233. Guided Notetaking

Many college classes contain a substantial lecture component, but our students arrive at college with little or no training in taking effective notes. In this episode, Tanya Martini joins us to discuss how guided note taking can be used to promote equity and student success. Tanya is a Professor of Psychology at Brock University in Ontario.

Show Notes


John: Many college classes contain a substantial lecture component, but our students arrive at college with little or no training in taking effective notes. In this episode, we examine how guided note taking can be used to promote equity and student success.


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 Tanya Martini. Tanya is a Professor of Psychology at Brock University in Ontario. Welcome, Tanya.

Tanya: Thanks very much for having me.

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

Tanya: I am drinking tea, yes. So, my tea is a pomegranate white.

Rebecca: Oh that sounds nice. Nice and light.

Tanya: Yeah. My friend was joking with me because I said I was doing this podcast about tea and teaching, and he said, “So, like, basically two of your favorite things in the world.” I said, “Pretty much!”

Rebecca: You’re in excellent company then. [LAUGHTER]

Tanya: Are you also drinking tea?

Rebecca: Always, always.

Tanya: Always.

Rebecca: Today I have English afternoon. I was in a rush, so I couldn’t get a fancy pot going.

John: And I’m on my fourth cup of tea for the day, and it’s a peppermint spearmint blend.

Tanya: Oh, that’s nice, that’s really nice. My mum was English, so we always drank tea when I was growing up. And then I met my husband when we were hiking in Wales. So we basically have a household where the kettle is never cold.

Rebecca: Yeah, my house is like that, too.

Tanya: Is it?

Rebecca: When John’s like, “Fourth cup?” I’m like… “Fourth pot? What are you talking about?” [LAUGHTER]

John: We have had three kettles today, because we’ve had a number of people come into the office earlier today.

Rebecca: We’ve invited you here today to discuss how you’ve been using guided note taking in your introductory psychology course. Can you give us a little background on the course first?

Tanya: Sure, it’s at Brock. So there’s 1500 students in the intro psych class, and about 220 or 230 of them would be psych majors in their first year. And the rest of them are taking it either as a requirement for another degree program like education or nursing, or they take it as a social sciences elective. So I would say about 85 or 90% of them are genuinely in their first year, they’ve just arrived from high school. We don’t have a lot of non-traditional students in the class, a few, but the majority of them are 17, 18 year olds, and they’re just making their transition from high school to university.

John: What’s the modality for this class? And how is it taught in terms of dealing with that many students in one class?

Tanya: Yeah, it’s a good question, because different people will handle that sort of volume of students in different ways. We made a really intentional choice even before I came on board that we wanted all psychology students to have the same experience. So rather than trying to split the students up into different groups taught by different instructors, what the instructors do is they split the weeks. So our course runs 12 and 12, like 12 weeks in the fall and then again in the winter. So it’s a 24 week, full-year course for us from September to April. And in the past I would say decade or so it’s three instructors, but it’s usually kind of two primary instructors and what we call a junior partner. And so the two, kind of, main instructors would teach 10 weeks each and then the junior partner would teach four. And it’s been kind of a good model. I started as the junior partner and it gives people a bit of a chance to decide… Is this a course that I could see myself moving into? Or is this really not something for me? Because it’s not for everybody to be in a course that’s that large. So in terms of structuring it, that’s how we do it. And it gives everybody a very consistent kind of experience. And then, like most Canadian universities the last couple of years, the big, big courses have been asynchronous online. So that’s what we did last year, what we’re doing currently this year. In normal times, it’s run as a three hour per week course, where two hours is allocated to a lecture. We don’t have enough seats in any space for all of those people. So what we do is we run the same lecture three times a week to 500 people, and we would do a two-hour lecture. And then we run 75 small group seminars every week, so 18 to 20 people usually. And those seminars are run by third and fourth year undergraduates. So we have, like, a peer mentorship model in the seminars. And it works actually pretty well, because what we find is that the first-year students, our impression, anyway, from the evaluations, is they like having other students leading those discussions. It makes them feel comfortable, and not just with the content, but I think they feel comfortable if they’re struggling with the transition. They feel as though this is kind of a senior mentor who can help them to find the resources that they need. But I really like the fact that our department and our faculty kind of puts the resources behind it because it’s quite resource intensive to run that many seminars in a course. It’s nice because it helps students to make the integration into university and help them cross that bridge from high school. Because they’ve got this one person who knows who they are, knows them by name, knows that if they go missing somebody will be checking in on them to make sure that they’re okay. And it also just helps them to meet people and make new friends in the first year. And then a few years ago, we got permission to have the teaching assistants, those third and fourth year students also take a course in facilitating good discussions. So that they’re not walking into the seminars feeling ill prepared. And it’s a great space for us to teach them some transferable skills that are very applicable to the workplace. So it’s kind of a nice model. Very resource intensive, and I’m grateful for that, but it works really well.

