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


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.


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

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

John: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer…

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


John: Our guest today is 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]


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.


271. Should I Say Yes?

Busy faculty and staff are known to get things done, resulting in additional requests to engage in service activities. In this episode, Kristin Croyle and Kendra Cadogan join us to discuss how and when to say no throughout your career trajectory.  Kristin is a psychologist and the Dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at SUNY Oswego. Kendra is the Chief Diversity and Inclusion Officer and Interim Director of the James A. Triandiflou Institute for Equity, Diversity, Inclusion, and Transformative Practice at SUNY Oswego.

Show Notes

  • Ansburg, P. I., Basham, M. E., & Gurung, R. A. (2022). Thriving in academia: Building a career at a teaching-focused institution. American Psychological Association.
  • Thriving in Adademia. Tea for Teaching podcast. Episode 252. August 31, 2022.
  • Webinar:  The Art of Saying No, National Center for Faculty Development and Diversity.
  • Monday Motivator – “Just Say No”, National Center for Faculty Development and Diversity.
  • Five Ways to Say No, Chronicle of Higher Education (August 28, 2014),Transcript.


Rebecca: Busy faculty and staff are known to get things done, resulting in additional requests to engage in service activities. In this episode, we discuss how and when to say no throughout your career trajectory.


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

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

John: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer…

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


John: Our guests today are Kristin Croyle and Kendra Cadogan. Kristin is a psychologist and the Dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at SUNY Oswego. Kendra is the Chief Diversity and Inclusion Officer and Interim Director of the James A. Triandiflou Institute for Equity, Diversity, Inclusion, and Transformative Practice at SUNY Oswego. Welcome, Kendra and welcome back, Kristin.

Kristin: Thank you, John.

Kendra: Thank you so much.

Rebecca: So today’s teas are:… Kendra, are you drinking tea?

Kendra: I’m not. I’m drinking a protein shake [LAUGHTER] if that counts.

Rebecca: I think that might be the first protein shake that we’ve had. [LAUGHTER] So that’s good. Usually we get coffee, diet Coke, etc. How about you, Kristin?

Kristin: I got a tea for Christmas, an early Christmas present. It’s turmeric chamomile, And it’s very tasty.

Rebecca: Oh, that sounds tasty.

Kendra: …sounds good.

John: And I’m drinking an Irish Breakfast tea today.

Rebecca: And I have blue sapphire tea again,

Kristin: Oooh. It’s got the best name

John: …that’s getting repetitive.

Rebecca: I know. [LAUGHTER] But I only have like one more pot left. And then I’m gonna switch to something else. Because I’m running out. I think I have one pot left.

John: Maybe you can play a green sapphire or something?

Rebecca: Yeah.

John: So we’ve invited you both here today to discuss the challenges faced by those faculty and staff who made the mistake of being productive in some service role, and then continually get asked to do more. We often hear that expression, “if you’d like to have something done, ask someone who’s a busy person.” And we know both of you have experiences as volunteers to do service work, as well as in your current positions, asking other people to do some work to assist in your roles. Why do we end up with such an uneven division of service requests of faculty and staff?

Kristin: One thing I love about starting with this question, because we’re going to talk about some strategies that people can use to think about service and say no, but you didn’t ask that as the first question. What you asked was about the structure of the institution, and what makes the structure of higher ed create uneven service roles. So, without answering to start with, I’m just gonna say, I love that as an entry question, because it’s easy to talk about the difficulties people have saying no as an individual issue, but it’s an issue that people can develop individual strategies for. But it’s not an individual issue, it’s an institutional issue, it’s an academia issue, it’s a structural issue. So, good question. And I’m gonna start by saying that there is no good institutional tracking of service. I’m sure all of us on this podcast have asked people to serve. But it’s not like we’re looking at a list and saying, “Well, this person is already advising two student orgs and serving on six committees and doing all of these other things.” There’s no master list. So we can’t look and say, “Oh, it would be so much.” And, at the same time, I also realized that’s a total cop out answer, because, even though there’s no institutional lists, we also know, don’t we? Like I could ask this person who is chairing faculty assembly… you know that’s what she’s doing. I could ask this person that I’ve seen at the last 12 committee meetings that I went to, and that’s not at one committee that’s at 12 different ones. [LAUGHTER] So, on the one hand, there is no institutional tracking, but on the other hand, the frequent targets, we know who they are. So, why don’t keep asking the same people? What do you think, Kendra?

Kendra: I think that those are all great points, Kristin, and I totally agree. You mentioned the chair of the Faculty Senate, who happens to be a woman. And I think that segues into another trend that we see really well, which is that we often see women and minoritized faculty being asked to do things more frequently. I think some of that is related to just some antiquated stereotypes that we have about gender and ideas about human being nurturing, and all of those things, and maybe willing to please, or able to serve and roles that we might not traditionally ask male faculty and staff to serve in. But I think that some of it, particularly for women, and I guess for minoritized faculty, too, is about the pressures that women sometimes face in the workplace around their careers and around advancement and wanting to make sure that they’re always going above and beyond to prove themselves. And we never want to say no, because you don’t know how that will reflect on you. And you certainly don’t want to be seen as less capable or not a team player or not willing to take charge or take initiative. So all of those things in ways work against folks and I think make it easier for us to continuously burden certain people with a plethora of requests.

Rebecca: One of the things that you both highlighted a little bit is that the faculty and staff who are regularly involved, regularly volunteering, regularly providing service, become more visible in these spaces. So those are the people that you think of first because they are visible. There’s a lot of faculty and staff who may actually be great folks for particular things but they’re just not as visible as well. I’m not really sure how we raise the visibility of some of those folks too, but I think that is just something that does occur.

Kristin: And part of what you’re mentioning is also that service really is a skill, and that when people do certain things they get better and better at it. So if the Dean is looking for an interim chair from outside of the department, the list of people who has both the skill set and the temperament and proven leadership skills, that’s a shortlist; that’s a very short list. Certainly, as people serve in more challenging roles, they really do develop unique skill sets that make them more easily tapped in the future. But on the other side of it, in asking newer faculty and staff to serve, I don’t know what you do, Kindra, but I actually, in the college, I look at a list, like, here’s the entire list of faculty and staff in the college. And I look down the list to make sure that I’m not just thinking about the people that I have run into and talked to in the last few days, or that have served in a similar role in the past, so that I can think about and tap people who could potentially grow from a service opportunity. So it is both a skill set, but also an opportunity for a lot of different people.

Kendra: That’s a great strategy. Kristin. Typically I try to ask around, I ask for referrals, I ask for deans or the provost or whoever, faculty who maybe live and work in those spaces already to provide recommendations. “Hey, is there someone that you know who’s up and coming or who’s looking for more experience in this particular area that could benefit from me tapping them to do this thing?” [LAUGHTER]

Kristin: One thing we didn’t talk about specifically, is the desire to have diverse voices in many of our service opportunities, and how that is unduly burdensome for some faculty and staff.

Kendra: Yeah, that’s a great point. And I think that’s a big conversation. On one hand, of course, you want representation, representation does matter. Like we say that all the time, and I think that we really, really mean it. But then again, it’s also very easy to fall into the patterns of “these are the diverse faculty that I see or interact with regularly, or who are very active in these spaces, so I’m gonna keep tapping them for the same things.” I think part of the solution to that or a path toward a solution is to make sure that we are centering inclusivity and belonging in our institutional priorities, and really thinking about how we help others develop their DEI skill sets and elevate their DEI practice, so that they can step into those spaces and be impactful and provide leadership and guidance in the way that we heavily sometimes rely upon faculty and staff of color, in particular, a diverse faculty to provide. It’s kind of a long path toward a solution, but I think it’s one way of really beginning to eliminate that problem of constantly overburdening diverse faculty and staff with requests.

John: And part of the issue is the underrepresentation on college faculty and staff of the groups that we have been referring to… and those same faculty and staff, though, often have more demands on them from students, because while our student bodies have become much more diverse, the faculty and staff have not been, and many students will reach out to people from affinity groups that are again, often somewhat limited on many of our campuses, which puts additional burdens on those faculty and staff.

Kendra: Yes, absolutely.

Rebecca: And that service… that’s often invisible, it’s easy to count or say like, “oh, this committee, that committee,” but I think advisement and mentoring that takes a lot of time and energy, and it’s not as well documented. Clearly Kristin already [LAUGHTER] raised the flag that we don’t have a great way of tracking these things anyways, but I think that, in particular, is something hard to quantify, because it doesn’t look the same for everybody.

Kristin: Yeah, I’ve been thinking about this a lot, and I think that one of the difficulties with this is that the recipient of the service is the student, which makes it highly visible for students, and almost invisible for faculty colleagues. So if you’re advising a student organization that is really active, they may be doing amazing work, and the work that a faculty member is doing as that advisor may be the thing that makes the difference in retaining those students and mentoring them to successful careers, but their colleagues may not see any of it, because it’s happening directly with the students and their colleagues are not going to the student org meetings, because their student org meetings, not faculty organization meetings. So not only is it downplayed sometimes in tenure and promotion materials, their faculty colleagues don’t catch that it’s downplayed. If they were serving in Faculty Assembly or on the Gen Ed Committee, or the Curriculum Committee, their colleagues would say, “Wait, hey, didn’t you do all of this stuff that you didn’t talk about?” But it’s both not given as much credit as sometimes it deserves at some universities, but it also is sometimes literally not recognized because people didn’t see them do it.

Rebecca: So why do we say yes to so many things?

Kristin: Why do we? Rebecca, I feel like you should ans….. No, I’m kidding. You’re actually very good at this.

John: I’m actually asking because I need some advice here. [LAUGHTER]

Kristin: Kendra, why do you say yes?

Kendra: Oh, man, that’s a loaded question. [LAUGHTER] It’s hard to say because it’s hard to say no. It’s hard to say no sometimes. And when you feel like someone is coming to you, because there’s a need that you can fill, sometimes you can get carried away with this idea that you are the person who has to do the thing, because if you don’t do it, it can’t be done. And then there are some of the other things we’ve talked about: the pressures of our careers, wanting to be taken seriously, wanting to be credible, wanting to be able to advance. You can often feel like your path to advancement is going to be barred at some point. If you keep saying no.

Kristin: The number one reason that I say yes, is one that Kendra mentioned, it’s usually because the ask comes from people I care about in professional terms, colleagues that I respect who are doing good work. And if they say, “Can you help me with this good work?” I want to say yes to them. And they’re often asking about issues that I care about… colleagues that are doing good work on things that I think are really important… I want to say yes to that. But I also say yes, because I am interested in a lot of things. And if people say, “I’m going to work on this thing that you haven’t worked on,” sometimes that’ll be a yes, because I just want to learn about that new thing. And when I learn about new things, that is a type of personal growth for me and I get renewed from that. So saying “yes” sometimes also means that I get that personal growth boost. Or there have been times when the ask has been like “You’re the only one who can do this, can you please step up?” …and I know that faculty have that implied experience too, not always like the explicit, someone literally says, “You are the only one who can do this, can you please do this,” but sometimes it’s just implied. And it can be a strong implication like ‘In your small department, you are the only tenured faculty, how about you become chair?” So I do want to question… just push back a little bit. If you stick around in higher ed for longer than about 15 years, you’re going to start realizing there are ways to get the business done, it is almost impossible that you are truly the only way, almost… not 100%, but like 95%. Now, I don’t want anybody to think that they’re really not irreplaceable, because everybody, at least at SUNY-Oswego, I think, is irreplaceable. But do you really have to do that one thing you really don’t want to do? Isn’t there another way that the institution can find a way to get the work done? And if you think about your colleague who’s really good at saying “no,” you see how that works, that there is a way that if this really is going to push you beyond your limits, there’s a way… there’s a way.

John: So what are some good ways of saying no to those requests that push you a bit beyond your limit?

Rebecca: …or that just provide inequity?

Kendra: Well, I think it depends. One of the things that we didn’t really mention was that the flip side of always saying yes, you know, there the positive reasons that Kristin really just highlighted, but there are also some more practical reasons that aren’t always so positive, like tenure, or time spent as an institution. For newer faculty and staff, it can be really scary, or unclear even, about how much can I say “no” to? What is a directive and what is an option? And if you’re new, if you’re not, I think too a lot of times, maybe at even a public institution where you do have some backing of unions, the employment structures are a little more forgiving. In some cases, it can be really scary to say “no” as a new person, a new faculty member, a new staff member. So I think that there have to be strategies for someone tenured and who have been in a place for a long time can employ that will work really well for them, that might not work so well for someone who’s newer. And it’s important, I think, to maybe flush out what’s a good idea for someone who’s been here for a while and what’s the strategy that a newer person might employ to say no.

John: For new faculty who are struggling with all the other commitments they have to do to be successful and advancing towards tenure, what are some good strategies to say “no?”

Kristin: I think it’s a good question that speaks to learning academic culture. And even if you’ve been around a long time, you’re still learning the academic culture, because your role is always changing. It’s a strategy that an Associate Professor uses or a full professor or someone who has transitioned from faculty to staff, there are all kinds of culture change questions. How do you negotiate this new culture? And the first thing I would say is to be clear what you need to do for your job. And if that’s, “I need to make tenure, so I need to publish this much,” if that’s “I now am in a staff position and staff often have less flexibility in saying yes and no, and these are the outcomes that I need to achieve to keep my job.” So part of it is being absolutely clear. You can say yes to 50 things right now. But if you’re on tenure track, and you don’t get your publications, your master service is not going to pay off. So being very clear on what your job is. And if you don’t know, which is a real possibility sometimes, you develop your kind of committee of mentors. Who do you go to and say, “Hey, I got this really interesting request” or even like “I got a cold outreach from a publisher to write up my course as a textbook. I got a cold outreach from this person I don’t know on campus to fill a university wide-service role.”? You got to have somebody to ask So developing your committee of mentors, not one mentor, but your committee of mentors, because they’re all going to have a different view. And then you combine that with delay, especially like the sidewalk ask, you know what I’m talking about, right? Or like I caught you after this meeting, or I’m just going to do this quick ask. So the first answer is to delay. Say “that sounds like a great opportunity. Let me think about it for a day or two and look at my other commitments,” delay, then you go to your committee of mentors. And if you don’t literally have one, John, you had this great book for a new faculty reading group in the fall Thriving in Academia. And I think you also did a podcast, right?

John: We did, with all of the authors.

Kristin: So in Thriving in Academia, there’s a table, a little flowchart, a flowchart that says, with this service request, what do you think about first? And what do you think of next? So if you can’t go to your committee of mentors, you can go to these three authors, as your committee of mentors and check the flowchart. Does the flowchart say you should do it? Or does the flowchart say, Oh really, think hard about this one. This is a no. What would you add? Kendra?

Kendra: I’m just thinking about myself now. How do I usually say no? And now I’m wondering if I say no often enough? [LAUGHTER] Probably not sometimes. But when I do say no, on the rare occasion, what I try to do is also think about who I can point to, to the person asking me for whatever, to actually fulfill the request. So is there someone who’s better suited to complete this project or do this thing than I am? I think about resources. And I try to make sure that rather than just saying a flat no, and leaving someone hanging, I’m pointing them in the direction of someone who can help, someone who can fill the need and hopefully benefit from it, not just someone that I can shove the work off onto, but someone who can really fill the need, benefit from fulfilling that need, and it can be a mutually beneficial situation. I also think about just being mindful of self in those moments. So re-centering self care, we talk about self care all the time in higher ed, we write about it, we research about it, I think we’re actually really bad at it a lot of the times. You have to really center yourself. When someone is making a request, you have to think about yourself. What am I able to do? It’s like they always say on the plane, you have to put your oxygen mask on first, before you put someone else’s oxygen mask on or else both of you will be out of luck. So I think in those moments, you have to really be mindful about centering yourself and tuning in and knowing where you are: what your bandwidth is, what can you give, and is it something that you can do and still be healthy and still be whole and still be able to do all the other things that you’ve already signed up for, that you’re already responsible for? So I don’t know that those are necessarily strategies, per se, but they’re things to think about when you say no. Sometimes you just have to say no, very clearly and concisely, [LAUGHTER] you can’t do it.

Kristin: Kendra, do you have a script in mind when you say no? Like, do you have the words?

Kendra: That’s actually a really good question. I think when I do say “No,” it’s usually something very pleasant. Like, “I’m sorry, I’m not able to do that.” Sometimes I’ll literally just say, “Unfortunately, I don’t have the bandwidth, but here is someone who might help.” Or “here is another option,” maybe another way of accomplishing this task, another group of people who are already doing this work and can give you some additional assistance. So it’s usually like the nice thing that like the pleasant but clear, “No, I’m not able to do that.” And then the “but here’s how I can help you by sending you in this direction or sending you towards these resources.” That would probably be my script.

Kristin: And part of that is because I think your role is unique. And so when people are asking you, they’re really asking you. [LAUGHTER]

Kendra: Yes.

Kristin: So being able to provide another alternative, or another way that you could contribute, is a really nice option. In other choices. There could be just “That sounds like a great opportunity, but right now, unfortunately, I don’t have the time. I look forward to seeing what the results are. I look forward to seeing the report from that committee.” And no, of course, you don’t always have to provide an explanation. You can just say, “No,” you don’t have to say “I’m too busy.” You can just say no. But perhaps that person is going to be someone you’re asking to serve in the future. So it can be nice to continue to develop the relationship even if you have to say no. Something that frequently serving people sometimes forget that they can do is also think about how much time this commitment is going to take and asking for that time back. So let’s say you’re in a small department and your colleague is injured and is out for half of the semester in the course that only you can double up on. So this is one of those where you’re almost irreplaceable, there really isn’t anybody else who can step in. And you know that if you’re injured in the future, you’d really like your colleague to step up. So there’s a little bit of a social contract where you want to say yes, but that’s a significant time commitment. So what are you going to lose from spending your time on that and how can you get it back in the future? So you could ask, if the area of your rub is really financial, you can ask for extra pay, and you probably should get extra pay either way, because it is extra work. But if your area of rub is research productivity, that you’ve been really trying to write, you can say, “Well, if I’m going to do this, then I need a course release the next semester” and negotiate for the thing that you are having to sacrifice to see if you can get it back in a different way. And that is not an unusual thing. So it wouldn’t be like the weirdest thing that anyone has ever asked for, even if you’ve never thought about it before, someone else has thought of that and asked for it before. So you can always ask, what is your trade off =and how can you trade that back? If you’re a junior faculty and your chair is asking you to do something that you really don’t think you have the time to do, but you’re a little concerned about the chair ask you can say these are the things I’m doing right now, w hat would you suggest I take off my plate? How would you suggest I reorganize this? I’d love to say yes to this, but right now I don’t have the time. How would you suggest that I prioritize so that I am ready for my next tenure review? So there are ways… there are ways. But it is good to have a script in mind because we can all say “no” when we’re actually not being asked to do anything, you could just make one up right now. But if you’re in a higher pressure situation where someone you care about their opinion is making an ask right at that moment, it can be hard to come up with an answer unless you already have one in mind. So “that’s a great opportunity. Let me think about it for a couple of days.” Go ahead, use that one, just go right ahead. Even if it’s me doing the ask, you can say it right back to me, I’ll be okay with that.

Rebecca: One strategy I’ve used too is, in that delaying tactic, is always asking for clarification: what the responsibility will be, what the time commitment will be, what the meeting schedule is, so that you actually have enough information to make an informed decision. Because often the ask doesn’t come with all that information.

Kristin: And you know what happens when you ask those questions, right? The person making the ask is like, “Oh, I don’t have answers to all those. We should have goals and a timeline.” … you know, good stuff.

Rebecca: Sometimes you really want to say yes to something because it just is very appealing for whatever reason. What are some strategies so that you can say yes? We’ve mentioned negotiating for time or other resources. But the other thing that I think about is you look at all the things on your plate, and see what are some things I could roll off of, if I want to roll on to something new? Or if I want to pursue something different? What can I get rid of or step away from? Are there strategies for being able to step away from some of the things that you were committed to before that we could think about in terms of strategies for ultimately saying yes, but saying no to something else? [LAUGHTER]

Kendra: One of the things that we didn’t necessarily mention before in the saying “no,” but that applies here is this idea of acting as a consultant. So if a great opportunity comes up, and you really want to say yes to it, but you have a whole bunch of other things that you’ve already committed to, it might be a great time to reevaluate those other things and determine what are the things that I really need to put the legwork into and be boots on the ground on? And what are the things that I can provide a perspective on or give some guidance on in a more passive way, that then frees me up to maybe actually do the heavy lift for this other opportunity? That’s really great that I really want to be involved in. So I think that’s one way to move yourself closer to a yes [LAUGHTER] and an offload of some of the other things that might be standing in the way of that “yes,” Kristin, if you have any thoughts?

Kristin: Yeah, and again, thinking about I say, a five year plan… some people actually have those. I’ve never had a five year plan. But I admire people who do. But I do have my idea of my career trajectory, what I find really rewarding and what I don’t. And when I’m offered a service opportunity that aligns to the things that I find really rewarding, that it is exciting and I’ll learn something new about, and be able to contribute about things that I value, I want to say yes, even if it’s really time consuming. So yes, I look at the combination of things that I’m doing, think about how they contribute to both the things that I value and what the institution has hired me to do, because I do have a job that I have to do. And there are always ways to rollback your commitment on some. Many service opportunities require only an intermittent time commitment, you got to really hit it hard for a couple days here and then you can back off for several months, and figuring out how to fit that together. And consult, consult, consult, ask other people, I actually used the flowchart myself in the book at one point a couple months ago saying, “Oh, this looks interesting. Should I do that?” My flowchart says no. [LAUGHTER]

Rebecca: And the flowchart can’t possibly be wrong. [LAUGHTER]

John: Actually, the flowchart most often says no, because of concerns about faculty taking on too many responsibilities.

Kristin: Yes, because the first question in the flowchart is, “Do you have the time?” which leads you to “no” a lot of the time but it was also of low institutional value and not really important to me and not really important to anyone else, and I didn’t have the time and like “flowchart says, “no.” I was like, “well, probably right, [LAUGHTER] those are all good points that I should have been thinking more about.”

Kendra: Well, Kristin, I think to your point, too, about going back to your five-year plan and think about your career trajectory, and how well the things you’re involved in are serving you toward that end, it is absolutely okay to go back to previous commitments, and say “I had a wonderful time, this has been a great opportunity. I’ve learned a lot. but this doesn’t necessarily fit anymore in my larger plan. This might not be as helpful for me in my trajectory as it once was, and so I’m going to maybe end my involvement as of such and such a date.” Sometimes it helps to give folks a timeline on your end, clearing your plate for other things doesn’t mean that you have to immediately walk out the door on whatever else you had going on, right? …It’s probably not advisable, actually. But I can tell you that I’ve reached out to folks to ask them to serve on things or to participate in things that they’ve been participating on. And they’ve had really nice responses that are like “Kendra, I really appreciate this opportunity. I’ve really enjoyed the work that I’ve been doing, but I’ve taken on some new responsibilities that are more in line with some of my other interests or other needs or professional development, and so I won’t be able to participate in this anymore.” And I can’t be upset about it, it’s a lovely response. And I totally understand that folks want to develop, they have other interests, they need to be able to spend their time and spread it around sometimes and they’ve really been helpful to me in the time that they were able to engage in the thing that I needed them for. And I’m more than happy to say, “We’re going to miss you so much, you’ve been amazing, but I wish you the best of luck in this new thing that you’re really interested in. And let me know if I can be helpful to you.” Or let me know if these two different interests have any synergies or if there’s ever any way we can collaborate in the future. So it’s certainly okay to sometimes walk back from previous commitments very tactfully and very appropriately, but it can be done.

Rebecca: I think it’s also possible to say yes to just a part of something…

Kristin: Yeah.

Rebecca: …like, maybe the ask is like this big, like, it’s huge, but what they really want you for, or where you could provide the most value, is during a brainstorm session, or designing how something might be implemented, but not actually work on the implementation. So there’s a way to sometimes contribute without committing as much as the ask was originally.

John: …and defining a scope upfront.

Kristin: Yeah, that’s a great point. With all the searches that we do, I hear a lot from faculty about the incredible amount of time that goes into searches, and different ways that departments organize them that burden some people versus the others, but I think that’s a great example. If you can say, ”I’m gonna take candidates out to dinner,” which is a huge time commitment, but it’s very focused, it only happens during the visits, “I don’t have time to review all of the applicants and to serve on the committee in that sense, but I can take them all out to dinner,” there are trade offs that can work better for life in the way that your time is structured, that you can see that other people can’t see. So nobody’s going to suggest to you, how about you just do part of this, but they may be very open to that response.

Kendra: I would say in 9 times out of 10, someone’s asking you to do something and your response is, “Here’s the piece that I can do, I’m not able to provide assistance in these other areas,” that person is going to be more than happy with what you are able to contribute. So those are great points and great ways to be able to clear room to say yes.

John: What are some of the differences in the constraints of faculty and staff when they’re being asked to engage in service roles?

Kristin: I think the differences there are really baked into the differences in the roles, that faculty are expected to serve institutional priorities, but in some ways, almost work as independent contractors. It’s like ”here’s work to do, figure out how you’re going to get it all done in this amount of time, we’re going to come check on you in a year, see how you’re doing,” whereas staff are expected to stress institutional goals on a day-to-day basis. They work much tighter in teams, and their collaborative skills are usually much more highly valued. And because of that, if a faculty member says no, the expectation is well, that’s because they’re busy doing the other stuff that they’re supposed to do. We don’t even need to ask them what that is right now, because they’re hopefully writing. But if a staff member says no, in some ways, it’s weird. Staff say yes. Because so much of their work is being asked, being asked to lead, being asked to run a program, being asked to show up at 11 o’clock at night to serve a midnight breakfast… being asked, and the expected answer in many cases is yes. So being able to constrain the role and say no is often more fraught for a staff member. Kendra, what has been your experience working with staff and helping coach them to shape their time as much as they can?

Kendra: Yeah, that’s a great way to articulate the differences between faculty and staff, I think. I don’t know if faculty have performance programs.

Kristin: …not like that, not like staff do.

Kendra: Yes, exactly. Staff have sometimes very prescriptive performance programs that literally layout, area by area, theme by theme, what all of the duties and expectations are going to be. And then of course, there’s the other duties as assigned. So it can be very difficult for a staff member to say no, and it can also be very confusing, I think, in some cases for staff to understand “What are the things that I can potentially say ‘no’ to? What are the things I’m given latitude on to exercise autonomy and say, ‘No, I’m not interested in this,’ versus what are the things that are more imperative.’” When working with staff, what I try to do is be very clear with the folks I work with, with my colleagues, about what are the expectations and the needs versus the options and opportunities. So I tried to be really collaborative with colleagues and say, “Hey, there’s an opportunity that’s coming up,” or “there’s a need that needs to be filled, you have expertise you have, whatever the reason, I see you as a great fit for this.” Now, the conversation can then go one of two ways. One way, which is what I try to always have it be is, “Please let me know what you think. What are your thoughts about this opportunity? Are you interested? Is this something that you would want to do?” And that gives the staff member agency to think about what’s on the table and to make a decision about whether or not they want to be involved. The other option is to say, “This is something that needs to be done. you’re the person strategically for the job, so I really need your help in completing this.” And that’s less of an option, but at least it gives folks and understanding of like, okay, this is not necessarily optional. This is something that I need to do to be a strategic and fully collaborative member of this team. So sometimes it can be a little tricky. But I typically find that if I’m really transparent with my colleagues, and let them know, “Hey, here’s what I’m thinking about. Here’s why this makes sense. And this is either something that I’m offering to you that you have agency to say yes or no about, or this is something that is part of our strategic plan that I really need you to be responsible for. And here’s what you being responsible for it looks like.” Folks seem to deal with that really well. I think it’s much harder for staff when there aren’t clear expectations and when they’re also not given any input in decision making, when you’re just “voluntold.” …not even really voluntoldl, like literally just, “this is what you’re going to be doing.” It’s always better to include folks in the decisions that you’re making, and to provide as many opportunities for options as possible.

Kristin: Absolutely, you can see the differences in other ways too, like if a faculty member is asked to serve, usually no one is asked except the faculty member, the department chair isn’t asked, the dean isn’t asked, unless it’s someone like, “Can you think of anybody?” and then you suggest them, but usually it’s straight to the faculty member and it’s up to them to figure out whether or not they want to say no. Oftentimes, when staff are asked to serve in different roles, their supervisor is asked first, could you release them for this? Would it be okay with you if they do this? And sometimes faculty who move into administrative roles will start to experience that difference in culture in subtle ways and may not understand, like, what is happening around them? How come when I’m in this committee meeting, only the faculty say no to something. the staff say yes, or how come when I approached this person for help, I got a little cranky email from their supervisor. So it’s good to know that there’s a difference and also to respect that the two kind of different cultures, that both have a role and their pros and cons, and to know what you’re stepping into when you’re asking people to do things.

