318. Reducing Equity Gaps

Gender and racial equity gaps exist in economics and other STEM fields. In this episode, Tisha Emerson joins us to discuss research on strategies to reduce these inequities. Tisha is the chair of the economics department and the James E. and Constance Paul Distinguished Professor at East Carolina University and is the incoming Chair of the American Economic Association’s Committee on Economic Education.

Show Notes

Transcript

John: Gender and racial equity gaps exist in economics and other STEM fields. In this episode, we discuss research on strategies to reduce these inequities.

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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.

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Rebecca: Our guest today is Tisha Emerson. Tisha is the chair of the economics department and the James E. and Constance Paul Distinguished Professor at East Carolina University and is the incoming Chair of the American Economic Association’s Committee on Economic Education. Welcome, Tisha.

Tisha: Thanks for having me. I’m so glad to be here.

John: I’m very happy to be talking to you. And our teas today are:… Tisha, are you drinking any tea?

Tisha: Yes, my favorite tea, I found a couple years ago, it’s a Golden Moon brand of Tippy Earl Grey.

Rebecca: That sounds nice.

Tisha: It’s delicious.

Rebecca:I have Harvest Memories today.

John: I don’t remember that one.

Rebecca: Well, it is from my little favorite tea shop in Canandaigua, New York, and it’s autumn flavors.

John: Autumn flavor?

Rebecca: Autumn flavors.

John: Do they have leaves dumped in there?

Rebecca: I mean, it almost looks like that. [LAUGHTER]

John: Ok. [LAUGHTER] Well, that’s one way of getting rid of all the leaves that have been falling. And I have English breakfast tea today. So we’ve invited you here today to talk about some of the research you’ve done, and also your new role and your past role with the AEA’s Committee on Economic Education. One of the things that we’ve observed is that there’s some significant equity gaps in economics and in STEM disciplines in general in terms of race and gender. And in one of the studies that you’ve done with this, in a 2023 paper in the Southern Economic Journal, you and KimMarie McGoldrick examined retake behavior for students who are not successful in their initial attempt at completing an introductory microeconomics class. Could you give us just a general overview of this study?

Tisha: First, let me say that this started a long time ago. And we got access to this great data, the MIDFIELD dataset, that was actually originally funded by the NSF to study the gap in engineering education, but it’s student transcript data. So we said, well, you could use that for economics too. And we have. And so this particular study looked at almost 180,000 students who take Principles of Microeconomics for the first time. And what we ultimately wanted to do is to think about the likelihood of success, and actually more so, failure, because a lot of papers already look at success and they stop there, because you have too small of a sample, fortunately, of the failures to continue on to look at them. But when you start with 180,000, you have enough to continue. So we find, as many others do, that, of course, aptitude matters, but that, unfortunately, females tend to be much more likely to be unsuccessful in their Principles of Microeconomics class, as are underrepresented minorities, or URM. And then we follow those students and we say, okay, so if you were, in fact, unsuccessful, and we define that as a grade of a D or an F, so grades that wouldn’t really let you continue in your study of economics, or you withdraw. And we say, if you’re in that category, what do students tend to do?… or first of all, for those students that are unsuccessful, what helps predict that? So given that you are in the unsuccessful category, what is more likely to cause that? And we saw that students who were carrying more concurrent credit hours were more likely to withdraw. Which makes sense, because if you have constraints that lead you to want to be full time, if you start with 12 hours, and the course is not going well… any of them… and you were to drop, then you would not be full time anymore. And so it gives them sort of this flexibility, they have more concurrent credit hours. But we found that students who got D or Fs, given that they were unsuccessful, they tended to have taken more related courses. So things like accounting (financial accounting in particular), calculus, and macro principles. And so we didn’t actually see a lot of gender or racial differences there. But then those students who were unsuccessful (D, F, or W), on retake decisions, we found that women were much less likely to retake if they were unsuccessful. But we did find that women who were of higher aptitude, who were unsuccessful initially, they were more likely to retake. So that was a positive. And we did find that underrepresented minorities were more likely to retake the course, but then more likely to be unsuccessful again, on their second attempt. So there’s some good news, but also, a lot of not so good news.

John: So you were able to follow students over time, how long a time period was there in the data set that you were analyzing?

Tisha: We had over 20 year period of data, but that doesn’t mean we followed any particular student for that length of time. Once we saw that they were unsuccessful, we made sure that they had at least one more semester at the institution so they did in fact have a chance to choose to retake the course or not and then we gave them three years post their initial unsuccessful attempt. And if they didn’t retake it in that period, then we said they chose not to retake.

Rebecca: In a 2019 study in the Journal of Economic Education, you and KimMarie McGoldrick use the same dataset to examine the decision to switch into an out of the economic major. In this study, you find that very few students selected economics as a major when entering college and that 83% of economics majors actually selected the major after taking their first economics course. What did you find in terms of the gender and racial composition of those that selected the economic major?

Tisha: So what we found was that, for the few students who started out as economics majors, so going into their principles class they already had said they were majoring in economics, we found that females were as likely to persist or not. That’s good. And we found something similar for underrepresented minorities, that is the females and URM students who went into the principles class planning to major in economics, they were as likely to persist as not.

John: What happened to those students who were not majoring in economics.

Tisha: Well, unfortunately, females were not as likely to persist and decide to major in economics. There was a larger proportion of females who opted to remain in their original major. So, they come into the principles class, they have some major other than economics, they were much more likely to stay in their other major and not switch to economics. Men were considerably more likely to switch, on average, than females were. But on a more positive note, we did find that students from traditionally underrepresented racial and ethnic minorities and Asian students were more likely to switch to economics.

John: And one thing we should note, and you mentioned this in your study, is that because this datset was focused on engineering, the schools in this sample have relatively large engineering programs and some students switched to economics because economics was perceived as being easier than their original major. So some of this may not apply as broadly to liberal arts institutions that do not have engineering programs.

Tisha: That’s possibly true. And in fact, business majors were even more likely to switch to econ. So it was about 10% of those switching in were switching from engineering and 27% were switching from business. So at the liberal arts schools, to the extent that they don’t have business or engineering, there wouldn’t be that source of majors coming in.

Rebecca: Both of these studies are really interesting. But, how do we think about some strategies to create a more inclusive environment in economics and STEM classes? So what did these studies tell us? What should we be doing?

Tisha: Well, I don’t know that they tell us what we should be doing. They tell us that what we’re doing is not really working.

Rebecca: Fair.

Tisha: …which is unfortunate, because that’s what we’ve been doing for a really long time and we’ve been really unsuccessful at attracting women and underrepresented minorities. So there’s a new sort of strain in the literature that’s really trying to address some of this. And there’s a study, for example, by Porter and Serra, and that was published in 2020. They did a randomized control trial at Southern Methodist University, where they, just by happenstance, picked a couple of very charismatic female alums and they randomly selected which principles classes they would speak to. And this was just like a 15- or 20-minute exposure, where they talked about majoring in economics, and how that helped them in their career. And they found that this significantly increased the number of women from those courses who decided to major in economics and additionally, not necessarily just major, but take more economics courses. And I thought it was really fascinating that there was no effect on men in those treated classes, it was just the women. So that suggests possibly that there’s some room for role models. Other work that looks at role models from other directions, like some of my own work with KimMarie and John Siegfried, didn’t find any evidence that supports the idea of role models. So I think, still mixed, and the exact sort of interaction that students may or may not have with these people I think is going to be important.

John: You’ve done a number of studies on these types of issues, and one of them was looking at the effect of classroom experiments. Could you talk a little bit about what types of classroom experiments have you looked at and what’s the impact of those on students?

Tisha: Sure, I talk about that a lot, because I really love the classroom experiments. I think that they’re a great pedagogical technique. And so since your audience is more general, maybe I’ll explain just what we mean by classroom experiments. And that’s basically the idea that we’re going, in some cases, simulate markets or other decision environments for the students that will mirror the types of environments that we’re talking about in class. So for example, if we’re talking about a market, then we will have students participate in an experiment where some are buyers and some are sellers and they negotiate and trade. In my classes, we always do the experiment first, I don’t talk about any of the concepts. And then we collect the data as we’re going through the experiment on the decisions that they’re making: prices, quantities that are traded, then I’m able to talk to the students about “Well, look, this is what actually happened, this is your actual data that you generated, and now let’s talk about the theory.” And this is what the theory would predict the outcome to be. And they can see how well they match up. And they are able to discuss in class, this is why I chose to behave in this way. And they see how it fits in to the economic theory. And I did a study back in 2001, which was published in ‘04 in the Southern Economic Journal, where we were looking just at the effect of experiments and we looked to see if there was a differential gender effect. And in fact, there was. So you often see that women underperform men in these principles classes. But what the experiment did is it closed that gender performance gap. So it raised sort of everybody’s performance, but it raised the females disproportionately, so that they were closer to the same outcome as the men if they were in a classroom with experiments. So I do think that there is definitely room through pedagogy to improve women’s outcomes, and make them more attracted to economics, but also make economics more attractive to them. There’s a large literature that suggests that women are much more grade sensitive than are men, various people have gone about showing this in different ways. And if you can bring up their performance so that it’s on par with men. And it’s not really even that comparison, but you’re bringing up the females’ performance, then they’re getting better grades, and they’re going to be less likely to want to leave the study of economics.

John: And we’ll throw in a reference to an earlier podcast we did with Peter Arcidiacono, who had looked at that very impact in STEM fields in terms of the decisions of people to move from one major to another. And in particular, in that study, they found that women did better on many of the tests but still left because the grades were relatively lower than in other classes. So one issue I think might be worth addressing is the issue of grade differentials, that if we’re going to continue to assign grades that are lower than most other departments, there’s a good chance we’re going to lose majors in general, but disproportionately more female majors, based on what the research literature tells us.

Tisha: There’s this really cool study, McEwan, Rogers, and Weerapana, 2021. They’re at Wellesley, and so it’s all females, but they were trying to address grade inflation. And what that meant was, of course, there are some disciplines that have higher grades, they had to bring their average grades down, and economics is treated in the opposite direction, and that it actually drew more students into these harder grading disciplines, like economics and the other STEM fields. And so yeah, that’s certainly an issue. I don’t think we’re gonna across the board be trying to treat grade inflation. I don’t think this is published yet. But I was reading another study out of Wellesley, where they were allowing students… I think it was maybe for their gen ed classes… to take them all pass fail. And again, you saw students flowing into these harder grading disciplines.

John: I know a number of schools during a pandemic made all of their first-year classes pass fail, which is a good way of letting students get into a discipline without worrying so much about the grades so they can explore things without worrying about the impact on their GPAs. That might be another useful strategy.

Tisha: Yes, I agree, and then this is really anecdotal, but I’ve heard other people observe the same thing, that women, they’ll be in your principles class, and they’re doing well, but maybe they’re going to get a B plus. And they say, “Oh, either I’m not gonna take another economics class,” or I’ve even had students withdraw at that point, and I’m like, “but you’re getting a B plus, I don’t understand,” but they’re so sensitive to grades. And then there will be male students who are getting a C, barely, and they’ll say, “I’m going to major in economics.” and I say, “Okay, are you sure?” It’s hard to understand sometimes.

Rebecca: It’s interesting to think about withdrawal policies that have really kind of loosened up due to COVID. So our institution changed the policy more recently so that students can withdraw through the last day of classes without documentation. And so students who are doing really poorly might take that option, but as you’re discussing students with higher grades withdrawing, that sounds really concerning that policies like that could be kind of counterintuitive, or really have some other negative impacts. Classes all cost money, [LAUGHTER] and there’s financial impacts to withdrawing.

Tisha: It’s hard to really predict how this is all going to play out. And I have to say, I’ve never heard of such a generous withdrawal policy. At my previous institution, I think they could withdraw up to sort of two weeks out and not even have a W necessarily on their transcript. So this all seems like a lot. There’s a lot of moving parts. But on the positive side, so let me just say, first of all, part of me feels like it’s a little bit too generous. But part of me also thinks back to the work that KimMarie and I did. And if you don’t have that D or F, that you have to overcome, it’s a lot easier to persist, not just in your major, but towards graduation, whether you switch majors or stay. And part of me feels like that’s helpful to the student. So in some ways, I like a generous withdrawal policy, I definitely want students to know what the withdrawal policy is, what the deadlines are, so that they can make a good decision.

John: Yeah, the only concern I have with the policy is that it can lead to students making slow progress towards a degree and they could run out of funding before they complete their degrees. But on the other hand, it does provide a bit of a safety net for students who are adjusting. And as our student body has become more diverse, and we have more first-gen students, and we have more students coming from schools that did not prepare people particularly well for a college environment, it provides a safety net, which has allowed students to take some chances early on and not be harmed. And I’ve seen some students struggle in their first year or so, drop classes, and come back and be very successful, when before they might have been deterred from further study in the discipline.

Tisha: I agree, I can see that.

Rebecca: So, definitely one of the things that I’m always thinking about when students are talking about withdrawing is making sure that they know all of the ramifications. So what does it do to your GPA? What does it look like on a transcript? What are the financial implications? …so they can make a well informed decision. And depending on who they’re talking to, they are not necessarily always getting all of the information, and that can be problematic, too.

Tisha: Yes. So I think that points us to the issue of how important advising is, so that there are well informed advisors and that students have access to them, not just at the end when it’s time to register for next semester, but they have a relationship with their advisor, and feel that they can go in and ask those questions, because as John said, a lot of those students can’t go to their parents, they’re first gen, their parents don’t have advice for them. And even if your parents went to college, they don’t necessarily know all of the rules and regulations of the institution that you’re at. It’s really hard, I think, for students to have all the information that’s necessary.

John: I’ve had trouble keeping up to all the changing information [LAUGHTER] over the last few years. In terms of those requirements. You’ve done some work with cooperative learning. Could you talk a little bit about that?

Tisha: Sure. So that really came out of the fact that I had done a lot of efficacy work around classroom experiments. And KimMarie and I are really good friends. She is a cooperative learning expert. So I should say that she is the expert on CL. And she wanted to do an efficacy study, so we decided to team up and do that. So what we did is unlike a lot of some of the other work in efficacy, is that a lot of the work is comparing lecture. So you don’t do anything to this active learning technique. And with cooperative learning, the students are working on exercises. And when we talked about it, we said you know, it’s really not fair, and not even interesting to compare a student who is in a lecture-based class where they don’t get to see any of these problems to students in a cooperative learning class that are working on these problems in class in teams. So we thought a lot about the collaborative learning approach. And we’re trying to isolate what we thought could be the mechanism that might be driving different outcomes. And what we decided was we were going to compare the active team-based learning to individual learning, working on problems. So in our control, the students were exposed to the same problems, they had the same amount of time in class to work the problems as in the treatment, which was the collaborative learning. It’s just that in the treatment, they were working in teams in this think-pair-share share framework, and we didn’t find a significant difference. So at the end, we said that the cooperative component didn’t seem to be driving any difference. Although there are other people who’ve done work comparing collaborative learning to lecture based and they did find significant positive effects from cooperative learning.

John: One type of thing that I’ve done that seems to have been fairly successful is using clicker questions. Following the methodology of Eric Mazur, students are given a challenging question where typically half or so them will get it right the first time when they’re asked individually. But then they get to talk it over with the people around them, preferably someone with a different answer, they get to debate and argue it and I normally see between a 10 and 20 percentage point increase in the correct answer. And the really absurd answers tend to disappear down to about nothing. So that’s not a very formal study, but that second stage of that process where students are engaged in some peer instruction seems to have had a pretty significant impact. And I point that out to students, that when they talk to each other about it and explain it to each other, they do much better than when they’re working on their own. And I encourage them to try doing that outside of class, to work with other students, because there are a variety of studies… I haven’t seen too many in economics, but there are quite a few studies that find that that type of peer instruction, either in the classroom or outside, can be fairly effective.

Tisha: Yeah, so I’ve observed that too. I haven’t used clicker questions, but just going in and observing my colleagues when they teach, and they are using clicker questions. And I have to say, I’m stunned, because I don’t know how the right answer bubbles up as opposed to the person who had the wrong answer convincing the other of the wrong answer. I don’t know how that doesn’t happen. It’s like magic to me, almost. So part of me wants to think a bit more about what is the mechanism and how is that working? That’d be really cool to do a study on that.

Rebecca: One of the things that’s always curious to me about that particular dynamic is sometimes students discover, as they try to explain something to someone else, [LAUGHTER] that they really don’t know what they’re talking about. [LAUGHTER] They realize, huh, I can’t actually explain this concept, so maybe I’m the one that’s not correct. [LAUGHTER]

Tisha: Maybe that is what’s happening. Because everyone always says, “You have to really know your stuff to teach it,” and so if you are trying to explain it to your partner, you do have to know the material.

John: And when they’re raising objections and you don’t have a counter argument, that can help break down your misconceptions, because getting rid of those incorrect perceptions can be as important as trying to build new ones.

Tisha: Yeah, I could see that and maybe the people who are initially giving the wrong answe are just guessing. So maybe they’re not trying to explain and convince their partner of their answer, I guess. I don’t know. So maybe it’s not magic.

Rebecca: [LAUGHTER] Feels like magic.

John: It does. And it works.

Tisha: When I see it happen, it does seem like magic. In general, I think that active learning is helpful, because I think that women are going to be more interested when you show them the applications, and that when you have active learning, there’s some community building that happens. So you’re illustrating relevance, you’re building this community, giving them a sense of belonging in the classroom, which is a lot of what I think actually happens with the experiments. And then actually also with the experiments, they’re kind of discovering some of the theory for themselves, which is a growth mindset. And there is research that shows that if you can show relevance, belonging, and growth mindset, and develop these in your classroom, that students are going to do better, but that it also is more appealing to females and underrepresented minorities.

Rebecca: There’s lots of things for all of us to think about, even if we’re not necessarily in economics classrooms. Definitely good food for thought. Switching gears a little bit. Can you tell us a little bit about your work on the Committee on Economic Education?

Tisha: So I’m not officially on it at the moment, I’m the incoming chair. But I have served on it in the past. And I’ve been shadowing KimMarie McGoldrick, who is the current chair for the last year. So the committee is doing a lot of really great work. I think. When I first served on the committee, we basically just organized sessions for the American Economic Association meetings. And when I say “just” I don’t mean “just…” Compared to now, it’s just but we have, I think, seven sessions that we organize for the meetings every January. But while I was first on the committee, then chair Mike Watts, who was at Purdue, he said,”I have an idea. We should have a conference, so an all economic education conference,” and we started it while he was chair, and it’s CTREE, so the Conference on Teaching and Research in Economic Education. So the committee is in charge of that. It’s every end of May, beginning of June, depending how the calendar falls. So our next CTREE will be in Atlanta, not that far. It’s on the East Coast, maybe you can join us. And it will be May 29 through the 31st of 2024. We have many other things that we also are overseeing: an educate program, which is professional development for college faculty, and that includes two-year college faculty, in course design, different active learning pedagogies, and we talk about how to bring diversity and inclusion into the classroom. KimMarie actually started this this year, we have a newsletter called EconEdNews. And that features different pedagogies, it features the winner of the AEA Distinguished Economic Educator Award, which the committee also oversees, and some centers that we have for Econ Ed across the country… just a lot of information that’s in there, we have two issues a year. So we’ve had our first two, and our next one will come out in March of ‘24. So just a lot of great work, I think, that the committee is doing and I think really thanks to Mike who started us with our own conference. And then Sam Allgood succeeded Mike and added and then KimMarie is an overachiever. And she added a lot more in her six years as the chair.

John: And going back earlier, early surveys of economic instruction suggested that economists were using much more chalk and talk than many other disciplines were using. So these efforts have been fairly important in shifting people away from that. It’s a somewhat overdue change, but it’s nice to see that happening. And I would love to go to CTREE. But there’s two barriers that I’ve run into one is we run a series of workshops here, right around the same time, and the other is I teach at Duke in the summers. So I either am doing workshops here, or I am in North Carolina teaching econometrics now down there, so I haven’t been able to get there. I would love to go to a CTREE meeting.

Rebecca: I think I would have no clue what’s going on if I went. [LAUGHTER]

John: Oh I think you would.

Tisha: I think you would, I think you’d have a nice time. Everyone there is just so lovely and very engaged in teaching, and just really cares about the enterprise.

Rebecca: It’s nice to see education groups out of these professional organizations to really formulate communities of practice around teaching.

Tisha: Yes, I agree. I think economics, unfortunately, was late to the game. But we’re increasingly appreciating the importance and the importance not just of focusing on four-year colleges, but two-year colleges. So going back to the point of diversity, and the lack thereof in the discipline, the students in four-year colleges that I’ve worked with have predominantly still been very much what economists already looked like. And if we really want to improve the diversity in economics, I think we need to reach down to the high schools to the two-year colleges, and make economics more interesting and accessible.

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

Tisha: There’s lots of things. I guess, with regard to the committee, I’m hoping to just kind of not start anything new in my first term, and keep everything running as well as KimMarie has it now. But then for my own research, I am really interested now in looking at comparing pedagogies. So it’s been a lot of efficacy work looking at a particular pedagogy compared to sort of the standard chalk and talk. But now, how do they compare to each other? Is there a better pedagogy for students? And my first study, and I have the data, so I just have to start working on it will compare experiments to cooperative learning. And I told KimMarie, if experiments lose, then she won’t hear any more about this. I won’t write it up. I won’t talk about it. Because I don’t want to say that experiments lose, but no, I mean, seriously, that’s the next thing that’s first on the agenda. But also, I have a deep interest in diversity questions. KimMarie and I with Scott Simkins have a paper looking at HBCUs compared to PWIs and the study of economics there. And that was inspired by some work that showed that HBCUs contributed disproportionately to the STEM pipeline. And since economics is part of STEM, we thought, “Well, that should be true for economics as well.” So we did some work in that area. And we show that there are some positive contributions from HBCUs to the economic pipeline. But I think there’s a lot more to do there. So I would like to dig down in that. I’ve heard a lot of people at HBCUs talk about secret sauce, and I want to learn what that is. And not just at HBCUs but look at MSIs as well, more generally. And I do want to look at some questions at two-year colleges, so that’s for the next five to 10 years…

Rebecca: You’re going to be busy. [LAUGHTER]

John: For those who aren’t familiar with the terms PWI are predominantly white institutions and MSI are minority serving institutions.

Tisha: That’s correct.

John: Those terms are becoming more and more common, but just to make sure all of our listeners are familiar. Okay, well, thank you. It’s great talking to you, and it’s nice meeting you. And we will keep trying to get KimMarie McGoldrick on the podcast. I’ve been asking her for about four years. She’s been a little resistant, but we’ll see if we can get her here in the future. Well, thank you.

Tisha: Thank you so much. I hope you have a good afternoon.

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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.

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313. Supporting Neurodiverse Students and Faculty

Many discussions of inclusive teaching practices ignore the role of neurodiversity in higher ed. In this episode, Liz Norell joins us to discuss strategies that faculty and institutions can use to create a welcoming environment for neurodivergent students and faculty. Liz is a political scientist and the Associate Director of Instructional Support at the University of Mississippi’s Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning.

Show Notes

Transcript

John: Many discussions of inclusive teaching practices ignore the role of neurodiversity in higher ed. In this episode, we discuss strategies that faculty and institutions can use to create a welcoming environment for neurodivergent students and faculty.

[MUSIC]

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.

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John: Our guest today is Liz Norell. Liz is a political scientist and the Associate Director of Instructional Support at the University of Mississippi’s Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning. Welcome back, Liz.

Liz: Thank you. I’m happy to be here.

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

Liz: I am not. I am drinking some vitamin water, tropical mango flavor.

Rebecca: So there’s some stuff mixed with water. That’s tea, right?

Liz: Yes, sure.

John: And I am drinking Prince of Wales tea today.

Rebecca: Oh, I like that one. John. Haven’t had that in a while. And I have Awake today. It’s Monday… [LAUGHTER] when we’re recording.

Liz: That feels fair.

John: But it’s getting really boring. [LAUGHTER]

Rebecca: I know. [LAUGHTER]

John: We’ve invited you here today to discuss issues related to neurodiversity in higher education. Before we start, though, could you define neurodiversity? And how is this different from neurodivergence?

Liz: Sure. So I think these two terms get kind of conflated with one another a lot. And so I tried to be really explicit in talking about neurodiversity versus neurodivergence. And there are a lot of different perspectives on these two terms, and some of the baggage that they carry with them. But when I think about neurodiversity, I just think about a diversity of brains. And so any group that has more than one person is going to be neurodiverse. We all have different brains. But neurodivergence is a brain that works differently than how we typically think of brains working. And there are lots of diagnoses that get put under the umbrella of neurodivergent. Some of the most common ones are autism, ADHD, there’s Tourette’s. There’s lots of other ones, dyslexia, dyspraxia, OCD sometimes gets lumped in there, bipolar disorder will get lumped in there. So neurodivergence is just a brain that works differently than the way we typically think of brains working.

Rebecca: If we’re thinking about college student populations, and I know that this is partially a guess, because we don’t actually know, but how many do we think are neurodivergent?

Liz: The estimates that I’ve seen have been around like one in six, maybe, but I think that it’s probably closer to 30, or 35%, honestly. I think a third is probably a reasonably good estimate. It’s a large number. And I will say that a lot of those students either may not know that they have some sort of neurodivergence, or they may not ever tell us that they have a neurodivergence and we’ll talk more about that a little bit later, I think.

John: What proportion of neurodivergent students have accommodations through campus disability services?

Liz: Who knows? If we don’t know the denominator, it’s hard to know what proportion of people would be registering with accommodations. But I think there are certainly a lot more students who are registering with disability services with an official diagnosis, but there are some barriers to that. And the first one is that it’s really expensive and time consuming to get a diagnosis. So I should say, and I should start pretty early in our conversation by saying that I recently went through the diagnosis process to get a diagnosis of autism at age 45. And it took me a year from reaching out until I had the diagnosis. And I was able to navigate that, because I have some experience interacting with medical teams. I had good insurance, but it still took me a year to get an appointment, and to get the diagnosis. And so there are a lot of students who may not have the tools or the time or the resources to go through that, even if they suspect it. And I went 44 years of my life without even suspecting that I might be neurodivergent. I think there are a lot of barriers to that. And then once you have the diagnosis, it can be very intimidating to disclose that, to go through the campus accommodation process takes so much time and advocacy. And that comes from a population that’s already taxed in terms of their bandwidth and their resources and their just ability to get these things done. So I don’t think that thinking about the numbers of people who seek accommodations is even close to representing the population of students who might have these conditions.