Rebecca: Can you talk a little bit more about the seminar for your TAs?

Tanya: Yeah, sure. It’s a full-year course. So it runs basically in parallel to the first-year course. And what we do is, I really try to model it as… it’s not a kind of “how to TA intro psych course,” I really try to sell it and emphasize its applicability to the world more broadly. So we tackle a number of different topics that are relevant to those seminars, but are also relevant to the working world, too. So we talk about diversity in groups. And so if you’re facilitating conversations in groups that are diverse, what are some of the advantages to that? And what are some of the challenges? And how do you overcome those kinds of challenges? How do you manage the balance of the discussion so that you don’t have decisions being made based on the people who talk the most or who talk the loudest? How do you get over those kinds of challenges? We talk about active listening and what that means, and we talk about cultivating a level of self awareness so that if you start to feel kind of anxious or upset, you recognize that in yourself, and you know what to do to bring it down. We talk about… How do you facilitate things when it starts to get challenging and heated? What kinds of things can you do? And then in the second semester, we move into talking about things, like, How do you give a good presentation? So if we move away from the facilitation skills, we talk about good multimedia presentations, the students do the equivalent of a 15 minute TED Talk. So it’s all meant to be very applicable to a broad array of settings. And most students find that it’s a great community, because we hire 18 students every year to fulfill the seminar leader role. And we tend to find that they coalesce into a really nice, tight community, they’re very supportive of one another. So you get a great exchange of ideas and lots of support, if you’re feeling anxious, or things aren’t going well, or whatever. So that course runs separately, but it’s a really nice counterpoint to the very, very large first year course. So I love having the big, big class on the one hand, but then also this smaller class where I really get to know those 18 TAs really well.

Rebecca: In our notes for this episode related to this course, one of the things that you talk about is how diversity doesn’t necessarily promote inclusion, or the other way around. Can you expand on that a little bit more? It totally caught my attention. I was, like, I want to know more about that!

Tanya: Yeah, it’s such a great point. So I have the luxury of being on sabbatical this year for the first time in eight years, and it’s such a great gift. And one of the things that I really wanted to do was, to do more reading about diversity and inclusion and thinking a little bit about… How do we incorporate that into the syllabus? And what does it mean for our seminars? Are we doing the best job that we can be doing? And I have been taking, like, a number of workshops, and I went to this great workshop being run by an organization that promotes diverse viewpoints. And the woman who was running it is from an organization in the States called The Village Square, where they purposefully bring people together who are on both sides of the political divide, I think, in that case, left and right. And I had a conversation with her, and she’s, like, taking this really great course, this… it’s a MOOC basically, Massive Open Online Course, and she said, “I think you would really like it. It’s all about bridging differences.” And so that comment about you can have diversity without any inclusion comes from this course that I’m taking. And they just talk about how you can have diversity, like, you can purposefully hire or take on people who look different from one another, or different religious backgrounds, political backgrounds. But unless everybody feels comfortable articulating their opinions and talking about where they’re at, unless they all feel comfortable with one another, you don’t really get true inclusion. Because inclusion sort of necessitates that not just you have a roomful of diverse people, but that all of those people are contributing to the conversation. And I thought that that was a really valuable and important point to take away. Because although I think, of course, you have to make some effort to bring those diverse people into the room, the job doesn’t stop there. Because at that point then, you have the sometimes challenging job of getting all those people to a place where they all feel as though their opinion matters, and they’re comfortable articulating it. And they go on to talk a little bit about how in some cultures, for example, there’s much greater value placed on listening rather than talking all the time. And so you have to work with that and work around that and try to draw people in so that the discussion is somewhat balanced. And at that point you’ve kind of done a better job of reaching inclusivity, as opposed to just diversity.

John: This is a really great set of skills you’re providing the students, who no matter what they do in the future are going to be working with diverse groups, as well as having to do presentations in some form or another. You mentioned hiring these students, what type of compensation do they receive? Are they paid for this work? Or are they receiving credit for it as a result of the courses they take?

