205. Tutoring

Equity gaps in educational outcomes play a major role in perpetuating economic inequality. In this episode, Philip Oreopoulis  joins us to discuss his research examining how tutoring and computer-aided instruction can be used to reduce disparities in educational outcomes. Philip is a Distinguished Professor of Economics and Public Policy at the University of Toronto, the Education co-chair of MIT’s Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab, and an award-winning researcher who has conducted a wide variety of studies relating to education and educational policy.



John: Equity gaps in educational outcomes play a major role in perpetuating economic inequality. In this episode, we discuss research examining how tutoring and computer-aided instruction can be used to reduce disparities in educational outcomes.


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 Philip Oreopoulis. Philip is a Distinguished Professor of Economics and Public Policy at the University of Toronto, the Education co-chair of MIT’s Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab, and an award-winning researcher who has conducted a wide variety of studies relating to education and educational policy. Welcome, Philip.

Philip: Thanks so much for having me.

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

Philip: My tea is coffee. I love coffee. I once looked for a reason not to drink coffee, I couldn’t find one. I love my black coffee.

Rebecca: A true researcher at heart. [LAUGHTER]

John: And I am drinking a bing cherry black tea, a custom Tea Republic tea made for Harry & David.

Rebecca: And I have Irish breakfast tea. I really need to get some new tea [LAUGHTER]. I’m going to a tea store this weekend, so I’m looking forward to getting some new options.

John: And we have lots of tea in the office, some of which may not be as fresh as it was a year and a half ago. But this one still is good. It was purchased right before the shutdown.

Philip: You guys are inspiring me. I think I’m gonna have some tea sometime today.

Rebecca: All right, good, good.

John: In a November 2020 Scientific American article, you describe a meta analysis that you worked on with some colleagues that found that tutoring results in significant improvements in student learning. Could you describe this meta analysis a bit and what you found?

Philip: To backtrack a little bit, how it got started: my colleagues at J-PAL, Vincent Quan, Andre Nickow, and I, had heard about the potential of tutoring to be an effective form for increasing test score learning performance. For example, there’s Benjamin Bloom’s seminal article in the 80s, where he had two very small studies done by his students that both found off the charts improvement from offering tutoring in randomized control trials. In fact, that’s why he called it the ‘“2 sigma problem” that he found estimated impact from these two small studies were raising learning performances by enough to potentially solve most of our problems that we would be having in education policy. There were a number of recent studies as well, a randomized control trial coming out from the University of Chicago’s Ed lab, also finding very promising results from an RCT looking at providing in-class tutoring to grade nine students. And so we wanted to explore whether there was some consistency in these results, so we decided to try to take a more systematic look, and we gathered up all the RCTs, randomized control trials, in the last 40 years for about 96 studies, and we took a look and we found that consensus was quite remarkable. About 80% of those studies found significant effects larger than .2 of a standard deviation, and the average effect size was .38 of a standard deviation, which is like the equivalent of almost an entire extra year of school, from receiving these programs. And not only were the impacts really quite meaningful, as about as large as you get from education interventions, but they were consistent across the board. I think that this is about as much consistency as you’re ever going to get in an education policy intervention. So we were quite excited about that. We found that the effects were pretty consistent no matter which type of program that you looked at. They were larger for things like in-school delivery, three days a week, one-to-one delivery, full time tutors, but even in cases where that wasn’t the case, usually there were still significant effects.

Rebecca: Can you talk about what age the students were, what grades they were in?

Philip: It was for K-12.

John: I think it’s probably safe to assume, though, that the same effect would hold in the college environment as well. Those are some pretty dramatic effects.

Philip: Of course, to some extent, maybe it’s not that surprising. Giving instruction one-to-one leads to higher learning gains, and the biggest challenge, of course, is cost. We can’t all have our own teacher when we go to school. And so the biggest challenge, which gets back to Bloom’s point calling this the 2 sigma problem, is I think we have a powerful intervention to help education, it’s just that it costs too much to implement it on a larger scale. So the fundamental problem is to figure out a way to scale this in a way that can complement the classroom instruction.

John: And so that’s one of the things I think you’re looking at now, how this can be scaled up in a more cost effective manner. Could you tell us a little bit about your current research in terms of computer-assisted learning?

Philip: Sure. So computer-assisted learning or computer-assisted instruction is a type of educational software designed to help students progress through topics at their own pace. It has a lot of similar features as what you might receive when you’re receiving tutoring. So a typical example might be Khan Academy, MATHia, there’s lots of other types of software designed to help with different topics, math and reading, but they all have these sort of common features that allow students to progress through topics at their own pace. You receive immediate feedback from trying to work through your own problems and a chance to understand where you went wrong. If you do make a mistake, there’s data that’s generated from going through it that someone like a teacher might be able to follow and respond to. And so computer-assisted learning can, in some ways, simulate the tutoring experience, but of course, at a much lower cost. The challenge is you don’t have a real person guiding you through it. So even though a platform like Khan Academy is easily accessible, your willingness or motivation to go through it on your own is probably not as great as if you had a real person guiding you through the same material. So there has been some experimental evidence on computer-assisted learning, not as much as theories on tutoring, but of the 15 or 20 randomized control trials that have been done in this area, they have also been showing quite promising results. In cases where computer-assisted learning is provided, especially during a school setting, those receiving it also seemed to be performing at significantly higher rates than those in the comparison group. So there does seem to be some promise at using computer-assisted learning to generate the gains that we see from tutoring. But the way to introduce it, the instructions that teachers need to learn how to use it effectively, are not yet maybe as developed as we’d like them to be. So getting to, I guess jump into what I’m working on, I think that there’s a lot of potential for leveraging existing resources to combine with computer-assisted learning in a way that might come close to the tutoring experience. And so what I’m thinking of is in the classroom, that the kind of facilitated practice that might go on, say, in a math subject might be much better through a tool like Khan Academy than paper and pencil that we often give students. And so the question I’m investigating is around reshuffling the classroom in a way where the teacher is trained how to use computer-assisted learning more effectively in the classroom to generate that type of experience. So in the context of the program that I’m looking at now, which tries to integrate Khan Academy more into math classes, the teacher is still instructing and presenting topics, but now emphasizing the students following an individualized roadmap that allows the students to progress at their own pace, rather than having to keep up even if they’re missing on topics and not understanding. So the program which we’re calling “Coaching with Khan Academy,” or CWK, has students receive a roadmap of incremental topics and videos to follow at the start of school that roughly proceed in the same order that the teacher is going through. Now, the teacher has the students to try to work on this roadmap for at least an hour, an hour and a half a week, and tries to facilitate that time during the class and encourage more done at home, and the students then have the ability to hopefully get into a routine of watching a video and taking the exercises, and if they don’t score high enough on the exercises they’re asked to try to understand why they made the mistake using the hints and tips and guidance that Khan provides or gets help from the teacher, and then repeat it so that they don’t move on to the next topic until they’ve mastered that. So the students are not proceeding all in the same pace, but it is just a much better way to learn math such that the students don’t go on to the next topic until they’ve established a strong enough foundation on the first one.

John: During the global pandemic, most high schools moved to emergency remote instruction for an extended period, and there’s quite a bit of evidence that that led to a decline in overall learning, but also some growing achievement gaps which are tied to household wealth and the wealth of the school districts in which the students reside. What types of policies could be implemented at the K-12 level so that students are more equally prepared for entry into college

Philip: On COVID, we’ve all been exposed to online learning now, and most research suggests that it’s not a great substitute for in-person but there are certain benefits from being able to speak with a real person over a computer in regards to tutoring. So the biggest one is convenience, both for the tutor and the tutee. It’s nice to be able to jump in on a call and spend just 30 minutes on that or an hour, and not have to drive to the person’s location or do this after school. The opportunity to facilitate more tutoring, I think, is increased by having this online access. So I think there’s a lot of interesting promises from that. This one particularly interesting study that was done during COVID last summer, where a group of Italian faculty organized a volunteer tutoring experiment where they got the Deans of their respective universities to invite university students to volunteer their time, three to six hours a week to reach out and connect with students who have been struggling in the high schools and lower grades. And on the flip side, they got the school districts of several locations in Italy to ask teachers to identify students that they thought could benefit from having this one-on-one instruction. And then the response was great in both ways, there were a lot of people willing to volunteer their time for this effort, and there was also a lot of perceived need for students that needed this. And so from this large set-up, they randomized who they were able to give this offer of assistance to. And it was done all online, sometimes over the phone, but more often through Zoom, or Skype, or whatever was most convenient for the match to take place. The tutors met with tutees, for three hours a week, over six weeks. The topics were either math, Italian, or English, and then at the end, the researchers collected the survey and found similar gains to what we were finding in the online overall. Not only that, but they also collected data on mental health and found improvements in feelings of connection, more positive outlook on life. And what’s also interesting as they seem to show improvements and positive outcomes for the tutors themselves, as well. So it stands the potential for a win-win, and this was all done online. So it’s like the only online study I know, but it seems to show the potential that it might be done there. One other example I should mention is Khan Academy has also initiated another organization that facilitates free volunteer online tutoring. It’s called ‘schoolhouse.world’ and it’s been interesting to watch that trying to get up and running. Their system allows anyone in the world to volunteer their time as a tutor, and then they try to connect anyone in the world wanting to receive that tutoring. And you get some sense of some of the challenges from doing that. How do you screen for quality? And also, how do you screen for safety? So they’ve had to go away from a one to one model to more of a group model. They’ve had to have systems in place to check the quality of the tutoring, what’s being discussed. They’ve had to switch to allowing only high school students to receive the tutoring and a few other challenges. And so there’s challenges but also a lot of potential in this that wasn’t available from always having to meet your tutor in school or after school or face-to-face. So the potential scalability is enormous, and that’s where the intriguing possibilities are with that tool.

Rebecca: So if we’re looking to reduce achievement gaps, we’ve talked a little bit about COVID and the mix of instruction that students might’ve had during COVID, the quality of instruction, access to technology, to even have interactions with teachers in some cases, and historically even, differences in ability when students arrive in higher ed. What are some of the things that the higher ed community might be thinking about in terms of this research? Should we be advocating for certain kinds of policies or programs in K-12? Should we be trying to institute some of these things in higher ed? What are your thoughts on that?

Philip: So just in terms of advocacy and thinking about facilitating more equality, there’s no question that tutoring has, in general, been an unequal program. There’s the whole private sector of tutoring where a lot of households for more affluent families seem to receive it than those from less affluent households. And so one thing we can do as policy-makers is to try to facilitate more tutoring to happen in schools, especially at schools for more disadvantaged backgrounds. We can also focus on providing tutoring to those who need it most. I think that there is a growing awareness of the potential for tutoring to make a real difference in helping address the learning loss that may have occurred with the pandemic and just helping address education inequalities in general. And so a lot of resources have started going towards trying to increase the amount of tutoring happening in schools. I think that the more we understand how to implement it successfully, the more guidance that we can provide the K-12 sector in trying to introduce that. I think that there is a lot of optimism now around its potential. I think tutoring is one of the most effective programs that we can offer to make a meaningful difference at scale, such that we can get more students arriving into post-secondary ready to handle it and succeed well there. So that’s on that end. I think that there’s no reason why we also can’t consider tutoring at the post-secondary level as well, and the potential benefits that might come from that. Even if we just look at first-year calculus, or other subjects in math, computer-assisted learning is well developed even at that level, the need for tutoring at that level is there as well. And so it really does go from that importance of establishing a foundation that one might benefit from tutoring at earlier ages. But even at the post-secondary level, regardless of what level the student is, we can all benefit from one-on-one instruction compared to being in a calculus class of 500, right? I think there has been less research that’s been done in that area, but the evidence certainly points to the direction that tutoring at the post-secondary level would be also effective and important to consider.

John: And you mentioned that Italian experiment where college students were providing tutoring, and you mentioned that that was a very positive experience for the college students as well. That might be an interesting model where college students could improve their own skills and develop a bit more automaticity and more practice in basic concepts, while helping bring students up to a higher level in secondary schools. That’s a program that I think offers a lot of potential.

Philip: So I would agree, absolutely, the expression is you don’t really understand something until you teach it. I think that there’s something to be said for that. I think that there’s also a lot of skills and experience that is gained from trying to help others, from trying to connect with perhaps younger individuals that have not had the same background as you. I think that the experience is also attractive to employers looking at who to hire. I think there’s huge gains from all the things that you might volunteer or use your time for in college, spending some time to volunteer to do something like tutoring could be a very rewarding thing as well. So I’m also excited about that model. I think that there are ways to try to facilitate that kind of model at scale and more research needs to be done to explore how to do that.

Rebecca: One of the things that I heard you mentioned early on in the conversation is the idea that, historically, folks who had access to tutoring are more affluent. So the students who most need the tutoring are the ones that aren’t always getting it, because they can’t afford it. So I love the idea of having it in schools or it’s a part of our programs. But also I think sometimes tutoring has a negative connotation to it. It’s like a deficit model. Especially I’ve seen this in higher ed, students don’t want to go to a tutor because it makes them feel like they’re dumb or something.

Philip: My first reaction to that is that tutoring can be beneficial at any level. For example, in the Khoaching with Khan project that I’m looking at, the potential is to help all students in the class regardless of their level, because every student can be given their own individual roadmap. And that not only includes those that are behind grade level that benefit from establishing a stronger foundation in that earlier material so that they can catch up, it also includes those at a higher level that don’t have to be held back or wait for the instructor to cover new material can use a platform like Khan Academy or a tutor to work on more challenging material that interest them. And so how to remove that stigma that exists in general, I agree the usual perception is when someone asks, “Do you need a tutor?” it’s because you’re struggling. It doesn’t need to be that way, but at the same time, I think the more we become aware of the benefits from the tutoring, the more we realize that it’s a great resource to take advantage of. Getting back at the college level, I don’t know about your own experiences, but it always amazes me how few students take advantage of all the free tutoring that’s being offered by the universities through, like, office hours. The opportunity for receiving one-on-one discussion is often there, and yet so few students seem to take advantage of it, perhaps because of that stigma or perhaps they’re too busy. Some of us, when we went through college, were pleasantly surprised by how much you can get with office hours of graduate students and extra tutoring and how much you can learn from that process.

John: As in a lot of classes, students are treated as if one-size-fits-all education and students come in, especially in subjects such as math where there is a very rigid structure, if you don’t have a solid foundation and concepts, learning new topics is not going to be very productive, because you don’t have that foundation to connect to. And I see that in my own classes, and it’s a bit of a challenge to try to do that. Because of issues of scale I often teach large classes, I try to rely on peer instruction as much as possible with small group activities. Could small group peer interactions in working through problems and problem sets achieve something similar to the one on one attention?

Philip: In the literature, it’s called peer-to-peer, we did not look at peer-to-peer in our meta analysis on tutoring, but there is some literature and there’s some effort to consider that. It’s a little bit of a different model, because you’re relying on slightly older students or similar students to help assist other students. I think more research needs to be done on how to make that happen effectively. On one hand, the potential is there to make this a scalable, effective program that doesn’t cost very much. On the other hand, monitoring quality and the potential to train to be a tutor and to do a good job with it may not be there as much as with the regular type of tutoring program.

John: In particular, I was thinking of activities in class where students work on problems in groups, and they try to argue out solutions. They work together and they can explain to each other things they don’t understand, but the key aspect of that is they get feedback on whether they’re correct or not, some constructive feedback on where they went astray. But I was just thinking that those types of small group interactions could provide some of the benefits without that stigma of needing to go to tutoring and perhaps at a higher scale than tutoring might work.

Philip: The advice that I often give my students is to study until you feel you can explain it to someone else. And so there’s a similar, perhaps, mechanism at play when we’re thinking about that. When you try to write down a concept or explain it, even to yourself, out loud or to someone else, you quickly realize what you understand and what you don’t. There does seem to be a lot of potential there.

Rebecca: Sounds like one of the keys to reducing stigma around all of this is making the coaching or this tutoring model just something that’s normalized. Maybe it’s normalized in class, it’s normalized through the school day, and then people might be more apt to take advantage of it because they have access to it. But also, it becomes a standard way of being, that’s what other people around them are also doing.

Philip: Absolutely! I think if we can reframe tutoring as just individualized instruction or personalized instruction, then we can all understand the potential benefits of receiving more personal help than in a classroom setting, and that goes for pretty much anyone.

Rebecca: It really also matches up well with a lot of universal design for learning principles of flexibility as well, and allowing students to go at their own pace and finding ways of teaching and learning that match well for students and where they’re at.

Philip: And of course, the issue is scale. Getting children to learn in a classroom of 25 to 30 students, when these students vary enormously in academic levels, is just really difficult. And trying to figure out a way to provide that individual attention is the challenge that all teachers face and have been facing for many, many years. And if we can find a way to scale adding on or providing more and more individualized attention, it has the potential, I think, to make a real difference in education. Of all the potential policies that we can be looking at, I do think that, at the school level, leaning towards more individualized instruction is where we should be looking at, for a solution.

Rebecca: It’s so interesting to me that we’re having this conversation early on in our semester, because after teaching online for a year, which I hadn’t done previously, I’ve really worked to make my classes more flexible and actually offer some of those kinds of models that you’re describing where students are going more at their own pace, and that they can get some individualized instruction when they need it and that they need to do this mastery learning so that they build on things over time. It looks to me like maybe I need to look more into tutoring and coaching models that have worked really well to see if I can’t implement some of that more during class time.

Philip: There may be different ways to do it. Some may be more effective than others, but I do think, getting back at what John was saying, it’s harder to provide that individual support or help to students arriving in college without that foundation. I have done some other work at the college level, trying to facilitate more personal attention to students arriving, trying to help them out and encourage them to get into better habits, and it has proved quite difficult to change behavior, and so I have found myself reacting to that by focusing more on earlier grades to see if there might be more promise on trying to foster better study habits, better learning habits, earlier on with the hope that students arrive in college more prepared.

John: I think that’s one of the things a lot of behavioral economic studies have found. Interventions that result in long-term changes of behavior are challenging in general.

Philip: Absolutely.

John: And I think you’ve done some research on that.

Philip: Absolutely. So if we have to change one-time actions, like helping students through applying for college, applying for financial aid, those types of interventions are much more promising at affecting one-time goals than to change habits or routines that involve much more continuous behavior. So helping someone study more effectively, spend more time studying, these are much harder problems to solve. And maybe low-cost nudges that we’ve been looking at in the literature may not be as effective. I think that does tie back into how my perspective has changed over time. It’s hard to have significant influence without personal connection. It’s a lot more expensive, but there’s only so far you can go with sending an email or a text message or a one-time meeting in trying to change someone’s learning trajectory or life trajectory. And the more you sort of look at education policies that have been successful, the more you notice that they often come with this personal connection that’s been important for making that meaningful change.

Rebecca: It seems like we should all be really advocating then for these much more early interventions. It’s much more cost effective if we get those habits in place really early [LAUGHTER].

Philip: I will say there’s surprisingly not enough research on the long-term effects of tutoring. I’ve seen one study that has found that the benefits of receiving that tutoring continued one year past the program ended; the effects faded, but not by that much, and that’s the only study I’m aware of that actually does a long-term study. So on the question of whether we can have these life-changing impacts from targeting earlier ages, certainly, there’s a literature for the very young… like, almost helping at the household, but at the school, I think that more work could be done.

John: And that could be a really productive research area. Before we started recording, we were talking a little bit about, with the pandemic, creating our own videos. Could you talk a little bit about how you try to implement what you’ve learned in your own classes at the college level?

Philip: Yeah, I think that using the situation last year to put my lectures online has freed up space in the actual lectures to be more interactive. So I think it was a benefit both ways. The videos of the lectures themselves became more streamlined, I got a chance to break them up into smaller parts, sort of like Khan Academy videos, where instead of one video that’s two hours long, that goes all over the place, and you’re staring at me and the Blackboard, I created five- to ten-minute videos of vignettes that I could focus on with slides and have a series of these videos that students could watch at their own pace. I could edit them and make sure that the video is as succinct as possible and gets across what I really want to say. So that was good on the video side, and then on the actual lecture side, we spent that time going through problem sets and answering questions and it was much more interactive, closer to the spirit of more personalized instruction. So there was more opportunity for questions, more opportunities for the students to get more involved, and I think it did lead to more satisfaction of that approach. Obviously, the big question is, ‘Do they really watch the videos when they’re asked to do it on their own?’ I think there are ways to try to incentivize that, but just like any class, the students really perk up when they’re working on a problem that was, say, a previous exam question.

John: I’ve used a very similar approach. I’ve used videos for like 20 some years in my classes, but one thing I started doing last year is I embedded questions in the middle of the videos, and that’s a pretty effective incentive structure. It does get them all watching the videos, and at least thinking about it and trying to make some connections while they do it, and that’s worked pretty well.

Philip: Not only that, but you can make them mandatory for class participation. So you stick those questions in and they have to watch the video to find the questions when they pop up, there’s software that can do that. And then you can make it as a way to encourage them to have to watch the video.

John: Do you think that more use of computer-aided instruction is going to be helpful in allowing more students to be successful?

Philip: I’m very optimistic on this potential of leveraging computers with teachers and parents working together on trying to facilitate high-dosage practice. We’ve been talking mostly in math, but it could also be language as well, and maybe other topics. But I think this really is a good way to learn, as long as the practice time is long enough, and the student’s not stuck. I think that it takes a while to get into the habit, getting used to the software, getting used to the routine, both for the teacher providing this and for the student doing it, and so that, for me, right now, is the biggest challenge. I am optimistic that if we can facilitate a way to help teachers and students get to that higher-dose practice using computers, then very good things will happen. I think that the evidence is highly suggestive that the high dosage is a worthwhile thing to get done. I’m hoping that we can generate evidence that that’s the case, but we are finding that there are challenges because there’s a learning curve, it is changing the way that the classroom is done and changing the way the student usually learns, but I’m optimistic that if we can get past that, the students and the teachers will come to like this approach, and that we can do more of it at scale.

John: And I think a lot of people began experimenting with some sort of a flipped approach where they created videos and then use the classroom for more interactive activities, ast least at the college level, I don’t think that’s happened quite as much at the secondary school level. But I think that has helped provide at least some professional development for faculty. But it is an adjustment that students are not adjusting to perhaps as easily as I would like, I know I always have trouble getting across to students that there is some benefit of working through problems in class and watching videos and learning some of the basic concepts outside of class. Students would rather be lectured to, there was that big study that was done at Harvard not too long ago, where students were asked about active learning classes versus lecture classes, and the research certainly showed that active learning in the classroom led to significant learning gains, but students perceived a higher learning gain from lecture classes, and that’s where I think that issue of students’ adjustment is a challenge, and until we get to see a large amount of this occurring, it’s going to be a while convincing students of this, because it’s really easy to sit there in a lecture and nod and smile and have it all make sense and it seems to fit together very logically, but then when you try to apply it, there’s a bit of a problem, and then the questions are somehow unfair. But when students are faced with problems and interactive work in class, they’re confronted by not knowing things as well as perhaps they thought they did, and it’s not as pleasant of an experience. And I think that’s the source of that metacognition, that students perceive that lectures are more effective, because it’s easy to sit there and listen in, and it all seems reasonable. But the problem is when they try to work through problems and realize they don’t quite have those connections fully there yet.

Philip: The lecture seems to make so much sense until you sit down when you get home and try to go over it again, but I do think there’s the potential for this middle ground that even in the experiment we’re looking at, we’re not entirely flipping the class, in fact, we want to work with the teacher to understand what their own preferences are, while still trying to hit this high dosage of practice, which may occur in class, but also could occur at home as well. And I think that there is something to be said by having a lecture of a new topic being done in class, in person, with the real person. It gets back to that importance of personal connection that the computer is not able to provide. And so maybe there is a sweet spot around providing real instruction, real empathy, but also enough time to be working through these problems at your own pace. My vision for the Khan project is that students say, in grade four, getting 90 minutes of math a day, maybe half an hour of that would be the teacher’s own instruction of a new topic, but then a lot of the other time would be students working on their own devices, while the teacher takes the time… instead of just sitting up at their desk… walks around and spends a lot of time looking over the student’s shoulder, using the data that they’re seeing to understand who’s struggling and where, and spends a lot of time working individually while the student is using the computer. So there’s still that interaction going on and taking advantage of the personalization. I think they too can go really well together.

Rebecca: That’s definitely something I’ve been experimenting with. I went all the way flipped before, and right now I think I’m right in the middle. There’s some flipped, there’s some demos that are live so that people can interact and ask questions, and then there’s lots of practice with individualized attention. And it does take a little time to get everyone on board, to get everyone trained to do things in a new way. So in a 15-week semester, it might take two full weeks to develop new habits and workflows for everyone, but really after we get over that two- week hurdle at the beginning of the semester, my classes tend to settle into a routine that seems really productive and that students have been pretty positive about.

Philip: A key feature of the coaching with Khan program, is that every teacher gets their own coach that we spell with a “kh,” and our coaches meet with the teacher prior to school to go over our suggested recipe to follow, but then they don’t just leave it at that, they keep working with the teachers to check in and try to troubleshoot or brainstorm or reassure and remind the teacher until things are going smoothly. But it can take longer than two weeks to figure out how things are going, and then on the student side, it can take a while for them to adapt and understand that there’s some independence on their own for wanting to do it. The hope is that the students start to gain confidence when they see their own progress, when they see that maybe they didn’t consider themselves a strong math student, but if you start them at the right spot on this roadmap, and then they proceed incrementally, and they can see that they are advancing, then they start to understand the potential benefits and internalize the desire to keep going on their own.

Rebecca: Yeah, that autonomy and that empowerment, I think, is really key to the whole puzzle. And I think something that probably tutoring historically helps students achieve is that they can do this. They might have a little extra guidance initially, but then they achieve it and can do it, and that’s really empowering.

John: That’s our hope

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

Philip: What’s next? I think I made some notes on that. [LAUGHTER] So I think the issue around tutoring and individualized learning is all about, now, scale. I don’t think we need another study to demonstrate that one-on-one instruction, or one-on-two is an effective additional tool for learning, that more should be done if it were possible. A lot of resources are now going into trying to provide individualized instruction. I think a lot of policymakers and governments are looking to tutoring as a way to address some of the learning loss that may have gone on during the pandemic, and I think, in that space, there’s some optimism by researchers and policymakers to try to understand what types of scale up are better than others in a way that we can make a meaningful difference at the aggregate level.

Rebecca: Well, thanks so much. I’m really excited to hear more as your research develops and more information becomes available!

