292. From Suarez’s Basement

Students often do not see themselves as having the potential to become the experts that will define their field. In this episode, Francisco Suarez joins us to discuss his podcast project which is designed to supplement class activities and to connect students with professionals. Francisco is an Assistant Professor of Communication Studies at SUNY Oswego and as the host of From Suarez’s Basement, a video podcast that was a recipient of the 2021 Communicator Award of Excellence by the Academy of Interactive and Visual Arts.

Show Notes


Rebecca: Students often do not see themselves as having the potential to become the experts that will define their field. In this episode, we discuss a podcast project designed to supplement class activities and to connect students with professionals.


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 Francisco Suarez. Francisco is an Assistant Professor of Communication Studies at SUNY Oswego and as the host of From Suarez’s Basement, a video podcast that was a recipient of the 2021 Communicator Award of Excellence by the Academy of Interactive and Visual Arts. Welcome, Francisco.

Francisco: Thank you for having me. This is awesome. I’m glad to be here.

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

Francisco: I’m drinking a delicious tea, it’s an imaginary tea. [LAUGHTER] I have this beautiful tea cup that I’m opening right now… sorry for the sound… that say Tea for Teaching, which is the name of the podcast. And yeah, having a delicious hot tea. [LAUGHTER]

John: And I am drinking a cranberry blood orange black tea from the Republic of Tea.

Rebecca: Oh, that sounds nice. I don’t think I’ve had that one. John,

John: We have plenty of it.

Rebecca: I’m sure I could stop buy and get some.

Francisco: How about you?

Rebecca: I have just an English breakfast today. I think. No. Yes. It’s been a long day already. Yeah, I think it’s Awake tea which, I think, it is English breakfast. It has a name called Awake, but it is technically an English breakfast tea. That was way more information than anybody needs.

John: We’ve invited you here to discuss your video podcast. Could you tell us a little bit about the focus of the podcast?

Francisco: Sure. First, thank you for having me. It’s always good to be between friends nd this is a very cozy environment actually. I have to say we’re having tea. Well, From Suarez’s Basement, you can imagine, [LAUGHTER] it was created in the basement of my house during the pandemic, I was trying to find something to do to don’t go crazy or make my family more crazy than we already were stuck at home and to put my creativity to work. So I decided to start a podcast that has to do with experts in the communication media and the arts, visual storytelling in specific because that’s what I love. And the idea was to create bridges between experts in those fields, and the audience, which is very much concentrating students and faculty. That doesn’t mean that the podcasts doesn’t have a general audience. So I started in the basement of my house, very small, like everything that we started with a small idea, and having grow very much, which I love it. And again, we have conversation with those experts that are working behind some of your favorite TV shows, or films, produced shows, artists, musicians, you name it, anybody who can bring me a good conversation, that’s where I’m interested in. You can sometimes have guests like me talk a lot or guests that don’t talk a lot… nothing… zero. But that’s how we start.

Rebecca: You mentioned that you started it during the pandemic to keep those around you from going crazy and yourself…

Francisco: Ah yes.

Rebecca: …not to go crazy. But clearly you had some other motivations…


Rebecca: …probably around students and things. Can you talk a little bit about that?

Francisco: Yeah, of course, the part ofnot going crazy is the joke part. The serious part about the podcast is that I believe very much in the interaction of my students with the professionals in the field. I’m in love with education, I’m in love with the process of mentoring the students. So to give this opportunity to students to have conversation with cinematographers and set design, costume design, you name it, was always the intention, to create this connection between the students and those experts. Because you know, the funny part… we all are professors here… a lot of our students in those chairs, and they never realize that that person that you admire so much was once sitting in that chair, too. They see us so far away. It’s like, “Oh, my God, I’m going to talk to the set designer of Bridgerton.” It’s like, “Wow, this is amazing,” like, “but this person was you in some point in life.” So if we can create that connection, I think, that’s what is the beauty of the podcast is to see the students realizing that that person or the other end is no much different than you. So the motivation is to really keep my students engaged and optimistic about the future, especially when the pandemic hit, I think, we all were not very optimistic. But students in general were like, “Okay, what is a career’s going to be? Where I’m going to find a job?” So I say, if these people that are actually working in this industry can give some kind of wisdom to the students, I think they will feel a little more better, then things will get better. So that’s how we start but again, little by little it grows. So it’s all about education, connection, networking, and created a sense of belonging to industry. That’s what I like.

Rebecca:I know one of the things that John and I experienced when we started this podcast is we started with some of our local colleagues and started branching out and then we were continuously surprised by how many people would agree to come on to share their experience and expertise. And you’ve had some really wonderful guests on your podcast. Can you talk a little bit about what that experience has been like?

Francisco: Yeah, it has been fantastic. I cannot say who is coming in season five, but now I’m just recording season five, and have this amazing conversation with a Grammy Award winning singer, and I’m like I cannot believe I’m talking to this person. But not only that is a conversation that makes it so special, truly, truly special. So how that happened is like everything right? It’s true. When I started my first guest, and all my guests are important, but what I’m saying were people that I knew: friends, professors from here, from SUNY Oswego, until I start getting the point where my first big guess was the production designer for Game of Thrones. She’s not only produced Game of Thrones, and a lot of other TV shows and movies, so she was a big deal. And because of her, then other people start following her. I think, and this is important, because the podcasts have an educational component to it, that makes a big difference. When I send the emails to the managers or the agents of these experts, I’m always very clear this is not about just gossiping. I don’t want to know if you broke up with your boyfriend, or whatever. This is about, I wanted to understand that this is an educational tool. And I think that educational component have allowed these very prestigious guests to say, “You know what, I can take 20, 25 minutes of my time, and be sure that I can contribute to the education of the listeners of the podcast. So little by little have been growing and as soon as you get kind of a big one then other ones start following. But like I say, for me, the titles, if you want to call it titles, or awards are not necessarily the attractive aspect. Is this guest someone who’s going to give me a good conversation, and that I’m going to learn something new from it. So you can have Oscar winners and Grammy winners and Emmy winners and all these stuff, but in fact, I’m not going to say who, but I was very excited about this guest, I was like, “Oh my god, this is awesome.” Oh my, it was so difficult [LAUGHTER]… dry, dry, like yes or no answers. In fact, at some point, I was doubting to air the podcast, because it really wasn’t too much there. But again, I say, “Well, it’s a big name like it will bring other people into the equation.” So I did air it, you can guess. What I’m saying is that you never know what you’re going to get. But the process of getting these prestige experts are getting easier because of the educational component of the podcast, and because now the list is getting better and better.

John: One of the things we found following up on this was that we had a few big guests as you did that brought in a much larger audience, but one thing that really amazed us was how many people would agree. I found it much more difficult to get some of our own faculty and the people we know to join than people we’ve never met. That surprised me quite a bit in terms of how many people agreed to be on it. Do you get a lot of positive responses?

Francisco: Yes and no. I sent around 20 email, from those 20 emails, I get around three. So that’s the average more or less. It takes me 20 emails to get three of the possible guests. And then it’s a back and forth between agent, a manager, and then time commitment. So it’s difficult in that sense. But I get around three from 20 emails that I send. And then from people that are my friends, and now that the podcast is growing, the other ones are like “I can be in your podcast, like I would love to talk about this and that. I found people from the UK that are big, big, big in their field, I just interviewed the director of Ted Lasso, which is one of my favorite shows right now. He’s from Ireland, actually, the sweetest guy ever. And he was so humble, so easy to talk. So for some reason, some people from the UK seems to be very approachable in compare with maybe some people here in the US where it’s like, “Oh, he doesn’t have the time or she doesn’t have the time or they don’t have the time,” like “email us in three months.” And I do. In three months I’m going to be emailing you. It’s cool to see students like “How professor? How? You say “because I told you nothing is impossible.” Like that is the point. If you ask this question to yourself, and I say this to a lot of my students that want advice, “What do I have to lose?” And the answer is probably nothing. I don’t understand why you will not do it. So I don’t have nothing to lose to send an email to Tom Hanks. What is I can’t get? No he’s too busy. Which probably he is. But you will be surprised. Maybe the guy is like, “Well, yeah, sure I come 20 minutes to talk to this crazy Latino guy.” I don’t know, but I don’t have nothing to lose. Right? And that is the beauty of it, when students see reflecting themselves into the process, that issue is not much that you can lose.

Rebecca: How have you used your podcast in teaching and within your department?

Francisco: The teaching aspect is that if you go to the website, which is fsbasement.com, we have there a tab that is called teaching resources. What I do is I record both, I record video and I record audio, in the two formats. Those videos are being used already by faculty members not only in my department, but outside of SUNY Oswego, which is also very excited when I get an email from a professor from NYU, or from USA, or any other university to say, “Hey, you know, I’m loving what you’re doing, I got to show your podcast about production design or set design in my Set Design class, because the amount of knowledge studies combined in those 30 minutes is amazing. It really is.” My goal is hopefully to write a book, not necessarily about podcasting, but about the knowledge absorbed to those… we are now season five, so we’re going to have already like sixty episodes already produced. But I ask, for example, one of the questions I asked to the guests, that is a common question is about perseverance and rejection. And it’s so good to hear so many different guests talking about how to deal with rejection, and what it means to persevere in an industry that you most have that in you. So is a lot of knowledge there that for me, I want to be sure that the podcast doesn’t end just with the first air of the podcast. So professors of any university can go to the website, go into the tab of teaching resources, and they can found by category… if you teach cinematography is a bunch of videos there with cinematography; if you teach set design, there’s a bunch of video of set design. So it allows easy access to these interviews that are more or less a short masterclass, I think is great.

John: Do you use assignments with your classes based on the podcast? And if so, what types of learning activities do you use?

Francisco: And in fact, if you go to that tab, not only i give you the video, but I give you already what you can do in your class. So it’s basically you go there, and you have a whole day of lecture where you can watch the video and then you say, “Okay, you can do these activities based in what the video is about it.” So if you go there, you not only have the video, but you have activities or questions related to the video. You can do kind of a short quiz of okay, what do you learn through these videos? So the questions that are already there. The actual episodes have the questions that we did in the episode. So if you are a professor and you’re looking for a specific question about how to build a set in the desert, you probably will find it there. And you just can use that piece of information for it. So each of the episodes have an assignment, put it that way. It is a lot of work, because we need to pull apart the episode and be sure that what is here, where were the questions, what kind of assignments we can do is some bit of work, but I love it. That’s exactly what the podcast is about.

Rebecca: Well with all those nice assets that you have going with the podcast, I imagine that’s why you’ve decided to do seasons…[LAUGHTER] to help manage that a little bit.

Francisco: Here’s the thing. The market is telling you, I want my podcast delivery very much at the same day, same time, with this timing periods. Our podcast is bi-weekly. So is every two weeks that come out. But having seasons allow me to say okay, we need to get a break. Normally the break is during the semester, because I’m too busy with other stuff. And then I use summer and part of the fall semester to do everything I have to do with production, post-production, and then I accumulate, let’s say around 12 episodes. I try of course, as information is no by any specific time. So we don’t talk about things that happen necessarily in a specific week or month or things like that. So I can air an episode six months later if I want. But yeah, I like it. I like to talk like you can see. [LAUGHTER] So it’s perfect for me. [LAUGHTER]

John: We’re still on our first season….

Rebecca: Yeah.

John: …and a very, very long season. We did have a break last summer, literally actually, when a car ran over my leg and broke it. So we took four weeks off for that.

Rebecca: ….first four weeks ever, John.

John: …the only time we’ve ever missed publishing an episode. It’s nice to be back on track. At times a break would be appealing…

Rebecca: Yeah.

John: …but it’s still fun, so we’re still doing it.

Rebecca: There was a design education podcast that I listen to a lot that, it wasn’t video, but it has a similar kind of feel to your podcasts that I used to use all the time when I was teaching our capstone class. And I’d pull out like portfolio ideas and application ideas and like collate little snippets from various things and students really responded to of hearing someone else say the same things that I would have said anyways.

Francisco: That is always the case, right? It’s crazy. It is. it is. Listen, is no easy job. But for me the hard part is not the production process, is more the breaking noise process. Because of digital era, we are very lucky to be sitting here and having a great conversation and for me podcasts is the new mass communication, a way for people to be able to express themselves. I always say it’s not about quantity. It’s about quality. He doesn’t matter if you have 200 listeners to 2000. As long as 200 listeners come to you every week, that’s what you’re looking for. But the issue is, because of the digital era, there’s so much noise out there, unbelievable amount of noise. So I think I spend more time sometimes not even producing and getting the guests and all this stuff, is how I’m guarantee these awesome interviews I have with any of my guests can reach where I want you to reach. So the whole TikTok, on Instagram, and is quite a lot. Because again, there’s a lot of noise out there. So you need to figure out what is the best way to reach your audience, for sure.

John: You talked a little bit about how these podcasts can be used in classes, how have students responded in your classes to the podcast.

Francisco: Very good, I think very good for two reasons. First, because again, the main goal of the podcast is to create a bridge between the experts and the students. And the actual episode brings so much knowledge to the students. But I do see it’s something very special when students see his own professor struggling with a project and putting the time and the effort in that project. It’s almost like I’m walking the walk, I think it’s how you say here, right?

Rebecca: Um hm.

Francisco: I think that creates a student sense of okay, this guy is also trying to get to a goal to a specific dream that I have. So I think that create a very interesting relationship with your students. I don’t talk about how you do your podcast in the sense of my own experience, but not only the sense of what the theoretical aspect, or academic aspect of the podcast is, but by my own experience. So that creates a different type of relationship with your students. But they have been reacting very well. I put them… I don’t overdo it, because I feel also like, “Okay, this guy is like so full of himself. Now, he wanted me to watch every single episode.” But when it’s an episode for example, in my screenwriting class there’s two episodes there that for me are gold. One is with the writer of Only Murders in the Building, he’s a-co creator and writer of it. And he explained very interestingly, how to write for a crime show and how it works. And then the other one was, he’s a creator and writer of Inside Number 9, which is a British show. She’s fantastic and he had been the reason for so many years. And he gave a lot of good, good information about character development, what it means to develop your character first before you develop your plot. So I use those episodes as an amazing way for them to be able to get that information from these experts. So then I test them the next day, they have like a short quiz about it, just to be sure that they really watch or listen to the podcast. So they have been reacting quite well. One of the assignments I’m doing in my screenwriting class is that they need to write an episode of Inside Number 9, based on what they learned from the actual creator of the show. And that worked really, really well. It’s very interesting to see what they write. The whole premise of the show is episodical, so it means each episode is a different story. So they don’t match. But one of the things about the show is that it always takes place in one specific location. So there is no switching location. So it can be Inside Number 9 can be inside warehouse number nine, or inside aeroplane number nine. So all the plots take place inside that space, and that’s very difficult to do. [LAUGHTER] And they are brilliant. The stories are fantastic, so I 100% recommend that. What are you watching these days?

Rebecca: I don’t want much watch TV. [LAUGHTER] Not a good conversation. I don’t watch much TV. [LAUGHTER]

John: I don’t either, but Only Murders in the Building was a really good show.


Francisco: It was amazing.

John: I’m looking forward to the third season.

Francisco: Yeah, I’m very looking forward to it too. It’s very well written.

John: Meryl Streep is going to be on the third season.

Francisco: Yeah.

Rebecca: If the target audience isn’t like five year olds. I’m not watching it, you know. [LAUGHTER]

John: It might work very well work, hough, because you’ve got Steve Martin there and you have….

Francisco: Martin Short. Yes, yes, and Selena Gomez, which has been a revelation to me how good of an actor she is. But also love to see her interacting with these more mature actors. And it’s a great, great show. I am a TV junker because, well, first, that’s what I teach. [LAUGHTER] But I watch from reality TV to, you name it. And the beauty of it is that streaming media have allowed openness of storytelling that we didn’t have before. Maybe a little oversaturated at this point, but it still, I think, is in for our students here how at SUNY-Oswego or any students who want to pursue storytelling it’s a fantastic time because 20 years ago, maybe, the hallway was very narrow. You go to NBC, CBS, the regular networks. Now it’s like hunting season all these…Apple TV and Hulu are looking for new content and that allow our students who want to pursue that to have a better opportunity to tell the stories that we didn’t have before.

Rebecca: It’s certainly an exciting time to be in that field.

Francisco: It is, it is. I watch a lot of things and sometimes, I’m amazed. So much like washing many films, the production value. Well, Game of Thrones is a good example of a brilliant production design where I always say, in order for you to have a good visual storytelling, you need three aspects: good writing, good acting, and good production value. If one of those three aspects are no present fully in their full potential, you lost me as an audience. So writing, I started watching shows where something’s like, “Man, this is bad writing,” like the way their characters are talking feel very cheesy. Then acting, well, we know what acting does, right? You can really have a beautiful script. But if I don’t believe that you are rocking hard, oh, I’m out. And then production design, I’d say, “Well, if the dragon doesn’t like a dragon, I’m out.” So it’s the combination of those three things. And I think what I tried to teach in my classes is that… depends on the class, right? …if you are in the screenwriting class, you are concentrated in the screenwriting aspect, but if you are in the video production, isn’t only about how to frame, isn’t only about how to shoot, it’s the production value. And I love when students get out of their dorms because I say “I don’t want to see the lake, please don’t show me the lake, I see the lake too many times at this point and try to film your stuff outside your dorm room, so you feel real.” So of course, they need to work harder. And they need to go to downtown to a diner and ask for permission to record a dating scene in the diner and I say, “Well, that makes a huge difference.” It’s not the same to record a dating scene in Lake Effect Cafe here on campus grounds, going to an actual diner create a different reality. So anyway, that’s my approach. But that’s what I love so much watching TV to actually peek in those things.

Rebecca: Yeah, I can imagine students really digging the idea of getting to hear from a writer or a producer or a set designer, and then doing a project based on what they’re saying. Because it does provide that frame for something that feels real…

Francisco: Yes.

Rebecca: …and not forced, which I think a lot of students struggle with.

Francisco: Yeah, the other thing that I think is important is that I try to have co-hosts in the show. And I invite students to be part of the co-hosting, because they bring a completely different perspective. I could have my very fancy intelligent questions, I guess, but the students really have all the questions… actually sometimes surprised me. it’s like, “Wow, this is such a good question.” So bringing students is really important for me to have those co-hosts. And the beauty of it is, I do have three examples at this point, of students who have been co-hosting my shows, and these three students are now working for the guests, because that relationship is established because the guest was so impressed so impressed with the questions and the maturity of the co-host. I love it when someone says “Professor Suarez, you’re not going to believe it, I’m going to do an internship with blah, blah, blah. And then they call me and say “By the way, I’m actually not working full time as an editor. I have a student who’s doing a first set design called a set design assistant for some shows in NBC. But that bridge was because of the podcast. And that’s what it’s all about. In the website actually is the final tab of the website is something called mentoring program where students can sign up… somebody who is looking for a mentor. But also my guests can sign as a mentoree, so they can actually dedicate 40 minutes of a student meeting with some of these students. So it’s all about creating this community. And you’re a good example, the podcast is just a tip of the iceberg. It’s just a sense of communication. But it’s about creating a community of people who love education, who are in education and academia. And so I think that sense of community is very important for me.

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

Francisco: What is next? That is a great question. I want to find other platforms to distribution of the podcast. That is very important to me. So more people that I can reach the better. I think that’s a goal we all podcasts have. Not for the sense of the quantity again is for the sense of the quality. Now, From Suarez’s Basement is a PBS WCNY radio station, which is great because it’s giving a huge platform of people listening to it. Of course, it’s in their regular Apple podcasts and Spotify, and those kind of regular things. But I would like to see if I can get all the kind of distribution, especially the visual aspect of it, to see if we can put those videos to work in another way. But more than that, my aspirations is to be persistent, to keep going. I think that is important. I think that this project, in the specific, are teaching me that if you put in the hard work and you keep going, it get back to you. And I think students in this day, or this generation in general, we are living in a time where immediate gratification is all about you post something, and you get 200 likes in two seconds. So they feel like, “Oh, if I don’t get 200 likes, or if I don’t get 200 followers, or I’m going to drop this, this doesn’t work.” And then I’m saying, “Oh, actually, that’s not how it works.” When you say what is next is to remind myself that this is a long trip. And I’m willing to go into that trip and see what cool things come on my way, awards or new guests or being here with you guys. But, what I what is next? I’m not sure. Hopefully, again, reach more audience and the podcast is used more and more by other universities. And the book, I want to write a book, again, not necessarily about how to podcast. There’s so many books already out there about podcasting and what kind of equipment do you need. I want a book that brings the experience of these experts into a text that, if you read it, you can learn very much from these interviews, for sure.

Rebecca: Well, thanks so much for sharing this great project with us.

Francisco: No, thank you for having me. This is fantastic. And I’m loving my imaginary tea here. [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.


291. Navigating Teaching Inequities

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

Show Notes

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


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


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

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

John: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer…

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


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

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

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

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

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

Rebecca: Oh, that sounds so delightful.

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

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

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

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

Chavella: Oooh. [LAUGHTER]

John: Very nice.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

CHVELLA: Yes, absolutely.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rebecca: I like that strategy.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

John: Joy is good.

Chavella: Absolutely.

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

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

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

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

Rebecca: It’s always our pleasure.


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

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


289. The Cognition-Motivation Connection

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

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

Show Notes

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


John: Emotions can have both positive and negative impacts on learning. In this episode, we explore the relationships that exist between emotions and learning.


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

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

John: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer…

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

John: …which is much more colorful.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Michelle: Fascinating stuff from across the disciplines.

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

Rebecca: …motivate them to struggle? [LAUGHTER]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Michelle: Oh, wonderful.

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

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

Rebecca: That pile keeps growing.

Michelle: Yes, it does.

Rebecca: Better add on another week. [LAUGHTER]

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

Rebecca: Right? Yeah.

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

Michelle: Oh, my pleasure, you as well.

Rebecca: Thanks, Michelle.


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

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


284. Learning That Matters

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

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

Show Notes

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


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


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

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

John: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer…

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


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

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

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

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

John: Julia?

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

Rebecca: …there’s always one ,Julia.

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

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

John: I haven’t seen that one.

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

John: And Caralyn?

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

John: Wonderful.

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

John: And I have Darjeeling tea today.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cynthia: Absolutely.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rebecca: Those are all really good points.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rebecca: It would be a lot easier.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Caralyn: Thank you.

JULIA: Thank you.

Karynne: Thank you


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

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


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.


280. Professors at Play

Young children are innately curious and enjoy learning about their world. Our school systems, though, often take the fun out of learning. In this episode, Lisa Forbes and David Thomas join us to discuss how faculty can use playful activities to make learning fun for both students and instructors.

Lisa is an Assistant Clinical Professor in the Counseling Program at the University of Colorado Denver.  She is a Licensed Professional Counselor and a Registered Play Therapist. Her research focuses on intensive mothering practices, gender conformity, mental health, and play and fun in teaching and learning. David is the Executive Director of Online Programs at the University of Denver and Assistant Professor Attendant in the Department of Architecture at the University of Colorado Denver. His research focuses around fun, fun objects, and the meaning of play. He is the author of numerous columns and articles on video games and, with John Sharp as co-author, of Fun, Taste and Games. Lisa and David are the co-editors of The Professors at Play PlayBook, an anthology of almost 100 play techniques developed by over 65 professors.

Show Notes


John: Young children are innately curious and enjoy learning about their world. Our school systems, though, often take the fun out of learning. In this episode, we discuss how faculty can use playful activities to make learning fun for both students and instructors.


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 Lisa Forbes and David Thomas. Lisa is an Assistant Clinical Professor in the Counseling Program at the University of Colorado Denver. She is a Licensed Professional Counselor and a Registered Play Therapist. Her research focuses on intensive mothering practices, gender conformity, mental health, and play and fun in teaching and learning. David is the Executive Director of Online Programs at the University of Denver and Assistant Professor Attendant in the Department of Architecture at the University of Colorado Denver. His research focuses around fun, fun objects, and the meaning of play. He is the author of numerous columns and articles on video games and, with John Sharp as co-author, of Fun, Taste and Games. Lisa and David are the co-editors of The Professors at Play PlayBook, an anthology of almost 100 play techniques developed by over 65 professors. Welcome.

David: Hey, thanks. Happy to be here.

Lisa: Yeah, we’re excited. Thanks for having us.

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

Lisa: Not at this exact moment. But yesterday, I had a nice Earl Grey. I prefer the fruit note teas, but they tend to not have as much caffeine, so I go with heavier ones for that. [LAUGHTER]

Rebecca: Fair. How about you, David?

David: I dug out some tea I got for Christmas. And so it’s a rooibos chai. And I’m drinking it out of my friend’s video game company mug. So I think that’s more playful.

Rebecca: I think it’s completely 100% appropriate for this episode. How are you, John?

John: I am drinking just a simple Twinings English breakfast tea, in a Tea for Teaching mug given to us by our former graduate student, who we very deeply miss.

Rebecca: And I have a highly caffeinated [LAUGHTER] Scottish Breakfast tea in my Pantone mug.

David: I like that. What color is your Pantone mug?

Rebecca: Number 630. It’s a nice teal color.

John:Iis that this year’s color?

Rebecca: No, this is from a dear friend with whom we like to design play. So it was gift from her.

John: So it’s topical. So we’ve invited you here to discuss the Professors at Play Playbook. How did you get started on this project?

Lisa: So we started professors at play in 2020. And we thought there were like three people interested in play and learning. So we started a listserv with them. I wrote an article and mentioned the listserv, and all of a sudden we have hundreds of people. And we found that over time, people kept saying, “Can you give us an example? Can you tell us what this looks like?” And David and I do play in our teaching, but we don’t think we’re like the end all, be all experts of this. So we thought, “Well, why don’t we ask our community to share a bunch of ideas and things they’re doing in the classroom, we can put it into a book and share that, because that might be more well rounded than just our ideas.” So we did that. We thought it was going to be this small thing, it blew up. It’s 250 pages. And it turned out really good. So I think it’s just something that we had been kind of asked for, and so we created it.

David: There’s something I want to add about the Playbook is when we started doing Professors at Play, we were really just trying to say to people, “Hey, it’s okay to play,” you know, just give people permission to play and share ideas and encourage each other. And we kept getting asked for techniques and techniques seemed to be the wrong end of the animal to eat. But I think, in retrospect, you realize it was like, we were a bunch of inventive chefs that were together, kind of trading ingredients and ideas. And there were a lot of people that were like, “That looks really cool. We don’t know how to cook.” And so people needed a cookbook. And so in a way, I think of the Playbook as almost like a Julia Child cookbook. Yes, it’s full of recipes. But the recipes are really there to help inspire your creativity, rather than just be like, “Here’s your meal plan for the next semester.” And I think that the book really helps to get to that through a lot of different ways.