Rebecca: I think this highlights a little bit of what you were mentioning before, Kristin, about knowing what your role is or what your position is. Because sometimes staff would also have the opportunity to ask a clarifying question like, “How does this fit into my performance plan?” or “How does this help us meet the goals or initiatives that my division or my group is meant to be achieving?”

Kristin: Absolutely.

Rebecca: Because if there’s not alignment there, then that’s a pretty easy “no.”

Kristin: Absolutely. Do either of you two have strategies that have worked for you?

John: I have never been very good at these decisions. Rebecca?

John: I say no, sometimes.

Kristin: How do you do it?

Rebecca: I’ve worked really hard to make sure, and it took a long time to do this, but to align my scholarship and research and creative practice with service and my institutional responsibilities. And there’s pretty good alignment with those things at this time. And when something seems like it’s not in alignment, that’s when I have a pretty clear “no.” When it does seem aligned, that’s when I have a harder time saying “no.”

Kristin: And you don’t want to.

Rebecca: Yeah.

Kristin: That’s a great strategy. And the people I have known and worked with that say no the best, they have developed over time clear guidelines, very much like that. I worked with someone who was really good. This is something I could never do. I could never say no to a student who wanted to work with me in research. I don’t think I’ve ever said no to a student who wanted to work with me in research. I have occasionally matched them to someone who’s a better match. That’s different. But he was very good at saying no to students who wanted to work with him in research, which was like my Achilles heel, but he just had very clear guidelines: “I only work with students who are at this point, X, Y and Z,” and they were not unreasonable things. And then he would say yes to those students. And it opened up time for him to really mentor them. And I’ve been lucky to work with people like you and him. You have a way that you approach your career that you have thought about. This is where my limit is, so I can say yes to these students who want to work with me and really work with them. But I can say yes to this giant time commitment, because I know it contributes to my research and to my service,

Rebecca: I think that it can help to also just have colleagues around you who say “no.”

Kristin: Yes.

Rebecca: …and seek out that camaraderie. [LAUGHTER]

Kendra: I think that’s a great point. And it goes back to something Kristin said about when you’re that faculty member, you don’t understand the faculty staff. dynamic and you reach out to a staff member to ask for help and get a cranky letter or cranky email back from their supervisor. That does happen. But the reality is, I think we need to, again, be more supportive, particularly of newer colleagues. I’m thinking of new staff very specifically, and I’m thinking about this from the perspective of a supervisor. I think it’s really important when we’re mentoring new staff, and helping them develop professionally and think about what the next steps are for them, we also need to provide some additional support to them in helping them to say no, helping them to really prioritize and think about what serves them and what doesn’t. And one of the things that I’ve said to folks that I’ve worked with in the past is they’ll come to me and say, “Well, Kendra, someone’s asking me to do this, or this or that, and I’m not really sure that I want to do it, or I just don’t know.” So like, okay, let’s talk about how this fits into your professional trajectory. Does it makes sense for you, does it make sense in the work that you’re doing? And if the conclusion that we come to is really no, this doesn’t serve you, then by all means, feel free, if you don’t feel comfortable saying to this person, for whatever reason, no, if you’re too new to feel comfortable doing that, then by all means, I’ll be happy to reply as your supervisor and say, “This is not going to work, this doesn’t fit into whatever,” I’ll just say no for you. Or you can always feel free to say, I spoke with my supervisor, she doesn’t think it’s a great time for this, I don’t have the bandwidth. Feel free to throw me under the bus. Because I do think that part of what I have to help folks learn is, of course, how to advocate for themselves and how to be full adult professionals, but it’s also to be supportive, and to help them to kind of get their legs under them. And sometimes part of that is helping them say no.

Kristin: Awesome,

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

Rebecca: Please tell us how you’re going to redo higher ed [LAUGHTER] and make this better?

Kristin: That would be awesome. And you know, the funny thing about that question is that it’s always a problem that we don’t keep track of service better. But the other side of me is like, “Oh my gosh, what a pain that would be, a huge amount of work for very little payoff.” Is there a better way to do it? So I don’t have an answer on what’s next for supporting service, except to be more proactive in my request to say this is what the commitment is, let’s talk about your current commitments and how we can shape what you’re doing to support both what you want to get done and what I’d really like to ask you to do, [LAUGHTER] not just the single ask, yeah, not just like, here’s the one thing, but instead to ask in a more comprehensive way.

Kendra: And I also don’t have any solutions for fixing higher ed, unfortunately, at this time. [LAUGHTER] But I do think that we can also make sure to just model the behaviors that we’re talking about, again, just being mindful of our own personal practices and making sure that we’re not just talking about saying no, but that we’re actually doing it for ourselves and so that the folks that we work with and work for can see what this looks like and be mindful for themselves too, about how they need to think and work through this space. I think that’s one small thing we can do.

Rebecca: Well, thank you for joining us.

Kristin: Thank you. It’s always a pleasure.

Kendra: It’s been fabulous. Thank you so much for having me.

Kristin: It’s great talking to both of you.


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

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


268. Advancing Inclusivity while Mitigating Burnout

This episode is a live recording of a panel session at the Online Learning Consortium’s Accelerate Conference in Orlando on November 17, 2022. The panelists were Michelle Miller, Liz Norell, and Kelvin Thompson.

Michelle is a professor of psychological sciences and a President’s Distinguished Teaching Fellow at Northern Arizona University. She is the author of Minds Online: Teaching Effectively with Technology and also more recently, Remembering and Forgetting in the Age of Technology: Teaching and Learning and the Science of Memory in a Wired World, which was recently released by West Virginia University Press. Liz is a political scientist, and an associate professor at Chattanooga State Community College. She is also an experienced registered yoga teacher with over 500 hours of training completed. She is currently working on a book on Why Presence Matters in High Quality Learner-Centered Equitable Learning Spaces. Kelvin is the Executive Director of the University of Central Florida’s Center for Distributed Learning, and graduate faculty scholar in UCF’s College of Education and Human Performance. He developed the open courseware BlendKit course that many of us have taken, and cohosts TOPcast, the Teaching Online Podcast.

Show Notes

  • Panelists:
  • Miller, M. D. (2014). Minds Online: Teaching Effectively with Technology. Harvard University Press.
  • Miller, M. D. (2022). Remembering and Forgetting in the Age of Technology: Teaching, Learning, and the Science of Memory in a Wired World.
  • Norell, Liz (forthcoming). Why Presence Matters in High Quality Learner-Centered Equitable Learning Spaces. West Virginia University Press.
  • BlendKit
  • TOPcast
  • Brandon Bayne’s twitter post on the adjusted syllabus.
  • Nick Sousanis’ syllabi
  • Behling, K. T., & Tobin, T. J. (2018). Reach Everyone, Teach Everyone: Universal Design for Learning in Higher Education. West Virginia University Press.
  • Teaching Online Pedagogical Repository (TOPR)
  • Joosten, T., Harness, L., Poulin, R., Davis, V., & Baker, M. (2021). Research Review: Educational Technologies and Their Impact on Student Success for Racial and Ethnic Groups of Interest. WICHE Cooperative for Educational Technologies (WCET).
  • Hammond, Z. (2014). Culturally responsive teaching and the brain: Promoting authentic engagement and rigor among culturally and linguistically diverse students. Corwin Press.
  • Eaton, Robert; Steven V. Hunsaker, and Bonnie Moon (forthcoming, 2023) Improving Learning and Mental Health in the College Classroom. West Virginia University Press.
  • Enneagram test


John: This is a recording of a live panel session that took place during the Online Learning Consortium’s Accelerate Conference in Orlando on November 17, 2022. We hope that you enjoy it as much as we did.


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

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

John: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer…

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


John: Welcome to “Advancing Inclusivity while Mitigating Burnout.” I’m John Kane, an economist and the Director of the Center for Excellence in Learning and Teaching at the State University of New York at Oswego.

Rebecca: I’m Rebecca Mushtare, a designer and an Associate Dean of Graduate Studies at SUNY Oswego. We’re the hosts of the Tea for Teaching podcast and the moderators for today’s session. We’d like to let everyone know that we’re recording this session in order to release it in an upcoming episode of Tea for Teaching. And today’s session will include 30 minutes of moderated discussion, followed by 10 minutes of questions from all of you, and I’ll turn it over to John to introduce our panel.

John: Our panelists are Michelle Miller. Michelle is a professor of psychological sciences and a President’s Distinguished Teaching Fellow at Northern Arizona University. Michelle is the author of Minds Online: Teaching Effectively with Technology and also more recently, Remembering and Forgetting in the Age of Technology: Teaching and Learning and the Science of Memory, which was recently released by West Virginia University Press. We also have Liz Norell. Liz is a political scientist, and an associate professor at Chattanooga State Community College. She is also an experienced registered yoga teacher with over 500 hours of training completed. She is currently working on a book on Why Presence Matters in High Quality Learner-Centered Equitable Learning Spaces. We also have Kelvin Thompson. Kelvin is the Executive Director of the University of Central Florida’s Center for Distributed Learning, and graduate faculty scholar in UCF’s College of Education and Human Performance. He developed the open courseware BlendKit course that many of us have taken, and cohosts TOPcast, the teaching online podcast.

Rebecca: This wouldn’t be a complete episode of tea for teaching if we didn’t ask about tea. So Kelvin, our coffee drinker, are you drinking tea today?

Kelvin: I am drinking tea today, Rebecca, this is a mint tea from Tazo. I have to admit, I went looking for my favorite conference tea, which is that orange Tazo tea that I looked everywhere and they didn’t have any.

Rebecca: Ah, a little bummer. Michelle?

Michelle: Well, true to form, I’m drinking coffee and I’m going to admit that I also mixed it with Swiss Miss hot chocolate, [LAUGHTER] a very guilty pleasure on many levels.

Liz: I don’t drink anything hot. So I’m drinking diet coke.

Rebecca: Woo!

Liz: Thank you.

Rebecca: As many guests before you have as well.

Liz: Yeah. [LAUGHTER]

Rebecca: John?

John: And I am drinking an English breakfast tea today.

Rebecca: And I have some very strong Awake tea, so that we’re really awake for this episode.

John: The pandemic spurred a rapid transition of instructional methods and an increased focus on inclusive teaching, and we want to talk a bit about that in today’s session. We’d like to ask the panelists: What were some of the improvements in inclusivity and building a sense of belonging, that you’ve observed during the pandemic? …with particular emphasis on remote and asynchronous courses. And Liz is going to start.

Liz: What I found, particularly in asynchronous online courses, is that I have noticed this has much broadened the ability of neurodivergent students and students who have some kind of disability, especially an invisible disability. And the way that it’s done that is by really forcing us to accept multiple kinds of student engagement. So what I noticed in March of 2020, is that students who had been almost invisible in my face-to-face class, when we came back to Zoom after spring break, I didn’t see their faces, but I heard their voices, if not vocally than in the chat. And I have so thoroughly appreciated that. I also learned from my students that you can change the way you show up in Zoom by getting one of those little lens things over your camera and changing your virtual background. So oftentimes, they would come into a Zoom room, and this would be in a synchronous class, and they would have a different cartoon character of the day. And this is a wonderful way to get to know more about them and their personalities. What I’ve also found is that when we are meeting synchronously, recording the classes is really helpful for a lot of learners. And so, since I’ve gone back to face-to-face teaching, I always open a Zoom room and record it and sometimes students will join by Zoom because they can’t come to campus that day. My partner who teaches math has also started doing this because they found that it’s really helpful for the students to be able to review what they did in class when they’re trying to apply it in their homework or preparing for an exam. The last thing I want to mention is that I teach political science, we always do a unit on civil liberties. And one of the things that I did in person was bring in a prop box and have them do skits where they acted out the precipitating events to major Supreme Court civil liberties cases, and I thought there’s no way we can do this over zoom, right? Yes. And it’s just getting really creative with Zoom backgrounds, with props that they have in their houses. It makes it so much more campy that it’s much more fun, because in person they always like “Oooh, I’m nervous.” In Zoom, it’s going to be a train wreck, okay, we’re just gonna embrace that, and that really creates a really fun dynamic in the classroom.

Kelvin: I would agree with the broad brushstrokes of what Liz said, I would like to broaden it further though, and say that throughout the last couple of years, what I’ve seen in a way that I’ve never seen before is an emphasis on empathy, and what we might call a human first orientation. I was really heartened to see that in a lot of ways in the early days of the lockdown era of remote instruction, and I still see ripples of it now. Two things that come to mind from the early days that are worth a review, if you haven’t looked at him in a while. One that got kind of viral, the so-called adjusted syllabus of Brandon Bayne from UNC, where he got really kind of real and transparent with students and released it out all over for adaptation. And then Nick Sousanis from San Francisco State University more recently had what he called notes on now as a syllabus section that just kind of, in a more encapsulated way, he sort of said that he wants to keep anchoring down to that human-first element, and just keep that a present part of every course’s syllabus.

Rebecca: Thank you, both Liz and Kelvin for giving us some insights into what we’ve already been experiencing and reminding us about some of the strong improvements that we’ve had. Many campuses are moving back to onsite instruction, while also considering how much of their portfolio should be including online options. And while each campus continues to adapt and adjust, how can we maintain the momentum around inclusive practices and avoid slipping back into our old habits? Michelle, will you start us off?

Michelle: And I love the framing here as momentum, because I think that many campuses have generated a lot of great energy around the why of inclusion, the why of equity, the why of justice, and why this is so important. The trick is going to be to follow that energy on with more on the what and how… how do we put that into practice. And I really struggle when I think about it, because our students, they need practice when there’s a new skill, a new way of responding. They need practice in lots of new contexts. And I talk a lot about transfer. And we may remember a skill or develop a skill in one context and we just don’t remember to activate it and carry it through in a new context. And we’re going to need that. We’re going to need to have certain techniques and teaching moves that do become second nature to us and be able to recognize, hey, this is one of those opportunities to put those into practice. So I was just doing a session this morning by a group from the University of Wisconsin. And they talked about, for example, the need to provide lots of concrete examples to faculty like what does this look like? Maybe even in your discipline? So, for example, increased course structure, we know this is proven to be an inclusive teaching practice. So I need to say, “Oh, yeah, this is the place to do this.” The frequent low-stakes assessments, we know that that reduces disparities in opportunity and disparities in achievement across many student groups. And so offering those concrete paths, making sure we know how to set them up, and then showing faculty that we see it when they’re making the effort and rewarding that. We don’t always need that little extrinsic reward, but institutions have to really keep that up if they’re going to see that this carries through, because that’s going to be the difference between institutions that really have that momentum moving forward and the ones that fall behind.

Liz: I agree… [LAUGHTER] with what she said. I come at this from a little bit of a different perspective, because I am in the classroom, or at least in a virtual classroom. But I think the word that comes to mind for me when I think about momentum is intentionality. And I think if we can remember to teach through our values, especially those values that became so crystallized during COVID, that’s a really good first step. And I’m fond of saying that what’s good for students is good for us. So I want us to think about the ways that we prioritized care, humanity, grace with our students, and also make sure we’re doing that for one another and for ourselves. And I mentioned this before, but COVID really revealed a lot of inequities that had been there for a long time. And now that we know that they’re there, we have to be very intentional about ensuring that they don’t just kind of go back to being invisible again now that we’re not all on Zoom together. So those are the things that I’m thinking about. It’s really leaning into our values, not forgetting what we learned, being intentional and doing for ourselves what we have seen we need to do for our students.

Rebecca: That’s a great reminder to think about not just the students, but the whole community, faculty, staff, etc.

John: During the early stages of the pandemic, we saw a lot of experimentation. And we saw the rapid growth of remote synchronous instruction and HyFlex instruction. And one of the things I think many of us are wondering is what roles they will play as we move forward into the future. Helvin?

Kelvin: Well, my crystal ball never was working. [LAUGHTER] It’s not even broken. But here’s kind of what I think is happening and what may continue to happen. I think synchronous online options will continue to be a factor in our digital teaching and learning in a way that it was not before the pandemic. And it is certainly possible that what I refer to as true HyFlex may still have a place as well. It’s just, gosh, it’s hard to pull real true HyFlex off, right? It’s such a design-intensive approach. What I contrastingly refer to as pseudo HyFlex… dual mode, simulcasting, webcasting of classroom experience… that has challenges. It has a place, perhaps, in individual instructor preference. But I’m going to tell you, firsthand from faculty colleagues I talked to as well as data I’ve seen, it’s exhausting. And it’s challenging for students, the what is sometimes touted as student flexibility ends up just becoming sort of a lowering of expectations and come and go as you wish and the intentionality and momentum seems to dissipate. I’m a big fan of intentional design and modalities of choice, and so forth,,,that way, instead. So, I think synchronous is around and I think our mutated modalities are around. And true. HyFlex has a place. But I’d love to see a diminishing of pseudo HyFlex.

Michelle: This is sparking so many of my own thoughts that I’m really feeling in a way validated here. And I’ll echo a lot of this as well. I think that again, in true HyFlex, where I am fully engaging the folks who are all spread out, I’m fully engaging whoever’s in my classroom, and we’re achieving all of our objectives. That really is a lot. And it’s not the technology. It’s the cognitive capacity. And as a cognitive psychologist, I say, “Well, when you practice remembering to read the chat and read the room at the same time, those demands get a little bit less, but they don’t go away. It’s just too complex.” So I think that we are going to have, yeah, the true bonafide HyFlex courses going forward, they need to be designated, they need to be supported in a particular way. So they may not be unicorns exactly, but I kind of see that coming forward. What I feel like I’ve kind of settled into a more HyFlex light, HyFlex infused is, for example, if you’re home and you’re remote, you need to be remote today, I don’t have an elaborate Google doc with a structured discussion maybe for you. But you can follow along, you can send in a participation card, I do give a lot of credit for participation, and so we’re kind of moving to that. I do think that we still have a sense of possibility. I mean, we have definitely gotten those skills, and we will find new ways to use them. But even just the basics, like “Hey, you can record your class meetings.” And I offer that too as an option for catching up sometimes where needed. I really thought that was going to be a disaster for a lot of different reasons going on. I said that’s not going to work. And I will eat those words now. So we have a few of these tools in our toolkit that we can use in this lower key way, I think.

Rebecca: So Kelvin, you mentioned the ability of changing modalities and offering some flexibility here. And the ability for students to choose the modality that they take the course in is just one of the ways that we’ve seen increased flexibility. But we’ve also seen increased flexibility around attendance, assessments, and many other aspects of teaching. How can we continue to support increased flexibility for students without overburdening faculty. I’m really hoping you all have some magic that you can help with.

Michelle: Yeah, so increased flexibility without the overburdening of faculty… When I reflect on this, I think we can borrow from the plus one strategy that you might be familiar with from Universal Design for Learning. Tom Tobin and his colleagues who write about this… the idea being that, yeah, we’re working towards perhaps a very rich environment with many different ways to demonstrate what you know, to take a test, to participate in in a learning activity, but you don’t do it all at once. And I also think, too, that I know that I’ve gotten, I think, pretty adept at finding those opportunities for flexibility that don’t necessarily add more for me to do and I think an example of this would be the way I give exams these days. So during the pandemic, I said, there’s always going to be an option instead of sitting for a traditional test. So I have an option that’s an essay paper with length and scope parameters and so on. But students can structure this. I suggest they often structure it as an email home to your family about what you’ve learned during this portion of the course. I’ve had a few students who have run with it as a science fiction writing exercise, which works great in psychology. So people will report home to their alien commander or home base about what they’ve learned about humans on Planet Terra. And those are, if anything, just a change of pace for me to read. I’m reading the exams anyway. So I’m always about the efficiency and so that’s something that I’ve tried to capture as well. But here too, we have to remember there are risks when we offer these and faculty who do go out on that limb and try it the first semester or two… maybe it doesn’t work perfectly… they’ve got to be affirmed, and they’ve got to be protected especially untenured. Folks,

Kelvin: I feel like I want to report to my alien commander now. [LAUGHTER] “Mork calling Orson, Mork calling Orson,” that’s a deep cut call back, you have to be of a certain age to appreciate that. I agree with a lot of that. I don’t think I disagree with any of that. But I will broaden out a little bit and maybe anchor back, Rebecca, to your prompt a little bit. I personally think we should lean into intentional course design in intentionally designed and created modalities for which student flexibility is the intent. Asynchronous online is probably the most flexible thing we offer outside of maybe true adaptive learning, which is… don’t get me started… that’s another whole tough banana to peel. I need a better metaphor… bananas aren’t that tough to peel… [LAUGHTER] a tough onion to peel, there’s lots of tears. I don’t know… something. And then I think we need to reiterate to ourselves and to our faculty colleagues that there are codified effective practices in each of these course modality domains, like… a shameless plug… at UCF, we host the teaching online pedagogical repository (TOPR), an online compendium of online and blended teaching and design practices. So there’s stuff that we know that are research based, time honored, that work well and benefit students, things like the broad category of learner choice, which I think just echoes a little bit of what Michelle was saying. We don’t have to reinvent the wheel if we lean into those things. And there’s real student benefit for doing that.

John: The disruptions we experienced in education during the pandemic when people were learning remotely affected all students, but disproportionately affected students who are first-gen, students from low income households and minoritized students. How does higher education need to adjust to meet the diverse needs of all of our students, some of which were not as affected by the pandemic if they were in well-resourced school districts and others that were left behind a bit when they didn’t have access to the technology or the resources that better funded school districts had?

Kelvin: Yeah, we could do better. Even here at the conference in which we’re participating here as we record this, we saw even today, student voice represented on stage and I think we can do better with that. There’s knowing who our students are, there are data that we are collecting and could collect that tell us something. But there’s also just attending to students’ personal stories, keeping a human face on the student experience, being grounded in our work there. But broadening further, again, I’m a big advocate of research-based and time-honored teaching practices. And in our digital teaching and learning domain, many of those have been shown to benefit minoritized and disadvantaged student sub-populations. I would do a shout out here to Tonya Joosten’s research review that has its long title. It’s got educational technologies and student success and racial and ethnic groups of interest all in the title. It can be Googled, it’s free, it’s available, but she does a nice job of reviewing and synthesizing the extant literature and making some recommendations from that. And so there are ways in which our online and blended in particular design and teaching practices benefit everybody but in particular, benefit first-gen, minoritized students, and so forth. And here’s a little free factoid… in a little fascinating recommendation. She says, you know, there’s some evidence to suggest that reduced seat time blended courses at the lower-division level particularly benefit disadvantaged students subpopulations and then going into online courses at the upper division in the major kind of courses. Those two things together. You know, it’s stunning, that’s not whiz bang, whirly gig shiny, right? …but it’s just doing the work but as we align that it really has benefits that evidence would bear out.

Liz: I just want to start by echoing something that Kelvin mentioned, which is that if we’re going to serve the students we have and the students that we will have, we have to know who they are. And there are studies of generations and qualities, but I don’t think anything replaces asking the people in your classroom about themselves in a way that is safe and non-threatening, but comes from an authentic place of curiosity. So I do this with my students. At the start of every semester, I ask them questions, none of them are required, but I ask them questions about things like, what kinds of technology do you have? And how many hours a week are you working? And which of this very long list of challenges do you think you might face during the semester? What kinds of things can I do to help you? …just so that I have a sense of who’s in the room, and what might be going on with them. So just yesterday, I was teaching my Zoom class from upstairs in my hotel room, which I was very grateful for, because I’m an introvert, and this conference is overwhelming. So I was happy to have an excuse to get away for three hours to teach. But we spent 20 minutes just asking, “How are you? No, no, how are you?” Not, I’m fine. I’m okay, but what’s going on? And one of my students said, I’ve always struggled with depression, and I thought I had it under control. But the last week has taught me that I don’t. And it’s only because we’re in week six of a seven week class that that student felt like he could say that, and the whole class could say, “Me too.” And those moments, I think that is so critical. And it’s just the humanization that we’ve already talked about, and meeting people where they are, I want to put in a plug for Zaretta Hammond’s book about, I don’t remember the full title, but it’s the brain and culturally relevant responsive teaching. It’s got a lot of really good buzzwords in it. But it talks about how, when the brain is in a state of trauma, or stress, you can’t learn. And so we can talk about all of these things that we can do. But if our students are not in a place to hear it, nothing that we do is going to make a difference. And I think if we’re talking about how to teach the students we have, we have to be aware of that before we can move forward.

Rebecca: So you’ve nicely connected to our next topic. [LAUGHTER]

Liz: …almost like I meant to.

Rebecca: lI know, it’s almost like you knew it was coming. Campuses are seeing a rise in mental health needs in their student bodies, both prior to the pandemic and it obviously continues to increase. And shifting to more inclusive practices is shifting the relationship that students are having with the faculty, just like you mentioned, being able to be more open about some of these things. In my own experience, I’ve seen an increase in disclosure of mental health challenges and distress and the need to refer and actively engage in suicide prevention. These are things that I didn’t need to do five years ago, [LAUGHTER] or maybe I didn’t need to do but didn’t see, but definitely see now. So how can faculty and institutions more effectively respond to mental health challenges facing our learning communities? And obviously, Liz, you kind of started us off on some ideas here. Michelle?

Michelle: Yeah, I’d like to put another book on the radar actually, as well. And full disclosure, I was an editor on this book, but I really believe in it. It’s coming out next year, actually, it’s called Learning and Student Mental Health in the College Classroom, lead authors, Robert Eaton. And it is in this space of friendly, actionable strategies when we do have increased disclosure. I mean, I found too, that Zoom itself is a sort of a dis-inhibiting space, like many online spaces are and going in I should have known that. it’s like on paper, I’ve read it, but then it became very, very real. So what do we do with that? Because the thing for faculty is, we mean this well, but our minds immediately go to: “How do I fix it? Oh, my gosh, do I have to kind of do amateur therapy that I’m not qualified to do?” And no, that is absolutely not what we need to do next. It’s a good thing to be concerned about not crossing boundaries at that same time as we are responding to what students are disclosing for us. So the strategies that I like are those that say, well, let’s start by not accentuating the crises and the stresses that are there. And a few other kind of concrete things… For me, not asking for doctor’s notes. Boy, when I started teaching a long time ago, I was all about the documentation and “show me exactly what happened at the emergency room,” and that type of thing. So now I offer flexibility and many paths to catch up that much like universal design for learning are built in for everyone from day one of the course. So if there’s something that prevented you from coming to class or making that deadline, okay, we can talk about it if you want, but we don’t have to. And you can simply take those paths that I’ve already laid out for you. I think taking the time to empathize, many of us did practice those skills and we can continue to do so. When I get to talk to people who are just starting out as teachers, I say, “You have this big loud microphone, this megaphone to a student’s ear. Your words land very, very powerfully. So you really need to think about those.” I find that my students seem to come to me expecting very harsh treatment and very harsh reactions, when they tell me about what they’re going through. And so I remind myself to simply start with warmth and compassion and human empathy, and a way forward. So that’s something that we can do. And when all else may fail, I say “How would I want my own child, in the same situation, a crisis, which is hopefully temporary and passing… how would I want them to be spoken to? How would I want that email to be phrased? What kind of pass forward would I want for them?” So that’s how I take it.

John: We’re a little behind schedule. So we’re going to ask anyone in the audience to come up to the microphone. One of the issues we haven’t quite gotten to is the issue of preventing burnout. Maybe if Liz could address that briefly while people come up.

Liz: So I want to talk about burnout in a very particular way. Because I think we often think of burnout as a me problem. And I think of burnout as an every one problem. It is a system that is creating it. And so I want to tell every one of you listening, that you are not the problem, and you haven’t done anything wrong. But in order to mitigate burnout, we have to be aware of what our boundaries are. And that often requires getting really quiet, and listening to ourselves. Because we’ve been steeped in this culture that tells us that hustling and productivity is the only way you’re valuable. And that is not true. But you’re not going to be able to figure out what your boundaries are if you’re listening to those voices. So you got to step out of that for a minute, and figure out what really matters to you. And here’s a good way to do it. Think about yourself 20 years from now. What are the things that are going to have mattered about what you’re doing right now? And what are the things that you won’t really care about? Choose to spend your time on the things that will matter to you 20 years from now, and all of these other kind of petty political debates in your institution… because we all have them… that’s not what you’re going to be remembering when you look back on your career. Focus your energy and your care on the things that you’re going to care about over a career and make choices accordingly. I think that’s the advice I would give.