John: It would seem that there’s a bit of an equity issue here in that students from wealthier households, students from continuing generation households, are much more likely to have the resources to go through the process of having the need for accommodations being documented.

Liz: That’s right. And I think this gets into some of the language around neurodivergent versus the neurotypical. A lot of people who are neurodivergent, who have some sort of condition or way of thinking or way of operating have been socialized to think that there’s something wrong with them, this kind of medical model of disability, instead of the more like social model of this is a socially constructed difference. And so to seek out a diagnosis requires a kind of self containment, I think, to recognize that this is not something wrong with me. A lot of people who have a neurodivergent brain probably feel like they should be able to act like a neurotypical person. So they don’t want accommodations because they feel like that is somehow making them less than their neurotypical students. And it’s this medical model that has infused so much of our talk about disability, and especially pernicious here where we know that there are real struggles that students have when they have these neurodivergent brains, that we are just not accommodating well in the classroom.

Rebecca: I do want to mention at this juncture, that we do have an Episode 221 – Disability in Higher Education with Kat Macfarlane that really talks in detail about the accommodation process. And so that’s a really great place to learn more about that process in high detail that was kind of the subject of most of that episode. Most of our college faculty generally haven’t been trained to address issues of neurodiversity. Can you talk about some of the common challenges our neurodivergent students face in classrooms?

Liz: Yes. And it’s absolutely the case that we have not been trained in this. And I think also many of my faculty colleagues, past and present, have this idea that an accommodation is somehow like special treatment that’s making a class easier for students, when we should, John, as you mentioned, be thinking about this as an equity issue. So accommodations are meant to provide equal opportunity for success. And if you’re bringing some of these conditions into the classroom, you’re already operating at a deficit. So what are those? Well, it can be things like being really easily overloaded by sensory information. So we see this a lot with autism and ADHD, where, as someone who now understands herself to be autistic, I think about this phrase, “the lights are too loud,” like, it just feels very harsh. And when people are talking over each other, I get very flooded very quickly. This has been the case my whole life. If there are unfamiliar foods or drinks, that can be really overloading and so background noise, people who are close to each other, uncomfortable seating, these are all things that can show up in our classrooms that can cause someone with a neurodivergent brain to go into a kind of overload. And that, of course, reduces their ability to pay attention and to learn and to retain information. Unclear communication is a huge challenge for people with neurodivergent brains, because it’s often the case that there’s some sort of like inability to recognize sarcasm, or the ability to get some nonverbal communication. Oftentimes, people with neurodivergent brains will interpret everything very literally. And so they miss out on some of the nuance. And for me, it’s been this like obsession with choosing the just right word, because I need it to be precise. And I can get really fixated on that sometimes, in a way that feels very pedantic. But that is really just me very much trying to communicate clearly. When there’s unclear terminology–write professionally, or be collegial, or work well with others–like I don’t know what any of that means. I have no idea. And there’s an assumption that there’s some shared social norms that may not be as visible to people with a neurodivergent brain. There’s a lot of, of course, well documented social aspects to neurodivergence. So just like not really knowing how to work with others in an effective way, or feeling like that sense of, I’m different. I’m broken, I’m not as good as… that I mentioned earlier, can carry over into social dynamics. And then the last one that I think is really important for us to think about in terms of higher ed is executive function. So executive function is that ability to kind of be a taskmaster of your own attention and brain. And so things like prioritizing work, time management, how to take notes, how to make decisions, how to cope with the ups and downs of life, due dates, all of those things like managing systems is really hard when you have a neurodivergent brain. And we often assume that our students have those skills. And so we don’t scaffold them. We don’t help them. We don’t point them to resources, and that can be really hard. So those are just like four big clusters: sensory overload, communication, social interaction, and executive function.

John: How can faculty anticipate or design with neurodivergence in mind, particularly when many students with disabilities choose not to self identify?

Liz: Just being aware of these things that I’ve just mentioned, is hugely helpful. And I think the hard work is really just awareness. So for example, I have heard lots of my colleagues and myself at earlier points in my career, lament about students who are distracted by their cell phones or their laptops, who seemed to need to go to the bathroom three times during a 50-minute class, or who otherwise seemed to be just kind of like disconnected from class. We see that as a sign of disrespect and as of not paying attention. But a neurodivergent brain often really struggles to sit still and make visual contact with another person or object. And so it’s often the case that our neurodivergent students can learn better if they are doing something, the more physical, the better. So for some of my students, it’s things like knitting in class or coloring or doodling. This is actually not them disengaging or not paying attention. It’s them doing something that allows them to focus their attention on what you’re saying. So I like to think about performance of attention, what we often think of as paying attention. So if a neurodivergent student is going to perform attention, they’re probably not actually listening to anything you’re saying, because they’re using all of their brainpower to do the things that you think mean they’re paying attention. With that said, this sort of notion that we have to reorient our thinking about what students are doing and what that means in terms of their engagement with us, I think being really clear about scaffolding what tasks are needed, providing clear deadlines. So Karen Costa, who is just brilliant, talks a lot about ADHD, and she is a person with ADHD. And she talks about the need for more structure, not less, that flexibility can be useful, but you need a lot of structure. And for people with neurodivergent brains, it can be really helpful to have lots of small deadlines that are low stakes with some grace around them, but like clear structure is really important… messaging to students, like, here’s how you do this class. So if that’s working in a group that’s giving specific roles, and asking the students to decide who’s going to be the note taker, and who’s going to be the recorder, and who’s going to be the crazy idea person, and who’s going to be the let’s bring it back to the text person. So just kind of delineating some specific roles, communicating clearly and in multiple modalities. So especially if you’re doing a lot of audio lecturing, or giving up directions, making sure that those are also available in writing. So students can come back to them later when they know that you said something, but they don’t remember what. And then just being really aware of that sensory environment in which you’re learning. So if that’s in a physical classroom, thinking about ways to give students permission to make themselves comfortable, if that’s getting up and walking around a little bit, and just sort of saying, like, I know that that helps some of you concentrate, fine with me if you do that. Telling them that they can get up and leave the room for a couple of minutes if they need a break. If they want to bring in things to play with, color or fidget, create whatever, that’s fine too. A lot of my students like to just sit on the floor. I mean, that sounds like a disaster for me and my middle-aged body, but when you’re 18, it’s like easy to get up off the floor, and so if you want to sit on the floor, sit on the floor, it’s cool, if that helps you be more comfortable. So I think it’s awareness and then just messaging to students that they can do what they need to do. And I just want to say one more thing about this. And that is, even if you are not neurodivergent, even if you are what people define as neurotypical, you can talk about students you’ve had, people you know, friends, family members, colleagues, you know people who are neurodivergent, talk about some of the ways that they have given themselves permission to make their environments work for them. So that you’re messaging to students that you understand and that you support those kinds of self-advocacy efforts. So you don’t have to do all of that on the first day of school, [LAUGHTER], first day of class. It’s a lot, but I often include something on my syllabus that says you may have accommodations or you may not, but if there’s something that I can do to make this class easier for you to participate in meaningfully and be successful in, according to your own goals, then I will do it, as long as it’s something within my power to do. So. You don’t need formal accommodations to ask me to do something to help you.

Rebecca: One of the things that I heard you mention and often come up a lot in inclusive pedagogy and other spaces is the idea of scaffolding. Here, again, we have this assumption that everybody knows exactly what that is all the time. But part of that is really about helping students understand their priorities, perhaps within a class, and also how to manage their time related to certain kinds of tasks. Can you talk a little bit about that component of scaffolding and what that might actually look like in practice?

Liz: Yeah, it’s hard for me to tease that out without thinking about lots of other things too. Because, we, as faculty, are coming into the classroom with certain ideas about what should be important, and what students should want to do in order to be successful, whatever that means. And I have really had to learn over my teaching career to check myself on that, because my priorities are not the same as my students. I remember once I was grading a student’s final exam they had done, it was very, very early in my teaching career, I’m embarrassed to even say what they had done for their final, but it was it was multiple choice and I was grading it by hand, and I told them, they could just stick around. I would grade it real quick, and then give them their final grade, because I had done everything else before then. And I looked at the student who had come to class every day and had really meaningfully participated and said, “Your final grade as a C,” and I was so apologetic, like, “Oh my gosh, I’m sorry. “And this student was like, “YES! I PASSED!” And it was a real moment for me of just like saying, “Okay, you cannot put your own values and goals onto students, because that was literally the student’s dream–was to get a C and not have to take the class again,” I think when we’re talking about students, it’s really having that very frank conversation, like, some of you are here because you are being required to take this class, and I know it wasn’t your choice, and I’m going to try to make it as the least awful it can be for you. And I’m going to ask you to try to invest at least enough time to give it a fair shot. But I don’t expect that everybody has the same goals and so let’s take a moment and reflect on what success for you looks like. And then what do you need to do over the course of the next 15 weeks, or whatever it might be, in order to make that goal. And so we sort of assume that our students’ goals are to get a good grade and to move on to whatever the next thing is. But maybe it’s not, maybe they’re just taking the class for fun, maybe they don’t care about the grade. Maybe they’re an adult learner who has a curiosity about something. After I graduated undergrad, I took an ethics class online–this was like 2001 or 2002 maybe, so it was very early days of online teaching and learning. And I took it through the community college just because I had never taken it, and I thought it might be interesting. It really wasn’t interesting for me. So I just like stopped paying attention. But I did not consider that a failure. Like I got a little bit of information. I also took a macroeconomics class, because I had never taken a macro class; I had taken micro. And it was all online, and I did all the work, but I didn’t turn in any assignments because I just didn’t care about those. I just wanted to learn it. So, I think having these conversations can be really helpful in students figuring out what it is that they want to get out of a class

John: Going to that point you made about structure. This is something we’re seeing an awful lot… certainly in the work on inclusive teaching, in Viji Sathy and Kelly Hogan’s book, as well as the work of Mary-Ann Winkelmes on transparency and learning and teaching. There seems to be a convergence that by providing students with structure and support, it can do a lot, it can benefit pretty much all students. In past discussions, when we spoke to those authors, much of the focus was on the benefits to first-gen students and to students who were historically minoritized. But it’s kind of nice to know that the same inclusive teaching strategies also addresses issues of neurodivergence.

Liz: I had an experience at my last job, where I just kept asking my dean, “Give me a set of rules and I will follow them.” And she would say, “Well, just use your best professional judgment.” And I don’t know what that means. I think people with certain kinds of neurodivergence just want you to tell them what to do and they will do it. Give me a set of very clear expectations, and I will meet them and this can work for everyone… just like clarity. And it doesn’t have to be punitive. I’m very fond of Cate Denial’s Pedagogy of Kindness. And this notion that like it should be kind, which can be as Sarah Rose Cavanagh says like a warm demander. I want you to have expectations of me, I want to know that you care about me. But just be really clear, because clarity is kind. And yes, it helps with all of those things. So the first generation students, the historically minoritized, the neurodivergent, lots of different kinds of people are benefited by this. And even the third generation middle class neurotypical student, also [LAUGHTER] benefits from clarity.

Rebecca: Imagine that, not spending all of our cognitive energy trying to figure out what people want.

Liz: Exactly. {LAUGHTER]

Rebecca: What are some of the challenges that neurodivergent faculty face in their careers? We’ve talked a lot about students, but we also know that faculty also exist.

Liz: We do. And we’re not all like cut from the same cookie cutter. I can tell you, just from my own experiences, that higher ed can be really hostile to those who are neurodivergent. I’ve had really great experiences, and I’ve had some really challenging ones. I think that it’s helpful when we’re aware of these things for students, because we often have the most power over their educational experience. But we also share power with our colleagues. And so knowing what some of these things are can help us understand the behaviors of our colleagues that we might have been inclined to read as subversive, or unprofessional, or lacking in collegiality. Those words get used a lot, for a lot of different kinds of identities and traits. Neurodivergence is certainly one of them. So as a woman who’s neurodivergent, that intersectionality means that I’m always on the lookout for that kind of language of like unprofessional and not collegial and you’re being difficult in some way. Well, or maybe I just don’t understand what it is that you’re asking of me. I also think we need to be really careful when we think about this idea of fit. So especially in hiring, we are looking for someone who will fit. But fit often means like me. And it can be very exclusionary to people who have some sort of neurodivergence, because they may not act the way that you do. But that’s actually a strength, I think. When you look at the different kinds of neurodivergent conditions, ADHD brains are so good at hyperfocus. They just don’t always do a good job of like, understanding time, right, there’s a kind of time blindness. But they’re so good at that. And autistic brains are so excited about the things that they’re excited about. And that energy is so captivating. And so these are not weaknesses, these are strengths that can really help us appreciate things in our work that we wouldn’t if we didn’t have those around. So when thinking about working with colleagues, all of the things that I said before, sensory overwhelm, communication, social interactions, and kind of executive function, we should be thinking about those things with our colleagues as well. So when I design a workshop, for example, in our Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning, I’m thinking about, “Okay, how do I create a space where the chairs could be moved away from the rest of the group so that people can have a little bit of space and kind of get away from that? Can I dim the lights a little? Can I ask, make sure everybody’s using a microphone, but also let people know that if they want to put in their loop earplugs, as I do, you can do that to kind of limit some background noise. Can I make sure that everything I say is also written down somewhere so that people have something to refer to later? Can I talk about my own experiences in a way that normalizes other people doing the same?” All of those things can be used to make the environment more inviting for our colleagues. The last thing I want to say is that it is so exhausting, as a person with a disability of any kind to constantly having to advocating for yourself. So the more that non-disabled people can lend their support and their voices to advocating for easier pathways to accessibility, the less you’re taxing your disabled colleagues. So thinking about what can I do, that if I did it, would make it easier for a disabled colleague to come behind me and ask for the same?

John: Near the end of the summer you posted on the social media site formerly known as Twitter, something about a podcast and puzzles set of workshops. Have you started that? And could you talk a little bit about that?

Liz: Yes, so I’m really excited about this. And a lot of people who are not at the University of Mississippi are also excited about it. And I’m just trying to get the people on campus excited about it. So the idea here is that, and this was specifically created as a neurodivergent-friendly space. So faculty and staff can come to our center for an hour every other week. So this Wednesday will be our next one. And we play a pedagogy podcast. So we played an episode of this podcast, and we do a puzzle or some other kind of individual or parallel play is what it’s called. So I’m working on a puzzle. It’s in the next room, and I’m not done with it. And it’s driving me crazy, because I don’t like unfinished puzzles. But I have committed to not working on it, except when everybody else is here. But it’s a Funko Pop puzzle of Ted Lasso, so it’s really fun. And we’ve had two of these now, and it’s a small but mighty group who are into this, but the lights are low, it’s indirect, diffuse lighting, there’s lots of different kinds of seating, and one person comes and colors, a couple of people have come and done puzzles. But the idea is that it’s just a way to get together in a social space without the social expectation of small talk. So you can just come and show up and listen to a podcast and leave. If you want to stay and talk you can, you don’t have to, I am hoping that this becomes a movement of podcasts and puzzles. And I’m going to stick with it as long as it takes for me to make it so here, but we have probably like five or six people who have come to one of them. And I hope many more who will as it continues to spread. It’s kind of hard to describe in a website or an email, but I think once people come they see the brilliance of this… I say with all possible modesty. [LAUGHTER]

John: Have people actually finished a puzzle during the course of one of these meetings?

Liz: This Wednesday will be our third meeting. So I think the Funko Pop Ted Lasso crossover puzzle will finish this week, I hope. It’s going to drive me absolutely batty if it doesn’t, and then we’ll move on to another one.

Rebecca: That sounds like a lot of fun.

Liz: It is. And it’s a good way to kind of model why I think so many of our neurodivergent students would really thrive at a kind of way of learning that’s very different than what we’re used to in higher ed. And that’s probably why it’s hard for people to imagine why we’re doing this or what it looks like. But we have writing groups where people come into our room and do their own writing. And just that body doubling of having someone else there, while I’m trying to do something is enormously helpful. And so in this case, like I took two things that I love, that I never make time for because I feel guilty about all the other things I should be doing. So puzzles and listening to podcasts about teaching, and I just put them together. And I hope that more people will see ways to create these spaces that are perhaps a bit unconventional to higher ed. But that can open our imagination to the ways that we can model learning in different ways than the more traditional models that we’re used to seeing.

Rebecca: I like the analogy with the writing group, in that it’s really holding people accountable to do a particular thing, which is to attend to teaching in a different way, by listening to a podcast as opposed to a different kind of workshop or something and allowing them to do something with their hands.

Liz: I also have this very large bucket of fidget toys that I take to every workshop. And I say just borrow a fidget and just play with it and see how that changes your experience of the workshop. And if you find it to be soothing, imagine what normalizing this in your classes might do for your students. So my colleague who’s just a couple of doors down I have one of these little like pop balls that make like these really satisfying noises. And the first time I brought this to a workshop, she said, “Is that the sound I’ve been hearing?” I just play with it all the time.

John: Do you have any other advice for faculty and campuses who wish to better address neurodiversity?

Liz: There’s this phrase in the autism world and the disability world and I’ve been hearing it more and more and it is, “Nothing for us, without us.” And so I can tell you my perspective as someone who is neurodivergent, there’s so much expertise on your campus, and you should talk to those people. So that might be in the disabilities support services area. It might be students in your class, but just like have these conversations and find out, what can I do from my position, whatever it might be, that can make this place more welcoming to people who are neurodivergent? And I think when you’re asking that question, just like with anything else that we might be doing, then people are going to assume good intent. And they’re also going to be much more forgiving, if you make a stumble of some kind, whatever that might be. I don’t know. And so just talk to people, ask them. I feel like this is the most obvious advice that we give as faculty developers, but it’s ask your students, just ask them, they just want to be asked. And so if I was to give any advice that would be that just ask your students: “What can I do that would make this easier for you?”

Rebecca: I know, one thing that we talk a lot about on our campus is that access is really the doorway to belonging. If you don’t have access…

Liz: Yes.

Rebecca: …you’re not going to feel like you belong.

Liz: Just to know that someone is thinking about what you might need is enough to make them feel like they’re included, and that you’re listening when they tell you what they need, would be helpful.

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

Liz: I have so many writing projects that I’m just sort of getting started with. So I just recently finished a manuscript on my book, The Present Professor, that I mentioned the last time we talked. And so that’s going through the publishing process and will eventually go out in the world, I assume, knock on wood. So I’m filling my time while I wait for progress there on, it seems like, about a dozen other writing projects, all of which are just kind of me thinking. I’ve been really interested lately in talking about the role of learning outcomes, and what we decide rises to the importance of a learning outcome. And if I may say this one controversial thing that I just keep saying to everyone I know, I don’t think you as a student should be able to fail a class for doing something or failing to do something that is not a learning outcome of the course. So if turning in something two days late means that I fail the assignment, then shouldn’t that be a learning outcome, timeliness? I don’t know. It just feels to me like, if we’re going to assess learning, then we should be assessing learning, and not all the other things that are performance of learning. So I’ve been thinking a lot about that and a whole bunch of other things. That’s what’s next, something, many things.

John: We had a similar conversation with Kevin Gannon, not too long ago who talked about…

Liz: …performative hardassery…

John: That was the technical term…

Rebecca: [LAUGHING]

John: …but it was…

Liz: Yes

John: …in terms of rigor, who distinguished between cognitive rigor and logistical rigor.

John: Well, thank you. It’s great talking to you and we look forward to more conversations in the future. And when your book gets closer to coming out, we’d be very happy to have you back on to talk about that as well as any other topic that comes up in between now and then.

Liz: Absolutely. I so appreciate the work you guys do, and I’m grateful and honored to be a part of it.

Rebecca: It was great talking to you. Thank you

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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.

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308. Design for Learning

We tend to design courses for ourselves because we are the audience we know best. In this episode Jenae Cohn joins us to explore how user-experience design principles can help us create effective and engaging learning experiences for the students we have right now. Jenae is the Executive Director of the Center for Teaching and Learning at the University of California at Berkeley. She is the author of Skim, Dive, and Surface: Teaching Digital Reading. Her newest book, co-authored with Michael Greer, is Design for Learning: User Experience in Online Teaching and Learning.

Show Notes

  • Cohn, J. (2021). Skim, dive, surface: Teaching digital reading. West Virginia University Press.
  • Cohn, J., & Greer, M. (2023). Design for learning: User Experience in Online Teaching and Learning. Rosenfeld Media
  • Global Society of Online Literacy Educators
  • Horton, S., & Quesenbery, W. (2014). A web for everyone: Designing accessible user experiences. Rosenfeld Media.
  • Web Accessibility Guidelines
  • Copies of Design for Learning may be ordered at the Rosenfeld Media website. The discount code for listeners is TEA20. It’ll be available on Wednesday, 9/27 and will give listeners access to 20% off the book for one month (i.e. 30 days).

Transcript

John: We tend to design courses for ourselves because we are the audience we know best. In this episode we explore how user-experience design principles can help us create effective and engaging learning experiences for the students we have right now.

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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.

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Rebecca: Our guest today is Jenae Cohn. Jenae is the Executive Director of the Center for Teaching and Learning at the University of California at Berkeley. She is the author of Skim, Dive, and Surface: Teaching Digital Reading. Her newest book, co-authored with Michael Greer, is Design for Learning: User Experience in Online Teaching and Learning. Welcome back, Janae.

Jenae: Thank you. I’m so glad to be back.

John: It’s good to see you again.

Jenae: …Good to see you, too.

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

Jenae: I sure am. I’m always prepared to drink tea. Especially when I’m talking to the two of you. But I went for a classic English breakfast tea this morning. Do you both have some tea with you?

Rebecca: Yeah, I have English tea time.

Jenae: We’re matching…

Rebecca: Yeah…

[LAUGHTER]

John: And, I’m not. I have [LAUGHTER] ginger peach black tea today.

Jenae: That sounds really good, though.

John: It is.

Rebecca: Sounds like a good way to start the day, for sure. So we invited you here today to discuss Design for Learning. Can you talk a little bit about how this book project came about?

Jenae: Absolutely. So my colleague Michael and I have a lot of shared interests. Michael and I both are trained in rhetoric and composition. And we both are people really interested in online writing, online reading, and online learning, broadly speaking. We both served on the board for the Global Society of Online Literacy Educators, which is an organization dedicated to supporting folks who teach reading and writing online, broadly speaking. Through that organization, we got to know each other better. And we just realized how much we wanted to talk about what it really meant to create quality online learning experiences. And something that kept cropping up for the two of us. And I should say that both of us have had like a hodgepodge of jobs in and around higher education. We kind of joke that we were both sort of like these misfits in higher ed, people who have kind of done a bit of teaching, a bit of admin. He’s worked in publishing, I did a lot of work in instructional design and just higher education pedagogy. And something we noticed, just in the various roles that we were in was that educators, professors, faculty could learn a lot from user experience frameworks. And we were reading a lot about UX and UI in the work that we were doing around instructional design and for him publishing, and it just dawned on us like, why are we not bridging these conversations between the work of thinking about designing learning interfaces and the work of building really good, high quality learning experiences. I think we notice that in higher ed, there is this tendency to kind of try and reinvent the wheel around defining what a good teaching experience, especially what a good online teaching experience is by just creating really kind of exhausting templates and tons of checklists and rules. And we really thought those are useful, but wouldn’t it be more useful just to remember that students are people navigating devices online? And can’t we use the frameworks that help inform those design decisions to inform the design of learning experiences to make them better? So that was really the genesis of this project. We started off thinking we’d write a bunch of blog posts and then it struck us that blogs and articles were great, but wouldn’t it be even better if we wrote a book [LAUGHTER]. So we put it all together, and it resulted in this book.

John: So who’s the intended audience of this book?

Jenae: We really are targeting a broad audience with this book, I’d say primarily folks who do instructional design style work in mind. So in higher ed, that could be faculty, a lot of faculty play the role of instructional designers, as well as facilitators and teachers, of course. But, we also hope that this book would really reach folks who do dedicated instructional design support. We also hope that this would just reach people who are having to teach online or do trainings or workshops online, and who are still really struggling with it. This book, I would say, was written before the pandemic happened. We were, I would say, drafting and conceptualizing it before the pandemic. And of course, the pandemic shaped the drafting as we went, there’s still COVID-19 out there, so I don’t want to say we’re beyond the pandemic. But in this moment where we’re beyond perhaps like a peak point of the pandemic, let’s just say. There may be folks who are still wanting to be more intentional about what it means to provide more equitable access to online learning experiences, who want to be designing in a more intentional way, and who want to be really thinking critically about how to create more sustainable online learning experiences, as well, that really work. I think we were also on a mission with this book to prove that really, anyone can do this, you just need to keep some known principles in mind that, again, this is not totally new territory, and scholars and user experience and human computer interaction have been thinking for a very long time about how to make information accessible online, and how to make sure that information and interactions are easily navigable. And so that was really the literature we wanted to tap into. So that’s all to say that I think people who benefit from reading this book is really anyone who wants to be creating a better online learning experience for whatever teaching situation they’re in.

Rebecca: I’m, of course, super excited about this book, because I’m a UX designer. I love that you use that framework to write this book. Can you talk a little bit about why you chose this approach?

Jenae: Absolutely. I’m so glad that you appreciate this book exists. We’ve gotten really good reception from the UX community on it as well. I would say that we use this framework because we felt like it really centered the learner in an important kind of way. I think that in a lot of teaching situations, people who educate or design learning are often more thinking about the content: What information do I have to deliver? What are the main things that I need to make sure people know how to do? Those aren’t bad things to focus on, we need to cover content, and we need to make sure that there are clear outcomes. But I think it’s most important to really think about how is someone engaging with that content? How are they understanding it? What are their opportunities to understand that content in a variety of different ways. And I think what a user experience framework allows us to do is to center that reminder. Learners have these embodied experiences that shape how well they’re going to be able to learn, how well they’re going to be able to interface with the information. And if we’re talking about that in an online context, in particular, it’s impossible to do so without addressing what it means to, again, engage with and use these online environments effectively. So I think a UX framework really just allows us to be more centered in reminding ourselves who really benefits from the learning experiences we design, and who really needs to have access to [LAUGHTER] the information to be successful. And I think UX frameworks just really help us center that.

John: Can you talk a little bit about how this approach centers the user in terms of practical ways in which that’s built into the design process?