Philip: It was a pleasure to get a chance to chat with you guys. It’s a topic I’ve been spending a lot of time on and losing a bit of sleep on trying to get things to work. The experiment that we have going on, this is going on in Texas, and one of the challenges of doing a field experiment is that so many things go wrong while you’re trying to deal with real people, real students, and provide evidence that this is a good idea. And it’s always a bit frustrating to face these challenges, like just account issues, students have trouble getting on to Khan Academy and the teachers getting frustrated, and it would be a shame to have those issues that can be worked out actually create this wedge from the program going smoothly and making the difference between having these great impacts or not. So it is stressful, but I think it’s worth it to try to keep at it, and I hope to be able to do so. With funding and policy support we’ll just keep trying. I think there’s a lot of interest in it, I think that it hasn’t been difficult to motivate these ideas and wanting to do more on it. So thanks a lot for giving me the chance to share these thoughts.

John: Your work is incredibly important. And so much income inequality is associated with differences in educational attainment, that understanding these achievement gaps and what we can do to narrow them can have a really dramatic impact on society.

Philip: Fingers crossed!


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

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

John: Editing assistance provided by Anna Croyle.


203. Critical Race Theory

Multiple states have introduced legislation banning the discussion of critical race theory at all levels of public education. In this episode Cyndi Kernahan and Moira Lynch join us to explore what these bills actually say, the motivations behind them, and the impact this has on teaching in higher education. Cyndi is a Psychology Professor and the Director of the Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning at the University of Wisconsin at River Falls. She is also the author of Teaching about Race and Racism in the College Classroom: Notes from a White Professor. Moira is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Politics, Geography, and International Studies, also at the University of Wisconsin at River Falls.



John: Multiple states have introduced legislation banning the discussion of critical race theory at all levels of public education. In this episode we explore what these bills actually say, the motivations behind them, and the impact that this has on teaching in higher education.


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: Together, we run the Center for Excellence in Learning and Teaching at the State University of New York at Oswego.


Rebecca: Our guests today are Cyndi Kernahan, and Moira Lynch. Cyndi is a Psychology Professor and the Director of the Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning at the University of Wisconsin at River Falls. She is also the author of Teaching about Race and Racism in the College Classroom: Notes from a White Professor. Moira is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Politics, Geography, and International Studies, also at the University of Wisconsin at River Falls. Welcome Moira, and welcome back, Cyndi.

Cyndi: Thank you.

Moira: Thanks for having us.

John: Our teas today are…

Cyndi: I’m drinking blueberry green tea.

Rebecca: Oh, that sounds good!

Moira: I had English breakfast and I left it downstairs.

Rebecca: Oops. [LAUGHTER] I have Earl Grey although Moira, don’t worry, I came initially with just a cup of hot water and I was like, oops, that’s not tea.

John: And I have ginger peach green tea. Is your blueberry green tea the Tea Republic one?

Cyndi: It is, I love them so much.

John: I do too. It’s really good.

Cyndi: And I took a page from you guys. I have to say we’re opening our CTL space officially next Tuesday. We were supposed to open last year but pandemic, and I took a page from y’all: I bought a kettle and tea because you guys inspired me. {LAUGHTER] So we will have a tea maker at the UW River Falls CTL space.

Rebecca: Representing, awesome!

John: Nice! We actually, I should note, have three. We have two tea kettles and we have a Breville tea maker, which will set the temperature and the strength of the tea for each of the major types of tea.

Cyndi: Of course you do.

John: We’ve been doing this for a while now.

Rebecca: Yeah, hashtag tea nerds.

John: We’ve invited you here, to talk about a column you wrote for the Cap Times on a bill that would ban the discussion of critical race theory in K-12 and higher education in the state of Wisconsin. What has happened with this bill? Has it passed or is it still under discussion?

Moira: This is a bill that… there’s actually two parts to it… There’s a Bill 409, which is targeting universities and colleges in Wisconsin. And then there’s a Bill 411, which is targeting K through 12 schools. And it hasn’t passed. It was proposed in June, just this past June… 2021. And then they only recently had a public hearing, a pretty divisive and rancorous public hearing, on August 11th on the bill, but no, it hasn’t gone to a vote yet. So the bill, basically, is banning particular concepts from the classroom. That’s its intent, including ideas like that one race or sex is superior to another, a person is inherently racist by virtue of his or her race or sex, a person should feel guilty for past acts committed by people of his or her race or sex. And there’s a few other pieces of language, but also it includes language that schools that would engage in instruction, that aligns with these ideas, would lose 10% of their annual state funding. There’s a couple other pieces to the bills, too, that are important to mention about ideas around educators publishing their curriculum, making it public and that being monitored in some form if this bill should pass. And that would be at the college and university level, but also at the K through 12 level. It also has some language on training. So institutions that are training on diversity and inclusion, for example, would be subject to some of these same ideas about what they can and cannot talk about in their training.

Cyndi: EDUCAUSE is keeping up with this, a lot of places are keeping up with this, I think the Chronicle of Higher Ed has a map as well. And there are 12 states that have passed something like this. And they all look a little different. So, Wisconsin’s looks very similar, I should say, because there’s a strategy here, but there are 12 states who have passed things like this, and there are variations on them. There’s more that seemed to be focused on the K-12 system, but many of them are focused on higher ed as well, like Florida really stands out as being very focused on their higher education system. So you can go and look, I think the EDUCAUSE article is really good, I can send that to y’all, but it sort of shows you like the map and where each state is in terms of where these bans are at. So this is a pretty serious issue going into the Fall semester.

John: We can share a link to that in the show notes. This has been a phenomenon we’ve been seeing a lot recently. We saw it over the previous four years in the White House with many federal agencies and we’re seeing it again in lots of red states, it appears. Why is this happening?

Cyndi: Yeah, I can start. I don’t think it’s any accident that a year ago, we were still talking about… I mean we still are talking about… the protests around George Floyd and the summer that we had that was so remarkable in terms of how many people went out and protested. So I think this is a response to that. That’s what it feels like to me. And it’s an ongoing response. We see this when you look at the history of race and racism, where there’s movement and backlash, movement and backlash. Carol Anderson writes about this really well. Many people write about it well, but that book in particular, White Rage, is a great source where she talks about that sort of movement forward and the backlash, and so I think it’s part of that. I think it’s always been part of a larger political strategy too, which I know Moira can speak better to than I can around using this in terms of gaining votes. I know you can speak to that better than me.

Moira: Yeah, I would agree with Cindy, that I think there’s a lot of backlash against the Black Lives Matter movement. And a lot of times the legislation even brings that in to the conversation or you hear that at school board meetings a lot in terms of what people perceive that movement to be, and whether they see it as a threat or not. And that often goes along with what people are speaking about at school board meetings and in college university settings around this type of legislation. But it is definitely stemming from a political strategy, in the sense that a Conservative activist, Christopher Rufo, spoke on Fox News last summer, talking about critical race theory in particular and how it was kind of this insidious element or form of indoctrination that was really moving through the education system. And that got the attention of President Trump. And he wrote a new Executive Order in which you can see much of the language in the legislation across the states, as Cindy described, taking their language directly from the Trump executive order, making sure that this was prohibited as much as possible in the educational setting. Biden has since rescinded that Executive Order since coming into office. But this is definitely a strategy that Conservative activists acknowledge and others also acknowledge ahead of the 2022 elections and beyond. And so there are different folks who are… you’ll see in conservative political party members… that are making statements, people who are interested in running for president eventually, that are definitely taking a stand on this and making sure that their voice is heard on this legislation in their own state or in other spaces. And so it’s definitely kind of part and parcel of how cultural wars have played out in the past in politics in which parties use a particular cultural hot point hot button issue to rally voters and constituents toward them on a particular cause.

Rebecca: In the past year, we’ve seen many campuses really pushed towards diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives, whatever those are, and whatever those look like on a particular campus, they’re different, but there’s definitely a movement in that direction throughout higher ed. how is this impacting that movement? What are the long-term implications of this kind of legislation happening across multiple states in these moves to really have equity in higher education, and really, in K-12, too?

Cyndi: I think it complicates it, and anybody who reads the Chronicle or Inside Higher Ed on a regular basis knows that there’s always been backlash against higher ed, the idea that what we’re teaching is indoctrination or somehow wrong and brainwashing students, liberalizing students, that that idea is not new. I think what this does is it just sort of raises the stakes even more. As someone who teaches about this and works on initiatives like that on my campus level, I’m very involved in all of that work. And so it feels like we’re under even more scrutiny. So there have been incidents on this campus. For example, over the summer, there was a website that was inadvertently linked to our website, and it generated a lot of controversy on the right. And there was a lot of pushback. And so there were people calling the campus and saying, why are you linking to this website? We shouldn’t have necessarily been linking to that website, and again, it was an inadvertent mistake. But it was so clear to me over the summer, when this happened, like “Wow, people are really watching closely.” And so I think that’s part of what complicates that work is that there’s just going to be a lot of scrutiny, a lot of watching what we’re doing. And we already know, and this happens on a lot of campuses, that campus web pages are looked at closely, what instructors are teaching are looked at really closely. I thought the situation at Boise State was really instructive. If you all followed tha, where the Idaho State Legislature took funding away from Boise State and gave it to another Idaho college because allegedly there was this incident where a white student was shamed in an online class around racism. But when you actually dug into it, that student was not shamed by the instructor. There was some back and forth between the student and other students in the chat. It was a synchronous session, but the instructor actually handled it beautifully. The instructor checked in on the student to make sure they were okay. She saw that there was some conflict between students and handled it really, really well, I thought, from my read of the reporting of that. But that incident of allegedly a student being shamed was sent to a legislator who then, just based on that hearsay, said, “Okay, we’re taking $400,000 [I think it was] away from the school.” So I think the scrutiny is part of what really complicates this and makes it harder to do that work.

Moira: I think one of the problems, to your question, Rebecca, about what kind of impact too, is the critical race theory has become this catch-all term for anything that is taught in K through 12 settings or colleges and universities that’s related to race, anti-racism, systemic racism, racial injustice. I mean, the list goes on and on. And as Cyndi has said, these courses have existed for a long time. There’s a lot of work on this in different settings and different forms. So there’s a lot of confusion about what critical race theory is, and is not. And most of the laws that have been passed and that are even being considered don’t even have that term in the law, or if they do, it’s not accurately characterized. So it’s become this vessel to control how race and racism is taught in these settings. And that’s a very powerful instrument. And I want to give you an example, there’s a website called criticalrace.org in which Conservative activists are basically keeping tabs on everything that they can find that colleges and universities teach or had programming on or training related to race, anti-racism, etc. But when you go through different colleges and you look at what they take notes on, it’s not critical race theory… Is there a course? Yes or no? They actually just list anything that has race or anti-racism in it. So it could be a speaker that spoke two years ago, it could be a program for first years on anti-racism, it could be a lecture, it could be training, you can see it’s just this catch-all list that they are collecting to identify a problem. But what’s not clear is what the problem is, in terms of collecting this list of information from a college or university. It’s not clear in this website, for example, what is problematic about any of this programming or how it fits into this larger narrative of it being indoctrination.

John: Is there any evidence that critical race theory is actually being taught anywhere in the K through 12 environment?

Cyndi: Not that I know of, this is just from listening to reports about it, but it wouldn’t make sense for it to be taught in a K-12 setting. I mean, even in undergraduate classes, I’ve never formally taught critical race theory. And part of what’s confusing about it, and I do think it’s sort of useful, I guess, as a catch-all term for the folks who want to stop any discussion of racism, because it’s like this projection screen that a lot of stuff gets thrown on. I mean, really, if you look at the definition of critical race theory, part of what’s so complicated about it is it’s not one thing, it’s really a framework. So it’s a way of looking at things like laws and policies across a variety of domains: health care, education, the justice system, etc., and saying, “Let’s look at where there are racial disparities and disadvantage and let’s try to understand that.” So it’s looking at those things with a critical lens. One example I might give from work that we do is I was thinking about a financial aid policy of verification, I’m sure you all are familiar with this, that ensnares tons of students, including lots of my students, where you have to go through and provide more documentation to be able to receive your financial aid. A critical race perspective on that would say, “How is that happening? How is that disproportionately harming students of color?” …because it is, and there’s research that shows that it is. So that’s what CRT is, is it’s looking at things from a critical framework and saying, “Let’s look at it and see the ways in which racism is operating here that we might not recognize, because that’s one of the sets of assumptions is that it’s systemic, it’s not just individual.” Race is a social construction. Depending on what source you look at, there’s like five or seven different assumptions that are made within the framework of CRT. So, it really wouldn’t make sense for it to be taught to little kids. And then even at the college level, you might not necessarily teach in that way. I mean, I know most of what I spend my time teaching are really those core assumptions, which are understanding how race is a social construction and what that means. Understanding what it means that racism is systemic, and not just individual. And I think when you drill down, I’ve been thinking about this a lot, what I think people really want to ban is feelings. They want to ban people’s feelings around this. So there’s a lot of emphasis, if you listen to the way legislators talk about this, they’re very worried about white people being embarrassed or shamed. And so the idea is, let’s not teach about this in this way in which we think about it as this large encompassing framework, because there’s the assumption that that will make white students feel uncomfortable and embarrassed and ashamed to be white, when I would argue if you’re teaching well, and most people I know who teach this teach very well, that’s not a pedagogical technique that we use. We don’t want to shame people because they don’t learn in that way. And so that’s what’s, at least for me, as one who’s taught about this for so long, is so maddening. It’s like you’re mischaracterizing the way we teach and also mischaracterizing what it is that we’re teaching. It’s not critical race theory. It’s before tha,t just trying to get on the same page of what race is what racism actually is.

Rebecca: It sounds to me like many of the objectives of people who are pursuing this legislation is to just ban discussion of racism, and particular history. And I know that even when I was a student, many perspectives weren’t taught in K-12. So is it a return to a status quo of teaching a particular perspective and only offering that perspective and pushing against other perspectives being offered? Or is it something else?

Moira: I teach international relations and international relations, as a field, was silent for decades on race. So you just didn’t see people publish about it, Textbooks didn’t cover it. It’s just this gaping hole until more recently, textbooks have chapters on race and world politics or more chapters on post-colonial theory, for example. And some of that is also very American-centric. The way Americans taught it in universities was very narrow. However, in other parts of the world race was very much part and parcel of how you would learn about International Relations at the college level. And I talk about that with my students, because when we read about recent world politics, and we look at post-colonial theory, it’s incredibly helpful for them to be able to see historical patterns and systems that have shaped foreign policy decisions, that have shaped why a country’s development has stayed at a lower level as opposed to a higher level. It gives them tools to understand and make sense of some of the outcomes we see that don’t always make sense, especially in places very far from here that are very hard to understand if you have only lived United States and don’t have a lot of context for what’s happening in other parts of the world. So even just being able to explain really diverse patterns of development, conflict, stability in the African continent, is something that the colonial lens, and the colonial period helps them to grasp and make sense of particular outcomes. And we couldn’t do that unless we talked about racial oppression. We talked about colonialization and the slave trade. We couldn’t make sense of that, without that context of institutional racism. To your point about are we going backwards, in that field of international relations, I’m only recently seeing this great movement forward. And actually, textbooks are now a lot more inclusive of these histories than they used to be and so I’m very sensitive to this, because I can see it just moving away. And this omission and this silencing could really have a huge impact on an international relations course.

Cyndi: Yeah, it definitely seems like we’re just getting started and actually including other people in a lot of our curriculum. I think about psychology and the ways in which so much has been left out. And it’s just now starting to be included. So again, I think this is kind of that backlash piece that we see where finally this kind of history and work is being included. And it’s like “No, no, no, wait, wait, wait, we don’t want that.” And, you know, we’ve seen this before. The Tucson School District, they attempted to ban ethnic studies that was ultimately overturned. But it took many, many years to get that changed. So I think that’s what we’re seeing, there’s movement forward, it’s a little bit more inclusive, there’s more focus on it. And it’s interesting, because the backlash is so swift, even to just a little bit of inclusion. We still know… the Southern Poverty Law Center put out a report… I think it’s been a couple of years ago now, looking at the K-12 system showing that really slavery is not taught well, for most American students, it’s not taught particularly well. But even just a little bit of inclusion has sparked this intense backlash. And again, I keep thinking about how so much of it is focused on feelings. It’s very interesting. We don’t want anybody to feel bad. And there’s this assumption that students will feel bad if they learn, essentially, the truth about American history and American present. They just really irks me as an instructor, because that’s not what I see. Students like learning this for the most part. I mean, I have some resistance. But for the most part, students are grateful. The number one comment I always get is, “Why did no one tell me any of this?” And so what I see is that they’re grateful to learn the truth and the flaws and the messiness of our history and who we are as people. They’re grateful for that for the most part.

Rebecca: I would think the most tricky feelings are actually the ones of being betrayed or like, lied to.

Cyndi: Often, there’s a lot of guilt. I’ve talked about that a lot. There’s a lot of guilt, there’s a lot of helplessness. “How do I deal with this?” And so, you know, there’s a lot of management of those feelings. So yeah, that’s a great point.

Moira: I think, too, one of the interesting patterns that we’re seeing with these laws, and it’s the same for Wisconsin, in terms of the proposed bills, is that there isn’t data or evidence of how any of this education that they seem to be pointing to is harmful. They say it’s harmful, and the feelings are being hurt, as Cindy was saying, but we don’t have any data or evidence of harm. And even in the hearing on August 11 in Wisconsin, some of the people testifying, the senators, but also teachers, asked about that. “What is the data? What exactly do you want us to not do? What do you think is harmful?” And it’s difficult for some of the sponsors of the bill to answer that question. They actually couldn’t answer that question on August 11. And I think that’s really telling,

Cyndi: It’s often just all anecdote. It’s just like the Boise State example. It’s like, “Well, I heard someone said that there was this” …and even the thing that kicked part of this off with Christopher Rufo that Moira was referencing earlier was, I believe it was a city worker in the city of Seattle who had seen a presentation and just took a picture of the slide and send it somewhere. So it wasn’t necessarily bad feelings, it was just like, “This could make me feel bad or something,” I think. So it’s very amorphous and there’s a lot of assumptions being made that aren’t well evidenced at all for this.

Moira: And everything out of context.

Cyndi: Yes, very much so.

John: Is this related to a concern about the decline of the white majority that had controlled the narrative for so long, and perhaps a backlash to that, which is showing up in voter suppression efforts in so many other areas?

Cyndi: Yeah, I think the backlash framing is interesting. Right now I’m reading a great book. Ashley Jardina, is a political scientist who wrote the book, White Identity Politics. I’m not all the way through it. It’s really fun to read so far. But she talks a lot about that, about how there’s this salience around white identity that’s happening now, because of this demographic shift. And so that this is part of that larger thing. So there’s this sense of threat. And this is a response to that. So I think it makes our job as teachers, when we teach about this, more tricky and more challenging in some ways, but it’s of a piece with what we’ve always had to deal with. And I think a lot of the techniques for working with it are probably going to be the same. I know at the K-12 level, it’s harder for them, because they have less academic freedom. But I think at the college level, a lot of just good teaching is the way that we’re going to have to continue to work with this backlash and threat that people feel.

Moira: I would agree. And I think that you hear whiteness and white identity and white privilege more often, I think, in a positive way, in the sense that it’s not these kind of niche areas or people. The good part is that people understand that more. And they understand that white identity is constructed just as much as black identity, just as much as any other racial category, they’re all constructed. And so I think, at least in my experience, when I talk to students about that, in that way, that social construction is this very real phenomenon, not just of identities, but many things. Sovereignty is a social construction. Norms have evolved over time about what states can or cannot do. It becomes something more within their grasp to know that this is a product of social forces that have huge impacts that we take for granted, that we internalize… myself and my peers… that we can dismantle, we can challenge, we can push against in the name of justice, in the name of more equitable outcomes. And I think it’s a tool that can be harnessed in that way. And so that’s something that I think absolutely produces the backlash, to your point, because people understand it as a movement to make people feel bad about whiteness, but actually, we all have constructed identities. And so we all are grappling with the ways in which those constructions are harmful.

Cyndi: And I think that actually gives us part of the way through this as teachers, I would say, because I’ve always thought about these two, sort of broad categories for thinking about teaching about race and racism. But even more so in the face of this, like I’m thinking about them more. So, one is the focusing on that institutional layer of things. We have so much focus on: “Are you a good or a bad person? Are you racist or not?” Particularly for white students. And if we can get beyond that, and really think about, “Yes, there is this individual layer, like the attitudes you hold, the behaviors that you display, but there’s also this bigger institutional part, where, as Moira said, all of our identities are constructed, and all of us are part of these larger systems, that we didn’t really ask to be a part of.” And so in many ways, that’s very freeing and liberating for students to see that, “Oh, yeah, I’m part of this harmful system, but it’s harmful to me, too.” It’s not as harmful to white people as it is to people of color, but there’s harm for everyone. It’s not just about me, it’s about this larger system. And that helps to, I think, get students away from just sort of the feelings of it, feeling bad, feeling guilty. It’s like, “No, let’s look at this in its entirety.” So I think that’s a really important thing when we think about how to teach in the face of this larger layer of scrutiny, is that, actually, that focus on the institutional level is helpful. That’s ironic, because that’s the thing that they want to ban. But I would argue that that’s actually a useful thing if you don’t want people to feel as bad. There’s some level of feeling that’s going to be there. But getting away from that, I think, is really helpful. That, and just creating as much belonging and community in your classes… you need to, that’s the second thing. And one more, I’ll just add, I’m a white instructor, and I’m tenured and all of that… it’s much easier. I think it’s really incumbent upon all of us in higher ed to recognize that this is a lot harder for instructors of color. It always has been and this makes it even harder. And for people who are adjunct instructors, graduate students, people who are not tenured yet, this is a really important issue that I hope that colleagues and administrators are paying attention to, I really do.

Moira: I just want to add one thing about the focus on the individual. The legislation ,even an opinion from an Attorney General in Arkansas recently just lists all these things that she sees as potentially violating anti-discrimination laws. But she only uses the language of the individual, the individual will feel this, the individual will be made to… So I think that, if we just step back for a minute and think about how social studies courses are taught in the K through 12 level, and we talk about how history courses… just very broadly for a minute… history courses are taught at the college and university level, they are never about who in this room is responsible for what happened. “This historical event that we’re talking about today, are you responsible? Are your ancestors responsible?” History has always talked about painful events. History courses, or social studies courses, have always talked about painful events, painful events in our history or others’ histories. And it isn’t about your ancestors’ responsibility or individual’s responsibility in the room. We talk about different forms of oppression. Even if you just think about workers’ rights at the beginning of the 20th century, when we think about who is oppressing or who was not giving a fair treatment to people in coal mines or in factories, we don’t talk about people’s ancestors in the room when we’re talking about those oppressions. We’re talking about that as a historical event that we learn from and that we then think about systems going forward from those events, our workers rights movements, child labor laws, etc. And so I think that’s something that is worth reflecting on, that that is the norm. What Cindy is describing is the norm. And many teachers in Wisconsin also said, this is the norm in terms of how we teach history, but it’s not about individual fault or blame.

John: We’re lucky in New York state that we don’t face this issue. But what can we do as individual faculty members to help push back against this type of thing?

Cyndi: Maybe I’m naive, but I really think teaching well is really important. And a lot of what we all know, in terms of good pedagogy, being inclusive, creating as much community as possible, creating a strong sense of belonging, I think all of that is going to be useful to fight back against the sort of stereotyped ideas of what we do as college faculty, and that we’re not brainwashing, we’re not doing that, what we’re doing is trying to bring students along and help them learn, I think about that Boise State instructor who really did what you should do in a situation like that. And so doing as much of that as possible and being focused on each other and being protective, like what I said before about really thinking about who are the more marginalized instructors on my campus that are doing this work? And do people really understand how hard that is? In my department, we take it for granted that the folks who teach statistics and methods, that’s harder, and their evaluations might not look as good as the folks who are teaching other stuff, like what I teach, social psychology, or things like that, that are more “fun.” I think, as colleagues, being aware how difficult this is and how hard it is, I heard a colleague this morning, say… she teaches about racism as part of a communications course… and she said, “I’m going to be taping my lectures, and not just so students have more access, but also because I am concerned that what I say could be mischaracterized, and so I want to make sure that I have it on the record.” And that’s the thing, that if you don’t teach about this, you might not understand that people are really afraid and feeling paranoid, for good reason. Because there is, like I said, that heightened scrutiny. So I think understanding that heightened scrutiny, pushing back against as much as possible, pushing our legislators to truly understand what it is we actually do instead of what it is that they sort of think that we do, and also being involved in our local communities like the school boards and things like that, because this is, as Moira said earlier, this is strategy, and it’s happening everywhere. So my guess is even in New York State, there’s probably some school districts where this is coming up, I can’t imagine it wouldn’t be. it’s a nice big state, so I’m sure that that’s happening there. So that’s what comes to my mind.

John: Even though there hasn’t been any state legislative motions on this, we certainly have students who will share those views and who will push back. And while I don’t believe it’s happening in our institution, certainly in many institutions in New York, students have recorded portions of videos and posted them and so forth. I think that point you made about an instructor recording their classes to protect themselves is a suggestion I’ve often made to faculty, because people will sometimes say, well, what if I say something that I shouldn’t? I said, “Well, first, you probably shouldn’t be saying things that you shouldn’t.” But they’re concerned that students may take something out of context. And I said, “But if you have the video, you have the context, you’re much less likely to be protected if a student’s there with a smartphone, taking bits and pieces of what you’re saying and then perhaps editing parts of that out of context. It’s much better to have it within the setting.” I’ve actually encouraged people to record their classes to provide that sort of protection, if they’re not discussing really sensitive issues.

Rebecca: One thing that I wanted to ask a little bit about is you mentioned before about how many fields are just starting to be more inclusive in their classes. For example, in our design classes, we actually are providing more examples from different types of designers from around the world. Do you see some of this legislation and this pushback, starting to push back on some of that inclusivity or giving some instructors who are just starting to introduce some of these ideas… where maybe the topic isn’t about race and racism – that’s not the subject matter of the class – but you’re trying to be more inclusive, you’re moving in this direction. What should we be thinking about as instructors who are doing this work for the first time, or we’re just doing it more than we ever had before?

Cyndi: Yeah, I think it’s a real concern. I always make a distinction between inclusive teaching generally, which isn’t necessarily talking about racism, or systems of oppression. And there’s a lot of good work on that, I would just shout out Viji Sathi, and Kelly Hogan who I know you all have had on and they have a book coming out next year about inclusive pedagogy that I think is gonna be awesome. And so in working on those techniques, and I find a lot working with instructors that you hear a lot like, “I don’t want to talk about that, I don’t know how to talk about that, that’s going to be too controversial and I won’t be able to cover it.” So maybe don’t start there. Instead, just start with some of these inclusive teaching practices as much as possible. And then working into adding that content as much as possible. And just using as many outside resources as possible to make you feel comfortable. So, I always say, “Go look at your professional association, because they’ve thought about this, there’s going to be a diversity committee in the American Chemical Society, I think, is what it’s called, I’m probably getting that wrong. My chemistry friends will correct me, I’m sure. But there’s a diversity committee who has thought about this, like how do you increase representation. So use that and don’t try to recreate the wheel. And also make sure you just start again with those good inclusive teaching practices, which don’t necessarily require you to be talking about really controversial stuff, but allow you to still create as much equity and access. So I know the new center at Uni of River Falls, we’re going to be running some inclusive teaching workshops this year. And that’s part of why is because we want to make sure that we’re giving people the tools to be able to do that as much as possible.