JELISA: My name is Jelisa Dallas, I’m representing the University of Phoenix. My role is as a recognized student organization manager, a program manager. And so my question was, “How do we effectively work with students in a way that’s going to help streamline their purpose as it pertains to connecting with them in the classroom? So a lot of students have a lot of things going on, and how do we streamline that to get them to stay focused and prioritize when so much is going on and around?”

Liz: Thank you for the question. I mean, I think it’s making sure that what we are doing, we’re transparent about why it matters to them. And it’s creating relevance to whatever their goals are. And of course, you can’t do that if you don’t know what they are. So again, you need to know your students, but designing the work for your class, so that it feels intrinsically valuable, I think, is the best advice I can give.

ALI: Hi, I’m Ali Kirwen, I am a course operations specialist with the University of Michigan, we are an all online program, or I work for an online master’s program. It’s asynchronous, we have students everywhere in all different time zones. And we have faculty that care a whole, whole lot about our students. So I’m wondering, as a designer, how can I help encourage my faculty to set boundaries with their students in a way that honors their joy of teaching and interacting with their students, but is working towards preserving them and not burning them out as well? [LAUGHTER]

Michelle: Well, I think that even subtle things like wording choice. So are there things that say over and above, do we give awards for the person who did the most? Or do we give awards for people who did the best? So I think that faculty, especially when they’re new, are really looking for those cues. And so those can be powerful.

Kelvin: What Michelle said… [LAUGHTER] No, what Michelle said but just maybe that underscore and amplify that for a second, I’ve thought about doing this myself, and I just haven’t. But I love the colleagues and maybe some of you are them who have those little statements in the bottom of your email, right? Like, “if you’re getting this email, when you’re not working, don’t feel some sort of obligation to respond right now. I sent it at a time that I was working, that might not be the time that you’re working. And, in a collegial sort of way, we can have that same kind of a vibe, I think, in our course interactions between faculty and students. And then again, wording… I got a note just last night on a book project I’m working on from a colleague who’s gonna peer review. And he said, “I show my respect by being direct and blatantly honest.” And so I think framing is everything. Word choice is everything. And making explicit where you’re coming from without just sort of caving to the implicit pressures and cultural expectations. That’s hard. But it’s important.

Liz: Yes. And women in the academy, we do a lot of emotional labor. And that comes very naturally to me, if you know anything about the Enneagram, I’m a 2, like, I want to fix all your problems, okay. But the way that I do this, because students tell me everything. I think they tell me everything, because they know that I will listen. But what I have learned for myself, and this has been the difference between moving towards burnout and not, is that I am here to listen to you deeply. I am not here to fix your problems. And I will refer you to people who can help you. But if you just need to be heard, I will listen. And sometimes that does get heavy. But I also recognize that if I fix all the problems for all the students, I’m going to be exhausted. And that doesn’t really serve them in the long run. Because they don’t need someone to fix their problems. They just need someone to tell them that they’re okay and that I believe in you, and I care about you. And so I would say that, but deep listening is one of the greatest gifts you can give someone else. And that’s just listening to understand what they’re saying, not to respond. So that’s what I would say. And please never send pictures from the ER, never. [LAUGHTER] You know, students tell them, no ER photos,

John: We always end by asking: “What’s next?” …and we’ll start with Kelvin.

Kelvin: Crystal ball, still not working. [LAUGHTER] But here’s, I guess, my read on the situation, there are more options for people to learn and work than there ever have been before. So I think that we can either meet the needs of our colleagues and our learners, or someone else will when they go elsewhere.

Michelle: What’s next for me, I want to keep doing the absolute best I can teaching my actual classes. I’m just reconnecting so much with that. And I think that’s a good thing for now. And I’m eagerly looking at, hopefully, deeper changes in the academy, also looking for rebuilding online presence. Twitter used to be a big part of my online life and I quit that in May, and saying what kind of connections was this yielding with other faculty, even with students and the big ideas in my field. And maybe I can take more charge and have more agency in that going forward?

Liz: I’m working on a book. So you should all buy it when it comes out. Michelle is the editor, so it’s going to be really good. [LAUGHTER] It’s tentatively called The Present Professor. And we mentioned it in the introduction. But really, I’m just looking for ways where we can create more student centered,e students supportive and faculty well being centered places of learning. That is my passion. And I’d love to talk to any of you who are interested in that.

John: Thank you all for coming. And on your tables, there’s little packets that Rebecca designed with some tea in them, so please take them with you so she doesn’t have to bring them back to Oswego.

Rebecca: Yeah. Thank you all for joining us. And thanks for those that asked questions. And thank you to all of our panelists and we finished on time. [APPLAUSE]

Liz: It is exactly 12:30.


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.


265. The New College Classroom

Despite all that we have learned from cognitive science about how people learn, the most common form of classroom instruction still involves students passively listening to a lecturer standing at a podium at the front of the room. In this episode, Cathy Davidson and Christina Katopodis join us to discuss alternative approaches that treat student diversity as an asset and allow all students to be actively engaged in their own learning.

Cathy is a Distinguished Professor at the CUNY Graduate Center, the author of more than twenty books, and a regular contributor to the Washington Post and the Chronicle of Higher Education. She has served on the National Council of Humanities and delivered a keynote address at the Nobel Forum on the Future of Education. Christina is a Postdoctoral Research Associate in the Transformative Learning in the Humanities Initiative at CUNY and has authored over a dozen articles on innovative pedagogy, innovative pedagogy, environmental studies, and Early American Literature.  She has received the Dewey Digital Teaching Award and the Diana Colbert Initiative Teaching Prize.

Show Notes


John: Despite all that we have learned from cognitive science about how people learn, the most common form of classroom instruction still involves students passively listening to a lecturer standing at a podium at the front of the room. In this episode, we explore alternative approaches that treat student diversity as an asset and allow all students to be actively engaged in their own learning.


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

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

John: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer…

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


John: Our guests today are Cathy Davidson and Christina Katopodis. Cathy is a Distinguished Professor at the CUNY Graduate Center, the author of more than twenty books, and a regular contributor to the Washington Post and the Chronicle of Higher Education. She has served on the National Council of Humanities and delivered a keynote address at the Nobel Forum on the Future of Education. Christina is a Postdoctoral Research Associate in the Transformative Learning in the Humanities Initiative at CUNY and has authored over a dozen articles on innovative pedagogy, innovative pedagogy, environmental studies, and Early American Literature. She has received the Dewey Digital Teaching Award and the Diana Colbert Initiative Teaching Prize. Welcome, Cathy and Christina.

Cathy: Great to be here. Thank you for having us.

Christina: Thank you so much.

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

Cathy: I am drinking English breakfast tea.

Rebecca: Yes. [LAUGHTER] And Christina?

Christina: I am drinking English breakfast tea.

John: And I am drinking wild blueberry black tea.

Rebecca: I forgot what kind of tea I made this morning. [LAUGHTER] I have no idea. I made nice loose leaf tea this morning, and it’s tasty, but I don’t remember what it is.

John: So you’re drinking a tasty tea.

Rebecca: I’m drinking a tasty tea this morning.

Cathy: Will I be kicked off the show if I say I’m drinking coffee?

John: About a third of our guests do. Yeah, and sometimes water.

Christina: I also have a Diet Coke. [LAUGHTER]

Rebecca: Sneaky, very sneaky.

John: And I had that right before I came over here.

Christina: We’re drinking all of the things.

John: We’ve invited you here today to discuss The New College Classroom. Could you tell us a little bit about how this book project came about?

Cathy: I can begin. This is actually the third in a series I called the “how we know” trilogy, which I began in 2011 after I stepped down as Vice Provost for Interdisciplinary Studies at Duke University, my previous employer, and was really interested in the science of attention and the neuroscience of learning. So that book really is about the neuroscience of learning. Then I wrote a second book called The New Education which came out in 2017, and was re-issued in a post pandemic version just this past spring. And it’s called The New Education. It’s really the history of higher education and why we inherited the forms we have now and how much higher education was re-created for and rebuilt, redesigned explicitly for the industrial age. And then I wanted to do a kind of installation guide that actually showed people how we do these things, how you take our knowledge of how the brain works, take our knowledge of learning, and how you take our knowledge of history and why we’ve inherited this very cumbersome history and actually do something new. And I thought it would be ridiculous for someone at the end of a long career to be telling other people how to teach. And I had the great fortune to be working with this… Christina will close her ears right now, she gets very embarrassed when I say this… but this utterly brilliant scholar, an Americanist environmental scholar, sound studies scholar who also had written several essays on pedagogy and had won all the teaching awards. And I asked her if she’d be interested in co-writing a book with me. And we started writing it when I was a senior fellow to the Mellon Foundation in my beautiful office overlooking the courtyard of the Mellon Foundation. And then the pandemic hit. We made a pledge to one another that we’d meet every Tuesday and Thursday and write together and we literally wrote, rewrote, re-re-re-wrote, and then re-re-re-re-re-wrote [LAUGHTER] every word together during the pandemic. So when people say, “Can you have a real relationship? Can you have a real project during the pandemic?,” we would say “Absolutely.” And that’s actually kind of key to the book, ‘cause we talked about learning in all its facets online and face-to-face. But that’s the very long version of how I’m the luckiest author in the world to have been able to work with Christina.

Christina: I’m the luckiest. [LAUGHTER]

Rebecca: It must have been very nice to have the stability of consistent writing times with each other during a time that was so unstable.

Christina: Yeah, it was a lifeline. I live in Brooklyn, near the Barclays Center where a lot of the Black Lives Matter protesting was happening here. And kids will be playing in the street. They had to close the streets on the weekends and weekdays so that kids could get time outside and neighbors could gather together outside where it would be safe. And kids playing on the street, drawing all these beautiful things in sidewalk chalk, and then you’d see police completely decked out, batons out, pepper spray, all kinds of things, getting ready for the protest that was just completely peaceful protesting and a police force that was just prepared for something wildly different. And it was a really dark time in trying to protest and think of a better way, a more equitable institution, an institution that could prepare students for the world, to be citizens of the world and also to fight for social justice and racial justice, and getting together and writing this book. It felt we have even more purpose more so than ever, in writing this and leaning into the active learning methods that really prepare students to participate and engage with the world.

John: You begin the book with something which actually serves as a very nice introduction to much of the rest of the book, which is a story about a 50-person department meeting in which no one was responding to the department chair. Could you just share a little bit about this anecdote?

Christina: Sure. So I was in that department meeting, it was a meeting in which we were given a really big task of imagining the goals for the department for the next 10 years. This is a review that happens every 10 years. And the department chair was standing at the front of the room behind the podium and was like, “Alright, so what are our goals for the next 10 years?” [LAUGHTER] …and everyone was quiet. Because as you can imagine, everyone has things that they want to change, things that they think could be better, and no one wanted to be the first to speak. And it really just felt like one of those situations where there’s a bunch of dry straw, and someone could just light a match. And so I was like, “Okay,” I knew everyone there, and I was familiar with the chair. The chair was very supportive of students, and I knew he was willing to listen. And then I said, “Hey, can we just talk to someone next to us and come up with a few ideas first, before we speak with the whole group?” He’s like, “Sure.” And this is what’s called think-pair-share where everyone thinks about a question and then they pair up with someone next to them or a small group of people. And then when we’re all done, we come back and share what we came up with. And five minutes go by and he is trying to get the attention of everyone in the room, the room has exploded in all this conversation, but everyone is smiling and enjoying talking to the person next to them. They’re thinking more hopeful thoughts with their generous colleagues and students and faculty all together. And when the chair was finally able to call everyone back to order… I’ve done this in 8 ams… the poor people who teach next to me have said that my classes are too loud at 8 am. [LAUGHTER] And Cathy has done this with a lot of people every time she gives a talk, and it takes a long time to get everyone to come back to order. And then people were so eager to share what they had talked about in their groups. And there was a little bit of anonymity, because it was like, “Okay, everyone in my group said this, not just me,” [LAUGHTER] and everyone was willing to share and we started to envision some really beautiful goals for the next 10 years that were really hopeful, that were imaginative, and creative, and beautiful, rather than starting with critique. Or sometimes what happens is, if one person says something, then everyone else kind of jumps on that train, and this way, diverse number of ideas coming out of these different separate conversations. So that’s why we do it.

Cathy: If you want an education-ese term this is called an inventory method. It’s the opposite of the standard seminar where you ask a question and those same three students raise their hand dutifully and answer the question. And sociologists of education have studied who those students are who raise their hand. And they tend to be a good match for the professor in class and race and gender and family background, family income… the people who are most into the class, most likely to get an A plus, most likely to go on to graduate school, most likely to be professors, replicate their professor. And that’s one reason why only 1% of Americans have a PhD and 25% of the professoriate has a parent that has a PhD. We have a system that’s a closed system. When you do an inventory method, like the one that Christina uses, think-pair-share, everybody in the classroom contributes. In that case, it was a meeting. But that’s true in a classroom too. Sociologists of education also tell us that 20% of students graduate from college without ever having spoken in a class unless they were required to speak by a professor. But if we really believe that higher education is about empowering students, not just giving them content, but giving them the tools to be experts themselves, then they have to learn how to articulate those ideas. And of course, some people are shy and then having them write on an index card means they’re still participating , even if they’re too shy to actually say something in class. An incredible method that I learned from a second grade teacher and I’ve done in many situations. Christina was alluding to the famous one I tell all the time about trying think-pair-share with 6000 International Baccalaureate teachers in the Philadelphia Seventy-Sixers auditorium. So they’re all thinking and pairing and sharing on these jumbotrons in the auditorium.[LAUGHTER] It was great. And I’ve also done it with the top 100 performing CEOs of the Cisco foundation. I did this with the Board of Trustees at Duke and John Chambers, the CEO of Cisco was on, he said, “I need you to talk to my executives, because there’s nobody more likely to be reticent about giving comments than one of my CEOs who’s talking to me. Power does that. There’s a kind of silence that happens in the face of power, whether it’s with second graders or a department meeting like Christina was in or students every day in our classes.

Rebecca: I think what’s really interesting about both of the stories that you’re sharing is that we’ve been in those situations where the silence is overwhelming, we’ve maybe have been the person running the meeting or the classroom or also been the person in the audience.

Cathy: And it feels awful, it feels terrible. My students call it’s playing silence chicken. [LAUGHTER] That’s a great term.

Rebecca: It’s a perfect descriptor for sure. So given that we’ve all had these experiences, and also have experienced the opposite. I think probably all of us, or at least most of us have experienced those engaging opportunities. Why do we always default to the one that doesn’t work? [LAUGHTER]

Cathy: Every structure we have in academe tells us our job is to learn from the master. And I use that word in quotation marks, but pointedly, and then repeat back what you learn on a final exam and that’s how you get As. And the students in our classrooms, they’re the winners, not the losers. They got to college because they learned that lesson, Freire calls it the “banking model,” where it’s my head dumping and depositing stuff into your head. We also have studies that go back to the 1880s, not 1980s, 1880s, the Ebbinghaus experiments with memory that tell us we forget 75% of what we’ve learned for that exam within weeks after the exam is over. So it’s not an effective way to learn, but it’s the way we learn. So we’re being reinforcing in a way of learning we only use in higher education and formal education, we don’t learn new skills that way, when it’s not commonsensical to learn from a lecture. I don’t learn how to play tennis from a video. I might look at a video, but that’s not how I get better. I practice and I improve and someone corrects me, and then I change what I’m doing. We all know that. But, for education, we’re told, learn from the sage on the stage. That’s what you’re supposed to do. That’s how you excel and our students have learned how to excel. It makes complete sense that they would think they learned more from a lecture than when they contribute. They’re deferring to the authority in the room.

Christina: And I think that this has been ingrained in them for a long time. We’ve been ranked and rated since birth, literally the first minute of birth ranked against others. And this one wonderful researcher, Susan Engel. She’s at Williams College, developmental psychologist, and she cites a study where kids on average before they go to school, when they’re at home asked about 27 questions per hour. And anyone who has a toddler, sometimes it is well more than 27 questions per hour. [LAUGHTER] My toddler just started asking why about literally absolutely everything. He’s about three. So right on target for asking lots of questions, for being naturally curious about the world. She talks about this. It’s called epistemic curiosity. And Dr. Engel says that once kids go to school, they ask on average three questions per hour, which is just a precipitous drop in getting to ask your questions, getting to know the world around you through engaging with it. And so by the time they get to college, they expect to learn more from a lecture, that they are not experts in the room, and that the person at the front of the room has all of the answers. And they have been trained through standardized testing to believe that there is a right answer, and they just need to be able to get to that right answer. That doesn’t train them to take on the world’s toughest problems and be problem solvers, to find alternative solutions, to think outside the box. And maybe those problems in the world are caused by believing there is a right answer and not thinking that maybe it’s me sitting in the room with all of these other people sitting in the room who could find a better solution or a better answer than the one that that one person has. And that’s how we change society. That’s how we transform our institutions. And I think they’ve just been ingrained in this system for so long, that by flipping it around and saying no, there are 50 different ways to answer this one question or 50 different ways to solve this one mathematical equation, then it’s more up to them. It’s giving them a little more responsibility and autonomy so that they can practice using it when they get out into the world rather than thinking, “Oh, there’s someone smarter than me who clearly has that figured out and they’ll take care of that problem.” That doesn’t really give them the kind of responsibility and accountability that I think that we all need in the world.

Rebecca: What you were talking Christina, I was thinking about a conversation I had with my kindergartner over the weekend, who does still ask many, many questions, some of which I do not know the answer to and so I don’t remember what she was asking me but whatever it was, I did not know the answer. And I said, “I don’t know, we’ll have to look that up” and she’s like, “I’ll ask my teacher, she knows the answer.” She’s in kindergarten, she’s only been in kindergarten for two months.

Cathy: I interviewed kindergarten teachers and first-grade teachers about learning. And almost every kindergarten teacher said, “when kids come to them, they think they can do all these things like ‘I love math, I love music, I love art, I’m an artist,’ by first grade, within six months into the first grade, they know, ‘I’m not good at art, I’m not good at math, I’m okay at language, but I’m very poor at…’ and already have absorbed those kinds of lessons about themselves.” And what you said is great, because it’s like the authority of the teacher is already happening. And then what happens when you absorb those lessons into a self definition. And that’s what we’re working against with active learning, is not just definition of the teacher, but definition of yourself in your role as a person.

John: And that’s hard to correct at the college level, because students have been indoctrinated in this from their very first exposure to educational systems. And when faculty do try using active learning, they often get a lot of pushback from the students. And that’s a challenge for new faculty where their teaching evaluations may have some impact on their continued employment. So it’s a difficult cycle to break.

Cathy: Yes, and it’s one reason why we include the research, serious research with any thing we offer to faculty members about what they can do in their class. And we also talk about the 2014 meta study in the publication of the National Academy of Science that looked at every possible way of evaluating learning and said if this had been a pharmaceutical follow-up study that Eric Mazur, who’s one of the inventors of the flipped classroom, did at MIT because his brilliant MIT students, were all sure they were being shortchanged by active learning. So he had them read serious scientific studies of active learning and then they all thought they were doing great by having active learning, and they thought they were better. So it’s about using the methods that speak to people in order to change the methods because unless you address the actual present situation of the audience, of the students, of the people you’re addressing, you can’t change things, you have to honor that present situation before you can move to something else and make a structural change beyond that.

Rebecca: A lot of the current system of higher education, as you mentioned, is based on a really different era, a really different audience of students and our student populations have changed, become more diverse, there’s more people going to college now than before. So how do we help students who have been through this system that has not really invited them to the table to really get involved. We share some of the research, and what are some other ways we can support them on this endeavor, and to continue helping us change the system.

Christina: Some really great pedagogy out there. One I’m thinking is an assignment that Erin Glass does with her students where they read terms and conditions for all of the technology that they’re using on their campuses. And they have to closely read them and critique them to help them become more aware of capitalist surveillance and what they are required to sign up for. And then they write a critique of that, of the university and of the system that they’re being signed up for, so they’re not only learning more, they’re learning digital literacy. They’re also learning more about the institution that is guiding these things that they’re signing up for. And they’re becoming better critical readers in general. And they’re also talking back to that institution and saying you could be doing better. And so there are ways in which we can give our students real-world problems that are immediately close to them and to their experiences of education, and task them with coming up with something better. And it’s really wonderful that students who come from all different kinds of educational systems to get together and think of what could be done better. Or Cathy also does this where at the end of the semester, a final project could be like, come up with a better syllabus. I don’t know if you want to speak to that Cathy, but I love this assignment.

Cathy: Yeah, I love to end the class where I be in the next class, like I say, “Okay, we’ve had about 12 weeks or 16, depending on the institution that I’m at, together and we’ve done this as a syllabus, and you’ve contributed to the syllabus, the last assignment, and sometimes we make this even as a final exam, is to make a syllabus the next people who take this class will inherit. Put your stamp on it. What did you like? What didn’t you like? That’s an incredible activity and it means it’s but again, using an education-ese term, it’s metacognition, too, because it means students are looking back over everything they’ve learned, which is the best way to beat the Ebbinghaus 75% forgetting because you’re actually processing it, analyzing it, and then trying to come up with some new version that you’re bequeathing to somebody else. It’s a legacy that you’re bequeathing to somebody else. It’s a marvelous exercise and you can do it in any kind of class. It’s quite fascinating to see the different ways people can come up with things. So often people say, “Well, you’re an English teacher, so of course, you’re flexible.” But what about… there’s somebody named Howie Hua, who’s a professor at Cal State Fresno, who on Twitter almost every day he comes up with what he calls mental math problems. And he’ll ask something seemingly simple that you think there’s no other way to solve that, like, “Add in your head 24 plus 36? How did you do it?” And dozens of people respond with different ways to add whatever those two numbers are that I just said, in their head. And it’s fascinating, because the point he’s making is it’s not about the right answer. It’s about, not only understanding the processes, but understanding all the different tools that we can have in order to be better mathematicians, more passionate about science or more passionate about all kinds of learning. So I think any assignment that gives students the tools and allows them, and even better is when they can pass on those tools to somebody else. When Erin Glass does that assignment, they not only critique, but they come up with their own terms of service. What are the terms of service for our class? What’s the community constitution for our class? What are the community rules we’re going to form in this class? …and so they’re already invested in a new kind of structure even before you start populating what that structure is going to look like.

Christina: And I think from the first day, you can really set students up for something different. One thing that Bettina Love does in her classes is she has everything set up and she goes, “Okay, now you tell me when the deadlines are going to be for this.” And so students look at their calendars, look at their schedules, and determine when things are going to be due so that they’re not all due in the same week as midterms or as in the same week as finals. That’s a very student-centered approach, asking students to come up with the learning outcomes of a class. And even in the most restrictive situations, you can add learning goals and learning outcomes, even if yours are set by the department. So I think also asking students what needs to change to better serve them and centering them in that conversation, you can start with your class and then start to think more broadly about a department or a whole institution.

Cathy: What I love about all of these different things, and we’ve borrowed them from other people, one of the things we did was we interviewed so many people, academic twitter was very helpful for that, to find out what they were doing and profile people and amplify people who are doing amazing things. What works best is when something specific, if you say how should we change this class, you get silence chicken. If you say here are the 10 learning outcomes that our department requires us to write, do you have anything else you’d like to add? Maybe work with a partner and come up with your own additions to these required learning outcomes? Students come up with beautiful, soaring, inspirational things that just make you aware that if they’re allowed not to be cynical, students want to have agency and want to have something that will help them in the rest of their life, it’s pretty scary to think about the world out there. And they want and need these things and want to be participants in the shaping of their own life and in their own agency.

Christina: And you’re reminding me too, that there’s this widespread movement right now to rename office hours, to call them student hours, because students are so used to going to the office being a punitive experience. And student hours really welcomes them to come with maybe more than just “I’m having difficulty with this problem set.” “But I want to talk about my career, what can I do with this degree? Or I’m having difficulty with x? Can you help me with y?” I think it really better serves them as well to rename it student hours to show that we actually really want you to come and we really want to talk to you. I don’t want to just sit alone in my office. [LAUGHTER] I want you to be here.

John: What are some other activities or ways in which we could give students a bit more agency? You mentioned the reflection on the syllabus and rewriting a new syllabus at the end. And you also hinted at having students be engaged in the syllabus itself. What are some other ways we can do this during the course of the class?

Cathy: I often quote our friend Jonathan Sterne, who teaches at McGill University because this is the most counterintuitive one. Jonathan teaches various versions of mediasStudies, media information, technology, and disability studies. He himself had throat cancer, and he talks through a voice box that he himself helped to design… a remarkable human being. He teaches classes of 400 to 600 students, and people say there’s no way… how in the world could that be active learning? He hands out index cards and at the end of every class students write down an answer to something he asks. He might ask “What did we talk about in class today that you’re still going to be thinking about before you go to sleep at night? And if there was nothing, what should we have been talking about?” Today’s media if you don’t have anything to say about media in the modern world, something’s misfiring. He has a blog about his learning, and he’s charted how well students have done since you’ve done these simple exercises of having students report back after every class. He also works with TAs who have special sections, and they take the 15 cards from their section, so they know what questions the students have before they go into the session. And then he uses some of those to spur his next assignment. He does this kind of cool thing where he spreads it all the cards and says, “Well, John said so and so. And Deborah said so and so. And Rebecca said, so and so. And Christina said so and so.” So he makes it interactive. He also does an incredible thing. He says, “With this many students, I have to use multiple choice testing, and I know how impoverished multiple choice testing is.” So he sets his students a creative assignment each time, sometimes it’ll be a piece of notebook paper, sometimes it’ll be an index card, and he’ll say, “You can write any crib sheet you want, go back, and you can do anything you want from the semester to help you do well on the multiple choice exam.” And what he knows is what they write on that crib sheet is the learning, right? It’s not filling in the ABCDEs, it’s the learning he also leaves some portion, it might be 5%, might be five points, it might be10 points, depending on the system he’s using. He’s Canadian university, so it’s a slightly different system than in the US. But he leaves some amount free, and students hand in both their multiple choice exam and their crib sheet. And he gives extra points for the crib sheets. He’s even done art installations with some of the crib sheets that students have done. But the point is the way you review a class and organize the knowledge onto some very prescriptive sheet, and he says the prescription is extremely important… he’s a composer as well. So he knows how it’s important is to have rules and to play with those rules. And it’s almost like a game. That’s where the learning is happening. So even in the most restrictive situation, you can still do active learning and learning that’s meaningful to how your students learn and how they retain and how they can apply that learning later.

Christina: A colleague of mine, Siqi Tu, also has her sociology students come up with some of the questions that will be included on the final exam. And you can do this with a multiple choice or a long answer type of exam, and the students develop a question. And then when they submit their questions to the professor to review, they also need to include what skills are we assessing with this question? And is this the right answer? What are the various ways you could get to the right answer? And if the right answer is D, then why are you offering A, B, and C as other but wrong answers? Why are they not the right answer? …things like that, to get students to have this kind of command over what they’re learning, why it’s important, what is worthy of being assessed, and how to go about assessing it and testing that knowledge. They have a lot more agency then in how they are being evaluated. And so their expertise is also being solicited there. And the majority of the learning is happening in creating the question and explaining all of the pieces of how that question has been crafted and what the right answer is and why. And then, at the end, she includes at least a portion of the student-generated questions on the final exam. And so it not only gives them great exam prep, but then they also know better what to expect. And they have more agency and control over how they’re being evaluated.

Rebecca: I really enjoyed some of the titles of the chapters in your book, for example, “group work without the groans.” [LAUGHTER] And I thought, yes, group work without the growns. So they resonate.

Cathy: I used to consult quite a lot with business. And just because of that I helped create the Duke Corporate Education Program, which was for returning executives, when I taught at my previous institution. And the number one expense of management experts who are brought into corporations to help manage more effectively is to help them with group work. And in classrooms, sometimes even in sixth grade, we say “Work in your groups and then do something amazing.” Well, no, we know what’s going to happen. That one person who raises their hand, they were one of the three who raises their hand, and in the group, they’re the one that does all the work, then there’s somebody else who kind of goofs off, and then there’s somebody else who does nothing at all. And we know those patterns, and it’s horrible for all three, it’s horrible for the person who always steps up, they’re not being pushed, and it’s horrible for the person who does nothing or the person who goofs off. So when I do group work, I have students write job descriptions. They write out job descriptions for who is going to do what in the group and I also love to have them do an exercise that I call superpowers. What’s your hidden superpower? What’s your three things you do that you think have no relevance at all to this group but that you know you do really well? It might be playing video games. I’ve had people say they were a clown. I found out that my executive director of the program I run was a professional clown. I didn’t know that. She’s a gorgeous young woman and she was a clown. She’s the last person I would have thought of who would be a professional clown. People have these skills, and what they find out in a group is those skills are not irrelevant, because you’re talking in group work not only about coming up with a product, but about interrelationships. And how you can make all the different parts of your personalities work together coherently to create a final product. Also, I have students put that on their resume. I have them look online at what employers most prize. And it turns out collaboration… duh…because that’s what they spend their money improving. Somebody who can be a great collaborator is somebody you want to hire in a job. So my students can not only put that on their resume, but have a wonderful example. You don’t have to say it’s in a classroom. I worked on a project with four others, and we took that project in from idea to implementation, and my role was the firestarter. That’s a term from computer scientists. I’m especially good at coming up with new ideas and presenting those ideas to a group. Fantastic. And then they don’t grown, they realize they’re learning a skill, not being put back into a pattern that they themselves hate and are embarrassed by or resentful of.