Jenae: Sure, one way to sort of think about that is to really take a step back and try to remind yourself just who is taking your class in the first place. Starting there, starting from the place of trying to be curious about who your learners really are. I think that it’s easy to make assumptions, I’ll just say in higher education, in particular, since I think that’s primarily the audience for this particular podcast. I think a common misconception, for example, is that all students entering their class are traditional college age, 18 to 21 years old, but like, I should put a big asterisk on that and say, that’s probably not the traditional age at most institutions anymore. But that’s the stereotype of kind of who a college student is. And there may be some assumptions about what their prior learning experiences were like that brought them into a college classroom… about the prior knowledge that they had. And so what I think a user-centered design encourages us to say, “Do we know that? How do we know that? What information do we need to gather to remember who’s actually coming into our rooms?” And I’m not suggesting that any educator has to like, do deep dive demographic data work to find out who their learners are. But I think most of us can kind of anticipate the range of people who are coming into our classes. We might anticipate just the different types of learners that we may encounter. And by that, I mean, it’s worth, I think, before you start designing, just trying to remember, what are the different motivations that students have for coming into the class? What are their purposes for being there? What are the main things that students are going to want to do by being in your class or your training or your workshop at any given moment? So starting by just sort of trying to map out who those people are? And then try to anticipate, okay, given this motivation, or this purpose that this learner may have, what kinds of things might they be looking for… literally looking for my online course? What things will they click on first? Which links are they going to want to access most frequently? Which resources are going to benefit them on the site most? And then trying to design your learning management system course site, or if you’re not using learning management system, your course website, broadly speaking, to really privilege the resources, the links, the activities, the pages that are going to be best aligned with what you anticipate your users or your learners may need. And Rebecca, I’m sure, can speak to this given her expertise, too, but UX design really is a whole process of trying to consider how the visual information, how even like the tactile information, say how your keyboard was set up, how your device is set up, how that allows you to most easily use and engage with products, so to speak, that you’re building. And in this case, we want to think about how can you build the best online course that you can, in a way that allows users to most easily find the information you anticipate they will most frequently need?

Rebecca: So one of the things I’m hearing you say, is really thinking about the wide variety of learners that we have and the different needs that they have and trying to address that. One of the things that’s really popular in UX design and that you talk about in your book are personas. Can you talk a little bit about how learner personas can help us think through the different kinds of learners that we have in our class in a really practical, tangible way. You just kind of provided that theoretical framework, but I love that the personas is such a practical application of that.

Jenae: Yes, thanks for asking that. Rebecca, I was debating whether to dive into that with the last question. But let’s dive into it now. So for those who aren’t familiar, personas are an exercise where you really try to create a character sketch, I would say, of the user you’re imagining is going to engage with your course or in this case, try to imagine an example of a student who’s going to be in your class. And by creating a character sketch, I mean, I encourage instructors, if they have the time to sit down and say, “Okay, what might be the name of someone in my class? What might be their age? What might their prior experiences with learning my topic have been? Why are they here? What brings them to college? Or what brings them to this class in the first place? What are going to be some of their biggest challenges? What are going to be some of their biggest hopes? What are the things that they’re going to be most excited about doing in this class?” And again, it’s a bit of an imaginative exercise. And so I think it’s easier to do with more teaching experience. But it’s also not impossible to do even if you’ve had relatively limited experience. It’s really just an exercise in trying to think through who might be the real people that you are engaging with, I do want to say that there’s been a lot of conversation in the UX community, and again, Rebecca, you may have some thoughts on this, too, about sometimes the stereotypes that personas can perpetuate. For example, I think there have been concerns in the UX community that when you try to characterize, say, an older user, of an online interface, a stereotype might be that they struggle more or are more challenged with using technology than, say, a younger user. And that that might be a challenge to anticipate. And so I want to be mindful, for example, that if you are going to be in the practice of building personas, which we talk about in the book, because I do think is a useful exercise to kind of try and make concrete for yourself who is going to be on the receiving end of your experience, that you do try to check yourself a little bit on reinforcing stereotypes to the best of your ability. It’s easy to do, stereotypes exist because we notice patterns sometimes in how people behave. And that can sort of reproduce some harmful assumptions about who those users are. But again, to the best of your ability, attempt to anticipate what the needs might be based on what you do know about who might be in the room, just again, kind of reminding yourself that you’ll want to think about your personas in nuanced ways, and not necessarily make assumptions about who they are. And I would say one solution to that, how am I supposed to write a generalized description of a persona, while avoiding all possible stereotypes about who they might be? I would say again, time allowing, try to run your personas by other people, and just see what their reactions are to reading them. For example, if you have a trusted colleague, or a friend who teaches a similar class, or who you work with regularly, just show them what you’ve drafted and say, “Does this feels like a real person to you?” And to attempt to ask diverse people about how your persona sketches are landing or how realistic they feel to them. That’s always a good way to kind of gut check, and just make sure that as you’re anticipating your users’ needs, you’re not falling too much into your own biases about who the people are that you’re supporting in your course.

Rebecca: So one of the things, I think, people do sometimes run into when they’re making personas is to create the ideal student that doesn’t exist, and also to recreate themselves. And so one strategy that I often recommend is thinking about creating aggregates of people that you do know. Because then they’re more realistic in terms of the way they might interact. So if you’ve taught a class before, you might have a real pool of people you could draw from [LAUGHTER] and to create a persona from, obviously, that’s more difficult when it’s a new place. And I was also going to offer up in terms of thinking about disability and thinking about accessibility, that there’s a book called A Web for Everyone, and they have a lot of resources. It was published quite a while ago, but they have a lot of resources still online, they have some personas for people with a wide range of different kinds of disabilities. And sometimes that can be really useful in just thinking through kinds of scenarios that you might not think of on your own.

Jenae: That’s fabulous. I would love to see that resource about sort of supporting accessibility, especially. That’s such a huge issue in designing online learning experiences, particularly. I’m so glad you mentioned those resources. That’s fantastic.

John: And while there may be those types of biases that you might have, those who’ve taught classes multiple times do know some of the types of problems that past students have had. So those issues that they’ve experienced in the past could be built in. But one of the other things you suggest is doing a pre-course survey, so that you get some more information about the actual students in the room rather than those who may have been thinking about when you initially designed the course? Could you talk a little bit about that survey?

Jenae: Yes, I’d be happy to talk about the pre-course surveys. So this is a practice that, I think, has multiple benefits. So in a pre-course survey, I think instructors have this wonderful opportunity just to ask students what their motivations are for engaging with the class, what brought them here, how they would characterize some of their prior experiences with learning similar topics, if any, and just to voice what concerns they have, or what things are exciting to them about the term ahead. I’m giving a lot of examples of possible questions and I just want to acknowledge that not all instructors will want to ask all of those questions all at once. But those kinds of questions that really get at motivation and concerns, I would say, in a nutshell, can be really critical, both for adjusting, I think, those persona expectations. So, creating personas should be an iterative process, I should say, as well. It’s not a one and done thing where you anticipate who your learners are prior to the course starting and then you’re like, “Okay, I figured it out, I know who all the students are. Knowing who the real students are, can then allow you to go back to what you anticipated. I think, and both of you, Rebecca and John, were speaking to how you could use prior information from prior terms to inform your kind of current term or current course. Great, you could sort of just align your prior understanding with this current information you might get from these surveys to then go into your course website, or your course learning management system, your syllabus and say, “Okay, is this design going to work for the group of people who are actually here based on what I’m reading?” …recognizing, of course, that nothing’s gonna be perfect for everyone. But you can do the best you can to try and make the materials as good as possible for the group that you have. In front of you. I would say that you want the survey to feel less burdensome for your students to complete. I’m giving a lot of examples of questions that I think are ideal as open-ended questions. Some of these, you could turn into multiple choice or kind of Likert-scale style questions, because you can just use it as an opportunity to take the temperature. “On a scale of one to 10, for example, how confident do you feel in your understanding of your ability to pick up new quantitative concepts?” …for example, if you’re teaching in a STEM-style discipline. Or “On a scale of one to 10, how comfortable do you feel as a writer or with writing tasks?” …if you’re teaching something more humanities- or writing-centric. You can get really creative in trying to solicit some feedback. And I also encourage instructors to be judicious in what they’re asking in these pre-course surveys to kind of try and ask questions, with the end goal of helping you as the instructor make small tweaks to the design of the course. Think about this information as a way to say “Okay, are there certain links I should put on the homepage that I didn’t think needed to be on the homepage? Or should I reorganize the menu on my learning management system in a way that highlights some resources more than others based on the information I’m getting in the survey? Should I reorganize a module to introduce some content before other content, because I’m seeing a trend in the surveys about less confidence in one area of the course than I was expecting in another?” So thinking about how the answers might inform your design, a research-based perspective really, I think, can make your course really even stronger. And I think it’ll feel better, both for you and the students because it helps the students see that you’re curious about them, you want to know who they really are. And we know that engaging personally with people really matters for good teaching. But the instructor too, it can be really frustrating. If you design something and it doesn’t land with your students. You feel like you spent a lot of time building something that didn’t work. That’s a really disheartening experience. So getting the feedback might allow you to avoid [LAUGHTER] having or feeling so disappointed if the information didn’t land the way you were expecting it to. And this isn’t foolproof. There’s always room, again, for iteration. But I do think the surveys can at least help you anticipate a little bit better how the progression through your course could go.

Rebecca: I can imagine that some of those surveys with open-ended questions could lead to better understanding how students name things or label things which could give you a lot of clues about the actual user design of a course by just how you might name or provide quick descriptions of things. In your book, you talk a lot about instructional text design, which obviously has lots of skills in online learning from instructions for assignments to just how we might label a folder [LAUGHTER]. There’s lots of skill there. Can you talk a little bit about the basic principles that you’d recommend for course designers to follow when they’re writing instructional text?

Jenae: Absolutely, and I realized, as you were talking and responding, I was nodding along. And then it struck me. It’s like, “I’m on a podcast, no one’s going to know that I’m nodding and agreeing with you right now.” So [LAUGHTER] for the listeners sake, like I was nodding along quite vigorously with that entire response. Instructional text, I think, is one of the most underrated and one of the most important things to design for any online course experience. I think that online course designers have a real tendency to rely too heavily on video and on images. There’s an assumption that if you’re working online, everyone’s just using video all the time, or everyone’s just wanting to engage with the flashiest multimedia possible. That is still important. I mean, we have two chapters in the book, all dedicated to video. So I don’t want to undermine that. It is important to engage with multimodal artifacts and building multimodal interventions, when you’re teaching in a multimodal environment like the internet. However, for students who may have low internet access and low bandwidth, for students with disabilities, text remains one of the most accessible and easiest ways to find information in an online course. I’d also say text is one of the most mobile-friendly pieces to think about. And we know that increasing number of students are accessing their courses or coursework through their smartphones. I’ll answer your question directly now, but I wanted to provide that context. I would say when it comes to designing instructional text, I really encourage instructors to think about two big things, to think about the hierarchy of the information that they’re writing, and to think about the discrete chunks of information that they’re wanting to communicate. So when I talk about the hierarchy of texts, I think it’s important when we’re writing to consider what are the sections of our text? Most academics, most instructors, are used to, when they’re reading or writing, creating headers, and sub-headers, and paragraphs that denote a certain order of information. And when you’re teaching online, especially, I think even more critically about how are you labeling the text? How are you indicating which things are instructions versus content? How are you labeling the order of the content that you want students to read in? How are you even labeling the order of instructions, like there is usually multi-tiered sets of steps. So using header text and different layers of header text, is a really important web accessibility measure. And again, it helps readers see visually and if they’re using a screen reader tool, it helps them navigate that text more easily. So I should take one step back and say when I’m referring to header text, I mean that when you’re working in a rich text editor, on any website, you can typically see an option to select different layers of headers, like the header ones are usually the highest, biggest level header, header twos go below that header, threes go below that. So just being mindful that just increasing text size is not the same thing as using headers is one really, really simple way to create hierarchy. And again, to denote the correct order of reading the text information. And when I say chunking text, this is as simple as just thinking about paragraphing, making sure that you are spacing out pieces of content in really critical ways. So anyone who’s read a piece of writing with super long paragraph knows, that’s a lot harder to kind of discern, it’s a lot harder to see how one idea moves from one to the next. Shorter paragraphs are typically easier to get a sense of when you’re moving from one idea to a new idea. And so even though long paragraphs have their purpose, perhaps especially in scholarly writing, or even in more, I would say kind of creative writing, in some cases, when you’re doing really instructional or technical work, which you’re often doing when you’re designing a class, shorter is better, more chunked is easier to access, because you’re assuming that people are doing things with your information. So those are the two qualities I would just be thinking about with instructional text. There’s a whole other component that we didn’t really address in the book, but I’ll just stick to very briefly here, which is also thinking about just the visual appearance of your text. A lot of accessibility folks speak to some best practices and guidelines around font face, and font size, and some of these factors when you’re designing text as well. I’m not an expert, I should say, in like type of graphic design or font size, but I want to point out anyway, because I think if you are designing online, it’s important again to do the best that you can to try and anticipate those needs. So I think as a general rule, making sure your font sizes are not super teeny tiny, or super large. Making sure that you’re using standard font faces: Arial, Helvetica any sort of sans serif font is typically considered a best practice. The rules around this change all the time, Web Accessibility Guidelines change as technology evolves, so I never like to give super hard and fast rules, and again, it’s not my area of expertise. But it’s another piece to keep in mind that visual and verbal information is intertwined. Text is a visual medium, online learning experiences are largely a visual medium, by default. And so the more mindful we can be of what that looks like, and the more mindful we can be of how the visual experiences we design online, are compatible with accommodations for disabled users. We just anticipate our users’ needs, our learners’ needs more proactively, and it raises the boats for everyone. It just gives everybody a deeper chance to succeed if we’re just thinking about these interface choices in more deliberate ways.

Rebecca: I love that you’re really talking about how the instructional text is also part of digital accessibility. It’s important to have plain language, it’s important to chunk your content and these sorts of things. So I’m really excited that you’re incorporating that into the work that you’re doing.

Jenae: Thank you. It is exciting. I think it’s one of these things that, when Michael and I were first discussing this book, it was a real lightbulb moment for us that there was such a robust literature out there that discussed all these great principles for making sure that online information was easy to find. And it just was striking to us that a lot of folks in teaching professions weren’t getting access to that information or exposure to that information. And we started thinking about this, again, prior to the pandemic, kind of in the mid 2010s. And even at that point, online courses were growing, mobile access was becoming a more common way that students were engaging with courses. So, why not tap into these existing sets of conversations that are industry best practices, for engaging with online interfaces, in spaces like higher ed, and in spaces just like learning and development, where these dialogues seem not to have met each other as fully as they could.

Rebecca: Our chief technology officer and I were having a conversation about some of these things yesterday as we’re talking about our student body is diversifying and that we have far more students with disabilities who are able to attend college and have access to college in a way that maybe they haven’t in the past. And as you were talking about headings and paragraphs and things, something that people might not know, is that if you use a screen reader, you’re not necessarily visually interacting with the text. Instead, you’re thinking programmatically, and so just like kind of vision centered [LAUGHTER], the user might skim headings visually, it’s the same way someone might use a screen reader. So by choosing a heading level two, it allows someone to find that section easier. And by breaking things into paragraphs, and delineating that’s that kind of content that allows a screen reader user to be able to jump to a particular part of the content. When we don’t do that, a screen reader user has to listen to everything from the top to the bottom of the page.

Jenae: Great example. Yes, and that’s such a frustrating experience to have to do that. If we can be just a little bit more attentive to the information architecture of sort of what we’re trying to communicate and convey… information architecture is a technical term, but it’s also a metaphor [LAUGHTER]… we have architecture and we have design to help create solid foundations for places that we live. Similarly, when it comes to information, we need to be building solid infrastructure to help people navigate their way through a course. One of my colleagues a while ago used a metaphor for online learning design I’ve never forgotten and we’ve alluded this a bit in the book, which is that when you’re building something online, it’s like you’re just building a whole house [LAUGHTER]. When you walk into an in-person classroom, the architecture is literally there, and you make assumptions about the room in the space, the second that you walk in the door. When you’re designing text online, or just when you’re thinking about the whole online learning experience, it’s a total blank canvas, you have to build that architecture and those hierarchies. If you’re not attentive, you’re absolutely right, the consequence is that it can be a big overwhelming mess of information. And I think it’s a useful practice for instructors, even when they’re not teaching online, to think about these things. It’s also just a great exercise and getting really very focused on what information do you want to prioritize when you’re communicating assignment instructions or when you’re picking out content-based readings for your students? What do you want them to focus on? What are the big things you really need them to learn or pay attention to? And so if your course design, your visual design can align with the hierarchy of choices you’re making as an instructor or the priorities that you’re setting, it just makes it easier for everyone to have equal access that information so that more time can be spent for students to focus individually on how they’re processing, applying, doing higher-order thinking with that information. They don’t have to spend so much energy just trying to intake the kind of basics before they have the opportunity to really work with it and apply it meaningfully,

John: You provide a lot of other information in your book, and we encourage people to read your book. If they want to find out more about creating videos, about providing effective webinars, and so forth, there’s some really nice hints and suggestions throughout. But one of the things you end with in there, is ways in which instructors can continuously improve their courses, in terms of soliciting feedback to make the course better each time. Could you talk a little bit about how you would encourage instructors to continuously work on developing their courses?

Jenae: Sure. So I really like that section of the book, because what I hope that section communicates is that thinking about your course design is a reflective and an iterative process. I don’t think a course is ever really fully perfect and done, there’s always things you can do, and modify each time you teach or offer the experience. So, I don’t think getting feedback on the course has to be hard, I don’t think it has to take a ton of time. We talk about multiple ways of getting information about how the course is working. And I’m going to start with I think some of like the easiest and most passive ways to get information and then we’ll sort of work our way to some of the more perhaps active or personalized interventions for getting information about the course. So one thing I think is worth really paying attention to, after you finish teaching a course, are some of the analytics that are available in your learning management system or your course website. And I recognize that some folks are really reluctant to look at the analytics, because there is a surveillance economy implicated in the tracking of course analytics. Every site on the web tracks your movements, every site in the web knows how long you’ve stayed on a certain page, what things you’ve clicked on. And a learning management system is no exception to that. Unfortunately, that information can get weaponized to discriminate against students, discriminate against users in problematic ways. In the web, outside of learning, for example, analytics can be gathered and sold to advertising companies to spread information about your activities for profit. So I just want to note that context, but you can also use this information for good and for some useful things as well. So seeing which resources students are clicking on the most in your class can be really useful information for you to say, “Huh, seems like a lot of people found that resource useful.” You don’t have to necessarily identify which individual students looked at which resources but you can look at this data, typically in aggregate, and again, most learning management systems have an analytics dashboard, you can access to look at this. I think that’s incredibly useful just to see what was clicked most often and what wasn’t. You might also want to track, for example, which pieces of information students did spend more time on. It could indicate a couple different things, it might indicate that something was really challenging, if students spend a lot of time on one particular piece of content over another or if they found it useful. You’d have to contextualize that data based on what you were seeing in the course. But I think if you’re willing to look at that information, again, in the context of how your term went, it might just give you some passive information that could surprise you. I would even look at, for example, with assignment submissions, how many delays were there on certain assignments versus others? In which assignments did students request more extensions more than others? Again, this is just information that might help you inform whether the pacing was appropriate for the course, whether assignments were sequenced appropriately. That kind of thing. If you want to get more active, if you gave a pre-course survey, you can do a post-course survey. Most institutions, of course, have formal evaluations of teaching, but we know that institutional student evaluations of teaching can be fraught. Sometimes they ask the kinds of questions we don’t always want to ask or find most useful as instructors. So if you do your own very brief post evaluation, you could focus it on the design of the course itself. I think it’s worth asking students at the end of the course, how easy was the course site to navigate? How accessible did the materials feel for your ability to learn? You could return to some questions from your pre-course survey. If you asked a Likert scale about rating your confidence with learning something on a scale of one to 10 at the start of the course, you could ask them by the end, “How does your ranking change?” Even referring back to the original data that they might have submitted to you with the pre-course survey. So those are another way to ask them. I think if it’s possible to, what I love to at the end of the course is even a little brief post interview with students if possible. We mentioned this a bit in the book. Again, it’s time consuming. But if you have a small-ish class where you could have conferences at the end of the term, and have a moment with just a five-minute conversation to ask students: “How did it go? What aspects of the course design did you like most? Which were most challenging to you?” That’s another way to get information. Finally, I’ll just do one more technique we write about in the book, which is never discount your own reflection on your experience as well. This is another form of user research. Even though you are not the end user for the course, you are the designer, and so I think it’s always useful just to jot down a few notes and treat that as research when you’re done, too. What did you notice about user interactions on your course site throughout the term? What things surprised you? What things went exactly as you expected? You can use those notes to iterate and improve your experience for the next time that you offer it. So those are just a few techniques and many, which again, are drawn from the field of user experience research surveys, and interviews, for example, are pretty common user experience research practices… other UX research practices that, again, just depending on your time, depending on your resources, it’s great if you can see students engaging in the course as well, asking them, just really seeing what it looks like for them to interact in the course. That’s a good way to get at good information about it. I just want to encourage anyone who’s teaching not to shy away from getting that kind of feedback, because it does make, I think, teaching more satisfying when you’re getting more information about what’s working and what isn’t.

Rebecca: So, you know this question’s coming…[LAUGHTER] We always wrap up by asking: “What’s next?”

Jenae: Yes, I do know it’s coming, and it’s funny, because I was thinking about it. What am I [LAUGHTER] doing next? So to be honest, I don’t have a clearly defined project, I’m doing a lot of little things, I might be taking a little break, because I have written two books in about two and a half years [LAUGHTER]. So that’s been a lot… wonderful. I think I’ve been bitten by the writing bug, for sure. And so I suspect there’s more writing in my future, but nothing immediately next. I’m still very curious about what it’s going to mean to keep designing really good online learning experiences in the future, I don’t think we’re done with that conversation. I’m really curious about how that’s going to evolve in the context of creating more inclusive and equitable learning environments for students. So I imagine those are topics I will continue to explore to some extent, but we will see how, of course, with AI too, and the impacts of that on online learning, I’m sure there’s gonna be a whole set of ways to think about these topics that will continue to evolve. So I’m kind of keeping my eyes open and my ear to the ground on how things are developing. And we’ll just kind of see what ideas emerge from there.

Rebecca: Well, it’s always a pleasure to talk to you, Jenae. Thanks for all the work that you do.

Jenae: Likewise, thank you, again, for having me and for engaging with these excellent questions. And if you listened to this podcast, we’ll put in the speaker notes, I’ll give you a little gift of a promo code. If you’d like to buy the book, we can give you a 20% off discount with thanks to Rosenfeld Press who published this book.

John: Well thank you. We’ll be sure to include that in the show notes and it’s always great talking to you.

Jenae: Wonderful, and likewise, thank you again.

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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.

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303. Higher Ed Then and Now

Teaching practices have gradually evolved as we’ve learned more about how humans learn. From one year to the next, these changes may appear small, but the cumulative effect is profound. In this episode, Todd Zakrajsek joins us to reflect back on the changes that have occurred in higher ed during our careers.

Todd is an Associate Research Professor and Associate Director of a Faculty Development Fellowship at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He is also the director of four Lilly conferences on evidence-based teaching and learning. Todd is the author of many superb books, and has published four books in the past four years. His most recent book is a fifth edition of Teaching at it’s Best, a book he co-authored with Linda Nilson.

Show Notes

  • Zakrajsek, T. and Nilson, L. B. (2023). Teaching at its best: A research-based resource for college instructors. 5th edition. Jossey-Bass.
  • Zakrajsek, T. D. (2022). The new science of learning: how to learn in harmony with your brain. Routledge.
  • Harrington, C., Bowen, J. A., & Zakrajsek, T. D. (2017). Dynamic lecturing: Research-based strategies to enhance lecture effectiveness. Routledge.
  • EdPuzzle
  • PlayPosit
  • ChatGPT
  • Wayback Machine

Transcript

John: Teaching practices have gradually evolved as we’ve learned more about how humans learn. From one year to the next, these changes may appear small, but the cumulative effect is profound. In this episode, we reflect back on the changes that have occurred in higher ed during our careers.

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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.

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John: Our guest today is Todd Zakrajsek, and I am with Todd here in Durham, North Carolina. Todd is an Associate Research Professor and Associate Director of a Faculty Development Fellowship at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He is also the director of four Lilly conferences on evidence-based teaching and learning. Todd is the author of many superb books, and has published four books in the past four years. His most recent book is a fifth edition of Teaching at it’s Best, a book he co-authored with Linda Nilson. Welcome back, Todd.

Todd: Well, thank you, John. Well, this is exciting. And Rebecca may be a long ways away, but I have never been arm’s length from a person who interviewed me for a podcast before.

Rebecca: Isn’t that cool?

John: And we’ve really done that before either at a conference or at Oswego,

Todd: I feel very special.

Rebecca: Well, we can celebrate with our teas. So, today’s teas are:… [LAUGHTER]

Todd: I’m drinking a peach mango that I got from some teas that John brought, which are fantastic.

Rebecca: John, how about you?

John: I am drinking a Tea Forte black currant tea, which I brought from Oswego, in a new mug that was given to me by Claire McNally, when she visited this area last week.

Todd: Love Claire, she’s fantastic.

John: And it has kangaroos on it.

Todd: Yeah.

Rebecca: And I can’t see it. Let me see it, John. Oh, that’s a cool mug.

Todd: It’s a good mug. I got a mug from her university. But I didn’t realize I should have brought it. So I feel bad about that. But it is a podcast. So I didn’t think about what it would look like.

John: That’s true, we generally don’t do a lot of visuals on here.

Rebecca: And I have a blue sapphire tea in my Tea Rex mug.

Todd: Well, that’s a nice mug,

John: We’ve invited you back to talk a little bit about how some of the changes you’ve observed in college teaching across your career have impacted how you teach today. When did your work in higher ed begin?

Todd: Actually, it started when I was a graduate student. So back in 1987. So there’s no reason to try to figure out how old I am. Now I’ve basically specifically dated myself here. I started teaching, I got to teach an introduction to statistics course. And I had so much fun that I taught again the following year. And by the time I left my graduate program, I had taught more courses in that program than any other graduate student had ever taught in the psychology department there. I really loved teaching right from the beginning, when from the beginning, very concerned about student learning, and just getting rolling.

Rebecca: What was it about the teaching, Todd, that really got you hooked?

Todd: Just watching the studentsis. it’s the same thing as it is today, when you have an individual who’s struggling with something, and suddenly they get it and you realize that they may eventually get it on their own, but you realize how much you’ve helped them to move that along very quickly. And facilitating the learning process, I just really love that. That doesn’t mean I was fantastic at it. But I really did love it.

Rebecca: Sometimes the things we love the most are things that we’re not great at to start with.

Todd: That’s true.