Rebecca: But certainly a strategy we’re using here as well. We had Viji Saffy and Kelly Hogan here right at the start of our semester to kick off some inclusive pedagogy workshops.

Moira: Yeah, I would just add that this is in the frame of mind for inclusive teaching, but also this idea of pay attention to the different experiences in your classrooms, and also look at what kinds of voices are in your readings, who is not being heard, what perspective is not necessarily being heard here. That’s obviously an element of inclusive teaching. But I think it’s something that is easily overlooked. I’m going to speak for political science, because that’s mine, and they are terrible at this. And I’ve just been at institutions where you get a diversity assignment with your course, if you have a certain level of multiple voices and perspectives being taught on your particular international relations topic, for example. And that’s an odd system that many of us universities have, it’s this extra thing that some courses will do to include a variety of voices on the subject of foreign policy, for example, when the norm is to not do that. But if you do that, you will get a designation. And that’s my own experience in political science, I’ll only speak to that. But I think that that’s something to reflect on as a department, whatever the discipline you’re in, in terms of “What do these designations tell us if you have a system like that? What does it mean for what we’re teaching and what we’re bringing to our students in our department? And how could we do better?”

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

Cyndi: Well, the semester is next [LAUGHTER]… the semester starting next, I’ll just say two other quick things: we’re opening our official CTL space next week, which I’m very excited about, because we have not, at UW River Falls, had a center. Well, we started in March of 2020, which is not a time you should start a center, but we did. [LAUGHTER] So we were virtual for the whole first year. And also I’m working on a research project with a colleague in our sociology department, where we’re looking at how do students learn about structural racism most effectively? And how do they learn it across different sorts of classes? So, intro level sociology versus an upper-level course like mine. So that’s what’s next for me is looking at that data and following up on that to better understand that process for students.

Moira: I’ll also say, no matter what discipline you’re in, what’s happening, this pattern and this movement that we’ve been talking about is something that is worth talking about, with young people at the college level, no matter what discipline you’re in, to kind of pose it as “What do you know? What do you understand about this? What have you heard? What questions do you have?” kind of topic, it could be an icebreaker, it could be further into the term, but just in terms of even just hearing from them about what they think about their own learning at their campus, and how this may or may not affect what they do, and put it in their hands to hear a little bit about what they think you don’t hear a lot from the students in these debates. Obviously, young people, people of elementary school age are not necessarily going to testify at a hearing. But I think that’s an important absence here is that we don’t hear from young college students necessarily all the time about what their interests are, what they understand of their experience on campus.

Rebecca: Imagine that.. asking students.

Moira: Ask the students! [LAUGHTER] That’s a great point.

Rebecca: Well, thank you so much for your insights, and food for thought as we move into the fall semester.

Moira: Yeah. Thanks for having us.

John: Thank you for joining us.

Cyndi: Thanks so much for having us!


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

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


202. Returning to the classroom

As we move into the fall semester, most institutions had planned on return to primarily face-to-face classroom instruction. However, the growth of the delta variant has cast some doubt on that and it’s likely that we’re going to be seeing some disruptions as infections spread on our campuses. In this episode, we discuss some things that faculty may want to keep in mind as we move into the fall semester.


  • Sathy, V., & Hogan, K. A. (2020). “Structured for Inclusion.Tea for Teaching podcast. September 16.
  • Sathy, V., & Hogan, K. A. (2019). Want to reach all of your students? Here’s how to make your teaching more inclusive. The Chronicle of Higher Education.
  • Eddy, S. L., & Hogan, K. A. (2017). Getting under the hood: How and for whom does increasing course structure work?. CBE—Life Sciences Education, 13(3), 453-468.
  • Hogan, K.A. and Sathy, V. (forthcoming, 2022). Embracing Diversity: A Guide to Teaching Inclusively. WVU Press.
  • Hogan, Kelly A, and Sathy, Viji (2020). “Optimizing Student Learning and Inclusion in Quantitative Courses.” in Rodgers, Joseph Lee, ed. (2020). Teaching Statistics and Quantitative Methods in the 21st Century. Routledge.
  • Panter, A.T.,; Sathy, Viji; and Hogan, Kelly A (2020). “8 Ways to Be More Inclusive in Your Zoom Teaching.” Chronicle of Higher Education. April 7.


John: As we move into the fall semester, most institutions had planned on a return to primarily face-to-face classroom instruction. However, the growth of the Delta variant has cast some doubt on that and it’s likely that we’re going to be seeing some disruptions as infections spread on our campuses. We may have students going into quarantine, we may have temporary closures, and faculty themselves may end up in quarantine because of their own or family exposure to COVID. So we thought it would be helpful if we talked a little bit about some things that faculty may want to keep in mind as we move into the fall semester.


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: Together, we run the Center for Excellence in Learning and Teaching at the State University of New York at Oswego.


Rebecca: One of the things that I think many faculty were looking forward to over the summer was maybe a fall that looked a lot more like the ways that they had teached previously, unmasked, perhaps because of vaccination mandates. And there’s still a lot of uncertainty on many campuses around that and vaccination rates of students. So many faculty are finding themselves in situations where they’re going to be masked and their students are masked as well. Although we had some faculty certainly teach that way in the spring, it’s new to many faculty across the country. And so we thought today, we could do some tips about things to think about in the classroom or other face-to-face situations where masks are involved. Our teas today are…John, what are you drinking?

John: Ginger peach green tea. And Rebecca?

Rebecca: I have a decaf Irish breakfast today. And why is it decaf? Because I ran out of the caffeinated tea. [LAUGHTER]

John: I know in office where there is a lot of tea, although I did throw some of the older tea out that had been sitting there for a while. Because our campus has moved at least mostly back to face-to-face instruction. We just had an academic affairs retreat with quite a few faculty present in person, but also quite a few faculty present remotely. And I suspect we’ll be seeing many such events as we move through the fall semester. So you mentioned the issue of masks. And for those of us who set out last year because of health conditions or other concerns. We were not used to teaching with mass. So maybe we could talk a little bit about something that faculty who are teaching with masks for the first time should take into account.

Rebecca: I know that John and I have recently done some campus events. And the first thing I noticed being masked all day was that I couldn’t breathe. I ran out of air, you might get more winded than you’re used to, which might slow you down. But you want to think about how to pace yourself and maybe even making sure you have water. And then it’s also awkward to take your mask off and get a drink of water. So you may want to think about that maybe even practice ahead of time so that you don’t feel like an idiot, trying to figure out how to get a drink.

John: I had to give a really short presentation to our new faculty in person. And I very quickly ran out of breath because I was in a room where it was a very big room and there were no microphones, which was probably not ideal. Which brings us to one of the first things we’d recommend, which is that in the classroom, you should use a microphone. That’s always a good idea because there may be distractions and having clear audio would always be helpful, but it’s especially important if your voice is going to be muffled behind a mask.

Rebecca: And we may think typically of this being something only for a big lecture hall. But I would argue that even in smaller classrooms, it could be incredibly helpful. Another thing to consider too is students in the class not only need to be able to hear you but each other. So if there’s not a microphone to pass around to students, for example, then you want to make sure that you’re repeating questions or comments that students are making so that everyone has the benefit of conversation. This can also be true if you happen to have students who are Zooming in because they’re in quarantine or something else to make sure that they can hear what’s going on in the class as well.

John: Because it’s going to be harder for everyone to hear each other you should be prepared to speak a little more slowly than you might normally to make it easier for students. And also you may want to minimize the amount of time you spend talking in class. If you have not already cut back on lecturing, this would probably be a great time to replace a lecture-based class with the use of more active learning activities where there’s more small local discussions taking place, rather than one person having a voice at trying to fill the whole classroom.

Rebecca: I think those more intimate settings can be helpful to deal with volume and things, you may need more space between groups because they may actually be louder than you’re accustomed to, because of the masks and people needing to try to speak up. So you might want to plan with that and be flexible and ready to adjust. And making sure you’re supplementing with videos and other things for clarifications. You’re noticing a lot of issues that are arising, you know, just-in-time teaching techniques, maybe those need to be a little bit of video follow up too, just to make sure that everyone got that information. You may also want to think about using slides or other digital materials to supplement what’s happening in the classroom to reinforce terms, concepts, ideas, etc., just to make sure that everyone can get that information, especially if anyone’s having trouble hearing.

John: And in general, the use of videos is something that many of us have been recommending anyway, because students can listen to them at their own pace. When you record them, you’re recording them typically at a computer without a mask on, so your voice will be much clearer. And it will make it much easier for students to understand what you’re trying to say. And they can listen to it at their own pace and as often as they need to. So there’s a lot of good reasons to do that, in general. And once you’ve created them, many of them can be used multiple times in multiple years. So if you haven’t done it, that can be helpful.

Rebecca: What we hope that you’re hearing is this idea of multimodal ways of engagement. We mentioned having slides or text-based materials, video materials and activities that might all address some of the same concepts and ideas so that there’s many ways that students can dip in and engage with the material and the content of the class.

John: And when you have students engage in activities in the classroom, don’t just give them instructions early, provide the instructions in writing with a shared document, perhaps a Google Drive document, or put them up on a slide on the screen, if that works better in your environment. But because students may have trouble understanding instructions because of the mask and your muffled voice, giving them other ways to see the instructions and refer back to them is going to reduce uncertainty. And it tends to be a very effective tool in any case, as Viji Sathi and Kelly Hogan have noted, giving students more structure tends to be really effective in reducing achievement gaps for students as well.

Rebecca: This is a really great time to mention the use of polling, as well, to collect information from students. Usually when we’re doing polls, you might present something both in text and orally, so there’s a couple of different ways to get that information. But one of the things you could poll on is how well students are able to hear and the general happenings in the class and what people need. So I would highly encourage doing some polling around those kinds of needs early on in the semester, because we’re all learning and adapting and trying to figure it out together. And the more you can collaboratively do that with students to meet the needs that they’re identifying, the better.

John: With polling, you’ve got a variety of questions you can use. But you can also use things like Jamboard and other whiteboard activities, or even Google Forms where students are submitting things in text rather than verbally. The more communications that take place in a nonverbal format, the more clear that communications will tend to be while we still have mass requirements in effect.

Rebecca: So you’ll notice these digital things that you started adopting, maybe when you were teaching online, can still have a really important place in a physical classroom, we can have those small group conversations and really enjoy the presence of other humans, but also supplement with some of this technology that can help fill in some gaps that we might still have. One of those gaps that we might have is the expressions we’re used to seeing. Even if you were using Zoom, for example, you got to see at least some expressions from students who might have had cameras on, but things can be lost in translation behind a mask, facial expressions might be hidden. So you may need to feel like you’re overexplaining. If you have a lot of emotion embedded in what you’re saying, you might need to actually say what that emotion is: “I’m really excited about this,” or, “I’m really happy to see this.” Rather than just expecting students to hear that change and inflection in your voice because it may be a lot harder to detect than it would be otherwise. One of the things that we mentioned at the top of this episode is really thinking about the many different circumstances that can arise and being prepared this semester. That means backup plans and probably backup plans for your backup plans. We can’t be too prepared. So some things that I know that I faced as a faculty member is, I have a daughter who’s four who’s been quarantined three times from daycare because of exposure to COVID-19. So you may be exposed, your family members might be exposed, so you may not be able to be in person. But the same thing can be true of your students and your students’ families, they might have kids too. So there’s a big complex web of people that may be not able to be or may not be able to participate in person and figuring out a way to make things go on or continue in their absence or in your absence is important. So maybe that means switching to Zoom. If you have to go into quarantine, maybe that means recording your classes and providing that to students who are out. It could be a lot of different things. How will I accommodate this circumstance? is a key question to ask without getting too overwhelmed with trying to do too many things.

John: I already had a situation where I’m teaching a relatively small intro class this time, I only have 189 students in person. And I already received an email from one of those students saying that they will be in quarantine for the first week or so of the term. It’s an international student who just arrived and has to go into quarantine for two weeks before they’re allowed to participate in classes. So you should expect that there’s a good chance that some of your students, even in small classes like mine, might end up having to go into quarantine. And you do want to provide ways for those students to be successful in the class. So I will be live streaming my class in Zoom for those who can’t participate in person.

Rebecca: And like John is mentioning, you probably won’t have a big heads up. Things are going to happen rapidly, and we need to be able to respond rapidly. So think about what works for you and your workflow and the kind of classes you teach. Maybe that means live streaming with Zoom. But if that’s not going to work for you, for whatever reason, then maybe that means recording a class session, or providing an asynchronous equivalent that you’ve developed in previous semesters that can just be made available to students if they need to be out, for example.

John: And we should remember that the last year has been extremely difficult for everybody and some people have been much more heavily affected. And we will be dealing with lots of cases of trauma for both faculty and for students. And we should be prepared for that by, at the very least, having mental health resources available to share with your students could be really helpful. And I suspect many faculty may benefit from that as well.

Rebecca: I think one of the key things is demonstrating care. We talked a lot about this on the podcast over the past year, demonstrating care, caring for students, what does it mean to be in a community of care and acknowledging that the people in your classes, including yourself, are humans who have emotions, can be really helpful. And affirming that people may be experiencing all kinds of trauma from a wide variety of things, not just COVID-19 related, but they might have family members in Afghanistan, they may be a student of color, they may be a student who survived sexual assault, there’s a wide variety of things. And people have been faced or traumatized by that we need to just be aware of and sensitive to. And doing those occasional check ins with students over the course of the semester just saying like, “Hey, how’s it going? Remember, these resources are available,” can go a long way. I remember that last semester, I had students say that no one else had asked them. And it’s not, I think, because our faculty don’t care, because I actually think we have a really deeply caring faculty. So just making sure you’re actually asking the question and making a little space for that is really important.

John: And also consider being more flexible, if possible, with some of your assignments, perhaps not being as rigid with deadlines as you might normally be. Because when students are dealing with issues that may involve life and death of family members, or with family members losing jobs because of economic disruptions, just being more flexible, in general, can be helpful.

Rebecca: Some of that flexibility comes in just providing some grace, like low stakes assignments, or the ability to drop low quiz grades, the ability to make mistakes and learn from it. These are things that aren’t just COVID related or kind of a transitioning back to the classroom related these are really good practices, so that students can develop a growth mindset and really improve over time and we give them the space to improve and the space to learn from mistakes, the space to have life happen, and just let it go and move on.

John: There are so many sources of trauma, we don’t need to make our classes an additional source for our students. We want to provide an environment that’s supportive and nurturing so that students can be successful in our classes. Many faculty have traditionally been very rigid about their deadlines and about the course requirements. But now is an especially good time to reconsider some of those policies.

Rebecca: Along those same lines, we want to be making sure that our students have access in all kinds of ways. So digital materials should meet digital accessibility standards. But we also want to think about cost of books, equipment, etc. and making sure that students have access to what they need no matter where they are. So keeping equipment needs down, software down, book costs down so that students can have access using OERs are all things that we can be thinking about. Digital resources might be particularly helpful at this time, especially if students have to rapidly move into quarantine, it might give them more possibility to have access to things.

John: We’re talking about the need perhaps to keep costs as low as possible in the context of COVID. But in general, we’re seeing a much more diverse mix of students entering our colleges with a much larger proportion of first generation students than at any time before, and many of those students are coming from very low-income households. And in general, I think we need to focus more heavily on the needs of those students, because students who come in with fewer resources tend to be much less successful. And we want to increase the chances of success by keeping costs as low as possible.

Rebecca: As we’re thinking about these same students, many of them are working at part time or even full time or have families that they’re caring for. So doing things like continuing to offer office hours virtually through Zoom or other techniques can be really helpful in meeting students at times that would have been more inconvenient for you, but now are more convenient if you can Zoom in quickly, because you don’t have to be in your office. The same is true for students. So maybe consider continuing that option if it was something that you were offering before in order to accommodate students more.

John: And we’re also in a somewhat unique circumstance this time in that many students have not been in a classroom regularly for over a year. That varies geographically quite a bit but many students have been taking classes from home and the quality of that instruction has varied dramatically across school districts and across households. Given the way we fund schools, primarily through local school property taxes, wealthy school districts have lots of resources for professional development for their teachers. And the students tend to have much better internet connections and have more resources to allow them to be successful in school remotely. In low-income school districts, though, students will often have very poor internet connections, they’ll be using shared devices. And in general, the quality of instruction in those schools and the preparation of the teachers is often quite a bit less. And it’s very likely that we’re going to see a much greater variability in the prior learning of students entering our colleges.

Rebecca: And part of that was our own as a teaching universe],like either higher ed or K12, shifting to modalities that many of us were unfamiliar with. The quality of instruction may just not have been as good and certainly not any of our intentions as instructors. But there’s a learning curve. And some of us took some time to figure out how to do things. And we’re still learning, we’re still trying to get it right. And so students may really need additional structure, more structure than you’re used to providing to help guide them through the materials, to guide them through the semester, to guide them through in person experiences, because they haven’t really interacted with peers that they don’t know, in quite a long time. So the more we can provide guidance, structure, specific roles, even saying, “Hey, we’re going to get into small groups, the first thing you want to do is introduce yourself to one another.” We might need to provide those little extra prompts just to make sure that everyone has equal footing when they start an activity.

John: We’ve mentioned this a little bit before but providing more support or resources, providing videos, practice tests, online tutorials, links to YouTube videos. In almost any discipline, you’ll find someone out there has created some resources that could be helpful for your students. Finding and sharing those with students can take a little bit of time, but it can yield some really dramatic benefits for students who are coming in with very diverse backgrounds.

Rebecca: You can also encourage students to share those materials with each other by providing a platform to do that, you can use discussion boards in your learning management system, you could use tools like Slack or chat capabilities. There’s many ways that we could do this. But the workload doesn’t need to be all on you because there are students who are going to find and be willing to share materials as well.

John: And it’s also really important that we give students early and frequent feedback so that they don’t get to a high-stakes exam and discover that they weren’t quite as ready as they thought they would be. Giving students a chance to practice, to try things, and to see how they’re doing when there’s time to improve can be really useful. So give students feedback as quickly as you can and as often as you can.

Rebecca: And for some of us, that might really mean putting some time in your calendar the first couple of weeks of school to make sure that you grade some things and actually putting it in like it’s an appointment, to make sure it gets done so that students are getting what they need.

John: And you can also, though in a learning management system, create some self-graded quizzes. So it doesn’t have to be something that requires more grading work, but it gives students that immediate feedback. Giving personalized feedback would generally be better, but in larger classes using some automated self-grading quizzes can at least help with that process.

Rebecca: One of the things that I had been thinking about over the summer is how many students that I had that were transfer students or first-year students who never actually stepped foot on campus yet. So we have sophomores and juniors and seniors who may really be unfamiliar with the campus but are physically there. So one of the things that we want to do is think about orienting our students to physical resources that are available. Like, where is the health center? Where are the computer labs? Where are there really nice spaces to sit outside where you have an internet connection? Right? Where are some nice places to socialize? All of these things we might just expect students to know. But in many cases, students have been away or remote for periods of time and they really need to be oriented to these spaces. So I know that I had brainstormed ideas of things that we could do in class that might actually take us to some of those physical spaces, either outside of class or during class. And so I’d encourage you all to think about ways to incorporate some of the physicality of in-person experiences if you’re teaching in person. One of the things that I’ve been really excited about, having taught synchronously online over the past semester, are some of these really great collaborative virtual tools that allow for all kinds of participation. I’m sure you’ve heard me mention things about virtual whiteboards, I think I’m a fanatic or something now. I should be, like, an advertisement for all of them. But I really enjoy the ability to collaborate with students, have them provide their opinions, get their questions, get their brainstorms, whatever it might be that we’re doing in class through sticky notes or whiteboard activities, which can be set up to be anonymous, or with names attached, depending on what platform you’re using. And there are some real benefits to having some opportunities for some anonymous participation so that you can get a real pulse on what’s going on in the class without people being concerned about being judged or being afraid to speak up.

John: In general, students who are first-generation students often don’t have the same level of confidence in their success. They haven’t seen as many of their peers going to college and being successful. And the more we can do to help students build confidence that they belong there, and simply telling them that “You belong here,” could be a good starting point. But working towards building a growth mindset, let them know that it’s okay to make mistakes and learn from their mistakes, we want to make sure that they don’t see struggle as being a sign of failure. To make sure that they understand and to reinforce that struggling to learn things is an essential part of learning.

Rebecca: And I think along those same lines, I know, I see this a lot with students, is that they’re afraid to ask for help. Because asking for help is a sign of failure or a sign of weakness or lack of expertise. So making it comfortable and having them have the ability to ask for help and get help is really important and encouraging that early is incredibly important for student success. So if someone’s really struggling with an early concept in that class where the concepts build on one another, and they don’t understand a really foundational idea early on in the semester, and they don’t get the help they need early on, then they’re not going to do any better over the course of the semester. So we need to find ways to welcome those kinds of questions and make it safe to ask those questions and also to get the extra help that some students might actually need.

John: And also to help students feel more comfortable using more small group discussions more think-pair-share type of activities that do not put the same implicit pressure on students to take a stand in front of the whole class, and that anonymous participation that you mentioned, can also be helpful through polls or virtual whiteboards to help students become a little bit more confident and be willing to share their voices more frequently.

Rebecca: I know one tip that I’ve taken away from Viji Sathy and Kelly Hogan is the idea of when you’re doing small group work, having an assigned reporter to just speak on behalf of the group. And so it’s not an individual’s response but it’s the response on behalf of the group. So there’s not so much pressure to be right, because it’s reflective of a collaborative effort and that allows more voices to be heard. And maybe opportunities for others to speak out that might not normally be comfortable speaking out, or seen as experts, or seen as people who are able to speak out or allowed to speak out.

John: So we’d like to wish you all a happy and successful semester and we hope everything goes smoothly but we also hope that you’re prepared for times that may not go as smoothly as you’d like.

Rebecca: I know one thing that I’m wishing for everyone is the collegiality that I’ve seen across our institution and across institutions of sharing resources supporting one another. And I hope that we’ll keep up this spirit collectively to improve the student experience for all students moving forward.


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.


200. Teaching for the Public Good

When designing a course, faculty and instructional designers often focus on the course as a discrete entity without considering its role in the institution and society. In this episode, Robin DeRosa joins us to discuss how our classes and institutions can help to support broader social objectives.  Robin is the Director of the Open Learning and Teaching Collaborative at Plymouth State University, Robin had long been an editor of Hybrid Pedagogy and is a co-founder of the Open Pedagogy Notebook. She has also published on a wide variety of topics related to higher education, including open pedagogy, remote learning, and value-centered instruction planning.

Show Notes


John: When designing a course, faculty and instructional designers often focus on the course as a discrete entity without considering its role in the institution and society. In this episode, we examine how our classes and institutions can help to support broader social objectives.


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: Together, we run the Center for Excellence in Learning and Teaching at the State University of New York at Oswego.


John: Our guest today is Robin DeRosa, the Director of the Open Learning and Teaching Collaborative at Plymouth State University. Robin had long been an editor of Hybrid Pedagogy and is a co-founder of the Open Pedagogy notebook. She has also published on a wide variety of topics related to higher education, including open pedagogy, remote learning, and value-centered instruction planning. Welcome back, Robin.

Robin: Thanks, you guys. I’m so happy to be here.

Rebecca: We’re excited to talk to you again.

John: The last time it was one of our early podcasts and it was in person and that was so much nicer. But we’re happy to see you here.

Robin: It was amazing too, because you guys have really fancy equipment, headphones, microphones. And I still periodically take out those photos of myself recording that podcast because I felt like such a big cheese.

Rebecca: We had such good time.

John: We’ve used that in several presentations, because we don’t have that many pictures of people doing it and it was because you suggested “Let’s get a photo.” You mean most people aren’t like, “Oh, take a picture of me with my fancy headphones on.” And shortly after that, if you remember when we recorded it, it was next to a cafe where there was a cart moving by that sounded like a train going by. And it was a blender, and it was a coffee grinder, and it was a toilet flushing. We moved to a new location, which was an old recording studio, shortly after that, which is really confined and crowded and cramped. So it wasn’t really the most conducive place to take photos. And for some reason, since March, we haven’t actually talked to anybody in person, including each other.

Robin: I wonder why. I, just, who knows?

Rebecca: It’s a weird thing, it’s just a weird thing. But today’s teas are…

Robin: My tea is a very standard and reliable honey chamomile. So if I do doze off in the middle of the podcast, it will be because I’m so relaxed from this very sleepy tea.

Rebecca: We all need a little relaxation these days.

Robin: That’s right.

John: And I’m drinking a ginger peach green tea.

Rebecca: Oh, a standard. I’ve got golden monkey today, because I was looking forward to talking to Robin. So, brought out the fancy stuff.

John: And that is her favorite tea for some of our most favorite guests.

Rebecca: So we invited you here today to talk a little bit about your recent article, “Never forget: your course is not only yours.” And in this article, you talk about course and curriculum development, often starting with course content or course structure without really the consideration of the larger role the course plays in the institution and the larger role the institution plays in society. So, can you first start by sharing the role institutions do play in doing the work of the public good?

Robin: Yeah, that’s a nut of a question because I feel like if we could do a better job in public higher ed, of answering that question, just even internally, we would be in a much stronger position to advocate for our needs in sustaining our institutions. So I’ve really been spending time recently trying to think about not taking the definition of an institution for granted and not thinking about it, I mean, certainly not now post COVID, as a collection of buildings. But what is the work of the institution? We know maybe what the work is of a course. What is exactly the work of an institution? Is it just to graduate and credential people? I think probably not. There’s cheaper and easier ways to get a credential, that’s for sure. So I’m really thinking that the way we understand publics, it’s hard to understand publics without thinking about institutions. Because you have to, in some ways, imagine a collective. A public has to have some kind of shape or structure to it. It’s different than just a mess or swarm of people. It’s got some kind of architecture. And the only way for me to imagine that is to think about public institutions. I think that is where our public’s in here. That’s what a public is. It’s the collection of public institutions that are created to serve. So if that’s the case, I think, as a public institution, I might think about something like public health care, for example. I think, “Okay, not only what do we need to serve the individual student, who we sometimes call the consumer now.” I was in a situation earlier where I heard somebody using that name interchangeably with students. And that is because we do think of college in many ways as a consumer good. Are you going to get your value out of college? And here’s the ROI that college will deliver through the college earnings premium, you’ll make 145% more money. And that’s all true, and it’s fine. But I’m interested in that other corollary question, which is, “What value do institutions deliver to publics beyond the individual consumers or students who attend?” It was interesting to me to think about this during a public health crisis because lots of colleges were involved in vaccinations. And then lots of colleges weren’t. The question to me about, like, “Does a college play a role in public health?” So we know from some of the economic research about colleges, that public colleges, and John, you were actually just sort of, I knew the body of literature you were citing offhand as we were chatting before the show, we’re talking about folks like Philip Trostel, and others who have done studies to kind of demonstrate the value of public institutions to the public good. And that includes things like public colleges delivering longevity, happier marriages, better cognitive functioning to children, regional wage increases whether or not a person goes to college. So I started thinking, like, we can talk about the value of public institutions. But how often do faculty and instructional designers think about any of those things when they’re on the ground doing their actual work? And could we get a more powerful amplification of these contributions we’re making to the public good if we actually design intentionally for that piece of the work? So we’re not just serving our students with their particular learning outcomes. But we’re trying to think about building a course on organic chemistry that also pays attention to these larger ways that the institution is serving, whether it be the region, the state, the nation, or globally. So it’s really a question of how we shift instructional design, to ask about institutional mission and incorporate that into design practices.

