requires is a network of people across an institution, all of whom believe that this is not only the right thing, but they understand how to use policy to make the reform happen, but also how to tell the story in a way that all the different constituencies can see themselves in it, and can agree that this is the direction that they need to head. So the networking is important, understanding how policy shapes grading habits and processes at a university. If you’re part of a public system, which I know you and I both are, you need to understand how the system policy and the state policy plays into this as well. So that requires having that network of different people at different positions in a university to really move that work forward. But what I really want folks to know is that you’re not alone in this, that there are lots of people thinking about this, and lots of people who are doing this work, sometimes under the radar, sometimes above the radar at institutions, and that one person taking a step is a step toward change. But multiple people taking the same step together begins to create a movement toward change. And so I want people to know that. I also want people to know that there are blueprints out there for how to do this work, that there are people who study grading reform, there are models out there for successful institutional reform. Given my work for the book, I think we have a lot to learn from K-12 school districts. There are so many of those each year that are transitioning to standards-based grading across the district. Last year, for example, the entire city of Santa Fe, New Mexico, all their school districts moved to standards-based grading. So this is happening. And the more we learn about process, the more we draw on our colleagues’ network and expertise in these areas, the more we work kind of as a collective in higher ed to push this forward, the more change you’re going to see.

John: We give a lot of workshops on campus and some of them are focused on alternative grading systems. We haven’t seen quite as much movement with that among faculty as I thought we perhaps might, because during the pandemic, a lot of people were open to trying some very different things. But there’s been some resistance. We’ve had a number of people trying it, but it hasn’t caught on quite as much as I had expected it to. Why are so many faculty resistant to moving away from traditional grading systems?

Josh: Well,I think this varies from place to place. But I will say that I think that a major thing that we all face as faculty is the pressures of time. Everyone wants to do their best for their students, I really do believe that, but when you’re faced with such a limited amount of time in which you can change elements of your course, you’re probably going to gravitate immediately toward the kinds of content that you’re teaching in the course in the assignments, the course design pieces of it, or you’re going to think about active learning strategy that John and Rebecca talked about a few months ago, rather than addressing the thing that is at the very foundation of our educational systems in America. That’s not going to be the place that you go first, [LAUGHTER] kind of an upheaval of everything that you have known about education. So I think some of it is just, in a system where we all have very limited time, and very few resources, where do you put your efforts, and I think that is driving some of that. I also think we’re kind of seeing this interesting bounce back that followed that period of innovation at the beginning of the pandemic. I think what you see is almost a defensive response to that period of innovation, that what we really need to do to bring students back and re-engage them in the coursework is to try and somehow recapture what our image was a traditional education pre-2020, that we need to move backward toward that rather than capitalize and extend the innovations that we were doing in the early stages of the pandemic. I don’t want to paint with too broad a brush on that, but I have seen some of that elasticity, that rubberband effect, in talking with folks across the country about some of these issues. So I think those two things are at the forefront of why some folks might resist that. And none of those really has to do yet with really trying to unpack people’s own philosophies of education, or how their grades and their grading models tie into their values that they have with respect to education. So that’s even kind of a deeper level that you can’t even get to until you address some of these other concerns.

Rebecca: And when we’re crunched on time, things that we’ve done before are easier to implement. And it’s also hard to find time to reflect on our practices and to do some of the things that you’re talking about, in thinking about how our values align with what we’re doing. We’re really good as institutions of talking about equity, but we don’t always fully analyze how our practices impact actual equity.

John: And we were all the products of a graded system. And we were somehow successful in that, or we wouldn’t be in these positions. And so I think there may be a little bit of psychological resistance to changing something that has been so fundamental to our own experience.

Josh: Yes. I think a huge capital Y-E-S [LAUGHTER] to both of what you’re saying, that Rebecca, your point, we are not very good at really interrogating how our practices may or may not be aiding our equity goals or advancing our equity goals. And John, yes, we have succeeded in graded systems. And I do think the psychological is a part of it. If we were able to do it, why shouldn’t other people be able to manage this? I think that is what some people think. And more than that, I often see a kind of defensive fallback. Part of this is natural, in that we love our disciplines and devoted our lives to our disciplines, but a fallback toward if I get rid of grades or if I change my grading system, what does that mean for the standards of my discipline, for how people will engage with my discipline? And so I think that’s a psychological element of this as well. And it comes out in arguments about rigor and standards, but what it’s really about is the individual psychology, I think, of the person making the argument.

John: Are there other topics from your book that you’d like to discuss that we haven’t?

Josh: I think the reform efforts that I have seen succeed, and those that have failed, always have hinged on communication, at every level. Why are we doing this? What is the purpose of it? How do we bring people into the process very early on at all levels. At the K-12. level, that means parents, teachers and administrators working together. I think at higher ed, it means utilizing the expertise of faculty right out of the gate, allowing them to shape the narrative and the conversation and the direction and draw on administrative and staff resources to help enact that vision, rather than having a top-down mandate that you had to change your grading. That’s never gonna work in higher ed. But I will say that the communication is what drives all of that work. And it is the hinge that either allows one of these efforts to succeed or fail.

Rebecca: Well, we have a lot to think about, but what’s next, Josh?

Josh: So, what’s next? Well, the book comes out at the end of August and so I’m really excited to launch that and to finally have it in people’s hands and have lots of conversations about what’s in there, hopefully, So, that’s what’s immediately next. I am thinking about the next project that has something to do with the students who are coming to college now are the students who their entire K-12 experience has been shaped by the Common Core, and the obsession with standardization in America, and so what does that mean for higher ed? And what does that mean for those students and their learning? So, I’m in the very early stages of trying to think about that a little bit, but that might be what the next project is.