Tanya: Yeah, so that’s another great question. And it’s a model that has changed over time. So at Brock, and at a number of schools in Ontario, teaching assistants are unionized. And for a long time this was a unionized position, they would get paid for something like 300 hours a year. And then, like this won’t surprise you at all, we went through financially difficult times as budgets were shrinking. And there was a period in the last decade where enrollments were shrinking just because of the demographics of Ontario. There was a much smaller pool of 17-year-olds in high school, and we were all competing for those people. And I was really only the junior partner at that time. But at that time, the Dean really started to make noises about the amount of money that it cost to mount this course. And so what we decided to do was to implement this strategy where we would make it a hybrid. And what we did was we rolled some of the things that used to be paid tasks into a course. So on the one hand, it would be disingenuous of me to say this was all driven by pedagogy, because it was driven to a large extent by budget. So what we did was we created this course, and about one third of the hours, we rolled into course related stuff. So a lot of the seminar preparation material, where we would pay them for that before it kind of became part of the course and talking through the seminar preparation with your colleagues and me giving some scaffolding around that. So now they get paid for about 200 hours. And the rest of it is rolled into this full-year course from September to April. So they get course credit for that. What it does mean, though, just from a logistical point of view is we used to have a model where people could do the course a number of times, they could TA the course a number of times. In fact, they were more likely to because they would get seniority in the union. But now you can only TA when you’re taking this course, and you can only take it once. So we don’t have the continuity we used to have, but we get a fresh group of 18 people. And I try to look at it as the upside of that is we can deliver these skills to more people because it’s a unique cohort every single year.

Rebecca: Are most of the courses in your college the two semesters back-to-back, like full-year courses?

Tanya: No. In fact, it’s kind of a rarity. Almost all of them are a half-year course, so 12 weeks, from either September to December or January to April. Intro psych is one and then we have a research methods course that’s a full year. But, in general, the guiding principle has been one of breadth. But I think what we have always felt is that a full year for first year is a good idea. Not so much because it’s such an important year for us and there’s so much to deliver. I mean, there is, but I think just in terms of integrating students into the department and to the university, and again, helping them to make that transition, giving them the full year course is really helpful in terms of allowing time and space for that to happen.

John: We saw an article in The Chronicle recently describing your use of guided note taking and it seemed really effective. Could you describe how guided note taking has been used in your classes and how your use of it has evolved?

Tanya: Basically in terms of historical context, what we find, and this won’t surprise anybody, in a class of 1500 people, you get everything from A to Zed. So we have students who are amazingly well prepared for university, and they know how to take notes, and they know how to read dense text, and they’re very skilled and savvy about taking exams, and they have great study strategies. And then on the other end, we have students who are quite ill prepared. And sometimes not even ill prepared, but maybe they’ve been out of school for a long time, and so those skills are kind of rusty. And so retention is an issue for us. We’re always trying to make sure that we’re a course where we’re bringing everybody up to the same place. By the end of the 24 weeks we’re trying to get people ready so that everybody is kind of on a level playing field. And when I joined the course, laptops were just starting to be a big thing. And what we were doing at that time, and this predates my involvement in the course, is we were supplying notes to students. But they were the PowerPoint notes. So you print the PowerPoint notes, you’ve got the slide, and they’ve got a bunch of lines on the side, and students would make these notes. And we would supply these paper notes for a fee, and they would buy them at the bookstore bundled up. And then they could just put them in a binder, and bring them to the course. And so some of the students, as I was coming into the course, were just kind of ignoring them and they were taking notes on a laptop, other people were taking notes using these paper copies. So it was kind of quite a mix at that time. But one of the things that really started to become clear to me was students really weren’t sure what they should be writing down. And my slides are somewhat sparse. Yeah, I’ll have the main points on there. And students would come up during the break, and they’d say, “Well, I kind of missed this point.” And sometimes I would be looking and it was just full of dense text, like, they were trying to write down verbatim everything I said. And then some of them would come and they hadn’t written down anything because they had the picture of the slide there, and they assumed that if it wasn’t on the slide it probably wasn’t worth talking about or remembering. So it really struck me how there was so much diversity in what people interpreted to be good note taking. And I was talking to my colleague about that, and I said, “Sure,” that this is really a good thing. And so that was my first sense that maybe we needed to do something and talk more explicitly about note taking. And could we do something that would scaffold their note taking? And so that was where the first iteration of our guided notes came from. And basically, the first iteration was just, like, a hierarchical overview of, here’s what the lecture looks like from the top, here’s the three main points or the four main points, and here are the subpoints. Just like on a PowerPoint slide, you get the main points and the subpoints. So that they could kind of see at a glance, these are the big things. And then what the guided notes looked like was almost like a series of small exam questions, because that’s really what the lecture is, it’s the answers to a number of different questions. And so if I was talking about, say, four things that determine whether you will pay attention to something in the environment, the question in the guided notes would be: “Name and describe four things that determine whether you pay attention to something in the environment.” And might even give them a table to fill in. And so they started to see the lecture as providing answers to a number of questions, some of which are connected, and giving them clearer space in which to put it in. And then we had students in that first iteration commenting on the fact that they didn’t want to take notes on a computer, or they didn’t have a computer. And so we started creating a digital copy and a PDF copy with spaces, and they could either write with their pen or they could type on a computer. And that’s what we did for four or five years, that’s kind of what it looked like. And then one of the things that I wanted to do during this sabbatical was just think a little bit more about them, because I started to think it would be a good idea to have something similar for the text. So I co-authored the textbook that we use, and I started to think, you know, it’d be really good to have something comparable to the text. Because in as much as they struggle to take notes during lectures, sometimes I think they struggle just knowing what to extract from the textbook. There’s so much material there, and sometimes they come in with all the highlighting. Okay but, [LAUGHTER] like, it’s the whole page.