John: My experience was similar, actually, I started in 1980, with a course where I had a fellowship, so I didn’t have to teach. But there was a sudden shortage in the department. And they asked me to fill in. And I was planning to go on into research. But it was just so much fun teaching that I’ve never stopped.

Rebecca: I taught as a graduate student too, and taught the whole time I was there. But I started a little bit later in 2003.

Todd: Alright, so that was a couple of years later.

Rebecca: Just a couple.

Todd: Yeah, I had kind of a funny start, I will mention that when I first started that after the first semester of teaching, my students got almost all As and Bs. And the department chair called me in and he said, “I’m not going to have you teach any more courses.” And I said, “why not?” And he says, “Well, you give grades away like candy, we have to have better standards than that.” And I said, “Well, how are you basing that?” And he says, “Well, you know, we looked at the grade point averages.” And I said, “Well, how about if I bring in my final exam, and just walk through it, and then you can tell me how it could change to be more rigorous.” And so it was great. I showed it to him at the beginning. And like the bottom of the first page, the students had to calculate a statistical value, then I had them explain how they came about that number. But if they had used a different test how might it been inappropriately found and what the interpretation might have been, based on the fact that they had done it wrong with a different test. I thought it was important for them to understand how these things can change. The Chair said, “I can’t believe you have your students in the first class actually talk about various tests like that.” And I said, “Yeah, I did. Then we turned the page he says “You did nonparametric tests?” I said, “Well, yeah, we did parametric tests, but then I thought they should know the equivalent.” And he said, “We never do that.” And then he turned the last page and he said “You had them do a two-way ANOVA? You’re only supposed to go through one-way ANOVA.” I said, “Yeah, but we’d finished everything and we still had a week left. And I figured I might as well introduce the next concept to them. And so I showed them how to do a two-way ANOVA and they ended up with all As and Bs. So if you could help me in how to push their grades down and give them lower grades, I’m perfectly happy to do that.” And he then set me up with two courses the next semester, but it’s that reliance on the teaching evaluations is always funny.

Rebecca: Todd, it’s just funny, as we’ve gotten to know you through the podcast [LAUGHTER] it sounds so perfect that that was your first experience. [LAUGHTER]

Todd: Yeah, I’ve lived my entire career on the edge. [LAUGHTER]

John: And those sorts of arguments are still occurring in a lot of classes today about rigor and the need to keep grades lower.

Todd: Yeah.

John: They’re less severe than they were a few years ago.

Todd: Yes, but also looking at how well a person’s teaching based on student evaluations. I mean, we should be looking at authentic assessment. Some things have changed through the years, some things have not changed through the years.

Rebecca: Well, technology is one of those things that has changed.

Todd: Woosh, yeah.

Rebecca: Can you talk a little bit about what tech was like in the classroom when you first started and how it’s evolved a bit?

Todd: Yeah, I know you have some listeners who have been teaching for a very long time. So those of you have been teaching for like 30 to 40 years, just stop and think back about what it was like when we first started. For those of you who have been teaching like Rebecca since 2003, let’s just mention that technology back then was mostly pens and chalk and chalkboards. So back then, of course, there’s technology, there’s always technology, but we were using overhead projectors. This was long before the internet came along to really be used in the classes. LCD projectors were not out yet. Canvas, Blackboard, Sakai, all those learning management systems were not around. We didn’t have any of the ways to email individuals, you couldn’t email your students back then. And there was no ChatGPT to write your papers for you.

Rebecca: But there were calculators that could do all the work for you.

Todd: Yes, but this is the cool part. Back when I started teaching statistics, I’m glad you mentioned the calculators, huge debate back then was whether or not the students should calculate the statistical values by hand using the calculator, because computers had just come onto the scene and we could punch the data into a computer and have a computer run an ANOVA for you. Should you calculate it by hand? Should you run it to the computer? And there was a huge camp that said you should do it by hand or you will never understand a statistical value. And I said, “You know, we’ve got the technology there. Why don’t we have the students use the computer to do the mundane stuff, and we’ll have more time to talk about the theoretical and the important implications.” But even back then we were having the discussions about whether to use the technology at hand or not. Oh, and by the way, we are also hanging grades on doors. So we would figure out the grades, we’d tack it to the door, and then the students who want to know what their grades were for the class would swing by and look at the door.

John: And they were sorted alphabetically, to make it easier for people to find where they were in the grade list.

Todd: Yeah, it was great. We listed them according to their social security number, [LAUGHTER] which was a little different back then. And yeah, we actually did that back then. But as John pointed out, they were listed by number so nobody knew whose number went with whom, except, surprisingly, they were alphabetical on the door. So not only could you figure out Armstrong’s exam score, you’d get Armstrong’s social security number as well. Yeah, times have changed.

John: And it was also back in the day of dittos and mineos as well, which was the only way of disseminating information on paper.

Todd: This is so much fun. We’ll get to some real meat of this thing. But that walk down memory lane has some fun stuff too. The dittos…

Rebecca: I remember dittos, just for the record, okay.

Todd: Yes. So you probably remember, if you dittoed just before class, and you handed it out in class, the students would all pull the ditto up to their face, so they could smell the ditto fluid. And they got that smell. I was running dittos one time in the graduate student office, and I noticed when I looked down because it ran out of fluid, and I had to put some more fluid in, and I looked down and I noticed that the floor was kind of eaten away by this ditto fluid. And then… this is the best part… About a month later, I was digging for something in the closet and I found extra tiles and I thought they should put these tiles down to replace the ones that are all eaten and on the side of the box it said these tiles were long lasting and durable, reinforced with asbestos. So that ditto fluid was eating through asbestos tiles. That’s some strong stuff.

John: …to make it a little bit more friable so that it would disseminate in the air nicely.

Todd: Well, there had to be something to help the faculty members who were running all their own dittos to not mind doing it, and one way of doing this is to have them use ditto fluid, because I’ll tell you, you may not have liked it when you started, but by the end, it was all right. [LAUGHTER]

Rebecca: It’s funny that we’re taking this walk down memory lane, because on our campus, I was in our historic lecture classroom today in Sheldon Hall.

John: What are some of the other changes that have occurred and how have they influenced how we teach?

Todd: Yeah, so it’s interesting, I did the walk down memory lane and we were chatting about this stuff. It’s all fun, but thinking about how the changes have taken place. I think that’s really important. So there have been massive changes. I think that we tend to forget, it’s so easy to communicate with students now. Heck, people are texting now so that you can text back and forth with students. But think about how that has transcended or gone through time. There was a time when I would have to call and leave a message for a student on an answering machine, and then they would call back and we would try to find a time that we could talk on the phone. If we wanted to have a conversation. I could either leave a note for the student or I could call and leave a message that says least come see me after class. So even having a conversation with a student was difficult, then it became easier with email because you could start emailing back and forth. And now we have Zoom. And the equity in the way that this has changed, just think about the difference of this, if I’m leaving a message for a student, they may not even have an answering machine, if they’re living off campus with limited means back then. So even getting in touch with a student would be challenging. Now I can have a Zoom conversation with a student who doesn’t have to hire a babysitter, who doesn’t have to find reliable transportation, who doesn’t have to drive across town and burn gas, and to do all of those things that it would take to have a 15-minute conversation that in the past would have been really hard, and even four or five years ago would have been challenging. The grades, why in the world would a person have to leave… and I was teaching in very northern Michigan, there were days that the wind chill was 75 degrees below zero… and students would leave their dorm rooms and walk across campus to see a grade on the door. It’s actually physically dangerous. And now we have learning management systems, we could post things for students. Interlibrary loan used to take weeks to get a document that you can now go on and get. People can lament all of these technological changes at times, but we’re actually creating more and more equity within the higher education system as we make certain things easier. Not saying that we’re anywhere near an equitable system yet, but we’re moving in a really good direction. And a lot of those changes are helping us to get there.

Rebecca: I’m thinking about all the times when I get to go to the door or meet after class, it really assumes that students are a certain kind of student, they’re full time, they have time. And our students now are working [LAUGHTER], and where they’re juggling a lot of different schedules and things.

Todd: Yeah, and I mean, we want to be careful too. And I agree with you 100%. But they were juggling back then too. But some of the things we were doing, for instance, I taught a night class. Now I would probably suggest if I was going to teach a class from 7 to 10pm that I would teach it through zoom, because there’s a lot of reasons that it’s good to do. But I had students that I noticed in class, would very quickly at the end of class would start talking to other students and I couldn’t figure out what it was doing because a lot of buzzing and stuff. And what I found was that there were certain students who were uncomfortable, and we were in a very safe campus, but they were uncomfortable walking to their car at 10 o’clock at night. So I started saying to the students, “Hey, I’m gonna park a car… and when we showed up, there were quite a few cars there… but I’ll be under the second light, I drive a little red Chevette, not a Corvette, a Chevette, but I’ll have my car there. If you want to park near me, we can walk out together.” And there were students that were not paying attention to almost any of the class because they were fearful of how they were going to get to their car safely. When you think about Zoom and stuff, it’s even safety factors, I would never have a review session now like I used to at 8 to 9 pm the night before the exam because I’m exposing people to potentially dangerous situations. Now we’d have zoom sessions. But I could tell you 40 years ago, there was no even concept of what zoom would be and how it would work. Even Star Trek didn’t have stuff like that.

John: And there was also, besides the inequity associated with people who were working, many campuses had a lot of commuting students who could not easily get back to campus for office hours. Or if they were just taking classes on Monday, Wednesday, Friday and your office hours was on a Tuesday, they’d have to come in that extra day, arranging childcare, or their work to be able to fit that into the schedule.

Todd: Yeah, it really did start to change that system. So we got a little bit more equity, and like you were saying too, the commuting students, the part-time students, the students taking distance courses. When I first started teaching, I was writing… oh my word, remember the correspondence courses? …and you mail away and get a packet of material, you take a test at a local library and, and they talk about distance education being not as good as on campus, but at least better than nothing. And now we’re finally getting to a system where we can stop assuming that those folks who are coming in for part-time courses and stuff are just getting something better than nothing. They’re actually getting something similar to full college courses, which some of those online courses are actually as good or better than college courses that are on campus. But all that’s changing with the technology. It’s crazy.

John: And there’s a lot of research that supports that in terms of the relative learning gains with online and face-to-face, as well as hybrid courses, which seemed to outperform others in a few meta studies that have been done. But those were options that just weren’t available back then. And the early online courses were often designed to be replicas of face-to-face classes, and they probably didn’t work quite as well. But we’ve learned since that, which brings us to the issue of research. During the time that you’ve been teaching, there’s been a lot of research on teaching and learning. While some of it was taking place, it wasn’t very widely disseminated to faculty.

Todd: Yeah, that is true, too. It’s so much easier to get technology out. It’s easier to gather data, it’s easier to write it up. It’s easier to edit it so all of those types of things that are happening now that couldn’t happen before. And as a result, we’re learning a lot more about how people learn, you know, the book I did on the New Science of Learning, looking at a lot of the ways that students learn. And part of it’s just the ease of getting to information. But also part of it’s just being able to investigate how people process information. I used to teach Introductory Psychology back then, we would talk about the stages of sleep. And nobody really knew, for instance, what REM sleep was about, we knew that you had to have it or else it caused some problems. Deep sleep we knew was important, we now have indications that deep sleep for consolidation is necessary for semantic memory. If your sleep is interrupted, you can get eight hours of sleep. But if you don’t get deep sleep, the information doesn’t get consolidated. Procedural memory, how to give shots and kick balls and do anything procedurally looks like it’s more solidified during REM sleep. So again, the different types of sleep are associated with us learning long term, different types of information. We never knew that before all this technology was running around. In fact, back then I gotta say, I remember from my intro psych class being told that you were born with a certain number of neurons, and as you live through life, neurons would die. And if you killed them by drinking or doing something like drugs or something, they were gone forever, and you would never get more. And if you broke a connection, it was broken forever. That’s just simply not true. But it’s what we thought back then. So technology has really allowed us to look better at how people learn, different ways of helping them to learn and different ways they can even study. By the way, before we move on, we now have this physiological demonstration that staying up all night and cramming the night before the test. Even though it gets you slightly higher grades on the test, we now know that because the information is not consolidated that it won’t be there a week later or two weeks later. So we’ve always told students, you shouldn’t do it, but now we can actually show them why it doesn’t work.

John: And the LMS itself has offered a lot of ways of giving more rapid feedback to students with some automated grading with some things to give them more low-stakes testing opportunities. And those were things that we just couldn’t easily do back when you started teaching.

Todd: No, John, that’s a really good one. And we know that one of the most consistent findings right now in all of learning and memory stuff is that the more often you do something, the easier it becomes, long-term potentiation. Which means the more frequently you retrieve information from your long-term memory, the easier it is to retrieve. And just like you’d mentioned, we can now do LMS systems that are set up so that you could do practice quizzes, you could do dozens or hundreds of practice quizzes and keep pulling that information out over and over and over again. That was just not possible before this. And so the LMS helps with that, it helps by giving feedback, really good feedback so that students know what they’re doing well, and what they’re not doing well. And it helps faculty members to design feedback specifically for certain types of projects, and so that I can more easily give more feedback without spending a lot more time on it. So LMSs have done a tremendous amount of work. And that’s not even mentioning the fact that you can have all of the LMS systems loaded with the content. So students can log in and get their information without leaving their house. If there’s fiscal challenges with your class, you can put in articles, the students may not have to buy a book, they could read the articles. And so we’ve got students who were able to come to classes because they can afford to be there. By the way, I remember being on a committee when I was a graduate student, and we were looking at financial aid and different financial systems. And I remembered asking the Chief Financial Officer, I said, “What increase in tuition does there need to be before you start to see students drop off because they can’t afford to be here?” And this was about 40 years ago, but he said $100 for a year, if they have to pay $100 this year more than last year, some students won’t come back. If we look at the price of textbooks now, textbooks can cost $400. So, a book like that is definitely going to make a difference between some students being able to take the class or not. So LMS systems make this possible.

John: And they also make it easier to share OER resources that don’t have any cost for students, or some less expensive adaptive learning platforms, giving all students that first-day access. I remember, not so long ago, when I was still using textbooks in some classes, students would wait several weeks before they got that book. And that put them at a severe disadvantage. And the people who were being put at a disadvantage. were generally the students who came in with the weakest backgrounds because they came from lower resourced school districts.

Todd: Yeah, if they had the resources, they would have the better background foundational material, but they’d be able to buy the books. And you mentioned OERs. So open educational resources are really another thing that are really valuable because back then, before the technology, you couldn’t produce something that would be readily available like throughout the world. And so this project that’s going on now where they’re doing introductory level books in all the different disciplines, you can get an OER introductory psychology textbook that students can log in and read. None of that was possible before the technology. So even the creation of OERs has changed so much.

Rebecca: Well, speaking of digital materials, libraries have changed significantly too over time from having completely physical collections and interlibrary loans and things that take a lot of time to having a lot of digital resources, which changes access to research and materials that you can populate into your classes, but also can aid students in the work that they’re doing. Can you talk a little bit about the change in libraries and how that’s impacted how you’ve taught?

Todd: Yeah, you know, libraries have been fascinating to watch over the last 40 years, because it used to be the biggest challenge librarians had before them was which books to put on the shelves because there was a finite amount of shelf space. And there were lots and lots of books. And so that was the big thing. We used to take out journals that weren’t used very much to make room for other journals. Through time, little by little, they started digitizing all that stuff. And I can remember chatting with librarians, one conversation I had was back around 2001. I said, gonna be interesting, because there’s gonna come a day where there’ll be no books in the library, and the Dean of Libraries said “Well, there’s always going to be books.” I said, “Not always, potentially.” But even if we reduce them, I said, “What is your foresight? How is the library going to change?” And so he had a couple of ideas. But what it basically boiled down to our conversation is, I always felt like a library was like the brain of the campus, it had the books, and it had all of the information that you could go and get. As the books left, and things were diversified in a way that you could find this stuff, you could get all the information right from your dorm room, or from your apartment, when the internet came along, you could get anything you needed, then the library was still a physical space that was in the middle of campus. And what it should become is a learning commons, a place where people go to share and to learn from one another. And I think that’s what’s really changed is individuals still just pile into libraries and use the space, but they use it in different ways. They go there to meet other individuals to work, which they did before. But they took away that aspect of going there for the book part. And it meant all of those shelves got emptied, and they started pushing them out. And you can go into libraries right now that have very few shelves. But they have webcams, they have smartboards, they have spaces where folks can plug in their computers and share with one another. They’ve got screens set up so that you can project and have students sitting around a table, they’ve got Google Glass set up, all of these types of things that bring students together to use technology to learn from one another.

John: And they have cafes to help support that to make it easier for people to gather.

Todd: Yeah, you could swing by and get a cup of tea.

Rebecca: It’s funny, even when I was in high school, my sister and I would rely on going to the library to have access to a computer so that we could even type of paper, because we didn’t have one at home. And that kind of place of having the technology started a long time ago, but it’s amped up quite a bit over the last 20 years.

Todd: Yeah, and I agree completely. And the computers that are there. I mean, even right now, with the books dissipating, there a’re still large numbers of computers. And oftentimes, they’ll even be an area in a library that’s carved out with really high-end computers. But it gives students an opportunity to go. We make this assumption that everybody has a computer and they don’t. But libraries give them that opportunity.

John: Yeah, for those students working on smartphones or Chromebooks, that gives them access to all the tools that students with $2000 or $3000 or $4,000 computers.

Todd: Yes, because smartphones can work for lots of things. But they’re a little tough to write a paper on

John: When I started teaching, and probably when you did too, the predominant mode of instruction, which actually still is often the predominant mode of instruction in many departments, was lecture. That’s changed quite a bit since then. Could you talk a little bit about the shift from lecture-based courses to courses that involve much more active learning activity?

Todd: Yeah, or they just involve a lot more of everything. The concept of flipped classrooms, which was almost impossible 30, 40 years ago, because you really couldn’t get the information to the students. Yes, it was kind of possible, but whoo, if it was hard now, it was really hard back then. But the ability to get information out to students that they can read it before they come to class. But coming back to the lectures… So I’m going to take this moment and those of you who know me know that I’m going to do this, is that we still have no evidence that lectures are bad, but there’s something that we need to really keep in mind. I think this is vital. I do think it’s important for us to be able to talk about buzz groups and jigsaws and fish bowls and lectures and Socratic lectures, discussion lectures, all those different methodologies out there so that we know what we’re talking about when we chat with one another. But I do think it’s time that we stop talking about lectures being more effective than one thing or fishbowls being more effective than something else and look at the components of what is valuable in a learning experience.

John: And a good reference for that is a book on Dynamic Lecturing, which you happen to be a co-author of.

Todd: That is true and in fact that there’s the Dynamic Lecturing. And then there’s a chunk in that about The New Science of Learning. And then there’s a whole chapter in that about Teaching at its Best, because that’s a good point, John, thank you.

Rebecca: It’s almost like you’re trying to slip it in everywhere you are.

Todd: Because the research… people keep talking about one methodology being better than another. Here it is, folks, you can be a hideous lecturer, you can be a phenomenal lecturer. And if you’re a hideous lecturer, you’re not going to learn anything. If you’re a phenomenal lecturer, students will learn from you but they won’t learn all the time, it depends on some student factors. I’ve actually been exposed to group work in flipped classrooms that were awful. And so that concept is we start thinking about and this is why it’s going to come back to the technology, we think about the elements that need to be there, that are necessary for learning to take place. I’m just going to do this, because it’s not the topic I’ll make it very brief, is let’s just go with three things. If you don’t have your attention, as a teacher, if my learners aren’t attending to what I’m saying, if they’re on their phone or thinking about bacon, then they can’t process what I’m presenting. And if you’re having a think-pair-share, if they’re not attending to the person they’re sitting next to, you have to have attention. Number two, they have to have some value. If I’m hearing somebody or I’m reading something, and this has no value to me, it’s really hard to get it into your long-term memory and to learn it. And number three, I have to have a clue of what’s happening, I got to understand some aspects. Now if we think about attention, value, and understanding, now we can flip back to the technology. This is why gaming works. Gaming draws the attention, it increases the value, because you want to win the game, and it has understanding. We have all played games. You open up the old board games, and now it’s digital, where you don’t have a clue what the game is. It’s like, if you advance a player four pieces and the opponent advances five pieces, you have to go back three spaces, unless it’s a Tuesday. When those instructions are that complicated, you don’t understand. So we can use technology to help with attention, we can use technology to help with the value of what’s going on. And we can use that technology to help with understanding. Those are things that were very difficult before. And they allow us to do things like a mini lecture and then shift over to an active learning exercise, and then say, take all this information and create a Zoom session tomorrow that will go over it again. So the technology has really helped us to be able to do all of these things to get at the core of learning, a topic I barely care about. [LAUGHTER]

John: That’s an important one, because people often see this as this binary issue where you lecture or you use active learning. And there are some really effective ways to combine them. And in fact, in that book on dynamic lecturing, it was suggested that lecture can be more important in introductory courses, when students don’t have as much of a knowledge base.

Todd: You’re absolutely right. Discovery learning is a really great way to learn if you’ve got a lot of time. I can just put you into a room with some other people and say, “Here’s some data, and here’s some things we need to know. Go.” And if you don’t have any foundational knowledge at all, it takes forever to figure it out, you go online, you know what to look for, I could do a five-minute lecture, and at the end of five minutes, set it up and say, “Now go and work with your neighbors. In fact, here’s what we’re going to do, we’re going to have you each work in small groups in class, I’m going to open up a Padlet. At each table, I want you to go in and add your information or put it into the column that corresponds with your group number.” As an instructor, I can watch everything develop in front of me. While I’m in the room, I can look at my laptop and see it and walk over to a table and say, “looks like you’re struggling a little bit.” I’ve lectured, I put them into small groups, I’ve had them use technology, I’ve created a little bit of competition on who can come up with what and I’ve had a way for me to monitor it and give them feedback. That is so different than what teaching used to look like. So pulling it all together, that’s what we do.

Rebecca: The tools to be able to monitor have been really helpful in my own teaching and being able to get a better pulse on what’s going on and get a nice overview and then be more targeted in how to interact with small groups rather than just kind of wandering around more aimlessly like I think I did initially. [LAUGHTER]

Todd: Yeah, and this is all going to be great until we get our cognitive load headbands that I’m waiting to be developed. So anybody who’s listening, take this idea, run with it, you can make a bazillion dollars and then take me out to dinner or something. I want a headband and the headband has a light and it measures brainwave activity. And then as I’m teaching, if you start to be a little bit like it’s a little bit too much, you’re moving out of that zone of proximal development, the light turns from green to a yellow. And then when it hits red is like when you’re trying to put together an Ikea bookcase and someone comes by and says “What do you think of this?” and you say, “Errr, I’m working on an Ikea bookcase right now.” …that shutting down with that red light. I’m telling ya, that’s going to be the technology we’ll want next.

Rebecca: It would be so helpful. [LAUGHTER]

Todd: You can actually look and see somebody else’s zones of proximal development and their cognitive load. Whoof. Which by the way, there’s a little party game that they’ll do periodically at parties. It’s like if you’re a superhero, what would you want your superpower to be? And I was in a room one time and one person said they wanted to fly and somebody else said that they wanted to be invisible, which real quickly in my head, I’m thinking, what could you possibly gain that wasn’t illegal or creepy if you’re invisible. So aside from that, transporting and everything else, and they got to me, and I said, “I want to be able to see people’s zones of proximal development. If that were my superpower, I’d be the best teacher.”

John: I bet that went over really well at those parties. [LAUGHTER]

Todd: Yeah, my friends all said “You are amazingly smart and quite insightful.” They used different words, but that’s what I heard. [LAUGHTER]

Rebecca: They didn’t start with what is that? [LAUGHTER]

Todd: As soon as I start talking, most of my friends just shake their head and drink whatever beverage they have near them. [LAUGHTER] So yeah, it’s good times, good times. They’re all impressed. They don’t say it all the time, but I know they are.

Rebecca: I think one of the things that often happens with technology is that it allows us to get things quickly and move through things quickly. But sometimes, as you just noted, learning doesn’t happen quickly.

Todd: Yeah.

Rebecca: Can you talk a little bit about speed and the difference between maybe not having all the technology and all the things really quick versus maybe now where we have it at our fingertips, but do we always want it at that speed?

Todd: So there’s another study that I’m waiting to see. This is an easy study, folks, somebody can run this one quickly. We all know that students are listening to any recorded lectures or recorded material that they have to watch, 1.7 is about the best speed that we tend to see people listening. 2.0 is a little bit fast for some folks. 1.0 is like normal speed, that’s no good, too slow. So what I’m curious about is the space between words and between sentences that our brains, because they move so fast, we can listen faster than somebody can talk. And we have all this other stuff going on is I can be thinking and processing while you’re talking to me. But if I bumped that up to one seven, I think we close the gaps. And I hear it a lot faster. But what I don’t think is happening is the cognitive processing while I’m listening. The active listening component to it. So I think technology can create concerns in those directions. And students who do try to process material too fast… we’ll wait and see.

John: And that’s especially important in flipped classrooms where students do watch these videos outside. One of the things I’ve been doing with those, though, is embedding questions in the video so they can watch them as quickly as they want. But then they get these knowledge checks every few minutes. And then if they find they’re not able to answer it, they may go back and get their attention back and watch that portion again.

Todd: Yeah, I think that’s a really good way to go. EdPuzzle’s kind of a fun technology to use. I don’t know if that’s the one you used.

John: I’m using Playposit, which is a bit more expensive, it works beautifully. I love it, they did just double the price this year, though, it was bought by a new company.

Todd: This is the tricky spot now as the prices are going up. You know, inflation is a terrible thing to waste. Anytime somebody can raise prices now it’s like, “ooh, inflation”. So you know, prices double, inflation is 8% with runaway, now it’s back down around three. But when inflation was 8%, they doubled the price and say, “Hey, we’ve got to,” but yes, it’s some of them are expensive. There’s lots of things that are less expensive. Oftentimes we pay for functionality that help us but the freemiums kind of thing. So stuff that’s inexpensive. I just wanna let everybody out there know just about anything you want to do in class or can think about doing it, there’s a way to do it for either free, or probably under $100 a year, which I know $100 can be expensive for some people, it’s about eight bucks a month. And so things like Padlet that I think might be up around 140 now, so maybe $12 a month, can change how much time you spend doing things, and how much time for students. But yeah, I love the embedded questions to help slow things down.

Rebecca: I think that the cognitive load can happen really quickly if we’re piling lots of information in but not always providing the time to process and use that information in some way in the kind of activities that you were talking about. Or knowing when everybody’s red light is going off in the class.