Rebecca: You always have great projects, Josh, and get us thinking about really important topics. So thanks for your work. I’m looking forward to sharing your new book.

Josh: Well, thank you both very much. It’s always a pleasure to be on this podcast, one of my favorites, and I’d love talking to you both about all these issues, so hanks very much.

John: It’s great talking to you again, and I’m looking forward to receiving my copy of this book in the summer. I ordered it as soon as I saw the notification that pre-orders were available.

Josh: I appreciate that, John, 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.


343. Writers’ Groups

Faculty writing groups can help motivate writing, provide peer feedback, and lead to higher quality writing products. In this episode, James Lang, Sarah Rose Cavanagh, and Mike Land join us to discuss their highly productive long-term writing group.

Jim is a Professor of Practice at the Kaneb Center for Teaching Excellence at the University of Notre Dame, the author of 6 superb books on teaching and learning and is the author of a regular column in the Chronicle of Higher Education. He was the founding editor of the West Virginia University Press series on teaching and learning, and is now a co-editor of a new series at Oklahoma University Press. Jim also was the founder and long-time Director of the teaching center at Assumption College.

Sarah Rose Cavanagh is a psychologist and the author of four books related to teaching and learning. She is the senior associate director for teaching and learning and associate professor of practice at Simmons University and is also a regular contributor to The Chronicle and many other publications. Jim and Sarah are regular keynote speakers and have both provided keynote addresses at SUNY-Oswego.

Mike Land’s early writing and editing experiences included 15 years of newspaper journalism, a masters and doctorate in Creative Writing at the University of Missouri-Columbia, and 23 years of teaching journalistic and creative nonfiction at Assumption, working for many years in the office next door to Jim Lang’s and a short walk from Sarah Cavanagh’s. He’s an Associate Professor of English and Director of the Community Service-Learning Program at Assumption University.

Show Notes

  • Cavanagh, S. R. (2016). The spark of learning: Energizing the college classroom with the science of emotion. West Virginia University Press.
  • Lang, J. M. (2016). Small teaching: Everyday lessons from the science of learning. John Wiley & Sons.
  • Lang, J. M. (2021). Small teaching: Everyday lessons from the science of learning. 2nd ed. John Wiley & Sons.
  • Jensen, J. (2020). Write no matter what: Advice for academics. University of Chicago Press.
  • Scrivener
  • A General Education – Jim Lang’s substack account
  • Cavanagh, S. R. (2023). Mind over monsters: Supporting youth mental health with compassionate challenge. Beacon Press.
  • Reading groups at Oswego (in the last three we were joined by Jessamyn Neuhaus and colleagues from SUNY Plattsburgh):
    • Lang, J. M. (2016). Small teaching: Everyday lessons from the science of learning.
    • Lang, J. M. (2020). Distracted: Why students can’t focus and what you can do about it. Hachette UK.
    • Lang, J. M. (2021). Small teaching: Everyday lessons from the science of learning. 2nd ed.
    • Cavanagh, S. R. (2023). Mind over monsters: Supporting youth mental health with compassionate challenge.


John: Faculty writing groups can help motivate writing, provide peer feedback, and lead to higher quality writing products. In this episode, we explore a highly productive long-term writing group.


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

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

John: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer…

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


John: Our guests today are James Lang, Sarah Rose Cavanagh, and Mike Land. Jim is a Professor of Practice at the Kaneb Center for Teaching Excellence at the University of Notre Dame, the author of 6 superb books on teaching and learning and is the author of a regular column in the Chronicle of Higher Education. He was the founding editor of the West Virginia University Press series on teaching and learning, and is now a co-editor of a new series at Oklahoma University Press. Jim also was the founder and long-time Director of the teaching center at Assumption College. Sarah Rose Cavanagh is a psychologist and the author of four books related to teaching and learning. She is the senior associate director for teaching and learning and associate professor of practice at Simmons University and is also a regular contributor to The Chronicle and many other publications. Jim and Sarah are regular keynote speakers and have both provided keynote addresses at SUNY-Oswego. Mike Land’s early writing and editing experiences included 15 years of newspaper journalism, a masters and doctorate in Creative Writing at the University of Missouri-Columbia, and 23 years of teaching journalistic and creative nonfiction at Assumption, working for many years in the office next door to Jim Lang’s and a short walk from Sarah Cavanagh’s. He’s an Associate Professor of English and Director of the Community Service-Learning Program at Assumption University. Welcome back, Jim and Sarah and welcome, Mike.

Sarah: Thank you.

Jim: Thank you.

Mike: Thank you.

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

Sarah: Never. You know me. I’m drinking seltzer. It’s too late in the day for coffee. [LAUGHTER]

Rebecca: How about you, Jim?

Jim: I had several cups of tea already today, it’s orange pekoe? And then my last one was English Breakfast actually at about one o’clock.

Rebecca: Nice. How about you Mike?

Mike: I am sampling some Bengal spice which the box tells me is brimming cinnamon, ginger, cardamom, and cloves and it’s an adventurous bland.

Rebecca: Does it taste adventurous?

Mike: It does. Everything about this is an adventure to me. [LAUGHTER]

John: And I have a blueberry green tea today.

Rebecca: And I have not my favorite tea. [LAUGHTER]

John: And what do you mean by that?