Christina: And I think in addition to telling them why group work is important, that they’re going to end up working in groups for the rest of their lives. Everything I’ve done in any job has been collaborative to some degree, and mostly a lot, like really collaborative. And so I just kind of tell them, “This is not busy work, this is actually good practice for the rest of your life, because at the end of the semester, you’re not going to work with these people anymore. But if you’re in a job, the only way to leave that group is to leave that job and the stakes are so much higher. So first of all, this is good practice.” But I think also, we sometimes neglect to offer students the structures that they need to feel confident in their grade for group work, and to feel confident going into group work. So from the get go, giving students structure for the group work, like a checklist of jobs or asking them to come up with a checklist of tasks that they need to complete, assigning roles, like putting a name next to each item on that checklist, so that it’s clear who is doing what. Teaching them a skill like that is teaching them how to delegate authority, how to be a good entrepreneur, a leader, and pointing that out to them that by creating this checklist and putting everyone’s name next to everything, you’re delegating authority, you’re learning these leadership skills that you need in the workforce, and helping them to understand that it is absolutely okay and totally normal to feel social anxiety before going into a group, particularly after a pandemic, when we really lost the ability to make small talk.

Cathy: It’s exhausting. [LAUGHTER]

Christina: It’s exhausting. It’s exhausting. It is we lost that skill. Oh my goodness,

Cathy: Today happens to be a Monday and I had brunches on Saturday and Sunday and took a nap after each one. I can’t remember how to do brunch anymore. [LAUGHTER] And we’re all in that situation.

Christina: It’s true. I just wanted to add one more thing, which is that it’s not just social anxiety, but it’s also anxiety about grades and grading. And we have a whole chapter about grades. Because no one likes grading. No one likes grading. And I think it’s important too for students to know that they’re being graded and assessed fairly on group work. I’m so having that checklist of roles and turning that in at the end to show who did what is really important. And inevitably, it’s funny because we also put faculty into groups …that transformative learning the humanities… where I work, and this inevitably happens with faculty too, that they get really anxious about working when the ideas aren’t gelling together. And I think it’s really important for students to know how they’re being graded. And if someone’s ghosting or someone’s not pulling their weight or not showing up, give everyone else extra credit for helping to make that work, helping to reach out to that person who’s not showing up or ghosting: “Are you okay?” And a lot of times that person is not okay. And they needed someone to reach out and ask if they’re okay, they need that support. So offering the students who unclog a problem, you can give them a plunger award, literally, that happens in a lot of groups, or do something to recognize someone who goes above and beyond to help resolve those kinds of conflicts and issues, rather than it feeling like “Oh, but my grade is being hurt by someone else.” I think it really helps to foster collaborative community and a learning community where everyone is important. Everyone is valued and everyone needs to be okay for the group work to be successful. How can we help our colleagues, our peers.

Cathy: Around 2005 to 2010 years for my organization HASTAC which I co-founded in 2002… NSF now called it the world’s first and oldest academic social network… we created a wiki and we went to this guy in a garage and asked him if he would help us create a wiki and then the next year he launched Wikipedia… that was Jimmy Wales. [LAUGHTER] So that’s how old, that’s how ancient this is. But with that world, we were dealing a lot with open-source computer programmers. When they would do a job, when a job would be posted on Stack Exchange or another open source site, they would have to find a partner that they’d never worked with before and know if that person was reliable, somebody who could complement their skills, and so they do a badging system. And I worked with the Mozilla Foundation on creating badging systems, where you would write down all the criteria that you need to accomplish a job and you never gave a negative, you never give a negative, you just give somebody a badge if they did something great in doing that, and then somebody else who comes by and wants to look to see if they want to work with that person sees where they’ve been given the right badges and says, “ooh, yeah, those are the things I do poorly and those are things what you do well.” Again, HASTAC calls that collaboration by difference. Not everybody has to do everything perfectly, but you have to know, you have to have an inventory of what people contribute. So in my classes, also, when I’m doing group work, I’ll have students not only write their own job descriptions, but write a list of the qualities they think are most important for the success of the group as a whole. And after every week, when they come together, I’ll have them give badges to the people. I don’t even say how many, what percentage, just give a badge to someone who you think really showed up this week, and give a badge in a different category. You don’t have to tell the person who never gets a badge from any of their peers that they’re not pulling their weight. And then that can be a first step, as Christina said, to doing something like reaching out and saying, “You must feel terrible that nobody’s given you a badge in anything. What’s going on? Is it indifference? Is something going on your life? What’s happening?” Yeah, and it doesn’t have to be punitive. But when you see that none of your peers are rewarding you, sometimes it’s like, “Darn them. I’m doing all the work. But I’m a shy person. So I just make the corrections.” That often happens among computer programmers who often are not the most voluble, personable, people. They used to wording, we’re doing code? And someone will say, :”No, no, no, I was fixing all the code you didn’t see, you just didn’t look and see that I was fixing all the code.” And then you can make an adjustment to and it’s an incredibly important adjustment. I’m working with somebody now who was Phi Beta Kappa, three majors, straight As, et cetera, et cetera, and never spok in college. And when she hears these methods, she says, “This would have changed my whole way of being in college.” Instead of feeling shame of all the people who should not feel shame, she felt ashamed that she wasn’t contributing. And because she was never offered an opportunity to until she wrote this brilliant final exam or brilliant final research paper when her teachers knew but in class, she felt like she was failing. That’s horrible. That somebody that brilliant would ever feel like they weren’t doing a great job.

Christina: I think it also asked how to get students excited. And thinking about what Cathy just said, I like to frame group work as an opportunity to practice being a step-up or a step-back person. So if you’re normally a step-up person, like everyone loves that you’re the first to volunteer to help. It’s great to be a step-up person, but sometimes that doesn’t leave room for stepping back and taking into account all of the things that have been said, and reflecting on the larger picture and finding the forest through the trees. And so I invite students to try to practice if you’re generally a step-up person, try being a step-back person. And if you’re generally a step-back person, try being a step-up person and see how it goes. And I also put all of the really loud step-up people in a group together, and I put all of the really quiet step-back people in a group together, because at some point, they’re going to have to talk and the step-up people need a way to regulate who is talking. And so I think a lot of us try to distribute those people through groups, and that can really change group dynamics. So I like having them all together in various ways to feel comfortable being among peers and navigating those roles and being more aware, calling to mind those roles before group work, so they could get excited about trying something new, and recognize that this is always just practice.

John: Will these methods help to create a more inclusive classroom environment?

Christina: These methods are inclusive because they solicit participation from every single person in the room. Inventory methods achieve total participation, that’s a term from the American Psychological Association, 100% participation, not just the hand-raising few. So these methods are inclusive.

John: There has been a lot of criticism recently concerning the way in which traditional grading systems cause students to focus on trying to achieve the highest grades rather than on learning. Do you have any suggestions on how we can focus student effort on learning rather than achieving higher grades?

Christina: Shifting the focus from grades to learning? A very quick answer would be thinking along the lines of Carol Dweck and using a growth mindset… that we are all learning… that you can do more assignments that are completion-based or labor-based to a satisfactory degree rather than A, B, C, D, F. And I think that one really great model is from Debbie Gail Mitchell, who teaches chemistry in Denver. She decided that an 80 is achieving proficiency. And the goal is to achieve proficiency. And so if you get an 80 on an exam or an assignment, then you receive the total number of points for that exam or assignment. And there’s a total number of points to achieve for the whole class. And so assignment or exam adds up to that. And so students stop grade grubbing or worrying if they’re getting an 83 or an 84. And they focus more on learning.

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

Cathy: At one of those brunches This weekend, I had the privilege to meet someone named Matt Salesses, S-A-L-E-S-S-E-S, who is a novelist who just took a job in the MFA program at Columbia, who’s also written a book called Craft. And the book looks at how we teach writing in writing workshops by looking at novels and noticing how often white-authored novels don’t tell you the race of the white characters, but do tell you the race of the non-white characters, and how much craft through all fields as well as in writing workshops often assumes a putative expert in a putative subject as being white. And then everybody else gets defined. So even when we do the terms like diversity and inclusion, there’s an implicit grounding that the person who has craft and earns that craft is going to be from the dominant race. And it’s a really interesting book that looks at the Iowa Writers Workshop and the principles by which it was written up. You could have done craft as a way that higher education was set up. So many of the people who started and set up the metrics for higher education in the late 19th century were in fact, eugenicists, they really believed there was a biological reason for racial superiority and created a system that reified that prejudice that they had. So that’s just a parting. I just happened to be at a brunch at one of those exotic face-to-face human real experiences this weekend where I met an astonishing person with an astonishing book that I’m thinking about more and more. So that’s a what next for me as of yesterday, but that’s the wonderful thing about active learning is yesterday always has something interesting you can learn from.

Christina: My what next is I’m working on an article right now with a colleague, Josefine Ziebell. We’re both sound studies scholars, and also interested in pedagogy. And we’re looking at the school-to-prison pipeline, and the ways in which school soundscape mirrors the carceral soundscape, and how to give students more sonic agency. And so thinking about silence in the room, thinking about voice, and in what ways speaking up can challenge authority and how that can cost you your life in the worst scenarios. And also just like bells ringing, the time ticking ways in which school soundscape can contribute to the school-to-prison pipeline by regimenting everything about a person’s body and depriving them of their sonic agency, where making noise is considered inappropriate when that is exactly what we need to do to transform these institutions. And so I guess that just studying that I find really interesting right now with Josefine.

Rebecca: Well, thank you so much for such fascinating conversation today and things to think about and wonderful teasers for your book.

Cathy: Thank you very much.

Christina: Thank you so much.


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

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


264. Collaborative Rubric Construction

Students may not immediately trust faculty who they perceive as being different from themselves. In this episode, Dr. Fen Kennedy joins us to discuss how collaborative rubric construction can be used as a strategy for building and maintaining trust. Fen is an assistant professor of dance at the University of Alabama and the author of a chapter in Picture a Professor, edited by Jessamyn Neuhaus.

Show Notes

John: Students may not immediately trust faculty who they perceive as being different from themselves. In this episode, we explore how collaborative rubric construction can be used as a strategy for building and maintaining trust.


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

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

John: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer…

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


John: Our guest today is Dr. Fen Kennedy. Fen is an assistant professor of dance at the University of Alabama. They are also the author of a chapter in Picture a Professor, edited by Jessamyn Neuhaus. Welcome, Fen.

Fen: Hi both of you, it’s good to be here.

Rebecca: Our teas today are:… Fen, are you drinking tea?

Fen: I am because I saw that there was a tea list, so I am drinking one of my favorite teas, which is a Lapsang Souchong. And because of the theme of my chapter, I have it in my wonderful mug that says, “What a beautiful day to respect other people’s pronouns.” Cheers.

Rebecca: Cheers. That sounds wonderful.

John: It does and you know, I’ve wanted to drink that tea on here, but I was never quite sure how to pronounce it. [LAUGHTER] I do drink it fairly often, it’s a really nice tea. I keep it separate from the others so the smoke flavor doesn’t infuse the other teas.

Rebecca: See, unlike you, I just embarrass myself by trying to say things I don’t know how to say [LAUGHTER].

Fen: I have a wonderful tea from Plum Tea Company, which is the Picard tea, which is a variant of Earl Grey, which is wonderful.

Rebecca: Nice.

John: And a nice nerdy thing to do too. Many of our guests would appreciate that aspect of it, and we would too. I’m drinking a wild blueberry black tea today.

Rebecca: Oh, That sounds nice, John.

John: It’s very good.

Rebecca: A little different than your normal. I just have Earl Grey today.

John: But not the Picard variant.

Rebecca: Yeah, unfortunately, I didn’t know that that was an option.

Fen: It’s wonderful, I think there’s kind of sweet orange notes in it. I’m a big fan.

Rebecca: That sounds really good. We might have to look, John.

John: So we invited you here, today, to discuss your chapter in Picture a Professor entitled “Collaborative Rubric Creation as a Queer Transgender Professor’s Tactic for Building Trust in The Classroom.” You begin the chapter by noting that transgender and non-binary faculty are rarities in higher education. Could you describe some of the challenges that you face as a non- binary transgender faculty member, who’s also a first-gen student and an immigrant?

Fen: Well, that’s a mouthful. [LAUGHTER] My chapter title is a mouthful and then the question is a mouthful, and well, I will do my best. And so well, I thought about this in advance. And I could give you some of the easiest figures and more objective measures of those obstacles. For example, I worked out quite recently, as an immigrant on an H1 visa, which is a work visa, but not a citizenship or residence visa, you are not allowed to work outside of the contract that you’re hired for. So any work that I’ve done outside of the university, I have had to donate my income to someone else, or just refuse payments. And I worked out that with the money I have lost being an immigrant, I could have put down a second deposit on a house.

Rebecca: …not insignificant.

Fen: No, so it’s not insignificant. The other thing that I think a lot of people don’t realize is that as an immigrant, you can’t really buy your books unless you absolutely know you’re staying in the country. So during my PhD, when you want to look up something, you can’t turn to your wonderful bookshelf and pull down the book that you own, it’s write to the library and see if it’s in stock and see when you can get it. So it’s this little logistical things. And I know we’ll get to gender because the chapter is about gender. But on the first-gen student, something that comes to my mind is: I was in a teacher training and the person giving this training said, “Well, you’re first-generation students, they’re really going to struggle in the classroom, you’re going to know who they are, they’re going to have a hard time knowing how to do things.” And I sat there getting my PhD, getting ready to teach and thinking, I’m not sure I like how I’m being described as someone who’s going to struggle who’s going to have these challenges, and no one has ever said, What advantages does a first-generation student have? What do they bring that other students lack? And so I think sometimes one of the big things is that you’re perceived as a challenge, you’re perceived as someone who’s going to struggle, which means that when you do something that’s original, or creative, or critical, often the response is to say, “Oh, that’s because you don’t understand” rather than, “Oh, this could be a productive direction that other people might want to take also.”

Rebecca: Those are some really good points. I think many of our students are labeled in all kinds of ways that prevent us from seeing all that they have to offer, and how much they can move our classrooms forward and how much we can learn from our students and not have this expectation that they’re going to fail. I really appreciate that you put that right out front.

Fen: I think also, when you follow that line of thinking, a lot of teachers… and I think the book is getting towards this point as a whole… a lot of teachers plan to teach to the students they want rather than planning to teach the students they have. So when they design syllabi, when they design policies, when they design their standards for the course, they picture an ideal student and say how would that student fit in? Rather than saying, “Okay, who is coming into my classroom? What do they need when they get out of it? And how do I take them on that journey in a way that makes them feel engaged, delighted, enthusiastic, valued.” And so we’re talking about Picture a Professor, but maybe not picturing our students is another thing that we could work on.

John: That could be a sequel, Picture a Student.

Fen: Absolutely.

John: I think when we all start teaching, we often have some assumptions about what our students are going to be like. But the reality of our students is often quite different. And that can lead to some challenges for both students and faculty. Following up on that a little bit, what do you do to try to find out more about who your students are.

Fen: So one of the things I tried to do is, think of the people that I hung out with, in my day-to-day life. I hung out with other immigrants, I hang out with first-gen students, I hang out with queer people. And I know about their barriers to coming into education. I hear a lot of people who’ve had really, really awful experiences. And I think about myself, and I was like, “What is the kind of classroom environment that I would have enjoyed? What is the kind of classroom environment that they would have felt happy in and at home in.” So I start with trying to make the door to the classroom as wide as possible, rather than keeping it narrow and forcing students to fit their way through. And then the other thing, I think, what I do is, I started university teaching when I was 23 and I was younger than some of the people in the room with me. And so I didn’t feel like I could step into a classroom and have authority from any degree that I had, or any age that I had, or any status that I had. And so really, if I wanted my students to do what I wanted them to do, I felt like the other end of the deal was I had to know more and teach it really well. And so coming from that perspective, I think, and not thinking of myself as entitled to teach and not thinking of myself as entitled to be at the front of the room, but having to work to be at the front of the room. And part of that work is making a space for the students who are in the room with me. And so I don’t have particular always things that I do. But I try and improve my classroom every semester and make it better for more people.

Rebecca: One of the things that I really appreciated about what you’ve said, Fen, is an underscoring of the term “delightful” multiple times, so that it’s not just something that a group of students can deal with, or it’s survivable, [LAUGHTER] which I think is maybe the bar that is often set, but actually, that you set the bar at delightful. Can you talk a little bit more about that?

Fen: Well, it helps that I’ve always really liked being in classrooms. And school for a while was my safe space. Which means that I, in some ways, have in my past, lacked empathy with people who have not found that and who have not liked learning. And it took some hard experiences for me to realize, “Okay, this is something I’m going to have to step away from, because we’re taught often, if you don’t like learning, you’re lazy and it’s something of a personal failure, and you could be doing better.” And then realizing how many people are in a situation where they are taught that academia hates, and why would you want to constantly be in a space that hates you, for things that you have no control over? But when I start to teach things, I think, “How can I share this subject that I find really cool? How can I share it in a way that conveys my enthusiasm to the people I’m teaching it to.” And that’s fairly easy in a dance technique class, because dance is great fun, and also hard work. It is more difficult when you are teaching graduate critical theory. It’s more difficult when you’re teaching the required history course. But I love critical theory and I love history. And I find them really fun. And I think part of the way that you get people to enjoy the classroom is to give them ownership of the material and allow them to not step back at a distance and see the knowledge that is far off that they must aspire to, but put them in the middle of it and say this is work that we’re doing together. I say that I try and teach history, not to teach students history, but to teach the historians of the future, which means we’ve got to have debates and we’ve got to have conversations and we’ve got to have feelings and opinions that are legitimately ours rather than the ones we think we ought to have. [LAUGHTER]

John: That brings into the topic of your article, which is collaborative rubric creation with students. Could you talk a little bit about how you started doing that and how it’s been working?

Fen: Yes. So I really came to this idea of collaborative rubric creation because I was assigned a choreography course to teach for the first time and that gave me the opportunity to think philosophically about how does one grade choreography? [LAUGHTER] How do you grade someone making art? Because that is always… and I talked about this a little bit in the chapter… that’s always a big problem of a question in creative disciplines. There’s not a qualitative answer. There’s not a specific right or wrong. So how do you start to design that. And I must here, give a shout out to Jessica Zeller, who is a phenomenal dance teacher and also a really important voice in the conversation around what we call ungrading, and thinking about how to take down some of these structures of ranking students in boxes. And so looking through her ideas and trying to work out myself, and I thought, “Oh, what if we start the semester by talking about what art means to my students and what they want to do as choreographers,” because not every student wants to be a high-art experimental installation, interdisciplinary maker, even I kind of wish that more people were that thing. I don’t want to make them into me, I want to make them into the best version of them, which means I’ve got to understand what they want And also sometimes knowing that they don’t have exposure to all the things that they might want to be. So what’s the balance there? And I remember the first time I did it, I kind of structured it into their creative process, their self-directed learning and their citizenship. And what happened when we talked about the three different categories is they ran into all their assumptions about what they thought dance was. And so somebody had put down that an excellent choreographer uses partnering. They’ve done these wonderful, like written out on paper, and I said, “Well, do you think all expert choreographers use partnering? Do you think a piece is less if it doesn’t?” And they were, “Oh, wait, no, that doesn’t work.” And I said, “Okay, so what is the skill that’s being used? And we boil down, and so we got past these things that use partnering, like use motif and repetition, and started to realize what was underpinning those ideas, not the ingredients of what choreography had to include, but how you went about making choreography. And one of the big moments for the class was actually when we talked about citizenship, because they talked about “Oh, show up on time and answer all the questions.” And I said, “Well, with that in mind, how can you be a good citizen on a bad day? How can you be a good citizen when you are sick, or stressed out or having a panic attack?” And they went “Oh,” and so rather than, again, these indicators of good behavior and good practice, what is underpinning that or with a sense of being responsible for the space and yourselves and others, which sometimes is going to look different? It might be, “you have to email me and let me know if you’re not being there so I can shuffle the group’s around.” It might look like, “I’m going to take it notes for my friends and catch them up,” it might be “I’m going to zoom into class on a day that I can’t make it to class.” And that is a professional way of being a good citizen. And so it became a really generative conversation. And I went, “Okay, I’m going to do this every time I can.”

Rebecca: Sounds like a really productive conversation, and probably really pushing students to embody what it means to be a choreographer in a way that they wouldn’t otherwise approach the class.

Fen: I think it also gets them past the answers that they’ve just kind of learned by rote. And when I do this in technique classes, I start off by asking them, “What do you want to learn?” And usually, there’s a whole range from people who want to do their situps and their push ups at the start of class every day and get strong, there’s the people who would absolutely not like to do that. There’s the people who want to improvise, there’s the people who do not want to improvise. And when we only kind of pull it together, we see where the biggest priorities are and where, and what’s actually falling off the edges. And then I say, “Well, how do you want to be assessed on learning those things?” And so then, rather than their assessment criteria,being their straight knees and their wonderful athletic posture, we get things coming out, like “my problem solving,” “my adaptability,” “my ability to set a goal for myself and meet it within the range of my body.” And I really enjoy getting them to set goals that they’re invested in, so they understand that they have reasons behind them that they can then work towards, because they’re what they want to be working on anywhere.

Rebecca: One of the things you said a minute ago, in two different contexts was the students don’t always know where they want to be, or who they might want to be, or what kind of choreography they might want to make. How do you help students down that journey to discover and explore? Because that seems very tied to your rubric and your strategies here.

Fen: Yes, it is. And actually, it’s this process of creating trust. And I say that the rubric helps create trust, because they know that they’re not going to have a surprise. But if we’re all invested in the same goals, then we’re going on a path that we all kind of want to be on, which means that I get to say, “Look, I’m going to try something with you might seem really silly, and I want you to try it, I want you to try it for 15 minutes, and then we’ll talk about it, will you trust me enough to be really silly with me for 15 minutes?” And usually the answer is yes, because we’ve already agreed that we’re on the same page with what we want to get out of the experience. And I’m not going to suddenly swerve off into a different direction on my own agenda. So I think this idea of creating trust and buy-in allows me to expose students to a lot of different things, and a lot of different ideas, not because I’m saying this is right and this is where I want you to go even if you don’t understand why. But in the service of these goals that we’ve agreed upon, that we share, I think this will be helpful.

John: So it sounds like this process of rubric creation is not just creating this sense of trust, but you’re also breaking down some of their preconceptions about what the class is going to be about. Do you ever have trouble getting students to converge on a rubric? You mentioned that students come in with very different expectations, How do you resolve some of the differences in those expectations as a class?

Fen: Well, sometimes we just do all of them, if we have time to take different approaches, and we say, we’re going to compromise here, we’re going to do this some days, and not this other days, like I’ll do your situps, a nice, stretchy, soft, warm up, and we’ll see which one we like better. And at the midterm, we’ll check in and we’ll decide which one we like. And if we want to shift things. So, I think that’s how we’re resolving. And sometimes we sit down, we talk about it until we find out what we actually want and where the middle ground is. And on occasion, I say “There are limits what I can provide, and I cannot provide this experience for you. It is out of my skill set. Sorry, this is where you can go and get it.” And I think that two threads that I’m hearing myself say that I want to pull out the idea that things can change, that what you decided at the beginning can shift if it’s not working, and that I am willing to have limits in front of them and say, “This is what I can do and this is what I can’t.” And I think that’s really useful for them as well, because it helps them understand. If I’m there modeling that I get to set limits around my own workload, maybe they do too.

Rebecca: How often do you check in about the rubrics that you designed collectively,

Fen: Formally, not very often. And I think informally a lot, depending on the class. I think the first time I did it, I didn’t check in enough. And there was some confusion about how it would work out at the end of the semester. And it caused more stress than it needed to. And so the next time I followed the same pattern for a quarter of the class, I had regular check-ins throughout the semester, and I would look at like, “How is this working for you? And are you going in the directions that you want to and are you working your way towards these goals and targets,” rather than showing up at the end and going “Okay, now you’re going to be assessed on these things.” So I’ve learned to check in more. But depending on the class, sometimes I check in just as I chat to the students, and sometimes I have scheduled time,

John: How have students responded to the process, have they found it very helpful? Has it helped build that climate of trust?

Fen: Well, especially during the pandemic, thinking about what was reasonable to expect of students was really useful. And I think, because I already had this kind of system in place, I sent out things to my classes saying like, “What can I expect from you in terms of WiFi? Can you make it to classes? If you can’t make it to classes, would you prefer a podcast style or blog style? Or would you want me to just put up a lot of stuff and ask questions? This is the range of my flexibility, what would you like within it.” And so I think that was really, really useful. And I think it helps people who have obstacles to being in the classroom stay in the classroom. And I think that’s the big thing. Every semester, I have to submit my own benchmarks for what I want the students to do and how well they’ve done. But I am allowed to set my own benchmarks. And recently I shifted from what percentage of students are getting an A to, I would rather that a broader perspective of students were getting Bs across a wide range of material. When I submitted that benchmark, I said, “I don’t want to disregard the work of all the people who fought super, super hard to stay in the classroom and get a B in the course, because for some students, that is a huge amount of work. And they put in hours and hours and hours of time and effort and growth to get Cs and Bs in a course and I want the assessment of my teaching to show that I’m recognizing that and I’m trying to make it possible for them to do that. And I am proud of them when they do. A thing I hear a lot from my students is “You genuinely care about us. We know that you care about us,” and I’m really happy hearing that.

Rebecca: A thread that we’ve heard a lot lately is that the methods and things that are meant to be inclusive usually also involve methods that show care.

Fen: And I want to point out the other thing that I remember that a student said to me recently is, “You made me work harder in that class than I’ve ever worked in any class in my life. And I did it.” And so when we’re talking about these inclusive teaching methods and caring teaching, it’s not that we lack rigor, and it’s not that we asked for less. In fact, after we end up asking for more, because you can’t follow a known system, you can’t go to essaydownloads.com, which is not a real website… but I know things like it exist… because it’s not going to work for the kinds of work I’m asking my students to do. And so they’re being asked to meet really, really high standards, but they’re ones that will be genuinely professionally helpful to them as individuals.

Rebecca: You mentioned ungrading earlier and talked about students’ individual growth. Do you have students use the rubric to essentially self-evaluate or are you using the rubric to evaluate?

Fen: That depends on the class. In a choreography class I have the students come to me with a portfolio and a pitch for the grade they think they ought to get based on rubric, and we talk about whether that’s realistic or not. Actually, I’ve never had anybody over pitch, I’ve always had people under pitch on what they think they deserve, which is kind of sad, really. And then in some classes I use the rubrics more as a more conventional grading tool.

John: I think we’ve also heard that quite a bit from people who’ve used ungrading, that they’re more likely to find people who underestimate how much they’ve learned during the course, which is something that surprised me when I first heard it. But now we’re starting to hear that a lot. You mentioned teaching during a pandemic, and I would imagine that that’s especially challenging in a class like dance or choreography. Could you tell us how you manage your classes during a period of pandemic teaching?