Todd: Or when people try to do multiple things. I mean, now you’ve got the technology around. So if students are trying to listen to an assignment while they’re texting their friend and have a TV on, I mean, we’re living in an age where there is a lot going on, and people believe they can process lots of things. Evolution doesn’t happen quite that fast. And so I think we have to be careful with that one.

John: One other thing that’s happened is back when you and I both started teaching, the only way students generally communicated their learning was either on typed pages or on handwritten notes. Now we have many more types of media that students can use. And also we’ve seen a bit of an expansion of open pedagogy. How does that help students or how does that affect student learning?

Todd: Wow, that’s really changed a lot as well. Blue Books. Remember the blue books? I think they still sell blue books in the library. They may cost more than the I think it was eight cents when I started, but the concept of writing things down, you turn them into the faculty member, the faculty member would grade them and turn them back. One of the big things that I caught years and years ago was so much wasted cognitive energy in terms of what they produced. I’d read a paper from a student and think this is amazing, and no one will ever see it. It was written for me, I graded it. And now it’s done. I think the technology has changed so many things. One of the biggest things, I would encourage all the listeners, any faculty member out there is, whenever possible, create something that will take the students’ work, the things that they’re doing, and use it to make society better. It’s not that hard. There’s assignments that you can do on Wikipedia. Anybody who wants to complain about Wikipedia, if you don’t like it, I’m gonna go back to Tim Sawyer, who is a faculty member of mine, my very first time I ever did TA work. I was complaining about some students. And he said, “You can complain three times. And after you’ve complained three times, either stop talking,” he was a little bit ruder about that, “or do something about it… just shut up or do something.” And so I complained about Wikipedia for a while, that it wasn’t all that effective. And I thought, well, if I don’t like the page on cognitive load on Wikipedia, I could give an assignment of my cognitive Psych class to go on to Wikipedia and fix it. And so you can have Wikipedia assignments, there’s so many things you could do. Here’s one for you. If you’re doing one on communication, you could have your students go and take pictures or short videos somewhere on campus of something that’s meaningful to them, and then jot down why it’s meaningful, take that compilation of stuff and send it over to the office on campus that does publicity. What better way of drawing students to campus than to have all of these students that have said, I love sitting by the pond because… and in the past, we would have had students write a paper about someplace on campus that you think is effective, put it in the blue book, we would grade it, we turn it back to the students. And that is a waste of possibilities. And so I think we do have lots of ways that we can get the students involved in helping through technology,

John: One of our colleagues in SUNY, Kathleen Gradel, had an assignment for a first-year course, where the students went out, took pictures, geocoded it and added it to a map layer that was then shared with other first-year students about useful resources on campus and their favorite spots on campus, which is another great example of that type of authentic learning.

Todd: Yes, for the authentic learning, there are just so many possibilities because of the technology. If anyone doesn’t have ideas, ask deans, ask the provost, ask the president on your campus, like what kind of information would be helpful, either for the next round of accreditation or for just helping the campus and we can design those things. Another one I did was we took students to the museum. We’d go to the museum, almost any class could kind of find some way to tie museums in, and through the museum, not only would they write stuff that the folks at the museum who did curation would help use, but also just helping the students to see how issues from the museum, how artifacts and things can be used in their own life, to better understand.

Rebecca: When I first started teaching, community-based learning was popular, in fad at the time, and I think having the experience of being a student in a class like that, but then also a faculty member teaching classes like that has really informed the kinds of projects that I do. Maybe they’re not always community-based learning, but they’re often community oriented, whether it’s the campus or even the surrounding community that the campus is situated in to help students get connected. There’s so many nonprofits that need partners and love, there’s always a project that can be done. [LAUGHTER]

Todd: There is. And I used to be a director for a service learning component of the campus. And yeah, there’s just so much out there that we can do to help others.

Rebecca: And students always had such a strong connection. And they didn’t want to fail because other people were depending on them. And so there was a real investment in the work that they did on projects like that.

Todd: I will admit that I’ve never experienced it myself. I’ve never even heard of anybody that if the students are doing some kind of authentic learning, that their authentic learning is then used to help somebody else. I have never heard students say “What a waste of time” or “I hate that class,” or “those assignments are just busy work.” They’ve never used those terms.

John: One common sort of project is to create resources that could be shared with elementary or secondary school students in the disciplines. And again, they can see the intrinsic value of that.

Todd: Yeah. Students could write short manuals on how to learn and then pass that on to the first-year students. And so upper-division students could be helping the lower-division students because not everybody can get a copy of The New Science of Learning, third edition.

John: …available from… [LAUGHTER]

Todd: Available at… used to be Stylus. Since Stylus was sold to Routledge, now it’s available at Routledge. [LAUGHTER]

Rebecca: Given the historical background that we’ve walked through today, what if we think about the future? Where do you see technological changes or learning theory changes impacting the future of higher ed?

Todd: Yeah, we’re living at an interesting time. I like to point out to folks that when you go back to Socrates, Plato kind of time there was a thought that if you wrote something down, it would weaken the mind so we shouldn’t write things down. Luckily, some individuals wrote things down or we never would have known. We’ve gone through several iterations of those kinds of things. Samuel Johnson, I believe it was, who said “With the ready availability of books, teachers are no longer needed. If you want to learn something, you could go get a book on it.” Well, that was a couple of 100 years ago. And we still have faculty members, we have students writing things down, we’re reading, I don’t imagine how you could teach without writing things down and having books. The internet came along, as we were discussing earlier, while we were teaching, we watched the internet show up. And there were people who said, “Well, with the internet, there’s going to be no need for teachers anymore, because students can get whatever they want.” I can’t imagine teaching without the internet right now. So as we’ve gone through each of these iterations, there’s been this fear that maybe we’d be supplanted by some technology followed by “I don’t know how I’d work without that,” it’s a little trickier now, because with generative AI, we’re talking about not just something being available, but actually creating something. I don’t know what that’s going to look like. But there’s some real possibilities that the generative AI ChatGPT, could do things like help students who have writer’s block, get started. And that’s an individual that maybe could produce something really cool, but just can’t get started. I didn’t publish my first book until about seven or eight years ago, because I’m one of those individuals who has a terrible time from a blank screen. I just have a terrible time with that. And so now, I don’t use ChatGPT to actually write anything significant. But I will tell you that I will use it for the first paragraph. That’s all, just one paragraph. And then I completely rewrite that. And there’s no actually trace of it. But it’s something that gets me going.

John: So can we count on more than a book a year going forward? [LAUGHTER]

Todd: No, no, no, no, you can’t. So exhausting. But the concepts that will help students that can do that, I think that’s going to be helpful for them. So there’ll be a type of student who couldn’t have produced before, but now can. We are definitely going to run into some challenges, though, with students who are going to just use generative AI and use artificial intelligence to actually create and to hand something in instead of doing the work. So I do think we’re in a challenging time right now. And I wouldn’t make light of that. There’s actually something that I find fascinating from this. Right now, more than ever before, we can actually have artificial intelligence create something for us, especially in higher education, this hasn’t been done before. The tricky thing is that we were the ones to be able to make that possible, because we learned things. If we let a machine do that work for us, we’re not going to be put into the situation or our students coming along, will not be put into a situation where they’re intelligent enough to do the things that need to be done when they need to be done. And so I do think we’re facing a real dilemma right now. If my students, for instance, always do use some artificial intelligence to create a paper and hand it in, if I can’t catch it, they may end up with an A in that portion of the class. But there’s going to come a day when they’re going to have to write something or be able to read something and tell if it’s written well. And so I’m a little bit nervous, we’re entering a phase where by bypassing some cognitive processing that needs to be done, we may be limiting what we’re able to do in the future. Wrapping this up, though, I don’t want to be the person who says if you use a calculator, you’ll never understand this statistical test. So I don’t know where the balance is. But I do think we’re going to have to have decisions coming up that we’ve never had before.

John: Generative AI is drawing on that wealth of knowledge that has been produced. And for that to continue to grow in the future, we do need to have some new materials being created. So that is an interesting challenge, unless it goes beyond unless….

Todd: …unless it creates it. So that was one I thought about, by the way, sometimes you’re sitting around just thinking about stuff and it’s interesting. I was thinking how do I acquire new information. And the way I acquire new information is I go read articles, I read books, I read a ton of stuff. And then I say I think this is valuable, I don’t think that’s valuable. And then I put it together and say here’s what I’m thinking. And now I’m looking at this generative AI who goes out and scans the environment and pulls these things and then creates something new. It doesn’t have the cognitive processing that I have at this point, but…

John: it’s in the early stages.

Todd: We have some folks who are very concerned out there, especially in European countries that are starting to put some guardrails out, because at the point that it keeps grabbing stuff, and then generating and then it grabs the stuff it generated, then it’s going to be interesting. But as of right now, I just read another article, I think it was yesterday, that they’re going out and grabbing the most popular or most frequently written things and then putting it down as if that is right.

Rebecca: The way that you might prioritize as a human with an expertise in something, is going to be really different than a system that’s prioritizing based on popularity, [LAUGHTER] or like how current something is like when it was last published. That’s a really different value system that really changes priorities.

Todd: Yeah, and I think it changes how we teach. I think the way we teach is going to fundamentally shift because we’re going to have to work with students with all these things being available and explain to them and talk to them about the learning process and the value of the learning process. And keep in mind, this isn’t just about ChatGPT writing papers, everybody’s freaked out about that right now. We shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that you could get fresh, cleanly written papers that have not been plagiarized at all, we’d be able to do that for 20 years. There are paper mills, I can either write away or contact somebody and say, “Please write me a 10 page paper on Descarte, and they would write it, I could turn that in. What actually has happened recently is that everybody can do it, even those who can’t afford to have a paper written at $10 a page or whatever it’s costing. And so equity comes back again. [LAUGHTER] Now we’re an equal opportunity cheater. So we have to be careful with that. But I think the way we teach is going to change because all that information is going to be available, kind of like the internet on hyperspeed. And then what do you do with that? It’s going to be really intriguing. I think it’s an exciting time.

Rebecca: So Todd, this episode’s gonna come out right at the beginning of this semester. So you’re saying we need to be thinking about how to change our teaching. ChatGPT’s here, what are you doing for the Fall differently?

Todd: Well, I think the biggest thing is what we were just talking about, looking more at the learning process, which has been a big thing for me for the longest time, is explaining and talking through the learning process, I can hand you all this information, but if I hand it to you, you don’t learn. In fact, one of my favorite examples came from a friend of mine, and it was the gym, if you want to get in better shape, I could pay somebody to go do sit ups for me. And then I could somehow log in the book at the gym that 100 Sit ups were done, use the passive voice there, and somebody else did them for me, I’m not going to get in better shape unless I do the situps. So I have to do the work, I have to run, lift weights, do the situps in order for me to be able to gain. We need to just turn that into a cognitive process for our students to really gain cognitively they have to do the work. And so I think more than ever, it’s how do we convince students of that? And for the faculty members who say, “Well, that’d be great, but my students just want the grade.” If that’s the case, we have a bigger problem than whether or not some technology can write a paper for them.

John: So how do we convince students that it is important for them to acquire the skills that we hope they get out of college?

Todd: I think this is probably going to come down to the community building, it’s been there forever. If you really want your students to do the work, the best thing you can do in my view, and that’s why I’m gonna say, Rebecca, I don’t think a lot for the way I teach, has changed. You build a community, you build relationships, you talk to the students about importance of things, if you’re sincere about that, and they get that then yes, there’s going to be some students that are going to mess with the system, they have always been there. But you’re also going to get a lot of students who will say, “Yeah, that’s a good point.” And then they’ll do the work. I don’t teach as many undergraduates as I used to, I’m teaching more faculty than ever because of being the faculty developer. But there were years that I would have to tell my students don’t put more time than this in on your paper, you have other classes, you need to do the work in the other classes. Because, and I’m telling you, I am very proud of this, my students would spend a ton of time on this stuff for my class, because they didn’t want to let me down. And I would say you’ve already got an A, I’m proud of what you’re doing, please go work on your other classes. That kind of scenario happens when you build community. And I’m not saying it’s easy, I would never say it’s easy. And it’s not going to happen for everybody. But it is the foundation of good teaching.

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

Todd: There’s just so much going on right now. I think that what’s next for me is I am still in that headspace of coming kind of back from the pandemic, anybody who says, “Yeah, but the pandemic’s all over,” wait for November, we won’t know, we’re going to see. But I still think that’s next is kind of thinking about how we teach and learn in this environment. So moving in that space, it’s probably not surprising. I’m working on the next book here. One of the things I want to do now is the last couple of books that I’ve done had been pretty heavy books. And now I want to write something that’s a little bit lighter. So it’s going to be more of a quick guide with more narrative and having some fun, I love telling stories. I love having fun with people. So I’m going to try to create a book that’s kind of like a science of learning and teaching at its best but really accessible and more of a story-based kind of way of looking at things.

Rebecca: Who is your audience for that book?

Todd: Anybody who will read it? [LAUGHTER] Anytime I write anything, I have to have the audience firmly in mind and think about who am I talking to. And I really believe there is a pretty big overlap with students and faculty who don’t know specific things. And I’m not saying this in a mean way toward any of my faculty colleagues at all. But there’s a lot of people who aren’t taught about things like long-term potentiation and deep sleep in terms of semantic memory, and looking at depth of processing and those types of things. So the same type of thing we can say to a student, we know you shouldn’t cram, but here’s why you shouldn’t cram… faculty learn a lot from that as well. And so my audience for this book is going to be faculty and students, students, because I think it’ll be more fun to read about how to learn in a narrative form like that. And faculty because it’s more fun to learn when you read in that kind of a format for some people. we’ll see.

John: And if faculty design their courses to take advantage of what we know about learning, it can facilitate more learning.

Todd: Wouldn’t that be cool? We could just keep rolling, rolling. What a great amount of work. I mean, a huge amount of work that faculty do. They’re hard working folks that are just cranking away all the time. Number one, making their life a little bit easier by helping to understand things would be great. And just having a little bit more fun would be fun, would be nice way to go to0.

Rebecca: Hey, anytime you can save time, so that we can have more play in our lives is better.

Todd: Yeah, just to do whatever you want to do.

John: Yeah, ending on a note of fun is probably a great way to end this.

Rebecca: Well. It’s always great talking to you, Todd. Thanks for chatting with us and going on the Wayback Machine.

Todd: Oh, you know, I love the Wayback Machine.

Rebecca: I love it too.

Todd: For those of you who don’t know about that, you should check out the Wayback Machine

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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.

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297. The Road Forward

The opening session of the 2023 SUNY Conference on Instruction and Technology, which took place at SUNY Oswego, included a keynote address in the form of a live podcast interview with Flower Darby. This podcast episode is a recording of this session, which included both a live and a remote audience. Flower is an Associate Director of the Teaching for Learning Center at the  University of Missouri at Columbia. She is the co-author, with James Lang, of Small Teaching Online: Applying Learning Science in Online Classes and a co-author of The Norton Guide to Equity-Minded Teaching.

Show Notes

Transcript

John: The opening session of the 2023 SUNY Conference on Instruction and Technology, which took place at SUNY Oswego included a keynote address in the form of a live podcast interview with Flower Darby. This podcast episode is a recording of this session, which included both a live and a remote audience.

When colleges shut down in the country in mid-March of 2020 we reached out to Flower Darby to provide some guidance for people who were moving to remote instruction, for the most part, for the first time. She joined us on a special episode… in fact, it was the only time we released two episodes in one week… and she provided advice to faculty on emergency remote instruction, resource sharing, and strategies to keep courses going. Today, we are pleased to have Flower back with us to reflect on the impact of the past three years and map a road forward for teaching and the academy.

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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.

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John: Our guest today is Flower Darby. Flower is an Associate Director of the Teaching for Learning Center at the University of Missouri at Columbia. She is the co-author, with James Lang, of Small Teaching Online: Applying Learning Science in Online Classes and a co-author of The Norton Guide to Equity-Minded Teaching. Welcome back, Flower.

Flower: Thank you, John. Thank you, Rebecca. Thank you all for having me and for being here and focusing on how we can map that all important road forward. So good to be here with you all.

Rebecca: So it wouldn’t be an episode of tea for teaching if we didn’t ask about our teas. So our teas today are: … Flower, are you drinking tea?

Flower: I have my iced tea in here. And it is a Hawaiian Islands Passionfruit blend.

Rebecca: Nice.

John: And I have a Tea Forte black currant tea today.

Rebecca: And I brought out the Jasmine dragon pearls green tea for today’s episode.

John: When we last talked on March 17 2020, you provided some suggestions on how we could maintain instructional continuity during that two-week shutdown we were going to have to deal with [LAUGHTER] and one of the things you asked in the conversation was what are we going to reflect on looking back when we’re through this immediate crisis situation? So we’re going to turn this question back to you. What sticks in your mind the most from the period of pandemic teaching?

Flower: Yeah, thank you, John, it’s such a big question. And I have reflected very deeply on this over the past three years of ongoing research, conversations with 1000s of educators around the country and around the world. And really, there is one thing that has become crystal clear for me. And that is the centrality and the importance of holistic wellbeing for both ourselves, our faculty, our staff, and our students. I’m excited about how technology use has advanced as a result of the pandemic. But that’s not actually the central focus for me. It is about the importance of our wellbeing, of our students’ holistic wellbeing, and of how we need to center and highlight and forefront social connections and those kinds of relational aspects of teaching and learning with technology in person wherever we are. That extended period of isolation and loss and grief and challenge and distance in education really brought to the front for me the importance of connectedness, and being intentional in how we connect with our students and help them connect with each other as well.

Rebecca: I think you’ve started hinting at this already, Flower, but how has higher ed been transformed by this pandemic experience?

Flower: Yeah, thank you, Rebecca. So I do think that there has been a lot of work done to enhance technology implementations, to provide better support for faculty who are just in the trenches trying to figure this out, whether it’s using new features in Canvas or your learning management system that you may not have used before. Here at the University of Missouri all of our classrooms are now called Zoum rooms. And that’s Zoum, because we’re at Mizzou, which is spelled M-I-Z-Z-O-U. And it’s a challenge for faculty to be in these high-tech teaching spaces and it’s wonderful that the university is making this commitment. But for me again, it is not about the tech, we have seen good tech advancements. We just heard from the Chancellor about some really amazing innovations and that is wonderful because it is going to keep moving us forward. But it is true, I do believe the truth of transformation that is beginning, and that we need to continue, is focusing on this notion of holistic wellbeing and relational teaching and learning.

John: In 202o, one of the things we talked about in that last conversation was the insufficient systemic institutional support for teaching centers, instructional designers, and the effective use of technology in teaching and learning. Have leaders in higher education made long-term sustainable investments in this work.

Flower: Yeah, great question. I think some have, and of course, my answer is going to be, “And we could do more here.” Here again, I just mentioned that example locally here at the University of Missouri with all this investment in the Zoum rooms. What I’m hearing sometimes, though, is that the challenge in managing all the bells and whistles, especially if you do have students who are in the room in front of you, and also Zooming in, it is not something that we necessarily prepare college faculty to do in our graduate programs. I’ve had so many countless conversations over the last few years where the fact is, as a professor, I did not necessarily set out to be a tech whiz as well. So I’m seeing encouraging signs and improvements and a greater awareness of the potential for effective use of teaching with technology to enhance inclusive and accessible, equity-minded student success. And I’m going to say we can do more.

Rebecca: As you just mentioned, prior to the pandemic, many faculty and students were resistant to online instruction. And while this resistance has faded, in some cases, one of the concerns that you expressed in our earlier discussion was the physical isolation experienced in online learning and you mentioned this a bit earlier today. Has the pandemic helped us to develop new ways of encouraging that relationship building online?

Flower: I would say yes, and I would say greater awareness and receptivity to the importance of building relationships online. I think that once again, we still have work to do in this area. But I do believe that prior to the pandemic, there was less awareness on the part of faculty and no blame no shame, I would say it’s the way that institutions and graduate programs may or may not prepare faculty for effective online teaching. I would say there was kind of less institutional awareness of the importance of those relationships online. Now we have seen what happens, we felt it, we’ve lived it in our bodies, when we felt disconnected from our students, when we’ve tried to teach to black boxes with a name, or Anna’s iPad on the Zoom screen. We’ve kind of lived out that disconnect and that isolation. And yet, we know there was abundant research to show that we can have really engaging interactions in our online spaces. And we know that it increases access. I’m here with you today from beautiful Columbia, Missouri, because we have this option available, although I would love to be in the room, but we have other folks joining online as well. We see the value, we know the importance of those connections, those relationships. And one thing that I have really focused in on in the last couple of years is being intentional in the way that we create and structure those opportunities for rapport building and to close the distance because we know that it’s not going to happen by accident online, whether asynchronous or synchronous, intentionality is required. And I encourage faculty to rethink how they use their class time, what the activities are in asynchronous modules, maybe even the kinds of assessments that are in our syllabi, and whether we’re offering points for those kinds of activities. Basically, my argument is that we can do more to design for intentional social connections… that I would say would apply in all class modalities.

John: During the pandemic, the inequities that our students face became much more visible. When we were connecting to students who were zooming in from home and they had trouble accessing the one computer they had to share with four or five other people, or when they didn’t have good network access, or when they were struggling to try to work to pay some bills, and so forth, those inequities became really hard to ignore, for faculty. And campuses did a lot to mitigate that, by loaning computers, by loaning hotspots, and providing other resources. But now that we’ve moved back to more on-campus instruction, and with staffing shortages and budget cuts very common in higher ed, do we run the risk of falling back on some of the exclusionary practices that we had practiced in the past?

Flower: I would say yes, we run that risk. But I actually want to take a little tangent here and tell you about a conversation that I had just on Friday. This past Friday, I was at a conference in Portland, Oregon for teachers of accounting, and I had a very heartwarming and encouraging conversation with one individual faculty, and I think it’s highly representative of where our heads are, and more importantly, where our hearts are now. Of course, I was presenting on the importance of social and emotional connections… that’s what I do… and she shared a story…in fact, I have a couple of poignant stories from that event. This particular one said “You know, I used to be the hardline accountant, you follow the rules and you make the deadlines or you get out,” and then she said “until I was watching my students trying to take their exams via Zoom, and I saw one of my students, his little brother was like hitting him on the head with like a paddle while he’s trying to take his exam. And I saw all kinds of other things.” This experience, the pandemic did give us a view, a window into our students’ lived experiences. The other one, just very briefly, another faculty member, a caring, passionate, dedicated, instructor was talking about how she had one student in one particular semester who lost 13 members of her family to COVID. How much community was built as the entire class was caring deeply. So I do believe there is lasting change. The first accountant I was telling you about, she’s like, “I’ll never go back to that hardline approach. I have more empathy for my students now. I see what they’re dealing with to make this happen.” Now, that said, yes, we do run the risk of falling back into exclusionary practices. I’ve been thoughtful, reflective of how we want to go back to the way things have always been, and I get it, I’m back on a physical campus, I spent the entire time of the pandemic myself working remotely, and I hungered for a physical campus with real live embodied people and students on the pedway. And I’m loving this experience. So I get it that we want to come back to our tried and true, our comfort zones, our methods we’ve relied on. And if we slip back into, for example, less than equitable teaching methods like large lectures and high-stakes exams, we are absolutely sliding back into exclusionary practices. So I would encourage us to not waste this crisis, which is not my unique phrase, but I think it’s definitely apt in this time. Let’s keep pushing forward so that we can become more inclusive and equity focused as higher ed as a whole,

Rebecca: It can definitely be easy to slip back into habits, but I know many of us are really committed to that change and the equitable work that you’ve been talking about, Flower. What can we do together to redesign higher education to be more equitable? What do we need to do?

Flower: Yeah, great question, and sometimes I think, huge picture as in, it’s way too big to change, and other times, I really focus on the circle of control. So I definitely think that, if you haven’t seen it before, I think it’s Stephen Covey has these circles, the inner one is control, here’s what I have influence over, then there’s a broader circle, that’s influence, here’s what I have some influence about. And then the third circle is concern, there’s not a lot that I can do. And so I think we can focus primarily on our control circle. I do think, and we make this argument in the newly released Norton Guide to Equity-Minded Teaching, we make the argument that we do need to advocate for systemic change, and we need to do that in community. So we can work towards that. And then there are influences and aspects that we cannot really necessarily change. We can be concerned about them and mindful. So what can we do? Well, here’s what it comes down to for me, and I’ve thought a lot about this. I would argue, as I just mentioned a minute ago, we have to stop doing things the way we always have. So if you think about the history of higher education in the United States, it is based on centuries of tradition in Europe. And it was designed to be available to elite white men. It is exclusionary in its very nature. So we have this opportunity to say we know that our student body is diversifying. And we know that is so important because with diversity comes strength, comes creativity, comes new perspectives, comes better solutions. So let’s stop doing things the way we always have. Let’s stop with those large lectures. And I do sometimes think about things we can’t change, like, untenable work conditions where contingent faculty are going semester to semester, or we’re being asked to teach these large enrollment classes with very little, if any, TA support. Those are things that are challenging that are, for me, are in that circle of concern. But I think a general mindset to think about is, if I’m tempted to slip back into doing things the way I used to do, maybe that’s an opportunity to ask myself, whether there’s a more equity-minded way to do some things, a more inclusive way, a more active way to help students really process and interact with the materials that we’re teaching.

Rebecca: You’ve talked a little bit about burnout, stress, and mental health concerns that continue to challenge our students, faculty, and staff. And we’ve talked about needing to humanize the learning experience through the pandemic. What role… and you already hinted at this, [LAUGHTER] but I’m hoping you can dig into it… what role does holistic wellbeing play into the future of the academy?

Flower: You know, clearly by now, you know, I’m glad to say it needs to play a central role. And I don’t think as an academy, we are quite there yet. We do work and exist in an overworked culture. We absolutely do. And I would say we’re high-achieving individuals. If we choose to be here, we’re passionate, we’re focused, we work hard, but in general, we need to give grace to ourselves to take more opportunity to support our own wellbeing. We need to extend that grace to each other in community… to say “it’s okay, go ahead and take that weekend off. I don’t need the manuscript on Monday. It’s alright.” And then collectively, again, I think the more that we’re having these conversations, that can help. So just recently, my good friend and colleague, Sarah Rose Cavanaugh, had a piece come out in The Chronicle. And the headline was, “They Need Us to Be Well,” and it’s about how, if we want to support student success, if we want to advance equity and become even more inclusive than we already are, we actually have to start with ourselves. And I don’t think that we do this very well in this culture. I have had to work, to learn to give myself permission to take a weekend off. It’s something that we, again, for me, it’s about giving permission, it’s about supporting each other in these decisions as well. And then, broadly speaking, I hope that we are seeing the beginnings of a culture change. Questions about the validity and the feasibility of teaching these large-enrollment sections or teaching online classes with very little attention paid to interactions between people. I think we do have this opening for these conversations, and I’m doing everything I can to advance those conversations.