Rebecca: It’s not a good tea. It’s the first time I’ve ever had it. It’s supposed to be gingerbread. And I think it’s kind of disgusting. [LAUGHTER]

John: Now you know why we never get any sponsorships from tea companies.

Rebecca: I didn’t say where it came from. [LAUGHTER]

John: That’s true, but I’m sure there’s probably not too many gingerbread teas out there.

Rebecca: There shouldn’t be. [LAUGHTER]

John: In past podcast discussions with Jim and Sarah, we had heard about the writing group that you’ve all participated in. Can you tell us how this group got started?

Sarah: I guess I can take that one. I think it was about 2014…2015. Mike, do you know the year? He’s giving me a big nod. 2014. And Jim had recently invited me to write the Spark of Learning and his first series at WVUP and Mike was working on a book…had just come off sabbatical doing a cross country trip. And Jim was working on the first edition of Small Teaching. Since all three of us were working on book projects, Jim said, “Hey, why don’t we form this writers’ group.” And we started meeting. And it was really such a beautiful process to write my first book with my editor [LAUGHTER] reading every chapter as it came out, was a very developmental process. And as well as forming some really great friendships.

Rebecca: Sounds like a great start to a long endeavor. Can you talk a little bit about how regularly this group meets and if you still continue to meet?

Jim: We do continue to meet, but not regularly, as you might expect, [LAUGHTER] especially just because we were initially together at Assumption and were all working in the same area, and I just mean sort of geographical, and now Sarah’s in Boston, I’m going back and forth between Worcester and South Bend. So it’s a little bit harder to get us together in the same place at the same time. So we kind of meet on a more ad hoc basis at this point. if one of us has a project that we want feedback on will sort of send an email around saying “I need help, [LAUGHTER] and so let’s get together and can we have a writers group coming up?” So we’re still probably doing that maybe six to eight times a year, I would say. Maybe we were trying to do it every month but now it’s kind of morphed into that kind of more occasional kind of schedule.

Sarah: So we usually squeeze in a Christmas one.

John: That’s true.”

Sarah: So usually a mid December writers’ group. Some of them are in Zoom just because of how we’re spread around but the Christmas one is always in person. It’s really nice.

Jim: Yes, we have holiday themed groups. [LAUGHTER]

Mike: …with teas.

Sarah: Well, for some of us.

Mike: …or beers, but yeah, we’ve tried to have a couple of year that are also just social and in person. We’ve got more used to Zoom,as everyone has, and since we’re in three different…well, Jim and I live two doors from each other, but it’s harder to get us all together physically in the same space, but we’ve try to do that two or three times a year.

John:. When you were meeting regularly at Assumption University, what happened during the meetings when you got together? How long were the meetings? And what did you do in the meetings?

Jim: That would also depend upon where everyone was, in terms of their writing projects. A typical meeting would last maybe 90 minutes. Mike’s especially a social guy, [LAUGHTER] he would sort of want us to start with some social time, we sort of built that in. And so we’d have a little social time initially, you might be around a meal, for example, for the first 15 to 30 minutes, just catching up on our lives. And then we kind of just go through the project, essentially. So we essentially will just pick one off the pile, and say, “Okay, so here’s my essay this time,” like, for example, I might be doing a Chronicle essay or a chapter of a book. You have to read it in advance. So that’s an important thing to note, that we don’t read out loud, which sometimes writers’ groups will do that. You read in advance, we send the stuff out at least 48 hours in advance. You’re expected to read that material, come into the group having already written comments, either online or actually some of us still use the paper versions and bring those in as well. So then, essentially, the person whose material that we’re critiquing is supposed to just sit and ask questions, and the people that have read will kind of go through, essentially page by page, there might be like an initial comment, “overall, this is what I think of the piece,” but then we kind of go through page by page. That doesn’t mean every page is commented on, because it depends on where the issues are. But say, each person’s piece could take 15 or 20 minutes or so to walk through it. And then we move to the next one. And so we move around the circle that way. That’s the basic process, but what am I leaving out?

Sarah: No, I think that’s most of it… Kind of the flow.

Rebecca: Can you talk a little bit about the benefits of having formed the writing group and what other people might think about in forming a group?

Sarah: It is so invaluable, I think, in so many different ways to have first readers who can read something. It’s so vulnerable writing and putting your thoughts out into the world, and to have a safe place where people can give you feedback on very early drafts, I think is so valuable. And it’s also a really good test of are you expressing your ideas well, and are your references sound. I’m always telling Jim, people who don’t know sports aren’t going to understand this reference, and he does the same for my sci-fi references, and so that kind of tells you what a broader audience might think of your ideas. And it’s just a place to bounce your ideas around as well, like sometimes we do a lot of line-by-line feedback, and Mike is awesome at that from his journalism background. But we also sometimes just ask advice and just say, Is this even working? Should I draft this project and go to something else? Kind of really broad ideas as well. How about you, Mike, what do you see as the benefits?

Mike: The things you said. I think it’s a lonely pursuit, and if you don’t have an audience of people who are intelligent readers to let you know whether you’re totally going in the wrong direction or not, you’ve been staring at what you’ve been working on for so long, you convince yourself that yeah, this makes perfect sense, or this was a good move, or they’ll laugh at this, whatever it is. And so at some point, you got to try it out on audience members you trust and who also understand the writing process, because they themselves are writing and have written a lot. So they differentiate some things, maybe what not to do or to do. There’s a temptation in fiction writing, when I was in the fiction writing program, we were warned about trying not to turn the short story of the person being critiqued just into the story you had felt like writing instead. [LAUGHTER] Well, I figured out what the person is trying to do, and help them do that, and stay locked in on that, to some extent. So yeah, there was a lot there. And it is an extra deadline and something to get you moving.