Rebecca: One of the ideas that you brought up in your article was this idea of sites of practice, which I really latched on to. Because it moved away from thinking about an institution as something that’s just completely not touchable to something that we help create and participate in and help evolve. So can you talk a little bit about what you mean by sites of practice?

Robin: Yeah, and Lord knows, I often feel like my own institution is untouchable, and I direct faculty development, so to a certain degree, I have a fairly significant administrative job. But I still often feel like it doesn’t matter what I do, the institution is a behemoth that is fully disconnected from anything I do on the ground. That may actually be the case. But I’m trying to think of a new model for defining institutions that come less from some nebulous stratosphere, or some board of trustees or administrative board. And instead, to think, this actually comes from some of my work in English in the early days with critical theory, and God knows, probably even some critical race theory. So feel free to just shut me down now, just cancel me right now. But I think that it’s in the practice, it’s in the being and the doing that we actually create the shape of who we are as an institution. And sometimes you can see this because you’ll, for example, look at some web PR, or hear a tour guide for your institution and realize, like, “Gosh, that really doesn’t, doesn’t seem to be what we really are.” So you can recognize that the thing you really are is a thing and you know it and you know it because you’re working in it. And I guess the hope I have is that, if we can get faculty and staff to talk more in a meta way, or intentionally, actually, about the practices that we’re using, and how we think they set the tone for who we are as an institution, that will be the institution, like it or not. Nobody has the power to make the institution what it isn’t. And so if through the work, if you can make the work visible, and you can talk about the work in intelligent ways, I think that does have the ability to shape what the institution is actually capable of. I think one of the larger problems, though, is like, except maybe in, like, committee work. In general, we don’t have these conversations as academics, and we’re very content focused, and we’re very focused on our majors, perhaps. And then I think staff have an even harder problem, which is they are generally really required to stay in their swim lanes, they don’t enjoy the freedom to ask questions about how their daily work and their tasks could be shifted to create a different shape. They’re just sort of told, “Here’s what needs to be accomplished.” And I think we’re really kind of failing to get the impact that we could be getting out of our public institutions by not letting faculty and staff have more conversations about how their daily work could do more for how the institution serves its publics.

John: What are some specific things that individual faculty members might be able to do to help shift the institution a little bit, sort of like shifting an ocean liner, perhaps, but shifting it in a direction that may be more positive? What are some individual tasks, perhaps, or individual activities that you can think of that faculty might be able to undertake?

Robin: Well, I think first, and this is some work that is really heavily influenced by my colleague, Martha Bertus. And then our colleagues, Sean Michael Morris, and Jesse Stommel, particularly Sean Michael Morris, who’s done a lot of writing recently about what he calls critical instructional design, which comes out of the world of critical digital pedagogy. But really, where they started in asking questions about how to rethink instructional design was to ask questions, instead of a sort of classic, say, backwards design model where you’re starting with learning outcomes and mapping those two activities, and then mapping those activities to assessments, and it’s all very predetermined. There’s a lot more co-learning happening, where students are welcomed into the process of learning design, and they’re encouraged to critically notice the learning environment that they are part of, so that when you talk about, “We teach our students learn how to learn,” it gives some teeth to that, because you’re making the learning process visible, you’re engaging them in conversations about the learning process. And that design just becomes something that you can now also discuss and focus on. So I think, similarly here, I’m suggesting that we take kind of a critical stance, and sometimes that word can be a little bit intimidating, but I think it really means intentional or thoughtful in this regard. So that instead of just jumping to your content, you’re instead asking questions about, “What kind of scholar do I want my students to emerge from this class like? What are the qualities of scholarship that I hope that they’re invested with?” It’s about asking, “What role you hope the work that they do in your course will do in the wider world? And therefore, what role you think the academy is playing?” Is it just job training for the future? Which is certainly one valid possibility. But they’re also, for example, if you teach, we have a very significant number of health majors. It’s a very popular field right now, especially in regional colleges and community colleges. We’re seeing lots of people interested in healthcare, because it’s a growing field. And there’s jobs and there’s need, but also to see that during a global pandemic, there’s lots of students interested in studying health. I think part of the question is, “Okay, what do we think the role is of a public university during a global pandemic? How should it be behaving? What messaging should it be putting out? How should it be related to public health messages?” Our local hospital was putting out lots of public health messages, they did a video every week. And I wondered, why wouldn’t that be the kind of thing that a university health program or nursing program wouldn’t also be involved in? So public health, I think, is a really interesting place to start. But we can think about other things that have been in the news lately, things like housing and food insecurity with social work majors or people who are studying economics, for example, or even studying nutrition. There are some very rich things going on in the world that historians can contribute to at the moment, if you have been watching the news. So I think one of the questions I have is, I’m concerned when I see our public institutions shrinking from those responsibilities to be leaders in opening public debate and amplifying public knowledge in issues that are really important for sustainable healthy communities. And right now, in New Hampshire, we’ve got legislation, it just became law, that says educators can no longer discuss divisive concepts in the classroom. And there are a whole series of examples that come out of this fear mongering around critical race theory. It took me at least three years of graduate school to be able to really explain critical race theory, like I’m pretty sure these people do not mean critical race theory when they say critical race theory. But I’m concerned about public institutions that aren’t stepping up to explain why that legislation is so problematic. So I guess what I’m interested in is, how can faculty and staff in their daily work, start moving the institution into more public relationships on issues the public clearly needs education about? And I don’t mean explaining to uneducated people what’s right, I mean, education in its best sense, which is informed debate, civil discourse, history, science, right. Like the kinds of things that we can bring into the marketplace of ideas and share. But I see now a shrinking of public institutions from those responsibilities, fear that legislators are going to rescind even more public funding if you get perceived as partisan or ideological and those things concern me. I think there’s a, just like public healthcare and public transportation have roles in societies, so do public institutions of higher education. But my question for most people now is, “What role does the public university in your town play?” I don’t know that people could tell you beyond, “Oh, that’s where kids go to college.” That’s important. But, “What else are you there for?” is the question I would ask.

John: Would a starting point be expanding community based service learning type activities, where students directly engage with some of the problems of the community by working with community members?

Robin: I think so. I think service learning is a great example of that. Service learning, of course, is like, you know, flawed and difficult for a whole bunch of reasons as well. But really, what in general, you’re getting out there, I think, is the idea of just a more porous boundary between the public and the academy. And in its best sense, a public academy would really be interested in not just educating the public, but educating the public for the public. So I get a little bit concerned when I see all of our interest being in how to create students who are more marketable for competing against each other for jobs. Like I get that, our students need jobs. I mean, many of my students are Pell-eligible poor students, and they, especially with the debt load they’re carrying in New Hampshire, highest in the nation, they need jobs after they graduate. But on the other hand, there’s other ways to be thinking about creating economically sustainable communities, besides just, “You will be better than everybody else in this field. And so you’ll kick their asses and get the job.” I’m thinking more about, “Can public institutions in areas also be creating programs and things that ultimately, like, are the jobs that the students are going to be inhabiting?” And it’s one of the reasons I like the community college model. An example of this, I think, is, I can’t remember what state it was, but they were allowing people to register to vote at their primary care physician’s office when they went in for their yearly physicals. So one of the questions they were asked is, “Are you registered to vote? No. Would you like us to do that for you right now, like, we can do it.” This idea of, like, integrated care for the public good creating voting citizens and make sure they’re healthy and that they’re educated and they have childcare. My dream of a true community college would be a place where all those services existed together. But those aren’t just like welfare, social services, right? These are social services that give back, there’s return. So I think there’s a lot more potential if institutions could, public institutions in particular, could say, “You know what, we’re okay saying that we have a stake in the public good.” Like, “We are okay saying, it’s on us to make this region/state stronger, healthier, economically viable, equitable.” Right now, I don’t know that I’m seeing our institutions take those positions, we’re very focused on individual consumer success.

Rebecca: Seems like one of the key pieces to that puzzle is treating the local community that you’re situated in, as an expert on the local community, so that there’s some contributions to the conversations and some seeds to what those conversations should even be. Rather than making those decisions and plopping them on to a community because that tends not to work. That’s why we have institutions on hills and things, right, and there’s that divide.

Robin: College on a hill. That’s exactly right. And obviously, none of what I’m saying here is new in terms of pedagogy, and to think about in terms of somebody like Freire, a sort of talking about the revolution cannot be taught by someone external to the revolutionary community. So you are growing things from inside. And I think that’s absolutely true. And I think a piece of that, that hit me with instructional design during COVID, particularly, is as people were moving remote and moving online, you’re seeing much more outsourcing to things like edtech products to assure quality and remote delivery, for example. And there are a million problems with this, for example, like lots of people will tell you that they don’t believe in for-profit, higher education. Even middle-of-the-road people will say, “Yeah, institutions should not be for profit, and they do scam students.” But we have no problem with massive for-profit industries, right in the center of our public institutions, right? And I’m talking about things like the textbook conglomerates, I’m talking about things like edtech corporations that run Canvas or whatever, I’m talking about our dining services ancillaries that keep our public institutions running. And I think we saw in times of crisis, a real falling into the pitch, that some external thing could save us. You can hire a consultant, like Huron, and pay them $700,000 and they’ll tell you what’s wrong with your institution. And you can get an OPM to manage your new online thing and that’ll be great. But I just don’t think this is how publics get built. You cannot serve the public good, unless the public is somehow in that sustainability loop. So it really is about building an institution that’s much more integrated with the world outside. The thing is, faculty are pretty good at this, like faculty now are starting to get really interested in this kind of work. They’re doing project-based work. They’re doing open education, they’re interested in connected learning. But we don’t talk about that institutionally. And we don’t necessarily integrate it with our strategic plans. We don’t necessarily have coherence from one class or section to another. My question is, we might need to start making sure faculty have the vocabulary and education to think more intentionally about what they’re doing in their classes, and how it really is affecting what their institution could be. And if they can talk to each other and we can develop some synergies around that I think we could potentially be, I’m still fairly cynical at this point because so many things are going in the wrong direction in public higher ed, but I do think we actually have the skill in our faculty, staff, particularly staff, I’ll say, but our designers, to do this work. But coordinating it is hard. And we throw a lot of bad ideas after bad ideas that keep us away from what I think is a pure mission, which is really to focus on how we work with students in our communities.

Rebecca: One of the things that we often think about is that power sits with administration. And you’re really talking about the idea that an institution is really about the work that’s being done and who’s doing it. And so we’ve talked a bit about faculty, but I’m wondering if we can talk a little bit about both staff and students and their role in creating an institution and also steering an institution. Students are actually a key to all of this. And it certainly has been woven into our conversation here, but not maybe pulled out explicitly. But we often don’t think of that because we think of them as being consumers, or that’s how the conversation goes, rather than they are the community that we’re hoping to serve, because they’re the ones that bring the community forward. They are the ones who will be leading our community.

Robin: And we so undo ourselves by basically training students into a compliance model, which is so much of K12, and higher education. And so when you do open up learning opportunities that are really co-developed with students, or that are very learner driven, you do get pushback from students who are like, “That’s not what I’m paying you for, I’m paying for you to teach me something and I need to get a job.” And I understand that, like, what other response would there be given how we’ve set up the system? But I think that that’s not about blaming students, that’s about understanding. We get what we paid for, so to speak. We designed that. And that’s a designed response. And so it’s going to take some intentional design to create a students-as-partners model. Five years ago, or whatever, we’d say, “Oh, I’m so student-centered.” And we would mean like, “We have class discussion, right? I don’t just lecture the whole time.” I think now we’ve graduated past that where people understand running a classroom where students have agency to speak and ask critical questions and stuff. But now it’s probably time, at least in some of their classes, to say, “You really need to learn to curate materials, you can’t just study what I give you, you also have to learn to figure out what we need to study to get where we need to go.” I also believe that if I’m trying to diversify my curriculum, part of the way I need to do that is to understand that new voices and new perspectives are going to have more to offer than I can offer all on my own so I’m going to need to involve those students. So we need to start thinking about our instructional design as a way of creating the kinds of citizens/members of the knowledge commons that we hope will take our culture to its next iteration. And I think we’re, lots of teaching and learning centers are really good now at helping people figure out activities. I mean, this is kind of what we built open pedagogy.org for, it’s really a website about activities that see students as contributors to the knowledge commons, not just consumers. Staff is another question. I actually think we’re further behind on staff than we are with students because again, that kind of student-centered thing propelled us into the beginnings of some of those critical questions about students and their agency and learner-centered classrooms. But staff, I think, we do a pretty lousy job of understanding the role that staff play in academia. And I don’t just mean in, like, the university operations, but I mean in, like, building a world of knowledge, I just think we could do a lot more. So for example, in the office that I run now, and it makes it sound like such a busy center, there’s four of us, I should specify, we could easily have 40 of us, and it would be amazing. But the four people are here, we have very different jobs. And this sort of faculty development director, someone else directs the student major that lives in our program. Another person is basically a lead instructional designer, and somebody else is more of an administrative assistant and advisor. We are all cross trained on every piece of that puzzle. Every single one of us participates in teaching, like actually teaching, we all do advising, we all do some admin, we all know every aspect. And it doesn’t mean we don’t have our expertise and we definitely have our jobs. But we talked so much about treating the student holistically, but we still really insist on staff staying in their place. I know that sounds awful but I really think that’s how many staff are treated. I don’t think you can have a holistic approach to students without relaxing the boundaries between people, especially people in team-based settings. So I think faculty have contributed to kind of rarifying the academic space a little bit. And I just don’t think, as somebody who comes out of interdisciplinary studies, we’re very interested in transdisciplinarity, the outside world does not have disciplines, right, they just have things. And I think staff can really help us translate some of the academic work of the academy, because staff work often looks more like the community work that we’re doing outside of the college. So there’s some really rich opportunities there to merge teaching with staff operations, and get students partnering more with staff, and staff working more on projects, and staff helping more in classrooms, and faculty, for God’s sake, understanding more about financial aid, for example, the Bursar’s office, the Registrar, it’s just a win-win. So I think a lot of what I’m talking about when I’m trying to think about instructional design is just, let’s be more intentional about designing an integrated university, wherever you are. So if what you do is make courses, it’s time to think about how your course functions with the student life office and the diversity and equity office and the food pantry. And the same thing for staff to be invited in, I think, to those academic experiences.

Rebecca: One of the things that struck me about the subtitle of your article, “The course is not only yours,” is part of what we’ve been talking about is this bigger kind of public knowledge, which is completely tied to all our earlier work about OER’s and open pedagogy. And I was just hoping you might talk a little bit about how those ideas of access tied to this bigger idea that you’re describing here.

Robin: When I first started my work in Open, I was obviously interested in the access issues about the high cost of textbooks and the really significant social justice issue that inheres in what seems like a really stupid issue. But I moved from that to being much more interested in the pedagogy just because I was teaching English and having after 15, 20 years in the classroom, having amazing experiences once I started working with students on creating learning materials and doing non-disposable assignments, and it just really energized students to work more authentically. But I think the next phase of my development at Open was really about thinking like, “Okay, so what about this is public work?” Because there’s a difference, I think, between open and public, and I think open is kind of a neutral word in the sense that I don’t know that it’s always good. I mean, I definitely know it’s not always good. I always think, open is not the opposite of private, private things can be great. And sometimes open things can be really abusive. Tara Robertson has written about this. And it really was like an epiphany for me when I read her piece on this, but it was about a lesbian, and maybe this is, like, not good for your G-rated podcast, so you could edit me out, but a lesbian porn magazine from the whatever 70’s, I think 80’s, called On Our Backs, and it was a print magazine, very feminist magazine. For very obvious reasons, women’s studies scholars are really interested in that work, and they digitized the collection and made it open. What’s interesting, though, is a lot of those women are alive and they were taking those photographs for a very select group of subscribers in a print journal. And there’s some really interesting questions I think about power and consent and what it means. And obviously there’s scholarly value to having those resources open, I don’t dispute that. But I would not argue that it’s a particularly feminist move or a move with social justice at its core. It’s not enough to just make things free and open all the time, we have to really think about what makes our public life healthier for all of us, and I don’t mean physically healthier, but better for all of us. And when I think about better, I think I’ve kind of landed mostly on the question of equity. Because it’s not really about incredible quality of life for certain people, it’s really about, how can we get the best outcomes for the widest and most diverse group of people? And for that, you can’t just think about openly licensing materials, you have to think about the values that are pushing you and you have to think about what the role is of the institution that you’re working in. And that became my next iteration. I still think open pedagogy and OER and open licenses are really big tools for doing a lot of this work, but I think the work is bigger.

John: So it involves taking, not just creating things for public consumption, but creating things that actually are useful for society as a whole. Would that be a good way of thinking about it?

Robin: I think so. My friend, Jim Grimm is an economist, and he describes it in a way that I find very, very helpful. He’s talking about a concept that you probably know the tragedy of the commons, and the sort of debunked idea at this point that you can never have common pool resources, because the second you open the pasture for anybody to graze, it’s going to get overgrazed and destroyed by the richest guy with the biggest cows or whatever, and then you’re done. So don’t even try. But Jim’s point is that commons is not a set of resources. A commons is not a meadow, it’s not a place. The way he says it is that the commons is a verb. It’s a series of agreements that people make about decisions that they’re going to make collectively, in order to get outcomes that work for everybody. I would say that verb, the verb of commons-ing is what we should do in public institutions. That’s the place for that kind of verbing, where we don’t overgraze our meadows, just because that guy’s going to get a good job out of it. We’re thinking more broadly about preserving an ecosystem where we can continue to learn and grow and increase our quality of life. So the idea of commons being a verb has been very helpful to me in moving from the focus in OER, the artifacts, to focusing instead on the practices that, and the collaborations that, keep us working together in sync.

Rebecca: Speaking of tools, we just talked about OER and open licensing as a tool to do some of this work. You’ve also worked on the ACE framework, that also seems like a really important tool for this work. Can you talk just a little bit about that and introduce folks to that tool?

Robin: Yeah, the ACE framework was sort of the first step that Martha and I took into rethinking instructional design. And it was a COVID designed tool, but more broadly than COVID, it’s really for teaching during a time of crisis. So I’ve talked about ACE, sometimes with faculty in California who are dealing with wildfires that have displaced their whole student body from working on campus, for example, or other issues like that. So I think it’s kind of adaptable. But ACE stands for adaptability, connection, and equity. And basically, we designed it to suggest that during a highly misnamed COVID pivot, which makes it sound like it was so delicate and beautiful when we all pirouetted into remote learning…

Rebecca: …and there were definitely jazz hands involved.

Robin: Oh, yeah. Meanwhile, authentically, people were dying, and people’s families were not having enough to eat, just, really. So what we wanted to do was to say, okay, it’s not going to be about Zoom. If this is about Zoom, it is really impossible to imagine that you would not completely alienate your student body. So we designed a framework to basically say, of course, you’re going to probably use some Zoom, and we will definitely support you in learning whatever new tools and technologies you need. But before that, let’s think intentionally about the realities that our students are going to be encountering, and the realities that we are going to be encountering, as we teach.

Rebecca: Yeah!

Robin: Exactly. With our babies on our laps, and whatever else, Rebecca. So the key to the ACE is really that very idea. It has practices, lots of practices, we get very concrete and specific, you know, we’re not just like, “You should care about people,” like, they’ll tell you what to try and how to do it. And it has activities and it has examples, but it’s really saying, start with your values. Start with a framework. Don’t just jump to the tech tool as particularly one that’s sold to you by a for profit company that’s going to give it to you for free for a year, so that you will build up a dependence on it and need it later. Like, there’s nefarious stuff going on. Let’s start by asking, “What do your students need during this time of crisis? What do your courses need in order to adapt?” And then we’ll figure out that other stuff once we’ve asked using our expertise as humans and faculty, not just listening to vendors, and then we can make better decisions. And that pivot had to happen so quickly that it was an obvious pitfall that we were just going to take the first thing that was put in front of us, and that that was going to be considered a solution. The reality is there was going to be no solution to teaching and learning during COVID. So you better have a robust framework, so that you can keep coping for the 18 months that you’re going to be doing this. And let’s hope it’s not, you know, another 18 months.

Rebecca: And there will continue to be crises that follow us. It’s not the same, but we have students who have been traumatized, we have faculty and staff who have been traumatized.

Robin: And so many students who had the worst parts of COVID, especially where I was, a quarter of our students got COVID at Plymouth State. But we didn’t have a ton of illness but we had huge economic fallout, poverty immediately in much of our student body. But what I heard from my most vulnerable students was, “Yeah, this is bad, but it’s been this bad for a long time, I actually feel better, because now people are paying attention. The fact that people care now that I can’t afford my meals, the fact that people see that I don’t have Wifi at home, the fact that you’re thinking about how to loan me a laptop.” So I think the wake up call was really less for the people who are suffering the worst and it was more for the people who had been lucky enough not to be suffering all along.

John: And to be able to ignore the suffering that was going on because it was hidden on our institutions.

Robin: Exactly. And to think, “Hey, I’m an early americanist, it’s not really my gig, housing insecurity is not really my gig.” You know what? It is your gig because 10% of your class is housing insecure, or even homeless right now. So how do you expect them to care about the Haitian Revolution or whatever? So there’s no silver lining to COVID. But it was a helpful wake up call. And I think most people who use the ACE framework both at Plymouth State and in other places, by the time they really had engaged with the framework, they realized, “Oh, yeah, I mean, this is for COVID, but it’s also for anybody who might teach human beings.” Because human beings tend to have challenges and traumas, you’re not going to go through 18 years of schooling, and not have significant challenges and traumas somewhere along the way, almost everybody. So I think it’s good if we build that into how we approach our design.

Rebecca: Although there’s still a lot of challenges, I still feel very hopeful. And I think a lot of the things that you’ve been talking about Robin, although maybe come out of some frustration, I think are a hopeful look at the way that the future can be and the way that we can all contribute to that.

Robin: We had a pretty rich last three weeks in faculty development at Plymouth, we’re running a bunch of different cohorts. And, I mean, I come out of these things and I’m like, “These people are amazing!” We have a staff learning community, and then a mixed faculty and staff learning community. And we, just like you guys, we have a beautiful, beautiful campus, and our students are fantastic. So there isn’t anything here that shouldn’t be working. It’s the same thing we were talking about earlier too. The return on investment and public higher ed, like it’s a no brainer. So it makes it more frustrating, on the one hand, because you do see how much potential there is. But on the other hand, it doesn’t seem like a pipe dream. Just like it doesn’t seem like a pipe dream to vaccinate with a vaccine that’s almost 100% effective. Like, “Hey, guys, you really could make this go away if you wanted to.” So there’s a lot of political will that we’ve got to work on. But the tools are within our reach for sure.

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

Robin: So two things are next. The first is I’m going to take a vacation to Monhegan Island, and it’s an island off the coast of Maine and my favorite place on earth. And I had to learn how to put my vacation days requests into the online system that we have. I had never done it before. Even though I’ve had this job for two and a half years. So I was like okay, that’s a sign I need a vacation. So the next thing that’s happening is a break. And I do just want to say to all my colleagues, like, you’ve got to find some rest, because I’ve never seen people pushed to the breaking point like we all have been over the last bunch of months. I’m thankful for my dogs during the pandemic. I have one on my lap right now and she just woke up for the tail end of the podcast so what great timing. But I think after that my interest is probably in working on a new initiative with Martha, she’s calling it now is really in some ways her baby, but it’s called Design Forward. We’re working on it in relationship with John and Jesse and some of the hybrid ped folks. And we’re really interested in seeing where critical instructional design could go in terms of, I think, building a more hopeful and sustainable vision for the future of higher ed. So we’re going to be working on that, particularly internally at Plymouth State but I think maybe some of these partnerships with the hybrid ped folks will allow us to do some nice sharing more broadly as well, with those materials that we’re working on.

Rebecca: Enjoy your rest, well deserved rest.

Robin: Thank you. I definitely intend to even though I have to leave my dogs at home, which just seems terrible. But other than that, I’m really looking forward to it.

Rebecca: We’ll be looking forward to seeing your next adventure come out as it starts being shared out as well.

John: Thank you. It’s always great talking to you. And you’ve inspired a lot of us to try a lot of new things with open education, open pedagogy, and so much more.

Robin: Well, thanks for having me and a shout out to, not just you guys, but really all my SUNY friends because there’s many of your campuses that have been partners with me in a lot of the work especially in OER, so it’s great to see you guys


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.


199. Revisiting Diverse Classrooms

As diversity and inclusion initiatives mature, evaluation and improvement are prioritized. In this episode, Melina Ivanchikova and Matt Ouelett join us to discuss how one such program has evolved. Matt is the Founding Executive Director at Cornell University’s Center for Teaching Innovation. Melina is the Associate Director for inclusive Teaching in the Center. They developed Cornell’s EdX MOOC on Teaching and Learning in the Diverse Classroom.



As diversity and inclusion initiatives mature, evaluation and improvement are prioritized. In this episode, we discuss how one such program has evolved.


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

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

…and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer.

Together, we run the Center for Excellence in Learning and Teaching at the State University of New York at Oswego.


Our guests today are Melina Ivanchikova and Matt Ouelett. Matt is the Founding Executive Director at Cornell University’s Center for Teaching Innovation. Melina is the Associate Director for inclusive Teaching in the center. Welcome back.

Thank you. Delighted to join you again.

It’s great to be here.

It’s good to talk to you again. This is overdue. We had planned to talk to you after we had taken a group of people through the Inclusive Teaching MOOC that we’ll be talking about, and then this pandemic intervened, and we didn’t quite get to that. So I’m glad we’re finally able to schedule this. Our teas today are:

I’m personally not drinking anything right now. But if I was, I’d be drinking something in the family of Earl Grey. I like a black tea.