John: In response to the pandemic, faculty face unprecedented changes in the way in which they were teaching. And since then, we’ve had a number of other changes in our practices. Here at SUNY, we’ve had a transition to a new learning management system that came immediately after these transitions. And I know other campuses happen to be doing the same thing at the same time. But one of the things that’s happened recently is the introduction of new AI tools, such as ChatGPT and image generation tools. And one of the questions a lot of faculty have is how they might be able to accurately assess student learning in the presence of these tools, while also appreciating the affordances that these tools provide. And how will these AI tools transform instructional practices and the future of the Academy?

Flower: Yeah, great question. And sadly, I don’t have a crystal ball, [LAUGHTER]

Rebecca: Dang.

Flower: …however, I do have some thoughts [LAUGHTER] to share and some, again, recent research, there was a survey that I heard of… just yesterday, I saw a summary of it, it was run by the Washington Post. And it was essentially saying that many faculty are not really thinking about ChatGPT generative AI, all these new tools. We’re doing a little bit of the “I don’t want to deal with that quite yet.” And again, that’s an overgeneralization. But that’s what the survey results really did show. So how these tools will impact our work in education? My real answer is: “Yes, they absolutely will,” I have come to conclude that they are like the advent of the Internet. Remember, way back in the early to mid-90s, when it didn’t used to be possible to do an online search for something? I think this tool, this change,is along the same lines of the smartphone. Remember, when we didn’t always have a super powerful computer available to us in our pocket or our bag? For me, this is a seismic change, and it will change the way we do things. Now, that’s scary… and exciting. [LAUGHTER] Our world is changing, and we have to be willing to embrace it. Are we worried about whether students are going to do their own work? Absolutely. Do we know that we need to equip our students to use these tools in order to thrive in their careers? We know that too. Right now we’re in a very unique moment of trying to walk a middle ground here, trying to see what are the opportunities of these tools? How do we help to understand whether our students are actually doing their own work? I don’t have those answers. What I do know is that this is another big, and quite frankly, painful opportunity to think deeply again, about the way we do teaching and learning in higher education. The pandemic was this for me, ChatGPT, and Gen AI is this for me. We can think deeply about the way we do things. We’re gonna have to change some things. And that deep reflection and change process is undeniably painful, undeniably scary, and can be deeply meaningful and rewarding as well.

Rebecca: That’s a little too much seismic activity going on there. [LAUGHTER]

Flower: It is. It’s a tough moment. It’s a really tough moment in higher ed. I want to just be honest about that.

Rebecca: So at this moment, we’d like to move to some audience questions. And we do have a first audience question. And that first question, Flower, is moving forward, which pandemic modifications, or temporary adjustments, should we adopt as best practices to meet the needs of modern learners?

Flower: I have one that comes very easily to mind. And thankfully, it’s not a big huge effort or overhaul to our course design and pedagogy. And that is, let’s check in with our students more often. Let’s check in more frequently. During the pandemic, in an effort to engage those black boxes that were on our Zoom screens, many of us developed new ways of using Zoom polls, of asking quick questions in the chat box, assigning collaborative activities in Google Docs or Padlet, these kinds of things, and the students have unwaveringly told us that they appreciate us checking in more often. So, whether it is a matter of if you are lecturing in person, every 10 to 12 minutes or so ask your students a quick question, quiz them on the concept, or ask them “How are you doing? Are you with me?” …here again to think about the Zoom example, which I know not everybody is really doing as much of, and that’s probably good. But I know one instructor who would use to say, “Are you with me?” and her students knew that they could use the emojis in the chat box… one thumbs up was like, I’m not doing too good. Two thumbs up, pretty good, pretty good. Three thumbs up, I got it. And she told me that if she saw a range of those one thumbs ups coming in, she’d be like, “That’s it. We’re not going any further until we kind of talk this through a little bit more. What are your questions?” That’s the kind of informal checking in with our students that I’m encouraging us to do. Again, this can take the form of an activity that happens during class, a quick poll, it can be a show of hands, I saw a great example, just last week, those of you here in the room and watching the video will see this, for the audio recording, I’ll just describe it. I heard this great example of a biology instructor asking her students a very simple check your understanding question during a large lecture, and she had taught her students that they should answer the question based on a number of responses, the responses were numbered 1, 2, 3, 4, 5. And she said, choose the best answer and just put it right here, on your chest, so that you can hold up the number of fingers right against your chest. And what this does is it doesn’t let anybody have to feel really awkward or insecure about “I’m not sure if I’m holding up the number one, and maybe I’m wrong.” By holding it right here, we’re doing a couple of things. We’re providing safety, we’re building trust, we’re giving students an opportunity to retrieve the information that they have just been taught. And again, you can adapt this approach to anything: How are you doing? Are you with me? Hold up a one if you’re feeling terrible. So this idea of the informal check-ins with students… you can also do online anonymous surveys using Survey Monkey, Google form, whatever is in the learning management system. Ask your students: How are you? What do we need to do more of? The stop, start, continue, survey is a really great model. What should we stop doing? What should we start doing? What should we continue doing? And then very importantly, if you do those kinds of surveys, which are really powerful and equity minded, you want to circle back to your students and say, “Alright, here’s what you told me. No, we’re not going to stop having our weekly homework assignments. Those are important. But here are some changes that I can do.” So informal check ins with your students, it does a lot of different things… key for me is demonstrate pedagogical caring, that we do care about our students. And we want them to be successful. And it helps our students to communicate to us if we need to slow down or provide another explanation, those kinds of things.

Rebecca: So I’m wondering, Flower, if you can talk a little bit more about some of these same kinds of practices, but in an online environment, in an asynchronous online environment, where sometimes it’s a little more difficult to figure out how to adopt some of these practices?

Flower: Yeah, great question, Rebecca. And thank you for kind of bringing us back to online because I have another huge takeaway for me [LAUGHTER] from the pandemic is that online, asynchronous, I think, is one of the most challenging formats to teach in. And I myself still struggle to see the students in my classes as real embodied people. It is so easy to fall into the sense that they are names on a screen, that they are tasks on a to-do list. And we know that our students don’t think we’re real. They tell us repeatedly… well, they don’t tell us they tell each other, they tell the media. My own daughters have said to me online teachers aren’t real. I kid you not. [LAUGHTER] During the pandemic they’re like “My teachers aren’t real people.” So very important, asynchronous while recognizing the limitations, and I don’t actually mean of the format in this case. I mean, the demands on people’s busy lives, because we know students who choose asynchronous online frequently need the flexibility. And maybe they don’t necessarily see the value of all the discussion forums and those kinds of things. So how do we do this relationship building, this increasing interaction? Certainly, I would argue that, as instructors, we need to be communicating with our students more often than not, and that can be announcements, it can be interacting in the discussion boards, not a ton, not dominating, but posting a guiding question here, or “that’s a great point” kind of there. We can be responsive in our assignment feedback, we don’t have to write a tome of comments. But even using an emoji or a quick comment to say, “I see you. I appreciate your work.” Some learning management systems make it very easy to record assignment feedback. Now, all of these, we need to hold in balance with the point I was making earlier about self care and holistic wellbeing for ourselves. I am not saying that we should become 24/7 chatbots, who are always available to our online students. I am saying they need more than what we might do. And we can also foster these connections to support their wellbeing with each other. So here’s one very quick example. I love an activity called “share one photo” and what this is, you can create this in an asynchronous class as an individual assignment, or as a discussion forum getting to know you kind of opportunity and if you do it… well, in either format, you could do this more than once. It could be an ongoing or an every other week, something like this. It’s a great way to intentionally structure social connections and relationship building. And what you do is you ask your students to look in their photo library on their smartphone, don’t go out and take a new photo, look in your photo library, choose one photo that is meaningful to you, write a line or two about why you chose to show that and submit it. And it’s worth points. Because it’s not just that we only focus on the class content, we focus on building relationships to help our students thrive. This can be really powerful, you will get different responses. If it’s an individual assignment, you make it more vulnerable images, if it’s a discussion post, you’ll have opportunities for students to connect with each other, like I was just saying, it doesn’t always have to be just you. But this is a way for students to choose what they want to share. It demonstrates to them that you care about them as people and not just names on a screen. And it can be a really powerful and fun way to see a little bit more about who your students are as people. I would certainly encourage that we do the same. Let’s also share one photo, help our students see us as real people as well.

John: One of the questions that has come in is from someone who is in a nursing education program, and the instructor notes that they use a lot of high-stakes exams and assessments in that. Do you have any suggestions on how they can move away from that? And I’ll just add a little bit to it, given that they do have high- stakes assessments as a criteria for licensing.

Flower: Yeah, great point, I was gonna make the same point there, John, thank you. There are disciplinary considerations to all of the recommendations that people like me come in and make. [LAUGHTER] And if you do have those accreditation exams, then part of your curriculum needs to be preparing your students to be successful on those high-stakes accreditation exams. So for me, a lot of times it’s about keeping things in tension, or in balance. We know that they need practice, they need to develop a comfort level with higher stakes, higher pressure situations. And honestly, I’m thinking about on the job, when you’re dealing with a patient, there could be a healthcare crisis that you need to be able to respond to. So, for me, preparing future nurses to deal with the pressure is part of the learning outcomes. But maybe, while they’re students, maybe we can balance that just a little bit. Maybe it’s not just about those high-stakes exams, maybe we balance out the grading scheme to award more points, as an example, for a weekly written reflection, where students can explain how they’re thinking about the processes that they’re learning about. If we have to, and I’m going to qualify… if we have to, for disciplinary reasons, have those bigger exams, because I’m going to invite us to think about: “Do we have to have those exams in this case?” Yeah, maybe. But maybe what we can do too, in a very equity-minded way is to offer retakes, offer test corrections, and a critical part there is to again structure a way for students to articulate where they went wrong, what they learned through this process. So kind of explain, how do I get this wrong? What did I need to do differently. So for me, it’s about balancing the grading scheme, thinking about equity-minded grading in terms of maybe you could build in the drop one exam, drop your lowest test, there’s a lot more that we write about that in the Norton Guide, which by the way, I want to say is actually available for free as an ebook. And, of course, I don’t have the link right in front of me. But maybe in the podcast notes, you can place the link to finding out more about that book, because it is freely available and has lots more of these kinds of ideas in it.

John: It’s a great resource, and we will share a link to that in the show notes.

Rebecca: We have a question that came in from Kristin Croyle, who is one of our previous guests on Tea for Teaching, and also is our Dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences here at SUNY Oswego. And she asked, “What do you recommend for campus leadership approaches to support student learning and faculty staff wellbeing and what should we institutionally start, stop, and continue doing?”

Flower: Oh, I love it. Thank you so much.

Rebecca: No small question there.

Flower: [LAUGHTER] I know, right? Well, first of all, I’m going to actually focus on faculty. When we support faculty wellbeing it can translate most effectively to student wellbeing and success and equity. But one thing we haven’t really talked about today is how our own identities as instructors impact our day-to-day experience. And that can be a big question. It can be related to identities, our social identities, involving our race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, it can involve lots of things. It can even involve the work… and I did this for literally decades… being an adjunct faculty and teaching just wherever I could, mostly online, so at least I wasn’t a freeway flyer, but recognizing that our individual faculty have a lot of demands, a lot of needs, and one size does not fit all from a campus leadership perspective. So recognizing and elevating the importance of attending to our individual faculty to maybe working with them to adjust teaching loads. There’s a lot in the recent media and literature about how some instructors who hold some marginalized identities end up doing a lot of emotional labor that many other identities may not, in terms of supporting students who are underrepresented, extra demands on their time. So let’s stop treating all faculty the same. Pie in the sky, let’s also stop with these untenable working conditions. But that’s a big one. Let us start paying attention to the individual wellbeing of the individuals who are doing this hard and important work of supporting our students and helping them to learn and grow and graduate and make a better life. And let’s continue having these conversations. This is the way we’re going to enact change.

John: We have a question from Christine Miller. And she asks, “While respecting academic freedom, how do we spread the good news of equitable and inclusive practices to resistant faculty and support these practices with our adjunct faculty?

Flower: Yeah, this is a great question. And the opportunity to work on the Guide to Equity-Minded Teaching gave us as an author team, which I do want to give a shout out to my brilliant co authors Isis Artze-Vega, Bryan Dewsbury, and Mays Imad. It gave us lots of opportunity to wrestle with this. And here’s exactly where we landed. I used a phrase earlier that has served me quite well. And that is to not blame and not shame. Let’s recognize that our colleagues, maybe those whom we support, whether we’re perhaps in an instructional design role, whether we’re in a leadership position, let’s recognize that every person is on their own individual equity journey. And we don’t want to judge somebody for perhaps not being in the place that we are, for being a little bit more resistant. The way that I think about it is that maybe we haven’t given them an invitation to slow down and think about things from a different perspective. Maybe they haven’t had that opportunity to see their accounting student trying to take an exam while their little brother was hitting them on the head. So let’s meet our faculty colleagues where they are. We talk about this with our students, too. Let’s meet them where they are, let’s help them to find a way in to what we’re encouraging them to learn and think about. Let’s not blame. Let’s not shame. Let’s extend grace. Let’s support each other. Let’s ask questions. Let’s tell stories. Because, as I just mentioned, the one with the accounting student and the exam, these are things that get people to think about things differently. So it’s a really important question. I’m asked this a lot. And we think about polarized political situations, you think about legislation that is being enacted around the country or being debated. And yet, of course, I’m gonna say this work is worth doing. It’s all the more worth doing. Let’s be strategic, and let’s be supportive of each other and not get frustrated with somebody who isn’t quite where we want them to be yet. We’re all on a journey.

Rebecca: There’s another question. There’s actually a bunch of questions that we’re not going to get to because they all came at the same time. But there’s another question here that says, “You mentioned the different circles of control for advocating for equity and advocating in communities. How do you seek out or help build those communities on your campus, and then build consensus on what that community can influence on the campus?”

Flower: For me, it’s about being intentional to dedicate time and I will try to be brief in my answers, so hopefully, we can get to a few questions if possible. Let’s be intentional with our own personal time to create those communities and work together. One example that has a long history is a book club. So maybe a group of folks on the community, on the campus, want to choose our new book, or any range of other really great books and set aside time in your semester to connect with other colleagues, working with your centers for teaching excellence, working with your instructional designers. These are ways that we can individually choose within our own circle of control to establish community with our colleagues and support each other in this work.

John: We have an anonymous question, which is: “If you were to create or select an emoji to represent [LAUGHTER] the road forward in higher education, what would it be?”

Flower: Wow, that is a good one. The first image that flashed into my mind is the big mountain [LAUGHTER] with a path going up. And I kind of like that because it can represent a couple of different nuances. It can be: we have a long way to go, we have an uphill battle. But it can also be: we have this amazing opportunity and challenge ahead of us and we can ascend and climb this mountain together. I’m going to leave it at that.

Rebecca: Well, thank you CIT audience members for your questions and engagement. And also Flower, for all your answers to not the easiest questions. But we always wrap up with one last question, as you know, and that is: “What’s next?”

Flower: Yeah, thank you. You may have asked me this question in March of 2020. And I have the same answer. [LAUGHTER] I am resuming work, working hard on a manuscript on effective teaching, applying emotion science to teaching with technology. I was working on that manuscript. This amazing opportunity to join the author team for the Norton guide came along, So I had to pause on the emotion science book, but I am picking it up in earnest, and I think again, it holds a lot of keys for how we can enhance equitable higher education for ourselves and our students.

Rebecca: I know it’s something we’re definitely looking forward to here.

Flower: Thank you.

John: And thank you for joining us. We really appreciate it, and it’s great to talk to you again.

Flower: Yeah, very nice to be here with you all and I hope it’s a wonderful rest of the conference as well.

Rebecca: So let’s give Flower a warm thank you. [APPLAUSE]

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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.

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295. Equity-Minded Teaching

As our student body diversifies, higher ed needs to respond and adapt. In this episode, Bryan Dewsbury and Mays Imad join us to discuss equity-minded strategies we can use to redesign or incrementally improve our courses. Bryan is an Associate Professor of Biological Sciences and the principal investigator of the Science Education and Society research program at Florida International University. Mays is an Associate Professor of Biology and Equity Pedagogy at Connecticut College and is a AAC&U Senior Fellow. Bryan and Mays are co-authors, with Flower Darby and Isis Artze-Vega, of The Norton Guide to Equity-Minded Teaching.

Show Notes

Transcript

John: As our student body diversifies, higher ed needs to respond and adapt. In this episode, we discuss equity-minded strategies we can use to redesign or incrementally improve our courses.

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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.

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Rebecca: Our guests today are Bryan Dewsbury and Mays Imad. Bryan is an Associate Professor of Biological Sciences and the principal investigator of the Science Education and Society research program at Florida International University. Mays is an Associate Professor of Biology and Equity Pedagogy at Connecticut College and is a AAC&U Senior Fellow. Bryan and Mays are co-authors (with Flower Darby and Isis Artze-Vega), of The Norton Guide to Equity-Minded Teaching. Welcome Bryan and Mays.

Mays: Thank you. Thank you for having us.

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

Mays: I am.

Bryan: I am not.

John: Mays, what tea are you drinking?

Mays: I am drinking chai masala, that I prepare the night before, and I wake up and it’s the first thing on my mind.

Rebecca: Oh, that sounds amazing. I have an awake tea this morning, John.

John: And I have a ginger peach black tea today.

Bryan: So I’m it odd one out with a cup of black coffee.

John: That’s not uncommon. [LAUGHTER]

Rebecca: One of the most common teas we have.

John: We’ve invited you here today to discuss the Norton Guide to Equity-Minded Teaching. Before we discuss the book itself, could you tell us a little bit about your own pathway to this project?

Bryan: Mays, you want to go first?

Mays: Sure. So my career started at the community college. And in fact, I was a postdoctoral fellow when I started, a postdoctoral fellow studying the cellular mechanisms of learning, which is vast and complex. And as a graduate student, as a postdoctoral fellow, I had this growing understanding that learning can happen, and it can happen spectacularly well, provided the right environment is there. So when I began to teach at Pima Community College, I began to see how so many of my first-generation working students, coming, showing up, doing all what is expected of them, and having a really hard time academically. And I began to understand the notion of the system and the complexity of learning. So really, for me, it started as a recognition that I, as a teacher, as a fellow human being, have a moral imperative to address what is going on. The inequities that I was seeing are not an inherent self-evident part of the system. It’s by virtue of the human-made system, that I had a choice and a chance and an obligation to start to shift and address and interrogate and even transform. So that’s how I began and fast forward to a few years ago, when Isis reached out to me, it was something that very much spoke to my heart and I said, “Yes.”

Bryan: yeah, a little bit of a similar story, I guess. I mean, without maybe recounting my whole academic career, all of the authors on this guide are people with whom that I’ve worked with in different contexts. And there’s a sense in which projects like these tend to be a combination of conversations that you’ve been having for years. And obviously, there’s a plan, there was a strategy, we carved this out and really tried to think carefully about what would be the most impactful. We also recognize and appreciate all the other books and publications out there addressing inclusive teaching. So it’s not to replace any of those, it’s really to just kind of add to the conversation nationally. We are an interesting mix in that, in terms of our individual careers, and that Isis is a provost. I’m a research faculty, but also do a lot of faculty development. Mays will probably describe herself the same way and Flower Darby is nationally known a lot of times in the online space, but really her work expands to everything. So I bring that up to say that you probably will see a lot of that complexity come to bear in the way the book is written and the kind of things we try to think about, that our faculty would need to think about, when they’re designing an equity-minded classroom.

Rebecca: So it is nice to hear all your different backgrounds and thinking about the authorship of the book, because it does help us think about, as you mentioned, the complexities of how it was written and also just the complexities of the things that we need to be thinking about when we’re teaching in this space. Your book is divided into three sections. The first section addresses class design, the second addresses the day to day operations of the class, and the final section focuses on critical reflection at the end of the course. During course design, what are some of the most important factors that faculty should consider when trying to design an inclusive course?

Mays: I’ll share some of them and Bryan, please feel free to jump in and add. So one of the things that are critical is that we approach this work with intentionality and explicit intentionality that right from the get go, even from before the students get there that we design the course to have equity in mind. And one of the factors, when it comes to course design and curriculum, is that the course has to be relevant for the students. And what the research that we found is many students find that the materials are not relevant. Now, when I think about how the brain works and how we have limited energy, oftentimes, when I see my students struggling, and I try to dig deeper and try to see how I can engage them, I usually find things like they say things like, ‘I don’t know how this is going to make me a better person,’ or ‘I don’t know how this is relevant.’ And so the brain is going to disconnect, it’s going to focus on something that is more urgent, more relevant. So we talk about relevance being very important… to explicitly make connections between students’ lives and what is in the course. The second one is transparency, why we’re doing what we’re doing. And there is a lot of research about transparency and how there is more buy-in from the students when we articulate for them how things connect, and that it’s not just busy work. And then a third factor that we say it’s really important to consider when you’re designing your course, is rigor. And we talked about the research behind rigor, and we problematize rigor, and what is the definition of rigor, and so on. And here we’re talking about academic challenge. We owe it to our students to challenge them academically, so they could succeed in their next courses, and we understand that this is multifactorial, and that we have to also find the resources so they could succeed when we challenge them academically. And so those are some of the factors that we talk about to take into consideration before you even meet your students: who are the students? what matters to them? and why it is important to cultivate the space where, when we challenge them academically, they can succeed.

Bryan: The only thing I will add because you know, we both wrote the book. So [LAUGHTER] refer pages 25 to 50, for your question kind of thing. But the only thing I will add, because this phrase wasn’t used in the book. But this phrase comes from another wonderful book called Radical Equations by Robert Moses, a civil rights leader from the 60s. And there’s a phrase they use during that time, which is then applied, he then came to apply to the Algebra Project, which he founded, which is “Cast your bucket where you are.” And that really speaks to what Mays just mentioned about getting to know your students and your context, especially at an entry level, it almost sounds like provocative, radical advice. But a lot of these things that are really important for good course design have nothing to do with the content of the class. This is not us saying that the content doesn’t matter and they should just all be signing Kumbaya for 15 weeks. What this means is that teaching is a skill and a skill that involves the psychology of the individual, the social context, both in real time but also what they brought before they showed up to that classroom. And this whole conversation is taking place because of the years we’ve been ignoring that. So I really want to kind of center that. Because I think a lot of times when people ask that question, the first thing they hear is, “Well, how do I make respiration more exciting?” Well, yeah, we’ll get to that, but this is a human being that you’re trying to build a relationship and a connection with. And that needs to take front and center before you get to inspiring them with the really beautiful content.

John: The second part of your book deals with maintaining the class, with the ongoing running of the class. And one of the things you emphasize throughout is the importance of creating a sense of belonging. Could you each talk about some strategies that could be used to help create that sense of belonging within the classroom.

Bryan: I don’t want to run the risk of listing your audience to death here. So I want to offer what I’m about to say as maybe the thing that bubbles up to the surface to me as an instructor. There’s certainly a lot of things one can do to help students feel a sense of belonging. And the approach chosen might differ depending on the class that’s been taught in the institution. One of the classes that I teach most often is intro bio and it’s a really special class for me, because it’s it’s a privilege to teach that class. I’m grateful to have the chance to welcome students into a wonderful discipline and a way of seeing the world that’s relatively unique to that space. I also like the challenge of showing a lot of students who before may not feel like this is a place they belong or see themselves doing this 10, 15, 20 years in the future. I like the challenge of showing them that this is the real thing. You can be as much a biologist as anybody else, anybody in the book, anybody you’ve seen on TV, etc. But it is a very technical space. And any technical space kind of requires a slowly evolving comfort level [LAUGHTER] as you navigate through the technicalities of it. And I think that tends to be a place where some students and faculty get stuck into how you keep that door open and welcoming while navigating this environment that really requires a lot of time and attention on the cognitive challenge. So one thing, and it might sound simple, but how feedback is given really, really matters. Without saying my age here, but I certainly went to school at a time when it was your tool, just try harder, right? …just study harder. And any grade you got you there was this sort of assumption that any grade you got was just 100% due to whether you did try well or didn’t try well enough or knew this stuff or didn’t know it. There was no discussion of the way the teaching happened. There was no discussion of your actual approaches to studying. There was no discussion about what motivates you to even do this class in the first place. And now we know and we probably knew it then too, but we know how much all of that matters. So when a student sits in front of me and they have a C, it’s not just that “Well Mays, you need to do better than this.” It’s: “Tell me how you prepare for this moment. Tell me what is motivating you to be pre-med or to want to go to grad school.” And all of those things come to be in a conversation, the goal of which is for me to see you shine in the way that I know you can. How does it build a sense of belonging? It shows the student that I am not questioning if you can become a biologist, I’m actually assuming that. What I’m working on are things that are fixable. I’m working on strategy. I’m working on things that you can do something different and see a result. And so once you know I kind of have your back in that way, your effort then becomes different because it’s just a matter of specific things we can work on.

Mays: Yes, so thank you for that. Bryan. If I were to add to your beautiful answer, I would say take the time to find out what belonging means for your students, I think we often make assumptions about inclusion and belonging and what they want and what they don’t want. Of course, I start with the understanding that wanting to belong is a human need. We’re social beings, we want to connect and we want to belong, but on a day-to-day basis in my classes within my context, what does that mean and what it would look like that’s going to be different. And while I’m going to apply what I learned, and what the research says, I also want to take the time to ask students do you want to belong? And what makes you want to belong to an academic setting or a social group? And what are some of the things that make you want to belong? And what does that word mean for you? So I think starting with that is really important. It can be really informative to our practices.

Rebecca: I really related to what you were saying, Bryan, I teach in a really technical field as well. And that technical challenge can really discourage students if we don’t make those assumptions that they can indeed be in the field that they are studying. So thanks for sharing that as your top. I feel like that’s one of my top ideas, too. And I love, Mays, about thinking about our audience, and including our audience in the design. As a designer, I really gravitate towards those kinds of ideas. One of the things that you already kind of mentioned is this idea of connections and relevance. So what are some ways that faculty can help students connect course content to their lived experiences?