Rebecca: Sometimes people don’t see what’s possible until they have some examples in front of them.

David: I think the thing that we wanted to really point out as important to us about the Playbook is it really isn’t prescriptive. It isn’t like “This is how you do play.” It really is meant to inspire people, to show examples, to get people to be like, “Hey, there’s a cool technique that I could maybe build upon, elaborate, or deconstruct in my own class.” And there’s a lot of content in the book that isn’t specific to techniques. There’s a lot of structure around: “How does play work? How does it function? Why is it functional? A little bit of the research.” So in that sense, it really is a book of inspiration, as much as it is a book of blueprints.

John: So it allows professors to be playful with the activities that are there. How did you find your contributors? You mentioned starting off with a small listserv, how did it expand to the level that it’s become?

Lisa: We started out with just a few people that we had heard of and had a meeting with just to see what they were doing. And then I wrote two articles for the Faculty Focus, and just mentioned our listserv and put information about how to sign up and it was like, over a week or two, hundreds of people kept coming out of the woodwork. Right now. I think we have like 750 members of our listserv. So I think that’s kind of the initial burst. And then I think word of mouth. We get a lot of people saying I heard about this from a colleague or this was mentioned in a conference I just went to. So it’s slowly getting out there. there, but there’s way more people interested in this than we initially thought, we thought we were like the only ones or not. There’s people that have been doing this. But I think we’ve just found a way to connect people.

David: And when we wanted to do the playbook, all we did is just ask that community, “Hey, send us your techniques.” And honestly, if we would have kept the call open longer, the book would have been longer, that’s all.

Rebecca: I’m curious about the wide range of disciplines represented, not only by the two editors, but also by the contributors. Can you talk a little bit about what you discovered about how many different kinds of people from different disciplines are involved?

Lisa: Well, I think that’s a common question is like, “Oh, playful pedagogy. That’s cool for like, elementary ed teachers, but I teach a serious discipline. I teach law, I teach medical students, I teach mental health counseling, it’s too serious for play.” But we have people from, I don’t know how many different disciplines, mental health counseling, dentistry, medical teachers, law teachers, just from everywhere. So I love that there’s such an eclectic collection, because people can see, “Oh, you can do this in any discipline, and it’s not just for the people who already are allowed to have fun in their classes anyway, because it’s not as serious as mine.” So I think that’s one of the big strengths.

David: Yeah, play isn’t just for art teachers.

John: What could be more fun than just learning economics with all those graphs and equations and things.

Lisa: A lot of things. [LAUGHTER]

John: Oddly enough, some students would tend to agree with that.

David: Exactly. The medical profession… I mean you have some stuff in there from some nursing faculty, some stuff in there from veterinarian science. And I love that. I mean, these are literally people that work in life and death, and they have room for play. So come on economics, come on, engineers, loosen up a little bit.

Rebecca: One of the things that I always think about related to play is it’s highly tied to creativity, and moving our disciplines, if we’re not kind of playing with the ideas within our disciplines, we kind of stay stagnant. I know I’ve recently had a lot of conversations with my students who are in design, someplace where you would think creativity is flourishing, and play would be flourishing, but it isn’t always, and sometimes they feel really stagnated in their creative ideas and don’t have strategies for getting there. And the one thing that we’ve been talking about in the first few weeks of the semester is finding room for play and being playful around what they’re doing. They’re not resistant to the idea of play, but they haven’t gone there on their own, because they’re so afraid of being perfect all the time, or needing to be perfect. What has motivated, in your conversations through your listserv and things, for people to kind of move towards play.

David: I think there’s two things really, in my mind, and I’ll talk about one and then Lisa is the expert on the other. The first thing is that I think people move toward play because it’s just delightful. The idea of not doing another lecture, the idea of your students not looking at their phones, the idea of not reading another rote term paper or reviewing another rote studio assignment, it turns you on as a teacher. And so, sometimes just to mix up your own life, you just do it because you want to be playful. And I think that that’s probably the purest and most wonderful motivating factor to become a professor of play, but then I’d hand it over to Lisa, because she’s done some very excellent research in unlocking the underlying educational and psychological factors that actually anchor play in all of learning science. And so Lisa, if you could pick that up.

Lisa: Well, I think you’re talking about the process that ensues when you use play in learning. So I’ll talk about that. But also, I want to go back to challenging status quos. I think play does that really well. So I’ll say those two things remind me if I forget the other one. So I did some research on students’ experiences of play and learning. And what I gathered was, when there’s play, there’s joy, excitement, laughter. When those things happen, there’s a sense of relational safety in the room. And so people get connected, they feel a sense of belonging, they feel safe. trust develops. At the same time, it reduces students’ barriers to learning. So they come in stressed about the class or just they had a stressful day, they have fear in learning, they feel like they have to be perfect. And so when play is involved, it takes people’s defenses down. And then when that happens, people are more willing to be engaged. And so they’re invested in the process, they feel connected, they’ll engage in the learning, and they’ll take risks. You can give more critical feedback, actually, when you have that positive relationship. They don’t feel as tense or like, “Oh, I have to get it right. I can’t mess up.” It’s just like a more level environment when play is involved and play is hands on. And so they’re doing instead of listening and taking notes. And so they said, as a result of that, their learning was more memorable, personal, engaging. So it’s just this really powerful process that happens. The other thing, I think, is traditional education from K to graduate school is very rigid, I think overly rigid, overly serious sometimes. It creates fear, there’s hierarchy. Students are doing things to earn a grade, to not fail, and it If we look at what our students are going into into their professions, it doesn’t match. What we’re having students do in higher education isn’t developing, a lot of times, the skills they need in their profession. So like I’m mental health counseling, if I lecture at my students, they have to memorize information, take multiple choice exams, write APA style essays. That doesn’t help them in their career. And so I think play is a way to challenge some of those status quos, and think about doing things differently, more effectively, more in line with what people will be doing. And I think that piece you were talking about earlier is like the creativity. If we let people try things and mess up and fail and play, we’re going to be more creative. And when we’re more creative, we’re going to be more effective in our jobs, in the future careers. So I think a lot of ways in higher education, we’re doing our students a disservice. And so I think play is a way to challenge that.

David: So, to wrap it up, so why play? Thing one is because it’s fun. Thing two, is because it’s effective. What more do you need?

Rebecca: It’s a great summary. [LAUGHTER]

John: Do students ever come with some resistance, expecting to be lectured at and expecting those multiple choice exams, and not quite comfortable with an environment where they place themselves more at risk?

Lisa: Absolutely. In my study, I looked at students’ experiences. They said that exactly. I did like a pre-journal and then a post-. And in their pre-journals, they’re like, “Yeah, I’m skeptical. I don’t like this play thing in graduate student learning. How are you going to get students up and playing? I’m not sure.” And then their post journals were like, “Yeah, I was skeptical. But actually, I learned more than I did in other classes, or this was way more engaging.” So I think there is some resistance at first, just because, if you think about from, unfortunately, kindergarten through graduate school, they’re told: “Sit and listen, take these tests. I’m the expert here teaching you what you need to know.” And so their brains are just not formed in a way to be comfortable with that. It’s actually easier just to sit and listen and take notes, but I don’t think you learn as well. So I’ve seen a lot of student resistance. But once they do it, they realize how fun it is and how connected they feel, and how much more they learned. So I think they get bought in. But at the start of every semester, I have to say to people, “Hey, I use a playful pedagogy. Here’s what that means. Here’s why I do it. So expect this.” So I think just giving them a little bit of autonomy and understanding of what you’re getting into has helped.

Rebecca: Can you talk a little bit Lisa, I heard you mentioned graduate education, mental health counseling, and I can imagine many skeptical individuals, not just the students in your class… can you help us understand what that looks like in your classroom, just to demonstrate how play can be in a lot of spaces.

Lisa: Right, so I use play in different ways. And in our book, we talk about this pyramid of play. So me, myself, am playful. And so I’m not this overly serious, rigid, intimidat…. well, some people think I’m intimidating, but I don’t get that. But I’m playful, and I’m human. And so I think that’s part of it, is just creating a warm, safe, comfortable environment for people drops their defenses, they’re more connected. The other part of it is icebreakers, we call them connection formers, even when they have no relation to the learning, we’ll do some silly thing at the start of class. And the whole point is to reduce defenses, get people laughing, get those positive neurotransmitters in their brains firing, because that sets the stage and creates a certain environment for the learning to take place. So I think a lot of people don’t do those silly things at the start of class. And it can be three minutes or 15 minutes. But I really do those things for a purpose. And then the other part of it is bringing play elements of games and game design into my teaching. And so there’s a book called Giraffes Can’t Dance. That’s about Gerald and he’s a Giraffe and he can’t dance like the other African animals. And he gets made fun of and he thinks he’s a clot and can’t do anything. Right. So this is a perfect mental health case study. So I read the students this children’s book, like adult students, like 30 year olds, and then I created a client profile based on real facts about giraffes, about why they would need counseling. And so like it’s novel, it’s more playful, students engage more, because it’s not the expected, like they expect Sally Jo, client, and so they engage more. But also, that’s not real. Nobody’s ever counseled a giraffe before. So it allows them to step outside reality and have less pressure and like the right way to do it and think more creatively. So it’s still learning everything they need to learn. They apply their theoretical lenses, they create a treatment plan for this client. So it’s fun and playful, but it’s also in line with real learning what they need to do. So there’s a lot of examples of what I do. We do games, instead of giving them this handout fully completed. I give them the handout blank, and then they have to fill it in. And it’s a game and they have eight minutes to do it. And they’re racing against each other, racing against the clock. So there’s a lot of different ways that you could teach content, just in a more playful way, rather than like, “I’m going to lecture 300 slides at you in three hours,” …and they’re bored out of their minds. So there’s just so many different ways.

John: This reminds me a little bit about a podcast episode we had, it was one of our early ones. And it was about Rebecca’s use of a similar situation in her class that involved the three little pigs. And for a long time, it was our most popular episode. And there was very little discussion of the Three Little Pigs. But I could imagine people seeing this thing pop up on a podcast list and playing it with their kids while they were driving to some destination and being very disappointed in what was actually discussed, although it was very interesting material…

Rebecca: Yeah, I was like, “Thanks, John.” [LAUGHTER]

John: … it might not appeal very well, to a three-year old, let’s say. You mentioned connection-forming or icebreaker activities, Could either of you give us an example of a connection-forming activity that you might use to help get the class started.

David: I can throw one out, it’s so, so simple. And it’s something that I did over Zoom with a bunch of architecture students and it’s kind of a weekend or whatever, and there’s a little web game called Draw a Perfect Circle, and you use your mouse when you try to draw a circle, and it scores you. So I get a Zoom room full of architecture students trying to draw a perfect circle, which is almost impossible to do under the best of circumstances, and I make them turn their mics on, and the shouts of joy and the cries of frustration, it’s so freakin’ funny. And it really is a connection former, it’s kinda like the class succeeding and failing together. And it’s absurd. And I bring that up, because it’s so low effort: go to this website, play this game for a minute. Oh, by the way, I’m going to give a prize to whoever gets the highest score. Easy as can be, achieve everything Lisa was talking about in the value of a connection former.

Lisa: Yeah, there’s those ones that take two minutes, three minutes. So if you have a ton of content, you can still do something playful at the start of class. I made one called wacky questions, and I came up with various wacky questions, I put them on note cards, put them all facedown on a desk. And then I pass out sticky hands, you know, those children’s toys, it’s like a hand with a long string. I pass those out. And one by one, they have to come up to the front of the room and take their sticky hand and slap a card. And whatever one comes back on the sticky hand, they have to read an answer in front of the class. And the questions are like, “Name everything you’ve done in a sink. [LAUGHTER] Create a rant about why carrots make no sense. If you could send a subliminal message to all the squirrels at once, what would the message be and describe the scene of the aftermath?” …like things that are just silly, wacky, but students are laughing so hard. And it’s a way to kind of get to know each other because they also introduce themselves, and just start class with something fun. And then people are more relaxed to get into it. Our book has a ton of examples of this. But those are just a couple.

Rebecca: So, the other day in my class, we did the equivalent of refrigerator poetry, [LAUGHTER] just virtually, but they all contributed words, and then we had to use the words that other people contributed.

David: That’s great. Yeah, it’s just anything playful. I mean, this is where, again, we would go back to the idea that the playbook, it is recipes, but they’re all deconstructible. I mean, you find something that sounds funny and give it a try. And connection formers are the gateway drug to classroom play, because they’re easy. I mean, people kind of know, “Oh, we can do something fun at the beginning of class.” They kind of tolerate things that don’t work as well. But here’s the best part, last summer, I was teaching a class twice a week, eight weeks, and I don’t know, around week five, or whatever, I’m probably running out of steam. And I forgot to do the opening connection former. And I start to lecture and the students are like, “Whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa, where’s our fun activity?” They were not allowing me to start class without doing something playful. And they had never, up until that point, expressed an opinion pro or con about it. But in fact, they love these things. And so they held me accountable, which was awesome.

Rebecca: So that’s on the small scale. Now, if we think about the opposite scale, like with course design, can you talk about some ways that people have been playful about course design?

David: One that we mention in the book, and was the speaker at one of our early playposiums. There’s a professor at my university, University of Denver, Roberto Corrada. And Roberto teaches organizational law. And it’s basically the administration of governmental entities and the creation of administrative law that goes with that. I can’t imagine there’s a more dry subject. So Roberto decided many years ago that he would teach the class at least sometimes this way, the first day of class, he assigns them Michael Crichton’s Jurassic Park, the book. They must read the book, whether they want to or not, and then the remainder of the class is that they have to write policy on the regulation of extinct animal parts. And now, all of a sudden I’m in, I’m so interested. He says this touches every aspect of law, OSHA, international trade law, and I’m like, “That’s brilliant. It’s just brilliant.” So that has become one of our go to cases because it’s an area that sounds boring. It’s in an area that sounds that it couldn’t be playful. And it was just done so comprehensively. And his reports are some of the students are very resistant to it at first, because they’re serious law students. He says by the end of it, they’re turning in 40, 50, 100 Page legal briefs on the regulation of extinct animal parks.

Rebecca: That sounds really fun.

David: It does. It’s the word.

Rebecca: I’m in.

David: It’s fun.

John: I could imagine some professors not really being all that comfortable doing this. Are there some professors where this might not work as well?

Lisa: Yeah, I think for a lot of reasons, I think personal comfort, personal preference, personal tastes , some people are just more serious than others, like, I’m not a very serious person. So when I entered academia, I’m like, “I’m not gonna last here, I don’t like being this type of person.” So once I figured out learning could be more playful, and I can be more playful, it aligned with who I am. But I know not all people are playful at their nature, in their core. So I think there’s part of that, I think it’s like certain identities that we hold, some are allowed to be more playful than others, like I’m a younger, female, non tenure-track professor, so it would be different for a potentially older white male who’s tenured, like, there’s more leeway, I think, for that person to try some of these things in their teaching. Whereas for me, it might feel a little more risky, because people generally don’t take me as seriously anyway. I don’t have tenure. I’m not on a tenure track right now. So I think there’s some of that that contributes to it. And I think it’s like our societal norms of adulthood, and academia. You’re a serious adult, you should be serious. So I think if somebody’s inclined to be playful, and they’re going to get into this, it’s really challenging some of those norms and status quos and trying something that maybe is against what you’ve been told you should be or how you should teach. So I do think it’s a exercise in creativity, but also rebellion at times. And the thing is, we all don’t have to be the same playful professor, it’s going to look different. There’s gonna be different levels. Maybe you do an icebreaker, but then you go into your usual teaching, Roberto designed his whole course on this premise of play. So I think there’s different ways it can look, which I think is good, not everyone has to do it the same way.

David: And I’d flip that question a little bit and say, “There’s so much learning science that would say there’s so many great ways to teach. Why do we still have professors walking in lecturing and doing multiple choice exams?” The answer is status quo. The answer is lazy. The answer is bad incentives. The answer is black, shriveled hearts. I don’t know. When we talk about play as being kind of a playvolution or revolution or rebellion, we’re not just talking about play. We’re talking about re-energizing teaching, making learning fun and exciting, but making teaching fun and exciting again, and honestly, I love seeing students light up. But more and more, what really gets me excited is watching professors get engaged in this approach, and coming back and being so excited again, about their teaching. And to me, it starts there, because an excited teacher is a blessing to students. And so it’s not just techniques. It’s not just some sort of like, hey, let’s put on party hats and be silly. It’s about falling back in love with teaching.

Lisa: And I was like, I’m not going to be in this job very long, because it doesn’t align with me until I started doing playful pedagogy. And people will say, “Well, doesn’t that take a lot of time?” And I’m like, “Yes, but it’s more fun, and then it makes me eager to plan the next class.” Like I recorded myself as a Martian. And I gave my students this Martian mission. And they had to like put their self in a different perspective and come back and give me a two to three sentence theory about whatever we were learning that day. And that video took me a couple hours to create, it would have been easier just to type discussion questions on a piece of paper. But it was so much fun creating the video, I was cracking up the whole time. When I show it to students, I’m laughing while it’s playing. Because I have kids at home and they show their friends this video. They think it’s so funny. So it’s just more joyful. I think for the longevity of my career… sure, some of this stuff takes more time… but I’m going to enjoy what I’m doing more, and that’s worth it to me.

Rebecca: Before we started recording, we were having a conversation about wanting to make sure it’s fun for you first as an instructor, and I was sharing that we had done some of these really playful things in my department over time, and they’ve just fizzled out over time, in part because of various demands on our time. And I think maybe it just became more of a status quo, because we were doing it and then it’s like, “Okay, now we need to come up with a new way to have fun or new fun.”

David: And that’s where we would suggest strongly you’d need a cohort of playful professors. You need a play buddy. You basically need someone to be like “You’re not having enough fun.” You need someone to bounce ideas off of. You need someone to tell you your terrible ideas aren’t as terrible as you think they are. And it is tough because, left to your own devices, sooner or later, you’re late for work, the coffee’s weak, you just want to get through the day. Hello lecture, my old friend, you know, but we’re trying to say that’s really not a way to lead a life as a teacher.

Lisa: Yeah, I think that’s key, is the social support, having playful people that you can brainstorm with, bounce ideas off. David’s my playful person. And so I have an idea for class and I tell him about it, like the wacky questions one I told you about the sticky hands, I told him about this idea and I went into class and I was getting all sweaty, because I was nervous to do it… like this was when I was just starting playful pedagogy. And I’m like, the students are gonna hate it, it’s gonna go awful, it’s gonna be weird. And then I was like, I just won’t do it. And then I was in my head, I’m like, David’s going to ask me, after this class, how it went, so I have to do it. So I did it, it went amazing. But without him as my playful person, or I don’t know, he keeps me honest about what I’m doing and making sure I’m doing it, I think I’m more likely to keep doing it. So without him, I’d probably just fall back into old ways.

John: We know that students don’t spend a lot of time reading textbooks and so forth outside of class. And they don’t really spend a lot of time working through taking practice quizzes and such things. But it’s pretty easy to observe people spending hours, days, or weeks working through various games that have the same sort of elements we’d like to build into our teaching. How does this affect student motivation to learn?

Lisa: Well, I think like I described earlier, if you’re a human, you make class fun, engaging, connected, a sense of belonging, they’re going to be more motivated anyway, they feel more connected to you and just eager to, not please you, but just more responsible with their work, I would say. So I think there’s that relational part of it. But also, my students know, you’re not just gonna sit back and listen and take notes. I’m not lecturing on the reading you were supposed to do last night. And so when they do have reading, they know that we’re going to do something in class with that, and they’re going to be involved in a game or a discussion. And so as far as I know, my students seem to be doing the work outside of class, coming in prepared, and then doing more active things in class, I think, just teaches them a different way. They’re learning on a more deeper level. So I don’t know, I think the relationship and then just the expectation that you’re not sitting and listening gets people doing their work. And I think it’s more fun. So instead of like four APA style papers for assignments, we do one because I think you need to know APA. But then the other assignments I make more creative, like one I made into an escape room. And another they do a blog post, so they have to be really concise with their knowledge. I offered one like you can turn this paper into something creative. So somebody did a podcast. So they turned all the elements of the paper into a discussion with a peer and turned in this podcast. And they were like this took me probably three times longer than a paper would have. But it was so much more fun. I learned way more. So, I don’t know, they just see more bought in.

David: And I think something implied in what Lisa’s saying is play is awesome and it unlocks so many things. But it also rests upon other good pedagogies, diverse assignments, engaged classroom around giving you a reason to do the readings. So I think play builds on that. The secret power of play, though, is that connecting stuff. It’s like I can say I’m going to call on you in class, and students just feel like all they have to do is get it right and to not be embarrassed. That’s one level of engagement. But if students are coming because they want to show off the cool, creative answer that they gave, now, they’re just invested in it. So it’s like I’ve taken that floor of engagement, and I’ve raised the roof on it. And I’ve seen this over and over again. I mean, we all know group work is excellent. Students hate group work. Well, if you give people a very playful group assignment, they’re very excited to get in there and present. And they want their group to win the prize of the laughs or whatever. And it’s just a game changer. Funs like pouring gasoline on the fire… actually, the fire needs to be there but it gets big fast.

Rebecca: I’m curious as you were collecting examples, if there was an example that stuck with you, that impacted you that was completely out of your discipline, seems completely wacky, but it just sparked something in you.

Lisa: I think for me, it’s that whole course design, the Jurassic Park class, it just is so inspiring to me to think like throw out all the rules of what we think is a normal class, and just redesign it based on play and give up total control. So he’s not lecturing every class, students are engaging and learning what they need to learn through active learning. So I think that’s really inspiring. I haven’t figured out how to do that yet in my classes. Mike Montague. He’s one of our play pals. He submitted this thing that he does with students. It’s like a game show. It’s like three stages of a game show where you announce the game as like a game show host and then you have infomercials… you record your own infomercials and like “Now a word from our sponsor.” And then there’s three sections where students have to come up with different things or use creativity to solve a problem. And then “Another word from our sponsor.” And so it’s just this really engaging, playful thing that you can do to liven up teaching. So I did that. And I made infomercials, one on microwaves: “It’s a cold day and you need something warm to drink. Now there’s a better way… a microwave.” And then one I did about cats cleaning themselves with their tongues… instead of showering, here’s a new way, you just lick yourself.” And so it was just like so fun to create those infomercials from our sponsors. So that one was fun. There’s just so many good ideas in there.

John: David, what are some examples of play techniques that you found really interesting

David: A technique that showed up in the book, it was from a professor, she’s a Spanish teacher, and Julie did a magic trick. And funny thing is, I remember what she was trying to teach, but I’m a huge fan of magic. I’ve never ever done a magic trick in a class. And here’s this Spanish teacher tell us she’s not really much of a magic person. And I was just like, I felt really challenged by that. I felt like, “Okay, there are people that are doing things I’m not brave enough to do, and I’m supposed to be one of these people helping corral the community.” So there’s always more, there’s no limits.

John: David, earlier, you mentioned having an activity where students won a prize? Do you use gamification in your classes where there’s like a leaderboard in general? Or is that something you’d recommend? Or are there small prizes that are given out in class? And if so, does that help?

David: Yes, so gamification is a bit fraught. And the issue with gamification is, a lot of times people are like, “Hey, if I just import the mechanics of games into my class, it’ll be more fun.” And it may or may not be. I mean, you know, points are points at the end of the day, if you’re grading on them. And so we have intentionally steered away from gamification as a concept, because we’re much more interested in the idea of play. Now, I think if you look at the Playbook, you’ll find things that sound potentially gamified. But we’re much more interested in the broader sense of play as kind of an engagement. And with that in mind, when we talk about prizes, we almost always talk about really trivial prizes. So Lisa is the queen of stickers, she gives out so silly cool stickers. I teach this class, it’s an architecture class called Architecture of Fun. So I actually designed and made these postcards, they’re really nice postcards, I paid people to illustrate them. And there are these things called ludic forms, which I would love to talk to you all about. But safe to say they’re pictures of like architectural drawings of slides, and bouncy castles, and treehouses. And so when you win a prize in my class, you get a postcard. And if you win enough, you’ll win the whole set. And then I give these out at the end of this semester. So again, it’s not completely like, here’s a Twizzler, but it’s also not like extra points, or something really substantial. For the most part, people like to win for the sake of winning, I think.

Rebecca: Those bragging rights go a long way. [LAUGHTER]

David: They absolutely do.

John: I think what you’re saying is that the focus should be more on intrinsic motivation rather than extrinsic motivation, because that tends to encourage more learning.

David: In my shorthand vocabulary, it’s really simple: Is what you’re doing fun? If it’s not fun, then stop doing it unless you have, I don’t have any issue with gamification, I came out of a game studies background, I think games are great. I just would say, “Stop putting games in the class if the games are just not fun. You might as well use more traditional pedagogies if the games aren’t fun.”

Rebecca: This conversation is getting me longing about in the past, I’ve taught a whole classes a game and some other things that I haven’t done in a really long time. And I’m now itching to really want to do that. [LAUGHTER]

David: We need to do another version of the playbook to get all your techniques in there. [LAUGHTER]

Rebecca: We had some really fun challenges. And I had invested in bells… like bells that you would have at a front desk because it was so loud it was the only way I could know if someone needed something. We would have three teams, and then each had a bell so I would know when they were done. And I had a bell so I could get their attention. [LAUGHTER]

Lisa: I love that.

David: That sounds amazing. Yeah. And see, I just say, just look at that. That’s the simplest thing in the world. And I don’t even know what you’re doing in the class. But I can hear a class that’s so loud that there’s bells in it. And sometimes I have Lisa record, just audio recording of what’s happening in her class, because the sounds that come out of her class, I could play those for other people and be like, “You don’t have to know what’s going on. When’s the last time you heard that in your class?” I want a recording of your class with bells and yelling and be like, when was the last time you heard that in your class? Because when I hear that, I’m like going, that’s the right direction. I want to go that direction.

Rebecca: Yeah, maybe I need to throw out the whole rest of my plan for this semester. I’m now like really, really working here. [LAUGHTER] …having trouble focusing on the conversation because my brain is actually planning somethings. [LAUGHTER] So thank you, I think this is all good. My students will appreciate it.