It’s definitely the Earl Grey time of day,.I’m just drinking water, because of the heat.

90 degree weather.

I want to hold up a tea that Matt occasionally brings for us at staff meetings, which is a gift. You put this little bulb into hot water and it opens up slowly into a flower and has this beautiful aroma to it, and everybody delights in it. So it just causes this moment of group joy. But Matt will know what the name of that tea is.

It’s a green tea, I think it’s sometimes referred to as a lotus bloom. So, thank you, Melina, that’s really kind of you to mention that.

And I have sa easonally inappropriate Christmas tea. [LAUGHTER]

That sounds good.

I was looking for a little spice.

Spices are cooling.

I also have a seasonally inappropriate spring cherry green tea.

They both sound delicious.

MELIN: I wish we could be in the same room together.

and tea testing. [LAUGHTER]


We have all the teas. [LAUGHTER]

In our conference room, we have hundreds of teas. If you’re ever up on campus, we’re happy to share some with you. In an earlier podcast, we talked to you about the Teaching and Learning in the Diverse Classroom MOOC that you were developing at Cornell and were to release shortly. We had agreed to discuss this after we had a cohort of our faculty go through it. But we had a few other things intervene, including a global pandemic, and we’ve actually had three cohorts go through it. And we’d like to talk to you about the MOOC, and, in general, how it’s gone and where it’s going. But because it’s been a while since we’ve talked about this, could you provide a little bit of background on the origin of this MOOC?

in 2017, when the Center for Teaching innovation was first formed, we were trying to discern strategic projects that were of interest to our selves, but also serve the common good sort of attach themselves to initiatives that were campus wide. And Melina and I gained the support of senior academic leaders to do a course for faculty on campus related to teaching inclusively. So initially, the genesis of this idea was a professional faculty development experience on campus. And then the more that we got sort of embedded in the project, it became really clear to us that it could also answer another strong desire that we had, which was to contribute something broader, something that other institutions could take advantage of, as well. So that’s where the genesis of the idea have moved from an on campus resource to something on a platform like EdX. They’ve been great colleagues, and really wonderful to work with. But it galvanized us, I think, to think both more broadly, but also more specifically, and by more broadly, I mean, we were trying to think about what in the US context stands up to an international conversation around social justice, equity and diversity, and what is uniquely American, and also, for u,s what was uniquely Cornell’s context versus what might have resonance more broadly. So the process of putting it together was really driven locally. But our eye was always on trying to deliver something that might be of use to our colleagues more broadly. Melina, does that resonate for you?

Yes, I think we were doing our best at the beginning, floating ideas, and pleasantly surprised when we got the confirmation from our senior leadership. They really thought it would be a good way, and a different way to provide an opportunity for people to engage with this kind of a course, either in groups together or asynchronously by oneself to have a private learning experience. But what appealed was an online asynchronous experience, that wasn’t going to be hours and hours. Early on, we had a lot of conversations about how to keep this to four or five weeks, something reasonable, for professional busy people.

That length was one of the things I really appreciated about it in that it was a really nice concise, but very specific and detailed, all at the same time. So it really felt manageable. I know we had like three cohorts go through on our campus and I was unable to follow along during the first ones but I was following along right when the pandemic hit and found taking the course at that particular moment really poignant.

This was our experience on our campus too. I’ll be just very honest with you and say I felt honor would be served if Melina and I offered the course one time on campus and we had anybody take at it. It’s sort of like we delivered and after that it’s sort of up to the universe to find footing. But we have consistently had really excellent participation on campus. And I’ll let Melina speak more to the facts and figures. But even this spring, we’re literally just now completing a spring version of it on campus. And we’ve had a really lovely distribution between faculty, graduate students and staff… almost a third, a third, a third, again, and the interest doesn’t seem to be diminishing. And so, Rebecca, I can’t wait to hear more from you and John about what your experiences were with your cohorts. Because part of the joy of doing this is hearing back from campuses. Did it help? Did it galvanize and help facilitate some conversations that were context specific? And we really hope that we could provide the general introductory sort of framework, provide some useful resources in terms of exercises, but then really trust the process would unfold at a campus level in the way that it needed to. So that’s not a rhetorical question, I would love to hear more.

To be honest, I was really hoping we could turn the conversation there, too. I really wanted to hear how your local learning communities went three is a significant number.

It’s fantastic. Yeah, that’s serious dedication, and a sign of positive response. So we’d love to hear more.

Each time, I think, we had between 30 and 45 people attending, somewhere in that range. They were mostly faculty, but we did have a few administrators. And one thing that was really effective is one of the faculty members, in the third iteration of that, brought in a couple of her students. And that made it much more powerful. Because while the stories that are provided in the MOOC, in the videos from Cornell students and Cornell faculty are very well done and very moving, when a student gets up and talks about their own experiences and the challenges they face, as a local example of that it’s even more powerful. A number of people signed up for it on their own. But most of the people actually met every week, where we provided three or four times to let people come in at times that were convenient. We’d watch most or all of the videos, and then we discuss each of them. Sometimes we didn’t get through all of them, because the discussions went for a long time. Other times, we were able to get through most of them, and then people did the rest of the work on their own outside. But the discussions were really effective. And having people talk about it in person worked really well. And I think it helped ensure that everyone finished the MOOC, or that nearly everyone finished the MOOC. I know we had some people who didn’t do all the written work, but they at least attended most or all the sessions. And for us, at least, I think having the weekly meeting served as a nice commitment device, which tended to help maintain persistence. And it worked really well. And people have been asking about when we’re going to take another cohort through. And we’ll be planning to do that this fall. I think overall it was a tremendous success on campus. And we did have a few administrators attend, but not quite as many as you received. And we did have some staff members too. But it was mostly faculty.

I think it was a really nice complement to some of the other work that we had already started doing, but just didn’t have the capacity to roll out the equivalent of that course on our own. And so it was really, really helpful to us. We had done a couple of reading groups related to racism previous to that. We have a really robust accessibility program on our campus and have been doing a lot of professional development around disability and accessibility. And so leveling up to inclusive pedagogy is really where we wanted to be going. [LAUGHTER] And this was a really nice structured way for us to get there. So we’ve been really thrilled with how many people have participated. And I think it really informed a lot of the work that folks did over the past year during the pandemic as well, people became really aware of some of the inequities that weren’t as visible previously.

Thank you so much for sharing some details. It’s delightful, even just to picture briefly how you chose to facilitate those and the responses. I love the searching for authentic stories from your own campus, with having students present. That seems really exciting. This might be a good time to mention a couple of things. One is that we made the decision in January to move from a instructor-paced model to having it be a self-paced model, which means now that the course is open all year round. And the reason for that was to give campuses and facilitators more flexibility to run the course on the schedule that worked for them, because we kept trying to guess and get it right, but sometimes we’d get right in the middle of the busiest part of the semester, which some people loved but other people… it didn’t work so well for them. So I think that’s a good decision. We started to wonder more about how are people facilitating the course we’re doing and trying to reach out to them and have conversations or looking for a little bit of feedback, even informally, just like this, to see how things were going. So, we heard similar things from a few others like they got inspired to look for the stories that were from their own community, in their own students. And there’s many places to look for stories like that: the student newspapers, conversations with faculty, as you’ve described,

I love your strategy of a faculty member bringing their own students and that there’s no substitute for that. So I love that…that’s a great idea. Can I say too, Melina, this is a little bit of the inside part. But it was a big moment for us to let go of the instructor-led version of the MOOC and partially, we just needed to have a reassurance that we had done a good job, that the quality of the work was substantial enough that it could just sort of go forth. And we were always confident that our colleagues could facilitate it well. I think, John and Rebecca, it’s such a compliment to your on campus facilitation, because we know the number one thing here is not the advertising, it’s word of mouth. And if colleagues are saying to their friends and associates, “Oh, yeah, it wasn’t a terrible thing, you know, it was an okay use of my time” …then we know that’s so much more persuasive than any kind of blitz you could do through email or anything else. And if you’re continuing to get this large group, and that’s a significant proportion of your faculty continuing to find this a good use of their time, then Melina, we can take a deep breath now. We can sort of say, “It’s okay, we let our baby go out into the world, and it’s gonna be okay.”

But last year was a very unique year. So we had a giant boost. As soon as the pandemic started, people enrolled in the course. We decided to run the course again, earlier than we had planned in response to the street movement and fighting for racial justice. And we had a giant leap in attendance here at Cornell as a result of that. And then we run another learning community series in October. And then Matt mentioned, we ran one in the spring too. We do have some fun things to report out on in terms of patterns of what people are saying about what they’re learning. We have a pre-post survey that gives us a sense of how people feel at the beginning, and then matches to their experience of how they feel at the end. And so I was surprised by the things that floated to the top. So I can share what the top four things were. The number one thing that they moved the most on… so this was things that they’ve collectively they move the most on… So the first one was, “I’m aware of campus resources to support colleagues and students in sustaining inclusive learning environments.” I don’t know why that one’s surprised me. But I think even though our course is sort of the Cornell example, most college campuses in the US have all sorts of support and offices in place. And so this might have been the place where they finally got to hear the list of all the different offices that support student learning and accessibility. The second one was “I feel prepared to address controversial comments that may arise in class.” But that was one worry that we had initially, was that an asynchronous online course would never take the place of a face-to-face learning experience. This shows me and Matt’s bias also, because we’ve been strongly face-to-face instructors for most of our teaching careers. So we had to learn, ourselves, how to be online instructors, and what that meant… how to have a stronger presence in the course itself. So between our pilot version of the course and the second iteration, we added more videos of ourselves. And so we were very gratified by seeing this number of people feel more competent around this. The other one is “I’m informed about specific strategies for creating more inclusive classrooms.” And the fourth one is “I feel confident I can evaluate my course structure and materials for inclusivity.” So that’s where things are trending very strongly. We’re hoping to publish some findings pretty soon about that. And then the other response that we hear over and over again, is how moving the videos were, which to me is personally gratifying, because from the moment when I was a little girl, my father used to read to me every night before bed and, tried and true, I do the same with my kids. Stories were just my way into learning about the world and continue to be so. So it’s just the thing that moves us, our emotions, it’s the thing that makes us open to caring about systemic change, because the door opens to us through individuals… the stories and experiences of discrimination. When we share in community about our own experiences of discrimination and bias, and even our own mistakes that we’ve made with others. I think that kind of learning is so powerful. And so I think that we were able, through the videos, to lift that experience of storytelling,

The narratives in there are extremely powerful, and people reacted really positively to them.

…especially because there were such a wide variety of disciplines reflected, which I think is really important and sometimes can be challenging for an individual campus to do a small workshop series or something and get that broad of representation at each little event. You might have representation throughout a whole semester or a whole academic year, but maybe difficult to have that much representation in a single sitting of something

Absolutely. Even like the tried and true method of a panel, It doesn’t really necessarily lend itself for people to really do a deep dive or really share. The other thing that I’ve come to appreciate even more deeply is the power of getting out ahead of a crisis and providing an opportunity for folks to just talk, to grapple with ideas, provide them some frameworks. They may not like Melina and I had this very interesting conversation with one of our colleagues who was going through the reading list saying, “too aggressive,” “not deep enough,” and was just sort of a typical faculty critique of the reading list. I was like, “Super engaged, I love it.” Absolutely. Bring it on. I’m not changing any of the readings, but I loved having that conversation, because I thought, that’s someone who’s really gotten engaged and is trying to figure out how to apply this in the context of her work and her discipline and her students. And for me, that’s the best that it gets. But it is this capacity building or resilience building. So all of your cohorts, all those folks who sat together, that’s a transformative human experience. It sort of harkens back to the sitting around the campfire. They’ve had this moment together that… I don’t know when or how, but I’m positive it will do good. It will do good for the campus. And it will do good for students. And nothing else, like Melina was suggesting, it gives you a small cohort of colleagues to rely on and to say, “I’m not really sure about this, what do you think? What would you do in this situation?” And the other thing that we came to learn, which I have to say, Melina and I were both very slow to want to do anything online. But we also were very suspicious of lurkers. And we were sort of like, “Well, where are these people? They’ve signed up, but they’re here, but they’re not posting anything in the discussion board. But I’ve now come to really embrace lurking as a form of learning. I’m not dismissive of it at all. I think some people want to be in the conversation. They’re taking it in, they’re absorbing it, but they just don’t feel like they have a lot they want to say yet. Or someone else has already said it, or they’re waiting to see what other people have to say. So Melina and I have, a number of times, come back around to this conversation about what does it mean to really be engaged. And I think our growth edge, our learning, has been to really expand that definition of what it means to be engaged. So if you sign up for the course, but you never log in, that’s not engaged, that’s wishful thinking. But if you sign in and you tap through any of the videos, or even look at the resources, like I had to smile when you said your colleague maybe didn’t do all of the writing. Not a problem. What we’re finding is that people will circle back around. Like we’ve had a number of people who’ve taken the course twice. I think that’s a phenomenal commitment on a faculty member’s part, I mean, just given how stretched everybody is for time.

Yeah, I have a faculty member who emailed me today saying I can’t wait for next spring, when will offer learning community opportunities again, so that I can take it for the third time. [LAUGHTER] And she was trying to remember where she could find the references to active learning strategies. So I’m like, “those are in Module Three.” “Oh, great.” That’s what she was really looking for. There was a new faculty member at the University of Pittsburgh who contacted me what seems like ages ago, it turns out, it was only last December, but it feels like three years ago, and she wanted to talk about how we made the videos because she wanted to make videos on her own campus. And so that was really inspiring. And she recently reached out again, and I met with her this morning, and she’s gotten all her academic leadership on board, they’re going to make their own asynchronous class, they have a video team in place to make it. This is inspiring, because our action plans are always inspiring. And sometimes a person’s action plan is this is a draft of my syllabus diversity statement, or this is my plan for TAs or graduate students. Sometimes they’re thinking of a plan that will be years down the road, or they’re thinking how to bring in diversified speakers. All of those are strategies that we took all of the action plans that people had submitted locally and made word clouds with them, and the word student is the thing. It just stood out as the most giant thing. And so I thought, wow, this is telling me that student centered learning strategies are the thing that people are walking away with. It was a litmus test, but this person took it over and above. And so I just thought, it’s a ripple effect. It’s her project. And she’ll go on to inspire others. We’ve had people come back and say, “Can you do one for librarians? Can you do one for teaching graduate students? Can you do one for the law profession or medical profession?” She’s making one that’s anchored in the medical profession. So I just celebrated her and said, “I hope you can make it a MOOC and not just for your own campus.” Maybe the same thing will happen to them that happened to us, which is they’ll start small and then dive out.

It’s amazing how projects sometimes balloon like that.[LAUGHTER] Like, wow, that’s not quite what I had in mind and now I have this giant thing that I’m doing. We’re glad that it happened. I wanted to comment a little bit, Matt, on lurking. As a lurker, I thought I might just confess, like what lurkers do. So I followed along twice, the first time I was an active lurker, in part because I was doing a lot of self reflection, and I didn’t want to communicate with other people while I was processing. I had to have some of that time and space to process for myself and how that related to other diversity, equity and inclusion things that I was engaged in, and so that I could then articulate to other people how that fit in with what I was doing, because I needed that time and space to process. And then the second time, I was an active, engaged participant, but I definitely lurked the first time and it was really to have that self-reflection time.

I’m so glad you did. You have to do that. Otherwise, the tension between making ourselves vulnerable and protecting ourselves can be immobilizing. I’m delighted to hear that. I actually think, Milena, that might be something interesting. We figured out early on that people needed us to normalize posting to a discussion list is not academic writing, just post your thought and let things evolve. And we sort of struggled with that and figured out some language on that. But now I’m wondering… Rebecca, do you think it would be helpful if we posted a little something about the benefit of being a lurker, to just sort of normalize that and say, “This is really emotional, and it’s deep And maybe you just want to slide through and focus on yourself, and that’s perfectly fine.”

Yeah, maybe we don’t call it lurking. But really, it’s more like a journaling


Like a self reflection kind of activity. Like I did a lot of the activities a first time just kind of in my notebook and was thinking through things.

See, I think you’ve put your finger on one of the attributes of life in academia and higher ed that stymies this kind of work, which is we leap to action, and we don’t provide enough opportunity for ourselves to just do the kind of internal work we need to to feel some sense of groundedness. What do I think? What have my experiences been? What has worked for me and what am I still working on? …kind of things. And to be quite honest, you would have been my favorite student. If that was what you got in round one, I would have been totally happy, but moving it into the campus or into a discussion with your colleagues. That for me is icing on the cake, because you as a teacher will be transformed by that, where you’ll never approach any of this stuff the same way again.

I have a friend who’s an internet scholar, so she actually researches lurking. I read a draft of an article that she wrote where she actually talked about the importance of lurking for learning about different others… like basically, it was making an argument that lurking is a really good way to learn how to be an ally, to learn about groups that you’re not a member of, to learn what new vocabulary is out there, in terms of how to talk about certain topics. I know, there’s a lot of anxiety about offending people and getting the terms right. And I’m at the point now where I’m likely to make mistakes, because things have changed enough within my own lifetime that the vocabulary is constantly really being updated. I think that anything we can do to reduce anxiety and help people feel more connected to each other, to the course, to have opportunities to just reflect on their own experiences. And you’re not the only one who engaged with the course that way, Rebecca. The woman I talked to this morning did the same. She posted, but she would only post at the end of reading every other person’s reflections. And I’ll say, just in case somebody goes to the course and says, “Well, where are the discussion boards?” …that was one of the things that we ended up giving up in moving to the self-paced modality. And that’s because we couldn’t staff moderators 24/7. Before we were able to have a robust and temporary staff in place that would help us moderate the discussion boards. We just know that sometimes there are bad actors who aren’t there for learning. We never had trouble in our discussion boards, they were lovely, so that was such a difficult decision to make. But we revised the guide that we wrote for facilitators to just encourage thinking about and talking about alternative means to supplement those, whether it’s a closed Facebook group or a discussion board in Canvas, or leaving extra time during the face-to-face opportunities. But it sounds like, in your structure, your face-to-face opportunities are giving people plenty of opportunity for discussion.

Can you talk a little bit about how you facilitated at Cornell?

Sure, I’d be delighted to. It’s complicated because it’s not the same every time. So just to give you a sense, I co-facilitated with another staff member from our center, we did a faculty interdisciplinary learning community, same person with addition two other staff, one person from the graduate school. We did the one for graduate students and postdocs together with a slightly different curriculum. I partnered with a faculty member from the school for integrative Plant Sciences and we anchored that one in the department this last time. This is like the story of my life. I used to team teach as a community college professor, but I was the one that had to be the team teacher with everybody. So every year I had two or three new teaching partners for the same course. So I’d be basically begging them to use my course syllabus so that we could have a little bit of sanity for me. So I love this because people have different facilitation styles, they bring different skills to the table. So it’s very inspiring, and they’re very different. So the interdisciplinary faculty cohort is one kind of experience. The faculty there basically love hearing about similarities and differences, like they’re so relieved to find colleagues who care just as much as they do about inclusion. And they’re delighted to hear about strategies that maybe they can try and they’re also relieved to share the knotty points of difficulty that others may not be facing that are discipline specific to them. And then, in the cohorts that we’ve led that are anchored in the department, those conversations are just as rich because you can focus on things that are important to that group. So in the School For Integrative Plant Sciences, we asked the chair to provide a scenario for a difficult conversation so that we could have a little practice around that. And they’re remodeling their entranceway. So they’re having these discussions about how to portray their discipline. And so the argument is about the history of the discipline and all the white male people versus wanting to diversify the discipline nowadays and what they want to do. So we had a pretty amazing sort of hot topics dialogue that I think left them feeling more empowered and more ready. And the person who’s actually truly leading that initiative was also relieved to hear all the different opinions. And it was really important to hear the different perspectives. I don’t know if that completely answers your question. I’m just right, fresh out of doing those. So I kept a journal where I just kept writing down little ideas. Matt and I keep talking about writing a book about this. Like, I want to make sure I write about this and write about that and write about this. So it was a deeply reflective process for me. I keep learning a tremendous amount. And sometimes, to go back to Matt’s earlier comment, we’re not going to change the readings, but sometimes we do go and make updates or add references. we weren’t able to touch on every single identity category. And sometimes people don’t find themselves and they say, “Why didn’t you talk about this or that?” And so then we make an effort to do that. And I have a running list of edits that are ready to be worked on for the next version of the course that gets posted.

If I could tailgate, Melina, there are two points that you made that I just think are so evocative of our approach to this. One is we really wait to see who’s registered and how they fall out. Are there cohorts? Are there natural cohorts that emerge from that, and that was your point, Melina, about it being complicated, and sort of last minute, because we sort of wait to see who’s on board. And then your second point that I just want to reiterate is, it’s organic. And I think we’re both learning both about the DEI issues, but also about teaching and teaching in an online environment. And what does it mean to have a global perspective in a MOOC? This is new to both of us still. And so it’s always really interesting. And we’re trying to still… like Melina has revised the handbook for facilitators every single semester, because we keep getting really good ideas from folks across the spectrum who have tried some things out and said, “This really worked, and this didn’t.” And our goal always is to make it as useful as possible. So it also keeps it really interesting. So it’s the same course. But it’s never the same course, you know that, you’re both deeply embedded in teaching as well.

Yeah, the discussions vary dramatically depending on the specific composition. And when we were meeting three times a week, or four times a week one time, each discussion with a little different depending on who happened to show up that day. And it worked well, though. I appreciated the fact that I got to participate in many of those discussions.

In the ideal world, that’s exactly what it would be, you would sort of have a flipped classroom, you would do the online course. But you would always have a cohort of people to talk through your ideas with and I think that’s, for me, the ideal scenario. And I have to ask, are you assessing this? Obviously, people being there is one key assessment, that’s a huge vote of confidence. So clearly, you’re doing really well. The fact that they come back, that’s even better evidence.

We have not done any formal assessments. We’d like to, but we’re somewhat understaffed. We’d like to assess many more of the things that we’re doing at the teaching center, and certainly the effectiveness of this would be useful. I wish we had a good answer for you on that.

Actually, that’s a really good answer, John, because it’s sort of provoking me to think, together with Melina. We’ve got the protocol that we use, the pre-post, and Melina and our other colleague, Amy Cardace Ardays are working on publishing that protocol. But that might be something that if we can move that process along, that would give you something at the campus level, easy to administer, and really, really interesting. So it’s all self report, of course, but it at least gives you a sense of over time, in general, and an aggregated level, what our faculty finding useful about the experience in terms of their own learning and development. I hadn’t thought of that. Yeah,

I did a presentation at the IUPUI conference, and, as a result of that, I have started collaborating with a couple of other institutions who are in particular interested in how to assess their inclusive teaching interventions. And so, in one case, they started by wanting to use our protocol, but embed the protocol in the other part of their plan that they had in place. So we’ll be presenting together as a team this year at IUPUI, which I’m excited about. And I also think that assessing the learning communities is its own sticky wicket. The learning goals are both the same ones that are in the course and you also want to know whether the learning community itself went as well as it could have or what you might do differently because I still have a goal here locally at Cornell to have more of these department level immersions because those are the ones that have been pretty exciting because colleagues suddenly see each other with new eyes, like they see their colleagues as co-agents for change and social justice work instead of having the experience in the interdisciplinary group that I mentioned where they’re like, “Thank goodness, there’s someone over across campus who cares as much as I do.” So part of assessment is being able to tell your story persuasively about what you’re doing and why people should participate.

I think also, part of what assessment can do is reflect on what’s next. What’s the growth edge here? What would help people in the next step and so as Melina said, departments are our big go-to next step. We’re really interested in working with a coherent subset of people we’ll never get an entire department. And we don’t need that. We don’t need unanimity. We just need a core of consensus that this is a worthwhile use of their time. And what Melina hasn’t mentioned, is this other project she’s working on with another colleague of ours that I think is super interesting, which is curriculum mapping through a DEI lens. And so really, when we think about systemic change, in building more multicultural, inclusive institutions, the department is really the unit of analysis. That’s where the work happens. And it’s also where the chief stakeholders stay the longest. And so, Provosts rollover, Chancellors rollover, presidents come and go, but departments mostly stay intact. And so, if they choose to invest in this sort of critical analyses of DEI issues, there’s great possibility for really changing long term the experiences of undergrads and grads and also the people who are part of the department. It goes to recruitment and retention at every level, from undergrads,to grad students to new and junior faculty. So we’ve been sort of building, socializing the course on campus, building a sense that this is a good use of your time globally. And then Melina has… how many departments have you’ve worked with now? Four? Three?

We have three on deck for the fall, and had those initial conversations about getting things started and meeting them specifically where they are at in their process. People have expressed different beginning points or interests for where they want to get started. But this is what my colleague Kathleen Landy, who is really helping us to visualize difficult concepts in a very simple way. She’s basically created some tools that we can use to lead people through this process. And we’re socializing… it might not be the right word… but we’re basically getting the word out that this is a program and a service that we offer, and having some initial conversations with folks to just let them know what this is and how the resource works. And, so far, the reception has been really positive. And I think there’s just a different set of needs. We sometimes just talk about different entry points, maybe people want to think about curriculum, maybe they really want to think about pedagogy. I met with a group today that really wanted to help getting a discussion started about social identities and implicit bias. And so that’s really about instructor self reflection, and what our lived experiences have been, and then how we translate those into our teaching practices. So, one fantasy that I have is that our portfolio basically runs the gamut around that framework, so that people who want to work on curriculum have a rich tool for curriculum mapping, and then they also get the benefit of the facilitated dialogue and deeper conversations.

Yeah, I’m a big follower of the sort of John Dewey approach, start where the learner wants to start. And in many cases, all roads lead to Rome. It doesn’t really matter where we start if we have a holistic systems perspective.

… and the desire to start.

Absolutely. [LAUGHTER] That’s the critical piece. Exactly.

Which is an important threshold to cross over… the desire to start. People come to us because they want to, as opposed to this is now a university requirement or something like that, because that threshold is so important and meaningful.

I think a lot of campuses have reached that threshold now because the pandemic, as Rebecca had mentioned earlier, has revealed a lot of the inequities and challenges that our students face in ways that were always there, but that faculty may not have been as fully aware of. It’s much harder to ignore some of the challenges our students face when you had to deal with them in class every day, when you can see them struggling with things that would be hidden when they were on campus. Many people are ready for addressing these issues and these challenges.

I couldn’t agree more. I think timing is everything. And our hope is to build a port of entry. That, like Melina mentioned very early on, we do everything we can to bring people’s anxiety down so they can relax and be in a mode that allows the learning to take place. If it’s okay, I’d love to hear from the two of you about what would you like to see in Teaching and Learning in the Diverse Classroom? What would you see as a next step?

We were thinking of maybe starting a podcast. [LAUGHTER] Just kidding, just kidding.

We’d be happy to help.

We love your podcast.