Fen: I kind of had a great time. Like, obviously, there’s a lot that was not a great time. But I really admire the work my students did during those times. The commitment it takes to show up on Zoom and dance in your dorm room and keep being an artist is so much harder than it is to be when you’re in a studio among other artists. And they held themselves to that standard. I did talk with students about the reality of how do you give your best attention, which for some people is sitting looking at the computer and for some people is walking around, pottering, while they listen to a lecture and thinking about like, “Okay, what does it take for you to give your best attention today? because I’d rather you gave me your best attention than sat here, not being able to listen.” And I think that was useful. I was very lucky that I got to go completely remote for a semester. And I taught theory classes initially. And then I came back to a mix of theory and practical classes, one of which was choreography. And just like, as I said before, with the students it’s not planning for the class you want to have, it’s planning for the class you’ve got, and I had to do a hybrid class. And so rather than go “Okay, how do I make Zoom get as close as possible to an in-person class,” I said, “Okay, the first five weeks are going to be completely over Zoom, and at the end of it, we’re going to make a film about closeups. And we’re going to think of the dimensions of the Zoom screen and what it takes to be an artist within the tiny box. And so using the restrictions of the pandemic to shape how his class was going to be structured. And in history, again… I’m not sure if either of you have given lectures… but sitting on Zoom and watching a row of empty black boxes with a couple of faces while you try and give a lecture is a special kind of hell. [LAUGHTER] And I talked to my students, and they said, “We really do need lecture content.” I said, “Okay, so one class a week, I will just give you content over a lecture. And the other class of the week, you’re going into breakout rooms, and you’re going to do solo space self-directed learning. I’ll have questions for you.” I had a GTA, who was also in the rooms and they just talked their way through the history and the evidence and the questions and it was wonderful. And when I came back live, it completely reshaped my pedagogy. Because knowing that people were willing to get really deep into conversation further then I could take them to a kind of a guided discussion. And so not everybody wants to learn that way. Some people really do not want to sit and get into a really active lively discussion. And so finding a balance as I’m in the classroom, and there’s more opportunities. I call it “choose your own adventure,” but letting people have flexibility in how they’re learning. There’s lots of different ways to get through the course and that was shaped by Zoom and the necessities of how we teach dance during a pandemic.

Rebecca: So we talked at the top of the conversation about how few transgender and non-binary faculty members there are. And representation, as we know, is very important for our students and for our colleagues and to have a nice, wonderful learning environment. Could you talk about some of the challenges that you faced, as a faculty member who identifies as transgender and non-binary?

Fen: We are in a moment in America, and the world, where we don’t have a cultural consensus that transphobia is wrong, we don’t have a cultural consensus that homophobia is wrong, which means that putting myself out in the classroom is in itself a political statement. And that’s not one that every school wants to get behind. And it’s not one that every student feels necessarily confident about when they encounter me. We’ve got people coming in as undergrads, often I’m the first non-binary person they’ve met. And here I am grading them, and are they going to get into trouble if they get it wrong? And oh, my goodness, it’s a non-binary person at last. Let me ask them all my gender questions. Let me come out to you. There’s a spectrum of responses. But always, there’s a certain necessary caution around what I am allowed to say and who I am allowed to be. So that if somebody does say, “You’re grooming our children, you are putting our students in danger, you are sexualizing people and you are teaching children things that are against their religion.” And there are all things that could come up, how am I going to respond? And what is the record of my pedagogy and my actions going to say in response to those accusations? and that is a lot of weight to carry on your shoulders on a day-to-day basis. To know that the record of your actions might have to answer those questions. And so that’s something I think about a lot. And something I try and be very careful around. I have become more and more known for speaking about these interviews. I have been interviewed by Dance Teacher magazine, a couple of times, I keep my own blog about it. I’m someone that people go to when they want someone to talk about dance and gender now, which again means having a practice and how I shape my words and my presence. But on a practical level, I live in a small city, and even things like going out in the evening… is a student going to be in a restaurant? Or is a student going to be waiting on me and my partner? If someone takes a photo of me out in public with a glass of alcohol in my hand, is that going to come back to haunt me? And so it’s not just my professional life that gets shaped by these issues. But it’s every aspect of my life, where I have to be conscious of, again, what my actions may be held up as evidence for.

Rebecca: That’s a lot of emotional and cognitive energy that goes into all of that, and I imagine a great deal of planning, as you’re thinking about your courses.

Fen: Yes, there’s a lot of thinking, and I want to expose my students to a lot of very diverse material. And also, how do I give them the language of opting out? I don’t want to force anyone to watch things. And I’m actually a big believer in giving everybody the right of refusal in the classroom, most of the time, I work a lot with touch, which means you have to work really hard about consent. I definitely grew up in an era where your body was just picked up and moved around. And so thinking about my students’ right to say no to things, which often results in people feeling more comfortable saying yes to things. And I think in the same way that I sit down with my students and I say my pronouns are they and them, if you have a strong conviction that you can’t use that, you can use something else, I do prefer not to be called Mam, which I think is partly gender and partly British. But given that I’m out in the world, when I’m talking to my peers, and there’s not that level of force and power imbalance, I use they/them pronouns, and that’s what I expect people to use for me. But when it is someone over whom I have a certain amount of power, I think I have to give that little bit of space for them to go, “Okay, I need to think about my beliefs and my feelings and my desires and the power in the situation and know that I’m not going to mess up my entire academic career if I don’t get this right first time.”

Rebecca: Sounds like a lot of grace is extended. [LAUGHTER[

Fen: A lots of people weren’t sure about me coming down to Alabama. I chose to take the job here and I think it’s really important I say I had choices and I chose Alabama, in part because of how hungry the students were to learn, they really threw themselves enthusiastically at new challenging things. And I went, that’s where I want to be.

John: I was going to ask about that. While this could be challenging anywhere, I would think being in the south in general would make it much more challenging, especially given the level of religiosity of many of the students there.

Fen: Well, I think sometimes there’s a stereotype that the South is just an extra level of awfulness than anywhere else. And there’s a certain baseline of awful that you’re going to find absolutely anywhere where you’re a transgender professor. One of the places that I interviewed for a tenure-track position, they kind of grilled me for a long time trying not to say gender, but would I be willing to teach students with different beliefs? How would I manage students in the classroom who might have different ideas than me about how history worked? Which are valid questions, but really not the right question to ask when what you’re trying to say is, “How is your gender going to impact the classroom?” …which they can’t legally asked. And I walked into the interview at Alabama, and the head of dance said: “Just to check before we start the interview, you take they/them pronouns?” I’m like, “Yep.” And he went “Great.” And I was like, “Okay.” So in some ways, academia is a little blue bubble. But there are lots of things about being where I am in a situation that I am that I very much love and I also think that if people maintain this idea that the South is bad and awful, it’s often used as an excuse to stop people looking at their own behavior… we’re much better than the South, they need to change, they need to do things differently. People who are let’s get out of the south, let’s all move up north, whereas the activism down here is very powerful, like really incredible the work that people are doing to try and make the south a more livable place for everybody in it. And that should be respected and recognized, and it doesn’t do people justice to wrap the entire South up in this label of awful. That answer got a little tangled, but I think the summary of it is that there’s a lot of work to be done everywhere, and I’m happy to be doing the kind of work I want to do here.

Rebecca: That’s a very nice, succinct way of summarizing the tangle. [LAUGHTER] But it also always gets tangled, because there’s so many things that pull and push in different directions, and probably really worth acknowledging how much time you probably spend mentoring students who come to you based on your identity, and self-disclose because they’re looking for an advocate and they’re looking for a role model. And that labor is often incredibly invisible.

Fen: Yes. And I think, interestingly, I’m in a department where there’s a number of faculty members who collect… I call them goslings sometimes, [LAUGHTER] but students who, by virtue of identity or life situation, need extra love and support. And I think that every student at some point in their undergrad career needs a little extra love and support. And we are a large department. It’s hard to build those relationships with all the students, but I try not to just be there on the virtue of identity, like I do try and make time for anyone who asks for the time, often because I don’t get to know all the students very well, especially those with LGBTQ identities, you often can’t tell by looking. And so it helps me check my own judgment and make sure that I’m not unintentionally creating favoritism or groups. If somebody needs the help and the time, I want to be able to give it to them to the extent that I can. And I have had to learn how to say “I have X amount of time and then I have to have you leave my office.”

Rebecca: Boundaries, so helpful, so healthy.

Fen: Because if your professor is a person that your professor gets to be a person, just like you.

Rebecca: I feel like that’s such a powerful thing to end on. [LAUGHTER]

John: It is, yes. And humanizing the professor creates a much more positive environment where they do feel more connected to you.

Rebecca: Picture a professor, they are a person. [LAUGHTER]

Fen: Yes.

John: Okay. Well, we always end with the question: “What’s next?”

Fen: Well, I’m on sabbatical right now.

Rebecca: Woo hoo.

Fen: I have just gotten back from three weeks at the Hambidghe Arts Residency Center, which is just absolutely incredible… off the grid in the wilderness of the Georgia and North Carolina mountains. Fresh air. I got back yesterday.

Rebecca: Wow.

Fen: I leave on the 13th of October to go to Philly. I’m helping organize a partner dance event. And I am meandering up the East Coast, different cities ending in Ann Arbor where I am teaching a series of master classes and I’m presenting at a conference, and then I will come home and I’ll see what the next adventure is. But what’s next really is five cities in just under a month.

John: Sounds like a busy but productive schedule.

Fen: I’m really looking forward to it.

Rebecca: I hope you have wonderful travels.

Fen: Thank you


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

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



263. Reflect to Deflect

Students experiencing difficulty in challenging courses will sometimes blame their professor, especially when their professor’s identity does not align with the student’s cultural stereotype of who is a professor. In this episode, Melissa Eblen-Zayas joins us to discuss how she uses metacognitive reflection exercises to address student biases.

Melissa is a Professor of Physics in the Department of Astronomy and Physics at Carleton College. Melissa has served as a Director of a teaching center, and has published extensively on a wide variety of topics such as STEM education, student metacognition, and diversity, equity and inclusion. One of her most recent publications is a chapter in Picture a Professor, edited by Jessamyn Neuhaus.

Show Notes


John: Students experiencing difficulty in challenging courses will sometimes blame their professor, especially when their professor’s identity does not align with the student’s cultural stereotype of who is a professor. In this episode, we examine how one professor uses metacognitive reflection exercises to address student biases


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

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

John: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer…

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


Rebecca: Our guest today is Melissa Eblen-Zayas. Melissa is a Professor of Physics in the Department of Astronomy and Physics at Carleton College. Melissa has served as a Director of a teaching center, and has published extensively on a wide variety of topics such as STEM education, student metacognition, and diversity, equity and inclusion. One of her most recent publications is a chapter in Picture a Professor, edited by Jessamyn Neuhaus. Welcome, Melissa.

Melissa: Hi, great to be here.

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

Melissa: I am. I’m drinking a black tea with cranberry orange.

Rebecca: Oh, that sounds really good.

Melissa: It is, and it’s finally cool enough that it’s tea weather.

Rebecca: Oh, it’s tea weather year-round.

Melissa: I am a cold weather tea drinker.

Rebecca: Okay, well, it’s definitely cold today, and empty [LAUGHTER]. I just finished a pot of eight at the fort. Eight, the number eight, once again. It’s a black blend. I don’t know what’s in it still. We’re recording an episode a couple days ago, I was drinking the same thing. I still don’t know what’s in it.

John: And I am drinking ginger peach black tea today.

Rebecca: So we invited you here today, Melissa, to discuss your chapter in Picture a Professor. The title of your chapter is “Reflect to Deflect: Using Metacognitive Activities to Address Student Perceptions of Instructor Competence and Caring.” Could you tell us a bit about why you started using metacognitive activities in your classes?

Melissa: Yeah, so when I was a junior faculty member, just starting out teaching physics, I found that I would get a lot of pushback from students. When students didn’t understand a topic right away or do as well as they had hoped on an assignment or an exam, they’d often be disappointed or frustrated. And some of those students would then come to my office, and the implication underneath their visit to my office was that if I was a better teacher, or if I just did things differently, they wouldn’t be in the situation that they were in. And of course, there’s always room to grow as a teacher, but that wasn’t the primary issue. I think the research literature shows that for younger women faculty members, they often encounter challenges from students as a persistent problem. And particularly as a woman in physics, where there aren’t many women, I think a lot of what I was seeing was there were some students who just had trouble seeing that this young woman in front of the class was actually a competent physicist and in a position to be able to effectively teach them. And in reality, there’s some additional research, Madeline Heilman and colleagues have found that women in male-dominated fields face this double bind in terms of expectations, and they can either be seen as competent or likable, but not both. And in some follow up research that they did, they found that women can try to mitigate this double bind by displaying a caring and nurturing demeanor. But my natural demeanor… I tend to be a sort of reserved person, I’m not a super outgoing, cheerful kind of person, I tend to just be sort of quieter. And so I was looking for a way to demonstrate to students that I cared deeply about them and I cared deeply about their success in this class, but to also demonstrate that maybe I could help them do this, as opposed to having them just pin their lack of success on my failure as a teacher. And so I found that introducing metacognitive activities was a way for me to navigate some of the pushback that I got from students, and to help them take responsibility for their learning, but also to demonstrate to students that I cared deeply about their success. And I wanted to help them learn how to navigate the ways of thinking, studying, and learning that are important to my discipline. And so I found that this is a way that I could demonstrate a caring that is what students expect from female faculty members, but in a way that felt more natural to me, as opposed to trying to pretend that I was a caregiver or a cheerleader in a way that just didn’t feel natural to me. And so the place where I introduced these metacognitive activities were actually on two very different ends of the spectrum in terms of course level. I found that one place where I got a lot of pushback from students was in my intro course. And then the other place where I actually got a fair amount of pushback from students was also in the advanced lab course that I taught. And both of these classes are classes where there was the opportunity for students to be frustrated a lot, and I find that when student frustration is high, finding ways to try to mitigate that frustration is important. And so the metacognitive activities are a way that I have now incorporated into my teaching in an effort to both help students succeed, but also mitigate some of the pushback that I would get from students.

John: Could you describe these metacognitive activities? How do you get students become more aware of what they know and what they don’t know?

Melissa: Yeah, so this has been a long evolutionary process over which I’ve developed these activities. And so I’ll start by describing the first activity that I introduced, which was really in my first or second year of teaching, when I was getting a lot of this pushback from students. And in particular, in intro physics classes, I’d hand back any item of student work, and students would always come in and challenge me about the grades that I had given them. And I would say now, I’ve moved away from grading in a traditional manner. So this isn’t quite as much of an issue, but at the time, I was using traditional point- based systems. So I started by instituting a policy that if you had concerns about homework or exams, before you could come in and see me at office hours, you had to send me via email, a summary of how you approached the problem that you wanted to talk to me about, you had to write down why you think I might not have given you full credit for your work. And then you had to talk to me about your rationale for why you think there was a discrepancy between your understanding of the material, how you did the work, how I viewed the work, and what I was hoping to see in terms of learning, and then why you thought there was this discrepancy. And that ended up being really interesting, because first off, it limited the number of students who just came charging in without having really looked at or thought about the work that they had done and the feedback that I had given. But the other thing is that then it started as a discussion about the learning that the students were doing, and how the students were perceiving their learning, and how I was perceiving their learning. And so that’s really where I started as a way to directly respond to the student challenges that I was facing. But then I really liked the opportunities that this provided for conversations with students about how they were thinking about their work in the course. And so the next activity that I started to include was homework wrappers. And so when students would submit problem sets, I would also ask them to submit a cover sheet to their problem set. And it will be questions about “who did you work with on this problem set?” “Where did you work on this problem set?” “How long did it take you?” “Did you ask people for help?” And that was a great way for students to monitor not just: did they get the answers, but sort of how were they engaging with the homework that they were working on. And it was also a great way for me to get some insight into what students were doing, so I could see if there were students who never listed that they worked with anyone, never listed that they reached out for help, I could then proactively reach out to those students and say, “I see you’re doing this alone, that’s fine. But that’s really not my expectation, I’m expecting that this is a community, we’re learning together, and I’m expecting that people will talk with each other about this work.” Or I could also report back to the class and give some summary statistics of saying like, “Oh, I saw that most people are spending this many hours on the problem set, but here’s the distribution. And so if you’re either way on the short end or way on the long end, just be aware, and maybe come in and talk with me.” And so that was the next step of including metacognitive activities that I introduced. And I think since then it’s just taken off in terms of the ways in which I include those activities. And so I’ll give you one example of more in depth metacognitive activities that I do in my intro physics class, and one example of some of the more metacognitive activities that I do in my advanced lab course. And both of these actually have to do with the idea of what is the error climate of the classroom? And how much room is there? And how acceptable is it for people to make mistakes. And I first really started thinking about this actually in the advanced lab course that I was teaching. And so this is a required course for all physics majors. But the focus in this course is really having students design an experiment, and then carry out their experiment. But the focus being more on the design of the experiment and in the confines of a term, they may not actually get to a completed project or a result. And so things fail, things don’t go according to plan, and students are inevitably frustrated by that. And so the first time I taught this course with this focus on lots of independent projects, I just didn’t address the frustration that accompanies the failure and the uncertainty and the confusion that inevitably occurs in a course like this where students are doing these independent projects. And so the next year when I taught this course, before the first day of class, I asked students to write down in two sentences, what their definition of a successful experiment was. And I would say the answers fell into two distinct categories. There was one subset of answers of students who said, “a successful experiment is where I get a high precision result with little error that closely matches theoretical predictions.” And indeed, I think sometimes how we set up laboratory work in early courses, what students are doing is they’re trying to get a result that will match a particular theory. But in these open-ended projects, they were designing things they were asking questions that maybe there weren’t clear answers for. And so if that’s your definition of success, you’re going to have trouble when you deal with the messiness that inevitably exists. But the other group of students in defining what their successful experiment was, there were students who would say, “oh, any experiment is a success, if I keep a good record of what I’m doing, and I learned something from the process.” And so I would start the first day of class and pick out some of these different definitions of successful experiments from students in their own words. And we begin by having this conversation about what are our own expectations for what learning and experimenting looks like. And then, throughout the course, I continued to normalize that things wouldn’t work, that things would fail, by having opportunities, both for individual reflections. And so about every two weeks, I would ask them questions that just reflected, “how did you approach work in the lab?” “When you ran into problems, what was the strategy you employed in trying to troubleshoot those problems?” And I didn’t ask if you ran into problems, I started the question “when you ran into problems” with the assumption that everyone is going to run into problems. And I’d ask “when you sought help, who did you seek help from?” “What kinds of questions did you ask?” And then I’d always say, “and what’s one thing you would do differently as you move forward in tackling this kind of work?” And so it was really getting students to articulate how they thought about this process and how they dealt with setbacks. And sometimes it was individual reflections, but sometimes we’d actually spend a class period with students talking about their approaches, so that they could see how different individuals had different approaches. And so the whole idea about learning is an iterative process. And when things don’t go according to plan, you need to reflect on how you dealt with those setbacks, and then how you might deal with setbacks differently going forward was really important. And so I’ve taken this focus on error climate and making mistakes, and translated that a lot into my introductory course. And one of the ways I’ve changed my introductory course, which is also consistent with the pushback I would get from students about grades, was problem sets and homework and physics are really designed to be practice. It’s your chance to practice that you know how to apply these concepts to solve problems. And yet we grade those, or traditionally, I had graded those. And so that was part of what contributed to the course grade. But that’s sort of against the idea of practice. And it makes it high stakes in that you can’t make mistakes, or you’re worried about making mistakes because you’re worried that that will then reflect in your grade. And so I took this idea of “okay, if I really am serious about changing the error climate in my classroom, and making sure that it’s okay to make mistakes, not just in the lab, things won’t go according to plan. But also, when you’re working on problems, you might hit roadblocks that you don’t know how to deal with, and that’s okay.” And so one of the things I did is I now have an approach to problem sets that in some ways mirrors what my colleagues who teach writing do. And so in writing, of course, you submit a draft, you get feedback on that draft, and then you respond to that feedback, and you revise to submit a next version. And so I’ve started doing that actually, with problem sets in my introductory courses. And so I give students an initial set of problems. I asked them not to consult with each other, but just to try on their own to see how far they can get, submit whatever they have, get feedback on that. And so that’s a way for them to check how much do I understand on my own, they get some feedback, and then they can come back, they can consult with peers in their class, they can consult with me, they can make revisions, and they can resubmit that problem set. And so that really helped address this idea of it’s okay to make mistakes, that learning is a process and you can learn from your mistakes as you go forward. And I think accompanying that, I also have started giving students these prompts for weekly reflections. And so I call them learning reflections and in intro physics, they submit them once a week, and they’re asking students about lots of different aspects of the class. So it might be asking them, “where did you read the textbook?” “How did you read the textbook?” “How many times did you revisit particular parts of the reading?” I might ask students, “how do you think about translating the concepts that you’re learning and connecting it to the visuals that you’re seeing in the chapter?” The weekly reflection might be asking students about “what’s one topic that you found confusing?” And “how did you try to deal with that confusion?” And so in addition to the physics work they’re doing, I also asked them to do this reflective work. And then I can once again use that reflective work as the basis for either individual or whole class conversations about how students are thinking about engaging with the material. So that’s a big range. But it gives you sort of a sense of the variety of types of metacognitive activities I include.

Rebecca: I know one thing that I’ve experienced when I do metacognitive, or reflective activities with my students is that if they don’t have experience doing it before, and many of them don’t, they think, “Well, this is a waste of time, I’m gonna spend two seconds on it,” unless you really take the time to set it up, and help them understand the why, so I’m curious what some of the setup looks like for you and what some of the conversations have been, or the kinds of negotiations you’ve had with students about the importance of reflective activities.

Melissa: Yeah, so I actually have begun being really intentional, both about talking about it during class time, and I think talking about why I’m asking them to do this before I ask them to do it, but also making sure that when I ask them metacognitive questions, or these reflections, then I bring some of their responses back into the discussion during class time, so that they don’t feel like this is just an extra thing, but I weave this into how we are doing things in class. So for example, the reflection about how do you navigate making connections between visual representations and the physics concepts that we’re doing? The next time I come to class, and I’m giving a short lecture on a topic or something, and there’s a visual component, I might actually bring in the response that one of the students said about, well, I really have trouble doing this, or I find this helpful, if it’s relevant to the problem that we’re doing. So then it’s not as if it’s an extra thing that I’m asking them to do busy work on. I try to then also model a little bit during class time, how some of the responses might be relevant to our approaches to engaging in problems or things like that. The other thing that I’ve done, in addition to bringing this in in class time, is it used to be when I gave out problem sets in physics, my problem sets were: here’s the deadline, here are the problems. And that was it. But once again, taking a page from the folks who teach writing, when I see the assignments that my folks who teach writing-rich courses teach, there’s often quite a bit of prose that provides some background for the expectations for the written work that’s going to be done. And so I actually will include some background to my problem sets about, “okay, here’s how I want you to tackle this. First go through and do this; second, go through and do this.” And “here is why I am asking you to do this.” And I think that’s helpful. The other thing that I would say is I also give students feedback, particularly in the advanced lab course, where these reflections are sort of a central part of the course. And I’ll explicitly write to students, “I’m disappointed. This seems like it’s not really getting at how you tackle this.” And I’ll just let them know that and usually, I will then use that as a conversation starter when I’m interacting with the students to talk about ways that other students have thought about it, or why I’m asking them these questions. But you’re right, you can’t just ask students to do this, you have to build this into the fabric of the course, so it’s relevant and make sure you explain why you’re doing this.

Rebecca: One of the things that you’re describing, this worth probably noting, or talking about, is that if you start building in more reflective activity, that takes time, that then has to take priority over other things, which means other things have to be deprioritized. So what are some of the things that you allowed to let go to allow this to come in?

Melissa: I think there’s a couple of things that I have allowed to let go. One is I have just come to realize that covering lots of topics in physics is not that important. It’s really more important that they understand how to solve problems or how to take concepts and really try to dig into their understanding. Because to some extent, this is teaching students how to learn on their own, which is what’s important. I do cover less content. I will say the other thing, though, is, I think, because I don’t have as much grading that is like, let me figure out the points that I am going to give you for these problems, and it’s much more holistic feedback, I spend less time on the grading in terms of points. And I’m actually grading in terms of you’re on track here, you’re not on track here. So I’m not sure it actually requires that much more of my time. And I will say, some of these weekly learning reflections, I just go through and check if students have done them. And then I fold that into other conversations that I will have with students either during office hours or during class time. So it’s not as if I have to give lots of individualized feedback on every reflection. Maybe the best way to say it is a lot of these activities I use to enrich my interactions with students during class time, because I have this little bit of insight into how they’re thinking about approaching the material. And so when I see them working in class or working in the lab, I can talk with them not only about the physics, but I can also talk with them about what are the strategies they’re using, and maybe they might want to try using a different strategy.

John: In our very second podcast, we talked about a technique that Judie Littlejohn and I had been using, and I think we’re both still using it. It’s an online discussion forum, we call it a Metacognitive Cafe. And it’s addressing many of the same types of issues with these types of reflections. But one of the things that’s really jumped out at me over the years is just how much students have enjoyed hearing about successful learning strategies that they picked up from other people. Because students generally don’t talk very much or think very much about how they learn, and they generally don’t share it. Most years, I have one person who says, “I don’t understand why we’re doing this, because it’s not part of the course.” But everyone else has talked about in a reflection on the use of that, how beneficial that was. How have students responded to these metacognitive reflections?

Melissa: My sense is that students are quite positive about this. I think you’re right in that oftentimes, this is something that we take for granted in our students, that they know how to learn, or they know how to engage in material. And I think some of our students have sort of figured things out on their own without necessarily knowing that they’ve figured it out. And so I think just providing students the opportunity to really think about what they’re doing and hear what their classmates are doing is useful because it normalizes that there is not one way to do this, it normalizes that different strategies are going to work for different people. I think oftentimes, if you don’t talk about this, the minute students feel confused, or the minute students hit a block, they see it as a reflection on like, “Oh, my goodness,” and particularly in a subject like physics, which has a reputation or a stereotype, they immediately think, “oh, physics is not for me, I’m not cut out to do this.” But if they hear that everyone in the class faces confusion or runs into things that don’t work according to plan. I think that can be really liberating for students. And I will say, one of my favorite comments right after I started doing this, in my advanced lab course on student evaluation, at the end of the course, someone said, “I have never failed so much and felt so good about failing so much as I did in this class.” And they didn’t fail the course, but they just realized that experimental physics is about experiments not working out the first time you do them, and then you’ve got to figure out how to make them work better. And so I do think there’s something that reduces a little bit of students feeling that they need to keep up their barrier of “I understand this, and this is going well,” by having these conversations.

John: Going back to those discussions that I’ve been using. One of them is at a point in the class where students face some really challenging material that they all struggle with. And the question I give them that week is, “How do they deal with challenging material?” …and it helps to normalize that type of failure and the benefits of working through it.

Rebecca: As you’ve been talking about your advanced physics class, I’m thinking about an activity I do in my Advanced Design class, which is have students keep a process log. So as a project develops, their constantly reflecting and documenting what they’ve been doing. And part of what the students have indicated as helpful about that is that sometimes they feel like they have nothing to show for hours of time.

Melissa: Yes, [LAUGHTER] that also happens. Yes.

Rebecca: But actually a lot was happening. They were researching something, they were trying something, they were experimenting with, they were troubleshooting. But now there’s a place for them to make that visible to themselves as well as to me, and that’s been really useful to also help them figure out more efficient ways of doing some things.

Melissa: And I think that’s exactly right. In our advanced lab course, what it is, is they’re keeping a lab notebook. And I think in previous courses, where students are working on more structured labs, where it’s sort of laid out, “here’s the first goal, here’s the second goal.” They’re used to lab notebooks just sort of saying that they followed what was laid out in the lab handout, whereas here, we look at actually some lab notebooks of famous scientists, where it’s like, “Well, I’m thinking about doing this, but I don’t know.” And there’s room for emotion and some “I’m gonna go down this way.” And then like, “Ph, this didn’t work for this, so now we’re going to go back to the idea that we talked about a couple of days ago.” And so having that all recorded, I think you’re right, it makes them feel like they can see that they are moving forward, even if they don’t have anything to necessarily show in terms of nice plots of data that they have collected.

Rebecca: Yeah, it makes all that decision making visible because there’s many decision points. And sometimes they just make a decision, and they don’t really know why they made it, but, reinforcing the idea that like, “Well, you had to have made it based on something.”

Melissa: Right.

Rebecca: What was it?

Melissa: As experts, we have sort of hidden that we’re doing all of this. And so for these advanced students, they’re not at the introductory level, and they see experts, but they don’t really see all of the things that are internal to us that it’s helpful to actually make visible to them.

John: So have other people at Carleton adopted similar strategies?