John: Do you have any other advice for people who are thinking about introducing some play into their classes?

David: Well, the thing I want to make sure that we pull out of this is that: A) we don’t think play is the end all be all, however B) play reminds us of what we think are the really core values of higher education, curiosity, community, human development. And so 3) and Lisa talked about it, we just call it the playvolution. I don’t know, it almost sounds like a joke, but we’re not kidding. Our life’s work here is to transform higher education. And we hope to do that one classroom at a time, because we believe the crisis of higher ed today is that higher ed’s lost its way. It doesn’t take care of people. It doesn’t feed curiosity. It doesn’t feed community. It doesn’t emphasize development. And we see play as being this really remarkable tool that can be brought to bear in that reconstruction effort. So yeah, I don’t know, play is scary. I hope it’s scaring the right people. We’re coming for you.

Rebecca: I think play is interesting, because it’s the safest place to fail and try things out. And isn’t that exactly what learning is?

Lisa: Exactly. I think what I am always trying to be clear about with people is playful pedagogy sounds like a lot of fun. It is, but it’s not frivolous. I found that when people hear the word playful pedagogy, they almost stop listening, because it’s like, irrelevant, it’s frivolous. It’s childish. It’s a waste of time. And it’s not, it’s actually a very profound and foundational way of teaching. So I think that’s the thing, when people learn more about it, they see how powerful it is, that it can be fun, but it’s actually a really serious way of teaching. That’s, I think, sometimes overlooked.

Rebecca: I can’t help but think as you’re both talking about transforming higher education, that part of it is play needs to happen in other spaces of higher education, like faculty meetings, administrative meetings, the faculty senate… [LAUGHTER] all these places where there’s definitely not a lot of play going on, just sneaking a little in might slowly infiltrate and cause some change to happen.

Lisa: Yep. On our campus, we have five strategic goals for the next five or 10 year what we’re working towards, and when I bring up play, they’re like, “Yeah, yeah, but we have very serious goals, we need to reach.” And in my head, I’m thinking we’re gonna reach those goals much easier if we’re playful, like one is to create lifelong learners. One is to be the best place to work. One is to be a leader in innovation. And it’s like, without play, we’re not going to get to these things at all. So it’s funny when people are like, “Yeah, yeah, we’ve got this serious work to do.” So I agree with you completely. It has to be in all aspects of higher ed, for it to change, I think.

David: And I don’t know if Lisa is being shy or not, but she has brought googly eyes to faculty meetings before.

John: One thing that strikes me is Josh Eyler begins his book on How Humans Learn by describing how he observed his child learning. And students come into elementary schools with lots of curiosity. And they’ve learned a tremendous amount by the time they’re five or six years old. That seems to get stifled pretty quickly. And it sounds like you’re advocating that we bring some of that back into the educational process.

Lisa: Yeah, for sure. So Peter Gray, he’s a play expert, mostly focused on childhood and childhood education. And he says, even at the elementary school level. Play is being pushed out of learning. recesses are being taken away, it’s more serious, there’s all these things they need to meet. And you’re right, play is the way that these kids have learned up until getting into school. So Peter Gray talks about education is like prison. [LAUGHTER] So if you look at the definition of a prison, that’s what education is. And what we know about brain science is that’s not how people learn. People don’t learn when they’re bored, or when they’re disengaged or when they’re just listening. So it’s kind of funny that it’s like, we have all these goals of engagement and deep learning and transformational experiences. And then we lecture at people. So yeah, we’re trying to make higher education different, where it’s actually what we want, in terms of outcomes and more effective and more fun.

John: And Peter Gray wrote a really effective preface to your book,

Lisa: Right, yeah, he did. He was very generous to do that. But yeah, so just the point that if childhood education is taking play out of it, then that means bringing play into higher education is gonna seem reckless, or a waste of time or radical.

Rebecca: My daughter’s in kindergarten, and they have wiggle breaks that sound really great. [LAUGHTER] I think maybe we should institute those…

David: Agreed.

Rebecca: …but it changes who gets to pick what the wiggle break is for the day, or at that point of time in the day. And so they take turns picking what the thing is, usually it’s a song that they dance to, or whatever. But I can just imagine, you sit in long meetings and things, it’s like there is no wiggle break, there is no chance to just take a breath, but it’s in those kinds of in-between spaces… we see this in conferences… those in-between spaces are where a lot of magic happens. And it gives time for people to catch up on what’s going on. Even that is a little bit of a playful idea that I think would be pretty easy to implement to just kind of take a quick break in a playful way.

Lisa: I just got a new frisbee and I’m going to, if people are like you want to have a coffee meeting, I’m going to invite them to throw the frisbee instead. So I had a student email me just this week asking to meet and I’m like, “Can we instead meet at the quad and throw the frisbee?” He’s like, “Sure.” [LAUGHTER] So yeah, I just think getting up and doing things differently.

John: For those who are thinking about becoming more playful in the classroom, are there some easy ways to get started, for those who are apprehensive?

Lisa: I am a mental health counselor. So I always like to get to the root of things. Because I think that’s the most effective way to change. So I encourage people to think about the narratives that you live by. And so if your narratives of adulthood and being an academic are, “I need to be serious to be taken seriously.” Or “rigor equals seriousness,” “play is childish, trivial, a waste of time.” If those are your narratives, it’s going to be hard to do any of this in the classroom. So for me, I encourage people to think about what are the beliefs you have about play in adulthood and in higher education? And how is that impacting your wellbeing in your job, but also what you do, which of those are not true? Like if you do a little bit of reading about playful pedagogy, you’ll learn it’s not frivolous and childish and a waste of time. So I think that’s what I encourage people first is, can you deconstruct some of those narratives, get rid of those, at least reduce them in order to be more playful. Then you’re gonna have more space to do that. And then, I think, it’s like, taking little chances. So doing one little thing of play, and seeing how it goes, and then it’ll kind of build, that’s how I started is just one icebreaker here and then I taught the class the rest of the way that I usually teach it. And then over time, I’ve implemented more and more. So I think it’s like, you don’t have to get overwhelmed and do it all at once. You don’t have to all look a certain way. But just try something out, see how it goes. And make it aligned with who you are personally, because if it doesn’t fit for you, it’s not congruent, it won’t land.

David: And the practical sense I’d say, go to the ETC, press website, download the Professors at Play Playbook. It’s free. You can pay for a printed copy, or you can download the PDF for free, flip through it, find a couple of activities that turn you on and do them. And I say if they scarer the dickens out of you, all the better. I think maybe if you’re getting started in this, fear is your best indicator you’re going in the right direction. So you’re about to jump off an awesome cliff.

Rebecca: That seems like a good note to wrap up on. [LAUGHTER]… jumping off a cliff.

John: …but an awesome club,

Rebecca: a very awesome cliff with a very awesome view. So we always wrap up by asking: What’s next?

Lisa: Oh, boy. Well, a lot of things. David wants to write another book, we got a email from one of our Professors at Play people saying, “Are you going to write a second techniques book, because I’ve got more. We’re gonna do an i- person PlayPosium this fall in Phoenix. So we’re developing that …have people come together to do playful things. What else David?,

David: I think just continuing to challenge ourselves as teachers to walk the walk. A lot of our confidence comes from experience. And so to remember, when it’s time to teach, we’ve got to jump off that cliff too. And I think we’re going to try to reignite some work with the community, get the website moving. We love making stuff, we need to find more people like Rebecca who’ve made stuff and get a platform for that. Because to us, the more we can shine a light on the good work that’s being done, the better, because we’re endlessly amazed at the creativity of our colleagues across the world.

John: And I have to ask… this PlayPosium, will it have people reading formal papers with appropriate APA citations?

David: Absolutely not. [LAUGHTER]

David: I keep trying to convince David that we should get a bunch of cardboard tape, scissors and then have a station where people can build forts. That’s one of the things I want to do. So yeah, it won’t be traditional. That’s why it’s called a PlayPosium Instead of symposium. We’ll share some ideas, but a lot of it is going to be activities and engaging and doing playful, creative things.

Rebecca: Sounds really fun.

David: That’s the plan.

John: Well, thank you very much for joining us. This has been a lot of fun, and I hope our listeners will try to be a little more playful in their classes.

Rebecca: …and perhaps take that leap off that cliff… that awesome cliff.

David: Wahoo…. Aahhh.

Lisa: But it’s not like falling to your death. [LAUGHTER]

John: It’s like the Road Runner.

Lisa: Things expand and then you’re flying and it’s freedom.

Rebecca: Exactly. It’s a great image to end on. Thank you so much for joining us.

Lisa: Thank you.

David: Alright, thanks.


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.


279. First-Year Blues

First-year seminar classes can help ease students’ transition from high school to college. In this episode, Tim Nekritz joins us to discuss his first-year seminar class on the history of American Blues in which students explore racial and gender discrimination through the lens of music while also learning to navigate the college environment.

Tim is the Director of News and Media at SUNY Oswego, an Adjunct Professor in the Department of Communication Studies, and the developer of a first-year seminar course in American Blues.

Show Notes


John: First-year seminar classes can help ease students’ transition from high school to college. In this episode, we discuss a first-year seminar class on the history of American Blues in which students explore racial and gender discrimination through the lens of music while also learning to navigate the college environment.


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 Tim Nekritz. Tim is the Director of News and Media at SUNY Oswego, an Adjunct Professor in the Department of Communication Studies, and the developer of a first-year seminar course in American Blues. Welcome, Tim.

Tim: Great to be here.

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

Tim: Yes. And I am drinking Tea Forte blackcurrant. It’s excellent, and if John recommends a tea, you’ve got to go with it,

Rebecca: I’m drinking chai today, John.

John: Very good. There’s no jig or anything. [LAUGHTER]

Rebecca: No, there’s no Jig, nothing crazy. I was at an event and there’s limited choices on our campus event tea selection. Chai is what I chose.

John: And I have ginger peach black tea today.

Rebecca: Back to an old favorite, John.

John: We’ve invited you here today to discuss your first-year seminar course in American blues. Since it’s been a while since we discussed one of the first-year seminar courses here at SUNY Oswego, could you tell us a little bit about the objectives of the course?

Tim: Absolutely. The idea is for it to be a small class, because you really want to build a sense of cohesion there. And I saw that a lot, because students would become best friends right away, despite anything I did or not because of anything I did sometimes, but so it’s building connections with other students and instruction in the institution. It’s very much a gateway course to them being college students, to a degree. We don’t overdo that, but we try to make sure that we can work that into the curriculum wherever we can. There’s a certain amount of college preparatory experience for that, obviously, it’s not orientation, clearly it’s not orientation. For example, I brought in Tina from Excel to talk about career preparation and internships and that type of thing, brought in someone from Counseling Services Center, which I’ll talk more about later, but just try to connect them with some helpful faces and offices on campus. There’s also intercultural competence, which was a big part of this course, which I know we’re gonna discuss more later, …critical thinking skills (so introduction to what that is on the college level), and communication skills and very basic level, whether it might be their first research paper, might be their first oral presentation in college and trying to get them prepared in whatever ways we can.

John: We introduced these classes several years ago, and we had a number of people teaching in the first round of this on our podcast, but that was sometime in the before times.

Tim: Yes.

John: …so we thought it would be useful to review this just a little bit. But it’s also something that the college is expanding. The goal is within the next two years to offer one of these courses to every freshman student.

Tim: Yeah, and we work with Mallory Bower, as well as Kristin Croyle, who are excellent to work with, as far as trying to get people almost over their fears. So it’s like, put in an idea. And as opposed to just like yes/no, they might help you workshop it and there’s pr- preparations where seasoned professors like me, I’m not in the old category, apparently. And so like, “How do you develop your course? What stumbling blocks did you have? What were things that worked?” and that type of thing, which obviously varies from course to course, as we all know. But it’s good, because in a way, we’re building communities here, but we’re building communities among the people who are interested in teaching that class.

Rebecca: One of the things that’s interesting about the first-year courses that are at our school is that they’re intentionally not in the discipline and they’re often interdisciplinary. So can you talk a little bit about your course and how that fits into the bigger picture at Oswego.

Tim: Certainly, I came about designing it in a backward way, which is how I do most things, it seems like, but essentially, I really got an interest in blues and blues history fairly recently. And we got an email from someone named Roger House, Roger went to SUNY Oswego for a couple of years before transferring to another institution. And he’s now an American Studies professor at Emerson College and does a lot of stuff on blues history, cultural history, and that type of thing. And he emailed us a column that he wrote that references his time at SUNY Oswego. And then at the bottom, it said, Roger House is the author of Blue Smoke, which is a biography of Big Bill Broonzy. And at the time, I was reading anything on the blues I could get my hands on. And I read it, and I realize,d everything that he went through, he went away to World War One, and was treated great in Europe… well, relatively great for a servicemen… for someone who’s toward the bottom of the rank, but at least was treated like a human being which he wasn’t used to back home… comes back, the man he worked for, picks him up and immediately degrades him and tells him “You don’t deserve to be in that uniform.” This is a person who sat home and did nothing and he’s telling Bill who served his country, for very obvious and racist reasons, to take off his uniform and put his overalls back on. And that was a big pivotal moment. But it’s also something that resonated with a lot of people. A lot of people who went away to World War One, and then had to come back home and face the indignities of racism. And so then he was part of the great migration to Chicago and the blues scene that arose there and then he was rediscovered because he did some social commentary during the folk revival in the 1960s. I’m looking at this and it’s not dissimilar to Forrest Gump, although not as fabricated, but you’re looking at, okay, all these different parts of 20th century history, and this could be something that’s taught. So I sent an email to Mallory and said, “This is a crazy idea and I know we’re friends, but you can tell me it’s stupid if you want.” But she didn’t. She thought it was great. But part of it is you can really teach cultural history, black history, entertainment history, pop culture history, there’s so much that can be developed here. And then it seemed like the first black women to reach a mass audience were the blues queens of the 1920s, when that became big. Because they could not be heard or paid attention to elsewhere, but then suddenly, out of nowhere, Mamie Smith has a huge hit that sells all these records and record executives are like, “Oh, wait, there’s actually a market for black music” because Mamie Smith was really like the Jackie Robinson, she broke the barrier. It was in part because she had a lyricist, Perry Bradford, who sold his compositions, but because people would buy it, but nobody wanted at that point to record a black artist. And so he got Mamie Smith recorded, and then Crazy Blues became this huge hit and suddenly people realized, “Oh, well maybe this is not a bad thing.” But that being said, what happened immediately is that they started recording white women who tried to sound like black women, which of course is even worse, really. And so they were very hesitant. I was reading things that said, “Oh, and then suddenly, opportunities opened up” …and they didn’t. It wasn’t until Bessie Smith came along with Downhearted Blues in 1923. That just sold unbelievable numbers to all audiences, black, white, anybody. And the record company said, “Okay, well, I guess this is something that we can do.” But there’s so many lessons behind that, and the fact again, that the record companies held off on actually trying to make sure that black woman can be heard, which was amazing, disappointing at the same time. So that’s just one example. And then being able to teach the great migration through the Chicago blues scene. The fact that Big Bill Broonzy and Muddy Waters and all these people came from the south and collected in Chicago, or Detroit, or any city where the jobs were, but then in Chicago, all the conditions were perfect for them to start up an amazing blues scene and just to transform everything, like when Muddy Waters plugged in an electric guitar, and everyone was like blown away by that. But he had to do it, because he was playing in these loud clubs and people were just talking. So he had to electrify what he was doing. But so anyway what I started doing is looking at some of the themes and some of these decades, these eras, and that type of thing, because there’s also just such a long pre-history of African music, African inspired music. And then at one point that drums were banned on plantations because people thought they could send messages to each other, but also the way that the field hollers and the religious music, music that they did just were work songs and how that influenced what came later. The problem is, you could almost do a whole course on that. That’s really way back. That would be earlier American history, but I’d have to inform that and then talk about the fact that you had like the Ma Rainey’s of the world who were already spreading the blues before it was known as the blues. And so laying a lot of foundations with the vaudeville and tent shows, or W C. Handy, and his first blues recordings, but even some interesting things because blues was folk music for the longest time. And then W. C Handy decided to publish it, and suddenly it is no longer folk, it is now commercial. And so how that changed everything. So there’s so many interesting lessons that happen along the way.

Rebecca: So what I’m hearing, Tim, is that you’re using music to sneakily teach history.

Tim: I’m a sneak.

Rebecca: You’re so dangerous.

Tim: I know, it’s horrible.

John: There have been a number of economic articles written on the role that rural free delivery and the Sears catalog provided in the blues because it brought low cost musical instruments to places where there were just no music stores.

Tim: That’s great. I do touch on that a little bit, because, in the rural south, you can’t drive to a music store. But then suddenly, Sears made guitars and other instruments, very inexpensive. So little things I just love because I’m a big fan of James Burke. I know he spoke here a few years ago, in his Connection series and the day the universe changed, about how all these small things come together. And so that’s exactly what I like talking about. That’s a perfect example.

Rebecca: How did you get students engaged in the subject matter? What are some of the kinds of activities that you did with students?

Tim: One of the things that I did because I can’t convey the Blues as well as blues artists can, I would give them a Spotify playlist of like 15 to 20 songs and have them listen to it. The first time I taught it I couldn’t find a book and it’s like, this is easier than reading a book. And then finally, some people talked to me about “You probably should at least get a basic book.” So I have a really inexpensive one. Elijah Wald’s, Blues History, which is I think like $12. I try to be friendly on the budget. And so I would have one on Blues Queen, for example, or then in the mid-1920s, what happened is Blind Lemon Jefferson had a hit song called Black Snake Moan and Blind Lemon does not get the credit. He totally changed the industry with that. And part of that is sexism, unfortunately, because when the record companies were getting the Mamie Smith’s of the world, the Bessie Smiths, was like, “Okay, well, we need to put an orchestra behind them.” And then suddenly Blind Lemon Jefferson has a huge hit. He’s one person, that’s so much easier to pay. And if you have the Bessie Smith’s and Mamie Smith, and the Ida Cox’s, the people who were getting well established, they command more money, economics again, but you find some blind guitarists somewhere, you can pay him less than that, because unfortunately, exploitation is a big part of labor market functions or malfunctions, I guess you would say. Women really dominated the scene for the first five years and then they started going to solo male singer guitarists, or pianists, or fiddler’s, or whatever. And so then I did one about some of the early male artists, then all the Blind Willie McTell and Blind Willie Johnson, Blind Blake. But then I also talked about why that happened, because again with economics, if you’ve got nine kids, and one of them’s blind… basically, there was a sharecropper system, which was again rigged, almost indentured servitude, unfortunately… and so your kids, if you’re in the system, they all had to help you produce. So if you’ve got a child who’s blind, they can’t necessarily do that. But then, especially when Blind Lemon Jefferson started hitting some other people, it’s like a lot of them might have already had them working as buskers and that type of thing, but then the record companies of course, there’s nothing original to a record company, thought “Oh, we’re gonna assign more blind bluesman including the fact there were some who were signed who were said they were blind but weren’t.” And like all these really crazy things. So like I did that. I did one Chicago blues, and then folk blues and social blues and then the British blues boom, which was led by The Rolling Stones, among others. But there’s also a great quote from George Harrison, my favorite Beatle… everyone has a different favorite Beatle perhaps… but he has said “No Lead Belly, no Beatles,” because, again, it’s one of those weird, circuitous things, because Lead Belly, among other things, did a song called Rock Island Line, which was covered by someone named Lonnie Donegan, who actually took the Lonnie from Lonnie Johnson, who’s another great unsung hero. Rock Island Line became a huge hit in Britain and formed something called skiffle. Skiffle was like a combination of blues and folk and a couple other things. And then all these skiffle bands started forming including one called Quarrymen, which was John Lennon, Paul McCartney, and later, George Harrison. And so George Harrison nails it. And the main thing, I think, that the students notice, because I am willing to trade off extra credit for market research. So I have a five point question on the final, which is a bonus question, which is, “What’s one thing you wouldn’t have known if you took this class” and a large part it’s like they had no idea that the blues is the foundation for rock and roll, and inspired jazz, and soul, r&b, funk. And then a really cool thing is Marquel Jeffries from the Institute, who’s also a rapper. I had him come in and talk about the connections between blues and hip hop. And he did a fantastic job with that, because just as the blues has informed so many 20th century art forms, I’m glad that I can introduce that to people because, again, that is cultural appreciation. It is also cultural appropriation too, that is part of this as well.

John: And certainly there was a lot of that in the history of rock and roll.

Tim: Oh, yes, Elvis being a big one. But at the same time, that wasn’t cool, necessarily, but Elvis himself was a big fan of R&B. This is what he wanted to perform. And at one point, they tried a bunch of things, and then he started playing some really crazy R&B tune. And Sam Phillips came in the studio and said, “What the heck are you doing?” And he said, “keep doing whatever you are,” because that was everybody’s ticket to money on the money train. But part of it too, is that people like Sam Phillips knew these R&B records were selling like crazy. They needed to break into the larger and mostly white market. And so they needed a white face to market that with and that’s what they did with Elvis. So there’s a real lesson there. And then there’s so much other cultural appropriation. I know that Larry Watson, who performed very recently, he has a whole song that he did in Waterman theater called “Liar,” which is all about cultural appropriation. It was great. So obviously, it’s appreciation versus appropriation, who’s benefiting from what? The fact that Led Zeppelin then would change a few words on a bluesman’s song and then file the copyright themselves. Janis Joplin did it too. And all these people who very much took advantage of that, but then there are also a lot of people who appreciated the blues. I consider myself someone who preserves it because I like doing old blues songs… not nearly as well as they do… but I at least want people to know who some of the blues pioneers are as best I can.

John: And the Rolling Stones certainly did that and I believe they had Howlin Wolf open for them on some of their early tours.

Tim: Yeah, I showed them a great video that was one of those teenybop shows and they said they wouldn’t perform unless Howlin Wolf played and it’s just kind of hilarious because Howlin Wolf is playing, he’s doing what the Wolf does, and all the kids are bopping to it. And it’s like, “Wow, imagine if they were actually exposed to Howlin Wolf and all these other blues players that they never actually were.” So that could be like an alternative history of suddenly the radio stations that are playing Howlin Wolf might have happened, but it didn’t happen, obviously.

Rebecca: So you had students do a lot of listening and reading, what kinds of things did you do in class? I know you had some interesting projects and other learning activities.

Tim: Well, I will get back to the playlist. Basically, they would come in and the assignment would be let’s discuss at least one song on the playlist and everyone would do it… almost everyone would do it. Some of them want to talk about two or three. I’m like, hey, that’s cool, too. So like, if I’m talking about a blues gospel tune, talk about why gospel blues was a thing. I don’t even know how this existed, but when Ma Rainey’s Prove it on me Blues, from the 1920s, singing about being a lesbian, and you can’t get more marginalized in America at that time than by being a black lesbian. She’s like, “This is me, here I am.” And it almost feels like how did this happen? Because after the 20s, that disappeared for a long time, even that kind of expression. But that kind of showed, and I had people in the class who were very inspired by that, the courage that it took her to do that. And then just weird stuff like Blue Yodel Number 9, which is Jimmy Rogers with Louis Armstrong and Lil Armstrong. So it’s blues, with yodeling and old country and jazz. I read about it in a book. And I’m like, “this shouldn’t exist,” because again, we think of how much music was categorized back then. So those are great discussion exercises. But then the one really fun project I thought was I asked him to write a blues song talking about it could be their perspective or some other perspective. And so I brought in Kyle from the Counseling Center, because he’s big into expressive arts, and it’s like, “Is there anything that’s bothering you that you can sing a blues song about?” So a lot of them talked about loneliness, homesickness, missing friends and that type of thing. Some of them were really deep, and I’m like, “oh, goodness,” some of the stuff that they were writing. The first semester, there was actually a surprise attached to it, in that I had reached out to some friends. And right after Thanksgiving, we get back and we had a concert. And so my friends from a band called The Shylocks, they did two tunes. A third tune was one that was written by someone in the class. And I said, “Guess what we’re doing?” So I had a number of people there, and Kyle, a very well known blues player, Jess Novak, recorded one because she connected with one of the students in the class really well, because Jess talks about the old boys club and all the rest of that stuff. And there’s one student who talked about back home, she would get solos. People were like, “Oh, it’s because you’re a girl.” and all the rest of this stuff and be patronizing to her. But then we did research papers, and she presented on Etta James, and she’s asked if she could sing At Last. I’m like, “Are you kidding me?” And she did and I knew why she got the solos back home because she was really good. But then, to turn that around, I said, “Hey, Jess, remember that student.” And I sent Jess her thing and she performed it. And it was one of those, you could have dropped it back in the 1920s. It was that good. So I had some of them performed live, some of them recorded it as well. And it was just really cool to see because these students, some of them acted all cool, and that type of thing. But some of them were like just very emotional to see people perform a song that they wrote. I wasn’t able to do it last year… lowell, one thing, the cat was out of the bag, perhaps… but it was great because they got to use self expression, but then also see how people interpret songs. So it worked on many levels. And it was a heck of a lot of fun too.

John: When you had them write the songs, did they actually write it down in notation? Or did they sing it? Or did they write it down assuming there’d be a 12 bar pattern underneath it?

Tim: Great question. Basically, I just had them do lyrics. I am not qualified to teach composition. I can teach about writing. Last year, I don’t know what happened, but I wrote about 50 songs. I was looking into sources that talked about songwriting, like Larry Kyle spoke to the class or Jess Novak spoke to the class. I had them talk a little bit about their songwriting experience, how they wrote songs. And of course, with everything, “Well, it depends on the song.” But so I actually did try to workshop with them a little bit. And most of them didn’t really want my help. They just wanted to do it on their own. But I said they could do it in 12-bar blues, but they didn’t have to because obviously the blues has evolved, whether they want to do an ABAB rhyme scheme, or just ABCB or whatever. And honestly, I was looking for effort. Some of them were fantastic. Some of them were not anything that necessarily was going to be recorded. But the effort they put into it, especially if it came from the heart, that was more important to me, just that they learned about self expression. Some of them were already songwriters, so they had a bit of a leg up there. But at the same time, it was really an exercise that was to express themselves. And some of them did fictional stuff, and that’s great, or took something and elaborated on it, but that’s how I write songs too. So yeah, I can’t fault them for that. But so all of them are really good. I just asked them to do four stanzas. That could be four verses, three verses and a chorus, two verses a chorus and a bridge, just to show that they had invested in it. And nobody who turned in a song disappointed me or came even close to it. So I was happy how that worked out. And again, they didn’t know it was gonna be performed. And the performers, I didn’t have them say who wrote it, intentionally. But then one of the performers actually wanted to perform them live… open mics and stuff. And I asked the student’s permission, like, “Oh, totally, yeah,” and that type of thing. They didn’t want their name attached to it. So it’s just that personal to them. And again, I always say I learn just as much from the students as they learn from me. And so I learned a lot about what’s going on in their lives. And by the same time there are people who want to write songs about their blues, but some of them they didn’t necessarily want to take ownership of or let people know how they’re feeling. There’s larger reasons for that than I can fix in a class. But at the same time, I thought it was really great that they at least got that experience.