Jim: That’s an important thing to know, too, that it was oftentimes a way of saying, “Okay, I have this book coming out, so I want to make sure I go chapter by chapter, and so I would make the writing group deadlines, my internal deadlines for getting those chapters done.” That’s a really, really helpful structural enabler, when you’re trying to especially do like a long project. The other thing I mean has come up in actually both these comments from Mike and Sarah, about the audience. And that’s true in terms of your audience. Think about your ideal audience who you’re trying to really write for. It’s also really true for your editors and potential publishers. And we often talk about that, like, “Okay, who would really be the right place to submit this to?” And we might be able to share examples of the publishers that we’ve worked with or strategies for reaching out to an editor, maybe we have a connection, and we know somebody. So we can have also that as well. So especially if you have books in your writers group who have published other things, you can start building networks around a writer’s group and I think that’s really important, too. Again, I think what Mike and Sarah are saying about audience is a real big benefit of you’re sort of thinking about the readers that you’re trying to reach, and you can often refine those. The example that Sarah gave about references, like if I’m writing to a community of people who love science fiction, I don’t have to worry about those references. But if I am going to expand beyond that audience then I have to either explain them or make more universal ones, and I think that process of like hearing at least two other readers, helps you expand a little bit in the number of people that you can reach with your writing.

John: And I would think having that relatively timely feedback would be much better than writing a big chunk of a book, sending it off, having it go out to reviewers and then getting reviews back when it’s perhaps a little bit late to make some of those major changes, that getting that more immediate feedback, I would think, would be helpful in keeping the writing project going in the direction you intended.

Jim: Absolutely. For example, I had like a little mini readers group with my Chronicle editor. Now I’d submit my work to her, and she would really sort of hack it to bits, [LAUGHTER] in a nice way, she’s a great person. But over time, I’ve sort of recognized, this is what she wants, this is what she looks for, this is what she changes. And I kind of learned to sort of mold myself into that kind of form that she wants. And the same thing is true for your writers’ group, you can sort of start to anticipate the things that they’re going to point out to you, which are often little habits that we have, which are not always great ones. [LAUGHTER] I always remember that Sarah would always point out that I used the word “so” all the time as like, “and so this,” and I never would have noticed that unless she started to circle all my “so’s” and then “look how often you do this,” that was like a really helpful thing for me to know. So now I’m aware of it, I still use them, but I’m just more aware of it now. So it’s very helpful to see other people’s perspectives and then you can start to anticipate that.Sarah sometimes uses phrase, “I had Jim in my head when I was reading this sentence,” or “I had Mike in my head…

Sarah: Yep. [LAUGHTER]

Jim: …telling this anecdote” or something like that. So that’s a really helpful thing to have as well.

Mike: Yeah. And it’s interesting, you’ll learn those things about each other, and then we can decide when to accept or not accept that, right? [LAUGHTER] In my case, and I think it’s true of Sarah, we can anticipate that if we throw in one too many anecdotes, we know Jim’s going to be there waiting to pounce on our extraneous anecdote that we love. And I’m somewhere in the middle, from the South, so somewhat more elliptical in my storytelling and less linear. So I’m favor of the extra anecdote. But there are times when you can tell, when you looked at it, and you have that voice and you go, “Okay, this really is extraneous, get it out of the way, don’t even bother other people with it.” And that’s that kind of thing and that’s kind of why we assign undergraduate students to do peer editing of each other is to learn to be editors, and to hear those voices too. So it’s really useful that way.

Jim: Mike, you know about other readiness groups and this question, John asked us about, like, guidance for other groups, can you give some examples, Mike, if you know of other writers’ groups that have sort of different ways of working?

Mike: There have been some groups that seem to exist just for people to pat each other on the back. And they don’t really do much criticism at all. A friend of mine who’s dyslexic said that he was in a group where you could never correct anything ever, grammatically or stylistically, which would drive me crazy, because I would want people to note every time I slipped up on something. So those are a couple of examples, and I’ve been trying to come up with some more, but it seems like there are a lot of variations in the rules in how they do it.

Jim: Sarah, you have also one that’s more like keeping you accountable, right?

Sarah: So I have another writers’ group with some friends at Tufts University, and we call it “writing and hijinks.” And so we gather together in a coffee shop or somewhere and we just write quietly, although one of them, like Mike, is very social and has trouble with the quiet part. [LAUGHTER] And so we just write, it’s just dedicated writing time for a couple hours, and then we go out and have fun. Although we’ve been sliding more and more towards just the fun and not doing the writing [LAUGHTER] over the last few years. This is motivating me to say to them, maybe we should bring back the writing part.

Rebecca: We have a writing group at Oswego that functions like yours, Sarah, that you’re talking about, where it’s just kind of some dedicated time, accountable time, this is the time we’ve set aside to write…

Sarah: Right.