That was one of those projects that started small that blew up big as well. [LAUGHTER]

I do have an answer. One of the things that I think that we struggle with… limited resources… and also, the complexity of timing is always a challenge being able to bring people together at a specific time, so we offer things at multiple times. One of the things that we always have trouble measuring or reporting out Is what do people do with this information? And so some of the pre- and post-testing that you were mentioning before, I think, gets at that a little bit. But what’s the reflection that happens a specific period of time afterward, is something that we haven’t done yet. We haven’t engaged. I think we both have this inclination to want to do some of that stuff, but like, not always the capacity to do it. And then also, we’ve tried a couple of things like badges if you want to tell your story. And sometimes it’s hard to collect that information in a way that’s useful, that doesn’t take ages for someone to produce to submit it to us. And then also to like, analyze it. [LAUGHTER]

That’s a great point, we’ve bandied about this idea of sort of a retrospective survey, like a semester out, a year out, two years out, what remains important or salient? or what have you done differently? And we’re still, I think, in discussion. Is that a way to say it, Melina? We haven’t really resolved yet how to do that. And for us, it’s the same issue. It’s bandwidth.

I appreciated the fact that Matt was writing down your idea, Rebecca, [LAUGHTER] because sometimes it’s a matter of timing, getting us at the right flow of the creative curve, and also the amount of times that we get the same ask. So if somebody else had asked for more videos that had faculty talking about successful strategies and how to implement them. So we might be able to talk to your point and meet that person’s invitation. And the other requests that we’ve had, which we haven’t had bandwidth for, was to present a wider variety of different types of institutions, especially in module five when we’re talking about institutional change efforts. So that was one idea. We would love to explore these if we had the capacity.

On that issue, though, I do have to say that the people you chose to speak, I think, speak to all institutions. I think some people may have been concerned that this was coming out of Cornell, and we’re four-year public institution. But no one really left with any concerns about that. I think the issues that are addressed are pretty universal. I think that part works really well. One thing though, that I know a number of faculty were looking for is more specific guidance on what techniques could work to make their discussions a little more inclusive in class and what other techniques could be used to help improve the success of students who are struggling. And there’s so many things there that the issue gets really wide. And I think the topics you chose are really good and universal and apply to everyone. But I know a lot of people would like some things specifically, that could help narrow some of the challenges in STEM classes, where the success rates vary very dramatically. And a lot of faculty were raising questions about that, particularly in math and in the sciences, and so forth. There’s a lot that’s already there. There’s just so much you can do in a five-week class. And I think what you have there is wonderful.

What you’re saying, John, actually makes me think about a need to send a reminder to people that have participated in a cohort about all the resources that were available there, because now you’ve had time and space to reflect, maybe have tried some things in classes, and it might be worth revisiting some of the material again.

One thing that I wished we could do, which we just couldn’t quite figure out a way to do this, but in the MOOC, we had people post what their action plans were on the discussion board. So now we’ve lost access to being able to see those, but the ones that we get through our Cornell cohorts are pretty incredible. And the quality of those jumps up significantly when we have a learning community, like the learning community action plans. I think John said this earlier, like it just helps people finish the course and actually get through it just to be part of a learning community. But then also the quality of the action plans, I think because they’re presenting them to each other… our last session in our learning community is them presenting their plan… and then hearing their colleagues questions and feedback. And those have been really impressive. And I like, John, what you’re saying. I think people want to see some examples of this in action. Like sometimes I wish we could get sort of live footage of a classroom where someone’s doing a really great job and have the camera be… people know it’s there, but they can forget about it.

Melina and I’ve talked at length about sort of what’s missing in this experience is the experiential aspect. And there’s a certain component in the dialogue, the discussion that you host or facilitate that helps with that, that’s super helpful. Because even though you may not be having people do psychodrama, or acting out role plays or stuff like that, but just the act of talking through these moments can be enormously helpful. But we’ve been really trying to think about how the next step might be something that’s more experiential, because oftentimes, people just need literally the physicality of a practice, of a walk through. He says this, she says that, what do I do? Then something else gets said, then what do I do to that? And that sort of is part and parcel to building a sense of efficacy, like you don’t need to have all the answers but you do need to have some strategies that you feel are useful in the moment and don’t dig you into a deeper hole. So that’s one of the other things… I don’t have an answer for that yet, but we’ve been thinking.

Our DEI officer, Rodman King, has ran sessions on our campus that are like that,like little scenarios, and did small groups where people were talking through it and those are some really popular sessions, they always needed more time. People got really engaged and really wanted to talk through the details and really process. So we often didn’t get through more than one or two examples in a session, but it was a incredibly popular sessions when we’ve offered those.

Yeah, I love that idea. And people feel like there’s an expert in the room who can help them. And it’s theoretical, it’s a scenario, so they can risk making a mistake, but the practice is real, that level of physicalities It’s a wonderful idea.

Can I circle back to something John said earlier about the people being worried about the Cornelll voices being like too Cornell or something like that? I think that the reason that that doesn’t happen is because people were willing to make themselves vulnerable during the interview process. So they really come across as three dimensional complicated human beings who are willing to tell their stories of struggle and the background. And I actually think that we have a situation at Cornell, where the name of the institution itself basically has almost everybody suffering under some kind of horrible imposter [LAUGHTER] syndrome, which makes us maybe nicer people, I don’t know. But my experience here has been that my colleagues are incredibly kind and welcoming and eager to support their students’ learning… that always is shared among faculty everywhere, but they’re also eager to support each other’s learning in adult spaces. And that has continued to be a delightful point of engagement. I used to teach undergraduates and now all of my work is through our teaching center. And I really far prefer working with adults thinking about social identity in a different way, like maybe they arrived already. Oh, no, wait, there’s new things to learn.

I think that authenticity really comes through, which is really powerful. And I think you’re right. On camera, everyone feels really authentic. It doesn’t feel scripted. And I think that’s what’s important about it.

I totally agree, Rebecca, I’m really happy to hear that that’s your perception. Obviously, we picked the people. And part of it also was people relish the invitation to be honest, and to tell what their stories are as they are unfolding. And so I think, Melina, this is where you started, the power of the story, but it’s also the power of inviting people to share their story, that indication that “Yeah, we really want to hear it.” And I do want to do a little bit of a shout out for Melina, she was our… I don’t even know what to call her… executive producer. She was our talent manager. And so she did a lovely job of engaging everybody and getting them centered and made sure they had coffee or water, just sort of genuinely set the stage for a real dialogue, much like you and John do in this podcast. You just make it really easy to be present and say what’s on your mind.

Thanks. Speaking of invitations, we always invite people to tell us what’s going to happen next. So what’s next? [LAUGHTER]

Next is action plans, Melina and I still have to wrap up the class so… which is actually, even though it’s July, it’s our favorite part of the class. We love reading and responding. So we’ve chosen to do the responses to the action plans by brief recorded videos, mostly because it warms up the classroom. And also we start talking about it, and I think our feedback is far more robust. And we read for different things. So it’s always so interesting to me to hear what resonated for Melina and why. And so I’m really looking forward to that. And then, Melina…

What’s next… I want to do a deeper dive on the importance of storytelling. So this isn’t next on our MOOC, but just on what we’re thinking of offering next year through our center to support inclusive teaching, but just really enlivening and bringing to bear this idea that storytelling is an inclusive pedagogy, how to do it, when to do it, when it’s appropriate. It goes back to John’s question about how do you facilitate lively discussions? How do you bring in the personal and the individual when you’re wrestling with difficult scholarly ideas? Sometimes we get folks from STEM saying, “Oh, this is Social Sciences, like the humanities and social sciences should deal with this. So making it relevant, making a case for why who we are as people really matters to the way we learn, how we learn, how we feel in the classroom about affect. So we have a few projects related to that new avenue.

And there was also a brief mention of the possibility of a book. Is that something planned in the near term? Or is this a longer time horizon project?

Well, we have an outline. I think…

…that’s a start.

Yes, it’s a big start. We have the will, and we have the way, we just now need to do the work. But I think we could help people. I think we have some things to say about how campuses can galvanize around teaching and learning inclusively, as a modality for systemic change. People want to, like you were saying earlier, John, there’s a great interest in these issues now. The salience is higher than it’s ever been before. People I think are just not really sure how to get started. And I think that the Teaching and Learning in the Diverse Classroom course tries to break it down and say there are multiple points of entry, any one of which is useful. We could sort of do that at the department level. Teaching in a course is one point of entry but also curriculum mapping and sort of the other things that we do with folks could work as well.

I love the idea of the ports of entry.

Thank you. It’s great talking to you again. And next time I do hope we can get together and have some tea in person, either on our campus or on yours or at some conference somewhere.

I would love that. And good luck to everybody who’s still teaching. Thank you all so much. It’s a pleasure.

Thank you.

Thank you.


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.

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


198. Active Learning Initiative Revisited

In episode 12 of this podcast, Doug McKee joined us to discuss the Active Learning Initiative at Cornell. In this episode, Doug returns to give us an update on this initiative and some initial findings on how this initiative has affected student learning. Doug is a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Economics and an Active Learning Initiative Project Lead at Cornell University.



John: In episode 12 of this podcast, we discussed the Active Learning Initiative at Cornell. In this episode, we get an update on this initiative and some initial findings on how this initiative has affected student 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: Together, we run the Center for Excellence in Learning and Teaching at the State University of New York at Oswego.


Rebecca: Our guest today is Doug McKee. Doug is a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Economics and an Active Learning Initiative project lead at Cornell University. Welcome back, Doug.

Doug: Thank you, Rebecca. So glad to be here.

John: We’re happy to have you back. It’s been a while. I was looking back to see when our last episode was and it was in 2018. It seemed like it was just yesterday in the before times, or at least in that sense of how time seems to have been compressed the last year or so.

Doug: It also seems like it’s been like 20 years.

John: It does.

Rebecca: Yeah, at least those couple decades for sure.

Doug: But I’m glad to be back.

John: Our teas today are… the last time we asked you I think you said “I hate tea.”

Doug: I did. I remember that.

Rebecca: What kind of comment do you have about tea today?

Doug: Well, I can’t say I’ve acquired a taste for tea. I don’t mind Lipton tea out of a can. But I’m not drinking that today. Today, it’s ice water.

Rebecca: That’s a good healthy choice.

Doug: Yeah.

Rebecca: And the basis of tea.

Doug: Right. I’ve been listening to this other podcast. And they always start with “What are you drinking?” And it’s four hosts. And three of them are always talking about what kind of craft beer or liquor they’re drinking. And it’s the healthy one that drinks the tea.

Rebecca: See, this is a very healthy episode,

Doug: Right. It is.

Rebecca: I’ve got my English afternoon today, John.

John: And I have ginger peach green tea.

Doug: Ooh, nice. It sounds nice. Are you really drinking hot tea in the summer? Is that really a thing?

John: I do. All day I’ve been drinking iced tea, though. And so I switched over for the podcast, just because it’s what we do.

Doug: Got it.

John: When you will last on the podcast, we talked about the Active Learning Initiative at Cornell. And we thought this would be a good time to get an update on how things are going. And for those people who are not listening to our podcast back in 2018, could you just provide some information on that project and how it came about?

Doug: Sure, I think even the people that were listening back in 2018 might need a refresher. The Active Learning Initiative is a university wide project at Cornell, it was inspired by a similar project that Carl Wieman started at University of Colorado, and then brought to the University of British Columbia called the Science Education Initiative. And the idea was that if you want to improve teaching, instead of trying and getting individuals to improve their teaching, and instead of trying to do it at the university level, the right level was the department. And so departments would write proposals and compete for money, and they would promise to incorporate active learning methods, different evidence-based methods to improve courses. And they would use the money to hire outside people, usually postdocs in that discipline that really knew the material, but also knew about modern pedagogy to do the heavy lifting. My experience is when you tell faculty to make changes and use active learning, you get three kinds of pushback. You get, “I don’t know how to do it.” Well, this postdoc is the person that knows how to do it, and they can help with that. You get, “I don’t have time.” Well the postdoc is going to do the heavy lifting. And you get “It won’t work in my classroom. It only works in other people’s classrooms.” And a big part of the Active Learning Initiative, certainly as we’ve implemented it in the economics department is concurrent evaluation. So at the end of the process, you really have hard measures of the impact of the program. Now the program started, I think, in 2017, at Cornell with three departments, then in 19, they added six departments, and that was when I joined Cornell, and so one of those was economics. And then more recently, they added nine more departments. And they’re getting proposals together for phase four right now. Now, in economics, we said we’re going to transform our eight core classes, the details are always a little messier than the theory. But we’ve transformed six classes so far, and we just started working on the last two. The big stated goal is to change how we teach these big classes. And seven of these eight classes are required for the major. So we’re really completely changing the experience that students have going through the program. The second goal, which is not as explicit, but really important, was to train faculty. And we’ve worked with eight different instructors during the process so far. And over the next two years, we’re going to add five more. The two classes that we still have to work on have three different people teaching one and two teaching the other one. And that’s been, I think, a pretty good success. So the faculty we worked with have been pretty happy and learned a lot from the process and continue to use those methods. The third goal, that was fairly unstated, is changing the culture. So what we want is a much more teaching focus and quality of teaching focus in the departments. And I think we’ve been doing a pretty good job on that and instilling this kind of continuous improvement idea. And then the fourth major impact that we’ve had, I think, was not something we really saw coming. And that is that, in the process of doing all this work, we’ve developed these assessments of learning and gathered all this data about what’s happening in the classroom and who these students are that are coming in. We’ve collected a huge amount of data. At the same time, we’ve spent a lot of time reading the literature and learning all about how much we don’t know. And it’s managed to enable all this research. And so I was talking to Rebecca, before we started recording, saying that a big part of my job is now actually like doing research using this data. And it’s been super exciting and fulfilling. And John, you asked me earlier, again, before we started recording about the Teach Better podcast, which is a podcast that Edward O’Neill and I hosted for a long time, and we haven’t had any new episodes posted for a couple of years. And it’s not because the band is broken up. But we’ve just been busy with other things. And I would say that the time I would spend writing blog posts and recording podcasts is now writing papers, and presenting research at conferences. So that’s been pretty exciting.

Rebecca: One of the things that you mentioned, right at the start of talking about this program, are the different push backs we get from faculty, and so you addressed two in how the postdoc helps with the two. The last was, “I can’t do this in my class, you can do it in other classes.”

Doug: You show them research from physics, and they say “This is economics.” You show them research from economics, and they say, “That’s from a very different kind of an institution.” You show them research from economics in a very similar institution, and they say, “Well, I teach my class very differently.” And that’s hard.

John: There’s always some explanation that people can come up on why their class is somehow different than everyone else’s. What have you done to try to reach some of those faculty to help keep the initiative spreading?

Doug: I have the answer that I find really compelling that never work. And that is, there’s this really wonderful meta analysis by Freeman and a whole bunch of other co-authors about the impact of active learning in STEM. They go and they collect lots of really serious research, high- quality empirical methods, that shows our big learning gains from transitioning from a pure lecture environment, to an environment where students are active in the classroom. And they find that there are large, statistically significant effects in eight different disciplines. And when they test the hypothesis that the effect is exactly the same in all eight disciplines, they can’t reject the null hypothesis. In other words, the size of the effect in physics and chemistry and biology and math and engineering… they’re all pretty much the same. And so if they’re the same in all those disciplines, shouldn’t they be the same in economics, too, because surely economics is closer to some of these than physics is to biology. And I find that really compelling, but no one else does.

Rebecca: Alright, so what does work then?

Doug: Well, what does work is being really nice and saying, “Can we just try it? And surely there are things that you’ve wanted to change in your class for a while and haven’t had the resources. And my job is to help you improve your class. And I’ve got some ideas too, and I’m going to lay them out, and we’re going to try.” And they’re like, “Okay.” I mean, so much of it is just plain old social skills. And like, “trust me” and building that level of trust. And they go and they talk to their colleagues that have worked with me in the Active Learning Initiative. And “Yeah, he’s not so bad. Like “he seems at first like an arrogant jerk, [LAUGHTER] but he’s okay, he’s pretty reasonable to work with.”

John: And the chance to make some of those changes they might have been considering, with some support to help move that along, could be a useful incentive, too.

Rebecca: You never know when that option is going to come along again, right? [LAUGHTER]

Doug: Well, that’s true too. So if Carl Wieman was here (he’s kind of the godfather of teaching in physics), what he would say is “Don’t even try to convince them that these methods work better for student learning, because a lot of the faculty, they say they care, but they don’t actually care that much. Tell them it’s fun, and that it’s much more fulfilling to have students doing things and interacting with them during the class than just standing up there and giving the same old lecture every year.” And he says that’s really effective. I have not had great success with that. [LAUGHTER]

John: One thing that actually worked better than anything we’ve ever tried here in the teaching center was this pandemic.

Doug: Right. That’s totally true.

John: People learned they needed to try doing things in different ways and we gave them lots of workshops and talked about the importance of active learning and gave them lots of things that work in a variety of modalities that they would never have considered otherwise because they were comfortable with what they were doing. But when people didn’t have a choice in terms of restructuring their classes in some way, they were much more open to trying evidence-based approaches than we’ve ever seen before and we had many more people attend a workshop during a pandemic than we ever did and many of them have said, “I’m never going back to the way I was teaching this class before.” Did some of that happen at Cornell?

Doug: It for sure happened. And I’ve talked to colleagues all over the world that have said exactly the same thing. That is absolutely 100% true. Just the other day I was talking with an instructor, we’re going to be doing a bunch of things with them to their class, and the conversation started with, “I tried these three new things in my online class, and I really want to bring them to my in-person class.” But you two, in the teaching center, interact with lots of faculty every day, for a brief period of time. But with me, I interact with a very small number of faculty for a very long time. We did not suspend the Active Learning Initiative for the last year, but we were originally a five-year project. And we decided to stretch it to six years and go into like a lower energy mode, while we focused on staying above water

Rebecca: …as was necessary for just about everybody.

Doug: Yeah.

Rebecca: You have all these new departments joining the initiative. Do these departments interact and support one another? Are these like completely separate pockets?

Doug: Yeah, so that’s interesting. The postdocs for all the departments meet regularly and do training together. There’s not a huge amount of interaction between the instructors across departments, or even the instructors that run the department initiatives. That’s something I think fell by the wayside during the pandemic. But we’ll probably pick up again, as things hopefully normalize, because there’s huge benefits from it. We’ve certainly run into lots of things that these newer departments are running into now and they can benefit from our experience. And then they come in with really fresh ideas that we haven’t thought of.

Rebecca: The other thing you mentioned, too, is all this data you’ve collected. Can you talk a little bit about what that data has started to tell you?

Doug: Yeah, so the process that we follow when we transform a course starts with documenting the learning goals for the course. Learning goals are not topic. How we define learning goals… because I understand in the ed world, people get very militant about their definitions and differentiations between learning goals and learning objectives and other kinds of things. But what we call learning goals are things that we want students to be able to do by the end of the semester, and we can break it down such that it’s probably two to three pages long. And then we develop an assessment of those learning goals. We also write down, in the same way, these are the skills we expect students to have going into the class. Now when we have a sequence, the skills that they have at the end of intro are prerequisite skills for the intermediate level course a lot of the time. And so we’ve developed, I think, 10 assessments so far. We have two math assessments, one at the intro level, and one at the intermediate level, because we add calculus. We have our intro micro assessment, we have stats, we have a whole bunch. So we have test scores on these things at the beginning of the semester, and at the end of the semester. So we have all these assessments. At the same time, we ask students about attitudes at the beginning of the semester and at the end of the semester. So do you think about economics every day? Do you feel like you belong in this economics course? We have like four pretty standard questions that we asked at the beginning and the end of the semester. Often when we give exams, we have exam wrappers. So how much did you study for this exam? How much of the material have you seen before? That sort of thing. And then at the end of the semester, we have our standard course evaluations, then we also ask students there: Did you feel like you were part of a community? Do you feel comfortable asking questions? Do you like the other students in the class? …those sorts of things. And so with the assessments at the end of the semester, we can tell how the distribution of learning outcomes changes. And we always have a control semester where we don’t do anything we just measure. And then we make all the changes after that, in a different semester, so we can compare. And what we found is that it often takes more than one semester for you to see learning gains. So you do all this stuff and you look at the results. And sometimes there aren’t very strong results. But you note what worked and what didn’t work. And you can look at outcomes by learning goal. So you can say like, “Oh, this learning goal we did a lot better on but not this one.” And so you can refine and then that refinement process, we’ve been able to actually see improvements in learning. We can use those same tests to see if there are gaps between kind of mainstream students and students from underrepresented groups. So we compare outcomes of males and females, we compare outcomes by race. And what we found is those gaps declined as we incorporate more active learning methods. We found that… this is a kind of a big one that I did not see coming when we started this project… so, we knew clickers were going to be a big part of this and like having activities that students work on in class, that’s like the bread and butter, and we have all different kinds of activities we do and I could talk for hours about that, but the thing didn’t see coming was how useful assigning students to small groups at the beginning of the term and having them work together in those groups inside and outside the classroom. And it actually was even more helpful during the pandemic with the online classes. So that’s been pretty cool. And just that treatment has radically increased the sense of community among our students. So we’ve been really happy about that. So those, I think, are the big results.

John: So, have all those core classes switched to the use of persistent groups.

Doug: Yes, but the extent to which the groups are used differs across courses. In my courses, it’s incredibly intensive. I have them sit in those groups in the classroom, I encourage them to work together on problem sets outside class, we do two-stage exams where they take the exam individually and then they take it again, in their same small groups. And they have a semester long project that they work on in those same groups. Probably the least intensive, we have is our big intro micro class, students are assigned to groups, they work together in those groups in discussion section, but not in the lecture. Because with 200 students, and a 350-seat lecture hall, it’s not too bad. But if you’ve got 440 students in a 450 seat lecture hall, it’s a little harder to manage that.

John: Yes, it is. I often teach classes that size. And I’ve generally just done ad hoc groups rather than persistent groups, but it is something I’ve considered switching to.

Doug: Well, in the pandemic, I had lots of colleagues that tried the ad hoc groups, ‘cause in Zoom, you can just press a button, and boom, everybody’s in a randomly assigned group. And you don’t build any social capital with other students in the class, you’re like suddenly in a room, and everyone’s got their camera off. But if you know everybody in your group, then you turn your cameras on, and you’re like “Yay, another person, Hello.” It’s pretty different. And in the classroom, I think there’s a similar element. There’s this other piece, which is in the classroom, people tend to sit in the same place. There’s a lot of inertia there. But I also think the random assignment gets people talking to people they wouldn’t otherwise talk to. And it assures that nobody’s kind of left out. So I think that works pretty well.

Rebecca: That was one of the things that I wanted to follow up on with the persistent groups is that sometimes you have the one student who feels left out or doesn’t feel included or doesn’t participate or doesn’t contribute. And so how do you handle that if that same team is doing everything together from tests to projects.

Doug: So in my classes, when they do everything together, in the two-stage exams, there’s a pretty big payoff to getting everybody’s input. And so I’ve never seen students as engaged in a classroom as they are, when we do these two-stage exams, it’s about as high stakes as you can get. On the projects, there’s a peer rating component, where at three points in the semester, they have to rate their teammates and say, on a one to three scale, are they contributing a lot? Are they not contributing very much? Are they contributing nothing? …and they rate them on effort level and dependability. And then the first one is just informative. You learn what the average rating you got from your team is, and you can do something about it. And then the next two, it’s actually a pretty big part of your grade. And what happens is, the students either improve, they get the message that they have to contribute, which is great, or they don’t, but then the other students are like, “Well, at least they’re getting what they deserve.” And so they’re pretty happy, because so much of it is about fairness and justice, that they’re like I’m willing to do the work, I just think it’s not fair if they get the same grade as me because they didn’t do the work. I mean, every once in a while you get a group that just doesn’t work very well. And these are always different. Like, it’ll be like, you’ll just somehow have like the three guys that happen to know each other. And they’re like, let’s all just give each other great ratings and not do any work. And then there’s the fourth person who ends up doing all the work. And then you talk to the person, you’re like, “Look, don’t worry, I’ll take that into account when I make your grade for the class.” Now, we actually had an instructor this semester, who had a really creative solution to this, which is at the halfway point in the semester, they surveyed the class and allowed people to bail out of their group and go into a new pool and get reassigned to a new group. And I think like 20% of the class decided to do this. And it was pretty interesting. I haven’t looked closely to see if our community measures were higher in that class. But I’m intrigued. I might try that in my class.

John: I had something similar in my econometrics class this spring, I tried using persistent group, some were working really productively, and others just were not working. And I was getting some pretty regular complaints from people. I talked to them and said, “Well, often you’ll be working at some point in your life with people where you need to forge a good productive relationship,” but eventually it got to the point where I said “Okay, anyone who wants to switch out of their group is welcome to and we’ll just re-form some new groups after this and anyone who wants to stay could.” And the shifting helped the people who were really productive and were frustrated that some of their colleagues were not quite as productive were really happy to start working with other people who were in a similar position, and I think there was some really positive complementarities from those people. The remaining people in those groups may have sunk down a little bit in terms of their performance in the class, but they had the option of becoming a bit more active and working harder, and they just chose not to take it.

Doug: And some students will do that. And look, as important as I believe econometrics is, some students, they’re like, you know, I have other ideas about what’s important in college, and maybe it’s different classes. Maybe it’s the social aspect, and like, “Who am I to judge?” But, don’t expect an “A” if the social part of college is more important to you.

Rebecca: There’s also always the group too that when you start talking to all of them, they all think they’re doing something different. It’s really hard to get a read on who’s doing what, and this person thinks this person is not doing anything, and this other person thinks they’re not. Those conversations happened together, but a little intervention and clarity and communication can go a long way. And I’ve had some really dysfunctional teams become functional, just with a little intervention early on, when you realize that they’re all talking past each other and are all quite unhappy.

Doug: Do you have them identify their role and write down like, when they submit a group project, say who did what? And would you recommend it? Because I don’t do that. I’ve always wondered if I should do that.

Rebecca: I’ve gone back and forth. Sometimes I have projects where they have defined their roles. I do it in sprints, or break it into pieces. And so they might switch roles in each round or whatever.

Doug: Which they should.

Rebecca: Yeah, I do also, I tend to ask a question on the team evaluations, which I do multiple times throughout the semester that ask who contributed the most to the group? And why or what did you learn from each colleague, and those tend to be really informative, and reflection papers.

Doug: One more thing I want to add to this part of the discussion is, this is really important, but we always make sure not to isolate women or underrepresented minorities in groups, because when you do that, they, in general have a pretty bad experience. And we’re not going for that /we’re going for good.