Melissa: Yeah. So one of the things that I love about Carleton is that this is a place where we have a lot of conversations about teaching. And so I would say that I’m not unique in using these kinds of activities. And I think one of the beautiful things about metacognitive activities is that, although the details of some of the questions you might ask students might be specific to your discipline, really, anyone who is teaching in any discipline can actually work with students on metacognition, and so ot’s a topic where I can talk with colleagues really in any field, and we can share ideas and hear from each other. I would say that one of my reflective prompts that I ask students is about who has assisted in their learning, so it’s called the learning assist prompt. And this is actually something that I got from a colleague in Classics, Chico Zimmermann. And he asked students to reflect: “In this past week in the course, who has assisted in your learning?” and he explicitly talks to and gives examples of what assistance might look like to assistance could be, they made a mistake that helped you understand something that you didn’t understand before, or they were confused about the same topic as you were confused about and in discussing it together, you began to make sense of a topic. So he very clearly articulates the way that individuals can learn from each other in confusion, or in making mistakes. And I really just loved his framing of that. And so that’s something where we don’t share very much content between classics and physics, but we can share ideas about how are we going to help our students learn. And I think the other thing that’s really nice is, I do feel, Rebecca, you mentioned students don’t necessarily know how to engage in metacognition. And so I do feel like the more students are asked to do this in different disciplines across campus, the better they become at it, because it is something that you need to practice and get a sense of. And so I’m excited when I hear about colleagues who are using similar approaches, and we share ideas about how we’re using it in our classes, because then I know that students who have thought about this in a colleague’s class in American Studies might bring some skills to my class that would be useful.

Rebecca: It kind of goes back to that same idea of normalizing failures, normalizing this reflective behavior as well. We know that you have a forthcoming publication, addressing student mental health and moving toward UDL. I’m wondering if you can talk a little bit about how that work connects to this work around metacognition.

Melissa: Yeah, so it actually, I would say, builds quite nicely on some of this work. So this is a piece that’s written with two of my colleagues, one, Kristen Burson is a physicist at Grinnell College, and the other Danielle McDermott is now at Los Alamos, but was teaching before. And one of the things that we found is that physics is one of those fields that because of the stereotypes, students just get really stressed and anxious sometimes in their physics courses in a way that sometimes they don’t in other courses. And so one of the things the three of us spend a lot of time talking about is what are ways that we can actively try to reduce the stress and anxiety that we seem to see in students who are coming to us in physics courses. I think, these days, stress and anxiety are rampant on campus in general. So I don’t think anything is unique to physics. But Universal Design for Learning has some suggestions about how to make courses accessible to folks. It also, though, is quite overwhelming. And so we were thinking about the students who we see in our courses who come with a lot of stress and anxiety, sometimes clinically diagnosed depression or anxiety, what are ways we could take some of the UDL principles and take what we know about physics education research and use it to modify our courses to try to make them places that students feel like they’re supported in being their whole selves and doing their best work and not having to be overly anxious about it. And so one of the pieces is what I’ve already discussed with you, this idea of increasing mastery oriented feedback and assignments. And so some of the ways that I’ve changed problem sets where I make problem sets, not really about right or wrong, about the process of: you practice, you learn and you can revise until you get it right. And that’s really consistent with some of the UDL principles around organizing courses towards mastery oriented assessments and feedback. And so that’s one of the modifications that we pointed out as something that’s valuable. Another thing that we’ve done a lot with is thinking about the social aspects of physics courses. And as physics has moved away from being lots of lecture to a lot more small-group activities, we’ve seen that for students with anxiety and depression, some of those small group activities can actually be a source of significant challenge. And so they really can find that difficult. And so they’re thinking about how you design group work, and thinking about when you provide students choices not to engage in group work, and how you help students interact with each other, if they aren’t normally comfortable interacting with each other is something that we explore as a second way that physicists, or really anyone who’s doing active learning that involves small-group work, can think about, and this is something that I’ll say I’ve evolved a lot in terms of how I do this. I used to have when students walked into the room, every class, they would get a number and then they would sit with the other students with the same number. And that would be their group for the day. And research by Katie Cooper at Arizona State University has really shown that constantly mixing up small groups is a significant source of anxiety for a lot of students. And it doesn’t give students who need help learning how to interact, learning to trust their groups, to develop a rapport so that they can work effectively together. And so now, when I have students work in small groups, I still have them work in small groups just as much, but I really structure how those groups interact. And I have them interact for a long time so that they can begin to develop approaches and rapport that will help reduce some of the anxiety of that small group work. And then the last element that we talk about is providing students with more choices, that’s UDL all the way… is about providing choices. And so we talk a little bit about what does choice look like? For example, I ask students to turn in written problem sets. But there’s no reason why, even before the pandemic I would invite students if they wanted to, you could actually record yourself talking through a problem set instead of writing down a problem set. And so that’s one example of how you might provide choice for students in a physics class, but also explicitly bringing up the importance of student well being and help seeking in a class. And so some of this normalizing the expectation that students will ask questions, asking students to keep a record of where do they seek help, and how do they seek help is important. And my colleague, Kristen Burson, she even has on her problem sets occasionally, an activity… it’s a problem where students must choose one activity for the week that they think will make them feel physically, mentally or emotionally better. And so it’s like, are you going to take a nap? Or are you going to go out and hang out with friends? She actually has that as a like, what’s one thing you did this week that you did to promote your health as a person who is in this physics class. And so just bringing that element of the whole person, and that the instructor is encouraging the student to be a whole person and make choices that support their wellness in that holistic manner. So those are some of the examples that we talk about in this forthcoming paper. And indeed, some of it is very similar, it’s built on some of these ideas from the metacognitive element. But just generally trying to focus on there’s a lot more to creating a classroom environment where students can succeed than just giving them the content.

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

Melissa: One thing that I’m working on right now is I’m working with colleagues at Luther College and St. Olaf College, on a program that’s designed to foster a more robust and thoughtful culture of peer observation of teaching. And this is thinking about peer observation for formative development. We have peer observation for evaluation. But I’m not sure even in that context, we’ve necessarily done a great job of talking with each other as colleagues about what that looks like and what that means to make it the best possible experience for everyone involved. And so having the opportunity to get folks together from these three colleges to talk about how we can create cultures that foster teachers observing each other’s teaching has been really fun. And it’s fun to think about how we might also learn across campuses and from teachers across campuses. And this project also ties in a little bit with the Picture a Professor anthology, because one of the things we’ve been thinking about in this peer observation is thinking about how we can encourage colleagues when they’re observing each other to be mindful of how embodied authority might be in play in terms of the choices that people make, and how they observe other people in the classroom. And so we just started this program at the end of August. And so it’s going to be a trial for this year. And so I’m curious to see where it goes, and I think it’ll be a fun opportunity to engage in conversations about teaching with colleagues on some other campuses.

Rebecca: Sounds like a meaningful activity and endeavor for sure.

Melissa: So it’s fun.

John: Well, thank you for joining us, and we’re looking forward to sharing this with our listeners.

Melissa: It was great, thank you.

Rebecca: Yeah, thank you so much.


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

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


261. Social Justice Assessments

Traditional methods of assessing student learning favor those students that reside in well-resourced school districts while leaving low-income students at a substantial disadvantage. These grading systems also encourage students to focus on their grades rather than on their learning. In this episode, Judith Littlejohn, Meghanne Freivald, and Katelyn Prager join us to discuss a variety of social justice assessment techniques that can help to create a more equitable environment in which all students can be successful.

Judie is the Director of Online Learning at SUNY Genesee Community College, Meghanne is an Instructional Technology Specialist at Alfred University, and Katelyn is an Assistant Professor in the English Department at the Fashion Institute of Technology.  Judie, Meghan, and Katelyn worked together on a SUNY Faculty Advisory Council on Teaching and Technology committee on social justice assessments.

Show Notes


John: Traditional methods of assessing student learning favor those students that reside in well-resourced school districts while leaving low-income students at a substantial disadvantage. These grading systems also encourage students to focus on their grades rather than on their learning. In this episode, we explore a variety of social justice assessment techniques that can create a more equitable environment in which all students can be successful.


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

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

John: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer…

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


Rebecca: Our guests today are Judith Littlejohn, Meghanne Freivald, and Katelyn Prager. Judie is the Director of Online Learning at SUNY Genesee Community College, Meghanne is an Instructional Technology Specialist at Alfred University, and Katelyn is an Assistant Professor in the English Department at the Fashion Institute of Technology. Judie, Meghan, and Katelyn worked together on a SUNY Faculty Advisory Council on Teaching and Technology committee on social justice assessments. Welcome Meghanne and Katelyn and welcome back, Judie.

Meghanne: Thank you.

Katelyn: Thank you.

Judie: Thank you.

John: Today’s teas are:

Judie: …I have Lady Grey.

Rebecca: That’s a good one…

Judie: …In my DTL mug.

John: …a nice Desire to Learn mug.

Meghanne: I have iced green.

Rebecca: And Katelyn, how about you?

Katelyn: Mine’s water right now, if it were the evening, I would have one bag of peppermint and one bag of chamomile together, delicious.

Rebecca: Sounds nice and calming.

Rebecca: I have hot cinnamon spice tea.

John: And I have black raspberry green tea.

Rebecca: We’ve invited you here today to discuss your work on social justice assessment. Perhaps, we can start with a discussion on what you mean by social justice assessment.

Judie: So social justice assessment considers factors such as race, culture, language proficiency, socioeconomic status, and ability while working to dismantle systems of power, bias, and oppression in evaluation of student learning. So various approaches including equitable assessment, labor based grading, and ungrading, as they relate to the purpose, process, wording, and structure of student learning assessments are included. So we’re trying to focus on the learning that our diverse students achieve as it relates to specific learning outcomes just to mitigate the influence of dominant norms on our students’ grades. So we’ve all been working together for the last couple of years on a SUNY task group that was part of the Faculty Advisory Council on Teaching and Technology, which I chair. So we’re a subcommittee of an Innovations in Assessment group, and there’s a couple more of us who couldn’t make it today, but we’ve been a really close-knit group, I think, working together for over two years. And we really enjoyed the project, which resulted in a website with all these artifacts on it that people will be able to access. And we’re hoping down the road that we can continue our work, but we’ll get to that later on in this conversation.

John: And we’ll share a link to the overall website as well as your group-specific component of that in the show notes. So this was partly implied in your response defining social justice assessment, but, what are some of the shortcomings of traditional grading systems in terms of equity?

Meghanne: When we were doing our research on this topic, we encountered many drawbacks of the traditional types of assessments that we all experienced all the way up through school and into college, and I’ll share a few of them. One is that the focus is often on the grade rather than the actual learning process and what the student will actually be able to do, and be able to learn as a result of engaging in the education process. They just focus on the grade, “what’s my grade?” and that sort of misses the point. It creates a system where students are compared to each other rather than having the focus be on individual growth and achievement. It also can put students at an advantage or disadvantage based on characteristics such as race, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, disability status, language proficiency, and lots of other characteristics that students themselves don’t have any control over. We found in our research that traditional assessments tend to favor white, affluent, high-achieving students, and that really isn’t who most of our students are anymore. So we really need to remove barriers and create a way for students to accurately represent the learning that has taken place.

Rebecca: So you hinted to this in your response about traditional grading systems comparing students to one another. So thinking about that, what role should students play in determining how their learning is assessed?

Katelyn: I’ll tackle that one, and I want to answer it with a disclaimer to start because social justice assessment is an umbrella term that has all of these different strategies that are wrapped up in it, and each of those approaches, whether it’s ungrading, or labor-based grading, might have a slightly different response to that question. They all share the same goal, that students should not be systematically disadvantaged by the assessment mechanisms, and that we want to increase student agency in the classroom. We want students to be active participants in their own learning, but the actual question of how students might participate in determining their own assessments might look very different depending on who you’re talking to and what approach they use. Maybe it’s literally helping design the assessment mechanisms, the grading contract, grading rubric, maybe it’s creating flexible assignments that allow students to determine what learning is being assessed, or in the case of ungrading, maybe it’s just deprioritizing the assessment entirely in order to emphasize the individual student’s learning journey through the course. So I guess my answer, tentatively to your question, is yes, students should be participants in determining how they’re learning is assessed by the big how, and why is going to differ.

John: As you noted, there’s a wide continuum of alternative grading policies that can fit under this category of social justice assessment. Some of them are not that much different than traditional practices, and others are quite a bit different. One approach, which is much closer to the traditional grading systems that people are already using is a system of mastery learning. Could you talk a little bit about what mastery learning is and how that could be used in the classroom to provide a bit more equity.

Judie: So mastery learning is, instead of assessing a student or evaluating a student with one assessment, and giving them that grade, the students are able to go back and revisit the content and work again on any material that they didn’t understand or try things over again. So it’s an iterative process, and they should get some sort of formative feedback in between attempts so that they can understand what it is they need to work on and focus on. And this way, it’s more equitable, because the students are able to take the amount of time that they need to work on the assessment, they can access any review materials that they need to establish their foundational knowledge and continue on. And it just really helps the students learn and grow. And I think it’s a great way to establish foundational knowledge. I use it myself in all the history courses that I teach, and I just think it’s a great process. If you think about it, any athlete, that’s what they do. So if you’re learning how to play baseball, how many hours are spent in a batting cage, or like on the pitcher’s mound, how many times do you try again, and again, and then again, until you are able to do it correctly, or do things accurately? So I always liken it to use that sports analogy, because I really think that helps people understand that students’ learning… you have to practice and you can’t tell somebody something once and expect them to integrate it into all the knowledge they already have, and be able to recall it instantly. So I just think it’s a great way to level the playing field of students so that when you move on to the next part of your content, they all have the same foundation, and they’re ready to go forward.

John: And by explaining it to the students that way, in terms of a sports metaphor, it’s something that they can pretty easily connect to, and I think it also would help to promote a growth mindset, which we know is effective in increasing learning as well.

Rebecca: Another assessment strategy one might use is minimal or light grading that falls under this social justice umbrella, and is a bit different than mastery learning. Can you describe what minimal or light grading is?

Meghanne: Yeah, I’ve seen this described in a couple of different ways. This isn’t something that we really included in a lot of our research, so I kind of looked this up just a little while ago and it’s very interesting. And one approach is more on like the whole course level. And there’s another approach that can be taken on an assignment level. So for an entire course, what an instructor may do is that they would assign assignments throughout the semester, but most of them would not be graded, they would be used as like a conversation piece. And they would be discussed and gone over during class, which would then provide opportunities for the students to seek clarification and for the instructor to provide feedback in the moment. So then the assessment then becomes part of the learning process. So then when there are a small number of assessments that are given for a grade, then when the students get to those assessments, they’re not as intimidating. They’re things that they’ve done with their classmates, they’ve done them with their instructors, they’ve done them in class. So I think it’s a very interesting strategy because it removes a lot of the anxiety that students may have around assessment, because it’s just something that they’ve done in their class. Another take on this that I’ve seen is, on an assignment level, something like a paper, something that may require a lot of revision, where when the professor is grading that assessment, they would maybe not take the time to go through and mark all of the grammar and spelling and mechanical errors, but maybe they would look at a section of that, maybe point out some things the students are doing over and over again, but not mark up the entire paper, but just say, “Okay, these are the things you need to pay attention to that are recurring through your paper.” And then as they read and grade that student’s paper, they focus more on the message that the student is trying to convey and the ideas that they’re sharing, rather than the mechanics and the grammar and the spelling.

John: And one common thing I think, to both mastery learning and minimal light grading is that the goal is to provide students with feedback. In some cases that can be automated. Mastery learning systems involve some degree of automation, sometimes by textbook providers, or perhaps adaptive learning systems, or it could be questions that you put together. But if you’re going to provide feedback on writing, it can require a lot more time. And a minimal light grading approach allows faculty to provide feedback on the most important things without taking up as much time to allow faculty to provide feedback on a wider range of topics, which, again, is I think, to some extent in the same sort of spirit.

Rebecca: Light grading can help not intimidate a student with too much feedback. If you see just a paper completely marked up, it might feel like there’s no possibility for moving forward or revising. But emphasizing what’s most important to change, or most important to focus on can help a student prioritize. And this can be really important to someone new to a discipline who might not know what’s most important.

Katelyn: I’m so glad you said that.

Meghanne: There’s an element of trust there as well, because if we point out what a student needs to focus on mechanically or grammar wise in a small part of that paper, then they can be trusted to then use their judgment to go through it and read it more carefully, and then make those edits based on the feedback that they had received. So it is visually much less intimidating. Plus, it might be a motivating factor for some students too that their professor is trusting them to be in charge of that revision.

John: Another type of social justice assessment involves contract grading. Could one of you talk a little bit about how contract grading fits into this category of social justice assessment?

Katelyn: Sure, I think contract grading is one of those terms that’s gaining some broader popularity and recognition. So it’s probably a term that may be pretty familiar to a lot of instructors at this point. So maybe it doesn’t need a lot of explanation. I’ll just say there’s a couple of different models of contract grading. In some cases, the instructor might provide that contract at the start of the term. In other cases, the instructor and students would be able to negotiate that contract collaboratively together at the start of the term so that students have more of that active stake in the contract itself. Generally, the grading contract would lay out certain requirements which students would need to fulfill to receive their desired grade. And that might include requirements related to attending class or conferences, completing low-stakes assignments, completing major assignments, maybe some page- or process-based requirements. But the bottom line is that the contract gives students a clear picture from day one of the work required by the class so students can look at that contract and know exactly how much work they’re going to need to complete from day one, to get the grade that they really want to receive in the course. I think the additional benefit of contract grading for our conversation is that it decouples grades from assessment so students have more space to take risks in their work rather than aiming for correctness. And on the faculty side, faculty can respond to the content and spirit of the students work as opposed to justifying a grade. I think most important, though, because this system privileges students who are investing the time and effort into their learning, all students have the same potential to earn a high grade in the course regardless of their knowledge or ability with the subject matter prior to the start of the course. So to use another sports metaphor, it works to level the playing field on day one for students who may have very different levels of preparedness and experience with the subject matter.

Rebecca: Another strategy that folks might use, which we’ve certainly talked about quite a bit on this podcast at various times is peer assessment. Can you talk a little bit about what that looks like and how that fits into this social justice model?

Judie: So peer assessment, or I tend to call it peer review, helps to build student investment in writing, and helps the students understand the relationship between their writing and their coursework by helping them engage with the writing in a way that encourages more self reflection and works to help them build their critical thinking skills about their own work. And I think it also helps the students learn from one another, because they’re sort of trying to evaluate their peers’ work against the requirements for the course. But then you also look at your own writing in a new perspective, and you learn from what you’re seeing your peers write and from the feedback that you’re receiving from your peers.

John: Might students perhaps take feedback from their fellow classmates a bit more seriously than they do feedback from their instructors.

Judie: A lot of students self-report that they learn more from this peer review activity, because they’re trying to identify and articulate weaknesses that they’re seeing in their peers’ papers, and also in their own. And I think trying to incorporate feedback from both their peers and their instructor into their own work, I think, just helps raise that awareness and any kind of feedback that’s constructive, as they think about it and reiterate it and rewrite their work. It just helps with their critical thinking. And I think just raise awareness of how they write, and maybe they can be more thoughtful about what they’re writing going forward. I think they also, if they question their peers, say “How did you come up with this?I love this idea,” then they can apply some of this, that they’re learning from their peers to their own work, too. So perhaps that’s what you were getting at John, when you asked that question was, they may benefit more from their classmates telling them how they came up with their ideas than from their instructor just dictating what the expectations are.

Rebecca: I would expand the model to include not just writing but also other creative projects and things. It’s certainly a practice that’s pretty common in the arts, for example, to do peer review of student work.

John: And they also get to see what their peers are doing, which can serve as a positive role model. When students see that other people are doing something that they hadn’t considered doing, it could serve as a way of improving their work.

Katelyn: I think a lot of students come into the classroom thinking of their teacher as the sole reader or audience for their creations throughout the course of this semester. So anytime we can expand those audiences and have students thinking rhetorically about who else might be the consumer of their work. I think that that can benefit our students in really important ways.

Rebecca: It also seems like it’s a good opportunity to formulate community around an activity like that.

Katelyn: Absolutely.

John: One of the other areas you address with this group was the topic of labor-based grading, could you talk a little bit about that?

Meghanne: Yeah, labor-based grading removes the focus from the end product assignment and shifts it to the process of creating that piece of work. So students are provided with feedback throughout the process regarding their labor or the work that they put in. And they’re given opportunities to continue working to improve what they’re producing, and to achieve a desired grade based on a contract sometimes, so there is some overlap with contract grading, but not always. There typically aren’t penalties for students who revise and update their work, because that’s part of the learning process. And it really helps students determine what their end grade may be and how much effort they want to put in, because often, they will be given some sort of guideline for what different grades may be achieved based on certain levels of effort, or certain levels of work that are completed. And also there may be opportunities to grade based on completion rather than more of a subjective sort of qualitative grade.

John: So do you mean like using a light grading or minimal grading where you either completed satisfactorily or you haven’t, and as long as you complete a certain number of assignments or activities, you achieve that grade,

Meghanne: That or also if there’s criteria, like a rubric, and they hit all of the criteria, then they receive full credit.

John: Which becomes, actually, I think, a form of specifications grading.

Rebecca: And then one other model that you’ve talked a little bit about already today is ungrading. Can you expand upon that a little bit more?

Katelyn: Yeah, so ungrading works to deprioritize numerical grades or even attempt to eliminate them entirely. So I hope I’m not speaking out of turn when I say, I think that this is the most controversial of the approaches that we have been researching, it tends to get the most pushback from faculty because it is so different from what we have often been taught or trained to do. So instead of focusing on those numerical grades, instructors are encouraged to focus on providing learner feedback that encourages growth. Okay, I have a quote that is from an ungrading expert I’d like to share. This from Sean Michael Morris and he says, quote, “at the foundation of ungrading, lies something that could change school entirely. A suggestion that ranking and evaluation and the concomitant expertise of the ranker or evaluator is entirely an optional way of viewing things.” And I’m going to end the quote there because I think that that important kernel is that ungrading works to dismantle the hierarchy of the classroom and refocus the attention on individual student learning is an approach that requires a lot of trust between student and instructor, and a lot of student buy-in as well. Students have to be invested in the learning that’s going to happen throughout the course itself. And in a completely ungraded classroom, student grades might be based simply on a final student reflection, or even a one-on-one conversation between teacher and student about the grade that the student has earned. But because ungrading really rejects transactional grading systems, the final grade is more of an afterthought than an important outcome of the course, much less important than learning that’s occurred throughout the semester.

Rebecca: So today, we’re recording on August 9, James Lang posted on Twitter about how deep the system of creating actually is that there’s even things like discounts for insurance, for good students, or good grades. And that it’s really challenging to overcome a system that’s so ingrained beyond just our education system, but into many other systems as well. So I think that that, in part, is why there’s such a strong pushback on this particular method.

John: And we’ve always done it that way, at least for the last century or so.

Rebecca: Change is hard.

Katelyn: Yeah, I think that the traditional grading system is really embedded into not only academia but outside of academia as well. And even within a class that takes an ungrading approach, we still face that question at the end of the semester of “Well, what’s the grade going to be in the system?” because we don’t really have the option, at least at most institutions, to say, “No grade, job well done.” At least at my institution, I still have to put in a letter grade for the student. So we can work to reject that system as much as we can. But at the end of the day, we’re still operating within that same structure. And maybe that’s a question of what’s next, right? Like, are we going to see one day a future where more universities embrace this idea of learning for the sake of learning as opposed to learning for the grade? I don’t know.

John: One of the other things you address on the website is how perhaps the use of authentic assessment or UDL types of assessments might improve equity by providing a more equal playing field for students. Could you talk a little bit about how going beyond the traditional term papers and tests might provide a more equitable way of assessing students’ learning.

Judie: I think anytime you use authentic assessment that helps, or generally it allows the students the opportunity to demonstrate their learning in the way that works best for them. The students are writing a term paper, for example, they can write the paper the traditional way, or they can give a presentation or record a presentation, and still provide their citations and so forth at the end. Or they can do something visual, some sort of a PowerPoint or a nice visual display of the topic and again, cite their sources and explain their images to the group so that people understand how they’re meeting the learning outcome. And I feel like that’s just a good way if people are struggling with language, if people are just struggling with writing in general, I think that this levels the playing field, because it gives everybody an opportunity to really show their knowledge and shine and not just pigeonhole themselves into one more paper or one more multiple choice test, if they have test anxiety. Some of our traditional forms of testing or final assessment just set students up to fail. And allowing students to choose to demonstrate their learning in a way that they’re good at sets them up to succeed. And I think that’s what we really want at the end of the day. And of course UDL principles, those are Universal Design for Learning, and that does include equity in its heart. So that would definitely help to keep things equitable in the classroom. If you’re following UDL.

Rebecca: The multiple forms you were just talking about is a great example. [LAUGHTER]

Judie: Last semester, I had a student who, they’re supposed to do a blog post, and the student instead of writing a blog post, he made a video and he did it three different times. So one is on World War One, one’s on World War Two, and the third one was on revolutions, and so, this student stood in front of a whiteboard, and he had his camera set up so he could film himself. And he had his iPad in his hand. So he talked about a battle, say, for example, and he would draw it out on the board. And then he would show his citation on his iPad. And then he had other citations typed up and taped to the whiteboard. And he went on for 15 minutes, and just was making sure he explained things again, and drew little examples. And he was so animated, and so excited about his topic. And you’re not going to capture that on a written exam, or even in somebody’s written paper. It was just tremendous the way he was able to show all that he had learned and all that he was interested in, and the extra research that he had done, because he felt the freedom to pursue this topic, because he knew he was able to express it the way that suited him the past. And it was just amazing. So I think anytime we can incorporate these things, and I understand that there are times when, according to your creditor, or people have to sometimes sit for a specific certification, it doesn’t always fit, but I think if you can fit this type of assessment in, it is definitely worth it. Because just to see the joy in students when they can explore and expand their knowledge, and then feel confident in demonstrating that to you, it’s just tremendous.

Rebecca: I love the flexibility in demonstrating knowledge and understanding and skill sets because in some of our traditional methods, we are arbitrarily assessing something else. So we may be arbitrarily testing how well you can take a multiple choice test or how well you can take a test within a certain timeframe, or how well you can write, whether or not that’s actually the topic. So if I’m learning about history, there’s some learning objectives I’m trying to meet related to history that may or may not include writing. And if writing is not one of those outcomes that we’re hoping for, then we don’t need to be assessing it.

Judie: Exactly. He did this thing on medical advancements in World War One, it was just tremendous and he was so charming, because he just was so wrapped up in it that you just had to root for the guy. It was good.

Rebecca: I love that. So for those of us who may want to move towards equitable grading systems, what are some initial steps we might take? Because it could feel really daunting if you haven’t ventured down this path before.

Meghanne: Yeah, if you are not interested in overhauling your entire grading system, just to try this out, a nd to make your assessments more socially just, there are some adjustments that can be made to existing assignments. And really, the important thing is to consider the learning objectives and really think about what needs to be graded. So one of the things that we’ve talked about a lot in all of our different presentations that we’ve done is whether or not to grade for things like grammar and spelling, and mechanics, and English language proficiency. So in an example, like a discussion board, when you’re really interested in what the students have to say, and their interaction with each other, and the questions that they asked, does it really matter if their grammar and spelling is perfect in that instance, if they’re having a great conversation on a topic, and they’re learning from each other. So that’s one thing that we could suggest. Another is thinking about just the fact that sometimes students have challenges in their lives. They’re human beings, they have families, they have jobs, many of our students are athletes, and they have to travel and they have games and something like flexible due dates is very, very helpful for students because then they’re able to complete their work, certainly within a reasonable timeframe. But if those dates are a little bit more flexible, and they have access to those assignments in the learning management system beyond the actual due date, for instance, then that gives them the ability to complete that work without being penalized. So another mechanism would be in the learning management system, when students are taking quizzes, would be allowing backtracking, allowing students to go back and check their answers, that sometimes is a setting that a lot of professors really rely on, to try to avoid cheating. And as an LMS administrator, that is something that I see a lot. And I think that that can really be harmful to students, because many of our students are told to always go back and check your work. And if they’re not allowed to go back and check their work, that can be very frustrating. And also forcing completion is something that I would recommend turning off because again, that can create test anxiety. And often I think when completion is forced, there’s also a timer. So I think if any timers can be removed as well, then that does a couple of things. It can help remove testing anxiety. But then also, if there are students who require extra time due to a disability accommodation, then the professor at that point doesn’t have to go in and adjust all of the LMS settings for those students, because it’s already open ended and everyone can have as much time as they need to complete that assessment. So it really is just important to look at what the learning objectives are and what actually needs to be assessed. And the goal is always to remove barriers. So another thing that can be done is to just ask students, have a conversation about it, and find out what barriers they’ve experienced.

John: At the start of this. You mentioned the website that you were creating, could you talk a little bit more about what resources are there and how that might evolve over time?