Rebecca: So I think it’s important to note, if students are writing songs, it’s a first-year class, it’s not part of the music major, there’s a lot of non majors. So students may have ended up in the class because they selected the topic, or because it fit in their schedule. So how did you handle students that were not too excited about writing a song or worried about being outed?

Tim: Yeah, a lot of it was reassurance. There were a few music majors in there. Some of them even said, Wait, I thought this was a jazz history class. I’m like, no, there’s 50 jazz history classes, there’s very few blues history classes. That’s the reason nobody knows about the blues’ role, because blues history is just not taught. A few places have programs. The University of Mississippi is a good example of that. But generally speaking, we all do jazz, because jazz is so much neater and more ornate and doesn’t involve feelings and unfortunate situations and people being murdered for cheating on their lover and whatnot. But so students took it for a variety of reasons. I think you expressed some of that, but also because Mallory is a big supporter, and so she plugged a lot of them into my class the first time around. But for a non-music major, I even said right off the bat, you don’t have to be a music major, but you have to enjoy music in some way. Like if you don’t like to listen to music, this probably is not the first-year class you should take. I talked on what I call syllabus day. I do talk about the songwriting assignment, and then sometimes a couple students might disappear. But I want them to be comfortable with the class. So I try to set the expectations early, we talk about it a lot. And before I give them the assignment, and that’s why I always ask songwriters for advice. But like I had Juliet Forshaw, who actually taught a songwriting class last semester, come and speak to my class. And it’s a trade off, I got to speak to her class. And so imposter syndrome was high. That day, despite all the songs I’ve written, I still don’t feel necessarily like one. And so she came in with her partner, Michael Judge, and so they played some Avalon songs, but also, she went deep into how she created it. And again, there might be people who write the music first, and then write the words and just like, well, that’s not necessarily going to be the case here. I told them, if they wanted to put a lead sheet and put some chords on there, that’s great. There were a couple of people who already did make music. But really, it’s not unlike writing poetry. So that was one of the analogies I used. And so some of them would come up to me with a couple ideas and said, “How do I flesh it out?” and I’d suggest a rhyme or say, “Here’s a great point, can you expound upon that?” …like every writing course I ever took. And so I was worrying that maybe I would get more resistance and more people who just didn’t want to do it, or who I would have to really work to get to do it, but then it surprised me, the day that they were due, they would show up… once in a while they’d be late or other people would send it to me via Google Drive or email and not show up that class just in case….

Rebecca: In case they had to share it out loud or something. [LAUGHTER]

Tim: I think they were afraid of that. And I told them, I’m not going to make you sing it. Of course, I didn’t tell people the first time that someone else is gonna be singing it either. But they took it in stride. And obviously the past couple years have not been the easiest time to transition into a freshman year, especially the year that people came in and they hadn’t been in in-person classes because they graduated from high school, which had been virtual since March 2020. And so I think they adjusted well to being back in class. I think they’re excited to be back in a class and in college. So I think that helped a lot. But generally speaking, they appreciated the assignment. I mean, they didn’t jump up and down and talk about how great it was. But they all put in the effort. I think that says a lot, because I remember it being really hard to be a freshman and that’s back before we had the Internet and other distractions.

John: So how many times have you offered this class now?

Tim: Two times and obviously you learn something every time you teach it, and then it’s like, I’m gonna change this next year. And then next thing you know, it’s like late August and like, “Oh, well, maybe I won’t.” But one thing I’ve been doing too is getting a variety of guest speakers and some of them are musicians. And then like I said, you’ll have people in Counseling Services Center or Tina from EXCEL or just other people who might be helpful just to come in and maybe do like a 30-minute talk. This was an election year, as many people are painfully aware. And so I had some from Vote Oswego come in and talk about that and civic engagement. And sometimes it might be just a 20 minute talk or someone coming in it might be a whole class. But in the case of someone like Kyle, he’s got a background, and he’s a blues fan, because he’s like, “Oh, my God,” when I asked him. His father took him to see Bo Diddley, and I’m like, “I’m jealous of you.” But so he had blues, introduced in his family. So he knew that, but part of it’s to hear all the services we have, which are very important for anybody to have, really, the way the mental health crisis is these days. So it’s great that he got to introduce that and also then the interactive stuff that he did… people understanding how to share how they feel, and that type of thing. So I think I was very lucky with guest speakers. And then it’s always like, “Okay, well, I’m keeping most of them if they can,” because like Marquel was an example of, I got to the 70s, 80s, the birth of rap and hip hop, and the first time around, I didn’t have the subject knowledge to do that a credible job. But then it occurred to me like, “Oh, wait, I know Marquel.” And so he did a whole bunch of research, asked me questions, and then talked about the history of hip hop, and then connected with the blues just so well, I was thrilled to have him and because guest speakers will liven up the class a little bit. And then some of them will do a session like Jess Novak did and they all connected with her immediately, and like they connect with me like that. But that’s why Jess does what she does for a living, and I do what I do for a living. But just I think trying to get some variety in the class, because part of it too, is if it’s class major specific people might be saying, “Okay, well, what can you do with this major or this class?” So I don’t think a lot of people they’re looking to become musicians… a couple of them are, but try to introduce people who can help them in other ways. The good thing for being a non-musician is that it’s, in large part, a history class. It just happens to have a really cool genre that goes with it and I get to listen to music and we have to write a song. It’s not the end of the world. They all survived and thrived with it.

Rebecca: What are some of the themes that came up in their songs? You mentioned that you got a lot of insights into what’s going on in their lives as first-year students and that might be helpful for a wider audience to be aware of.

Tim: One of them wrote a song called Lonely Man Blues that basically talked about being away from his friends, his family. One of them wrote a funny song about dealing with people at the holidays who had different belief systems than him. It was a bit of an angry song. I mean, I could see the Ramones performing the song as well as any blues band. But people would talk about that. And just homesickness. Even as bad as the pandemic has been, and having to learn from your house and that type of thing, at least that’s a familiar place. And for them, that’s really trying to figure out the comfort zone, making friends over again, because you know, social skills took a hit during the pandemic. And so some of them talked about the readjustment of that, or talked about someone who broke their heart. One person, actually wrote what sounded more like spoken word poetry, it was really long, but it was very honest. And it was a way that they expressed themselves about a relationship. So it’s something that they got out of their system. So in a way, they weren’t that different than what you see with normal blues songs, except, like I said, there was much less murder involved, thankfully. I don’t know what would happen if someone talked about murder, but it really was about feeling lonely, about missing people, about wanting more love and that type of thing. So it was, in a way, whether I expected it to or not, it hit on a lot of the themes that classic blues songs did.

John: One of the reasons for these classes is to help students connect to other students as well as to the institution. How did that work in the class? Did the students make a lot of personal connections through the activities you were doing in the class?

Tim: Absolutely. And again, I haven’t figured out how to master that yet, I would like to, but they would just make it organically. There were a couple of people who hit it off and became really good friends. I would like to say that somebody formed a blues band out of this. I don’t think that happened. But the good thing about a class like this is it’s intimate. And people do talk about things. And it’s interesting, because when Kyle was in the room, or Jess was in the room, they would talk about things they didn’t talk about in front of me because I’m their teacher, and I grade them. I had one student when Kyle was there, he said, every day, I feel like I’m going to break down crying, just because of all the stress and that type of thing that anybody goes through at that age. And so I think that they expressed these things.. kind of broke down some barriers among everybody, which I think was good. Obviously, nobody was going to become friends with each other. I took improvisational theater way back in my undergrad days. And that was great because everybody just goofs around and that type of thing. And it is to let your guard down class. And so that’s the tightest class I’ve ever seen was improv theater just because everyone’s just doing silly things. I didn’t do silly things in this, it’s unfortunate, maybe next time. But it was good because for one thing, no one studies this blues history. So they were getting a lot of information that was new to them. But then they would also talk about “Oh, I really liked this artist, this song.” And so people would be like “Oh, I love that song too.” And so there would be some side conversations… sometimes actually about the class… often about other things. But at the same time, I think people saw some commonality because they were all learning a lot of new content. But when they say, “Oh, I really love this, Ma Rainey song, Prove it on Me,” and then somebody else does, too, it’s bonding or these little moments in the things that they like or performers they’d never heard before. One of them did a paper on Blind Blake and I feel like this much qualified for the Blues Hall of Fame, just making a Blind Blake song in 2022, as it was. When they found themselves agreeing on songs, and some parts of history that make people not so happy, but at the same time, for some of them, it’s validating, knowing that these things happened. And for them to realize that this has impact on my life, still, 100 years after the blues started… obviously, racism hadn’t gone away, or sexism… and so to see these things expressed, and to connect with that, and connect with other people, because not every day, but sometimes we’d have some really, really good and honest conversations. And then people connect with each other over that. And maybe it’s not even because they agree, but they learned to respect other people’s viewpoints. And it was always a very respectful class. A couple of people even argued over whether or not things were rock and roll songs. And that was about as heated as we got. [LAUGHTER] I can tell you that much. Because when rock and roll started, the saxophone was the guitar. The guitar solo was a saxophone solo. And some people are like, :”No, that’s not rock and roll…” like, “that is rock and roll.” And so that’s what some of the arguments were. It’s like, well, though, it was kind of 12-bar blues still, there’s more R&B. An example I use is Shake, Rattle and Roll by Big Joe Turner, which was not a tune you would play around your children, I will put it that way. There were some lyrics in there that were pushing the envelope like “when you wear those dresses, the sun comes shining through. I can’t believe my eyes, all the mess belongs to you.” You couldn’t sing that easily in the early 50s. But then what happened is a white band, Bill Haley and the Comets who were very well known, covered it and took out the more offensive part of “the way when you wear those dresses, oh my, you look so nice,” which is a completely different context. There was still some sexism involved in that because there’s the 1950s, unfortunately. So what happened is that Big Joe Turner’s version became a big hit on the R&B track, Bil Haley and the Comets covered it and it became a big hit in America because they were allowed to be on all those airwaves. But just little moments like that that I was able to show or the fact that I think that Big Momma Thorton’s Hound Dog is vastly superior to Elvis Presley’s Hound Dog in every way. But I think when people get new information also, and maybe light bulbs go on over their head, that also builds a bit more of a connection too because these are things again, we don’t teach this anywhere. But it’s an important part of the cultural history and pop culture history and music history.

John: And it sounds like a lot of the intercultural competence that these classes were designed to work on was just built into the structure of the course.

Tim: Absolutely. And that’s one of the things I felt good about, because I knew that was an emphasis. And it’s like, well, this definitely has that throughout the years. For example, even though people will debate whether it’s blues, or it’s jazz, but something like Strange Fruit by Billie Holiday. That was something the fact that it talked about a lynching and all the rest of this stuff. That was something that really moved students ‘cause unfortunately, they might have textbooks and talk about it. But it’s also Billie Holiday, who has an amazing voice. And so this really translated a lot of that stuff. There are a few songs that talked about the welfare system, or Big Bill Broonzy talking about being black, brown, and white, and some of the different situations that people face there. It was just such a great way of conveying this information. And you know, they’re all amazing songs, too. So you read it in a history book, and it can be kind of removed. But when you hear someone singing about this, that becomes very immediate,

John: Strange Fruit just it’s just an amazing song.

Tim: Oh, yes.

John: How did the students react to that?

Tim: If I had to pick one song during the whole semester that got a reaction from them, it was that. They might have heard about lynching. This really painted the picture in words and in Billie Holiday’s amazing voice. So I think that was an example. But there’s also… no one talks about Bessie Smith’s Poor Man Blues, which essentially it’s about all the black soldiers who went and fought for you in Europe, and then you rich man, you don’t want anything to do with us anymore. You want us to fight your wars and that type of thing. And it’s really interesting, because there are some quote unquote, blues historians, I will call them chroniclers who had the audacity to say that the blues are not a political genre, but it’s all political. When you’re poor, when you’re dealing with all these barriers in life, that’s very political. And so it’s amazing that while these were white people from Britain, who had no real background in the country’s history, and so that’s why I wanted to get a lot of the social and protest songs because that’s a big part of the blues. I mean, again, so much of blues… you’re an economist, you know that the economy impacts every part of people’s lives… and if you’re not being paid enough, if you’re not getting employment if you’re being treated badly by the system because of systemic racism, that’s a very political thing. So I think that’s the point that they also got very much from a lot of what they saw. So it was just great to have that opportunity to show people these things. Well, when I say show people, I mean, having way more talented people than me sing about it.

Rebecca: I can imagine that a lot of students and just people in general, listen to music and don’t always pay attention to the details. So having the opportunity to slow down and actually think about the lyrics and have conversations about it and connect it to history is a really different way of experiencing music, and it, I would imagine, translate to other things they’re listening to. Did you have conversations in class about how they might have been listening to other kinds of music differently?

Tim: So many of them know Led Zeppelin and the Rolling Stones. They didn’t realize what a background in the blues, Jimi Hendrix had. Jimi Hendrix was very blues focused, even the Grateful Dead. So much of their stuff is blues. So especially when they saw this with artists that they knew, that helped make that connection a lot. Again, Eric Clapton is very much a conveyor of that, that they all know the Eric Clapton songs, but it’s like, well, that was written in the 1920s and 1930s, by someone who wasn’t Eric Clapton. But to connect all that backwards, or even the fact that to the era when I came of age, Nirvana, and their last performance on Unplugged, where they covered a Lead Belly song, Where Did You Sleep Last Night, and just how moving that was when Kurt Cobain did it in that I think his last performance ever. But then to see people make that connection. Okay, Lead Belly, and of course that was an old folk tale that he was singing, but at one point that got me into Lead Belly. And so just being able to peel back the layers and look at the history and see how that underpins the songs that they listened to. Because a lot of them do listen to what are covers of blues song. And there was a big blues revival in the 1980s, and it’s funny, because if you are a blues historian, you don’t want to admit it, but one person admitted, I hate to say this, but it was because of the Blues Brothers movie.

John: To be fair, there were so many great blues performers in the Blues Brothers movies.

Tim: Yeah, well, and the thing is, the movie company didn’t want to bring in these performers. They wanted “Oh, we have these hot young artists we want to do.” And Dan Ackroyd basically said “Hard no. I’m not doing this unless we’re allowed to bring in these performers who just didn’t get their due or just weren’t as appreciated.” And, so first of all, the music in that movie is great. It’s also very funny, but at the same time, people of a certain academic level don’t like to admit to something as base, dare I say, as the Blues Brothers movie had that impact on it. But then you had a lot of people in the 80s and 90s, like you’re seeing the Fabulous Thunderbirds having a big hit with Tough Enough, the Georgia Satellites having a really big hit with Keep Your Hands to Yourself, which was basically based in a blues structure and so much of the blues rock… the Allman Brothers, so much of what they did was the blues, and they became really big. But the unfortunate thing too, is that that had to do with suddenly becoming a white man’s genre. And generally speaking, like Robert Cray was big, but he was an exception, because by the time we get to the 1980s, most of the people who were playing blues, in large part, who were getting the air play were white men, even though it started with black women. And then also Stevie Ray Vaughan helped break it open too, and we can only wonder what happened if he hadn’t died tragically, but what he brought to the blues is just otherworldly. But he learned a lot of his stuff at the feet of Buddy Guy. Bonnie Raitt started… I think it’s a rhythm and blues foundation, where she basically knew there was all these blues performers. Larry Watson gave her a shout out recently performing on campus because she won a Grammy and is an example of somebody who actually walks the walk and talks the talk and she says, “Yeah, I was inspired by the blues, but I want to give back to the performers who didn’t have the opportunity to do that.” And the problem is like in the 1980s the blues was George Thorogood and I’m just not a fan of George Thorogood. That drove me away from blues for a long time, I think, but George Thorogood performed at Live Aid with Albert King and some blues performers, but they wouldn’t have been on the bill without George Thorogood which is morally compromising to me. But the problem was that there’s still a lot of great people out there. There’s Shamekia Copeland, who is well known. There are some rising stars still in the blues scene. Christone “Kingfish” Ingram, who is like 19 years old and talented and might be the next big thing in the blues. So there’s a lot still out there, but at the same time, that’s not the stuff that’s getting played on most radio stations.

John: Buddy Guy is still touring. It may be his last tour. I think he labeled it as his final tour, but we’ll see.

Tim: Yeah, well, I’ve seen Buddy Guy live twice. I saw him at the [NY] State Fair with BB King, and I think it was Tommy Castro and Susan Tedeschi, maybe.

John: Yeah, I was at that show. I’ve seen him at least a dozen times including twice at his club in Chicago.

Tim: Well, that’s fantastic.

John: … the old location and the new one.

Tim: Yeah, but Buddy Guy is so influential because he can do Jimi Hendrix, because Jimi Hendrix learned from him. He can do Stevie Ray Vaughan because Stevie Ray Vaughan learned from him . He did BB King… well, he and BB just did a lot of stuff together. And BB was a legend, but Buddy Guy stole that show and every show he ever performed at.

John: Yes. And I remember that show. He had just released the Riding with the King album with Eric Clapton. And he said, “Unfortunately, I’m not able to bring Eric Clapton here, but I’ll bring out the next best thing.” And I know everyone around me was hoping that Buddy Guy was going to come back on the stage, but instead it was his other guitarist who came out and performed with him….

Tim: Who was also really good.

John: …who was also really good, but he was not Buddy Guy [LAUGHTER].

Tim: Well, and what’s weird is that you’d look at it in retrospect, when Riding with the King came out with BB King and Eric Clapton, it’s easy to look at, “Oh, look at Eric Clapton doing a favor by letting BB King be on his record.” But it’s the other way around. Clapton… probably any bluesman worth anything would want to record with BB King. But the problem is with the cultural lens of me being a young, stupid, white kid it’s like, “Oh, wow, what an opportunity for BB King.” And it’s like, because Rattle and Hum introduced BB King in another context, too, because U2, they just had Joshua Tree… they could have done anything they wanted. And it’s like “We’re gonna do a movie. And we’re going to meet with some of our inspirations.” and that type of thing. And so they did a song with BB King and Bono… who is not always the most humble person, I will say. If you’re listening, Bono, I’m sorry, you’re still my hero… was just awestruck. BB King gave him a compliment, and he didn’t know how to take it, because this is BB King.

John: One thing with Buddy Guy is he sometimes will get into a mood where he’ll only do one musician for an hour or so at a time. And I was able to get tickets to his January run at Legends. And it was the only day I could make it. I was at a conference there. And it was listed as an acoustic only blues show. And after the first hour and 45 minutes, he said, “This is an acoustic blues show, so I guess I should do something acoustic.” [LAUGHTER] And he did a few songs and they went back to electric.

Tim: Well, it’s interesting because Syracuse was a big home of blues in the 1990s. Like my friend Larry Kyle said, you could get booked three or four nights a week as a blues artist in Syracuse. It’s not that way anymore, but there were a lot of really interesting acts back then. I was writing the course in 2021, and part of me is like is the ending of this going to be tragic? Is this going to be like you’re studying Latin… Womp womp, sad trombone. But then I went to the Blues Festival in Syracuse, the New York State Blues festival, it’s actually the first big festival since COVID had hit. And basically, to borrow a line from our friend Buddy Guy, I learned the blues is alive and well. It just changed a little bit like Larkin Poe, who is one of the bigger names in blues performed there, a couple of sisters, they are white. They’re supposedly related to Edgar Allan Poe in some way. And they have a lot of classic rock there, but huge crowd. Fabulous Thunderbirds performed, I thought they were not even one of the top five bands to perform. But Vanessa Collier, who is amazing… plays guitar, plays saxophone, and is just this great person. She was selling her own merch, she didn’t have to, there’s volunteers to sell your merch, but if you’re the musician selling your merch, you’re gonna do a lot better. And she stayed and signed stuff forever. And so after the start of the pandemic, just seeing a big crowd at all, just seeing how people reacted and how much people connect to that music, and then doing a little more exploration saying that, “Ah, the blues are still alive.” They’re not the blues that existed in the 1920s. To a degree things are drifting a little bit back toward women, toward black acts than they were in the 80s and the 90s. But it’s completely different. It’s so many different things. The same way the blues inspired this, people now have picked up rock and folk and even jam band and that type of thing, and brought that back… like Robert Randolph and the Family Band played. It’s very, very, very much funk that they play. But again, just mind blowingly good. So just seeing how blues has changed, or what we call the blues still exists. So finally, I’m mentally writing the last part of my class, but I wasn’t sure, up until then, whether I could tell them that the blues thrives, despite all this research I’d done on that type of thing and listened to Sirius XM Bluesville every day and knowing friends who played the blues. But to see this, see how it was received, see how many blues fans and how many new fans were won over to the blues… that made it possible for me to finish my class with my head held up high that I was not teaching a dead subject, I was teaching a subject that’s very much alive,

Rebecca: That seems like a good note, then, to wrap up with and we always end by asking what’s next?

Tim: Actually, it’s a funny question. I believe you both know a good man by the name of Jim Early, I’ve been recording with him… a record… which it sounds weird to call it that. And it’s not exactly the most bluesy record. But one of the things that this course has taught me and I tell my students all the time, you shouldn’t wait on your dreams or have someone tell you you didn’t do this. I did not grow up as a musician because we could only afford to have one of my siblings play an instrument and that wasn’t me. And so you don’t go through the system. And while you’re not a musician because you don’t know music theory and all the rest of that stuff. So it wasn’t until I got to college and joined a friend’s band and took a course in piano and composition that I’m like “you know what, maybe I am a musician or at least somewhat of a musician.” But I think so many parts of the blues is about overcoming things, and going against people who have preset notions or trying to keep you down in some way. And certainly I don’t suffer the hardships that the blues people did. But just seeing the creative expression, hearing all this music said, “You know what, I want to do music more and more in my life.” What’s next? Obviously, I look forward to teaching the class this fall, hopefully better, always want to teach better. But I try to introduce some historic research and publish in journals and journals don’t like blues history topics. Shockingly, it’s not a popular thing. I would love to do a book that looks at some of the issues I talked about, about blues women and how they started it and how they were relegated after a while. I’d love to talk to people like Shemekia Copeland, or Vanessa Collier. And there’s a lot of other artists who still cover those albums and that type of thing. I don’t know how to engineer it because so much of what I learned from this class, working with the students is so much of what people don’t know, I would love to write a book, even maybe get one journal article published, although I might have to start my own blues journal to do it. But to really get this information out where more people can get it, because people keep saying, “Oh, I’d love to take your class.” I’m like, “Well, you’re not a freshman and you’re not at SUNY Oswego.” Like maybe I’d try like an open source class or something like that, or find a way to impart these lessons to more people, because it’s certainly something that I realized, when you find knowledge gaps, it’s like, “Well, a lot more people need to know this.” And so how do I get that message out? I don’t know yet. But talk to me in a couple of years, I guess.

John: And it would be good to do some of this while you can still interview some of the people who’ve been in that for a long time,

Tim: Absolutely. Buddy Guy is really the last connection to so much of an era. But there are people out there like Bonnie Raitt would be an excellent interview, I would think. You’re right, because we are going to lose a lot of people who have a lot of knowledge.

Rebecca: Well, thanks so much, Tim.

Tim: You’re very welcome.

Rebecca: …very nice talking to you and hearing about the interesting things you’re doing.

Tim: Well, I enjoy talking about it and you all are excellent hosts, of course,

John: …and if I ever retire, my goal is to join a blues band and go on tour.

Tim: I know where you can get a good bassist.


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.



277. Write Like a Teacher

Teaching faculty regularly help novices acquire new knowledge and skills. These same skills allow faculty to write effectively for audiences beyond their academic disciplines. In this episode, James Lang joins us to discuss his new book that is designed to help faculty write for broader audiences.

Jim is the author of six books, the most recent of which are: Distracted: Why Students Can’t Focus and What You Can Do About It, Small Teaching: Everyday Lessons from the Science of Learning (now in a second edition); Cheating Lessons: Learning from Academic Dishonesty; and On Course: A Week-by-Week Guide to Your First Semester of College Teaching. He is currently working on a new book, tentatively titled: Write Like a Teacher. A former Professor of English and the Director of the D’Amour Center for Teaching Excellence at Assumption University, he stepped down from full-time academic work in 2021 to concentrate more fully on his writing and teaching. Jim has served as a keynote speaker and workshop leader at over 100 colleges and universities, including SUNY Oswego.


  • Lang, J. M. (2020). Distracted: Why students can’t focus and what you can do about it. Hachette UK.
  • Lang, J. M. (2021). Small teaching: Everyday lessons from the science of learning. 2nd ed. John Wiley & Sons.
  • Lang, J. M. (2013). Cheating lessons. Harvard University Press.
  • Lang, J. M. (2008). On course: A week-by-week guide to your first semester of college teaching. Harvard University Press.
  • The Saratoga Tea and Honey Company
  • Articles by James Lang in the Chronicle of Higher Education
  • Sarah Rose Cavanagh (2023). Mind Over Monsters. Tea for Teaching podcast. Episode 272. January 18.
  • Julie Jensen
  • Sathy, V., & Hogan, K. A. (2022). Inclusive teaching: Strategies for promoting equity in the college classroom. West V


John: Teaching faculty regularly help novices acquire new knowledge and skills. These same skills allow faculty to write effectively for audiences beyond their academic disciplines. In this episode, we discuss a new book that is designed to help faculty write for broader audiences.