Rebecca: …which can be really helpful if you have a designated time and space to do that, if you aren’t good at scheduling it on your calendar otherwise. Julie

Jim: Joli Jensen has a book about writing from the University of Chicago Press, and she actually makes the argument that writing groups for academics should not be content critique groups, which is what we have, actually. And she makes the argument that it’s not helpful, for example, English professors to be working with a psychologist because they won’t get your references and all that kind of stuff, and it won’t be very helpful to you. But actually I would argue that what we’re doing here, because most of us are running for, like broader audiences, the content critique part is really important. If Mike and Sarah don’t understand what I’m saying, well, then I’m not gonna be able to reach a broader audience instead of just writing specific to my little expertise audience. So that’s another way to think about distinguishing content, whether you focus on the content or just the writing, the sort of grammar and the stylistic part of it. So that’s another way to think about what are you actually trying to do in your writers’ group? Are you trying to expand beyond your discipline and getting different kinds of feedback? Or are you just trying to focus on, as Mike said, maybe patting each other on the back or accountability or style and grammar? So there’s a lot of different ways you can go.

John: I think that would depend a lot on who your intended audience is. So that if you’re all psychologists, or all economists, or all mathematicians, if you’re going to be submitting things to journals, it might not be a bad audience. But for a general audience, having someone who is not necessarily an expert in the field, seeing it from a different perspective would lead to a lot of really productive comments in terms of what some of the hidden assumptions are, the implicit assumptions in the writing.

Jim: Absolutely, you can actually even think about it as a teaching thing too, I mean teaching to like a gen ed class, their first-year students, that’s almost like a content critique group in the sense you can’t take too much granted about background knowledge in discipline, like a really focused content critique group, all from a discipline, you’re essentially teaching a graduate seminar. And so you’re looking for different things from those experiences, and you’re being required to explain different levels of things to those two audiences.

Rebecca: So I’m curious what participating in this particular writing group with the three of you has done for you as writers? How has it shaped your writing? And why are the three of you a good group for each other?

Sarah: I think that one of the things that has really shaped my writing process, this is beyond all of the wonderful things that we have said already about audience and things like that, is being in a writers’ group with two English professors is really valuable. I tested out of intro writing in college, so I actually never took a writing course of any sort, and then decided I wanted to be a writer. And my writing is very organic and intuitive. And working with these two really helped me like the things that they would correct. Like I didn’t know periods went inside the quotes, until Mike corrected me. [LAUGHTER] But the first year, we were writing together, and you would think I would just absorb that from reading, but I just never noticed that. And so really tiny things like that, but then also just thinking about the structure of your writing and the organization of your writing, because I had never really done that for this kind of general audience writing. And so having this writers’ group with writing professors is really amazing, as Jim would sometimes send me to the whiteboard, when we would meet [LAUGHTER] at Assumption, because it’d be like, you’d have a lot of really interesting ideas here in the writers’ group, but they’re just in a big pile,[LAUGHTER] and he’d have me map out, do a literal map of my work. And that was very, very helpful.

Mike: That’s one of the fascinating things about being in a group is working with two people that have such different composing processes. And Jim, you’re fairly linear…

Sarah: fairly…

Mike: kind of have it in order [LAUGHTER] and smoothly.

Sarah: …the computer. [LAUGHTER]

Mike: So what was the computer program that you’re using that divided the screen into quadrants?

Sarah: Yes, Scrivener, you can put your bits of writing on literal digital index cards, and just move them all around.

Mike: Yeah, which is something I’ve seen poets do. I’ve seen poets tear their poems apart, line by line and move the lines around in the coffee shops. So it’s just two equally effective ways of doing that. And I guess I’m somewhat in the middle, but with the road trip narratives, obviously, there was someone’s this town and that town, but it’s fascinating to watch how people’s brains work differently.

Jim: Yeah, I think for me, Sarah and Mike are different kinds of writers. But as a result, I’m kind of benefiting from both the sort of storytelling advice that comes from Mike and from Sarah, again, more of the research, making sure that I’m supporting my points well, and thinking about other perspectives on the topics I’m addressing. And it’s helpful to get both those things, because I’m getting different things from others, like editors, for example. I like the idea of starting a piece of writing with a story or something like that, my editor at The Chronicle always wants me to lead with the thesis, essentially. And so I’m trying to put some of Mike’s ideas advices into that kind of storytelling opening, but also trying to satisfy my editor. So anyways, it kind of helps you develop new strategies and see how strategies might land with different people and Sarah’s especially good at ways that I should include more readers, more thinkers from different backgrounds, and essentially making my writing more inclusive. And I think that’s really valuable as well, and making sure that I engage with the research that I might not be aware of, in the teaching and learning fields. So that’s really important, too. So I can look at my own writing and see how it’s benefited from both their perspectives.

Rebecca: I think one thing that I’ve benefited from when I’ve participated in writing group opportunities is actually seeing early stages of other people’s writing, and just what that looks like and feels like and sometimes provides strategies to future me [LAUGHTER] when I’m stuck, [LAUGHTER] like, “oh, wait, this other person would have attempted it like this.” And when I felt stuck on something, sometimes I use the strategies that I’ve observed other people using, which can be really beneficial, that things that I wasn’t taught or hadn’t been exposed to otherwise.

Sarah: That’s great.

John: You mentioned future me. And one of the issues that we know from behavioral economics and psychology is that when given a choice between pursuing your long range objectives and immediate gratification, immediate gratification sometimes wins out, [LAUGHTER] because it’s always easier to start these things tomorrow or next week. And one of the things you mentioned earlier, Jim, was that having the regular meetings of the writing group provided a bit of a commitment device that you want to get to the meetings with some new material you want to share that material before it. Do you think that has helped increase the pace in which your work has taken place?