Mays: I think one of the things I asked them is I talk about how learning is very relational. We are relational, learning is relational, knowledge, when we co-create it, is very much relational. So one of the things I ask them is, “Why should you care about this lesson, this topic, this context? How does it relate to your life? How does it connect to your family? How does it impact the people you care about?” And throughout the semester this is a recurring set of questions that I ask. And in the beginning of the semester, I pause, and I model the answers. I care about this, because this is how it connects to the community, the people I care about, this is how it connects to something I feel passionate about. And then it becomes an exercise that they do regularly. We do this exercise at the beginning of the class of “What is your why? And what is your ‘why?’ beyond taking this class? Why is this important? And so we connect those many exercises or “Why should you care about the acid-based physiology” to that initial “why?” exercise?

Bryan: You don’t imply this in your question, Rebecca, but it does come up a lot about relevance and how it works. And I think one danger that I want to ask faculty members to avoid is the notion here is not that every aspect of the content has to tie back to something. You may fall into that trap if everything is not connected to something, but, you know, sometimes a cell is a cell is a cell kind of thing. But there are several things that do. For me, it’s actually less a case of connecting it to their lives, per se and more a case of communicating that human beings do science, human beings do the discipline. That, in and of itself, by definition, means that there’s a social component to how it’s practiced. It introduces the cultural context within which science is done and it introduces the bias that occurs with some scientific decisions, good, bad, in-between. It brings up a different conversation once you recognize that none of these things are really apolitical, values free. The second point is, to connect something to students’ lives, you have to first know student’s life so that this way you understand, it doesn’t feel patronizing or facetious. There has to be some authenticity there about Mays’ story about getting to know the students, I don’t think she just meant know them individually, but just also their broader context. When I taught in Rhode Island, it was important to know the local and the very ancient, but also more recent history of the state, of the city, of the neighborhoods the students came from. I knew the high schools that were big feeders. Those things made the relationship a lot more authentic, because the knowledge was there first. So I think once that all those precursors are present, honestly, the connection part is not that hard, it almost comes naturally. Because you just naturally want to teach in a way that builds a history of these beautiful people. And you kind of… I don’t want to say just is automatic because you are intentional… but it is so much, so much easier, and you have this desire to do it. I’ll just add one last thing, a lot of times with teaching, and I’m speaking now, as a faculty developer, here. I get good course design, I get you want to have learning outcomes, they’re going to be measurable, etc. But sometimes, even conversations like this can get stuck within the structure of what higher ed is, which is you get 120 credits and 15 weeks at a time you take a suite of classes, and those classes give you a grade and those grades average into a number, and then you become a 3.1. Student or a 4.0 student. We get it. We get how all of that stuff works. But I know Mays well enough to know that we have much more radical visions for what education is and what it can be. We come from the Freireian school of critical consciousness and preparing students to be civically engaged to have agency and power and to see themselves as agentic parts of a democratic experiment. So what’s driving all of this is who I want you to be, not necessarily getting your good grades in 15 weeks. So from that perspective, even simple things like group work, for example, it really is actually practicing deliberative democracy. Even things like how we talk about experimental design, they bring up other questions like whose voices are not at the table when you think about these questions, like whose perspectives are you not considering? Or who are you. So if you think about this a little bit more broadly, beyond like, I just want people to do well, in this really nice subject I have a PhD in, that you tap into the more socio-political aspect of education, which is a beautiful thing, I think, but it makes the connection to social life and just broader life in general easier to do.

John: One of the things that’s especially challenging is that we’ve always had students come in with very diverse prior backgrounds in terms of their training and what they know coming into our classes, but the experience of remote teaching during COVID resulted in much greater variations in their preparation. We want to create courses that are challenging for everyone. How can we do that in a way where we’re challenging the students with really strong preparation without losing the students who don’t have as much background? What types of support can we provide to make sure that all of our students are challenged, but also have the resources to be successful in our courses?

Bryan: We could just give everybody a trophy right? Now, that’s what they say this generation is. When I put on the intro bio hat again, and that’s a place where the differential readiness is really, really apart, I would have students who last science class you take, not bio, science class, was their first year of high school next to students who were in AP, went to private school or things like that. And that’s fine. It’s fine in the sense that I’m able to design for that. And I would say there’s kind of two things I’ll say to this point. Number one, you have to be able, as an instructor, to have things in place to accurately detect whose readiness might be further behind. And specifically, what areas of readiness that need addressing, and then have the tools in place to quickly respond to that. So a lot of times just my own history, it’s hard to study. A lot of times it’s confidence. Honestly, it’s fixed mindsets around who gets to do science and what counts as doing well in science and things like that. So the first month of that class is almost like a battle, that I generally win, I think, in convincing them that this is a place for them if we consider these specific things I’m trying to show you. So a lot of times, yeah, there’s class or whatever. But there’s a lot of times spent in office hours, which we actually call student hours, because it uses a smaller group. There’s a lot of time sneaking in conversations about: Have you tried this? Have you tried that? Emails that are sent to direct people, etc. Your students will come in and I’ll just say for now, maybe kind of fly in from the get go. There are other things that they can do to grow. So those are the students I might say: Have you thought about joining our research lab? I know it’s your first semester, but it’s a good time to get to know a professor more personally and see how science is done a professional way. A lot of times those students will come to student hours. And what I would do is I put them to work. I will say, “Mays, can you make sure this group of four understands glycolysis as well as you do,” and those students will typically go on to become my learning assistants in a future semester. So my point here is that everybody has a space to grow and has a direction and an amount that they can transform. The pedagogy is you being able to figure that out? And figuring out how to respond to what growth that is needed for that individual.

Mays: Thanks, Brian, I have a couple things to add. So number one, obviously, as I hear you, John ask the question, I think it’s complex. So yes, there are students that are going to come in that may not have the academic background, perhaps they come into my pathophysiology class not really knowing the cardiac output and the cardiovascular system as they should in their previous class. And then there are students that come in ready to be challenged. At the same time, there are students that are going to come in that are going to have perhaps subtle and not so visible skills that other students who maybe have the academic background are going to have. So it’s not just that I want to bring everyone up to speed academically, I want to also bring them up to speed when it comes to issues that really matters for citizens, their empathy, their non-academic problem solving, their collegiality, and so on. So there are a couple of things I do, I want to get to know who knows what. And I tell them that I’m very transparent why I do what I do. And I tell them that this is a way to give me feedback, so I could know how to maneuver forward. I also bring the tutors and the preceptors myself from my previous classes. And I rarely bring the ones who got A’s, I bring the students who came into the class, not quote, unquote, having the background. And then they picked up the background. And they succeeded. And they ended up with a solid B, and sometimes even a C, and I bring those students and we meet on a weekly basis. And so the culture of my class is very much we’re going to work together with the tutors. And then the third thing is I tell the students, we come from different backgrounds. And I use my story that when I started graduate school, my background was in philosophy, and all of a sudden, I am studying neuropharmacology. And many of my peers in graduate school were steps ahead of me. And I was trying to figure out just basic things in cellular neurophysiology, or cellular neuroscience. And so I talk about the notion of some of us have this background and not the other background as a way to celebrate the diversity. And I say the way I’m going to approach this is I am going to start slow, because I want to review for some of you and I want to bring up to speed others, those of you who are going to feel like this is slow, I want you to stick with me. And I want you to think about what’s coming ahead. And then sometimes I’m going to speed up and some of you are going to feel like this is so fast, I also want you to stick with me, I’m going to slow down. So it’s very much relational. I’m telling them what’s going on, I’m working with the tutors, they come and talk with me. At the beginning of the class, I do a lot of exercises where students answer on a form, it’s a one-item form: should I slow down or speed up. So I’m getting this real live feedback, slow down or speed up. I’m not learning anything new, this is overwhelming. And it gives me the opportunity to change and accommodate. No class or no session is going to be the same as the previous one. So those are some of my approaches. Again, be transparent with the student, get to know what they know. focus on not just what they perhaps don’t have academically, but what other assets they bring that perhaps the students that have the academic background don’t bring and celebrate those. Those are also important and constantly seek feedback from your audience.

John: And it sounds like using peers in the classroom to provide feedback and using group projects would be another way of leveraging the strength of all the students so that those who do have better strength in a topic can assist those who are still at an earlier stage of development, which benefits both types of individuals because by explaining it to other students, they’re going to reinforce their own learning and the students who have things explained to them by their peers are going to be able to connect to that in a way they don’t often if we were explaining it to them.

Rebecca: You just kind of talked a lot about some feedback loops that are necessary in learning. And one of the things that you advocate in your book is a process of critical reflection at the end of the term that relies on self examination and engagement with course data. Can you talk a little bit about that process and what data faculty might use to assist in this kind of reflection?

Bryan: I guess for me, I really would like the conversation about how we look at semesters that we teach, to move away from a hyper focus on whether we grade or not grade, or just assess learning. And I’m not saying that assessing learning is not important. But I would like to move away from that and broaden it to evaluating an experience. And that language matters. Because in the latter, by definition, when you’re doing any kind of forensic analysis of an experience, you naturally have to think about all the factors that contribute to whether that experience was successful, however its success is defined for that situation. And the factors include ourselves, the factors includes things we did well or didn’t do well. The factors include the physical environment of the classroom or the virtual environment. The factors include the support structures that were available for both the instructor and student to be their best selves. And so once the conversation broadens in that way, it just by definition necessitates some critical reflection. It really presents the class with that question wrong. It’s probably not them, it might be me. So just things like that. It gets us away from what I think is a little bit of a false dichotomy on that kind of issue. Should you put a ladder or should you not put a ladder, that is what it is, but this is what our section is really asking us to respect. If it’s a humanist process, then every human involved will have some questions to answer about how well it went or didn’t go.

Mays: So teaching, as I mentioned earlier, is very relational. And it’s a work in progress, as learning is. And so the feedback that we see from our students is critical to help us look at what we’re missing, look at assumptions we made, assumptions we didn’t make. It really helps us move forward in a kind, equitable, and liberatory way. So, first of all, we advocate for feedback throughout the semester. Talk with your students, listen to your students. It’s a co-creative process. And then the feedback that we seek at the end, we of course, problematize student evaluation. And we say that, on the one hand, there are so many biases and so many problems with how instructors are not evaluated equitably, especially instructors from racialized backgrounds and women instructors. And at the same time, the feedback is so important, because it is right now, it’s arguably the only source of information we get about students’ experience, not so much about their learning, but about their experience. And that’s really important. We do talk about ways to enhance the reflection, too. So we could get more in-depth information about students’ experiences. And we talk about this idea of reflection, why it is so important. Parker Palmer talks about how we teach who we are, and how our inner being is so critical in the teaching process. And when we reflect on even the most harsh evaluation, what we’re doing is trying to find the truth, find a truth within that, with the intention that this truth can help us grow as teachers, as instructors, as facilitators, as human beings. So it could help our future students. So those are some of the things we talked about that the reflection is so critical, and it’s been written about in bell hooks’ work and Paulo Freire’s work, and certainly Stephen Brookfield and Parker Palmer and Laura Rendon. And those are really important. I hope when I finish a class, that it’s not just my students who are changed, that I change as well, that it is a process where as bell hooks calls it, liberating mutuality, where the classroom, whether it’s online or in person becomes a space where both the instructor and the students are transformed by the end of that experience. So those are just some of the things we underscore in that section of the book.

John: We always end by asking, what’s next?

Bryan: I will say what’s next, for my program in general, is we’ve been keeping our ears to the ground on the political landscape in the US, particularly around the kinds of things that we’ve been writing about over the past several years. And I think one thing the field needs more is we need to continue to have scholarship around these ideas and think critically about how to have education systems that allow everybody to thrive. But I think there also needs to be really well designed communication projects that message this and perhaps ways other than how academia typically messages this, which is through the research process. This is not trying to throw that process out of the water, but I think getting into more storytelling type projects, podcasting, narrative, op ed. So the short answer to you “what next” question is there’ll be more projects like that are coming down the pipeline, because we think that there’s a gap and a real need for that.

Mays: For me, it’s really bringing the wellbeing and mental health to the equity conversations. I think for so long we’ve done equity and inclusive work, kind of like in a vacuum without taking a holistic approach and that exclusion can have a profound impact on our sense of wellbeing or even mental health. I mean research shows just how systematic exclusion and microaggression can impact our cortisol level, for example. In my own work, I’ve been just saying how they intersect mental health and equity and inclusion and justice. And I want to be more intentional to, I guess, bring that to national conversations. What are you doing about mental health? I know you have this and that initiative for equity-minded education. Where does mental health fit in within that?

John: Well, thank you. Your book is a tremendous resource that can be really valuable in helping people build a more equitable classroom environment.

Mays: Thank you for having us.

Rebecca: We appreciate you joining us today.

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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.

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291. Navigating Teaching Inequities

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

Show Notes

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

Transcript

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

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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.

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

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

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

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

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

Rebecca: Oh, that sounds so delightful.

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

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

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

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

Chavella: Oooh. [LAUGHTER]

John: Very nice.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

CHVELLA: Yes, absolutely.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rebecca: I like that strategy.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

John: Joy is good.

Chavella: Absolutely.

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

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

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

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

Rebecca: It’s always our pleasure.

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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.

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284. Learning That Matters

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

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

Show Notes

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

Transcript

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

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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.

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

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

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

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

John: Julia?

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

Rebecca: …there’s always one ,Julia.

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

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

John: I haven’t seen that one.

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

John: And Caralyn?

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

John: Wonderful.

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

John: And I have Darjeeling tea today.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cynthia: Absolutely.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rebecca: Those are all really good points.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rebecca: It would be a lot easier.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Caralyn: Thank you.

JULIA: Thank you.

Karynne: Thank you

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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.

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283. Neurodiverse Hiring Initiative

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

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

Show Notes

Transcript

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

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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.

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

Kendra: Thank you for having me.

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

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

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

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

John: And I have Prince of Wales tea today.

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

Kendra: Well…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rebecca: Sounds a lot better to me.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rebecca: And most of these things are not difficult.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[MUSIC]

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.

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281. The New Science of Learning

Students who enter college without a preparation in effective learning strategies often do not persist to degree completion. In this episode, Todd Zakrajsek joins us to discuss what incoming students should know to successfully navigate the college experience.

Todd is an Associate Research Professor and Associate Director of a Faculty Development Fellowship at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He is also the Director of 4 Lilly Conferences On Evidence-Based Teaching and Learning. Todd is the author of many superb books. His most recent book is the 3rd edition of The New Science of Learning: How to Learn in Harmony With Your Brain.

Show Notes

Transcript

John: Students who enter college without a preparation in effective learning strategies often do not persist to degree completion. In this episode, we discuss what incoming students should know to successfully navigate the college experience.

[MUSIC]

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.

[MUSIC]

John: Our guest today is Todd Zakrajsek. Todd is an Associate Research Professor and Associate Director of a Faculty Development Fellowship at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He is also the Director of 4 Lilly Conferences On Evidence-Based Teaching and Learning. Todd is the author of many superb books. His most recent book is the 3rd edition of The New Science of Learning: How to Learn in Harmony With Your Brain. Welcome back, Todd.

Todd: Well, thank you so much. I’m looking forward to our conversation today.

Rebecca: Today’s teas are:… Todd, I hear you have a surprise for us.

Todd: Yeah, actually, I’ve got a bag of mystery tea. There’s just a whole bunch of different teas in here and they’re little packets. So live in an air we shall open up one of the packets.

Rebecca: So, would you like a drumroll? [LAUGHTER]

Todd: There we go. And now I am going to be having crystal clarity oolong tea to find a peaceful state of mind. Nice.

Rebecca: Sounds like a good state of mind to be in.

John: So it’s a fermented tea.

Todd: Apparently it is.

John: Where’s that from?

Todd: This is from Portland, Oregon.

John: Excellent. And I have a blueberry green tea from the Republic of Tea.

Rebecca: And John, just because you were asking about it last time we recorded, I have my last cup of Hunan jig, just for you.

John: Very good.

Rebecca: I do not know why it’s called Hunan jig. [LAUGHTER] It’s tasty.

John: We’ve invited you here today to discuss the third edition of The New Science of Learning.

Rebecca: Can you give us a little overview of the book?

Todd: So the book is essentially a guide to help faculty and students to understand the learning process, but also just the whole college experience. Now, this is not a book that’s like tips on how to study, specifically, it’s more of a global looking at teaching and learning. It does have tips in there too, and actually each chapter has a couple, but that’s not the foundation of what I’m really after. For instance, the first chapter is about learning from multiple perspectives. And it talks about the dangers of dichotomous thinking. Too much in our society, it’s either I like it, I don’t like it, that’s a good person, bad person, and gets away from that. And from there, there’s sections in there on setting goals and self regulation, monitoring how we interact with others in our work and self efficacy, the extent to which we believe we can succeed at something. There are whole sections on helping to understand how people learn, finding patterns, and what that does in our society, in our classes, and in our content. If we can find the patterns, we can learn a lot more easily… Bloom’s taxonomy, and it has a chapter in there on sleeping, the effects of not sleeping or how much it can help you when you do sleep and exercise. And it even has a chapter in there about how to work well in a group. So it’s essentially kind of an overall book that helps students with the learning process or the college experience.

John: The book is clearly a good resource for first-year students, that said books often have more than one audience. Did you write this book for a broader audience or was it focused primarily on first-year students?

Todd: It’s always tricky writing a book, in my mind, at least you have to have your audience in mind the whole time you’re writing, that’s the only way I can do it, and write at a level that I think connects with the audience. So certainly, first-year students and more specifically, like a first-generation college student, or a student from a marginalized group that doesn’t have a lot of experience in their family with colleges. Because if you do, it’s a very different experience than if you don’t. So this is a resource for people who don’t know the ins and outs. At the same time, there’s a lot of material in here that faculty just don’t know. And so some of the learning theories that are in here, some of the pattern recognition, some of the sleep research, the faculty don’t know. So I tried to write it so that faculty would also find it interesting. And I tried to straddle that line, but I also tried to pull in what a senior in high school might find valuable. So a junior or senior in high school could read this and get a better sense of what they were going to experience in college. So I tried to do that, and then a general resource for anybody else in terms of people in student affairs or in a student success center. So I was looking at multiple audiences started primarily with the student. But when I used examples and the level of writing, I tried to drift in and out so that I could get these other groups in such a way that they would find it valuable as well.

Rebecca: I really enjoy the personalized conversational tone, which obviously is great for students. It hooks you right in and then goes into the introduction. And so I really enjoyed that style. Can you talk a little bit more about why you chose that style and how that might help students?

Todd: For me, I just think conversation storytelling is one of the most effective ways of learning and so I like to do that. I also like to bury things just a very little bit at the beginning. So you start to read and then you realize as its unfolding… So, for instance, in the first chapter, we’re talking about the danger of dichotomous thinking. The example in the book was: it’s easy to tell night from day. If it’s noon, we know it’s day and if it’s midnight, we know it’s night. But what happens just as the sun sets? There is a moment when the day stops and the night starts and it’s the edges like that where all the richness is. And then I think there’s a line in the book that says, once we’re going through that, like the day and the night and what’s really at the edge, and it’s like, we’re not really talking about day and night here, are we? We’re talking about people. And so that kind of concept that I really like in terms of keeping it conversational, keeping it tied to things that people know. But my whole goal, and what I’m shooting for is to help people who can read science, but do it in a way that they enjoy it.

John: Much of your book focuses on how we learn. Students come in with some serious misperceptions about how we learn. When students are asked how they study, they tend to read things repeatedly, where the evidence suggests that’s not very effective. They tend to highlight quite a bit, which is also not very effective in increasing long term-recall, or transfer ability. Why aren’t students learning how to learn before they’re, say 18 or 19 years old or older? Shouldn’t some of this instruction be taking place in earlier years of education? And why isn’t this happening earlier?

Rebecca: John, did you bring your soapbox with you today? [LAUGHTER]

Todd: It’s an issue. I mean, it’s a huge issue. We spend our whole time in our educational system teaching people stuff, how to do things and what things are. But it’s crazy, we don’t teach students how to learn. We treat it as if it’s an implicit assumption that everybody just can learn and to an extent we can. When we’re young, we learn how to walk and we learn how to use utensils, and we teach kids how to tie shoes, and children learn how to ride a bike. And so I think in the general framework, there’s all this learning going on and teaching going on. And as a result, we have the implicit assumption that everybody can teach and everybody can learn. But teaching is a profession. And learning is really, really nuanced in a lot of different ways. And so what we have are a lot of implicit assumptions and trials and errors. If you think about for yourself, where did you actually learn how to learn? And for most individuals, it’s around second or third grade, because that’s when we start testing. Which by the way, if you ask young, young children: “Do you like to learn and do you like school?” they say yes to both of those, until suddenly, they start to say that they like to learn and they don’t like school. And it’s almost universally in the country around third grade. So right around third grade, we’re starting to test, but we don’t teach them how to learn at that moment. So the parents are making up flashcards and quizzing the kids and the kids are reading aloud in class. And we’re going through these actions without knowing what we’re doing. And it turns out, as you’ve already pointed out, John, very well is that a lot of these things that we have implicit assumptions about, we’re wrong, we’re just wrong. And the trouble is, we don’t have a baseline. So if we start highlighting, if I highlight the chapter in the book and I get a good grade, then obviously highlighting must work. And if I’m underlining things, and I get a decent grade, underlining must work. But how much could you have learned if you realized how to do that? Now I’ve got students who will use five different colors to highlight. When I ask them why the different colors, they’ll say, the blue is if it’s an application, and the green is for vocabulary, and the pink is something that’s like really important, and I always love to tell them when they do that. You should use black for the stuff that’s not important at all. Good times. But the idea is they’re doing that the students sometimes are doing their flashcards but the question becomes… like flashcards, when you’re going through a deck of flashcards, when you get it right, do you set it off to the side? Or do you put it back in the deck? How do you do that when you’re learning something like chemistry? How do you learn those terms? When you’re learning a periodic chart, how do you do that? And so I just firmly believe if we started teaching children how to learn at around second or third grade and just spent 1% of the time teaching the learning part and the rest of it all about content, by the time that they were done with school, they would be lifelong effective learners. And instead, we have people who believe that they have a given learning style, which we could do on a whole different show. People do have different ways in which they learn, but the concept of teaching to a given learning style has no data behind it. And highlighting, there’s studies out there that says highlighting doesn’t work and it doesn’t work primarily, however, there are ways to highlight that are effective. Re-reading is not effective, unless you reread for a specific purpose or reread in a special way. And so this stuff is going on, and, again, we’re not teaching students how to learn. So we should do that. I’ve given presentations about how to learn to everyone from high school students up through professional schools, in nursing programs, pharmacy programs, and medical schools. And the number of times that someone in a medical school… a second-year medical student… will come up and say I wish somebody had taught me this sooner. The case you’d think of is like the prototype of a student would be a med student who memorizes and learns stuff so fast. But those students who can pick up things quickly will say I wish somebody had showed me how to pick it up even faster. And so I think we should do that. Same with writing. We should teach students how to write instead of just having them write. There’s a soapbox for you. [LAUGHTER]

Rebecca: I mean, I’m on it, too. [LAUGHTER] It’s interesting that when I was thinking about your question and about like, when would I say that I started learning was actually when I started struggling.

Todd: Oh, interesting.

Rebecca: …because when it wasn’t hard, you could just skate by, but there was a moment, and it was in sixth grade, I remember, social studies, and I had a really hard time reading and reading comprehension. And then I had someone who actually had to read more effectively. And it worked immensely. But it was only because I had that intervention or that help. Because it wasn’t part of the curriculum, it wasn’t taught. that I actually overcame that. But I think a lot of our students come to learning these strategies once they’re struggling significantly to the point where they have to ask for help, rather than us being proactive about it.

Todd: Exactly. And I tell you, and it’s in the book here, too, is it’s exactly what you said was my experience. I pick stuff up very, very quickly, I could skim a book and go in and take a test and do well. And I did that through high school. When I got to college, I had five classes. My first class that I got a grade back in was like a D minus in the introduction to criminal justice class. And then I had a physics class and my first grade and that was an F. And I thought, well, what’s not going well. And then in my math class, I got an F minus. And I remember thinking, well, it can’t get any worse than this, until I got my chemistry grade and that was an F minus minus, I even went to the teacher and said “F minus minus? I don’t understand this.” And he said something like, “Given you received an F minus minus, it doesn’t surprise me you failed to comprehend it.” So, a kind of mean person too. And the concept here, and the reason I mentioned is what you just said, Rebecca, I hadn’t learned how to learn. And so at the point where I needed to know how to learn, I was in a jam. And I actually went to the registrar to get a drop slip. And she said, “Get your signatures and bring it back. I’ll take care of it.” It was a long time ago, and four of my five faculty members signed the slip. This was a very small school, this isn’t some big school where you get lost. This school only had like 200 faculty members and about 3500 students and the psych prof said, “I don’t understand what you’re doing. Why would you drop out?” This was like two months after I started. And I said, “I just can’t do it. I don’t know how to do it.” He said: “You need to learn how to learn.” I said “like you can learn how to learn.” I didn’t even know the concept existed. And so he pointed out some strategies and pointed toward a book and I learned how to learn but I was one signature away from not finishing, I wouldn’t have met you, I wouldn’t have done any of the books I’ve done all of that would have not happened for one signature, because nobody taught me how to learn.

John: And a lot of our students get those last signatures and disappear. We’re losing a lot of students once they hit that barrier, which is why it’s important we have books such as yours, and we spend more time working on teaching students how to learn.

Rebecca: And reading the book as part of our system.

Todd: That’s what we should do. If I’m doing a faculty workshop at a campus, and I say “How many of you in here came within a whisper of flunking out of school?” most faculty raise their hands. And that’s just amazing to me, those are the folks that you would think got through easy. So it’s what you just said, John, how many fabulous, wonderful people, they’re probably doing things that are fine, but they’re not doing what they wanted to do and it’s because of that.

Rebecca: Yeah, we just need to design our systems to be proactive, rather than reactive. And oftentimes, it’s not even reactive, we just miss the boat entirely.

Todd: That’s a good point. Instead of being reactive, we should be either proactive, or at least not inactive.

Rebecca: Let’s start with not inactive, yeah. [LAUGHTER]

Todd: That’s a place to start.

John: Part of the issue is that we ultimately figured it out on our own. And we assume that everyone can and we’re not a random group of the population, a very large share of faculty members were not first-generation students. A disproportionately large number of faculty members come from families where there were people with higher ed is part of their background. And it’s easy to forget what sort of struggles students may face. Even if someone may have come close at one point, they figure it was an aberration, and they forget that those aberrations can be critical points for many people.