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 James Lang. Jim is the author of six books, the most recent of which are Distracted: Why Students Can’t Focus and What You Can Do About It, Small Teaching: Everyday Lessons from the Science of Learning (now in a second edition), Cheating Lessons: Learning from Academic Dishonesty, and On Course: A Week-by-Week Guide to Your First Semester of College Teaching. He is currently working on a new book, tentatively titled: Write Like a Teacher. A former Professor of English and the Director of the D’Amour Center for Teaching Excellence at Assumption University, he stepped down from full-time academic work in 2021 to concentrate more fully on his writing and teaching. Jim has served as a keynote speaker and workshop leader at over 100 colleges and universities, including SUNY Oswego. Welcome back, Jim.

Jim: Thank you.

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

Jim: Of course. Always.

John: …still David’s Tea or some new tea?

Jim: No, actually, I have two children at Skidmore. And there’s a tea shop there called The Saratoga Tea and Honey Company. I have to go to Saratoga Springs every few months, and I stock up on tea there. So I totally favor robust black teas, so I’m either drinking English breakfasts or Irish breakfast, Irish breakfast gives you a little more of a boost.

Rebecca: It sure does, it’s one of my favorites too.

John: And I am drinking a Tea Forte black currant tea, but with some honey from Saratoga Tea and Honey.

Jim: Ahh!

John: I love that tea shop. I go there at least two or three times a year. There’s lots of conferences up there.

Rebecca: Yeah. And I have Awake tea this afternoon, so I can be more awake this afternoon. [LAUGHTER]

Jim: I know that feeling.

Rebecca: We’ve invited you here today to discuss your new book project. Can you tell us a little bit about the project?

Jim: Sure. So this is my first book focused on writing, even though I’ve always been interested in writing and about how academics can reach wider audiences for their work. And the premise of the book is that the reading experience for nonfiction work, whether it’s an essay or book, should be a learning experience. And so we want to think about how do people learn from the page, as opposed to learning in the classroom or outside of the classroom in real life settings. And so the argument that I make is that those of us who teach, whether we are academics or teaching at other levels, we have either sort of education or experience or instincts that help people learn. And so this knowledge that we’ve gained from like a doctoral programs, or our teaching experiences, or we have good instincts about what to do in the classroom, and we can take that knowledge and put it into our writing practices in order to help create good learning experiences for people on the page. So that’s the core argument of the book. And what I try to do is bring together the many years I’ve been writing about teaching and learning, and sort of take the research I’ve done and arguments I’ve made about effective teaching, and to put them into this new context. And my goal really is for academics who want to try to reach out to broader audiences, whether that’s academics outside of their discipline, or even outside of academic readers altogether, and to help them achieve the goals that they might have about how to promote their work. And a big part of it is we have the opportunity to make the world a better place, if we can help readers understand the importance of the work that we do. So that’s kind of a sense of what’s kind of driving me into these arguments. I think it’s a good idea if they can, and they’re interested in doing that, reach out to readers outside of their discipline and I want to be able to help them to do that.

John: So much academic writing is written to a very narrow academic audience, which tends to exclude most people from reading the work that most academics do. And as you said, academics, especially those who are heavily involved in teaching, have skills in taking complex concepts and trying to relay them to an audience that does not have the same background. But most academics don’t tend to do that. And you seem to be in a really good place to write a book like this, given all the writing that you’ve done, your role as the longtime editor of The West Virginia University Press series on teaching and learning, as well as your role as a faculty member. So how did these roles come together to help you prepare for this book? 4:09:25

Jim: So obviously, I’ve had a lot of experience writing as a writer myself, trying to reach out to outside audiences beyond my discipline. And I think one of the things you just said is important. Most academics know how to write like, this is something we have to do to get degrees and promotion and tenure and all that kind of stuff. We know how to do it. But when we’re writing to other academics, they’re in our discipline, so we have a lot of shared disciplinary background information. And then we also can sort of assume a little bit more attention to our work, essentially, from disciplinary readers because I can push your attention a little further than I can someone who is outside of the discipline, so like, you’re willing to stay with me for a little bit longer to go a little bit more deeply into the core ideas. But a non-academic reader needs more information, they need some more background information. They need to be kind of guided along with kind of signposts along the way, to be told stories, kind of different forms of evidence. So all these things are things that we do in the classroom. And so I think one of the things I really want to be able to do with the book is to sort of empower people. And my work as a writer about education, I view that as empowering as well. I want to be able to show people, for example, in my book on Small Teaching, I want to show people, there’s a number of small things that you can do, that are going to make a difference. And I hope that’s an empowering message, and I hope this message will be the same for writers. You know how to do this stuff, you’ve been doing it for a long time, and you’ve seen that other people do it. So it’s a kind of a process of kind of taking your knowledge here and just applying it to a new context. Now, to get to your question, I’ve been trying to do that for a long time. And I have a column I’ve written for the Chronicle of Higher Education, I’m approaching 200 columns at this point. And then I also have always been interested in seeing where else my writing could go. I like to challenge myself as a writer. So I’ve reached out to places like newspapers and magazines, and probably have a couple of dozen essays published in those places. And some of my books also kind of reached out to broader audiences. So first of all, I was drawing from my own experiences. And that’s not just about the writing, but also the process, like what does it look like to reach out to an editor, for example, at a major newspaper and try to get your work in that forum. So with the writing, but also then the process of getting yourself published and promoting your work, the book kind of covers all that stuff. But also, I think the reason that I really kind of wanted to address this topic is because I edit a book series as well. And so I’ve acquired, I think, 15 books for that series. Now, I co-edit with Michelle Miller. But I did probably all those first 12 to 15 ones that I worked with the authors all the way through from the first getting that query email to getting it through being approved, revised, and then getting it out there and trying to help them with promotion. So like guiding multiple people through that process, which I love, it’s like one of my great joys in my life now is to help people get their first books published. I really learned a lot. And I kind of found myself saying the same thing to authors, like, “Here’s a few things that you need to do that can help make this book more successful.” And so with that knowledge, I kind of want to say, “Okay, I want to be able to put this stuff down.” I get all these hopeful email queries when people have a lot of hope in their voices, or even on the page. And, you know, they want to get their books published, and they’re stumbling on some very common obstacles. And so I wanted to be able to have this stuff available in print so I could not only share with those folks, people who are looking to publish with us, but anybody who wants to publish, whether it’s a book or even an essay. So I do try to cover both of those things as well, writing books, but also writing about essays or various kinds of media platforms: newspapers, magazines, websites.

Rebecca: It’s interesting, because no matter what discipline you’re in, you’re usually trained on how to publish in a very particular way. And then all the other ways seem very mystical.

Jim: Absolutely, that relates to the fact that we’re so very familiar with the sort of processes and the kind of arguments that we make in our discipline. But then we kind of just jump a little bit away from that and we’re kind of in a different world. That’s true, not only of the publishing process, but also the writing process. So like, one of the things I often have to explain to authors is you have a disciplinary tradition of evidence. So in your discipline, evidence looks like this, right? It’s numbers, or its experiments, or its literary texts, whatever it might be, but you’re trying to reach now beyond your discipline. And so those people are completely used to seeing evidence in this form. And it’s fine for them to just sort of stay in that place. But when you’re reaching out to other readers, in the same way as a teacher, you have to try to reach out to multiple kinds of learners, you have to do the same thing as a writer. So yes, I might write for an audience of people who are interested in writing in literature, but I have to be aware that some people are gonna say, “Okay, well show me the facts,” essentially, right, or the statistics, or what experiments have been done to sort of show this is really true? So like, as a writer who’s trying to reach people from multiple fields, or even outside of academic fields, I need to think about how am i varying my evidence? What kind of evidentiary traditions am I drawing from? So like, when you start looking at these kinds of things, you see, yes, the things that I normally do in my academic writing, I have the skills, and I just have to learn to kind of expand them a little bit and sort of move them around a little bit in order to reach some different kinds of folks.

John: We’ve been doing two reading groups a year here, and most of the books that we’ve worked on have either been books that you’ve written, or books in the West Virginia University Press series. And there’s some things I’ve noticed that tend to be common to all of those. And I’m curious to see if you’d agree, [LAUGHTER] but all of them are very solidly backed by evidence with appropriate citations, either in the footnotes or in the bibliographies. But they all tend to be free of disciplinary jargon and they tend to have a lot of use of narrative where they’re bringing in examples with actual faculty members from a variety of disciplines, showing the wide range of applicability of the techniques that are being discussed. Was that something you tended to focus on explicitly? And is that something you encourage faculty moving into these new areas to focus on?

Jim: Absolutely. I mean, those things are definitely core messages that I’m giving to authors. The first is having some kind of practical application to it. Now that should be a true teaching book, right? There’s to be some kind of takeaway for the reader. But no matter what you’re doing, I always try to emphasize to academic authors, there should be something that the reader can take away that’s concrete. It might be a new way of thinking about the world, but it could be new advice about something, how to do something differently in your life, join a movement, or make a change in something you’re doing. So having some kind of takeaway, I think, is really important. But again, when talking about the sort of evidence piece of this, the fact that stories are really important in this because stories, they’re not like a logicians perspective, maybe they’re not the best forms of evidence, but they still really help people understand the ideas, and so they put the ideas into sort of a place where I can try to relate them, and see like how my experiences compare to the experience in the story. And so one of the things that I often will see academic authors who have this sense, “I should give an example or two,” those examples are often very lifeless, they’re like a one sentence sort of very abstract description of something. And I try to say to people, “Look, if you’re gonna tell a story, tell it well, use images, give me a little bit of detail about it, the story is going to really resonate with me when it’s a story that I kind of enjoy reading and that I can somehow try to relate to.” I kind of came to this discovery for myself as a writer, because I typically tell some personal stories in my own writing, right? So Small Teaching includes a story about me ordering green tea at my local coffee shop. And so what I’ve discovered is that when I go to like conferences or workshops, people will remember that story. And they’ll use it to kind of reach out and make a connection with me. And so like, I’ve also had people say, “You told this story about teaching your daughter how to drive and then I was thinking about that when I was doing the same thing and I had the same ideas that you did.” And so it creates these opportunities to let people share their own experiences with the book or with the author. I try to tell people, you don’t have to share your whole personal life, but just occasionally, having stories like this, whether they’re about you or somebody else, they do help people see the material in a new way.

Rebecca: It definitely makes them far more readable and brings things to life. I’m curious about this book project and the timing, and why write this book now?

Jim: Yeah, so this book is sort of coming out of, first of all, the West Virginia University series definitely has been growing and so it’s really kind of exploded in terms of the number of titles that we’re putting out. And so seeing more and more of these kinds of issues coming up in the proposals in the books that we are seeing, and so I wanted to try to get these ideas out, as I’m going out through new manuscripts and working with new authors. That was a part of it. I also had a kind of big personal issue that came up with me over the last couple of years. And so that gave me a new sense of commitment to this kind of work, not only teaching for me, but also about writing. And you kind of feel like this kind of sense of that I wanted to start working with writers in a more formal way, both in this book, and then maybe going forward and also doing more developmental editing for academic authors who would like to expand their audiences. So this is like a moment where I’m trying to make a transition here. I still want to teach and I’m still going to write about teaching. But I do want to also think about moving more into the space of working with writers and writing about writing myself. And part of that was… the short version of the story, which is a long story. [LAUGHTER] In October of 2021, I was diagnosed with something called myocarditis, which is inflammation of the heart. And that often heals itself for people when they get it. But in my case, it went the other way, this happens sometimes. It kind of essentially destroyed my heart over a space of a few weeks, the time between I went into the hospital, just because I was having like an irregular heartbeat… otherwise, I was fine… and the time I was on advanced life support, it might have been two weeks. And so this sort of crashed into our lives. I was on advanced life support for a couple months. I wasn’t expecting to survive, but I did. And I got a heart transplant and I had a stroke during the surgery, which is a long surgery. I woke up from all that. And finally, initially, I couldn’t speak also because of the stroke I had. It was complete aphasia, so I had to learn to speak again with flashcards and speech therapy, and my wife would work with me every day. So after all of that, that kind of focuses your mind a little bit, it kind of helps you realize, okay, you only got so many years left on the planet, what do you really want to do in those years? And so it has helped me realize that I want to still continue teaching. I’ve made incredible connections across the world with teachers by writing about teaching, and I love to talk to academics. They’re the audiences I feel most comfortable with. But I feel like at this point, now I have something different to offer them, not just sort of advice about teaching, but also to help them become more successful as writers.

John: And now you’re sharing it with writers, not just the dozen and a half or so writers you were working with at West Virginia, but with writers all over the world. And I think that’s providing a really nice service.

Jim: Thank you.

Rebecca: It’s amazingly incredible, for sure.

John: We’re awfully glad you have recovered so amazingly well. And I remember seeing you post about that on Twitter after you were already in the process of recovering and I had wondered why you had gone into the background there and you hadn’t posted anything for quite a while and it was a bit of a shock. And I think when you posted that you got many, many people commenting.

Jim: Yes, yes, definitely. The community was very supportive, not only the community of my family and my friends here where I live, but also many people around the world, sent me messages and asked about how things were going and offered support and prayers and thoughts and all that stuff. It was very heartening.

Rebecca: You mentioned multiple times about kind of shifting gears a little bit or shifting focus. But to me, if we look at the things that you’ve been involved in, and the things that you’ve written about, you’re really staying true to faculty development. [LAUGHTER] It’s just faculty development with a slightly different focus, but certainly the kind of support that we’ve seen from you in different ways of faculty life.

Jim: Yeah. And actually, in my last years at Assumption, before I decided to step away from full-time academic work, I was moving in that direction as well, because I was responsible for our new faculty orientation as the director of our teaching center. I like to work with junior faculty to help them navigate the different channels of academic life, including service and research and teaching. And so because I had visited so many other institutions where I had often been invited to give workshops or lectures, and had visited many teaching centers and had opportunities to have dinner with lots of people around the country and talk about academic life, I felt like I was kind of gathering a lot of good ideas from all these different places. And I wanted to be able to bring those ideas back to my own campus. So I was always trying to give this information or these ideas or this advice to faculty I knew and were working with. And again, as I’m kind of just stepping away from those concrete roles on campus, although I’m still going to continue to teach on a part-time basis, I want to be able to keep expanding that work outside to other academics who could benefit, not only in their teaching, but also in their goals as writers too.

Rebecca: I think it’s helpful to hear stories as faculty think about different ways that their faculty lives unfold over time, and how that might evolve, as they shift focus on things and maybe want to focus more on teaching or want to focus more on research or more on writing as they develop over time.

Jim: Yeah, this was definitely something that characterized my career. I started as a normal tenure-track faculty member in English and I did that for quite a few years. And I was just kind of looking for a change, a lot like many people after you get tenure, and I was kind of looking for something new to see like, “Okay, I’ve kind of cleared that hurdle, what could I do differently now?” And then I became the director of our Honors Program. And that kind of captured my interest for a while. And then I got kind of interested in these kinds of semi- or part-time administrative positions. And so then became the director of our teaching center. And so I think it’s a good point, especially as we move along in our academic careers, we can look out for other opportunities, and make shifts and draw on different strengths over the course of our careers. So stepping away from full-time work was a big one. And I actually made that decision just about five months before I went to the hospital. So I had five months of like a “early retirement.” [LAUGHTER] But that was a big decision. But I still am very happy with what I’m doing now. And I’m sure gonna continue to look for other ways to challenge myself. And again, kind of keep that focus going on faculty development, though, because as I said, I just was at Williams College last week and giving some presentations there, went out to dinner with folks. And I was just kind of sitting there thinking, “These are my people.” Like, I feel very comfortable with the faculty. I love to have the fascinating conversations that learning about people’s… all the strange stuff they research and the very specific things that people write about and think about, the cool courses they teach. I just love those conversations. I love being in those rooms. And I kind of want to keep doing that work. And as a writer, it’s a huge audience, right? The amount of people in this country, for example, just alone, that are working in higher education, right? So I’m not limiting myself as a writer, I’ve got this huge audience that I can try to reach. And I just feel very comfortable writing to folks in those positions.

John: And you’re still serving as a teacher, just to a much broader audience than when you were in the classroom.

Jim: Yes.

John: In January, we released a podcast with Sarah Rose Cavanagh, and she talked about how you were working with her on a writer’s group. Is that a strategy that you’d recommend for faculty who are working on writing?

Jim: Yeah, writers’ groups are essential. All my recent books have emerged from writers’ groups. There’s different kinds of writers’ groups. So it’s worth noting the kind of taxonomy of these different kinds of ways to work with other people on your writing. The first is to sort of get a bunch of people who sit together and try to write in each other’s company, essentially, right? So that’s just: you make a time, identify a place, we come together and we kind of support each other, just sort of by being together essentially, right? So that’s one kind of writers group. There’s an accountability kind of group, that’s a second kind, where we’re gonna say, “Okay, everyone needs to have 2000 words by this date, everyone’s going to finish their articles by this date.” And then we’re gonna get together, we’re going to celebrate that or, for example, we’re all working on an article, we’ll get together every month and we’ll share things that we’re struggling with or the things that we’re doing well. It’s almost kind of like a little bit writer’s group therapy, essentially, we’re like supporting each other. The last kind is critique groups, and that’s what I’ve always been part of, where we actually send each other’s work in progress and we read it and then we get together and we give each other feedback. So to me, you can have any kind of writer’s group that you want to be in is going to be good, it’s going to support your writing, and that’s a good idea. Julie Jensen does a lot of work on writing, she argues that academics should not be in content critique groups, because you don’t need people outside of your discipline to be giving you feedback, because that’s going to happen as part of the peer review process. But if you’re going to write for readers outside of your discipline, then I think content critique groups are actually essential, because we’re gonna get from that is that people who are outside of your discipline, who don’t have the same background information that you do… “actually, I’m confused by this, like, you give me this big explanation, but there’s something that I’m missing here.” You’re not gonna get that from somebody in your discipline, because they’re gonna know what the background information is. So I think content critique groups are really important if your ambition is to write for people outside of your discipline. And so content critique groups, for me, they have the function also of accountability, because we meet essentially, once a month, and we have to have something for that meeting. We don’t put a hard number on it. But for me, it might be a Chronicle essay, or it could be current chapter. And I know that group meeting is not going to do anything for me, unless I’ve given something to the group. It’s helpful for me to give feedback to other people too, but I want it to be helpful to me, so I make sure that something is ready for it. So essentially, it’s an accountability group and we also talk about problems too. It’s like it does the other things, but I just think it’s really important for writers to have someone outside of their narrow field, give them their perspective on whatever you’re writing.

John: One thing has struck me as being common with each of those groups is that issue of accountability. We often refer to it in economics as a commitment device, that when you have that deadline, when you have to provide something at a certain time, or even if you’re just going to sit together and write at a certain time, it’s so easy to postpone things like writing and having that commitment makes it so much more likely that people will actually achieve their goal.

Jim: Yeah, absolutely, wespecially when you’re doing a longer project, like a book, you’d start the process with, like a deadline two years away, right? But the writers group, for me, gives me the structure, I need to actually finish it, because I know, “Okay, I want to get this chapter done, so that I can then get the next one done. And if I do all those things, at the end of the two years, I’m gonna have a book. Otherwise, there’s no hard deadlines, except for the one. And so to produce 80,000 words, for something that’s two years away, we’re not good at that kind of thing, [LAUGHTER]as humans, unless we really kind of put deadlines along the way. [LAUGHTER]

Rebecca: Are you implying that faculty needs structure? … and scaffolding too? [LAUGHTER]

Jim: Yeah, absolutely. Giving structure. And that reminds me, that’s another thing that I like, as a part of the book actually is thinking about the importance of structure, not only for writers, but also for readers. When you look at an academic article, for example, in social science disciplines, it’s got a set structure to it. It’s got the introduction, it’s got the literature review, the experiment, the method, that kind of thing. But if you’re in like a humanities discipline, and you’re looking at reading an article about like literary theory, it’s just gonna be like, sort of paragraph after paragraph after paragraph like just kind of a long series of paragraphs, which just kind of guide you from beginning to end. But when you look at work that is published outside of the academic world, it often has lots of sections, subheadings, little titles along the way, those things are really important to help a non-academic reader through complex material in the same way we do it in the classroom. We help students, we guide them through our slides, for example, our stuff on the board, or like dividing the class in three or four parts or something like that. Again, this is stuff that we kind of do instinctually in the classroom, because we know the students are gonna zone out. [LAUGHTER] So we kind of guide them through the material, we need to do the same thing in our writing, too. And I like to think about these as attention tools of writing. And so the use of breaking up the text, and that’s sometimes may mean just like sections and subheadings, and all that kind of stuff. But also like bullets, you don’t need to go crazy, but you want to make sure that you are breaking up the page, or the argument, with these structural elements.

Rebecca: Jim, you’re suddenly like an interaction designer. [LAUGHTER]

Jim: Okay. Wait, what do you mean exactly by that?

Rebecca: So, an interaction designer would say something like for usability purposes, you would do all the things that you just described, and they’re also accessibility principles. So they’re good for so many reasons.

Jim: Yeah. Okay, I like that.

Rebecca: It’s gold. [LAUGHTER]

Jim: I like that.

John: And right before I arrived here, I went over to our provost office to pick up a couple of big cartons of books by Viji Sathy and Kelly Hogan from West Virginia University Press for our reading group this semester. And one of their main arguments is the importance of structure in helping people make connections to help break down complex topics into these manageable chunks to help people understand things much better. And it sounds like this is, as you and Rebecca have both said, is really important in many, many different contexts.

Jim: Yeah, I believe their work about high structure is so important. And I’ve definitely kind of imported that into the chapter in which I discuss these issues. But the other thing to think about again, from like a reading perspective, so if I’m reading a work, for example, I’m not going to sit and read a book, a 300-page book by an academic writer in one sitting. So I need places to stop and come back. And so maybe I can’t get a 30-40 page chapter in. But if I have opportunities to stop, [LAUGHTER] close the book, and come back to it, and I can come back to a subheading, which is going to tell me, “Okay, that’s what next. Oh, right, that’s what I was just before, and here’s what’s coming.” These are opportunities to come away, come back, and be able to return to the argument, and not be lost when I return to it. And this is just probably always the way that we’ve read. But this is how we’re definitely doing it now, as we’re bombarded with so many different things that can interrupt us. So having those kinds of opportunities to pause and renew the reading experience are important.

Rebecca: But the use of subheadings, in particular, I find helpful as a reader to just get reoriented, especially when you’re coming from a different place. And then I need to transition to an entirely different place, just looking back to those couple of subheadings that came before can immediately get you into that place again really efficiently. So I love it when writers do that, for me as a reader.

Jim: If they’re done well, it will show you an overview of the whole argument, essentially. So I think those are really important to help guide the reader through what they call the through line. The through line is the thread that connects everything in the book, the overall argument, and the subheadings, kind of hanging off that through line. And so I think they really are important for academic writers to do for other kinds of audiences.

Rebecca: Heck, I would like it sometimes just with my own discipline… more subheadings, please. [LAUGHTER]

Jim: I agree, I agree.

John: This is a little bit different. But one thing that really bothers me when I’m reading a novel on my Kindle late at night. I always like to stop, if not at a chapter break, at least at a paragraph break. And I was trying to read last night and I had to skim through about six or seven pages on there before this paragraph ended, [LAUGHTER] and it helps to have those little breaks that are logical stopping points. And writers don’t always do that.

Jim: No, no, one of the points may be I’m trying to push you through some difficult materials, so I get that. But even if you don’t have the sub headings, for example, if you look at the articles in The Chronicle of Higher Education, they might not have subheadings, some of them do, but sometimes will just be a break. So like the paragraph ends, there’s like some whitespace, and then a new section starts, even that’s better than just the sort of constant unbroken series of paragraphs. And I also think it’s also just good for visual, your eye glosses over when you open to a page, and it’s just a huge block of text. That’s intimidating. And so the subheadings, the breaks, all those things, they give a break both for your eye and for your brain.

Rebecca: And even just encourage a moment of pause and reflection, like, “Oh, we’re moving to a new thing. Do I know what I just read? [LAUGHTER] …so I can move to the next thing?” I’m at that moment to double check.

Jim: Yeah, that’s true. They’re great transitions, too. And those moments of transition are often the times when we step back and say, “Okay, so I have this, and what am I curious about as we’re gonna go forward down here.

John: One of the things you mentioned earlier is that your book includes a discussion of the whole process of publishing. Because while academics do a lot of writing all through their academic careers, most academics have not been very heavily involved in publishing. And I don’t think most of them have many ways of getting that information unless they happen to know other people who have been successful in it. So having a book like yours, I think, would be really helpful in providing faculty with information that they just don’t have in their own experiences.

Jim: Yeah, so there’s a chapter which just focuses on guiding people from a query to publication. So like, what are the actual steps of this process? What are the kinds of things you will need in order to be able to get to that moment when you see your work in print? And so, essentially, I tried to boil it down to four things: three stages and then one sort of central recommendation about how to get this process started. The three things are essentially the query, the query is sort of the short email they’re gonna give. And for me, those are really important because they give me a sense of what’s the question or the problem that you’re addressing? What’s your argument? And why are you the right person to do it? So like, to me a query has got to do those three things, but not much more than that. It’s not like an academic job letter, where it’s five big paragraphs that covers two pages. No, I want to be able to read this thing very quickly and get a sense of who you are, what the project is, what’s going to be interesting, what’s unique about it, all those things. A query letter is like our handshake, where we’re going to kind of introduce ourselves to each other. The proposal, often, that’s all you need for a newspaper or magazine is a query and then the article or something. But for a book, you have to have this next stage of the process, which is a book proposal. And those are a lot of work. A book proposal might be 50 pages, because it’s going to include a overview of the book, which is usually like one to two pages, it’s going to have an author biography, which might just be a page or so, it’s going to have a chapter outline and that might be five or 10 pages. A chapter outline, not just a table of contents with like titles, but at least a paragraph or two for each chapter, and then a writing sample, which should be like at least like a chapter. So that we’re talking about like a 50-page document here. And it also should include… this is gonna vary from publisher to publisher… but it probably will also include a short analysis of the competition, so that you can use that as a way to show what is gonna be different or new or unique about your book. And sometimes publishers will also want like a marketing or promotion overview, like what are you going to do to help support the marketing and promotion of this book, for example. If you have a podcast, if you have a huge social media presence, if you are planning to attend a bunch of conferences in this field, you have connections, all those things can contribute to a sense of what kind of marketing or promotion you would be able to offer for your book. So that’s a big document. It’s really important when we see like student writing, for example, or those of us who teach student writing, sometimes the first page or two kind of gives you a sense of, okay, kind of the quantity of the students writing. Often, the same thing might be true for the proposal. From a couple pages, I can usually get a sense of how experienced the author is, is this project right for our particular series, what kind of writer they’re going to be, in terms of both of their writing, in terms of what kind of person they’re gonna be to work with. But as long as I get over those sort of initial couple pages and I’m still interested, then the proposal really has to show me that it’s going to work as a full book. Once you get past that, then it kind of just goes through the different processes of what’s going to happen to your book when you turn it in, essentially: the review process, copy editing, proofreading, working with a cover designer, the author questionnaire, which is a huge document that is going to help support what you’re going to be able to do support the book. And then also, often there’ll be a call with the marketing and promotion team, so kind of guiding people through that whole process. So those are the three stages I talk about in the book and try to give basic information and advice about that. But the thing I start with is, whenever possible, submit your work to a person. And what I mean by that is not just submitting to “Dear editor” or something like that, do a little bit of basic research on the publication and the person that is going to be sort of giving the initial review of your work. And there’s easy ways to do that, you can look on the web pages of the publisher, acquisition editors will typically have like a short description of what they acquire. You can also look at, like what other books they published. And one of the ways to do this is very simple. Most books will have an acknowledgement section, you can see who edited the book, and whether it was an agent. And so you see those two things. And if you look at books in your area, at the publisher you’re trying to target, you’ll be able to piece together a sense of “Okay, what kind of books does this editor tried to publish?” then you can sort of reach out to that person and say, “Look, I’m a huge fan of this book, which I know you edited and I feel like mine would fit well with this series that you’re overseeing,” whatever it might be. So try to get a little sense of the person that you’re writing to. You can be specific about why you are writing to that particular person at that particular publisher. And that’s something that we don’t have to do typically for academic disciplinary journals or something like that, right? We’re just sending it off to like a email box or just sort of being very objective, “Dear editor, here’s my work,” essentially. But as you’re reaching outside of your disciplinary journals, or academic books, you want to be able to be a little bit more deliberate about reaching out to a specific person.