Jim: For me absolutely, yeah, having that structure there. I think structure is always a really helpful thing in teaching and writing. If you sign a book contract, the deadline might be two years away. So you know that two years, an editor might check in after a year, but like, you need to have more structure in that to kind of get yourself moving along. And I’m a pretty structured person, but I can also fritter time away. I’m pretty good at that, too. [LAUGHTER] But I’m self aware enough to know I need a little help in terms of structure. And so it definitely has pushed me to become more productive.

Sarah: Absolutely. I agree. This whole conversation is making me want us to do this more regularly, [LAUGHTER] instead of the as needed, because I think about especially the beginning of the writers group. And when I was writing Spark of Learning, my daughter was a toddler. And she was only in daycare three days a week, and I was on the tenure track and just doing a billion different things. And I do not think I would have written that book if it weren’t for writers’ group monthly meetings. I think at that point, we were really regularly meeting in person monthly. And just finding the time at four in the morning [LAUGHTER] or terrible times often, but I don’t know that I would have gotten it done if it were just like, “oh, I have a contract and I must do this giant thing.”

Mike: That definitely helped this begin…the structure. I don’t have a long-term project I’m working on currently so hard for me sometimes to come back around and really have anything that’s worth them looking at. But yeah, you mentioned those long period of the book contract, and there’s a long period of only doing shorter things, whereas so there’s not that continuity from chapter one to chapter two to chapter three, and you’re eager to write those next two pages that are the bridge to the next thing, so group can help with that as well. It seems like a lot, but what happens in writing group is when someone is working on a Chronicle column that needs to be turned in in 48 hours or letters and things like that. And I was wondering if you can give examples of that kind of stuff when the group comes into play. That’s not the big primary thing we’re working on, but it’s kind of the emergency stuff.

Jim: We’ve done a little bit of that, but it’s kind of hard because especially for an upcoming deadline, I think typically we’ve handled that when someone just needed something very quickly, we just handled that by email. But the writers’ group is available in those emergency situations, because we already have a quick sense of like, if Sarah sends me something, and it was for a quick turnaround, it’s for The Chronicle, I can be able to spot very quickly a couple of things that you could maybe do in that short window. And likewise for me. So it’s challenging, though, because you want to have time for people to have opportunity to read and think about that as well. But it’s available for those situations. So it’s good for that.

Rebecca: I can imagine that you’re strong relationship with one another, having written with each other for so long allows for that quick turnaround by email, because you can sense the tone someone’s providing some feedback in [LAUGHTER] and it…

Sarah: Help!

Rebecca: …has a different kind of context. [LAUGHTER] Yeah.

Jim: Absolutely.

Sarah: And it’s such a pleasure, like it’s hard to ask for emergency work from people, even people you’re close with, and maybe even especially people you’re close with, because you know, they have so much else going on. But it’s such a pleasure to read these gentlemen’s words, that it’s not a burden at all, even the emergency ones because it’s like, “Oh, I get to relax, not with a cup of tea, [LAUGHTER] and read some words from Jim or Mike.

Jim: That’s true. That part of it is good, because you know that you can help them in the emergency because they’ve helped you in the past, that same situation. Right now, you know, I’m sort of developing a substack account. And I haven’t really used the writers’ group for that. And as a result, I need to have my wife proofread for me,[LAUGHTER] because substack doesn’t have an editor, and I’m really annoying her by this process. So I need to start using my substack columns for writers group stuff as well.

Mike: Yeah, it is really helpful and we know that there’s just a lot less explaining to do amongst the three of us. If I were going to send something cold to another friend, I think I would have to explain a lot more about what was going on for them to get it. So that’s incredibly useful that way. But it’s funny how different it is from like growing up in a newspaper family, and I would interview someone in the morning and I would revise it four or five times in a period of like four hours and hand it to my editor who would then tell me to change three things. And the whole thing from beginning to end was less than a day. But there was no deep thought, there was no deep reflection or big structural things, and then my time sort of expanded magically as I became an academic and suddenly you can get trapped in a lot of whirlpools of uncertainty about which way to go or that way to go. Whereas in journalism, there wasn’t much choice a lot of the time.

Sarah: Writers note, I love that “whirlpools of uncertainty.” If I were in writers’ group, I would say underline it, put a little exclamation point next to it. [LAUGHTER]

Mike: Well, I was a really terrible student in an undergraduate poetry workshop at the same time my sports editor was trying to teach me to write in a linear way. And my teacher said at one point, Mike what you’re writing, as poetry is prose with line breaks in random places. And he said, “Let the language go where it wants to go.” And I was having a hard time imagining telling my sports editor that on [LAUGHTER] Friday night during high school football season, but it seriously took a long time for me to learn I could do both. I could loosen up and be this one kind of writer, and then be this very mechanical quick writer. And that took years as an undergraduate to figure out how can I do both of these things at the same time.

Rebecca: One thing I heard Sarah say is that currently you’re meeting as needed, but then I also heard in the conversation, that maybe we need these things, and we just don’t know it. So having it regularly on the calendar could be helpful. [LAUGHTER]

Sarah: Mm hmm.

Jim: Yes, we’re convinced now this conversation is very helpful to us. [LAUGHTER]

Mike: Yeah, and plus this almost the end of the semester, so suddenly, we’re gonna have a lot of time on our calendars.

Sarah: …well, those of us still teaching. [LAUGHTER]

Mike: Yeah.

Sarah: I’m at 12-month contract now.

MIKEL Oh, you are?

Sarah: Yeah.

Mike: For you, year round.

Rebecca: Me too, Sarah. [LAUGHTER] Maybe we need a separate writers’ group. [LAUGHTER]

Sarah: Or therapy. [LAUGHTER] …support group.