Rebecca: And that these struggles happen across the spectrum. It’s not just our undergraduate students. As you mentioned, our graduate students have some of the same struggles. I was just having a conversation with graduate students last week about even just basic time management skills or how to troubleshoot or problem solve, because they don’t have those skills, and they need to build those skills.

Todd: Yeah. And it’s still also not equitable across different groups, individuals from marginalized groups tend to fail more frequently, because they don’t have the resources and they don’t have that support system so that when they are struggling, somebody can help them.

Rebecca: So the first edition of this book was released in 2013. How does this third edition differ from these earlier editions?

Todd: Actually, in a lot of ways. When we wrote the book in 2013, first of all, the research has changed considerably. But the book ended up also being just a hair over 100 pages. And this new version is about 250-260 pages. So it has grown substantially. There’s sections of the book that were not in the original book, or not even in the second edition. So there was a whole section on how to learn in groups. There’s a section in there on pitfalls, the places where students tend to have problems. Hidden curriculum kind of issues: what are things that they’re not specifically stated and so they’re implied in a way that if you know that they exist or you had family members who went to college you can figure it out. But if you’ve never gone to college, you didn’t know, I didn’t know when I went to college that if you failed a class, you could retake the course later. And so I thought when I failed my chemistry class that I was literally done, because if you can’t pass, then I can’t get into Chem II. If I can’t get into Chem II, I can’t go… And when I talked to my advisor, the advisor says: “Well, just take a trailer course.” And I said, “What is this thing you call a trailer course?” So those types of things are in this edition of the book. So I picked up a lot more nuances than we had before. And of course, I mentioned a little bit earlier, too, but the research has changed significantly in the last 10 years. We know a lot more now about how we learned than we did 10 years ago. And for things as subtle as what’s happening while you sleep. And so it’s getting more and more that we know actually, what kinds of learning is being solidified at different stages of sleep. So there’s always changing research, and I’m just happy to be able to get that updated research in there.

Rebecca: I love that you just slipped in something about sleep, because I was just going to ask about sleep, I was just having a conversation with a colleague today about being able to process new information when you’re tired. And that we might typically think of processing being associated with a learning disability or something. But actually, lack of sleep can cause the same kinds of symptoms, essentially. And so I can imagine that actually talking about sleep as an easy sell for students, because it’s something that everyone can easily think about, but many of them don’t get. Can you share a little bit of insight into sleep and learning?

Todd: Certainly, and this is one of those areas that we all know that it’s harder when you’re exhausted to do something than when you’re rested. But back to the dichotomous thinking, we think oftentimes in terms of I’m exhausted and I’m rested. But what about all those nuances in between. What if you normally like to get seven and a half, eight hours of sleep, and you get six and a half hours. You feel okay, but what we know now from the way people learn is that you’re still going to be learning at a less effective level. And if you’re exhausted, you get to a point very easily where you can’t learn at all. And so we know that in terms of encoding the information, you need to be able to process the information in your environment, which happens when you get sleep. So that’s important. And we know that nobody wakes up after a terrible night of sleep and says, “Whew, I feel great, I look great, and I’m learning like crazy.” We know it’s going to be a rough day. And so that fatigue makes it hard to learn. And then what we also know about sleep, which is fascinating to me is while you sleep, a lot of consolidation happens, it’s called consolidation. And if it doesn’t happen, the information is gone, typically in about 24 or 48 hours. And so what we have are students who, for instance, will study all night and they can go in and take the test. They do okay on the test, so they think this is an okay way to learn. And then they don’t realize that the material is pretty well gone in two days… three max. And then later when they need the material, if let’s just say for the comprehensive final, the instructor says “Oh, everybody, I hope you’re studying because this final is going to be tough.” Now I go to learn for the final… I flunk the final, most students don’t say “Oh, I’ll bet that’s because when I learned I didn’t get stage four sleep, which consolidated the information and therefore made it available for me to relearn it at a faster pace for the final.”No, they come back with a “Wow, that was a really hard final.” So it’s going on all the time. But sleep is probably right up there at the top of one of the things you can do to learn more effectively is to sleep well.

Rebecca: Yet, so many of our students don’t sleep. And we inevitably are probably teaching a class full of students who haven’t had a lot of sleep.[LAUGHTER]

Todd: Yeah, and it’s for the public service announcement, we got to put it out there because the sleep is important in terms of learning. But there are so many things that are tied to lack of sleep, it’s just incredible: diabetes, even cancer, weight gain, high blood pressure, all these things. There’s just tons of stuff. Your skin actually looks worse. There’s so many things that are tied to a good night of sleep. It’s when all the restorative stuff happens. So I’m going to tell you listeners, the folks who say, “Yeah, I know, I’m exhausted, I can’t get my sleep.” It’s damaging to a person to not get sleep. And when somebody says “Well, yeah, but I got so much to do,” just keep in mind that it will take a toll. And oftentimes, and this is an important one, if you get a rest or get some extra sleep, you’ll do other things so much more effectively, that you come out ahead and don’t have the health issues.

John: And this is really important to convey to students. And I do share this information with students in my classes. I don’t always practice it myself, unfortunately. But I do share the information. And when they see results on how much more they recall when they’re well rested, at least a claim it will have a bit of an effect on them in the future. But one of the things… this is more on the faculty side rather than the student side… but so many of our classes are designed in such a way so that faculty are using high-stakes exams. Students have a lot of incentive to cram the night before a test and it does have that immediate payoff of increasing their short-term recall. And then, since they’re worried about the grade, they don’t necessarily care about how much they recall until they get to their next high-stakes activity. And then they have to go through the whole process again. And maybe this is something that faculty should work on too in terms of reducing the number of high stakes activities, reducing the incentives for students to cram and to cut back on their sleep.

Todd: Yeah, I think that’s a really good point. In fact, there’s several things that we can do to impact the student’s sleep. When I mention the importance of sleep to faculty at times, they’ll say, “Well, I can’t make them sleep.” And oftentimes, my response is “No, but you can keep them up.” If you have a high-stakes exam, and it’s like a midterm and a final, it’s human behavior, people are going to wait toward the end to do it. I know, there’s some faculty out there listening who say “I do everything early.” And that’s great. But I can tell you, I’ve been on a lot of committees with my colleagues, where we turned reports in at the very last minute or somebody handed me their portion at the last minute. So it is going to happen, if we know students are going to wait toward the last minute to do it. It’s what you just said John, it’s a good point, if it’s a huge exam, it means they’re going to be up, maybe even for multiple nights. If it’s a big paper, they’re probably going to spend the night all night writing it, maybe two days and it might get a little bit of sleep, but they’re going to be tired. If you have the paper due on like Monday at noon, they’ve now got exhausted from Sunday night, they’re gonna be tired all week. If you could make your paper due on Friday afternoon at like 2:00, if they stay up all Thursday night, now they’re exhausted, but they’re exhausted going into a weekend. So a lot of little things we can do. I have a friend Howard Aldrich at UNC, he had a nine o’clock class, 9 am. He had the papers due at class time in the morning, then he and I were chatting and with Sakai, you can see what times papers are turned in. So we were looking and the students were turning in the papers, two o’clock, three o’clock in the morning, even eight o’clock in the morning. And he knew that they stayed up to do it. So he changed his deadline to 9pm with a 12-hour extension, if you asked for it. So if you can get a 12 hour extension from 9pm to 9am. What he found was 86% of his students turned in the work by 9pm. So when that happens, we can’t say they were awake. But we know that they weren’t up doing his paper in the middle of the night. And so those are the kinds of things that we can do as faculty members. And I agree in terms of the high-stakes tests, we can think through what are we doing that’s actually going to be conducive to learning versus is going to make a hindrance. And if we say “Well, it’s their own fault. They shouldn’t wait till the last minute.” Why put them in that position?

John: To be fair, though, to those faculty who do give high-stakes exams, they often spend a lot of the time just lecturing in a monotone, which can facilitate sleep on the part of students, at least during their class time, which is a large share of the time that they’re interacting with students.

Todd: That’s great. Yeah, I suppose they could… get a little nap in during class. that could work.

Rebecca: It’s all about balance. [LAUGHTER]

Todd: It is balance, isn’t it? That’s a work-sleep balance right there.

Rebecca: I had an interesting conversation with students this week about perfectionism and procrastination, which also, I think leads to sleep deprivation because of all the procrastination. And what I found in the conversation… students were being really authentic and open with me… was that they were so worried about their performance on things, even low-stakes things, like these weren’t big-stakes kinds of things, but just so worried about their performance on something that they would wait to do it. But they’d spend all this energy and time worrying about it. And so we talked about how to actually take an assignment and then plan it and break it into smaller pieces. But I talked to the students about how to break it into smaller pieces so that there were times to get help, because they were so worried about not doing it well that they could build in time to get assistance and help. So I’ll be interested to find out at the end of this week, if they were going to try this strategy this week to see if it helped them. But it had never occurred to them to break it into these smaller pieces.

Todd: Yeah, and what you just said, I think, is vital for anybody who’s listening. It’s all the stuff that never occurs to somebody. This is why individuals who go to therapists can gain so much is when a therapist had some an individual says “I never thought of it like that.” For students, let’s look at your sleep. Just jot it down on a scale of one to 10 in the morning, how did you feel about how much sleep you got? To what extent did you get a good night’s sleep, and then at the end of the day, jot down on a scale of one to 10, how’d things go. And when they start to see that bad night’s of sleep result in days that are not all that productive or work well, it’s like, “Oh, I didn’t know it was that related.” Breaking things into tasks, I think is fabulous. That’s what this book is about, too, is the concept of just showing them things and then having them be able to look at and say, “Oh, I had never thought of that.” And that’s what’s valuable. So I like what you’re doing.

John: For those who procrastinate on coming up with the set of tasks to do, again, course design could resolve that a little bit by scaffolding the project so that students never have a huge chunk of work to do all at once.

Todd: Yeah, I think that’s good. And then the other one is a whole different program is ungrading. And if we can just remove some of the grading on some of these things, and there’s faculty out there and myself included years ago who would say well, “If I don’t grade it, if there’s no grade, why would the students do it?” And it turns out, sometimes, from what you just said, if the students are so stressed about it, they spend all this extra time, you remove some of the high-stakes aspects of it, and they don’t stress about it so much. But that is a problem. And I will tell you, it’s not just the students, I was writing a blog, and I have a person I turn a blog over to McKenzie. She’s phenomenal. And she edits at the end. And I wanted to prove to her I was working on this one blog, because I told her I was going to get it and and I kept getting busy with other things. And I submitted it to her. But I planned on spending another three or four hours on it. She emailed me back, and she said, “This is so close to being done. Let me just edit it. And then you can take another look at it.” Had she not said that I would have worked another probably four hours on this thing, half a day. And I think students are doing that at times too. I think they finish an assignment. It’s good. And then they think, “but I want it to be better.” And so, just clarity and helping to understand and building some structure into the course so they’re not guessing. Take away the stuff that’s just not necessary and let them focus their energy on the things that are necessary.

Rebecca: Sometimes it means even pointing out something that’s low stakes is actually low stakes.

Todd: Yeah, I think that’s really good. Signposting. So there’s a terminology for you. Signposting is basically telling somebody what they’re doing, or what you’re doing. So if I’m giving you feedback, I could just give you feedback. And we’ve had programs where at the end of the program, the students will say, “I’m not getting enough feedback.” And so we all as faculty say, all right, anytime we give feedback, we’re going to say, “Would you mind if I give you some feedback right now? Hey, would it be alright, if I give you just a little bit of feedback? Do you have some time tomorrow for some feedback?” …and at the end of the semester, the response was too much feedback. We hadn’t changed. But it’s what you just said, just let people know what’s going on.

John: One of the nice things about your book is that it’s grounded in learning science, but it’s really easy to read. One of the things we had trouble with in coming up with questions is there’s so many things that we could discuss in this book that we thought we’d shift it back to you, what are two or three pieces of advice that you would recommend to students that might have the biggest impact on their learning?

Todd: First of all, I appreciate the fact that you found it easy to read. And I have gotten that feedback from others too. It’s called “The Science of Learning.” And I think that scares some people at times. This is not a dry book, I tried to make it conversational, and folks say it’s fairly easy to get through. And that’s good. The couple things… we’ve already talked about sleep quite a bit. Sleep is just huge if we can help talk to students to sleep. The other one you had mentioned already is the cramming. The tricky spot with cramming is not necessarily that the students want to do it, they are reinforced for it. I consider this to be one of the biggest traps in higher education. Because the research suggests that if I cram all night long, don’t sleep, study all night long, and if you sleep for six or seven hours, I may very well outscore you by two or three percentage points, just enough that I do fine, and it looks like that’s okay. And you’ve already mentioned that a couple of days later, and the information is gone. The students don’t realize… sometimes they know it’s gone later. But they don’t generally know that it’s going to go away at the extent that it does. What they know is they’ve studied, they did well on the test, and therefore they’re doing okay in the class. So, a couple things in the book, if we could help them understand how much damage comes with cramming, it would be huge. In fact, it’s in the book like five times, to the point where the editor said, “Do you know you’ve already talked about this like four times?” And I said, “Yep, with any luck, we’ll only do it once more. [LAUGHTER] But it’s that important.” So that’s a big one. The other thing that I think is really huge is if we could help students with understanding metacognition, the concept here is knowing when you know or understanding your learning process, and it’s something that we don’t monitor, but we could. When you sit down to study, jot down how long you think it’s going to take you to read the chapter, when you’re done reading the chapter, jot down how you felt it went, jot down a couple of notes of what you learned. As you’re reading, stop every couple of paragraphs and just look away from the book and think, “What am I reading right now?” Because your mind will start to wander and you not realize it. Everybody that I know has read a chapter or read an article and either the next morning didn’t remember if they had read it or not or even when they finish they thought to themselves well, I don’t remember anything about that. I was thinking about bacon the entire time. And so that concept of just knowing when you’re processing… so metacognition is big, the sleeping stuff and cramming is big, and the last thing I’d say… there are lots of things in there… but just understanding Bloom’s Taxonomy, understanding at what level you know something. I like to use this as a quick example, I’m from Michigan, you could teach your students that there are five Great Lakes. Imagine they know only this, there are five Great Lakes: Huron, Ontario, Michigan, Erie, Superior… HOMES, right? And we could say Superior is the deepest. I can come back with a quiz two days later and say which of these lakes is the biggest Ontario, Michigan Erie, or Superior? And the students could say Superior. At this moment, I don’t know for sure if the students know what a lake is. I asked them these are five things called lakes. This one’s the deepest. Later I say of these things called lakes, which is the deepest?t They’ve memorized it. If students know at that moment, they’re just functioning at the recall level, ot helps them and it’s because when they take tests they start to understand I’m doing well on recall and understanding, I’m not doing well on application. So knowing Bloom’s, knowing metacognition, understanding the sleep thing, and then exercise is huge. There’s all kinds of research out there that says, if you’re actually getting your heart rate up 15-20 minutes a day, it does all kinds of cool things for your brain and actually makes learning easier. So that’s just a couple of them.

Rebecca: So in the description of your book indicate that there’s an instructor’s manual that accompanies the text. And often this is not the case. [LAUGHTER] So can you talk a little bit about what’s included in the manual?

Todd: Yeah, so when I was writing the book, the first and second editions didn’t have this. And other books of this ilk don’t tend to have it… the first-year common reads, and the first-year experience books… but I wrote an instructor’s manual when I was early career faculty member and I wrote it for an introductory psychology book. All textbooks have instructor’s manuals now, so I thought, why should this book not be just as good as those. So when I was done, I kept right on writing. And I’ve written an instructor’s manual, which, ironically, is about as long as the first edition of this book. So what I did is for each chapter, I understand that if you’re going to use this book in your classes, you may not have time to read things very, very carefully, you might have to skim a chapter at times. So each chapter has a summary. So in the instructor’s manual, that summarizes the major concepts in the chapter, every chapter has discussion questions at the end. So I put down these are the types of things that students may very well say in the discussion questions. So that if you started discussion, you’re not stuck with a situation of asking the students to discuss, you show up in class and you think, Ummm,I’m not sure what I would say about this. So I’ve given you a couple things. There’s also teaching tips in every chapter. And for each one of the teaching tips, I’ve got a short thing of these are the kinds of things that students should experience. And on top of that, every chapter also has active learning exercises. I’m big on the active learning, So it will say in the sleep chapter, here’s like four different things you can do. And it sets it all up, it explains: here’s what you tell students to do, here’s what you have them do, here’s how you report out. And so it’s kind of a guide for active learning keyed to the book. And you can find this, if you go to the Stylus Publishing website… you’re actually not going to see it unfortunately, if you go to Amazon, because that’s not where it’s listed… you have to get to the Stylus publishing site, and then you can find it and there is no charge for it, you just let them know that you’re teaching a course and they’ll send it to you. And if you can’t find it, I’m the only Todd Zakrajsek in the world. So if you send me an email at ToddZakrajsek@gmail.com, then I will make sure that I’ll get you connected to the person with the instructor’s manual because we didn’t make it real easy to find, because we didn’t necessarily think that the students should have the instructor’s manual. [LAUGHTER] So it’s kind of buried in there a bit.

John: And we’ll include a link to your email in the show notes.

Todd: Perfect.

Rebecca: So can you share one of the examples of an active learning activity that you might do in relationship to the book?

Todd: Oh, sure. The chapter on sleep, there’s one activity that’s kind of explained there for keeping a sleep activity log for a week. And it shows how to have students block off their time and then indicate whether or not things went well, or it didn’t go well for them. And it helps them to find their ideal time. So I did this when I was an undergraduate. And it was fascinating, because I found out that between 2 and 4pm, I’m practically worthless, but early early in the morning, like it’s 6 to 8am, if I do have to get up and do something, I was just really, really good. And I don’t care for getting up early in the morning, so it was unfortunate, but that’s what I found out. Another activity, and there it’s called a snowball technique. And this particular one in the chapter on sleep was students are asked to think about things that help and hinder a good night of sleep for them. And then the snowball aspect of it is they talk to other students, and then they learn one thing that helps and one thing that hinders sleep, and after you learn from five different people, you go back and sit down, you get into a small group, and then you discuss those, and then you report out kind of overall, what are the general themes that you saw. So there are things like that in the instructor’s manual, they’re described in like a half a page. So it doesn’t take you very long to read through it and get a sense of what it looks like. And so it’s there just to help you get you rolling.

Rebecca: Sounds like it really reduces some cognitive load for faculty teaching these things.

Todd: One of the issues that is tricky that we do have to be careful of is faculty are really, really busy. And I taught one time on a quarter system, so you had three quarters, and I was on a 5-5-5 load with a total of nine new preps. So there were times that I was really struggling in running into class last minute, and then I had multiple sections and everything. And it would have been really helpful to have a 750 word that I could read in five minutes summary of the chapter, so then I could talk to the students. Because I knew the content. I just had to make sure I knew what was in there. And then for an activity sometimes drawing up an activity is not easy. If I could glance at one and get a sense of it, then I can do it. Same with the discussion questions. And so yeah, busy folks, and it’s just to help them out when they get in a bit of a jam.

John: That can be extremely helpful especially with those sorts of teaching loads, which I’ve only experienced once or twice, but it’s really challenging.

Todd: You do what you do.

Rebecca: …sounds terrifying. [LAUGHTER]

Todd: It is not easy. It’s not.

John: In the last section of the book, “A Message from Dr. Z,” you note several struggles you had in pursuing your own education. Why finish the book this way?

Todd: Well, I’m really glad you asked that. Because the last section, students oftentimes won’t read the things that are way at the end, I think the faculty are the same. And I probably have been the same too. But at the beginning of the book, I talked a little bit about some of the struggles that I had when I went to college, to almost flunking out and the fact that if one faculty member had decided to sign the form, I wouldn’t have been writing this book. And so that’s where it started. But I saved the message for the end, so there wasn’t the end of the story. And so when you go back to the “Message from Dr. Z,” that section starts with “Welcome to the end of the book,” And it’s essentially, “Let me tell you the rest of the story.” And what I did from this, there’s a great quote by E. McClellan basically says… it’s attributed to him, as there’s a lot of variations. But it boils down to everyone’s fighting a battle we know nothing about, everyone’s fighting a hard battle, it’s worded different ways. But that’s been really impactful for me, because I think if everybody knew that everybody else was fighting a battle at any given moment, then we could have a little bit more patience with individuals. But we also could say, you know, they’re getting through it, maybe I can get through it, too. So I finished the book with just a real strong narrative, in a sense that when I went through school as a first-generation college student, I almost flunked out that first semester. If you almost flunk out the first semester, just keep moving forward. And I had to work a lot of jobs, I was exhausted, but I had no money. And so I was working all the time. And so if you’re working all the time, you’re going to be tired, just keep moving forward. And I had a daughter when I was a graduate student and graduate school is already hard enough until you have a child and I almost quit graduate school because it was so hard to have a child and work in graduate school. So if that happens to you, keep going forward. And I almost ran out of money multiple times. And I would have dropped out. One time, I probably stayed in school because of $100. But I do actually know a couple of programs now, there are a couple of institutions that will give up to $500 to a student. You just show up and say, “Look, I really need $200.” And they find the students don’t abuse the system, but you don’t want someone to flunk out for $200. But in my case, at the end of this book it’s like if you’re struggling with some money, just keep that in mind. And so I just want to tell you real quickly, I don’t like to usually read these things, but just to give you the tone for the end. So I put this in there, “I leave you with the following to consider in the months ahead. Be mindful of your past, but look to the future. Listen carefully to the voices of others and find respectful ways for your own voice to be heard. Find ways to get what you worked so hard for without taking anything away from anyone else. Most importantly, always strive for more so that you have more to share. Ever forward. So that’s the tone I want to leave the students with. We’re all struggling at times and it’s not going to be easy, but if you just keep moving forward, we can make it.”

Rebecca: Speaking of moving forward. You’ve been doing a lot of writing, five books in the last five years. Are there more books coming? Are you going to take a break, like what is going on?

Todd: So I have ADHD, which means I have spent my entire life with too many things just kind of banging around in my head. So it turns out that once I started really writing, I got on a roll. I didn’t write much in my career, and it’s funny, I haven’t. And when I got rolling with some of the things, I’ve had so much fun. And so yeah, the five books in the last five years, I have another book that probably will be done in the next couple of months. And that one’s on helping new faculty to get rolling. And then I have another book that’s already signed. And that’s dealing with more with a kind of a longitudinal, how we learn and kind of walking through the learning process in a different way, which is cool. And I’ve gotta tell you, I’ve known y’all for a while there. But I’m really thinking that I need to write a book that I’m so excited about. It’s basically Dr. Z’s crazy stories, [LAUGHTER] stuff that I have kind of gone through in my life, and it’s what I’ve learned from it. So I had a student who had a grand mal seizure in my class one time, I have had all kinds of issues, lots of things have happened. And I think that there’s some stories in there that I could kind of tell because I do love telling stories. And it would help faculty, if I say, here’s how I handled this thing, and here’s what I faced. My goal would be almost the same as the end for the letters to Dr. Z for students, it’d be for faculty members of some crazy crazy stuff is gonna happen to you. And there’s ways of getting through that

Rebecca: Dr. Z’s case studies.

Todd: Yeah, that would be fun, wouldn’t it?

John: You might want to make that unreadable, though, by grad students until they’ve already started their careers, because otherwise some people might decide to back away.

Todd: No, no, no, John, they’re gonna find out that we get through with these things. And there’s also some really fun stuff that happens too, so that’s all good. You know… Alright. Maybe we don’t show it to grad students. That’s a good point. I’ve tried to defend a position. I was trying to defend an indefensible.

John: Grad students are already struggling often, so it may be best to wait until they’ve at least started.

Todd: Yeah, that’s a good point.

Rebecca: New title: Dr. Z’s survival tales. [LAUGHTER]

Todd: Oh, I’ve got to cite you on that one. [LAUGHTER] That’s good. That’s probably a better way to go with that.

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

Todd: The book I just mentioned… what’s next. And I’m actually looking forward to getting back on the road. So kind of the what’s next is because of COVID and everything I hadn’t gone and done many workshops at campuses. And I’d love to do that. I’ve been on like 300 campuses. So it’s just fun visiting places. So I do have a couple places that I’m heading to. I was just at Anchorage, Alaska and that was really fun. And you find yourself in Anchorage, Alaska, and a couple days later, you’re in Florida. So it’s kind of an interesting thing. But I love looking at different places and traveling. So it’s been great. So the next is, I’m getting a chance to travel again.

Rebecca: So you’re getting close on your 50 states?

Todd: So, we have talked about this in the past. I’m gonna come back with my pleading of the listeners once again. I have been stuck at 49 states for about eight years. I hit my 49th state, I think it was seven or eight years ago, which I believe was Vermont… it was Vermont or New Hampshire, the order was really close. But North Dakota, it continues to be elusive.

John: North Dakota and Montana were the last two states in which an episode of our podcast were downloaded six or seven years ago when we first got started.

Todd: It’s interesting.

John: I don’t think there’s too many colleges there.

Todd: No, they’re not many colleges there. But I’m glad you did ask that. Rebecca, this is crazy. Because again, if Tim Sawyer had signed that form, I never let that go… is because anyone listening right now you never know when you’re the person who could say, “You know what, I’m going to choose something different than just letting you go.” It’s a big responsibility. But there’s times when a single sentence will change a student’s life. And so I can’t believe it when he said that, but I have now been invited to and presented in 49 states, 12 countries and four continents. Just amazing. And I would feel better if North Dakota would just call me, that would be so nice.

John: The last continent might be tough.

Todd: Yeah, there’s one continent that’s really tricky to get a gig in.

Rebecca: It could happen.

Todd: It’d be helpful if there are people who live there. [LAUGHTER]

John: The penguins are not that impressed.

Rebecca: You could just invite yourself. [LAUGHTER]

Todd: See that was the rule, by the way.

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

Todd: Yeah, the rule was you had to be invited, so you can’t just show up someplace and start talking.

Rebecca: Well, we look forward to keeping tabs on your 49 states. Next time we talk to you. It’s always a pleasure, Todd.

Todd: Thank you… appreciate the opportunity to come in and I’llI get the 50th state,I will give you a call and maybe we can do a show about my 50th state. [LAUGHTER]

John: And I think sometime before that might be nice as well.

Todd: Wow. There’s a little pessimism for you.

Rebecca: Geez. [LAUGHTER]

John: Well, that may take a year or two.

Todd: Gosh John… Rebecca. Wooh. That’s tough. That’s brutal. Alright.

Rebecca: I was thinking that was gonna come soon, Todd. Sorry.

Todd: This is a mic drop time. Why don’t you go ahead and do the outro at this point. [LAUGHTER]

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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.

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