Katelyn: Yeah, so the website, we have been slowly adding resources to over the past two years. And at this point, it’s becoming a pretty robust little outlet for people interested in social justice assessment. So, you go to the website, you can find an overview of the big picture theory of social justice assessment, as well as the various approaches that we’ve discussed today. We also have a really pretty large bibliography of resources for further reading for people who want to learn more about any one of these topics. And we’ve been working to develop a collection of sample assignments from faculty across SUNY. So we’re still working to collect additional sample assignments from faculty who might already be implementing some of these strategies within their classrooms. I think the more we can share those assignments with one another, the better off we’ll all be. I think a lot of us are doing social justice assessment in small ways in our classroom without realizing it. So the more we can share those resources and that knowledge, the more hopefully we can get people on board. So, hopefully, we’ll be able to share that link in the show notes. And people will be able to check that out.

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

Judie: So for our little group, one thing that I think might be next for us is SUNY is updating the SUNY general education requirements that are mandated with the completion of any SUNY degree. And they’ve added a requirement for equity, inclusion, and diversity. So I’m hoping that our group can help contribute resources to that effort, and our website could be one more place where people go to for information on social justice assessment so that they can incorporate those into their courses that are designed to meet the DEI requirement.

Katelyn: Well, I’m gonna go take my one-year old to the pool. [LAUGHTER]

Judie: Nice.

Katelyn: I think, big picture, though, the “what’s next” I want to just give is, I hope that we’ll start to see more institutional support for some of these approaches. I think that there are still a lot of barriers, particularly for contingent faculty who want to embrace some of these practices. So I hope what’s next will be more departmental institutional support for this: more time, more resources, etc. But yeah, my personal what’s next is I’m gonna go enjoy this beautiful day.

Rebecca: Meghanne, do you want to add anything?

Meghanne: Sure yeah, at my institution, I am sharing this information, pretty much any chance I get, I’m meeting with our new incoming faculty in a couple of weeks. And this will be one of the topics that we discuss. And I’m also co-chair of our universal design for learning task force. And we have a few events and projects that we’re working on to spread the word on UDL, and also innovative assessments and social justice assessments as well.

Rebecca: Lots of great things coming and some really wonderful resources that you’ve shared today. Thank you so much for joining us.

Katelyn: Thank you.

Judie: Thank you for having us.

Meghanne: Yeah, thank you.

John: And thank you for all the great work you’ve done on this over the last couple of years and the resources you’re sharing.

Judie: I would just like to say that Shena Salvato is also in our group. She’s at Cortland, I believe. And Chris Price from SUNY is in our group, and they are missed today. They’ve been with us for all our other presentations. I know that Shana in particular wants to get the band back together and have some more meetings going forward so we can keep working together. And it was really good to see you guys again.

Katelyn: Likewise.


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.


259. Experiential Learning

Course content and instructors are often forgotten once a  semester concludes. In this episode, Breanna Boppre joins us to discuss how experiential learning can humanize course content and provide meaningful and rich experiences that stick with learners for many years. Bree is an Assistant Professor at Sam Houston State University’s Department of Victim Studies. She is also the author of a chapter in Picture a Professor, edited by Jessamyn Neuhaus.

Show Notes


John: Course content and instructors are often forgotten once a semester concludes. In this episode, we discuss how experiential learning provides meaningful and rich experiences that stick with learners for many years.


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

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

John: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer…

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


John: Our guest today is Breanna Boppre. Bree is an Assistant Professor at Sam Houston State University’s Department of Victim Studies. She is also the author of a chapter in Picture a Professor, edited by our friend, Jessamyn Neuhaus. Welcome, Bree.

Bree: Thanks for having me.

John: We’re very happy you can join us.

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

Bree: I sure am. I am drinking a tea given to me by my close friend and department chair, Shelley Clevenger. She gifted me this tea. It says, “you’re magic” on the front. And one of the ingredients is “luster dust.” So the tea is actually blue with glitter.

John: That is a first, I believe.

Bree: It’s very unique, and it’s herbal tea. It tastes great.

Rebecca: Does it taste sparkly?

Bree: Mmmm, if sparkly had a taste, this would be it. [LAUGHTER]

John: So, we’re having a sparkle party.

Bree: Yes, definitely a sparkle party. [LAUGHTER]

John: I’m drinking a black raspberry green tea.

Bree: Ooh, yum.

Rebecca: And I have a jasmine black today.

Bree: Nice. That sounds good too. Not quite as sparkly as mine, but… [LAUGHTER]

Rebecca: Definitely not, and not as blue, either. [LAUGHTER]

John: So we’ve invited you here today to discuss your chapter in Picture a Professor. Before we discuss your chapter, could you tell us a little bit about your department and the classes that you teach? Because we have not run across a Department of Victim Studies before, and I think it would be helpful to learn a little bit more about that.

Bree: Yes, I would love to talk about our department. It’s actually the first and only Victim Studies Department in the nation, and so this is really unique for us to have this opportunity. We’re housed in the College of Criminal Justice. So we’re a subset of criminal justice but we like to think of ourselves as different, both in what we study and teach about, but also the way that we do things. So we are very much community engaged. We emphasize caring and kind pedagogy, and we emphasize things that engage with the community to help survivors. And so, we have a lot of campus events. We have a lot of events dedicated to building awareness, but also donations and things for organizations in our community that helps survivors. And so, it’s really a great opportunity. I’m really excited to be here in the Department of Victim Studies. I’ve been here just over a year now. And the classes that I teach… violence against women, and I teach it more as gendered victimization. So we talk a lot about how gender and stereotypes shape victimization and harm. I also teach a brand new class that I created called “transformative justice,” which is a survivor-led movement aimed to address harm and violence without relying on systems that cause additional harm and trauma. And so, preventing harm and crime in the community before people end up in prisons and involved in the system. So that’s a really cool class that I’ve enjoyed teaching. I also teach family violence, and I teach research methods at the grad level, and that’s what I was prepping right before the podcast. So those are the classes I teach. I’m really excited about them. It’s heavy content, for sure, but I enjoy it.

Rebecca: I can imagine that teaching such topics really often includes students who are also victims and there’s some challenges in that arena as well. Can you talk a little bit about some strategies that your department uses to support survivors who are in your classes?

Bree: Yeah, so I can talk about what I do personally. So I’ve done a lot of research beyond teaching about the impacts of trauma, and I actually have a background in cognitive behavioral therapy and counseling techniques. And so, I interned as a grad student with community corrections and would engage in these counseling type classes for men who are on probation and parole. And one thing that I noticed was that the amount of trauma that these individuals have experienced, you can’t treat someone separate of that trauma. And so, that’s very much how I teach in the classroom as well. I’ve relied a lot on other scholars, like Karen Costa, who’s done a lot on trauma-aware teaching, who I know was a guest on the podcast multiple times, and others who, instead of teaching business as usual, we have to center the experiences of survivors and recognize that the vast majority of students have survived something traumatic at some point in their lives, whether it’s victimization, sexual assault, things like that, but even the adversity that they’ve encountered throughout their lives. That has has an impact on their experience in our classrooms. And so, I have used Nicole Bedera’s method of survivor-centered teaching, she has an amazing article in Teaching Sociology that really centers survivors in how we teach. And so, oftentimes, and even myself, when I first started teaching, and a student would disclose to me something related to victimization, because a lot of students feel close to me, they see me as that caring empathetic person. And so, I have had a lot of disclosures throughout my teaching. And at first, I wasn’t exactly sure how to handle it, because we know Title IX, we know that we are mandatory reporters of certain victimization and of certain things that we’re told, but not everything. And so my role as a professor, I’m very aware that I am not a licensed counselor, and I take that very seriously in referring out, as Karen Costa says. And so, I’ve done a lot of work to understand the role of Title IX and my role as a mandatory reporter, and that has really helped me know effective boundaries to myself and my teaching while also supporting students. And so, Nicole Bedera recommends really understanding each institution’s Title IX office requirements, because they can differ across institution. So one of the first things I did when I came to Sam Houston State was reach out to the Title IX office, and really try to understand what I am mandated to report. And now in every victimization related class, I have a module about survivor-centered teaching and self care. And so, in that module, I explain to students what they disclose to me, how that could potentially trigger a report, because I want them to be empowered and informed. I want them to know that if they disclose specifics, that if it occurs on campus, or a campus event, that’s something that I have to report, and if they don’t want me to report, they can disclose those things in a different way. And so, that takes more of the ownership on students and the power and agency to them, rather than to me, and it’s made me a lot more comfortable when students do disclose because I have a lot of assignments where they reflect, and that’s where the experiential learning background comes in. I’m very much about reflection, and so a lot of the students, I prompt them to reflect on the material and that prompts them to often disclose that they have survived something in their life that’s similar. And so, being empowered and informed, both as the students and me as the professor, having those survivor-centered and trauma-aware tools have made me a lot better able to address it in a supportive and empathetic way.

John: That transparency should make students feel much more comfortable and as you said, empowers them to make decisions that are best for them, which I think provides a much better relationship.

Rebecca: So it’s worth mentioning, if you’re interested in Nicole Bedera’s work, she was on episode 201, “Beyond Trigger Warnings.”

Bree: Highly recommend her article. Seriously, this changed my teaching for the better in many ways, and I’m a huge fan of her work.

John: We’ll include a link to that in the show notes. So the title of your chapter is “Using Experiential Learning to Humanize Course Content and Connect with Students,” and you’ve already addressed a little bit about how you use experiential learning. Could you expand on that just a little bit in terms of how you do this in your classes?

Bree: Yeah, so I actually started engaging with experiential learning as a doctoral student. Our PhD program is actually unique in that it had a required teaching and pedagogy class, which is shockingly rare for academic PhD programs, especially in criminology and criminal justice. So I was really fortunate to have that experience where we learned about teaching and pedagogy before we even entered the classroom. And so, we had to explore different approaches and write up what we envision our teaching approach to be, and one of those approaches that always stood out to me was experiential learning, and part of that interest in experiential learning was my own experience as an undergrad student. When I think back to my classes, one of the most vivid memories I have is in a corrections class, we toured a local prison, and I can still remember the weather that day, how it felt being in that prison. It was very dank and dark, which is similar to most prisons. [LAUGHTER] And so, that feeling of being there, I can close my eyes and still envision that day of touring that prison that really stuck with me. And the power of experiential learning to have that impact, to engage with multiple senses, your sight, your hearing, your smelling, you’re feeling the temperature, all of that has an impact, and I especially think it’s important for criminal justice in teaching classes related to prisons, which is what I taught for many years at Wichita State before coming to Sam Houston State, and those experiences are really what stand out with students and have that high impact. So that’s part of why I decided to focus on experiential learning for my pedagogy, especially early on, and we would do things like go on prison tours, or we would go on tours of local domestic violence shelters. I would take the students to these locations, and as I’ll talk about later on, when we discuss experiential learning online, there’s potential issues related to accessibility there. But if the students are able, it really is an immersive experience, and it’s really beneficial for them to go to these sites with the support of their instructor to gain that experience… that hands-on, what would a job in this area be like… but also to connect with people who work in the field. Because often my students have gained internships or jobs from going on these tours, the agencies also view it as a potential hiring or recruitment opportunity. So it’s really beneficial for me as the instructor, but also for the students and for the agencies in the field to connect directly with often juniors and seniors who I teach, and they’re going to be graduating soon and want to do something with that degree. So that’s really the “why” for me. It’s also very humanizing, and I talk about it in the chapter as a method of inclusive teaching. Because for me, I was never one of those people who wanted to be the sage on the stage, I’m much more into collaborative learning, and being more of the guide on the side. And so, I found with experiential learning, it really helped us build community and experiences together. Every time, I swear, when we would go visit the prison, something would happen. So one time we went and it was chow time, which is food time, and they offered to let us try the food. So that was a big experience for many students that we still talked about after and that’s, again, a big part of experiential learning is the reflection piece. So we would reflect on that experience together in class, we would talk about it, but also students would reflect on it on their own through reflection papers. And so, as I’ve evolved these approaches, one of my favorite parts of experiential learning is service learning. And so, service learning is really taking experiential learning to a next level, where we’re incorporating real-world experience, learning and applying concepts to helping actual agencies or a community of need that is identified by the students in the class and using that volunteer work to help and engage in civic engagement.

Rebecca: Those shared experiences are really powerful. We’ve seen these in many different situations, whether it’s service learning, or field trips, or study-abroad opportunities where groups of students are together, and they have this shared moment. It helps them connect, but also it’s a place to relate content back to that they all know, because they were all there, which has a lot of power. So you hinted at this already, Bree, but we know that you’re teaching entirely online now. So how do you go from visiting prisons to your current circumstance of teaching online and how do you bring these experiential components in that modality?

Bree: Yes, so I’m not gonna lie. In spring 2020, when the pandemic hit and we were told, “You’re going remote for two weeks,” and then that two weeks turned into the rest of the semester, I freaked out a little because I relied so heavily on the in-person, and the experiential learning is a big part of that. I did freak out. And so, I had never really taught online before. I taught one summer class online previously, it was a, quote, “canned class” that I couldn’t really change or adapt from. And so, I freaked out a bit. And then I remember the last class before we went online, I got a text from my colleagues saying, “the provost is about to announce, we’re going online.” I was like, alright, we’re going to stop what we’re doing: “What has worked for you as students online and what has not worked?” and we workshopped together, what the rest of the term was going to look like. And so, a lot of them mentioned, “we love these aspects of the in person, that community building, the humanization.” And so, I really had to think carefully and critically about, okay, how do I accomplish that online? And so, like I mentioned, the way I teach, I don’t like lecturing. I will lecture for like 10 minutes at a time, but you will never see a class where I’m just lecturing for an hour, that’s not enjoyable for me. And so, I tried to think about how to translate that to the online platform. Because often, I would pepper in my lecturing with other videos, with activities, we would do Kahoots, we would do group breakouts, we would do all these things,“oh, my gosh, how do I do this online?” So I came up with this approach, in our activities, where I would really think through how we did this in person, and try to modify it for online. So even though we can’t be in the classroom physically, at the same place, the same time together, how can we still achieve this community remotely. And so, I would do things like the Kahoots, the quizzes, the community sorts of activities to try and accomplish that, and with experiential learning, I’ve taken a lot of aspects of experiential learning, especially the reflection piece that has become very important to my pedagogy. And so, it may not be the traditional experiential learning anymore for me online. There’s parts that I incorporate, but I’ve really have had to adapt. And so, some of that includes being more creative about these big project-based assignments that I have. So I read Susan Blum’s, edited book, Ungrading, which is awesome. And so, inspired by that, I started assigning eportfolios, where students will experientially go through these modules, and they have reflection questions guiding them, and they write up kind of like this blog-style summary of the content, like they’re explaining it to someone who has no background in criminal justice victim studies, they have no idea what any of this is, and they’re explaining it to someone else. So it is very much like a blog. But then the second piece of those module reflections are reflecting on their learning, and that’s where they really think about their experience during the module, even though it’s online, even though they may be sitting watching TV or they may be having childcare during while they’re trying to learn. A lot of my students are single moms or in caretaking roles, they have a lot of other things going on. And so, they’re reflecting on that learning experience, despite all the other things that are going on in their lives. And so, that has been really key for me, that reflecting not just on the content, but their learning experience. So that’s been a way that I’ve adapted experiential learning. I still incorporate service learning as much as I can. So there’s four main types of service learning and direct service learning is the one that we often think of, when students go to a physical location and volunteer. Now, during the pandemic, that was not possible. So a lot of the agencies that I worked with, especially prisons, they shut down access, students were not allowed to come there. So I had to think differently about creating opportunities for civic engagement and advocacy. And so, some of the things that I’ve done are infographics and public service announcements to build awareness about social issues and taking that a step further to create those specifically for campus organizations. Or even now I’m partnering with local agencies, nonprofits, who may not have the resources to devote to social media and branding, and my students are actually helping with that by creating social media campaigns and things like that. And so, I’ve just tried to be creative. We have unlimited technology, we have so much available to us that is web based, or internet based, that students have access to, like Canva. Oh, my gosh, Canva is the best tool that I’ve incorporated, and they make these data visuals and public service announcements through Canva and they can even do it on their mobile phone. So it makes it really accessible for them, and it gives them a way to make an impact, even though we can’t have that direct service learning experience.

John: Could you tell us a little bit more about some of the service learning activities that your students have been engaged in?

Bree: Yes. So, I again, teach research methods, which often is not the favorite class, both from students and instructors. It’s often seen as a more boring content area, which is fair. There’s a lot of jargon, there’s a lot of complex concepts for students to learn. But I have found that experiential learning is even more important for teaching research methods. And the way that I do it is through research-based service learning. Well, because of the pandemic and because of agencies shutting down and not having direct access, I’ve been focused more on helping our campus community because that is an organization that I have access to and that I’m directly involved with. And so, some of the things that we’ve done in the past is we had students and I create surveys together for their fellow students in the university to fill out and then students, they create the survey questions. They think through research questions, how to create measures and concepts related to those questions. I facilitate this process, but they’re doing a lot of it firsthand, and then we distribute the survey online to students across the campus, they see how many students respond to the survey, which is often 10 to 20%, and they see the implications of that, and then they work through the data themselves. I’ll compile it in an Excel file for them, and then they create data visuals. They interpret the results, and then together, we compile a report that we give to university stakeholders. And so, that has been a really rewarding, and accessible version of service learning for me… is that research-based service learning, and it’s also beneficial for me. As pre-tenure, 40% of my position is research, 40% is teaching, and then the 20% is service. So I find that research-based service learning really combines all aspects of my scholarship together, and it makes it this really rewarding aspect of my teaching that has been successful both in person and online. And so, that has been a really cool avenue that I also have gone on to publish the results, and that has led to peer-reviewed articles and things that are important towards my tenure. So I wanted to bring that up, because I know a lot of fellow instructors, they see service learning or experiential learning and are like, “Oh, that all sounds great, but the amount of time that goes into it is a lot, especially when you’re working with external agencies.” And so, I really promote research-based service learning as this accessible alternative that can also benefit those faculty and instructors that are expected to do research as well.

Rebecca: Finding those connections between service, teaching, and research can always be really challenging. But when you can find those connections, definitely a worthwhile endeavor. I know that I’ve had similar experiences. Can you talk a little bit about students’ response to service learning, as well as your community partner? And I guess in this case, it would be your campus stakeholders?

Bree: Yeah. So I’ll back up a little. When I taught in person, one of the first service- learning projects I did was for the local drug court. And so, the drug court manager would actually come to our class, and we presented the results to her. And so, that experience of being live, us handing her the results, talking about the results together as a class, that made it really rewarding for both me and the students. And so, as a result of that drug court partnership, one of my students actually got an internship at drug court, which was super cool. That may not have happened organically otherwise. And so, students’ responses have been very positive to both service learning and experiential learning broadly. I think that both teaching and learning online can be very isolating. That was my fear of teaching online, was losing that connection, and that connection from what I’ve learned from Michelle Pacansky-Brock and Fabiola Torres on Twitter, I’ve taken trainings with them on humanizing course content. They are amazing. What I’ve learned from them and doing trainings about online teaching is that really the connection matters, and there are still ways that we can get that connection through humanization. And so, I think building those connections for students’ research shows, especially for underserved students, first-generation college students like myself… I was a first-gen student… those sorts of efforts to build that community and build that connection between student and instructor but also among students is really key towards their success and retention. So I have noticed, just taking the extra effort to send out personal check ins to students to get to know them as human beings, has greatly increased my student evaluations, but also my fulfillment and enjoyment as an instructor, because I read Kevin Gannon’s work, Radical Hope, it’s on my bookshelf over here, and he mentions this tension, often between this authoritative type of instruction where often instructors are seen as adversaries, and instead, there’s things that we can do to connect with students. So we go into this role of being allies to students, and that’s really where I see my role as empowering and supporting students rather than enforcing rules and teaching during the pandemic really, really brought that to light for me, that often these rules, especially around late work, and imposing late penalties, and strict rules around that, that’s not sustainable. And so, it’s also not inclusive, especially for our students, who many of them, again, are mothers, they’re in caretaking roles, they’re parents, they have full-time jobs already outside of their class that they’re taking with me. I think that instructors maybe forget that students have these full lives outside of this one class that they’re taking with you, and I try to be really mindful of that. And so, students’ responses to experiential learning have been great. My response has been great. The stakeholders have also really appreciated being able to connect with students. When we sent out the report to stakeholders for the campus survey, one of the interesting findings was there’s this care center on campus that offers free mental health referrals and academic assistance to students in crisis, and based on our survey with criminal justice students, only 25% even knew that the care team existed. And so, I shared this with the care team. I’m like, “Look, I know the amazing work you do. I’ve referred various students to you but largely, students don’t know you exist, which might be impacting self referral.” And so, students in that class gave recommendations for how to build awareness of the care team, and the following semester that I taught this class, we partnered with care team and created a social media campaign to build student awareness about who the care team is and what they do. And so, that was a really cool way of legacy teaching where we built upon what one class did in a semester, which was Spring 2020, where everything was wild, and it took a lot to get done in one semester, with the beginning of a pandemic, we built upon that in a second semester, to really create actionable things that the care team could use to build awareness about what they do for the campus.

John: You mentioned a focus on inclusive teaching, could you talk a little bit more about some strategies that you use to create an inclusive environment in your classes? You’ve talked about some of these, but do you have any other suggestions? Because I think everyone’s trying to make their classes more inclusive now and any tips you could provide would be helpful.

Bree: Yeah. So I think for me, a big part of it has been educating myself. I’ve taken a lot of trainings, I’ve had trainings specifically on Universal Design for Learning, inclusive teaching. So some of those trainings that I took actually had us listen to interviews from students about their experiences as first-generation students, as students who English is not their first language, as students who are full time working and caretakers. Listening to their stories really helped me design my classes in a way that is more accessible. I design my classes being very empathetic and mindful of the students who enter our class. So SHSU is a Hispanic-serving Institution, more than 50% of my students are first-generation college students, so I automatically design my classes for that population, and in turn, like we see from Universal Design for Learning, that has benefits for everybody. So if you design a building with a ramp for individuals who can’t walk, that ultimately can benefit other individuals. The ramp makes it easier for them to get to the building to get inside. So I really embrace that approach in my teaching, and I try to be inclusive from the start. Again, educating yourself is a big part. I’ve done a lot of work on anti-racist pedagogy and just in everyday life, so that has been really helpful for me as well. And then I’m not perfect by any means. I try really hard, and there have been times where things have come up and students have felt safe enough to bring it up to me that there was potentially issue with how something was presented or delivered in the class, and I think my biggest advice is, when that happens, take a step back, take a pause, and really use empathy to listen. This student took time out of their everyday life to come to you and explain how this content or how the delivery made them feel. So I know that the first instinct might be to be defensive. But I think it’s really important to take a step back and try to really understand where the student is coming from. And actually I have this situation in the fall and it ended up turning out to be a really informative and transformative experience for me, but also for the student and now the student still keeps in touch with me and emails me often about updates in her life. And so, I think that’s a really big part of teaching in a way that’s empowering and supportive, rather than being authoritative and the sage on the stage when you share that power, and that’s important for me teaching in victim studies, because I teach in our victim services management program, which is the master’s degree. The students who come into this program are rock stars, they have worked in the field for years, they are running nonprofits, they are doing all this amazing work already. And so by sharing the power, and by me recognizing I have this degree, and I have some experience, but their experience is just as valuable and important as mine. I think that is really setting the stage for inclusive teaching and that’s what I embrace.

John: You mentioned a collaborative environment in your classes. What role do students play in creating content for your classes?

Bree: Yeah, so that’s actually my ultimate goal for students. In a lot of the effective online teaching trainings I’ve took, a lot of what we give to students is stuck on the learning management system. If you give a student an assignment or a quiz, they submit it, and they may never have access again. So a lot of the assignments I give them are getting off the learning management system and giving them tools and things that they can have beyond the semester. And so, some examples of that are, again, creating eportfolios. So they create these eportfolios that they use throughout the class, they create their intro background page where they talk about themselves, as much as they want to share or not, they can keep it anonymous if they want to. But they create this front page, which is personalized to them. And then they have different sections where they have module reflections. They have a course glossary, where they define key terms for each module and put the term and the definition there. And so, I started this approach… again, after reading Ungrading. But also, when I think back to classes, I had this really cool class about serial killers. And we created a portfolio with case studies about each serial killer, and I hung onto that thing for like a decade. I even gave it to my grandma who was super into crime shows and she wanted to read it. And so, I was like, this is something that is missing when we teach on the learning management system, and it’s something that I want to facilitate for students. Online, I think the eportfolio fits best rather than a paper portfolio. And so, it’s something that they can take with them and,it was funny, I was at a campus event, it was a campus ally training, and there was a staff member there who said, “Oh, you’re Dr. Boppre, one of our student workers is taking your class and she showed me her eportfolio that she made in your class and was so proud of it, and it looks so cool.” I’m like “That is gold. If that is what happens as a result of my teaching, I have achieved what I wanted to.” I want students to end my classes with some creative item that they develop throughout the class, and that they’re so proud of and so excited about that they’re sharing it with others. And so, the eportfolios, I definitely love those. I also assign infographics, which I think I mentioned earlier. So students create these visually appealing flyers with information about controversial issues in our field. So for victimization related classes, they’ll talk about intimate partner violence, violence against women, and they’ll summarize the research. They will do what they would typically do for a research paper, but in this visually appealing, accessible format. Honestly, I can’t tell you that I’ve ever shared a paper from class with anybody from undergrad, but I would share an infographic. I would show someone and say, “Look at what I’ve done,” and that’s what students tell me, they’re really proud of that infographic that they’ve created. And so, that has been really rewarding for me is to help facilitate these students’ creations. I’m not gonna lie, it does take a lot of tutorials and working through students to develop these skills, but I tell them, I’m very purposeful about the technology that I choose for classes and I’ve honestly had to ditch some approaches for some that are more useful and relevant to their future careers. But I really focus on the tools and technology that I think will best serve them in their future careers no matter what they do. And so, that’s why I emphasize these eportfolios, because you’re developing a website, and I have a personal website for all my scholarship, but I’ve used Google Sites to create community exhibits, I’ve used them to present research presentations. I’ve used these web design skills for so many other things that I can envision for other students and the same with the infographics and getting used to using Canva. We live in an ever growing society that wants information quickly and visually, especially like TikTok, Instagram… that is the reality that we live in today. And so, these approaches really fit with where we’re going in our society. And so, learning Canva, you might make an infographic for class, but then you have those skills to make a flyer for an event at work, or you have those skills to create an infographic for something else related to your class or for your career. And so, that’s really what I emphasize, these creative, project-based finales is what I call them, because they help students create something and cultivate skills that will benefit them far beyond the end of the semester.

John: David wildly refers to those assignments that end up in the LMS and disappear at the end of the semester as “disposable assignments.” And the type of thing you’re describing are the non-disposable, open pedagogy type things that students often find much more engaging, because they have much more meaning to them, and I think you’ve described that quite nicely. So we always end with a question, what’s next?

Bree: So I’m entering my fifth year on the tenure track. So, I’m still very much focused on research. But this upcoming semester, I’m actually putting all of the trauma awareness and the survivor centered teaching into my research-based service-learning project with students. And so, we are actually going to ask students about survivor-centered teaching and trauma-aware teaching and we’re going to do a survey and focus group with students. So I’m really excited to test students’ reactions to these approaches and the need. That’s ultimately what I want to demonstrate, the need for these approaches from an empirical standpoint, and involving students in that process. I think that’s going to be really powerful. One of my students in my summer class actually inspired me to do this because we were having a zoom session, and we talked about survivor-centered teaching, and she’s just like, this is the first time I’ve ever felt empowered to tell my story, because in every other class, I have felt silenced by these Title IX and mandatory reporting warnings, I just have not felt comfortable or able to share. And so that is a big part of my future in what’s next, is continuing to empower students to tell their stories and to view students as the whole student, and how these life experiences shaped their interactions in the classroom and the eportfolios is a way that I get to do that. They do get to share their stories and reflect on it. But I’m always looking for what more we can do, and that’s really what I want to focus on. Because these life experiences, even my own life experiences. Both my parents were incarcerated throughout my life, I grew up visiting my dad in prisons for 15 plus years. Every weekend, I was at the prison. To say that experience has no impact on my teaching or learning would just be ridiculous to say. That had a huge impact on who I am, how I learned, how I teach. And so, I’m very upfront about that with students, and I also want to empower them to have their own stories and reflect on how it impacts their experiences, because education truly can be transformative. It was for me as a first-generation college student, as someone with those life experiences in my childhood. Being able to go to college transformed my life, and if I can play a small role in that for my students, that’s my ultimate life goal and that’s why I’m here.