John: In Episode 182, we had Olga Stoddard on the podcast, who talked about a study where she and some colleagues had done in an MBA program where they had persistent groups. And the groups that had only a single female ended up evaluating the contributions of a female participant much lower. And in fact, they rated themselves lower as well. And there was some really substantial gains in their perceived participation, when they represented a larger share of the group, when it was a majority female group. They’ll be following it up with some research on individuals from other underrepresented groups.

Doug: So when I first started doing these peer ratings, I had three categories. So in addition to effort and dependability, I had collegiality, because I was trying to capture like, is this person… they’re putting in effort to show up on time… but they’re just a jerk, and like you should get penalized for that. And what I found is that the male students all gave the female students low collegiality ratings, and the female students all gave the male students low collegiality ratings, so it was just like incorporating sexism into the grade, and I didn’t want to do that. So, I just removed it altogether. It didn’t help.

John: One of the things that I’ve been doing based on, actually something our Dean suggested when she gave a workshop on group activities, was having groups put together some type of a group agreement on how they would resolve conflicts and so forth at the very start of the semester. And that seems to have really significantly reduced many of these issues, and providing some time during the semester for them to talk over any group processing issues they may be having. So that if they are facing challenges with people contributing, they have a chance to work that out amongst themselves and just talk about that a little bit before the problem becomes more ingrained. And it seems to have been helpful.

Doug: That’s super interesting, I do something not as good, which is at the beginning of the semester, I do this exercise in class where they have to write down what they think are like the five behaviors that are consistent with a well functioning group. And then I’ve got mine. And then we do the big word cloud. And we talk about it like listening to what everyone in the group has to say, being nice, giving people the benefit of the doubt, things like that. I guess it’s more proactive rather than reactive. But I think there’s probably a role for both.

Rebecca: I’ve mentioned before in the podcast, too, that I’ve been doing an activity called a retrospective at regular intervals throughout the semester, which is like a group reflection. I’ve been using virtual whiteboards and sticky notes, to do it with some basic questions like “What should the group keep doing? What should the group stop doing?”

Doug: Oh, interesting.

Rebecca: “And what should the group start to do?” And that was, I found, really productive and the amount of team issues that I’ve had since I started doing that has been greatly reduced.

Doug: I’m writing this down, sot I can do it too. I like that idea a lot.

Rebecca: It’s worked surprisingly well. I’ve been using Miro, which is a virtual whiteboard. And they actually have a number of templates for different retrospectives that you could use as a starting point.

Doug: You like that better than Jamboard?

Rebecca: Yeah, it has way more features but I also teach design, so we need fancier things, and it needs to look nice and you can make it nice in there. [LAUGHTER]

Doug: I used Jamboard last semester and it was great. The breakout rooms actually were able to communicate a lot better with each other when they could all write on a Jamboard.

Rebecca: Yeah, my use of whiteboards virtually has greatly improved collaboration.

Doug: Right. I’m not sure what to do in the classroom now.

Rebecca: I know. [LAUGHTER]

John: I used Jamboard in all my classes and I was thinking, should I ask students to do this while they’re in a big classroom? And I’m kind of thinking, yes.

Rebecca: Yes.

Doug: Maybe, yeah, maybe… because the alternative is like one person writing on a piece of paper, and everyone else leaning over their shoulder. And it’s not as good.

Rebecca: Oor wasting a lot of paper by using a lot of sticky notes.

Doug: Right.

Rebecca: Because you can do the physical version of it, but…

Doug: But it’s got to be big enough. In a class where you’ve got 200 students, you don’t really have enough whiteboard.

John: Could you tell us a little bit more about the impact of these changes on student learning.

Doug: We see improvements in student learning, but it often takes more than one semester of refinement to get there. And I think that’s a really important lesson: that you have to be patient when you make these changes.

Rebecca: Hey, we’re new at something and you have to have practice. Is that what you’re saying, Doug?

Doug: Right, but how many times have you run into someone who said, “I tried clickers and it didn’t work in my class?” Like, of course, it didn’t work. When you got on the bike, did it work the first time you tried to ride it? No, of course not. We’ve managed to reduce achievement gaps in some classes and we’ve really increased the sense of community among people. I think, actually, those two are pretty strongly related. We’ve moved from a real laser focus on increasing average learning to a wider range of outcomes: more attitudes, more gaps, we spent a lot of time thinking about how to lift the bottom of the distribution, like, “Who are these people that are scoring in the bottom quarter of the class? And why?” So yeah, I would say those are the main results we’ve had.

John: And by building an environment which creates more of a sense of community, it’s more likely I think that persistence towards graduation and degree will increase. Have you looked at any data on that yet, in terms of student persistence as a result of some of these changes?

Doug: Well, at Cornell, most people end up getting their degree. So that’s a way in which I think like an Ivy League college is pretty different from a lot of other colleges. Does active learning work in the classroom? Yes, and that’s true no matter where you are. But issues of retention, we actually spend a lot of time thinking about retention. But when we say retention, what we’re talking about is how much do you remember of what you learned in the class after the class is over? How much do you retain in terms of the knowledge, and we’ve actually been analyzing a fair amount of data and collecting a lot of data on this. And in some cases, students forget a lot. In other cases, there are for sure cases where they retain a lot. And so we do a lot of following up students after the course is over, and then giving them the test, the same end of semester assessment again, and we’re in the midst of an NSF funded research project right now, to see how much active learning matters. So we’re following up with students in our kind of baseline courses, like one, two, and three years later, and following up with the students who’ve taken the same course but with active learning, and we’re seeing if the retention is different, I’m really excited about that. What we’ve seen so far, with different work, is that if you apply what you’ve learned in another course, or in an internship, your retention is far higher. So that’s a really great result, and we’re really happy about that and it’s intuitive. We have another result, which is that if you take a class where you learn a different set of methods for answering the same questions. So we see this, if you take a stats class, and then you take a machine learning class, where you learn a different set of methods for doing similar kinds of things, you actually perform much worse. Those methods that you learned, they just get substituted out of your brain and then new methods are plugged in. And it’s not good. There’s evidence for this in psychology, and even a name for it. It’s called adaptive forgetting. And I think there’s like real, pretty serious implications here for our teaching, that we need to do a better job kind of connecting these things together, so that this doesn’t happen. And then the third thing that we’re looking at is, are there systematic differences by gender and by race in retention. And the data is too preliminary now, but it looks like there might be. And that’s pretty scary and we don’t know why. And we really need to get to the bottom of that. But the first step is to identify the problem. And then the next step is to kind of hypothesize ways to fix the problem. I think we were identifying a pretty serious problem there.

John: And you do have some control measures there in the more traditional classes that you can compare that to to see what types of interventions may be best in reducing some of those gaps.

Doug: Yeah, that’s exactly right. That’s exactly right.

John: We always end with a question, what’s next? And it sounds like you’ve got lots of plans for that.

Doug: So I feel like the Active Learning Initiative is chugging along and we have a process and we’re applying it and we’ve saved our macroeconomics courses for the end because there’s less consensus about what macro is then the other courses, and so that’s fine, but I’m not a macroeconomist, but it’s important and it needs to be done. So I’m pretty excited about collecting and analyzing this retention data that I was just talking about. I’ll give one more project that I’m excited about that we have going right now. We came up with this math assessment and we learned that the math assessment, if you give it at the beginning of the semester, in both our intro classes and our intermediate classes, it’s strongly predictive of how well the students do in the class. And so in particular, if you do badly on the math assessment, you’re much more likely to perform poorly in the class itself. And so some students, they just come in, and they’re behind on day one. And this semester, we are working jointly with colleagues at George Washington University and at the Copenhagen Business School. And in all three sites, we are trying something different to try to help these students, we’re all going to give the same math assessment at the beginning of the term. And we’re going to try different things to actually help these students succeed. And it’s going to be a little bit of a let… well, I was gonna say, let a 1000 flowers bloom, but it’s really like three flowers bloom… We’re gonna hope we can actually find a solution to a problem we identified. So that’s what’s next. That’s what’s on the agenda for the fall.

Rebecca: Maybe you’ll even find more than one solution.

Doug: That would be great. They’re pretty different in terms of how intensive they are. They go from: here are some online resources that you can work with, all the way to, why don’t you hold off on taking your intro class and take this full semester math for economics course, and then take intro, and then the Cornell treatment is actually an intermediate level treatment, the expensive treatment should work. But we’re gonna formally show that, but these other two… we don’t know. And so we’re looking forward to finding out. And we’re looking forward to helping a whole ton of students that would otherwise have a really bad experience in an economics course, and then never take another one.

John: And that was actually one of the things I was thinking about in terms of retention, that the retention isn’t only at the institution, it’s also persistence to that degree in that major, and we lose a lot of people in economics, and a lot of it is related to math ability.

Doug: Yeah, that’s right. I think it’s obscured by the fact that we get a lot of students that fall out of the hard sciences. So it seems like we’re getting a lot of students that are continuing, but they’re not really. we’re losing a whole bunch of we’re gaining some.

John: Thanks, Doug. It’s great talking to you. And I’m looking forward to seeing you at some economic conferences as they start to pick up more in person again.

Doug: I know, wouldn’t that be nice? I’m looking forward to it. The virtual conferences have been really good, but they for sure missed out on the social part.

Rebecca: And the travel part.

Doug: I don’t miss the travel that much.

John: I’ve been able to attend many more conferences, but it just doesn’t feel the same.

Doug: No.

Rebecca: There is something to be said about moving yourself to a different space, so that you can focus on what’s at hand, whether or not the travel and all the logistics associated with that are pleasant or not. There’s something about just moving yourself from the normal everyday to some other way that can be helpful in focusing.

Doug: …where the cats and the dogs and the kids can’t walk in on your session.

Rebecca: Indeed. Well, thanks so much, Doug. It’s always great to hear how things are going. And I hope we’ll get a future update as the project continues to move along.

Doug: Oh, yeah, I would love to.

John: Well, thank you. And I hope we do see a return of the band of the Teach Better podcast once things settle down.

Doug: Well, the crazy thing is, you always hear about these bands and their last tracks? And I’ve never really understood like, why didn’t they just put it on the album? What is this with the lost tracks that get released much later? We have two episodes that have never been published, and they’re really good.

John: That’s the easy way to bring it back.

Doug: So someday, we’ll release like the… [LAUGHTER] like the hidden tapes.

John: …the basement tapes. This been super fun you guys. It’s so nice to catch up.


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.


197. Humanized Teaching

Looking to the future as an instructor in higher education can seem daunting, especially as we plan for a more equitable future.  In this episode, Jesse Stommel joins us to discuss some of those challenges, search for hope, and discuss ways forward that are ethical, humane and flexible. Jesse is the Executive Director of the Hybrid Pedagogy nonprofit organization, and organization he founded in 2011. He is also the founder of the Digital Pedagogy Lab. Jesse recently served as the Executive Director of the Division of Teaching and Learning Technologies at the University of Mary Washington. He is the co-author,  with Sean Michael Morris, of An Urgency of Teachers: The Work of Critical Digital Pedagogy, and, with Dorothy Kim, co-editor of Disrupting the Digital Humanities.



John: Looking to the future as an instructor in higher education can seem daunting, especially as we plan for a more equitable future. In this episode, we discuss some of those challenges, search for hope, and discuss ways forward that are ethical, humane and flexible.


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: Together, we run the Center for Excellence in Learning and Teaching at the State University of New York at Oswego.


John: Our guest today is Jesse Stommel. Jesse is the Executive Director of the Hybrid Pedagogy nonprofit organization, an organization he founded in 2011. He is also the founder of the Digital Pedagogy Lab. Jesse recently served as the Executive Director of the Division of Teaching and Learning Technologies at the University of Mary Washington. He is a co-author, with Sean Michael Morris of An Urgency of Teachers: the Work of Critical Digital Pedagogy, and with Dorothy Kim, the co-editor of Disrupting the Digital Humanities. Welcome, Jesse.

Jesse: Hi, it’s good to be with you all. Looking forward to our chat.

Rebecca: Today’s teas are:

Jesse: I’m actually drinking peach honey sparkling water. It’s sort of tea infused.

Rebecca: Okay, that’s good. That counts. Also, it sounds really good. [LAUGHTER]

John: I have ginger peach black tea.

Rebecca: …and I have a decaf Assam.

Jesse: I feel jealous of both of your teas.

Rebecca: It’s sad that we don’t have you in person in our office where we have a giant selection that you could choose from, we’ll send you a picture so you know what you missed out on. [LAUGHTER]

Jesse: Well, we’ll have to do that in the future.

Rebecca: Yeah, definitely.

John: They’re slightly aged teas compared to when we last saw them about a year and a few months back, but they are there and some of them we’ll probably have to dispose of. [LAUGHTER] You’ve been a really important voice on behalf of inclusive teaching and very vocal on topics like trauma-infused pedagogy, designing with care in mind, ungrading, and equity more generally. What does it mean to be an ethical instructor as we approach the fall, still amidst the last stages of a pandemic?

Jesse: I wrote a piece with Sara Goldrick-Rab a few years ago, and for folks who don’t know, Sara Goldrick-Rab is an expert in higher education policy, particularly focusing on food and housing insecurity. And she and I wrote a piece for the Chronicle of Higher Education called “Teaching the Students We Have, Not the Students We Wish We Had.” And ultimately, the thing that that piece charged me to do, and I’ve been working with Sara for, I think, close to eight years now and her work and the research that she’s done has really put a kind of specificity to my work on inclusive pedagogies and critical pedagogies that has charged me to think really carefully about how the material circumstances of our students affect their learning experience, and also how the material circumstances of teachers affect their teaching experience. And so if I think about how we begin to move back into classrooms, to find our way back to our institutions, to find our way back to the collaborations and colleagues we may have worked really closely with, I think that the key is for us to do really deep work thinking about who are our students? What do they need to be successful? How have they been affected by the last 18 months? And to do that same work with ourselves and our colleagues. Ask ourselves: who are we as teachers? What do we need to be successful? And I think institutions have a charge that they have to be really careful about how they quote unquote, pivot back to business as usual. I don’t think there’s a neat and tidy pivot back. And I don’t think business as usual is the appropriate place for us to turn to at this moment. So for institutions to ask hard questions of themselves, interrogate the things that they may have done to exclude many of the people who found themselves struggling during the pandemic, the things they did to exclude those students and faculty members well before the pandemic, to assure that they don’t continue the kind of exclusive practices that I’ve seen so many institutions coming to grips with in the last 18 months.

Rebecca: I really appreciate the focus that you’ve put on both students and also caring about colleagues and making sure that we’re being reciprocal in thinking about each other as humans and not just robots that we work with or something. In this conversation of getting back to campuses in the fall, what can we do to continue to humanize this practice with our colleagues too, that you just kind of focused a little bit on students, but what does this mean when we’re thinking about our colleagues and our relationships with our colleagues,

Jesse: I’ve been at several institutions that were struggling. So many of the people listening have found themselves at institutions that were struggling, I feel like the whole of public education is struggling at the current moment, but I’ve had some very specific circumstances at the last few institutions where I worked. About 10 years ago, I worked at Marylhurst University in Portland, Oregon, and Marylhurst University ended up closing down because of financial insecurity. And I was there a few years before they closed down and sort of dealing with the environment and watching the writing on the wall get darker and darker. After that, I went to University of Wisconsin-Madison, where the Governor, Scott Walker, obliterated tenure across the system, taking one of the best public education state systems in our country and making it a mockery. And his decision had a rippling impact across the entire institution. And what I found in both of those situations was that in situations of precarity, situations of financial austerity… and in many cases, those are manufactured, and they’re manufactured, especially in the case of Scott Walker, for very particular political reasons. In situations of austerity and precarity, people start to turn on each other, the sort of fabric of the community that existed prior to those moments that I found myself in at those institutions, I watched it erode and it eroded very quickly. And so the importance of being kind to one another, the importance of supporting each other, supporting our students, certainly, but also supporting our colleagues, and the importance of administrations focusing their efforts not on finding a new contract to a remote proctoring solution, which will do harm to all of the students and all of the teachers at the institution, but to focus their investment and their energy on finding ways to support the community that beats at the heart of the institution. That’s ultimately what we have to do. And it’s so important right now, because I saw over the last 18 months, the same thing starting to happen at a lot of institutions. I saw institutions beginning to create cultures that were inhospitable to the kinds of work that we really want to do in education.

Rebecca: I think one of the things that comes up in addition to food insecurity and housing insecurity with our students is that during the pandemic it became visible, I think, for some folks, that part-time faculty, adjunct faculty, also have some of those insecurities that we often just don’t address or think about. How do you see us, as a larger higher education community starting to support those faculty more and really addressing those insecurities? What can we do?

Jesse: I think there’s an easy answer… that we should all commit to having a permanent full-time academic workforce at all of our institutions. And the truth is that when you look at what the expenses are of our institutions, there are ways to cut costs. Imagine an institution that has just spent $500,000, or if you’re the State of Illinois, just spent $23 million on a multi-year contract with a remote proctoring solution. Think about all of that money, and how many adjunct or precarious faculty that money could support. If you think about the pedagogical benefits of making faculty full-time non-precarious, versus the pedagogical deficit that gets created by creating a culture of suspicion at our institutions, there is money being spent on things doing harm to students that could be easily re channeled towards something like certainly student support, supporting students basic needs, or supporting the basic needs of faculty who are struggling. I think that there is a need right now for us to be really honest about how money is getting spent at institutions and how that money signals what our institutions value and what our institutions don’t value. It is quite clear, across the entirety of higher education, that the vast majority of our institutions do not support teachers or the work of teaching. And that is quite clear via the mass adjunctification across our institutions, as well as the failure to properly invest in the preparation of teachers or pedagogical support for teachers. And that didn’t change in the pandemic. I have not seen a huge amount of money suddenly getting funneled into faculty development and support… at most institutions, anyway.

Rebecca: I think many of the things that we’re talking about right now are all things that were happening before the pandemic, they just became more visible to some people during the pandemic.

Jesse: Yeah, and you mentioned food and housing insecurity, and then alluded to other struggles that people were having… mental health issues… certainly, we are all experiencing acute mental health issues because of the last 18 months. But there are so many people who were experiencing acute and chronic mental health issues prior to the pandemic that weren’t getting properly addressed. And if you also think about disabled students and faculty, and the ways that their needs were not being met prior to the pandemic. We figured out how to do remote work and remote teaching in the midst of the pandemic, or we figured out how to do it as best as each individual institution might have done, which is… your mileage may vary, I guess. [LAUGHTER] But, the truth is that there are so many faculty and students who are disabled in various ways who needed that kind of support well before the pandemic.

John: On a positive note, though, didn’t the pandemic help make some of these issues much more clear to faculty and administrators, when they saw the problems that students had in continuing and when they recognize the need to provide support for faculty who didn’t have computer access at home to even connect with their students remotely? Might that perhaps help lead to a change in mindset?

Jesse: On my Twitter bio, I am called an irascible optimist. That was a moniker given to me by Sean Michael Morris. And when he said that I thought: “That is indeed me.” And I’ve worn that moniker ever since he gave it to me, irascible optimist. I’ll be honest that I have been less optimistic in the last 18 years. And I recognize I’m being less optimistic in this initial start to this conversation than I would have been if we had talked two years ago. And part of that is because of what I have seen over the last 18 months, and the deep, deep struggles that I’ve seen so many of my students having, and so many of my colleagues having, and also the failures of so many state governments, the federal government, and institutions to really figure out what to do and how to handle this particular moment. So if I think about what we’ve learned, is that we’ve learned to listen to our gut, we’ve learned to acknowledge the things that we were already seeing. It’s not like suddenly we saw new things over the last 18 months, we were already seeing them. And so we learned that we actually have to take action. One of the sad things and this is going to keep us maybe on the pessimistic place for just a few more minutes, is that I worry that so many institutions came to grips with these things, because these things started to hit them in their pocketbook. And I hate that that was the reason that many institutions started to solve these issues. On the other hand, what I will say is that the kinds of conversations that I’ve had with fellow teachers over the last 18 months have felt incredible. I have felt more connected, even if my work has been harder than it ever has been. I have felt more connected to that work and more deeply connected to the colleagues that I work with. And I have found new connections, because I have seen so many individual teachers struggling and working so hard to help meet the needs of our present moment.

John: And I’m still fairly optimistic because of that. A lot of faculty were able to avoid some of those issues, even though they may have been generally aware of some of the challenges our students face. When they interacted with them in the classroom it wasn’t quite as clear as when they were hearing from students who were dealing with problems of just being at their class because they had work commitments or because they had other responsibilities. And they had network issues because they didn’t have stable network connections, or they were using a laptop that was 10 years old, and it wouldn’t work consistently. And I think faculty in general have become much more aware of the challenges of our students. I’m hopeful, at least, that that’s not going to disappear. And that that could help lead to more consistent support of students once we do return to whatever the new normal happens to be as we move back to more campus instruction.

Rebecca: I’m really hoping that faculty, given this kind of acknowledgement of a wide variety of struggles, will really work together and push administrators and push universities and push systems to change. Because if we don’t speak up together in a unified way, it’s not gonna happen.

Jesse: Yeah, Paulo Freire and bell hooks both talk about what they describe as critical hope… that hope is an action that we take not a passive state, that hope is a work… that hope is struggle. And just that idea that hope isn’t passive, we don’t sit back and wait and hope. Instead, we take the action of hope. And Maxine Greene, also a critical pedagogue, talks about imagining the world as though it could be otherwise. And so her word there is “imagination.” Again, something active, imagining the world as though it could be otherwise requires us to recognize our agency and how we can have a positive impact and a positive effect. And so pushing back where we can, drawing students into these conversations where we are able, insisting that student voices be centered in these conversations, these are things that we can do and that will have a necessarily good impact, even when we’re precarious and where we feel like our job might be at risk, there are still actions that we can take, and it’s a matter of figuring out how do I engage in the work of hope or the work of imagination.

Rebecca: See, we got to a more positive place. [LAUGHTER]

Jesse: Just give us a few minutes. [LAUGHTER]

John: One of the things you’re really known for is your work on ungrading and creating an environment that’s more conducive to learning. Could you just talk a little bit about that?

Jesse: So I’ll just say that I have been quote, unquote, ungrading for 21 years, it’s a practice that I started my first semester of teaching. And it’s a practice that has grown and changed over time. But, I often say that I have never put a grade on a piece of student work in my career. The truth is that that’s not exactly true, because I love co-teaching and when you co-teach you negotiate a pedagogy with your co-teacher, and so I have put grades on individual students’ work but it was always a discussion and a sort of process that I came to with another teacher. The interesting thing is that I’ve been doing this work as part of my practice for 21 years, but I didn’t start talking about it publicly. I mean, beyond just having conversations about it publicly. I didn’t start publicly writing about it, giving keynotes about it, etc., until 2017. So four years ago that I really started writing publicly about this. Ungrading was a word that I had used, but it wasn’t something that an entire way of my pedagogical thought was centered around. So it has been interesting to watch the transition in me as I’ve moved towards talking about this more publicly. And I’ll tell you the reasons I didn’t talk about it publicly. I was a road warrior adjunct for about nine years of my teaching, teaching at up to four institutions, nine classes a term, dealing with the rules and restrictions at four different institutions. And I also felt like my pedagogical approach to grading felt like something between me and the students I was working with. It was no one else’s business. It was a conversation I had with them. And I felt like I wanted to protect that space for students and me to work through that together. The reason that I changed my thinking and started writing more publicly is because, over the last 20 years, I’ve watched education become increasingly quantitative and watched the reliance on learning management systems, which turn students into rows in a spreadsheet and their work into columns in a spreadsheet. I’ve watched institutions grade and evaluate their teachers in increasingly quantifiable ways. And then I’ve watched, obviously, the turn towards algorithms and the Internet of Things and weird tools like plagiarism detection software that again, feels like it reduces us to cogs, and reduces our work to bits, ones and zeros. And so I felt the need to create a larger conversation and dialogue on this because increasingly, I recognize that grades were the biggest thorn in the side of critical pedagogy and the biggest thorn in the side of my pedagogy. And so many people felt like we’re increasingly struggling with grades as the thing that got in the way of them creating productive relationships with students. And ultimately, when I started writing about it, I was amazed at the response. And to some degree, I feel like there were so many people that had hit that wall, and that we’re feeling that increased quantification over many, many years, almost like frogs boiling in a pot of water. And the other amazing thing was how much conversations with the larger community of teachers, a larger community of students, helped continue to evolve and change my practice. I guess one of the other reasons I started writing and talking about it more publicly was because I needed a push. I needed students and colleagues to ask me to work even harder to ask even harder questions of myself. And the last thing I’ll say is that ungrading is just a word. The one thing I can’t stand about the word ungrading is it tries to take a huge variety of practices that push back on traditional grading, and tries to lump them into one word as though there is upgrading tm, you know, the thing Jesse invented and that you can buy from him for $19.99, [LAUGHTER] three payments, and that he’ll deliver it to you and it will be a stack of 20 best practices that if you implement will change your life and make your relationships with students better. And that’s just not the way pedagogy works. That’s not the way teaching works. And that’s certainly not the way something as complex as assessment works. And so ultimately, this has to be an ongoing dialogue, conversation between teachers, between teachers and students. And what works for one teacher in one context with one group of students won’t necessarily work neat and tidily for another.

John: You mentioned that your practice has evolved in some way. Could you talk a little bit about how your practices involving… I don’t want to say ungrading again… [LAUGHTER]

Jesse: No, I did help coin the term.

John: Ok.

Jesse: So I’m all right with us using the word “ungrading.” I think it is good for us to have a word for us to rally these conversations around because we need the energy and the catalyzing force that that term has caused, and so it’s useful and productive in that way. So I’ve done self evaluation, asking students to write process letters, to analyze their own learning, to reflect on their own learning. I’ve asked them to reflect on group and peer learning. And I’ve asked them to grade themselves. And over the course of my career, I almost always give students the grade they give themselves. For the most part, when I change a grade, it’s to raise the grade, especially in situations where I feel like bias has influenced the grades. The thing is bias, even self-internalized bias, affects how we review and evaluate our performance. And the thing that I’ve changed most about is I’ve started to get this nagging feeling that when I have students self evaluate and self grading that I’m taking everything that I don’t like about grades, everything that the research shows is ineffective about grades, everything that is emotionally harmful about grades and giving grades, and taking that and kind of passing the buck on to students. And so my project in ungrading, or my project in my own assessment practice, has always been to turn grades over on their back and inspect them and ask hard questions of them and wonder at them and raise our eyebrows at them so that we feel like we have more agents within a quantified system like we work in. And I don’t think I can necessarily do that by just taking all the problems of grades and passing that over to students. So I’ve started to rethink how I ask students to do that work of grading themselves. One of the things that I found is, over so many years, giving A, A-, B, B+, B, B- is that when students went to grade themselves, they would give themselves something like, “Oh, it’s either an A plus, or an A minus, or it’s a B plus.” And they would quibble these tiny details, which that kind of evidence suggests to me that I had passed the anxiety of grades and quantification on to them. And so recently, in the last two years, I’ve removed A minuses and pluses from the approach that I use, I tell students just round up. And it’s interesting, because the second that I did, that students stopped quibbling the tiny details, and this is really drawn from some writing by Peter Elbow, where he writes specifically about minimal grading, which taking 100 point scale or 1000 point scale and reducing it to a 10 point scale, or a five point scale, or a three, two, one point scale. And the more we reduce it, the more clear it becomes, and the more it communicates, and the more effective it is as an assessment tool. And so giving students less gradations to quibble about. But on the other hand, I also recognize that these are decisions that I’m making, that I still have power in the classroom and trying to think about an inspect my own power and privilege in the classroom and how I can begin to at least dismantle that, not to remove it, because I think classrooms need strong leaders, but at least to dismantle it enough that I’m leaving space for students to sort of carve out their own space within their educations.