Rebecca: What you’re describing also sounds a lot more relational, just generally.

Jim: Definitely, and I also make the argument in the book that it sometimes can seem like an adversarial relationship, sometimes between you as an author and an editor, because they’re like the gatekeepers. And they’re going to tell you, “No, we don’t have the money for that table to put in your book,” or an sometimes you can get frustrated as an author. But what’s really important to remember is, we are on your side, the editor always wants you to be successful. And so sometimes we might say things which are like, “You shouldn’t do this,” or “we don’t want to do this,” and “we can’t do that.” And that can be frustrating for an author. But I promise you, I am not like waiting there to kind of stamp an F on your query, [LAUGHTER]. I want you to be successful. Every query that comes in, there’s like a little sort of grain of hope that I’m hoping that this is going to be an amazing book, it’s going to change this person’s life. That’s the best scenario for me, I help someone write their first book, and it’s really successful. And so I’m hoping for that for everybody that writes to me. And I think that the same thing is true for editors. So always keep that in mind. These are the people that want you to be successful, and you have to treat them accordingly. Just be aware of that in terms of how you respond to them, react to them, and then you try to be like a good citizen of the book in the process.

Rebecca: So Jim, when can we get this book?

Jim: Yeah, so I’m finishing it right now, actually. I have one chapter left, I expect to finish it within the next month. So it’s probably be late 2023 or early 2024.

Rebecca: So I’m looking forward to it.

Jim: Thanks.

John: And as you mentioned before, that publishing process does take a lot of time.

Jim: That’s one of the places where it can seem adversarial to an author, right? Why are you taking so long to do this. I gave you a manuscript, why does it take a year to come out? But, I try to go through that stuff in the book. But there are good reasons. And all those reasons are is trying to help you make the most successful book

John: incentives are compatible between the author and the editor, because both parties benefit from having successful books.

Jim: Absolutely.

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

Jim: Yeah, so this book. It’s funny because I had the idea for this book. And I’d written the proposal for it partially, because I had also left my full-time academic position. I was thinking about these issues. And so I sent the proposal actually out before I got sick. And then I signed the contract in the hospital. actually. [LAUGHTER] So that kind of renewed my commitment to it. So that’s kind of been all I’ve been doing since then. But then once I finish that, and I just have already in my mind now, probably I’m going to write some kind of memoir of what I have experienced and what I’ve learned from that. My first two books actually were memoirs. And so I haven’t been in that genre in a while, but I think I had experiences now there’s probably memoir worthy at this point. [LAUGHTER] So yeah, that’s probably the next thing that will happen.

John: Well, we’re looking forward to reading all of them. So we wish you success on that. And it’s great talking to you again.

Jim: Likewise. Thank you.

Rebecca: Yeah, thanks, Jim.


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.


276. Teaching at its Best

New faculty often start their faculty roles without training in teaching. In this episode Linda Nilson and Todd Zakrajsek join us to talk about the evolving roles and expectations of faculty and explore the new edition of a classic teaching guide.

Now Director Emeritus, Linda was the Founding Director of the Office of Teaching Effectiveness and Innovation at Clemson University. Todd is an Associate Research Professor and Associate Director of the Faculty Development Fellowship in the Department of Family Medicine at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Linda and Todd are each individually the authors of many superb books on teaching and learning and now have jointly authored a new edition of a classic guide for faculty.


  • Zakrajsek, T. and Nilson, L. B. (2023). Teaching at its best: A research-based resource for college instructors. 5th edition. Jossey-Bass.
  • Nilson, L. B., & Goodson, L. A. (2021). Online teaching at its best: Merging instructional design with teaching and learning research. John Wiley & Sons.
  • Nilson, Linda (2021). Infusing Critical Thinking Into Your Course: A Concrete, Practical Guide. Stylus.
  • McKeachie, W. J. (1978). Teaching tips: A guidebook for the beginning college teacher. DC Heath.
  • POD
  • Betts, K., Miller, M., Tokuhama-Espinosa, T., Shewokis, P., Anderson, A., Borja, C., Galoyan, T., Delaney, B., Eigenauer, J., & Dekker, S. (2019). International report: Neuromyths and evidence-based practices in higher education. Online Learning Consortium: Newburyport, MA.’
  • Padlet
  • Jamboard
  • Eric Mazur
  • Dan Levy
  • Teaching with Zoom – Dan Levy – Tea for Teaching podcast – May 26, 2021


John: New faculty often start their faculty roles without training in teaching. In this episode we talk about the evolving roles and expectations of faculty and explore the new edition of a classic teaching guide.


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 Linda Nilson and Todd Zakrajsek. Now Director Emeritus, Linda was the Founding Director of the Office of Teaching Effectiveness and Innovation at Clemson University. Todd is an Associate Research Professor and Associate Director of the Faculty Development Fellowship in the Department of Family Medicine at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Linda and Todd are each individually the authors of many superb books on teaching and learning and now jointly have authored another superb book. Welcome back, Linda and Todd.

Linda: Thank you very much.

Todd: Really appreciate the opportunity to be here.

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

Linda: I’m drinking a tea called water. It’s rather dull, but I enjoy it.

Rebecca: It’s very pure.

Linda: Yes, very pure. Very pure.

Rebecca: How about you Todd?

Todd: Oh, I’ve got myself a Lemon Detox because I’ve spent most of my day getting all toxed and now I’m getting detoxed. [LAUGHTER] Wait a minute, that sounds bad. [LAUGHTER] But that will be all right. [LAUGHTER]

John: Especially at Family Medicine.

Todd: Well, we can fix it. [LAUGHTER] In general, life is good.

John: I am drinking pineapple green tea.

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

John: I’ve had it before, just not recently.

Rebecca: Okay. I’m back to the very old favorite, English afternoon. Because I stopped by the Center for Excellence in Learning and Teaching and grabbed a cup before I came.

John: And we are recording together in the same room, which has been a fairly rare occurrence for the last several years. We’ve invited you here to discuss your joint endeavor on the fifth edition of Teaching at its Best: a Research-Based Resource for College Instructors, that Linda originally developed and now you’ve collaborated on this new edition. How did the collaboration on this edition come about?

Linda: Well, let me talk about that. Because it was pretty much my idea. Jossie-Bass contacted me and said “let’s put out a fifth edition” and I said “let’s not.” [LAUGHTER] I was not in the mood to do it. I’ve been retired six and a half years now and I’m loving it. I mean, I’m really loving it. And while retired, I was still writing the second edition of Online Teaching at its Best. And then I was writing a book, Infusing Critical Thinking Into Your Course, and I guess I had had it. I mean, I wanted to really make a change and I wanted to get specifically into working at an animal shelter. So I was all occupied with that. So I thought I remember Wilbert J. McKeachie, when he was doing Teaching Tips that he came to a certain point after I don’t know how many editions that he brought other people on to really do the revision work. And so I decided I’m going to do that. So Jossey-Bass said “Okay, fine.” They wanted three names. Okay, I gave him three names, but my first choice was Todd Zakrajsek, because 1. I knew he’d finish it. [LAUGHTER] I knew he’d finish it fast. I knew he do a great job. He knows the literature like the back of his hand, I wouldn’t have a worry in the world. And guess what? Todd accepted. Hip hip hurray. I was so happy. I couldn’t tell you.

Todd: Well, this is great because I said no when they asked me. [LAUGHTER]

Rebecca: Like any smart person would, right? [LAUGHTER]

Todd: Well, I did end up doing it, of course. But the reason I said no was I knew that book very well and I know Linda very well. And I said, “There is no way. I don’t know anybody who can step in and pick this thing up. She knows so much about so much that it’s just not possible.” And they said, “But she really wants you to do this.” So I went back and forth a couple times and I finally decided to do it. And I will tell you, Linda, because I haven’t mentioned this to you. The first three chapters, I had to go back and redo those when I got done with it, because I was so scared of the first three chapters [LAUGHTER] that it was really rough. And then finally it’s like, okay, I hit my rhythm and I walked into it with impostor syndrome a little bit, and I finally caught my footing, but it’s a good book to start with.

Linda: Thank you. Thank you very much. [LAUGHTER] Yeah, I know, the plot thickens, right? It becomes more interesting as you go from chapter to chapter, right. And before you know it, there’s a happy ending after all.

Rebecca: So Linda, Teaching at its Best has been around for a long time with a first edition published in 1998. Can you talk a little bit about how that first edition came about?

Linda: Yes, that was…I can’t believe… 1998. That’s 25 years ago. It’s almost scary how time flies. But anyway, the actual seed of the book came about in about 1994… 95. But I need to give you some background because I had been writing TA training books since like, the late 1970s when I was first given the task of putting together a TA training program. So back then, I was putting out weekly mimeos,[LAUGHTER] remember mimeograph machines. Some of you don’t know, what is she talking about? But anyway, that was technology then. But anyway, smetl great, though… it really did. [LAUGHTER]

Rebecca: That’s the second time today someone has made a reference about the smell of those.

Linda: Yeah, oh yeah.

John: The dittos are what I remember having the stronger smell

Todd: The ditto did, yeah. yeah, and I’ll tell you before we move on, when I was a graduate student, we had a ditto machine. I just have to say this, Linda, because you liked the smell and all there.

Linda: Yeah, Yeah.

Todd: But they had a ditto machine. And below the ditto machine, I noticed that the floor tiles were kind of eaten away by the ditto fluid. [LAUGHTER] And then here’s the best part is that one day I was rooting around in the closet looking for something and I found the extra tiles in a box and the side of the box said “reinforced with long-lasting asbestos.” [LAUGHTER] So the ditto fluid was eating through asbestos lined tile, but that’s how strong that stuff is. So yeah, we all enjoyed the smell of that stuff back in the day..

Linda: Yeah, yeah. I guess it’s a good thing for all of us they invented something else, like copying machines. So anyway, so I started doing that at UCLA. And then that turned into like a booklet of sorts. And then I was at UC Riverside, and I was writing books there. And I sort of revised it every couple of years. And I was also writing these with my master teaching fellows. So we were doing that. And then I came to Vanderbilt, and I decided, well, I’m going to do this, pretty much on my own, I’ll get some help from my master teaching fellows. But anyway, it turned into an actual book. I mean, it turned into a happy monster. And I was very pleased with it. Well, along about 94-95, my husband recommended that I turn it into a regular book, and talk to a publisher about it. So anyway, I said, “Oh, great idea. Great idea and just sort of didn’t think about it much. Then in 1996, he died. And I thought, “Well, how am I going to pull myself through?” I bet it would be a great idea and a great tribute to him if I took Teaching at its Best, the Vanderbilt edition, and turned that into a general book. And I decided to do that and kept my mind off of bad things. And it turned into Teaching at its Best, the first edition. That’s why I dedicated the book to him, by the way, because it really was his inspiration that got me to do it. And so anyway, tribute to him. So that’s where the first edition came from. I mean, it really grew out of tragedy. But it’s been a comedy ever since, right? [LAUGHTER] So anyway, it’s been a wonderful thing.

John: And it’s been a great resource.

Rebecca: It’s interesting that it pulled you through, but then has pulled many teachers through. [LAUGHTER]

Linda: And I’ve gotten such feedback from faculty members who said, “I saved their lunch,” you know, if they were really in big trouble, and some of them said, “I was in big trouble with my teaching and you got me tenure.” Yeah, like, right. But anyway, the book helped a lot of people. And I guess maybe something in me when I first published this book said, “Gee it would really be great to be the next Wilbert McKeachie, right, which is a very pretentious thing to think. But then they wanted the second edition, I was thinking, “Hey, maybe I’m on the road to something.” And then there was a third, and then there was the fourth. And it didn’t get any easier to write the subsequent editions really, it was just a matter of keeping up with the literature. And so right now, I’m off into another corner of the world. So I just didn’t want to immerse myself in that again.

John: So that brings us to the question of what is new in the fifth edition?

Todd: Well, that’s my question. I’ve known Linda for the longest time. By the way, I do want to mention before we go on, I can’t remember, Linda, if it’s been that long ago, but it might have been the second edition. When at POD, I said, “You need to do a second edition of this book” …or second or third. But I was using the book. I mean, I learned so much from it. So for the new edition. Number one, of course, the research has been updated only because the research is always changing. And it had been a few years. So that’s number one. In terms of changing the book, though, we only have a leeway of about 10,000 words. Now, for those out there listening 10,000 words sounds like a lot of words until you’ve got a 200,000 word book, it was about 190. And they said, you can’t go over 200 Because the book just gets too big then. So it is 10,000 words longer than it was in fact, I think it’s 10,003 words longer. So it’s right in there. [LAUGHTER]

Rebecca: So you snuck an extra 3 words in.

Todd: It could have been a squeeze to put three words in there. And it’s always hilarious because when they say there’s just a few too many words I just start hyphenating things so yeah, it kind of all works. [LAUGHTER] Yeah, just any words at all. So you can do “can you” as just a hyphenated word. It works. [LAUGHTER]K So is that terminology, the terminology does change and I find this fascinating. One of the things I love to write about books is learning. I mean, Linda, the same thing what as we write, we read a ton of stuff. And as we read stuff, we learn stuff. So this one in particular, for example, is that I grew up with PBL as problem based learning. And I had done workshops on it, I had worked on everything else, but I hadn’t looked at it for quite a while. And in this particular book, as I started looking at PBL, I couldn’t find anything on problem based learning. And it was fascinating because I was doing some digging, and then I called Claire Major, who was an early person who had a grant on problem based learning and everything I ran into was about 2002, it just started to drop off a little bit, and there was some, but it started to tail off. And when I talked to Claire, she says, “Oh, yeah, I used to do quite a bit about that, it was back around 2002-2003.” And now, and the reason I’m saying this is, every time I saw the letters PBL, it was project based learning. And project based learning sounds a lot like problem based learning, but they’re different concepts. And so anyway, going through and finding some of the terminology, so it was consistent with what’s being done right now has changed. There is now a chapter on inclusive teaching, because over the last three or four years, we finally realized that there’s a whole lot of individuals who haven’t been successful in higher education, partly because of the way we teach. And so I’ve been making an argument for a few years now that teaching and learning, the classroom situation has always really been based for fast-talking, risk-taking extroverts. And we’ve suddenly realized that if you’re not a fast-talking, risk-taking extrovert, you may not get a chance to participate, classroom and other things. So I looked at some different things with inclusive teaching. There’s a whole another chapter on that. And then just the language throughout, we talk a little differently now, just even over the last three or four years than we did five, six years ago, I was pretty surprised by that. But there’s some pretty significant changes in language. So the book has a slightly different tone in language, and those are the biggest changes. Oh, I should say, before we move on, one of the biggest other changes, and I did this one, Linda put a section in there that said learning styles had changed significantly from the previous edition. And so she had pointed out that there was no longer a section on learning styles. And I put the learning styles right back in there, I told Linda and she gasped just a little bit. And then I explained that I put it back in there, and then said exactly how terrible it was to basically teach according to learning styles, because it’s the myth that will not die. So that’s back in there.

Linda: People love it. I know. [LAUGHTER]

John: We have that issue all the time, students come in believing in them and say, “Well, I can’t learn from reading because I’m a visual learner.” And I say “Well, fortunately, you use your eyes to read,” and then I’ll get them some citations.

Todd: Well, I’ll tell you, and before we move on, these are the types of things we learned. I couldn’t figure out why the thing is so hard to die. What is it that’s really doing this because other myths we’ve been able to debunk. And part of the reason is licensing exams, when you are in pre-service and you want to become a teacher, the exams you take to become a teacher, a large portion of those exams, have learning styles questions on there. So you have to answer about visual learners and auditory learners and kinesthetic. And so until we get those out of teacher education programs, we’re teaching teachers to believe this. So anyway, there you go. Public service announcement. Be careful about meshing. And if you don’t know what meshing is, look it up and then stop it. [LAUGHTER]

John: We have had guests on the podcast who mentioned learning styles, and then we edit them out and explain to them later why we edit out any reference to that. And I think most of them were in education, either as instructors, or they’ve been working as secondary teachers. It is a pretty pervasive myth. In fact, Michelle Miller and Kristen Betts, together with some other people, did a survey. And that was the most commonly believed myth about teaching and learning. It was done through OLC a few years back, about three or four years ago. Yep,

Todd: Yeah, I saw that survey. Yes, it’s pretty amazing. Michelle’s an amazing person.

Rebecca: The experience of the pandemic has had a fairly large impact on how our classes are taught. Can you talk a little bit, Todd, about how this is reflected in this new edition?

Todd: Things have changed pretty significantly because of the pandemic. There’s a couple things going on. Again, the inclusive teaching and learning, which I’ve already commented on, is really different now. And it’s interesting, because it goes back to the 1960s. We’ve known that, for instance, African Americans tend to flunk at twice the rate of Caucasians, in large machine-scored multiple choice exams. So we know it’s not the teaching, and we know it’s not the grades, it has to be something else. And it turns out that it was you put students into groups and those differences start to disappear. So I mean, even more so the last couple of years, it’s a lot of engaged learning, active learning. I’m still going to pitch my stuff that I’ve been ranting and raving about for years. And there’s no data out there that says that lecturing is bad. What the data says is that if you add active and engaged learning to lecture, then you have much better outcomes than lecture alone. But we’re learning about those types of things in terms of active and engaged learning, how to pair it with and mix it with other strategies that work, looking at distance education in terms of systems and how we can use technology. So a quick example is I used to have a review session before exams. And oftentimes, it’s hard to find a place on campus to have that. And so you might be in a room off in one hall or the library or something. And if the exam was on Monday, I’d have the review session at like six o’clock, seven o’clock on a Sunday night. And there are students who couldn’t make it. I would simply say, you can get notes from someone else. And we’ve known for the longest time, if a student misses class, getting notes from somebody else doesn’t work. Well, now I do review sessions on Zoom, we don’t have to worry about finding a place to park, we don’t have to worry about some students finding babysitters, if they’re working, it’s recorded, so they get the exact same thing. So things like Zoom have really changed teaching in a sense that you can capture the essence in the experience of teaching and use it for others, and it has helped with some equity issues. You can’t do it all the time. And teaching over Zoom is different than face to face. But there are now ways of using different technologies and using different modalities to help to teach in ways that were not really used before the pandemic.

John: Speaking of that, during the pandemic, there was a period of rapid expansion in both the variety of edtech tools available and in terms of teaching modalities themselves. In the description of your book, it indicates that you address useful educational technology and what is a waste of time? Could you give us an example of both some useful technologies that could be used and some that are not so useful? And also perhaps a reaction to the spread of bichronous and HyFlex instruction?

Linda: Yeah, I’ll take this one. And I’m drawing a lot of stuff from another book that I co-authored, with Ludwika Goodman. We were writing about Online Teaching at its Best, okay. And she was an instructional designer. And I came from teaching and learning and we put our literature’s together. And we were talking about modalities a great deal, especially in the second edition with the pandemic. Well, one thing I found out, not only from reading, but also from watching this happen was that this Hyflex or bichronous, whatever you want to call it, is a bust, if there ever was a modality, that’s a bad idea it’s that one, even though administrators love it because students can choose whether to come to class and do the things they would do in class, or to attend class remotely? Well, yeah, it sounds like “oh, yeah, that could be good.” But the technological problems, and then the social problems, especially the in-class social problems are enormous. And in-class social problems, like small group work, how do you hear what’s going on in the classroom over this low roar of small groups? Okay, so how can you help? How can the students that are learning remotely, what can they do? Now, the way this was invented, by the way, was for a small graduate class, and then okay, like, makes sense, because you’re only dealing with six students in this room and six students who are remote. But other than that, it’s so bad, the logistics, the sound logistics, the coordination that the instructor has to maintain, the attempt at being fair to both groups, at bringing in both groups, when the groups can’t even hear each other well. Now, if we had Hollywood level equipment in our classrooms, we might be able to make this work a little better, but we don’t, and we’re never going to have that. So there are just a lot of technological and social reasons why HyFlex, that’s what I called it in Online Teaching at its Best, what it was called at the time is a complete bust. Now, not to be confused with hybrid or blended learning, which we found has worked exceedingly well. So bringing in some technology, but into a face-to-face environment and that being the base of the class. Now, remote’s nice, but you might not want to do remote all the time for all things. It’s not quite the next best thing to being there. But it’s something and as long as you don’t just stand there and stare at the camera and lecture for an hour. You’ll get complaints about that quickly. And particularly with students today when they really need to be actively involved, actively engaged. So yeah, sure, fine, talk for three minutes, maybe even push it for five, but then give them something to do and you really, really must in remote because otherwise, you’re just some talking head on television.

Todd: I agree completely. In fact, it was funny because I happen to have a digital copy of the book here. And so I typed in a ctrl F and I typed in HyFlex and there’s one comment to the preface that said there’s many different formats out there and then I will tell the listeners, if you’re expecting to learn about HyFlex, the word never shows up again in the book. [LAUGHTER] So, it’s not in there. I mean, you look at the literature that’s out there. And I think it’s fair to say that maybe there are people who can do it. I haven’t really seen it done well and I think Linda’s saying she hasn’t either. And it’s so difficult, especially for a book like this. That’s not what we’re all about. I mean, again, if it even works well, which I’d love to hear that it would be a very advanced book and that’s not what this is. So we do have a lot in there about technology in terms of edtech tools, though. There are those in there, I would just say real quickly, for instance, Padlet’s one of my favorites, I’ll throw that out there. I like Padlet a lot. But there are tools out there, if you want to do a gallery walk, which for instance, if you happen to be in a face-to-face course, you’d set up maybe four stations with big sheets of paper, you put your students into groups, and then they walk from sheet of paper to sheet of paper, and they move around the room. And they can do what’s called a gallery walk. You can do the same thing online with a jamboard, you can set up jamboards so that there’s different pages, and then each group is on a page. And then you just say it’s time to shift pages, they could shift pages. So I’ve done gallery walks, and it’s worked well. I’ve used Padlet for brainstorming. And one of the things I love about Padlet, I’ll have to say is if you are doing some digital teaching in a situation, you can watch what each group is developing on the page for all groups at the same time. I can’t hear all groups at the same time when I walk around the room. So there are certainly some technologies coming out that can really do things well. There’s also things that don’t work very well, though. And I think one of the things you want to keep in mind is just learning theory. Does the technology you’re using advance students, potentially, through learning theory? Does it help with repetition? Does it help with attention? Linda was just mentioning attention, if you lecture too long, you lose their attention. If you do something ridiculously simple or not… I was gonna say stupid, but that sounds rude. But if we do something as a small group that makes no sense, you don’t get their attention either. So using clickers, I have to say, I watched a faculty member one time because they were touted as a person who was very engaging. And this is at a medical school, so I really wanted to see this. And the person used clickers, but used it in a way that asked the students a question, they responded, and the instructor looked up at the board and said, “Here’s how you responded, let’s move on.” And then moved on to the next thing. And about five minutes later gave another question said, “How do you respond?” and they clicked the clicker, and then they moved on again. That had no value at all, and in fact, there was no actual interaction there. So afterwards, I say, can’t you just ask a rhetorical question and just move on? We got to be careful not to use technology just because it’s being used, it should advance the learning process.

John: However, clickers can be effective if it’s combined with peer discussion and some feedback and some just-in-time teaching. If it’s just used to get responses that are ignored, it really doesn’t align with any evidence-based practice or anything we know about teaching and learning. But those per discussions can be useful and there’s a lot of research that show that does result in longer-term knowledge retention when it’s used correctly, but often it’s not.

Todd: Right. And I think that’s a really good point. I’m glad you said that, because Eric Mazur, and his concept tests, for a large extent, that’s where active and engaged learning really took off. And that is a clicker questions. And they can be used as great tools. But again, if you’re using it for the right reason, which is what you just said, My comment is, there’s technology out there, that is a waste of time, and not a good thing to have, because it’s just not being used in a way that’s conducive to learning. So good point, that’s fair.