Rebecca: It’s a rainbow page. [LAUGHTER]

Tanya: I know, the rainbow page! And so it was sort of clear that sometimes we’re struggling to extract what the central stuff was. And rarely did I see people making marginal notes or anything like that. And so I started to think that would be helpful. So that was one of my sabbatical tasks. So I went into the note taking literature a little more deeply, and I started to create them, and they’re a little more in keeping with the Cornell Notes. So they take the form of the Cornell Notes, and they are a little more sophisticated. And that was what prompted the rework of the lecture notes that they commented on in The Chronicle. So they look more like Cornell Notes now with the features of Cornell Notes. And the other thing, it’s such a great blessing that a sabbatical is, I was reading about diversity and inclusion, and went back into some texts that I hadn’t read for a while, like Dan Willingham’s book, Why Don’t Students Like School? And he talks about the fact that, one of the things that you could do and might be advantageous to do is to sort of frame the lecture around a series of questions and make them explicit. And so it really pushed me… this whole reformulation of the lecture notes has really pressed me to think about my lectures a lot more carefully. And so what I started to do is think… Okay, well, if I was going to distill this section on attention into, like, six or eight main questions, what are they? Because Willingham’s contention is, instead of it being like this steady stream of information just being thrown at you, if you can kind of organize it into a series of questions that are somewhat interesting, that makes things, first of all, organized a little bit better in your head, but also just a little more interesting to listen to. So the guided notes now kind of look like Cornell Notes. And they’ve got this accompanying, what I call “the roadmap,” which is basically just a graphic organizer. I did a lot of reading about graphic organizers. It sort of shows, these are the main points, these are the main questions. And then as we’re answering this question, we’re tackling this study and this study. And you’re not meant to write on the roadmap, it just gives you a visual of… here’s where we are in the grand scheme of things, here’s where we are in this particular unit.

Rebecca: For those that aren’t familiar, can you talk a little bit about what Cornell Notes are?

Tanya: Sure, yeah, I would love to talk about Cornell Notes. And there are obviously slight variations, but the way Cornell Notes are set up is that if you’re thinking about a page, there’s two main columns, usually. And in the left-hand column, in my notes, I list the main questions or the main points for my textbook notes. It’s like, here are the learning objectives for this chapter. And then the students’ written notes are on the right-hand side. And I scaffold those by putting in the sort of smaller questions that were always in the guided notes. Like, name and describe the four things that guide whether you’ll pay attention to something in the environment, is there. But what I do is also to include, and sometimes it’s structured differently, but I’ll section on, like, What are your questions about this? So that students have a space to write down if something’s going by, and they know that they haven’t understood it, it’s a space where they can very clearly plant a flag and say: “I need to go and check on this,” or “I need to ask the instructor, or I need to go to office hours, I need to talk to my TA.” So there’s a very clear space there for… What questions do you have? And I always frame it that way, too, because I think it’s a subtle difference. But when you say, “What questions do you have?” You’re basically saying, “It’s totally normal to have questions. So what are they?” So our Cornell Notes look like that. They’ve got a section for here are the main questions over here on the left-hand side, and as we’re answering that question, here are the things we’re going to cover. And you can make your notes on that right-hand column. And then before we move on to another question… What questions do you have about this? What do you need to check on?