John: What sort of advice would you give to other people who are thinking about forming a writers’ group?

Jim: Actually, there have been been other people in the writers’ group over the years, I’ve been in other writers groups too. For me, the thing that I look for is people who I thought were sort of ambitious and were writing, because you don’t want to be the person who is trying to gather people together, when they’re just not writing, they don’t want to write, you don’t want to be like the taskmaster in a writers’ group. So find people that are writing and are interested in writing, and find people that you find interesting, you want to hear more of their thoughts. So that has always been a driver for me. And sometimes, if I’m looking for people that I want to hear their thoughts about my own writing, and I want to talk to them about their own writing, I’m gonna be more interested in going to that writers’ group and participating. And so those are sort of two general points I would make: look for people that are writing and interested in writing, and then people who are interesting, you want to see it develop and getting access to their ideas as they’re developing. And I would just say, most people, I think, are flattered, you would like to hear and read their work. So if you identify someone that and you might say, “Well, oh, you know, they’re probably too busy, or they probably already have other people to work with,” that might not be true. And so extend the invitation and see if they want to join you in pushing writing forward.

Sarah: And I think I would add, it’d be hard to figure this out, [LAUGHTER] but one thing that I appreciate about this group, and I would want in any writers’ group is having a similar level of like sensitivity and openness to feedback and criticism. So I think that all of us are really great at taking feedback and taking constructive criticism, without either taking it personally, or I think Mike referenced this, but sometimes the Jim in my head or the Jim on my page, I’m like, “Yeah, I’m not listening to you.” [LAUGHTER] But then a lot of times you do. And so t o people who are at that level of like, open to hearing criticism, but also confident enough to stick with their gut if they feel it’s right. And yeah, and so that’s a delicate thing. And it’s hard to figure out about someone without actually engaging in writers’ group. But I think if they were in your department meetings or on committees with you, kind of keep an eye and get a sense for how open they are to other people’s thoughts and how willing they are to give them.

Mike: Yeah, and along the line with open is something I always warn undergraduates about, but in grad school it would come up with separating the characters on the page, even the narrator, that that person I’m writing the first person about, it’s Mike, the narrator on that page, but it’s not necessarily all of what I am. So, ‘cause when you’re talking to someone, then you can point out stuff that you think is maybe sexist, or is whatever, but be able to talk about it in a separation where you’re not personally attacking the writer, but that you are holding that in a certain place. I think we’re really good about those sorts of things, we know the level each of us are trying to get to, we’re just trying to help each other get there and again, smooth out anything that the audience might misinterpret. That’s a mental discipline that takes a while to be learned. And I’ve had friends who have been in groups where things have devolved to name calling, and to really unfortunate situations where the writing group had to be broken up, and so I’ve even heard that happen in academic settings, like in actual seminars. Fortunately, I was not part of any of those, but where people went stomping out of the room. And so yeah, having the maturity in just the way you carry yourself in life, I guess, to know how to treat other people and work with them constructively, a really important thing. But otherwise, in terms of advice, let’s say that whatever kind of writing group you want to have, you want to sit and just right beside each other and then go have drinks that what this one’s gonna be, are you all aiming to publish and you’re trying to help each other get published? That can be a very different mentality, depending on what you’re trying to do. That’s my two cents.

John: Do any of you have any other thoughts about writing groups that you’d like to share with our listeners?

Jim: I will say just as an editor, you know, editing the book series, I can also sometimes tell people who had writers’ groups when they turn their manuscripts in who had prior readers. So just from my perspective as an editor, I absolutely recommend this, forming a writers’ group, especially if you’ve signed a contract, and you’re intimidated by it. The fact that you have this deadline, you have this big project coming up, A writers’ group can not only put some structure on to the process but also forestall a lot of the work that I will have to do as an editor. So you can make my life easier when you’ve had some prior readers who kind of work with you to iron out a lot of the kinks that have developed, as any writing project will have in the drafting.

Sarah: Yeah, my editor was very grateful for writers’ group. We met monthly, my editor for Mind Over Monsters and she was wonderful. But writers’ group was like a third character in the room. [LAUGHTER] Because we would meet monthly, I’d be like, “Alright, well, here’s the chapter, but this is what writers’ group says, and they think that I should reframe this.” So it was really like the three of us, or I guess, the four of us, melding you two into one being in the conversation and in the room. And that was an interesting process.

Mike: I think another thing that’s been interesting to me is that because Jim and Sarah have books out a lot of the time, and there’s a good bit of talk about the publishing aspect of it, there are times when say, Jim might know someone that one of us should hit up, or contact, or things like that, or how to interpret an editor’s reaction. And there’s been a good bit of conversation about those things where I kind of felt like I know, these editors I’ve never met. [LAUGHTER] I’m sure that’s a big stopping point for a lot of people is they’ve written this thing, and now they don’t know what to do. They don’t know what the path is, and how to get there, how to get someone’s attention. And so there’s a lot of talking back and forth about things like that.

Rebecca: Do you have wishes for your group moving forward?

Jim: I guess, more regular meetings.

Mike: …more regular meetings, yes. [LAUGHTER]

Sarah: Sounds like a way to save Jim’s marriage.[LAUGHTER]

Mike: I guess, I should sell them another road trip so I could write another road trip manuscript.

Jim: Yeah.

Sarah: There you go. I would read that.

Mike: As we sneak toward possible retirement…a travel book…that could be the plan.