Rebecca: Thank you so much Bree for sharing your really great techniques and providing us with a lot of things to think about as more of us are teaching online and thinking about experiential learning and service learning in those contexts.

John: And we noted on your website, you have a word cloud that lists some words that students have used to describe your teaching, and the most frequent words were fun and creative. But right behind those were unique, amazing, informative, thorough, and awesome. And that would be a nice aspirational goal for many of us, to see those types of responses for students, because I suspect that those wouldn’t be the most common words that students generally use for most of their classes. So thank you for joining us, and I hope you’ll be back again in the near future.

Bree: Yes, I was so excited to come. A lot of my pedagogical heroes have been on this show. So I’m very honored to be here and thanks so much for having me.


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

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

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


256. Sharing Our Stories

Students do not always recognize the expertise of faculty who do not match their cultural stereotype of what a professor looks like. In this episode, Sarah Mayes-Tang joins us to discuss how she has used personal narratives to address these student biases. Sarah is an Assistant Professor in the Mathematics Department at the St. George Campus of the University of Toronto. She is also the author of a chapter in the Picture a Professor project, edited by Jessamyn Neuhaus.

Show Notes

  • Neuhaus, Jessamyn (forthcoming, 2022). Picture a Professor: Interrupting Biases about Faculty and Increasing Student Learning. West Virginia University Press.
  • Peterson, D. A., Biederman, L. A., Andersen, D., Ditonto, T. M., & Roe, K. (2019). Mitigating gender bias in student evaluations of teaching. PloS one, 14(5), e0216241. (A study that suggests that reminding students of bias in course evaluations may reduce bias.)
  • Perusall
  • Ogawa, Y. (2009). The Housekeeper and the Professor: A Novel. Picador.
  • Borges, J. L. (1998). The library of Babel. Collect


John: Students do not always recognize the expertise of faculty who do not match their cultural stereotype of what a professor looks like. In this episode, we examine one professor’s strategies to address these student biases.


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

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

John: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer…

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


Rebecca: Our guest today is Sarah Mayes-Tang. Sarah is an Assistant Professor in the Mathematics Department at the St. George Campus of the University of Toronto. She is also the author of a chapter in the Picture a Professor project, edited by Jessamyn Neuhaus.
Welcome, Sarah.

Sarah: Thank you so much. It’s wonderful to be here and to see both of you. [LAUGHTER]

John: Thanks for joining us. Our teas today are… Are you drinking tea?

Sarah: I am drinking tea. I have a…

Rebecca: Yay!

Sarah: …I wouldn’t miss it. …it’s a chocolate mint black tea by Sloane tea. They’re a Toronto tea company.

Rebecca: Awesome.

John: Very nice.

Rebecca: I have a very standard [LAUGHTER] English breakfast today.

John: And I have a Prince of Wales tea today.

Rebecca: Oh, I haven’t had that in a while. John. We’ve invited you here today to discuss your chapter in Picture a Professor. Your chapter’s entitled “Sharing Our Stories to Build Community, Highlight Bias, and Address Challenges to Authority.” Can you tell us a little bit about this chapter?

Sarah: Yeah, sure. I think that my chapter might be the most obvious kind of strategy in this book. So a lot of the authors are sharing really inventive, or new strategies that I hadn’t thought of. Mine is all about just talking to other people about the challenges that we face when we don’t look like other professors in the academy, or at least what students might picture as their idea of a professor, what might you picture when you Google a professor? So my strategy is all about talking to people. First of all, starting by talking to colleagues, in particular, colleagues that might face similar challenges. So first of all, I should say, I’m a white woman, so I can’t speak to the full challenges that, for example, people of color might face, but I’m a math professor, and I present pretty feminine, and I teach mathematics in I guess, like a pretty serious math department. And so I certainly don’t look like what students expect when they come into a big math class. So for me, and I think for a lot of other people that I work with, it really came as a huge shock, when students started to question even my basic mathematical ability, 18 year olds dealing with probably their own insecurities about mathematics, but it was coming out as like, she doesn’t know what she’s doing. And then the reaction from my superiors who are mainly white men, would be to act more authoritative, basically act ways that were more like them. And the way that I felt was just like, there was something very, very wrong with me. I felt very ashamed. And even though I sensed that it had something to do with my identity, I knew they wouldn’t question me in the same way, if I was a typical looking professor, I also thought I did have to change something about myself. And there’s such tremendous shame in that. And it wasn’t until I, at the end of the year, whispered a little bit about it. And then another colleague said this exact same thing happened to me, the exact same thing. And the whole year, we were going through parallel experiences. And knowing that changed my life, it changed my profession. I would have left the academy if it hadn’t been for that. And then over time developing a group of cheerleaders who I could go to, and then kind of gain more confidence. My chapter also addresses being able to speak to colleagues and being able to speak to our students, because it’s important that they understand the challenges that we face, because we don’t just have white men who we teach, we teach a variety of students. And I think if we can talk about our personal challenges, and they can see that we also have faced challenges that they might be facing, then that can really be very transformative. So that’s kind of a brief summary of some of the things that I talk about.

Rebecca: Can you talk a little bit about how that unfolds in a classroom when you’re having those kinds of conversations with students in a math class?

Sarah: Yeah, so sometimes it unfolds very naturally, by some prompt that might happen. Yeah, there might be an extreme example. This past semester, I had another professor, he came in, and it was like, clear gender issue. And so I used that, in the next day actually, it took me a little while to react to it. And then the next day, we had a very deep conversation about gender in the classroom. But it might be before student evaluations, that has taken me a long time to come to, but how do you address the research about what students do in evaluations? Sometimes I assign reading about mathematicians’ experiences, I try to assign readings of biographies of diverse mathematicians, and then we relate it to their own experiences. And then if it’s appropriate, I don’t want to be all about me. But if it’s appropriate, I sometimes talk about what I’ve experienced. So those are some of the ways that it comes out. But I try to make my classrooms not just about the mathematics, because that’s really where the transformative stuff happens.

John: In terms of the teaching evaluations, have you addressed that issue specifically with students in terms of gender bias on evaluations before the evaluations? And has that helped? …because there is some research that making students aware of biases tends to reduce the amount of bias that shows up in the actual evaluations.

Sarah: It’s really hard for me to say if it helps.

John: …there’s no control group.

Sarah: Exactly. So even though I teach gigantic classes, you’d think that I’d be able to do some sort of like statistical thing, I have no idea if it really helps. I do get comments, after, if I do address it. I know that some students will say, “I’m not just saying this because she’s a woman.” So there is some backlash in that. So it’s unclear. I try not to do it right before the student evaluations, but like a few weeks before. I also do evaluations throughout the semester. And yes, it’s difficult to see if it impacts the evaluations or not. However, what is meaningful to me is not whether it impacts my evaluations, I think, but again, reaching the students who might not fall into those majority groups and helping them see that some bias stuff may be going on and it’s not all in my head and that is impacting my experience, and there’s actual research behind that.

Rebecca: I can imagine that students in a math class don’t expect to talk about identity. Can you talk a little bit about the student response to some of these conversations that you’ve had with students.

Sarah: It varies. I find that students are more and more open to it. I’ve taught a lot of first-year classes. So as they go through first year, they’re more open to it. Because at first, they’re like, “I just need all the math and they find a big change between high school and university in terms of the contact hours. So like you’re wasting our time talking about this stuff. But by upper-year classes, they find it such a refreshing change, because they’ve been in so many math classes, where it’s just all content, content, content. A lot of lectures. And so I really didn’t react to any of that backlash. And it’s almost like a breath of fresh air. And another aspect of identity that I think has been meaningful, like, has maybe come very naturally, the idea of like, “Are you a math person?” …because that’s another type of identity that’s really common in our society. And even that, it certainly linked gender and race, but it’s something that isn’t directly gender or race. And so talking about how that fits into their identity has also been a key to unlocking more personal conversation and getting them to really reflect on themselves in a mathematics classroom. Yeah, and I think one of the keys is like having them watch a mathematician talk about their work and how their identity is linked to their work. And then they comment, for example, Perusall or something where they can annotate the text, and then they start to get involved in some conversations, I can bring those comments into class and then we can have some pretty dynamic conversations.

Rebecca: I can imagine teaching first-year students in math with a societal “I’m not a math person” problem. I know, I teach in art and design, so we have a lot of students that claim that identity, “I’m not a math person, I don’t do math,” and are afraid. Can you talk about some of the ways that you have reduced the fear, allowed people to see themselves as being math people, even though they’ve never seen themselves in that way? I know you’ve had some really interesting things that you’ve done.

Sarah: Yeah, I love reaching those people. And it’s a lot more difficult now in my job at a big university than it was when I was teaching at a liberal arts school, where all students are required to take a math course. So maybe I’ll talk a little bit about my experiences at the liberal arts school to start. So I was at Quest University Canada, a small school, about 500 to 700 students. It kind of started as an experiment. And so we are encouraged to do all sorts of things. And we had a lot of students who were so afraid, just as you describe, of their mathematics course. And they were putting it off, putting it off, putting it off. And I think one of the things that really traps them is the idea that everything has to build on the thing before and a lot of them got lost somewhere in early elementary school and they never recovered. And it was some sort of threat to their identity, probably some like quick quiz or something. Someone said something, and they were lost, forever. So it’s trying to show them that well, there’s actually parts of mathematics that math majors don’t see until their fourth year that you can do right now. And that’s usually how I try to approach it. So I think one of the things is just addressing that head on, talking about their experiences in mathematics and telling them we’re going to do something different. You’re not going to see numbers, you’re not going to see arithmetic even, this is going to be about shapes and space and ideas, and maybe even accessing points of connection with individual students. So I can give examples of particular projects if you’d like or particular courses.

Rebecca: I’d love to hear an example of a project.

Sarah: Sure. I’m a firm believer that the things that you think are going to be total train wrecks can either turn out to be the best things you’ve ever done or they could be trainwrecks. But definitely my best things have been the wild ideas. So I was teaching a course on mathematical creativity. And it was going to attract a lot of students that were totally afraid of math because they had to take it as part of a series of courses on creativity. So they got to take a social science course on creativity and a chemistry course on creativity. But they also had to take this, in their minds, terrible math course on creativity. So I was really excited to teach it. But how would you describe the feeling of creating something new in mathematics. And for me, and for most mathematicians, if you hear like these quotes about mathematics, they’re like mathematicians will say “math is like poetry. Math is like…” …they give all these analogies with very creative analogies. But most students don’t access that until graduate school, because there’s not this freedom of exploration. So I spend a lot of time just wondering, how do I feel creative? How do students feel creative? And it was really only on research that I felt really creative? So, how can I model research for students? So what I ultimately did was, I asked them, first of all, I didn’t tell them where we were going, cause there’s going to be a two-stage project centerpiece of this course. And first stage is you have to define something from geometry, but it can’t be like anything you’ve ever defined before. So one group defined, they called it like an ice cream cone shape. So it was a triangle with like a circle in it. And then we really worked on making their definition mathematically. So how does the triangle touch the circle, another group to defined a caterpillar shape in a precise way. And then the second part of the project, after they have their definition they couldn’t change was to discover as much about that object as they could. And they were only graded on how, on their journals, how much time they spent thinking about it, and how much they talk to other people. And I’m telling you, the ideas that these students had, and the level of mathematics that these totally math-phobic students did, was incredible. It was what I would expect from fourth-year students. And they were starting to use the word theorems and proofs. I said, you don’t have to prove anything, I just want you to like discover things, but they were coming to it naturally. And it was amazing. I could just gush about all the things that they did forever, like all of the discoveries that they made for themselves. And I still hear from these students about the impact that this project had from them, I don’t know, six or seven years ago now. So yeah, that’s one of my favorites. But at the time, I thought, Oh, this might go really poorly.

Rebecca: It’s amazing how the freedom to explore and discover can really open up the freedom to see yourself in a new way, or to be a researcher in a different way. As you were talking, I’m remembering an opportunity I had as an early faculty member workshop. And it was a multi-day workshop with mathematicians, and I was the non-mathematician, to help develop curriculum. And I had never hung out with math folks that much before. But it was really interesting. And we had really interesting conversations about creativity and the overlaps of our work that neither of us had recognized before. So it’s really interesting how those opportunities to have those conversations, whether with students or with colleagues can open up so many possibilities.

Sarah: Yeah, there’s so much and I’ve learned so much from my first year-students who are interested in some very diverse things, and they brought a lot to, like I was gonna say, my teaching, but like, also, just me personally, [LAUGHTER] I think they really enrich my life.

John: And you have taught some interesting classes, including a first-year seminar course in math and literature and poetry. And another one was women’s mathematics. Could you tell us a little bit about each of those classes and how you’ve used that to get students more engaged with math?

Sarah: Sure. So both of them are at the University of Toronto, I will probably do it as U of T at some point, which is not University of Texas for American listeners. And in part they were written to try to attract students who might not traditionally sign up for a math course, all of our first-year courses are massive at U of T, except for these first-year seminars, which are capped at, I think, 25. So really, students’ opportunity for a small class experience. So the math of literature and poetry, I think some of the seeds were planted, actually, by one of the students in that math creativity class. She was a poet, and she identified herself as a poet as a first-year student, and she was also very afraid of math, but she kept finding linkages. And she said, “You know, I think this can help me with my poetry.” And I am totally not a poetry person at all, or I certainly wasn’t, I’m maybe more now. And so that started to get me thinking about like, maybe if I combine math with like a poetry course, I could engage some other students. And she’s one of those students that I still talk to you and she just got her MFA in poetry and still using her math. So I talked to her actually, in developing this course. She helped me a little bit on the poetry side, also a key part in the math and literature and poetry is I had a TA from English because, again, I’m not a specialist. So I needed someone to help me and she was wonderful, a PhD student in literature. So I think another source of inspiration that was also integrated into it was that I had taught novels previously and seen how novels helped students relate to mathematicians or see themselves as mathematicians. I was just amazed at like how much empathy they had for the characters. So we read novels like about mathematicians, like the Housekeeper and the Professor, a really great Japanese novel in translation. And then there was mathematics from novels. So for example, one of our key novels, or a story, of the Library of Babel by Borges and you can actually ask, what is the shape of this library? What could the topology of it be in mathematical language? So then that was a key for investigating topology.

John: Was a library closed or open?

Sarah: Yeah, [LAUGHTER], exactly, that sort of question. We can start to narrow it down. So that was the math in literature and poetry course, in terms of content. The woman’s mathematics course is still kind of growing in my mind. It’s been in the works for a really long time. I just like us to center it almost like an experiential learning course, where the object of study was the university or like the mathematics in our university itself. And so as a result of both history and modern mathematics, and all sorts of things, I decided one of our units was going to be on data visualization, which is a little bit more number focus than I often have in first-year seminars, but people are often surprised that like Florence Nightingale was not just a friendly nurse, she was [LAUGHTER] an amazing data scientist. And she was really one of the first people to bring some of these amazing data visualizations, and she’s an amazing statistician, all these things. And there’s also a lot of women in this space currently. So their project was like, well take some data about the math department, maybe, or students in the math department and find an appropriate visualization for it. And they generated stuff that we really haven’t seen, like, what does it look like in our departments to have 13% woman faculty. You can say it all you want, but to actually see it with like the people, it is actually pretty startling to me. And then another project with that course, was we worked with a university archivist, and went into the university archives. So our university has a long and storied history, we hold ourselves up as a great research university. So we have many illustrious women in the past who have studied here, but people don’t know about them. And since I would say, we have a pretty bad situation with women in our department now, people kind of assume, after this archives project, I would go around and I would ask people, “When do you think the first woman president of the math student union was?” and people would say, “Oh, there’s never been a woman president. Like, are you kidding?” Because that’s the way it looks like now. But the answer is actually 1910 or something. And there were strong women, like way back when. And so students went to the University Archives, they looked at student records, they looked at faculty records, they looked at photos, and they told some stories from that. So that’s a project that’s gonna continue for a future class.

Rebecca: Sounds really interesting, and a great way to get students engaged with many different mathematical ideas, but also really engaged with this idea of identity related to disciplines.

Sarah: Yeah. And another thing that it did is it also helped them see themselves as part of the university because it was the first semester of the academic year, they were first-year students, and so it helped them see themselves as part of the community.

Rebecca: We don’t, in our curricula, look at the history of our university as part of what’s informing our work or informing the students. And so I can imagine that that’s a really unique kind of experience that could happen in any discipline, that would be a really interesting opportunity for students to just better understand their traditions that they’re coming out of.

Sarah: And I think our university archivist wants to work with classes, like they’re so excited to see, especially first year classes, get us to coming there and being part of that aspect of the university. I’m always a big fan of all of our librarians and I know that you guys are too,

Rebecca: You should see my notepad right now. It actually says “go see our archivist” because him and I had a conversation about a project we could do with my class. [LAUGHTER]

Sarah: Yeah, they’re wonderful.

John: Often, archivists are working in rooms all alone by themselves. And in fact, ours do work in the basement. And the opportunity to engage with students is good for them, as well as for students. That sounds like a really engaging project.

Rebecca: I’m ready to sign up for all of these classes. So I hope you have room.

Sarah: You are welcome to come and even speak and spread your wisdom, I would love that. [LAUGHTER]

John: Speaking of room… you also have taught some introductory calculus classes with up to 3000 students in them and you transformed them into an online environment along with a colleague during COVID. Could you tell us a little bit about how that course was structured and how it changed when you went to remote teaching?

Rebecca: It sounds so daunting.

Sarah: Oh, okay. So COVID for everyone has been really, really tough. And especially that I always have to go back and think what year was that? 2020 to 21 academic year…, everyone had it really, really tough. So we all like deserve, like hero badges or something, and I’m ready for a break. So I think we all need to catch up on our rest still from that. But I was fortunate because before the pandemic was on anyone’s radar, we had already arranged kind of a transition point in my job where I was going to be going from coordinating this gigantic introductory calculus class to not coordinating it. And the new coordinator, my colleague, Bernardo Galvao-Sousa, he was going to take over it. We were going to have a one year overlap, so he could kind of see how I did it and just like everything was gonna go normal and then he was gonna take over. So that overlap year was to be the 2020 to 21 academic year. So it was fortunate that we were both able to work on it, I don’t know how it would have happened otherwise. I had already been in a period of transforming this class, it had been basically the same from no one really knows, like, as far as anyone could remember, it had been the same. And I was basically brought on and hired at University of Toronto, to bring it to the 21st-century. So over the past three years before that, I had been changing it completely. And then, of course, we went online, which required it to be rethought because you can’t teach a course for 1000s of students the same way. So what was the course like before? Well, we have a lot of rules in our university for first-year courses, in that they have to have a midterm, they have to have a final exam worth a certain weight, there were three one-hour lectures a week, one one-hour tutorial, kind of the whole structure was pretty traditional. But I had been introducing some innovative projects, we were shaking things up in how we did them in tutorials. And the whole curriculum was really modernized. So I’ll give an example of one aspect of the course, the applied communication task, and how we transformed that aspect of the course, to put it online and still give students hopefully as good of an experiences as they could online. So applied communication tasks were this word project. So first semester, they were three separate projects, second semester it was one project, they were applied, and they were about mathematical communication. And I’m a big believer that I don’t really invent many new ideas, I just kind of like look at the needs of my students in my place and try to adapt things from elsewhere. So I had talked to every department that took my students after so this was like a calculus course for science students. And so they were going, the majority to life sciences, but they were also going to chemistry, they were going to physics, some are going to earth sciences. And then some are going to psychology and some at some other smaller departments, not smaller departments, but smaller portions are going to other departments. I guess economics was another big one. And I talked to them about like, what skills don’t students have that they should have from calculus? And one of the big themes was that students were afraid, they were just afraid to approach math in new context. So they could solve all the problems that were traditional, but they couldn’t if they saw a scientific paper, and there’s math, they were like, “I’m not familiar with this math, what do I do?” So I really took that as inspiration like, well, we should have students do that very thing. So as an aside, I put questions like that in exams, like, you know, take problems from scientific papers, give them information and put them on exams. But then also, in the second semester, have them find a scientific paper that has a mathematical model. And ultimately, the goal is to communicate something about that scientific model. Now, what form should that communication be in? Well, one common form that scientists use is a scientific poster. And the advantage of that is that it could be kind of an event, it can be kind of a grand finale for the course in tutorials. So we had a bunch of mini-poster sessions with about 100 students each. And so each of the posters presented models. They got into groups, kind of halfway through the semester, they combined some of their papers, but that took them through the experience of talking to a librarian and having to deal with databases. It got them through finding what’s important and what’s not. Well, I don’t understand… really this is way over my head in terms of math… what can I say from this model, and so all those skills like that, and then also the kind of communication. And it also combined oral communication where they have to talk about their poster and written communication, they had to write about their poster and they really worked on different drafts of different parts of their poster, and they have to read. First semester, the projects prepare them for that. They had a project that was focused on written communication, that was writing a proposal to their city council based on population projections from their hometown. They had a reading task and that’s changed a little bit over the years. So that’s what it was. What we did online is we basically kept the same projects, except instead of having the sprinkled in the tutorial, like every second or third tutorial was about the project, now we knew that they’re at home, they do not have any resources, any people around, we really need to make these be focused tutorial and make the structure very, very, very clear. Because otherwise, this really complex project is just gonna get completely confusing. We structured the first semester in that the first three tutorials were focused on writing. And the second three tutorials were focused on reading. And the third three tutorials were focused on oral communication. And then within that, the first tutorial had the same structure, the second tutorial had the same structure. And the third tutorial had the same structure. So they kind of had something much more predictable. And there was like a lot more evenness, and we didn’t try to give them as many skills as we did in the in-person, we cut down the expectations, we trimmed as much as possible. And then something similar in the second semester, we trimmed a lot, we focused a lot, we didn’t aim as high on the exams, in terms of all of those questions from scientific papers. We didn’t have exams, instead of exams, we had three different types of quizzes, the fun type was reflection quizzes, which had them reflect on their learning sometimes, or maybe conduct some sort of experiment at home, and then use that and make a model or something to like, go on a walk, this was in the deep COVID In the fall of 2020. And so like go on a walk, if you can’t go on a walk outside, go on a walk around your house and find something to model. So some people are modeling bird chirps or whatever. And then you create your own scientific models. And if you have two to three thousand students spread around the world, obviously, cheating is a huge concern. So we tried as much as possible to make it interesting. And for me, like, yes, academic integrity is big, but it was the perception of academic integrity amongst the students. Like we really wanted to keep them engaged.

John: So how did you assess and evaluate all those quizzes? Did you have a large team of TAs?

Sarah: We had very limited TA hours actually. So I think that’s another part of big course stuff that we don’t talk about a lot. It’s actually something I’ve been writing about, I’m just not sure where to send it because we don’t talk about it. It’s like management, like how do you manage a large organization? So we have about 50 people. How do you distribute your resources, and we have very limited resources. So we wanted to do these quizzes, we want to them very well, we have very few TAs and we still wanted TAs to teach tutorials. What are we gonna do? So what we ended up doing is redistributed our instructor resources. And normally students would be in classes of 200 in person. And we had them in classes of 400 online, because we figured the difference between an online class of 200 and an online class of 400 was not going to make a big difference. And technology, I can go into all the technological challenges. Now, the technology is all there. But August 2020, breakout rooms for this large of groups, impossible. So we had to do all these Zoom, and it’s crazy stuff. That’s how we managed is we had instructors who were like just in charge of quizzes. And that’s how we did it. And then every third quiz was kind of the automatically graded kind.

Rebecca: I think it’s important to bring up some of these logistics or project management skills the faculty have to have, especially when coordinating such big courses. And I appreciate that you’re sharing some of those things, because you’re right, we don’t talk about it. Just like we don’t talk about those same experiences that we have as young female faculty in the classroom or whatever kind of identities that impact our experiences.

Sarah: Exactly. Yeah. And both of these are the things that really keep me awake at night. It’s not the actual teaching, it’s the “How am I going to possibly grade?” [LAUGHTER] Or like, “How can I negotiate with my chair for more hours per students?” Or “What are you going to do with that one TA who’s behaving inappropriately with students?” It’s all of these extra things. Very, very, very different if you’re doing even a class to 500 versus a class of a few 1000 is quite different because you can’t see it all.

Rebecca: Yeah, managing an equitable experience is a really different kind of thing. It just keeps scaling up. So finding that equity piece is a challenge.

John: But it is impressive that you did those reflection quizzes at that scale, because that’s something I’ve wanted to do, but have been a little reluctant to do in a class of 400 that I teach in the fall. And now this is suggesting maybe I should do some of that. [LAUGHTER] Providing the feedback is the main concern that I have.

Sarah: Yeah, well, I think for gigantic classes. I don’t know however, we defined gigantic, like I guess gigantic versus the thing that you want to do. It’s often like what’s really the priority here and then what can you sacrifice, like, there’s always going to have to be a sacrifice. So I can’t provide the same feedback on a quiz to a group of 2,000 students as I can for a group of 20 students, or the classes that I had this year were in the low hundreds. And I can’t provide them the level of feedback that I had like on everything. But using peer feedback can be helpful, or just explaining to them, I can’t provide you feedback on this. If you want more feedback, you’re going to have to seek it, which is hard I know and not ideal. However, these are the things that we face, or just like deciding that the grading scale is going to be really generous and loose. I experimented this last semester in class of like 300-ish students with not ungrading, but more this [LAUGHTER] direction, letting them determine a lot more of their achievement levels, trusting them to say, “Oh, yes, I have mastered this actually.”

Rebecca: Well, now you’ve piqued our interest and we need to know more about it.

Sarah: Yeah, like, I’m still kind of thinking about how to describe it or characterize it because I started off with a structure. And then I really let the semester go on and adjusted as I saw my students change and as I changed myself. So I don’t have a lot of eloquent ways to discuss it. This is a upper-year course for group theory. And I wanted to do a lot of things that I just didn’t have the resources for. So I had to make a lot of tough decisions. And also, we are in a super grade-intensive university. And by the time they’re in like, third year, this is so ingrained in their mind. And this particular course has a very high percentage of international students, probably over 80% international students. And in my university, I think that they tend to be more concerned about grades because they have to be and somehow, just like not giving them grades on anything. [LAUGHTER] Like saying, “Okay, you’ve either mastered this, or you’re excellent on this, or you’re not there yet” was really difficult at first, a lot of them dropped the course immediately, because they didn’t understand it. They were like, “what percentage is this?” And I’m like, “Well, there is no percent.” “Well, is it 100?” I think they did not understand the concept of it at all. So I wanted to focus on oral skills, and oral skills are so hard to assess. But I want to give them the opportunity to develop their oral skills, I didn’t really want to assess them as much as I wanted to make sure that they were speaking about math and they were talking about math to other people. They could reattempt any assignment they wanted. So, they did a test, they could show me that they had actually learned the material on the test. But they had to talk to other people about it, they had to demonstrate they had spoken to other people, a lot of the main things like videos, and one group organized a mini conference on the topics for the weekend. They did a lot of amazing thing as a result of this. And the TAs provided very targeted feedback. So we’ve provided feedback on the skills that we knew students needed feedback on. So, they needed feedback on particular cognitive skills that they were not able to assess, like research has shown that they are not able to assess their own proofs, or students are not able to provide that same feedback. That’s what we assess. But we didn’t bother assessing things we didn’t care about.

Rebecca: It’s an interesting way of thinking about it. I know that I also was experimenting a little bit with ungrading this past semester, and also found that international students are the most like, “I don’t know what this means.”

Sarah: [LAUGHTER] Yeah, you have to just admit, sometimes, you don’t really understand it. Also a good opportunity for discussion for students, and talking about what that means when we don’t really understand.

Rebecca: Yeah, I think it’s good to model that.

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

Sarah: Well, I just submitted my tenure file two days ago.

Rebecca: YAY!

Sarah: So I need to catch up on a couple of things, but then rest. I have not had a good opportunity since the beginning [LAUGHTER] of the pandemic, so I think that that’s going to be my answer. Yeah. [LAUGHTER]

John: That sounds like a wonderful plan. [LAUGHTER]

Rebecca: And great advice for everybody listening. [LAUGHTER] We can all use a little rest.

Sarah: We all need that reminder.

John: And we should note that this is the first time that Rebecca and I have recorded in the same room since March of 2020. So this is sort of a return to normalcy for us.

Rebecca: Yeah. So it was nice to share this experience with you, Sarah.

Sarah: Yeah, it was so nice to talk to both of you and to see you together. [LAUGHTER] So, I know that listeners can’t see you, but I have enjoyed seeing you and speaking with you.

Rebecca: Well, thanks so much for joining us. Thank you


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

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