John: You mentioned at the start of this, the wide diversity in students’ note taking skills, and so the students who are going to do well would probably do well, anyway. But I would think that this would benefit some of the students who would come in with weaker skills, and they are now able to focus on the things that are much more relevant and important for learning the course content. As well as it’s providing them with some clues about how it all fits together with the questions and with the structure you provide. Has this reduced some of the equity gaps in your classes?

Tanya: Yeah, I think that’s a great question. And the answer is, I don’t know, because I don’t have data. But one of the things that I found really interesting, and I was saying I did a lot of reading about note taking and so on, and I hadn’t really thought about guided notes as being an equity issue. But Viji Sathy and Kelly Hogan, who are both in North Carolina, have written extensively about how providing structure of this kind is incredibly beneficial in terms of students who have come from usually some disadvantage and have less preparation, or their preparation for university hasn’t been as strong. And so I don’t have any data, but certainly Kelly Hogan in her intro biology class, and I really admired the fact that she actually dug around in the data. And what she found was that, quite unbeknownst to her, the number of Ds and Fs was not spread equally across different groups. And so she found that people who were Caucasian ancestry, like they were getting a relatively small proportion of Ds and Fs. It was slightly higher among her Latino and Latina students. And then it was really quite high among the African American students. And I found that quite surprising too, but certainly she’s got data to support the idea that providing this kind of structure is very beneficial in terms of diminishing those kinds of gaps. But what I will say, and I’m not sure if this would resonate with other people, one of the things that has always concerned me a little is when you provide this kind of structure in a first year course, and then you send them off into the world in second year, with me knowing that none of my colleagues are providing these kinds of support… Are you in fact just pushing off the retention issue and all the problems into second year? And so one of the things that I think is really important is not just creating these guided notes and the scaffolding, but really talking very explicitly about: If you find this helpful, let’s talk about why it’s helpful. And let’s talk about how you can transfer that skill into another course where they’re not necessarily going to give you guided notes for your textbook and for your lecture. So what are these things doing for you? How are they scaffolding? And I think having that explicit conversation is really important. Otherwise, I feel like we run the risk of just pulling the rug from under them, but doing it a little bit later on. So one of the things we talk about is, How do you decide what’s really important? So if it’s in a textbook, being cued into what’s in bold type, and what’s in italics, and so on. But I also try to kind of just get back to the structure issue. Because it’s interesting how you teach for a long time, and it seems so obvious, but it’s not obvious to them. So it’s like, if I give you this chapter, why don’t you just try mapping out the headers and the subheaders? So that you get some sense of how this material is organized. And you’ll see in chapter eight, there’s like four big topics, that’s the big text, the main A headers, and then there might be two subheaders under this one. And then if you kind of create that map for yourself, it gives you the big overall picture. And one of the benefits of teaching intro psych is we talk a lot about memory. And how is memory structured? And what do you do to facilitate memory? And we talk about how memory is organized in this kind of way, and hierarchies are important and useful. And so I’m really trying hard not just to provide the scaffolding, but to help them to understand why the scaffolding works. So that in second year, if somebody has dismantled it and the scaffolding isn’t there, at least you have some sense of, “Okay, how can I recreate that effect for myself?” And I think that that’s something that is still kind of a work in progress. I don’t know if I do that well enough yet, or enough yet. But I think that that’s a really important component of providing the support in the first place.

John: And that’s something I think that most students have not been exposed to along the way. So helping them develop those types of skills would be really helpful, I think. And we should probably mention that Viji Sathy and Kelly Hogan have a book coming out at some point in the near future, and I’m very much looking forward to reading that.

Tanya: Me too.

Rebecca: I’m sure many of our listeners will be. We have it on our radar, like the second it comes out, we’re going to know. [LAUGHTER] Have your students responded to this scaffolding that you’re providing through note taking? Have they given you some informal feedback that you could share?