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

Sarah: Well, more regular writers’ groups, I guess. But I think as Mike just referenced, he’s retiring. So he’s going to have a lot more time to write coming up. And Jim and I are both, I think at the phase of thinking about next book projects. And so maybe it’s going to be a new day for writers’ group.

Jim: That’s true. I’m actually doing the final, final, final revisions of my current book manuscript, which are due on April 22nd. So that will be coming up shortly. And so I’m in that phase where like, I’m kind of finishing everything up, and also the editing and all that stuff, and copy editing, but still at least starting to open up in the sort of creative part of your brain about like, what might be next? And so that’s maybe one final thing I might say about writers’ group is sometimes we will come in with just like a one pager of ideas. And Sarah has done that several times. And we kind of give her feedback like, this is the one that seems like it might be the best path to pursue, for example. Anyways, I’m in that space right now. So I hope that for me going forward writers’ group might help me land on the right project next.

Mike: I should mention too that just the venting of frustration is good. And it just crossed my mind, one of Jim’s funnier Facebook posts of all time was when you were finishing up a book and what you posted about how you felt about the book. I don’t know if you recall this or not?

Jim: Yeah, absolutely.

Mike: So tell them. [LAUGHTER]

Jim: So I just remember talking about the fact that whenever you finish a book, I’m just so sick of it. At that point, I never want to think about it again. [LAUGHTER] And then of course, a year later it comes out and you have to think about it all the time. [LAUGHTER] I’m a person that has multiple interests, and they sort of change on a regular basis and like, by the time I finished a book, I’m like, “Okay, I’m done with this now, what’s the next thing?” But then, you know, hopefully a year goes by when it’s coming out, and then you get interested in it again during that time, hopefully.

Mike: Well, the specific line I remember was, “I hate, hate, hate, hate, hate you, stupid book.” [LAUGHTER]. It was that quote.

Jim: Yeah.

John: Well, I can see it’s probably good that you focus on the writing and not the marketing of these books. [LAUGHTER]

Jim: Yeah.

Mike: It wasn’t this book, it was a different book.

Rebecca: Well, thank you so much for joining us. It’s always a pleasure to talk to you about your work. And we’ve been hearing about this writers’ group [LAUGHTER] for a while. So we were glad to have the opportunity to dive in a little more deeply.

John: And we’re also grateful that we’ve been able to benefit from the writers’ group. I was just thinking back, four of our reading groups over the last few years were products of this writing group.

Jim: Wow.

John: So we appreciate the work that you’ve been doing.

Jim: That’s very cool.

Sarah: Thank you. It’s an honor.

Mike: Yeah, thank you.


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

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

Ganesh: Editing assistance by Ganesh.


342. Infographics

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

Show Notes


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


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

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

John: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer…

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


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

Michelle: Hi. Nice to be here.

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

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

John: …and Rebecca?

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

John: You left out the Pinot.

Rebecca: I know. [LAUGHTER]

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

Michelle: Sounds nice.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Michelle: That’s very reassuring.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Michelle: You’re welcome. My pleasure.


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

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

Ganesh: Editing assistance by Ganesh.


341. Learning Losses

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

Show Notes


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


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

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

John: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer…

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


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

Peace: Thank you.

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

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

Rebecca: That sounds interesting.

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

Rebecca: It sounds energizing.

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

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

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

Rebecca: I have a Lady Grey today.

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

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

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

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

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

Peace: Yeah.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rebecca: Oh, of course.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Peace: We can do it.

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

Peace: Thank you.


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

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

Ganesh: Editing assistance by Ganesh.


340. The Alan Alda Center

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

Show Notes


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


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

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

John: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer…

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


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

Brenda: Thank you for having me.

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

Brenda: I have water. [LAUGHTER]

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

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

John: Nice.

Rebecca: Oh, yum.

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

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

Rebecca: …for once…

John: … a Tea Forte Black Currant tea?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rebecca: Yeah. [LAUGHTER]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

John: Yeah.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rebecca: Thank you so much.


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

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

Ganesh: Editing assistance by Ganesh.


339. Industry to Faculty

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

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

Show Notes

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


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


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

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

John: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer…

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


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

Mike: Thank you.

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

John: It is. [LAUGHTER]

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

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

Rebecca: Oh, that’s a good one.

Kevin: It’s my go to tea.

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

Rebecca: Yum..

John: Very nice.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kevin: This was fun.

Mike: Thank you.


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

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

Ganesh: Editing assistance by Ganesh.


338. Diversifying the Education Pipeline

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


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


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

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

John: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer…

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Laura: You’re welcome.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

Ganesh: Editing assistance by Ganesh.


337. Pre-College Programs

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

Show Notes


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


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

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

John: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer…

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

Rebecca: How about you, John? [LAUGHTER]

John: I am drinking ginger peach green tea today.

Rebecca: Nice, and I have a jasmine green.

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

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

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

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

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

Sally: Absolutely.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rebecca: Such good examples, right?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

Ganesh Editing assistance by Ganesh.


336. The Multi-Disciplinary Instructional Designer

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

Show Notes


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


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

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

John: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer…

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


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

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

Chris: Thank you.

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

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

Rebecca: Alright, good.

Chris: …still waking up.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rebecca: Today I have a Scottish afternoon tea.

John: That’s better.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rebecca: Definitely. [LAUGHTER]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Megan: Oh, absolutely.

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

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

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

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

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

Chris: Thank you for having us.


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

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

Ganesh: Editing assistance by Ganesh.