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

Linda: Sure. It’s actually for anybody who teaches students older than children, I suppose, because it isn’t really designed for teaching children. But other than that, it’s really for people who teach but don’t have the time to read a book. The nice thing about Teaching at its Best is you can go to the table of contents, you go to the index, you could find exactly what you need for your next class. And it’s very oriented towards how to, so it could be for beginners or for experienced people who simply haven’t tried something specific before, or want a twist on it, or just want some inspiration. Because there there are a lot of different teaching techniques in there. And they’re all oriented towards student engagement, every single one of them. But I wanted to comment too, on just how the job of instructor or professor has changed over the past, I don’t know, 40 years, I suppose. I know when I started teaching it was a completely different job. And I started teaching in 1975, when I was 12, of course, but no and I was young to start teaching because I was 25 and there I was 180 students in front of me. So oops, my goodness, what have I done? But that’s exactly what I wanted to do. But you’d go in there, you’d lecture and you’d walk out. You were in complete control of everything. Like, you might throw out a question and you might get a discussion going. But it wasn’t considered to be essential. In fact, there were two teaching techniques back then: there was lecture, and there was discussion. And nobody knew how to do discussion. Now, I had to find out a few things about it when I was doing TA training, because TAs were supposed to be running discussions. But there wasn’t a lot out there. Thank God for Wilbert McKeachie’s book Teaching Tips, because that was about the only source out there you could go to. So anyway, but now the job, I mean, oh, it’s mind boggling what faculty are now expected to do. And they are supposed to, like, learning outcomes. Okay, I love learning outcomes. They’re wonderful. But I didn’t have to do that when I started, I just had to talk about my subject, which I dearly loved. And so, that was nothing. But you’ve got learning outcomes. So you’ve got to be like, a course designer, you have to deal with a student’s mental health problems, right? It’s part of the job, and you’re expected to respond to them. You’re supposed to give them career counseling in careers that you might not know much about, and possibly for good reason, because you’re in your own career. It’s so time consuming, not to mention fair use, oh, yes, fair use has changed, fair use has changed radically. And when you’re dealing with anything online, the rules are totally different. And you’re highly restricted as to what you can use, what you could do. When you’re in a face-to-face classroom, it’s a little bit easier. So yeah, so you got to be a copyright lawyer to stay out of trouble. And then you get involved in accreditation, you get involved in that kind of assessment. So you have to all of a sudden be totally involved in what your program is doing, what your major is doing, where it’s headed. There’s just too much to do. And there are more and more committees and oh, there’s a lot of time wasted in committees. Of course, you’re supposed to publish at the same time and make presentations at conferences. It was like that back then, too. But now, the expectations are higher, and it’s on top of more time in teaching, and more courses. I was teaching four courses a year, and you can’t find that kind of job anymore.

Rebecca: So Linda, you’re saying the animal shelter is going really well now?

Linda: Yes. Yes. Yes. Yes.

Todd: That’s hilarious. Well, I want to point out too, and I think Linda’s said it very, very well is that we are expected to do things we never had to use before. Never worried about before. And I love the fair use is great, because when I first started teaching, and I’ve been teaching for 36 years, when I first started teaching, you’d videotape something off TV and show it in class and then put it on the shelf. And I knew people who showed the same video for 10 years. Right now you better be careful about showing the same video for 10 years. But these are things we need to know. I would say also, by the way, this is a really good book for administrators, anybody who would like to give guidance to faculty members, or better understand teaching and learning so that when promotion and tenure comes along, you get a sense of this. And so if you’re saying to the faculty, they should use a variety of teaching strategies. It’s not a bad idea to know a variety of teaching strategies. And so I think it’s good for administrators as well, and graduate students. But I want to take a second and tell you, one of the reviews of the book, I guess, came in just yesterday or the day before from Dan Levy. He’s a senior lecturer at Harvard University. And what he put was Teaching at it’s Best is an absolute gem. Whether you are new to teaching in higher education, or have been doing it for a while, you will find this book’s evidence-based advice on a wide range of teaching issues to be very helpful. The style is engaging and the breadth is impressive. If you want to teach at your best you should read Teaching at its Best. And I love what he put in there because it doesn’t matter if you’re a new teacher or you’ve been doing it for a while, this book’s got a lot of stuff in it.

John: And Dan has been a guest on our podcast, and he’s also an economist, which is another thing in his favor. [LAUGHTER]

Todd: That is good.

John: I do want to comment on lenders observation about how teaching has changed because I came in at a very similar type of experience. I was told by the chair of the department not to waste a lot of time on teaching and to focus primarily on research because that’s what’s most important, and that’s the only thing that’s really ultimately valued here or elsewhere in the job market. But then what happened is a few people started reading the literature on how we learn And then they started writing these books about it. [LAUGHTER] And these books encouraged us to do things like retrieval practice and low-stakes tests, and to provide lots of feedback to students. So those people…[LAUGHTER]

Rebecca: I don’t know any of them.

John: …but as a result of that many people started changing the way they teach in response to this. So some of it is you brought this on to all of us by sharing… [LAUGHTER]

Linda: I apologize.

Todd: Sorry about that.

Linda: I apologize.

Todd: We apologize and you know, I will say too is, so yeah, sorry. Sorry about doing that. But I’m glad you said that.

Linda: We made the job harder didn’t we?

Todd: We did, but you know to just be fair for Linda and I as well as I still remember a faculty member calling me, It must have been about 20 years ago, and I just started doing a little bit of Faculty Development, she was crying, she had given her first assignment in terms of a paper. And she said, I’m sitting here with a stack of papers, and I don’t know how to grade them. And it got me thinking a little bit, how many of the aspects of the job that we’re required to do, were we trained to do? And that’s the stuff that Linda was mentioning as well, is nobody taught me. I’m an industrial psychologist. And so nobody taught me the strategies for delivering information to a group of 200 people. Nobody taught me how to grade essay tests. Nobody taught me how to grade presentations, I didn’t know about fair use and how I could use things. I mean, you go through and list all of the things that you’re required to do. And then look at all the things you were trained to do. And this is tough. And that changed. So I have one quick one I’ll mention is I was hired as an adjunct faculty member before I got my first tenure-track job. And I was teaching 4-4. So I had four classes in the fall, four classes in the spring. And about halfway through the spring, I ran into the department chair, and I was interested to see if I was going to be able to come back and I said, “Hey, Mike, how am I doing?” And this was at Central Michigan University, a pretty good sized school. He said, “You were fantastic.” And I said, “Excellent. What have you heard?” He said, “absolutely nothing.” So when it comes to teaching, what I learned was: research, you had to do well, and teaching, you had to not do terribly. And that is what you were mentioning has changed is now you’re kind of expected to do teaching as well.

Rebecca: And there’s a lot more research in the area now too. So sometimes it’s hard to keep up on it. So books like this can be really helpful in providing a lot of that research in one place.

John: And both of you have written many good books that have guided many, many faculty in their careers, and eliminated that gap between what we’re trained to do and what we actually have to do.

Rebecca: So of course, we want to know when we can have this book in our hands.

Todd: Good news for this book, which is exciting because we really cranked away on this thing and it’s listed in Amazon as being due on April 25. But it actually went to press on January 23. So it’s already out and about three months ahead of schedule.

John: Excellent. We’re looking forward to it. I’ve had my copy on preorder since I saw a tweet about this. I think it was your tweet, Todd, a while back. And I’m very much looking forward to receiving a copy of it.

Todd: Excellent. We’re looking forward to people being able to benefit from copies of it.

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

Todd: It’s hard to tell what’s next because I’m exhausted from what’s been [LAUGHTER] ever moving forward, as I’m working on and just finishing a book right now that’s to help faculty in the first year of their teaching. So it’s basically off to a good start. It’s what specifically faculty should do in the first year of getting a teaching position. And aside from that, probably working on my next jigsaw puzzle, I like to do the great big jigsaw puzzles. And so I just finished one that had 33,600 pieces. It is five feet….

Rebecca: Did you say 33,000 pieces?

Todd: No, I said 33,600 pieces.It was the 600 that…

Rebecca: Oh, ok.

Todd: …was difficult. [LAUGHTER]

Rebecca: Yeah.

Todd: When the puzzle is done, it has standard sized pieces, and it is five feet by 20 feet. So I just enjoy massively putting something together. It’s very challenging. So quite frankly, for those about and listening to this is if you imagine 33,600 puzzle pieces, that’s about as many studies as Linda and I have read to put this book together. [LAUGHTER]

Linda: Nothing to it. [LAUGHTER]

Todd: So that’s it for me. [LAUGHTER] Linda, what are you up to these days?

Linda: Oh, well, I live in la la land. So I’m still doing workshops and webinars and things like that mostly on my books of various kinds, various teaching topics. But I think what I want to do is retake up pastels and charcoals. My father was a commercial artist. And so he got me into pastels and charcoals when I was in high school. Well and then I dropped it to go off to college. Well, I want to get back into it in addition to working at the animal shelter. I know. It’s la la land and I wish la la land on everybody that I like.[LAUGHTER] I hope you all go to la la land and enjoy being a four year old all over again, because that’s the way I feel. I adapted to retirement in about 24 hours. That’s pushing it… you know, it’s more like four. But anyway, I slept on it. [LAUGHTER] That was the end of it. But I know I eased into it. I eased into it. I was still writing. I was still doing, especially before the pandemic, a lot of speaking. So then the pandemic hit and it just turned into online everything. And now I’m back on the road again, to a certain extent. I love it. So anyway, it’s a nice balance. So yeah, I wish you all la la land too.

Todd: That’s great.

Rebecca: That’s something to aspire to.

Todd: Yeah, it is. But you know, since you mentioned the speaking things, I just have to do the quick plug here. Linda, I think you and I, years and years ago, were joking around at POD about who would be the first one to get to the 50 states and have done a presentation in every state. And so I gotta tell you, I’m not even sure where you’re at in the mix, but I am at 49 states. And if any of your listeners are in North Dakota, [LAUGHTER] I could certainly use a phone call from North Dakota.

Linda: Well, I want to go to Vermont. I have not been to Vermont…

Todd: Oh, you haven’t.

Linda: …to give a presentation. So I would enjoy that. But I’ll go to Hawaii. I’ll do anything in Hawaii for you. Absolutely anything. [LAUGHTER] I’ll do gardening, [LAUGHTER] I’ll do dishes, your laundry. I don’t care.

Todd: That is good. Yeah, Linda and I had this gig. It was a long, long time ago. And I don’t know, it must have been 20 years ago we talked about it even. And there was some rules too. You had to be invited. And there had to be some kind of an honorarium or just I mean, it didn’t have to be much, but the concept was you just couldn’t show up at a state and start talking. [LAUGHTER] Otherwise, we’d have both been done a long time ago. But yeah,

Linda: Yeah.

Todd: … it was fun. This is the way nerds have fun. [LAUGHTER]

John: Well, that’s a competition that’s benefited again, a lot of people over the years.

Rebecca: Well, thanks so much for joining us. It’s great to see both of you again, and we look forward to seeing your new book.

Linda: Thank you for this opportunity. It was a pleasure.

Todd: It was so much fun. 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.


275. Improving Learning and Mental Health

 Student reports of mental health challenges have been rising rapidly for several years. In this episode, Robert Eaton and Bonnie Moon join us to discuss what faculty can do to better support students facing these challenges. Robert and Bonnie aretwo of the authors of Improving Learning and Mental Health in the College Classroom, which will be released later this spring by West Virginia University Press.

After completing a law degree at Stanford and working for several years as a litigator and general counsel, Robert returned to academia in 2004 as a member of the Religious Education faculty at BYU-Idaho. He is currently a professor of religious education and a learning and teaching fellow, and has previously served as the Associate Academic Vice President for Academic Development at BYU-Idaho. Bonnie is a member of the math department at BYU-Idaho, where she also serves as STEM Outreach Coordinator.



John: Student reports of mental health challenges have been rising rapidly for several years. In this episode, we discuss what faculty can do to better support students facing these challenges.


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

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

John: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer…

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


Rebecca: Our guests today are Robert Eaton and Bonnie Moon. They are two of the authors of Improving Learning and Mental Health in the College Classroom, which will be released later this spring by West Virginia University Press. After completing a law degree at Stanford and working for several years as a litigator and general counsel, Robert returned to academia in 2004 as a member of the Religious Education faculty at BYU-Idaho. He is currently a professor of religious education and a learning and teaching fellow, and has previously served as the Associate Academic Vice President for Academic Development at BYU-Idaho. Bonnie is a member of the math department at BYU-Idaho, where she also serves as STEM Outreach Coordinator. Welcome Robert and Bonnie.

Robert: Good to be here.

Bonnie: Thank you.

John: Our teas today are: …are either of you drinking tea?

Bonnie: [LAUGHTER] I brought my lemon water. Can I still be on your show? [LAUGHTER]

Rebecca: Well, they are two key ingredients of tea.

Bonnie: Yes, right. That’s what I thought.

Robert: And I brought my favorite flavorful herbal tea. Sweet and Spicy Original from Good Earth.

Rebecca: That sounds good. I’m sporting the Hunan jig again, John. That’s all I got. [LAUGHTER]

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

Bonnie: Oh, that sounds delicious, too.

John: We’ve invited you here to discuss Improving Learning and Mental Health in the College Classroom. Could you tell us a little bit about how this project came about?

Robert: It actually started with me. And it’s hard for me to trace exactly when it started. But I’ve been out of the classroom on a full-time basis for a while. And when I got back in, I was amazed to see just how many students were flaming out and fizzling out by the end of the semester because of mental health challenges. And I’d sensed that this was an issue of increasing severity, but still seeing it firsthand, especially after a few years away, was really breathtaking, and got me thinking about the way that we teach and our course design decisions and what effects that might have on students and whether there were things that we as professors could do. So I ended up kicking off a semester-long faculty learning community exercise, we call them a “Think Shop” here and Bonnie was one of the members of that group. And I thought I wanted to tackle a book, and eventually as we got into it, I invited Steve Hunsaker, who’s not with us today and Bonnie to join us. And it’s been a marvelous collaborative effort.

Rebecca: Can you talk a little bit about who your target audience for the book is?

Bonnie: College professors, somebody like me, who didn’t come from a background heavy in psychology or understanding the psyche and to someone that loves mathematics… someone like me, who doesn’t really understand all of the details, but wants her students to feel safe in her classroom and have a safe place to study and to thrive and to be passionate about something. And so, yeah, so college professors, research or at our Institute, we focus on teaching but either kind of Institute.

Robert: So that said, our research assistant has now graduated and is teaching elementary school, and said she uses many of the ideas from the book. And they’ve been relevant even in a K-12 setting. I was thinking through how we probably, from a marketing standpoint, didn’t choose wisely enough… that really many of the ideas in the book would be beneficial to a student, even if their teachers choose not to do any of these things, they could still realize, “Wow, community matters, maybe I should try to connect with some people and create a study group, even if the teacher doesn’t facilitate that.” So I would say college students with mental health challenges and their parents might benefit from it as well,

Rebecca: When we’re running professional development, which is just another setting of teaching, those students might also fit some of these descriptions, too. [LAUGHTER]

John: Could you tell us a little bit more about that faculty learning community that this work began to grow out of?

Robert: A few years ago, we’d started a formalized faculty learning community exercise, we branded ours a “Think Shop,” but basically, it’s a semester-long effort where faculty from different disciplines come together and take a deep dive into the scholarship of learning and teaching or something that affects teaching and we exchange ideas. So we met every week, we each read different things, and I kind of facilitated that and led a discussion. So it was delightful to get to know colleagues better and to brainstorm and benefit from the different disciplinary perspectives. Bonnie, would you add anything to that?

Bonnie:Yeah, I am so grateful that I found that community. Not only are we hopeful that we’ll create a place where students can thrive, but I think it’s important for the professors that run these classes to also model this and to participate in these things. So having that community with other colleagues, especially right at the start at COVID, [LAUGHTER] was very helpful to me and my mental health. And it was just invigorating to learn new things and understand a whole new discipline that I had never studied before and to try and understand what’s happening. So I think it was an opportunity for me just to even model when I’m hoping that my students will do as well.

Robert: It turns out community is not just good for students from a mental health standpoint, but for faculty. For us, the timing was fortuitous, it came right on the front end of the pandemic. So at the time when people were kind of having to withdraw socially we continued it virtually, and it gave us some great community support.

Rebecca: It’s probably worth noting that you just mentioned that this conversation started prior to the pandemic. Certainly, our awareness around mental health issues have been raised and related to the pandemic, but these were growing issues among college students prior to the pandemic, for sure. Can you talk a little bit about why we’re seeing these mental health challenges so prevalent among college students?

Robert: It may be a cop out that we took in the book. But we basically said, what are the root causes of this? We’re not really sure, but we know they’re arriving, and that the problems are real. In fact, one of my fears, sometimes, with the conversations among some of our more hard nosed colleagues, when we talk about roots is that I feel they’re a bit dismissive of the symptoms, and think, well, people just sort of buck up, and if they’d put away their cell phones and move some pipe and work like we used to everything would be fine. I’m fascinated by the debates. And in fact, there was one item, we were going to include in Bonnie’’s chapter, and then a meta analysis came out that was contrary to the other studies that I’ve been seeing. And so we left it out. So I’m puzzled, intrigued, and have my own guesses. It’s hard to ignore technology and the way it’s changed society. So that’s certainly a controversial but leading candidate, but something has changed. There’s a little bit of people being more willing to go and get diagnosed, and maybe a little bit of change of measurement. But there’s some pretty good solid measurements, like attempted suicides or self harm, where it’s not just categorization, where we can see this is really snowballing over time. So our short answer is, we’re not really sure. But we know they’re coming to us with these problems, we are rooting for those people researching the root causes. And we’re kind of leaving that to others as we deal with the symptoms that we see in our classrooms.

John: We’ve always lost a lot of students along the way. And some of that seems to be related to the stress and anxiety that students experience. You describe in your book, the high-risk, high-stakes, environment of college. Why would that tend to increase the prevalence of mental health challenges for students?

Bonnie: So first of all, they’re just coming from maybe a secure place, high school, a place where their teachers were there, they knew them every day, they were very structured, and they knew their schedules, and then they’re coming to this new place to navigate. And it’s a whole new world. And so they’re on their own, their support system is not necessarily in place as they come into this new world. And it’s just like we said in the book about this petri dish just ready [LAUGHTER] for something to happen that does not seem normal or good. And so I think that the uncertain times of it, the deadlines that we put on them, maybe sometimes just not even having a friend. Some of these kids get isolated in their rooms, and they don’t see people for days, and then the teachers start to hopefully miss them. And I think that is part of where we can make a difference. And we were probably going to talk about this later, but when you think about the college experience, the teacher, the professor, is the one that has the most likelihood of seeing these students most often and most regularly, and when we don’t see them. I’m hoping that we’re alarmed. And like, “Where have they been for a week or two weeks or three weeks?” One day, I was in class, and I noticed one of my groups was conversing and that one of the students was really struggling to socially interact with these other kids. And he was just upset and mad. And the other three students were very uncomfortable working with him. And so I started to wonder what was going on. And I made a few phone calls, and one of the students asked me to please call the services on campus… I’m not sure what they were called back then, we’ve been working on this at our campus to get these services more upfront… but I think I ended up calling security because the kids were so worried about this kid, that he was going to be violent, that I ended up calling security. And so security actually had a program where they reached out to him, they went to look for him at his home. And the sad thing is that this kid never showed up to my class again. And so after that experience, I was like “What happened?” like do inform us of things going on. And I found out later on that he had passed away, and there was no details, there was nothing. And as a professor, I was like, “What could I have done?” I didn’t understand, I knew something was kind of strange, but I just didn’t understand, I didn’t have the tools, and it’s not our job to fix these things. But to be able to recognize something in our classes and get these students to places where they can get help. I think that’s something we can do, and it doesn’t go too far outside of the reach of our classroom. We’re trying to build curriculum, we’re trying to build awesome experiences that motivate students. A lot of us might say, we don’t have time for this when I have time to worry about the students outside of our classes. But it would have taken just a couple phone calls, and I know they did reach out. But I don’t know, I don’t know what happened to that student. But still, I feel like I can do something. Even if it’s small I can do something for one person. It matters.

Rebecca: I think the reality is that we often say we don’t have time yet we expend a lot of energy actually worrying about our students, or at least a good portion of faculty do, because they are missing or something seems not quite right and we don’t know what to do. So that energy is being expended whether or not we’re actually acting on it.

Robert: Yeah, in fact, I think there are a couple of false dichotomies to be aware of: one is I either do the stuff I’m supposed to do as a professor or I babysit kids with mental health challenges, or I either focus on being a high expectations professor who really helps students master the content or I just coddle them. And we find those both to be false narratives. For example, I now on the first day of class do things differently than I did the first 10 years. And I have students in teams, I make sure at least one person in the team has already read the syllabus, maybe taking the syllabus quiz, and then I have them show each other. First, I have them connect, get to know each other, share phone numbers, and then I have them show each other all the stuff. And once they’re all done, then I say, “Have you got any questions?” And there are usually relatively few. The dynamic on that first day is fundamentally different and better than it used to be and I get far fewer follow up emails and phone calls asking how to do something because they text each other, they know how to do it. So it’s a simple technique, that’s actually a great one, for helping our students who come to our classroom with some anxiety and wondering if they’re gonna have any help or be able to make any friends. And it actually takes me less time in the course of the next couple of weeks because of the fruitfulness of that investment.

Bonnie: Yeah, what if we could be better teachers, and help our students improve their mental wellness at the same time, and it didn’t take any extra time? Wouldn’t you want that recipe?

Robert: In fact, that’s why we went back and forth on the title, we really struggled. But we wanted to convey the notion that you don’t have to choose between improving learning and mental health, that really virtually every tactic we recommend in the book, we would recommend even to someone who somehow had no students with mental health challenges in their classroom. It just makes for better learning, they happen to also make life much better for students with mental health challenges.

John: One of the really nice things that I observed in reading through your book is that so many of the practices, as you said, are things that are recommended by people who study effective learning techniques. And one of the things you talk about is replacing high stakes exams with lower stakes activities. Could you talk a little bit about that?

Bonnie: Given a little bit away, I’ve been a student myself for the last two years. I took a sabbatical and went back to school. [LAUGHTER]

Robert: And what degree are you pursuing, Bonnie?

Bonnie: And so I love mathematics, but I wanted to see how math works inside of a nuclear reactor, so I went back to school in nuclear engineering. And so, [LAUGHTER] just coming fresh off of that, and having worked on this project with Robin, Steve, I’m like, ”oh, I have so many ideas for you guys about how you could help me not be so stressed out, and not so anxious today.” [LAUGHTER] They didn’t want to hear that. But I was like, “I have some ideas.” But one thing I think that I’m taking back to my classroom from that experience is choice. Like when my professors gave me choice, and they let me follow a path that I was passionate about, I was all in, I didn’t have to be pushed, I was pulled into that direction. And so when I think about assessment in my own classes now, like coming back, and I think about that final exam, and sometimes that is a high-stakes place, and very stressful, even all of our exams can be that way. So for my differential equations course this semester, and I have done this a few times before, I give a choice, of course, between a final exam or final project. And we start talking about this early on. And not all of them want the final project because it is a lot of work. But watching them light up, and to see that they could do something different than sit down and take a test for three hours.[LAUGHTER] It’s just so heartwarming to watch them, and it’s helpful to them. And I was telling Rob and Steve that I had one student that took the project and found something to do inside of his other classes he was taking, and he kind of connected them together. And to watch his passion and to see him come from the student that sat in the back row that seemed mad every day, [LAUGHTER] and when I mentioned this final project, he just lit up and I could see hope, and at the end of the semester, he couldn’t stop. Like I finally said, “You can get some sleep tonight, you don’t need to work on this every minute of the day.” It was just an amazing transformation to see purpose, help him come pull out of this. I don’t know if he was suffering from depression, but he was definitely down a lot in my class, and maybe that was the subject because mathematics tends to make people anxious sometimes anyway, [LAUGHTER] but just to see the turnaround. So I mean, I don’t know that we always have to put everything in one place, but we can give choice and let them kind of have some room to navigate their own way through our courses.

Robert: I should confess that I started from a pretty old school hard-nosed mentality. And that law school, it was a game I played well, so I thought it was a good game. And the in-class instruction, by the way, at my law school was fabulous. I still think that. But the course design, now I look back on that and I think a single assessment that’s three hours long at the end of the semester, and your feedback is one number. So I might have understood a few concepts really well and others really poorly. I actually have no idea. And for that matter, the professor has no idea how well the class is understanding things until she grades the final. She doesn’t have a chance to correct. If I were redesigning law schools, I’d say break it up into four tests. And then make it comprehensive. Give students the opportunity and incentive to fill in their knowledge gaps that they identify on an initial test or assignment. I’m just so embarrassed to admit that that, until I really studied for this and dug in and researched, really didn’t cross my mind. What happens when I give a test to students and many of them bomb it and we just move on. What am I hoping that they’ll learn? …to work harder for their next test? Well if those concepts were really as important and foundational as I claimed they were, I should be more concerned about finding a way to encourage students to go back, fill in those knowledge gaps. And so now I’ve softened up and I give them opportunity and credit, I still give them incentive to try to learn it right the first time, but I’d like to give them some incentive to go back and learn things they crashed and burned on the first time around so that they don’t get left behind.

Rebecca: You mentioned at the start of the conversation that there’s symptoms that we see, we don’t necessarily know the root causes, but we’re seeing the symptoms of various mental health challenges. And those symptoms impact student learning. So there’s a consequence to that. If we’re having anxiety, then we might be presenting that in a particular way. And then that’s probably impacting how learning is happening for us. Can you talk a little bit about what that looks like? And then we can follow up with “How do we support students who are facing those challenges?”

Bonnie: I think, especially in my math classrooms, I see a lot of stress, anxiety, and the way that I saw it this last week… I’ll just tell you that example. So we were talking about filling in the learning gaps. I do a little bit of just-in-time review so that my students get prepared for class because I understand that when there are those learning gaps, it can be very intimidating to come back to a class and try and start over again. But then as you start to see their stress… and today, the student just started to get angry at something that was going on in my class. And I was like, “What are you talking about?” He said, “Well, my last class, we got to use technology, and we got to do all these things.” And I’m like, “That’s okay.” [LAUGHTER] So I could see that he was stressing out. And he may even have… I don’t know… this was just the symptom, I think, of a deeper identity with him. Like he didn’t identify with math, he didn’t see this math, he saw this as something that he just needed to get through, and stressed people don’t do math very well. [LAUGHTER] And that might be true for other subjects as well. But some of the research I dived into showed that when you’re stressing out and the teacher is coming down on you that you can’t do math, so what are we doing in our classrooms? So I started to rethink things today and said, “What is the root cause of this? What is he really stressing out about?” And that was just a one time thing. But I think maybe you’re asking more about how we identify kids, it’s just not stress, but when they start getting depressed, and when they start having this anxiety. I mean, these are things I think sometimes that are harder to see, unless you’ve been there, or you had experience with that. So one thing that I will share with you is that when I had a situational depression, that was triggered really quickly, I was not prepared for it, I started to withdraw. And I started to come away from my life. And so I can recognize that more easily now, when students start to withdraw from their groups, communicating, or they start to miss class for two or three days in a row. Or they communicate in ways that you really aren’t socially kind, like sometimes they get mad. It’s not just madness, but sometimes they just become very withdrawn and apathetic. I mean, those things are normal for everyday. But if it continues for like two weeks or three weeks, then I start to say this student might be suffering from something that’s depressive or possibly anxiety. So I do look for things like that.