Tanya: Yeah, so, so we’ve had informal feedback verbally, and sometimes it’s solicited and sometimes it’s not. So if students come to my office hours, and they bring their notes, I don’t hesitate to ask them, “How’s it working for you? Does it matter to you?” Occasionally students will tell me they don’t use the notes, but they will refer to the notes before a test. And sometimes they tell me that it feels like it’s the only thing that is keeping them going through the lectures, which sometimes does feel like it’s quite a lot to take on board. But on the course evaluations, we see a number of people… because sometimes I asked about it explicitly on the course evals, and what we get is uniformly positive feedback. Sometimes it’s quite effusive, and sometimes it’s not, but we don’t get people saying, “This is terrible, don’t do this again.” Even if they’re not using them, they genuinely appreciate the fact that we think about the fact that this is sometimes a skill that’s challenging, and that we’re trying to support them as best we can. So yeah, the informal feedback and the formal feedback has been uniformly positive. The question of the data is an important one, and I don’t have any data to supply. But I kind of lean on the fact that Kelly Hogan’s work, to me, is pretty compelling if you can move students in that way. That’s a big deal to me, because, as I said, we have a lot of traditional students. They’re 17 and 18-years-old, but they come from such different places, and the extent to which high school has prepared them well varies a lot. And I’m not sure what your experience has been like, but I think the pandemic has just amplified that a lot. The kinds of experiences they’ve had, the extent to which they’ve been in the class versus not in the class, the extent to which teachers have had the resources to rise to the occasion, or not, has really created significant inequities, I think, in high schools in Ontario. I don’t doubt that everybody’s doing the best job they can, but they don’t always have the same resources to work with. So I think we’ll only see more of that in the future as they move through high school and arrive on our doorstep.

Rebecca: I think tools like the note taking that you’re talking about, are just really great ways to help students filter out the mass amount of noise in an already very noisy world. And it seems particularly noisy these days. [LAUGHTER]

Tanya: Yes.

Rebecca: There’s so much going on, that helping provide that structure to really narrow focus seems really helpful. I know that my students have been certainly reporting that there’s just so many distractions, and things that are occupying their minds, that the ability to have structure like this in place can be really helpful to getting through a class, or being successful in a class in ways that maybe if that structure wasn’t there wouldn’t happen at this moment in time. Maybe it would happen in a different moment in time, but not at this moment in time.

Tanya: No, I totally agree with you. I think that that’s true. And I also think that, I’m not sure about your experience, but my experience is, even in the normal times, many of them are not accustomed to sort of sitting through it, our lecture. I do try to break it up quite a bit, actually, so that we’re trying different class activities. Or I’ll do something where, in a class of 500, I can divide them into groups, and we try to replicate an experiment. And like, “You’re going to be the group that has these instructions, and you close your eyes now, and you guys will have these instructions, and then…” So we’re always trying to mix it up a little bit. But sitting for two hours and trying to take stuff on board, it’s a lot. And I’ve been doing different things on this sabbatical, some of which have involved me sitting for hours, and struggling by the end of it.

Rebecca: I love that you’re taking classes on sabbatical, it was something that I did when I was on sabbatical as well. It’s a nice reminder of what it’s like to be a beginner in things again.

Tanya: It’s totally true. Especially, I think, the last couple of years. Doesn’t it feel like there hasn’t been two minutes to spare to do anything that elevates your teaching? I was trying to really struggle just to get through, and you know we were pivoting this really big course online, and suddenly all the assignments are different, and no in-person exams. It just felt like… it was so intense. And so this has been just such a great gap to kind of go, “I have time to do some reading,” and “I have time to take this course that I think will be beneficial to me, and it might be beneficial to my students.” So yeah, it’s been so amazing [LAUGHTER] just to be able to remember what it’s like to go learn some new things and get excited about that. I also started taking karate lessons, right? Which I thought, this is the best example of why you have to really have a lot of patience with beginners. Because I’m now at that stage where I’m a complete beginner myself, and hopelessly uncoordinated, and there’s all these black belts who are incredibly patient with me. But it’s sort of like, “Oh yeah,” everybody who teaches first year students should actually go do something brand new every now and again and remember what it was like to feel like you don’t know anything, and you’re not really very good at it. So that’s been a good reminder, too.

Rebecca: I love it.

John: When you were talking about the course for the teaching assistants, you emphasized how the skills they’re learning are going to be useful in the rest of their lives. Since most of the students in your psychology class are not going to become psych majors, and I think many of us have experienced challenges in getting students engaged in content in gen-ed classes. What type of strategies do you use to help emphasize the relevance of the skills they’re acquiring or the knowledge they’re acquiring in your class?

Tanya: Yeah. So that’s been kind of the focus of our research for a number of years now, and it was born of just some of those lightbulb moments. I’m sure you guys have had them too, where you have these experiences, like, “Ohhhh!” So I’m just going to describe one of them to you. So it started to become clear to me… now I’m going back probably eight or nine years, where I was having a good discussion with a student who had worked as a TA for me, she had worked as a research assistant for me. She was one of these young women who just had it all going on, like really smart, and really thoughtful, and a good thinker. And we were having this conversation as she was getting ready to apply to graduate school, and she was putting her application stuff together, her letter of intent. And we got to talking and, just to paraphrase, she was basically communicating that she really didn’t know, she spent four years and tens of thousands of dollars, and she really didn’t know how to articulate or leverage what she had been learning. So even though I had zero doubt that she had all these skills, she didn’t know how to talk about them, and she didn’t know how to talk to somebody else and persuade them that she had skills. And I suddenly started to think, that’s a huge problem. [LAUGHTER] That’s a really, really big problem. And that led to some of my early research, where I started to look at that question among our site undergrads at Brock, and it wasn’t an anomaly at all. And what I found was that students, when you ask them, “What do you think you’re getting out of these assignments that they’re giving you? Most of them would say, “Well, the instructor wants me to learn about topic X. They want me to learn about the content.” And very rarely did they ever say, “They want me to improve my communication skills,” or, “They want me to improve my teamwork skills,” or whatever. And so for me, that was really telling. And so I started just trying to be a lot more intentional about being explicit with students about the skills. And so in PSYC 1F90, what the main project that they do is, they would gather some data as a group, usually on some really famous study that works pretty well consistently, and they would gather data from themselves as participants. And I would get the data from the TAs, and I would combine it, and I would analyze, it’s very simple analysis. And then they would take the findings, and they would write it up like a mini psychological paper with an introduction, method, results, and discussion. And I would talk a little bit about that, and I would talk about the fact that it builds communication skills and writing skills. And so I think that I’m doing well, and then I had my second lightbulb moment when I had a history major come in. And we were talking about the assignment, and she was very polite, like really polite, but kind of candid. And she basically said she thought the assignment was pointless. And I said, “I was talking in lecture, it builds communication skills.” And she said, and again I’m paraphrasing, “Well, maybe that’s the way psychologists communicate, but that’s not the way historians communicate.” And I thought, that’s really interesting. [LAUGHTER] Because suddenly it became clear that she was kind of focused on the superficial aspects, like, it’s got our introduction, method, results, and discussion, and that’s not what historians do. And I suddenly realized it’s not actually enough to say, “Well it builds communication skills.” You actually have to talk about how there’s some transferability of communication from one discipline to another, right? So, absolutely true, historians probably write papers that look quite different. But let’s talk about the fact that all communication—written, verbal, whatever—you have to think, first of all that, What’s the main thing you want to talk about? So what are the main points you want to make? And what are the subpoints? And how are you going to order those points? What’s the logical flow of information that you want to present? And then you need to think about your audience and think about their characteristics. Do you need to persuade them? Or are you going to be preaching to the choir? What do they know in advance? What background do you need? All these things, it doesn’t matter, I said in an essay that I wrote for the Times Higher Education, it doesn’t matter whether you’re like a cop giving testimony to a jury, or whether you’re writing a psychology paper, or whether you’re given a TED talk, or whether you’re writing a history paper, or whether you’re writing an auditing report for Price Waterhouse. Those things matter cutting across different disciplines. And I never realized that it was really important to actually get to that level of detail in explaining the skills to get buy-in, but that’s what I do now. We’re doing a different project going forward, and I’ve got a whole section of the instruction sheet. It’s like, How can you leverage the skills from this assignment in a job interview? And I don’t know if they’ll read it, but I’ll be talking about it in class anyway. And so this is where I’ve arrived in terms of students and skills. And I know some people will probably say, “Wow, you spend a lot of time in class talking about skills,” but I actually think it’s really an important element of what we’re doing. And I think, left to their own devices, it’s not always obvious to students that this is going on, that you’re acquiring this, as well as some knowledge of “what are the factors that influence whether you pay attention to something in the environment.”

John: Faculty often complain about the silos that we created within our discipline, and we forget that students create their own silos where they think of each thing as something entirely separate from the rest of their academic career. And if we can make it clear to students that the material they’re learning is going to be useful for them, they’re going to be much more engaged and much more interested and enjoy it a lot more, I would think.

Tanya: Yeah, I think it’s really important in terms of buy-in, I really do. And you’re absolutely right about the silos, and I think I had been quite naive to that. I think I really didn’t realize it until this wonderful young woman took the time to articulate it to me, and that was incredibly helpful. So you’re right.