Robert: Let me just add to your question, Rebecca, anxiety, or stress can be a bit like the bull and pit. It can be advantageous sometimes. it can save our lives, when some adrenaline is needed, but in certain situations, and for certain people. In fact, it seems to affect different people differently. It’s very unhelpful in the learning process. So the consensus of the research that we saw suggested that maybe in short, occasional doses, it can be fruitful, but chronic and high doses, stress almost always interferes with the learning process. And then depression, it was just always bad, [LAUGHTER] we just couldn’t find anything saying this was ever helpful to the learning process. And there’s a bunch of physiological explanations for it. But, in fact, one thing to remember is, some of us do well, like I speak better, with some stress than without it. And so those of us who succeed in teaching as careers are probably people who dealt well with that anxiety and stress built into college. And it may make it difficult for us to understand and empathize with students who process that differently. And it may cause us to be just a little callous and say, “Yep, college is stressful, buck up.” But it’s helpful if I then think about how I sing a solo. I sing much worse than I sing in a duet or a quartet. And in practice, I sing better every time than I do in a public performance. [LAUGHTER] So in that area, I can see: “Wow, stress really undermines my performance.” So it’s just a matter of being mindful of how these mental health challenges, generally, when there’s too much of them and they last too long, almost always interfere with learning.

John: What can faculty do to try to create a more supportive but positive environment for the students, which will reduce extreme levels of stress and reduce anxiety which can interfere with learning?

Bonnie: So this is where I’ve been working,[LAUGHTER] coming back from my sabbatical and seeing and feeling the stress. I want to be more aware. And so some of the things that we researched and looked into, I’m starting to use more regularly in my classes. And so one thing for sure, and we hear this a lot, just as a regular teaching strategy is to learn their names as soon as possible when they know that somebody knows them, and somebody understands that they’re not there or they are there, it makes a difference. So this is our first week of school, and so I have put a lot of energy this week into taking those names home and learning their names. And I have an every day classes, this is day three in that class, and just being able to go up to them today and talk to them, ask them their name, their major, and even before class, I’m there trying to understand who they are, a little bit about their background. And so it’s important to me, it’s important to me when I was a student, that they knew my name, and that they knew I was Bonnie Moon, and that this was what my dream is and I’m hopeful that this will happen. And so I think that’s one specific thing that we can do. I realize that some teachers and professors have these huge classrooms [LAUGHTER] with 500 students. So, we’re very lucky here because we have classes between 30 and 50. And so we can learn their names in a couple of weeks if we work hard at it. So I’m very intentional at that at this point.

Robert: I’ll add another just in terms of messaging, we found when we did focus groups that students had had a variety of experiences with professors. So they were looking to read us, they’re looking to see what does this professor really think about my situation and do I dare go ask for a bit of flexibility if a mental health crisis arises. So I added two paragraphs to my syllabus, and I have yet to have anybody I felt like was trying to exploit it or take undue advantage of it. And I’ve had other students thank me who I had no idea had mental health challenges, and they didn’t have to use it. But they said, just knowing that I felt this way, put them at ease. I have this section on mental health challenges:

A growing number of students experience mental health challenges to varying degrees. Doing what you can to stay ahead and on top of depression or anxiety by wisely taking care of yourself will be a key to succeeding academically. But even then, sometimes these challenges can affect your ability to complete the required work. Or a particular assignment might trigger anxiety for you in ways that I’ve not anticipated. Or maybe you reach a point where you just can’t get yourself to class at all. In any of those cases, please come and talk with me, or at least send me an email. I’ll listen and do what I can to help. But the sooner you share your challenges with me, the more I can help. To learn the material and pass the course or earn an A you’ll still need to do every bit as much work as other students…

By the way, as an aside, all the students in our focus groups were not only fine with that, they wanted that. They didn’t want us just to write off assignments that they missed from two weeks that they were in bed with severe depression, continuing:

…but we may be able to find some creative ways to help you do that, especially if you approach me when your problems arise, instead of at the end of the semester.

I think I get a lot more students now willing to come in, my having made it safe through this provision, and let me know about their problems while they’re still in progress and we can still do something about it. Before I was getting a lot more coming in the last week, who were in a hole that was just so deep, I couldn’t, in good conscience, find a way for them to get a passing grade.

Rebecca: So the key is catching them before they disappear.

Robert: Yeah, I think doing some preventive things. So being proactive. We found some interesting studies about just mentors. And as students being less likely to commit suicide if there was an adult they felt like they could talk to about personal things if they needed to whether or not they had taken advantage of that. In fact, for almost everything, the leading intervention that we could find was improving that connection between professors and students. Whether you want to help more students graduate, more students thrive after they graduate, Frankly, even more students participate in class discussion. For all of those different outcomes, the single best intervention seems to be strengthening that connection. So we’ve shared some ideas in the book, and I might just share from our wonderful friend and colleague, Steve, who can’t be with us today, his thought. He says:

This takes me back to Uri Treisman and his amazing work. Treisman, who teaches at University of Texas-Austin tells his students they can succeed in calculus and that they belong, but he goes far beyond asserting that. He traces for students a mathematical genealogy in which they appear at the end of a long chain of ancestors that begins with Leibniz and Newton. He invites his students to meet with him on Saturdays for one-on-one conversations that may not be about calculus, but which are clearly about their success. The depth of Treisman’s heroic dedication to students astounds me, I may never get close to his level of commitment to his students, but I’ve taken a step in that direction by building one-on-one conversations with my students into the semester schedule. I believe that students understand that time is precious and that even 10 unhurried minutes of unscripted conversation about their plans, challenges, and dreams send a clear message about care and commitment.

So, that’s from Steve Hunsaker, our wonderful co-author.

John: So you mentioned both in your book and in the conversation so far that students do care about whether their instructors care about them. We’re not always very good at sharing that, though. I think most professors do care about their students, but that doesn’t always get conveyed. Certainly learning their names is one strategy. Meeting with them one on one is another strategy. And you mentioned, letting all the students know that they’re capable of being successful is one way of doing it. Are there other strategies that faculty could use to let students know that we do care about their success?

Robert: I’ll start with the baby one, if I might, and this one hurts, because even after presenting and teaching about it, I still catch myself doing this. I’m busy. So when I get an email that says, “I’m going to have to miss class on Monday for a funeral, is that absence excused? Or if not, is there anything I can do to make it up?” I tend to go right to “Oh, that is an absence that can be excused. You get three excused absences after that you can make it=…” And then once in a while, the thought will come to my mind, did you catch the word funeral in the email, they’re going to a funeral. They’re a person who’s going to a funeral. So I’ve tried to stop and say, “I’m so sorry to hear that someone you know and love has passed away? Do you mind if I ask who?” And they’ll email back, “It’s my grandma.” And I’ll say, “Tell me how has your grandma blessed your life? How are you like your grandma? What will you miss most about your grandma?” It takes me like 10 seconds [LAUGHTER] extra typing, but it converts what was a transactional email into a human email. So just to be human in our interactions with students, I think, goes much farther than we might imagine.

Bonnie: I’ll add to that. I think accessibility is something we can build into our lives as we look at our semesters, when we’re accessible to students, and we really do meet our office hours or we arrange to meet with them and that we make ourselves available. I think that sends a message that we care about their success and about them. But I think that’s something to do. I know that one semester, my stat students created a project, where they just said “Now are professors really in their classrooms, if they had a question? And so they went around campus during office hours and checked to see if professors were there. [LAUGHTER] And they had a great project. And they found out that their alternative hypothesis that professors are actually there less than they say turned out true. [LAUGHTER] So we had to do some work. But they cared, they care whether we care. So I think accessibility, and then the one thing I would add to that would be how we structure our courses, like we don’t have to go way out of our way to make this happen. We can restructure our courses so that we get the learning done. And actually, we can maybe even improve the learning as we restructure. So an example would be in one of my classes, I have a lab day built in. And it’s not a lab day outside of class time, it’s not asking them to go get in groups outside of class time, I actually create a lab day during the week that we come together and they get to ask questions, they can talk about the homework, they can work on their group projects, because I care that they have a life. I know my class is not their only class and meeting up with groups is difficult. And I care about that. And so I just build it into my curriculum. And so I do a few more videos, I do a little bit more writing so they have some things to prepare for class. If I don’t need to say it during class, I can put it outside of class. And then during class, we can use that time to collaborate and to foster relationships and to think about deep things and to get passionate about things. Because I’m there, the best time for them, I think, is with me. [LAUGHTER] I want them to be there and I want to be their tutor, I want to be the one that sees how they’re doing on their math problems. When they run into a hard math problem. I don’t want them going to the math lab, asking another student that’s at their same level the question. I want them to come ask me. [LAUGHTER] So I set up a day every week, and that’s what we’re going to do on Monday, it’s going to be lab day. And it’s kind of a nice breather after the first week, because I’ve kind of pushed them a little bit getting started, we get right into the mathematics. And then on Monday, we have a lab day, they can breathe and I can talk to them about how things are going, I can kind of assess how I’m doing with the teaching. And if I need to change things around for the next week, we can build it into our classrooms.

Robert: I’ve started using Calendly or then I moved to Bookings, but to make it easier for students to access me. And so it’s just anytime that’s available on my calendar, they can meet with me. And when they meet with me… I stumbled on this last semester… I’ve said have you got your phone with you? Of course they have their phone with them. Would you mind showing me a photo or two or a video that would help me better understand you. So this morning, a student shows me a fascinating photo of him and two friends and his snowmobile and a big hole that he’d gotten stuck in, and told me about his love for snowmobiling. I will remember him better and understand him better because of that. I’ve been amazed at the things that students have shared with me and how understanding their backstories changes my perception. I remember asking one student “Just tell me your backstory.” He said, “Well, I was abandoned by the side of the road, I guess because I had a cleft palate. And then I was in an orphanage until I was adopted.” He was in another country. Wow. This was a student who sometimes didn’t stop talking as soon as I would have liked him to stop talking after we’d done a small group discussion. I just saw him in a whole different light and was amazed by the things that he was accomplishing. So understanding students’ backstories, I think, helps strengthen that connection we have with them.

Rebecca: One of the things that I really appreciate about the examples that you’re sharing are that none of them are big time commitments. None of them are huge asks, but they’re cumulative when they add up, and they add up in a way that really demonstrates care, and then when I’m doing it, and John’s doing it, and Rob’s doing it, and Bonnie is doing it, then the student really feels supported.

Robert: That would be our dream, the more people who do these kinds of things, the greater the support network for our students. And you know, once in a while, we’ll do some things that we wouldn’t otherwise have done. On occasion, I will walk a student who is suicidal over directly to the mental health center, to the counseling center. And so it takes me five or 10 minutes, but at the end of the day, I feel like those were probably the most five or 10 important minutes of the day. Actually, that does remind me of one other thing. We’ve talked about connecting with the students, course design decisions, classroom tactical decisions, but we do play a role as gatekeepers. We’re in a position, not to provide mental health counseling, but to spot students in need. Students, when we do the kinds of things we talk about, tend to trust us. And then I’m surprised how many will describe what, to me as a layperson, sounds like depression, but they’ve never been treated for it, they’ve never seen a counselor. And so I just make the pitch. “Wow, I’m not a mental health professional, but I’ve talked to many students with similar symptoms who’ve gone to the counseling center, it’s free here, and wow, they’ve gotten some great help, and let me introduce you to some other resources.” So just being that wise friend who knows how to connect people with resources, we’re in a unique position to do that, as professors. We may as well learn how to do it.

John: And I’ve noticed that students are much more receptive to that than they were 20-30 years ago, where there appeared to be more of a stigma associated with that. So reaching out that way can make a big difference. And I know I’ve been referring more students for mental health assistance on campus than I ever have before.

Robert: And we can contribute to that continuing evolution by making our classrooms a safe place by saying “I love to go out into the gardens and meditate periodically, I experience stress and sometimes get physical symptoms. It’s a great way for me to cope with my stress.” By just saying that, I’ve signaled to students that it’s okay to talk about it. Sometimes two or three weeks before the end of the semester, I’ll take a meta moment and say, “Hey, some of you have been here longer than others, what are some keys to not exploding during the final two weeks of the semester. Go!” A discussion erupts in which they’re remarkably candid, and they’re spot on. They talk all about things that Bonnie included in our chapter on wellness. But again, it makes it safe, and they get some good counsel from each other.

Bonnie: I agree. And when we bring that to the classroom, we actually are real, and say, “You know what? I do have some stress. And I’m probably a little overwhelmed right now. And I want to back off and love you guys and set some boundaries for ourselves too.” Like, “I’m going to check my email within 24 hours. But usually after six o’clock at night, I’m done checking email…” and let them know that you’re gonna take care of yourself too. And hopefully, they can see that that’s important to you, and they will say “I need to take care of me too.” And it’s okay to have those conversations and as you develop those relationships, you can be a little more candid and they will feel, I think, more free to come to you when they do have a problem if you’re honest and authentic and say, “Yeah, I’m a real person, like I actually have to eat [LAUGHTER] and take care of myself and I have a goal this semester.” I told my students, on Wednesday, we started, that I’m going to do the lazy woman iron. Is it like the iron woman?”

Robert: Yeah, the Iron Man.

Bonnie: Yeah, the Iron Man, and I said, you know, I’m not good at it. I want to get back in shape after COVID and Christmas. And I said, if I see you guys at the gym, that’d be awesome. Please don’t make fun of me. [LAUGHTER] But I’m gonna be on the treadmill trying to get my miles in, and in a month, I get to do an Iron man. I think I can do that. And it’s just fun to open up with them. And there’s possibilities as you’re studying hard, you can still take care of yourself outside of that, and as your professor, I’m gonna take care of myself, because I want to be good for you. I want to be healthy for you. And I want to be excited to be here tomorrow and the next day, and to do that I want to take care of myself too.

Robert: So promoting wellness practices, I think we’re uniquely positioned to encourage students to get enough sleep, to eat well, to exercise, without being preachy about it, and we’re vulnerable in the way that Bonnie just described. That could inspire a number of students to step back and think maybe I could incorporate more exercise into my daily routine.

Rebecca: Again, those are small things that don’t take a lot of time. It’s a small little conversation or a small little anecdote that you share to set the stage for wellness. So it’s not as hard as sometimes we imagined it to be.

Bonnie: I don’t want to overwhelm professors either, ‘cause it could get overwhelming thinking I need to do all this, but, like you said, one or two things can make a big difference. Just a simple thing that Rob inspired me with and Steve too, to talk about. We live in a place where it’s cold, a lot of the year, [LAUGHTER]…

Rebecca: … me too.

Bonnie: … lots of snow here in Idaho. Yeah. And so it can get a little depressing anyway, because of the climate here. But, I send a roll around to see who’s there every time because I do keep rolls, not for the grade, but just because I want to know who’s there. And I say, “If you’re here I want to know, if you’re not here, I want to know. So I send the roll around, and I sent a question around yesterday about what are some fun things you can do outside in Rexburg, like when you need a break. And so then they write their name down and give ideas and so we send that around and it’s super easy. I didn’t have to take any time out of class for that. They signed up and then the other day I asked, “So, what’s your favorite comfort foods?” just kind of get to know them and show that you care about them. But it’s like a super easy way to take care of things and to inspire them to maybe do some wellness that week. [LAUGHTER] And think about those things that they might not be thinking about.

Robert: Rebecca, you have mentioned this a couple of times that it caused me to look up a quote by one of my mentors who happens to be the father of our current university, President Henry B. Eyring. He talked about how small changes can often have a big impact. And he said, “The best place to look for small changes we could make in things is in things we do often. There is power and steadiness and repetition.” And if we can lead by inspiration, or intuition, if you will, choose the right small things to change, consistent change will bring great improvement. So really, there are some things that we suggest, that if they were to change from one final at the law school to four different tests, and then a comprehensive final, that’s a bigger change. But much of what we advocate in the book is something that you can do quite simply, and much as I love many coherent systems of teaching, they intimidate me, like Project Based Learning, it sounds really cool, it’s just been a bridge too far for me. I just haven’t been willing to make the huge investment, it feels like I would need to make to switch my course over to that all the way. On the other hand, I could show up to class a little bit early and sit next to a student and get to know her, see how she’s doing, and connect with her. That’s a small change I can make.

Rebecca: Related to mental health, one of the things that many of our colleagues have certainly noted and there’s been many articles in The Chronicle and other places about this is the idea that students seem pretty disengaged right now. They’ve survived multiple semesters of COVID and other world complications and seem disengaged. Sometimes they’re doing the work. Sometimes we’re seeing students disappear. Sometimes they’re in class not doing anything. Sometimes they’re doing stuff outside of class. It looks different depending on the students. But there’s this general sentiment of disengagement. How do we help students feel engaged or reinvigorate their energy around learning?

Robert: Let me try three concrete ideas and then I think Bonnie might have some as well. First, at the risk of beating a dead horse, the more connected they feel with us, the less disengaged they tend to be in our classroom. I noticed when I sit next to a student and chat a little bit before class, that student who has not made a comment all semester, a good chunk of the time they will volunteer a comment for the first time. It seems to be a strong correlation there. Another thing that I learned in researching this book, and we did a survey of our students, one of the things that causes the the most anxiety was when the course was moving on, the class was moving on, and they felt like they didn’t understand something. I heard Sal Khan at a talk at Stanford say that the problem with the monolithic approach to higher ed or to education in the United States is that we kind of assume everybody moves at the same speed. So we did a test on chapter one, which is learning to ride a bike and a bunch of students get a C or a D or an F, and then we move on to riding a unicycle in chapter two, and we’re surprised when they fall off. We’ve given them no incentive to go back and master bike riding first. Just this week, I had a conversation with a student who’s a family friend, he grew up in our neighborhood, and he’d struggled. He said, “This is my redemption semester.” He was going to do some things differently. And I said, so here’s what to do differently, especially in your math class. When you get a poor score on a test, try to figure out what things you didn’t understand and go watch Khan Academy videos, or go to the TA or the tutoring lab, and figure out what those things are. I happen to be here on campus last night, and I saw him at about 8:30 when I left, and he had been watching Khan Academy videos, and said this was transformative. It really hadn’t crossed his mind before to fill in the gaps. But what happens I think is if that train leaves with students not on it, they then get disengaged, they’re lost. So if we can build into our course design ways and incentives for them to master what they don’t initially master, I think they’ll remain more engaged.

Bonnie: I agree with all that, actually and thanks for bringing in mathematics.[LAUGHTER]

Robert: Always given you a nod when I can.

Bonnie: I could always use some advice and some help there too. But I wanted to add to that… I guess, maybe emphasize… the importance of that connection, and choice and passion. sometimes we get a little dispassionate with our lives, or we’re going in a direction, it just seems that’s not really where we want to be. And as a teacher, it’s an opportunity to get to know kids, find out what their passions are, and maybe help to see some of that passion in your course. And I realize this might take a little bit more time, but sometimes it’s worth it. When we think about our projects and I find out the students majors and maybe a little bit about what professors they’re also working with, sometimes I can tailor a project to them, like I talked about before, and the students can come alive. At the same time. I think we need to be realistic too, some of these students might not really be disengaged, they might be overwhelmed. They have a job outside of your class. They have another 16 credits they’re taking. They may have other family and things like that that they’re working with. So it might not be about you [LAUGHTER] or your class, it might be about all these other things they’re dealing with and we could try to give good counsel as advisors and mentors and invite them not to overbook themselves. It’s not about how fast to get there but about the journey and as you go, you can try those things, but sometimes, they’re just overwhelmed and they can’t do your class too and do it well and everything else. So, sometimes I do ask my students do you really want to take my class this semester? [LAUGHTER] I’d be happy to see you next semester, but maybe you do need to cut out something because the disengagement might be actually something else.

Robert: In fact, I’ll throw that out too. I try to proactively by the second or third of the week of the semester, now reach out to my students who are falling behind in terms of their grades. Most of them are falling behind, not only in my course, but other courses. And so now I try to counsel them a bit more holistically, not just get my assignments done, it’s “So tell me a little bit about your approach. How’s it compared to what you were doing in high school?” Nobody’s really, especially if you’re a first-generation college student, nobody’s explained the rules that in high school, you could get by with very little homework. And in college, it’s flipped. You’re supposed to spend much more time doing homework. I talked to one student and asked him how much he was studying every day and he said an hour. He said it proudly. I said, “No, I mean, like, for all of your classes, and he opens up his calendar, he said, “No, I’ve got a study hour every day.” And I said, “Oh….oh, oh, oh, did you know it’s supposed to be two hours for every credit hour, like if you’re taking 14 credits, you should be spending 28 hours. Think of it like a job, you want to put in like 40 hours a week. This was an epiphany. I think he was a first-generation college student. Somehow nobody had made that clear to him, and he was failing in almost all of his class. So when we’re proactive, reach out to struggling students early, we often find that they’ve got other issues going on, or just haven’t figured out the rules of the game for college life and how to succeed. And that can cause anybody anxiety.

John: One of the things you suggest in your book is that people consider exploring QPR training. I know we have that on our campus, and we recommend that faculty participate in that. Could you talk just a little bit about that, and what its role may be in dealing with students who face more severe challenges.

Robert: So for me two big takeaways are that just as if you were playing soccer, and a friend crashed into somebody, and you could see the bone sticking out, you would say, “let me help you go to the emergency room.” You’re not a doctor. But if they say, “No, no, I’m fine.” You say “I see the bone sticking out. I haven’t been to medical school, but that seems like a bad thing.” Let’s get you into the car in to the doctor. So just knowing that it’s okay, I think sometimes we feel like it’s illegal for me to engage in counseling. Therefore, I can’t say anything at all about this. So that QPR is kind of a twist on CPR that just as if there are no doctors around and someone’s had a heart attack, it’s helpful to have a civilian do CPR, It’s helpful if I’ve got a student in my office, who I can tell as a lay person and with a little bit of training, wow, they’re struggling to get out of bed. And so now, the other thing I came away with from that is, it’s okay for me to ask “Are you feeling suicidal? Have you had thoughts of taking your life? Have you got a method?” Let me take you to the counseling center, and then just kind of spot. And then the other big takeaway for me was that studies show if they will promise you that they won’t take their life without calling you, people are much less likely to take their life. So I wouldn’t have felt comfortable or thought that was appropriate before I took that QPR training. I found that it’s made me feel like a lay clinician, and it’s alright for me to talk about those things. And now, over the last three years or so, I’ve taken several students who are suicidal to that counseling center. In fact, in a church setting, I was talking about this, and a young woman who was a leader in her congregation texted me that Sunday night and said, “Would you walk with me tomorrow?” She was a leader. She knew exactly where the health center was. She didn’t need me to show her. But she wanted someone just to walk her over there. And I asked her before we went, “Are you feeling suicidal?” And she was. So just to be that friend who can connect people in dire need with mental health professionals is a critical role that I think any of us can play in any walk of life, but especially as teachers.

Rebecca: For those that aren’t familiar, QPR stands for Question, Persuade and Refer.

Robert: Thank you.

Rebecca: I was looking enough just to make sure I had it right. [LAUGHTER]

John: And the training tells you what questions to ask including, “Are you feeling suicidal?” and then persuade them to get assistance and refer them to the assistance, including walking people over when needed.

Rebecca: I know that when I went through the training, I quite literally used it the next day. So it’s a useful thing to take the time to learn. And it does give you the tool set or the toolbox to feel like you can engage when necessary.

Robert: It probably gets your antennae up too.

Rebecca: Yeah.

Robert: You might have spotted that thing before but I think I’m more likely to spot some things now, to see disengagement that’s kind of come on quickly to the student in class or absences and reach out.

Rebecca: Or maybe to act on the thing that you spot that you weren’t quite sure of.

Robert: Yes.

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

Bonnie: So next, I’m going home. [LAUGHTER] I can answer this so well, and eating the dinner that my husband, I think, made for me [LAUGHTER] after this first stressful week of the first week of school because he knows I’ve been so intentional this week about trying to be there for my students. I’ve worked long hours this week. I haven’t taken care of myself as much as I want to. So I’m going to go home, take care of myself this weekend, and hopefully, on Monday be refreshed for my students and I’m so excited to keep using some of these ideas and becoming their friends. I love working on my classes because I feel like we’re friends, and it’s only been three days, but I can’t wait to see my friends on Monday and I hope they feel that teamwork and that team that we become, I think, as we become a team throughout the semester. Some of these things don’t come up as often in my class, I don’t see the stress as often as they feel that teamwork. So I think the next thing for me is just to continue to work on being a good team member and creating this team that I want to see this semester… after I get some good dinner and a good night’s rest. [LAUGHTER]

Robert: I’m glad you at least include a good dinner because I feel like my answer is very selfish [LAUGHTER] compared to your selfless outward facing answer. But my career’s been unusual. I’ve spent about half of my time at BYU Idaho in academic leadership. And so just in the last couple of years have been able to dive in and research and write about these things. I’d kind of like to go speak to people who are interested in hearing about this, do workshops together with people who are learning how to improve this. I also helped teach a course that I designed and have team taught for the last six years with a couple of colleagues here for our new faculty. It’s a semester-long course. And so I’ve recently written a textbook for that course. That’s kind of all the stuff we think new teachers should know. I think we’re calling it Architects of Learning. And so I’ve got that to a point where eventually I’ll pursue publishers, figure out how to get those ideas out there as well. But build on some of the kind of the same stuff that’s laced through this book about just being intentional about the decisions we make in our tactical classroom decisions and our course design decisions can go a long way to improving learning.

Rebecca: Thank you so much for joining us. We really appreciated getting to know you and your work better and sharing it with our audience.

John: While we were able to see an advance copy of this, we are wondering when the copy will be released to the public. Mine is on preorder.

Robert: Yes, so it’s preorder and it’s March or April, West Virginia University Press has told us. So we’re looking forward to that actually getting out there soon. And we’re so grateful that you would have us on your show. We love connecting with kindred spirits who care about teaching and learning and education can do to make people’s lives better. Thank you.

Bonnie: Thank you.

Rebecca: 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.