Rebecca: While you’re talking about this, Tanya, I’m also thinking about how often I experience students focusing in on the thing that seems newest to them, the thing that’s most unfamiliar. And that’s what they get hung up on, and they think the entire class is that one thing that they don’t understand. And then the things that seem familiar—like writing seems familiar, we’ve written before—that’s the thing they pay the least attention to, and it’s often some of the things that we want to pay the most attention to. And so it’s funny how the newness, or our fear of not knowing how to do something, can put our attention there, and forget about the details of other things that also have a learning value to them that aren’t always recognized.

Tanya: Yeah, and I think you’re right about that. I have to constantly remind myself that they might not see that. It’s very obvious, but they might not see that. And to make it explicit, and to take time to talk about it, and answer questions about it. And that was something that I didn’t do nearly enough of in the early days of my teaching. Like, I really just thought, I don’t know, I thought if it was obvious to me it should be obvious to you. [LAUGHTER] But students over the years in articulating some of these things have really crystallized for me how important it is to be explicit. And for sure, some of them absolutely do get it, they don’t need me to explain it. But I come back to the variability in a class of 1500, and even really, I mean, I don’t even think that’s totally wrong for upper-year courses. Sometimes students don’t necessarily always see things that we think that they will. It helps me to think to myself… Okay, what’s the most important thing here, in terms of content but also in terms of skills? And then let’s make sure that I talk about that, and talk about how it moves from this particular course and this particular assignment. Like, can you see how you might use it out there in the world? And I usually try to talk in terms of multiple examples, like my students are going into law enforcement, they’re going into business, they’re going into nursing. So I try to draw from a few different disciplines, just to give this sense of… Yep, it transfers over here, and it transfers over there, and it transfers over here, just so they get in the habit of thinking about that.

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

Tanya: What’s next for me is, I’m still working on the diversity and inclusion piece, and so that’s taking up lots of the space between my ears. Trying to think more about… How, in a class that is so diverse, how do you create the kind of inclusivity that we’re looking for? Recognizing that students don’t participate for lots of different reasons, and we want to kind of take them gently into the water in some cases. So I was mentioning that we’re moving away from that old assignment where they would write kind of a mini psychological paper. And then what I’m trying to get them to do is to work on a persuasive message, and they’re going to present it in a couple of different ways, so they choose a topic they agree or disagree with. And then what I’m working on is… It’s got an element where they have to find some sources to support them, and there’s an information literacy component. So I’m doing a lot of research on that, and how do you promote good information literacy at a time when information is just boundless, and some of it’s good and some of it’s not good? And then they have to present it in a screencast. So we talk to them about good multimedia, and they do a very short screencast with their preliminary ideas. And then they have to write an op-ed. And so one of the things I’ve been dialoguing with my co-instructors about is, just lots of students are incredibly nervous about putting a screencast together. I try to talk a little bit about how this is kind of a gentle introduction to presentations. So we’re not going to ask you to give a flawless presentation in front of 20 people or more, and if you don’t like your first recording, you can try re-recording. So I acknowledge that there are people who have significant anxiety, for example, and so on that diversity, on a side of that kind of diversity, trying to create an assignment that will gently lead them into improving their sense of confidence about their ability to present. And looking at the seminars, and asking myself, How can I draw on this Massive Open Online Course? Which is all about, How do you facilitate good communication among people who don’t agree? How can I bring that into the TA course and help them to inspire really good, inclusive conversations among the first-year students? So I’m thinking about inclusivity in a really broad kind of way. I’m thinking about it on the side of my assignments, I’m thinking about reworking my syllabus. I’m thinking about… How do we bring it into the seminars? In more than just, “Well I’m going to introduce you to some African Canadian scholars,” or “I’m going to draw in people who are diverse into the course.” It’s more about, how do we get diverse participation? And the sense from students that we’re all part of this community, and we’re all going to contribute to this community that is the intro psych.

Rebecca: Sounds like you’ve got a lot on the horizon for sure.

Tanya: Yeah, it’s an exciting time, it really is. It feels like it’s a time where you just have an opportunity to do some really good work, and I’m going to really try to capitalize on it.

John: Well, thank you. It was really enjoyable talking to you and you’ve given us a lot to think about.

Tanya: Thank you very much. It’s been such a pleasure to speak with you today.

Rebecca: Thanks, Tanya.


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

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

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