Rebecca: Seems to me that a lot of the ungrading work is really tied to this idea of flexibility that you’ve talked about pretty frequently: being flexible as a teacher and offering options, but it’s also in popular in frameworks, like UDL. But I also know that the idea of providing flexibility can cause a lot of anxiety to a faculty member in trying to figure out how to do that and make it manageable and make it sustainable. Can you share some ideas about making that a sustainable practice and also what you mean by flexible options for students.

Jesse: So the interesting thing is flexible does become more complicated. If we are engaging in the work of teaching as a form of policing student learning, or even not policing, just monitoring, even, monitoring student learning, or collecting or gathering student learning or gathering evidence for student learning. The second that we as teachers move away from that role of feeling like we are the evaluators, we are meant to rank students, we’re there to police their learning, we’re there to ensure compliance…. which honestly, even good teachers, so much of that is baked into just how our system is structured, that we do it without even realizing that we’re doing it… even the structure and shape of a syllabus has so much of that baked into it. I think that flexibility becomes a lot easier when you hand that over to the students. So people often say, “Oh, well, you let your students do five different things for an assignment or you let them just pick something… anything?” And I say, “Well, I don’t let them I invite them to do that, first of all.” Second of al, “Well, then how do you manage all the different things you get at different times?” I say, “Well, I don’t consider myself the primary audience for student work, I create a space in my course where they can share this work with one another. And they can give one another feedback.” And then, “Well gosh, how do you deal with all of the requests that you might get?” I don’t ask my students to ask permission. I invite them to modify, remix, to take advantage of flexibility. So in other words, the more that I remove my bureaucratic burden, the more flexibility becomes super easy because if a student says to me, “Well, can I” I can say, “of course you can. I invite you to change, remix,” in some ways, I don’t even have to do the work of considering the request. Because the request isn’t necessary to the relationship. I’m sort of there to offer feedback to students, and to be surprised and to marvel at whatever it is that they end up doing for the course. The other thing that we often do is we think that our role is to rank students against one another. That’s one of the reasons why I can’t stand rubrics, because I feel like the entire structure of a rubric is set up to put student work into neat and tidy boxes. And when we do that, we essentially are ranking students against one another. And so if one student does something that is just in a completely different universe from another, how do you assure that they both earned the A ? Well, ultimately, if you just remove the idea that our work is to compare students to one another. One student does a traditional academic paper and the other gives you a piece of installation art that moves around campus and that you can’t even quite make sense of it. You don’t have to hold them up and say, “Well, how do I really justify giving that piece of performance art an A?” You take it on its own merit, and you recognize what it is, and you marvel at it. And you allow yourself to be surprised by it. The more flexible I am, the more fun teaching ends up being, people often when I say things like that think, “Oh, your classes, just chaos.” And actually, no, I’m a pretty type A person. I’m pretty OCD, I actually structure a really neat and tidy syllabus, the structure of my course, is very organized, partly because I sort of subscribe to improvisation within a frame, which I take from jazz music, but I don’t know much about jazz. So feel free to tell me if I’ve interpreted that completely wrongly. But this idea that we need a frame and a structure in order to improvise within it. And so you set up the sort of guardrails for students, to some extent their boundaries, but it’s more like their guardrails, you set them up so that students feel like they can experiment within the space of the classroom. And then, to some extent, it allows you and gives you the freedom to play without worrying if you’re just going to go completely off the deep end,

John: You mentioned being surprised by some of the things your students have come up with as ways of demonstrating their learning. Could you give us just a few examples of some of the more interesting projects your students have selected?

Jesse: I kind of alluded to it in our last conversation. But this was at University of Mary Washington, and the assignment was to reinvent, rebuild the internet. And the assignment had a very short prompt that gave space for students to interpret the instructions in so many different ways. And the answer to this assignment for a group of students was to create a pile of trash. And that pile of trash had multicolored bits of crumpled paper in it. And it was a piece of installation art that migrated around campus. And they took pictures of it in different locations around campus. And then at one point it showed up in our classroom, and they wrote an artist statement that talked about the detritus of the web, the deep and dark web and all the bits you can see and the bits you can’t see. And that was marvelous. The sort of meat of the project was how captivating and how just seeing this thing, and wondering at how this fit as an interpretation of the assignment. I often come into class, and when I’ve just picked something like a reading or designed an assignment, and I’ve kind of done it instinctually maybe it’s because I’m doing that reading for the first time, I’ll often go into class, and I’ll say, “Why did I choose this reading?” And I mean that honestly, it’s not a rhetorical question. It’s like, this is the first time I’ve taught this and I’m trying to figure out whether it fits and how it fits. And so ultimately, that’s what this group of students’ project did for me, is it forced me to ask myself, “Well, gosh, what is this course even about?” And to me, that project managed to get at the biggest question of the course, which is, what are we even doing here? Why are we talking about the internet, and for me, that was marvelous. On the other hand, another teacher might look at this pile of trash and say, “Hey, that’s just a pile of trash.” And so there’s something idiosyncratic about how we engage with student work. I’ve also read really, really good academic papers. And so even some of those have surprised me, in part because sometimes it’s that punctum in an academic paper where the academic paper is just going along, going through the motions of a traditional academic paper, and then it just veers. And then you have this moment like Roland Barthe’s punctum where all you can see, you almost have it burned into your retina, this sort of moment of friction within the work. And truthfully, those are the most interesting parts of education in general, is the parts where we do something that we weren’t expecting, or where students turn something in that we never would have imagined for a particular assignment.

Rebecca: One of the things that sometimes comes up with flexibilities not just the trepidation of a faculty member, but also of students. When there’s a lot of options available, students sometimes can freeze and not know what to do. You mentioned the guardrails. So how do those function? Or how do you make sure that those students that are overwhelmed by choice feel included?

Jesse: One thing is to have very clear parameters, and I tend to have really short provocations for students… let’s call them provocations instead of assignments, because even the idea of assignment suggests a transactional relationship between a teacher and students, I still haven’t found quite the right word, invitation doesn’t feel strong enough, but maybe provocation is what it is. So I try and be very, very clear to have very explicit instructions. And also to have them very short. I find that so often, we create assignment sheets that end up being longer than the papers themselves. I’ve seen two-page responses that have an assignment sheet that’s three or four pages describing what students should do and their two page response paper. And I think partly we do that because we’re anxious about the questions that we’ll get, and we’re anxious about students falling through the cracks. When what happens is the more words that we put in our assignments, or provocations, whatever you want to call them…. I think I’ll, for the purposes here, I’ll keep calling them assignments. I think that’s fine. We fill our assignments up with language that’s all there, in some ways defensively, but every single word we put in there is a pothole that a student might fall into. It’s a rabbit hole a student might fall down. And I find that the shorter my assignment descriptions are, the less questions I get, the longer they are, the more questions they get. And people just think, well, if I just answer all the questions in advance that I won’t get any questions. And that isn’t how it ends up working out, because students are really worried about what our expectations are. And I think we have to break that down. And the reason that a student feels overwhelmed by choice is because they’re worried about meeting our expectations. And so we have to make sure that, in our language, we make clear, this isn’t about my expectations, it’s about what you expect of yourself. And here’s the thing I don’t necessarily know that works if we’re using traditional grading systems, because ultimately, if you’re putting a grade on a thing, your expectations are what matters. But if you’re giving over some, or even all of that work to students, it starts to break down this idea. They recognize, “Oh, he’s not grading this anyway. So this really is about my expectations.” And if, when I engage with the work rather than approving of it or disapproving of it, instead, I encounter it the way a reader would, by having a reaction to it and telling students what my reaction is. And then I encourage students to do that for each other. Peter Elbow talks about ranking, evaluating and liking… ranking being the thing that we shouldn’t do, we shouldn’t rank students against one another, evaluating being a thing that still has a place because certainly there are times when students do need some amount of evaluation from an external mentor, I think those moments are much fewer than we end up doing. And then he talks about liking, which is just giving ourselves space to appreciate student work, to not have to evaluate it, to just enjoy it, and to respond to it and to be an expert reader for students.

John: Could you elaborate on that notion of being an expert reader for students? What sort of feedback do you provide them as an expert reader?

Jesse: Well, I think one of the things is that so much of our so many of our traditional grading systems call for us to be objective. And we can probably have a whole other podcast around objectivity versus subjectivity and whether they’re even possible. There’s a lot of research that shows the idea of objective grading is just a fallacy to begin with. But I think that it’s about allowing ourselves to have a subjective response, allowing ourselves to bring our full humanity to that moment of engaging with student work, to laugh at it, to wonder at it, to marvel at it, to be silent, to be struck silent, to raise our eyebrows at it, to ask hard questions of it. And so what that might actually look like with a group of students is letting them see me puzzling over it, letting them see me just work through my thinking about what I’m seeing. And so oftentimes, I have students do sort of expos in class where they bring all of their work and they just lay it out, whether it’s a paper, whether it’s a pile of trash, whether it’s a video, whether it’s a documentary, they lay their work out, and we just hang out together and go around and look at each other’s work. And what I sort of see my role there is just to model what it looks like to appreciate the efforts that they’ve made and to encounter their work and talk about my experience of it, as opposed to saying, “Oh, you did this? Well, this needs improvement.” …to sort of hold back that this needs improvement, because there are moments when that’s really important, but then other moments where it isn’t. For example, I taught first-year writing for a long time, and in first-year college writing, it’s not getting to success, it’s about just getting comfortable writing, just getting comfortable in your skin as a writer. And that means not a lot of that kind of evaluative feedback, it means more just here’s what happens to me when I encounter your words.

Rebecca: Some of what we’ve been talking about with this flexibility and ungrading is really starting to get a sense that individual students and members of a learning community really being members and belonging to that community. Can you elaborate on ways in addition to this flexibility idea that might help students from a wide variety of backgrounds feel like they belong, especially those that we saw during the pandemic and we know they existed before that, really struggling or having barriers and helping them really feel like “You really do belong here. You really should be here. We want you here.”

Jesse: I think that we do that from the very beginning and how we structure education at so many of our institutions, the reliance on the idea of seat time. classes that meet two days a week, Tuesday and Thursday for a set amount of hours, classes that meet Monday, Wednesday, Friday, really bizarre ways of thinking about hybrid learning or online learning where there’s too much of a reliance on synchronous engagement. Ultimately, when we make those kinds of decisions with how we structure education at our institutions, we’re telling whole swaths of students: “This isn’t built for you, this isn’t made for you.” And increasingly people talk about adult learners. Well, at the college level, all of our students are adult learners. And increasingly, the vast majority of them are working adult learners. And we’re not doing enough to structure education so that it acknowledges their experience. I had a student who was disabled, he had chronic migraines. And, luckily, at the time I worked at an institution where I was developing a new hybrid degree program. And I had in a sense developed the program not just for him, but for all of the students I was working with, who were like him in various ways, who had no access to education, without serious rethinking about how we build our curriculum. So thinking about when we move online, relying increasingly on asynchronous ways for students to engage asynchronously, because most of the students who turn to online need more flexibility, their time is not their own in many cases. And when we’re designing degree programs, rethinking things like the 15-week semester, rethinking things like seat time, rethinking things like classes that meet Monday, Wednesday, Friday for 50 minutes over the course of a 15-week period. Honestly, I increasingly think that’s absurd. What a weird structure…50 minutes three times a week, how is where a student is at on Monday any different than where they’re at on Wednesday, is 15 minutes really enough time for us to develop the kinds of thinking that we’re trying to get at in our courses. Ultimately, I think, just asking ourselves, are we continuing to teach students in the way that we are just because this is the way we have always done it? Or is this actually what will help students learn and give space for students to learn? Also, if we go back to those adjuncts, when I was a road warrior adjunct trying to teach a Monday, Wednesday, Friday class that met for 50 minutes, that was 45 minutes from my house, trying to fit that into my schedule with my other eight classes, was nearly impossible. What I needed more than anything was not just one approach, I needed to be able to teach one course asynchronously, one course on a tuesday, thursday schedule. So I needed a variety of different things in my schedule. And that’s what a lot of students are needing. The students at my institution, where I’m currently teaching still at University of Mary Washington, so many of them are quote unquote, traditional students who want face-to-face interaction. And so the institution says we are on ground residential institution, we will be back full time, everyone will be back at their desks in the fall. But that’s not what the students actually want. The students want most of their educational experience to be face to face, but they’re struggling to fill a schedule, because they’re also working. And so they need to be able to take some courses online, some courses hybrid, some courses face to face. And they really want to be able to build a much more thoughtful approach to education. And also, when we think about specific classes, some disciplines, some courses, lend themselves to one format, some lend themselves to another. So I think that that’s the way we invite students in is, from the start, actually building with the students. And not just for the students building for those students would be great, but also finding ways to build with them, and to design curriculum alongside of them. So it really meets their needs and challenges them appropriately.

John: One of the things that’s going to be a bit different this fall is that we’re going to have some students who are sophomores, even, who’ve never been on campus. And most students have not been interacting in person in classrooms for the last year and a half or so. What can we do to help create a sense of community when we bring these people together for the first time after this long break from face-to-face interaction?

Jesse: The first thing I’m thinking about is something that I started saying, from the very, very start of the quote unquote pivot to online, right around the beginning of the lockdown last year, I started to say, we need to make sure that it isn’t continuity of instruction that we’re trying to maintain, but continuity of the communities at the heart of our institutions. I don’t know if many institutions figured out how to support those communities online. I think they figured out how to keep the lights on and to keep people taking classes. But, I don’t necessarily know that the communities were maintained. What I worry about as we return to campus is that we will try and pick up right where we left with that continuity of instruction. Rather than realizing that where we need to most place our efforts is not just starting up the wheel of delivering content to students, what we need to do is figure out how to revitalize those communities. And that needs to be a huge part of our efforts. So if every teacher is imagining that they’re going to go back to teaching the same amount of content that they taught before the pandemic… one, they were probably trying to teach too much. They were probably teaching too much at the expense of developing community even two years ago, but recognizing that we need to put a lot more breathing room into our courses. And also a lot more conversation between courses, because communities don’t just exist in a vacuum, you don’t just have a community in your first-period class, and then a community in your second-period class community is living, breathing, and it’s sort of echoes between those spaces. So thinking about what happens between period one and period two. How are those two courses connected? What are students doing on campus? Where is the life of the institution? And how can we invest as much as possible into supporting that, and I don’t think it’s with algorithmic retention software. That is the worst possible thing that I see institutions turning to to try and support community. Algorithms are not going to help us build and maintain community, human beings are the ones who are good at that. So any dollar you’re spending on an algorithmic retention software, please give that to adjunct and contingent instructors.

John: In terms of reducing the amount of content in classes, I think a lot of faculty realized that when they switch to remote or online instruction. Is that something you think people will automatically recognize or do you think people are going to try to go back to how things were before and forget the lessons that they’ve learned about this during the pandemic?

Jesse: I think a lot of individual faculty, individual teachers, individual students will take so many of these lessons back to their work this fall and beyond. I think institutions are much harder to shift. And so the problem is, I don’t know that institutional culture will change in the way that it needs to in order to support the efforts of those students and faculty. And so this is really a charge to institutions and administrators to put that breathing room also in the institutional culture and important ways.

Rebecca: And maybe even really, to push it within a department because that might be a place where faculty can start to expand it out. And think about it. When you were talking, I was imagining a time that seems so long ago now. It may have been 10 years ago, and seems like a really long time now.

Jesse: Yeah, it feels like it’s either a week ago, or like 10 years ago, to me,

Rebecca: I had colleagues that we would, if we had classes at the same time, we would actually schedule activities together. We would cross pollinate to have some of that community. We’d have design challenges and investigate and do different things with each other. We’ve lost some of that play, just over time with assessment requirements and this and that. It has fizzled. So I’m hoping that this fall will bring back the play, bring back the fun for that community that to marinate a little bit.

Jesse: And if I can think of some really practical things institutions can do in order to seed that community that you’re describing. If your institution is not paying adjuncts and contingent staff for faculty development, it needs to. Even Walmart and Subway and Starbucks pays their employees for required job training. But then the other benefit is that those are the spaces where community germinates. Another example is there are so many barriers to collaborative teaching at our institutions, “Oh, well, who’s going to get the credit for it? Whose load is it going to count towards?” If that’s your answer to collaborative teaching, you need to stop right there and ask yourself, “What kind of environment are we trying to create?” And if we want a collaborative environment, if we want a community amongst our faculty, then right then and there, decide and commit yourself to figuring out the obstacles to collaborative teaching, which I’ve watched get worse and worse and worse over the last 21 years that I’ve been teaching. And those are just two small things. And the truth is, they’re relatively easy. There are bureaucratic systems that feel like “You can’t possibly… how are we going to deal with that within our institutional database?” Like get over it, figure it out. [LAUGHTER] The truth is that those are things that we all know we want. I’ve never talked to someone who says “no, no, we don’t want people collaborative teaching” then why don’t institutions charge themselves to figure that out?

Rebecca: So many good questions raised in this conversation, Jesse. As always, I wouldn’t expect anything different with a conversation with you. We always wrap up by asking, “What’s next?”

Jesse: Oh, wow, that’s a really, really large question. What’s next? Okay, well, I’m gonna say that, as some folks listening to this may not know, my husband and I and my four-year old daughter just opened a game and toy store which has a classroom and a makerspace in it. And I am really thinking about how helping my husband with this endeavor is going to push me to think about my teaching in new ways. So, it’s a small retail space, 1600 square feet on the main street of Littleton with a retail section and a classroom and a maker space. We’re going to offer classes for kids and adults, so that it isn’t just about selling people toys and games, but teaching them how to design and make and manufacture their own toys and games. And it feels like a respite for me in some ways… one, to have my own project that I’m focusing on, but also to have a space where nobody’s telling me I have to grade. I just get to decide how I approach the work inside this space. So I’m excited to see how helping my husband with this project informs the rest of my practice and thinking about education.

Rebecca: That sounds so fun. Can I come? [LAUGHTER]

Jesse: Yeah. yeah, yeah, ou can. Do you want to be a teacher? We haven’t hired our first teacher. [LAUGHTER]

Rebecca: That sounds really fun. Actually. I’ve taught makerspace things before with kids. That sounds totally fun.

Jesse: And I guess that what’s next is to find joy in this work, because the last 18 months have been so hard. And I think that joy… bell hooks also writes a lot about joy. Joy is also a practice, joy is also struggle… but figuring out how to find the kernel of the work of teaching that has kept me doing this work for 21 years. That’s really something I feel charged to do.

Rebecca: Perhaps a charge we should all have moving into the fall.

Jesse: Yeah, I’m determined to become an irascible optimist again. We’ll see. Check back with me in a year maybe I would have gotten there. [LAUGHTER]

John: And perhaps shifting some of our focus away from grading can help restore some of that joy.

Jesse: Absolutely,

Rebecca: Indeed, indeed. Thanks so much, Jesse.


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.


195. Supporting Faculty Equity

Women faculty of color experience significant workload differences in course loads, advisement, and dealing with micro and macro aggressions. In this episode, Chavella Pittman joins us to discuss specific steps that we can take to reduce barriers and move towards equity. Chavella is a Professor of Sociology at Dominican University, the founder of Effective and Efficient Faculty, and is the host of the Teaching in Color podcast. She has written extensively about issues of race and gender in higher education in scholarly and general interest publications and is widely sought after for workshops and consultation services related to diversity, equity, and inclusion issues in higher education.



John: Women faculty of color experience significant workload differences in course loads, advisement, and dealing with micro- and macro-aggressions. In this episode, we discuss specific steps that we can take to reduce barriers and move towards equity.


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: Together, we run the Center for Excellence in Learning and Teaching at the State University of New York at Oswego.


Rebecca: Our guest today is Chavella Pittman. Chavella is a Professor of Sociology at Dominican University, the founder of Effective and Efficient Faculty, and is the host of the Teaching in Color podcast. She has written extensively about issues of race and gender in higher education in scholarly and general interest publications, and is widely sought after for workshops and consultation services related to diversity, equity and inclusion issues in higher education. Welcome, Chavella.

Chavella: Thank you. Thnk you.

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

Chavella: I’m not, I’m drinking water and looking forward to going to grab a craft beer in an hour or so. [LAUGHTER]

Rebecca: Of course, we’re recording early in New York.

Chavella: Well, that’s why I had to add in a few hours. [LAUGHTER]

Rebecca: I’m drinking English breakfast today.

John: I just finished a ginger peach black tea and now I’m drinking a blueberry green tea.

Chavella: Oh…

Rebecca: Cup number three, isn’t it John? …it’s pretty early.

John: It is, we had a meeting earlier where I went through two versions of ginger peach black tea.

Chavella: You’re making me want to go get my tea. I’m in the midst of camping. But I have packed with me some hibiscus leaves to make tea and some ginger tea that I picked up in Bali. So you are encouraging me to have tea after I get off.

Rebecca: I think that sounds like a great plan.

John: I drink ginger tea a lot. It’s really nice.

Rebecca: So we’ve invited you here today to discuss the challenges faced by female faculty members from minoritized populations. College faculty members are disproportionately white and, in many disciplines, disproportionately male. Can you talk a little bit about why this results in workload differences.

Chavella: The main issue is that our institutions, regardless of the composition of the student body, a lot of our institutions have made commitments to producing students that can function in a diverse society, that can make a difference in the world. But, the faculty that are particularly suited to do that, in terms of maybe their statuses, or their research, or their experiences, or their pedagogy, happen to be faculty that are from diverse backgrounds. And so, those are the folks who are doing a lot of the heavy lifting, whether it be for service, in the classrooms, in their research, etc. So it’s pretty much the commitments that our institutions are making that’s requiring additional workload for those faculty. Now, obviously, other faculty can do that work. But that hasn’t been the case. These faculty are the ones that are doing it. And they’re often hired to do it, essentially. Our institutions are saying that they can prepare well-rounded students, but they don’t have well-rounded personnel and talent to do so. And the folks that they bring in are usually taking the load of that, because the same way that our students haven’t been prepared by diverse faculty, our faculty and staff haven’t been prepared by diverse folks. So, even with the greatest of intentions, the folks that we have set forward to prepare our students in this well-rounded way, they themselves are not prepared. And they themselves don’t have those skills and abilities. So the folks that we bring in who have those mindset, those perspectives, that expertise, are overloaded, because they’re having to do that work to prepare students, but also to compensate for the fact that their peers don’t have that capacity either.

John: Does this also translate into higher advisement loads for faculty in these groups?

Chavella: Yes, absolutely. Absolutely. So when you have diverse students, odds are they’re going to flock to the people who have interests similar to theirs, that look more like them. So even if students aren’t formally assigned to you, they make their way to you. But it’s not just the diverse students, some of the majority students to see, “Wow, this faculty member is doing research that’s related to this social justice thing that I’m interested in, but none of the other faculty are doing it.” So you end up advising more students formally and informally as a result because they are drawn to those folks that have a broader perspective or have experiences that are missing from the institution. So it absolutely translates into higher advisement. I just reconnected with a student , again, a white male student, so like on top of the students of color that I had, a white male student that I advise as an undergrad,just found me and I had a Zoom meeting with him last week. And I gave him the perspective and the scholarly information that he was not getting from his other faculty. And he became very interested in a lot of these issues. So it’s not just the diverse students, the majority students are flocking to these faculty as well.

John: Might the same thing be true of white faculty and male faculty approaching people who might be able to provide support when difficult or challenging issues come up? And certainly we’ve seen a lot of difficult and challenging issues over the last few years.

Chavella: Oh, my goodness, yes, absolutely. I try to tell people like I know that their request seems like it’s always just one small request. But it’s a drop in the bucket. If you can imagine how many emails I get weekly, asking me to do those things. I don’t want to implicate my own campus. But obviously, I get them on my own campus. But I also get them from organizations, I get them from people that might know me broadly. And it’s a lot. And if you think about the fact that the majority of our women of color faculty are not tenured and at less junior ranks, like the service load that that puts on people, it takes away from their ability to do the research. But people really do get offended. So when your faculty colleagues are like, “Oh, I’m just making this one small ask,” but they don’t understand that you’ve probably gotten five or six just that week. And then, because they don’t have to do that work all the time and face the resistance and the navigation that’s required by that, they don’t realize that not only is it a time toll, it’s an energy toll, and it’s risky. So yeah, that’s exactly what I was saying about our colleagues not having the capacity for this work, but they’re coming to us to do it. And it’s a lot, it’s a lot. And it doesn’t mean that folks don’t want to be helpful, but you can’t do things for other folks to the detriment of your own career or well being. And a lot of times it’s set up that way, that expectation is set up that that’s what needs to be occurring.

John: And especially for junior faculty, it’s hard to say no, sometimes, I would imagine,

Chavella: Absolutely. It’s really hard to say no, even when I was junior, I had senior mentors that helped me navigate how to say no, and how to often say no, that didn’t sound like a no, how to say something that will make the person take the request back, or take something off my plate, or whatever it was to acknowledge that that was labor on top of other labor and the costs or consequence it might have for me, so I’m very grateful for the senior folks who did that for me. And I try to do that now for women faculty of color, for sure.

Rebecca: That reminds me of one of your episodes of your podcast that focuses a lot on the classroom and actual teaching and the labor that’s involved with that. Can you elaborate a little bit on those ideas and how the workload associated with actually being in class and teaching is something that we tend to overlook?

Chavella: Absolutely, absolutely. And I’ll forewarn anyone who listens to those is that you’re going to hear me sound frustrated, because people really do overlook that labor. What I hear most often is people say, “Oh, no one gets tenure for teaching, or no one gets denied tenure, because of teaching.” But that’s not true. It’s not true at all. And what you hear me talk about in those podcast episodes, and in some of my research, or we read other people’s research on the classrooms, is that those faculty, their navigating minefields, essentially, they’re being harassed by students, by colleagues for the content, their careers are at threat because of evaluations. They’re trying to prepare for the inappropriate resistance that they’re going to get in the classroom. And because they’re spending so much time and energy doing that, they are not able to do the research that they need to get tenured, whether it’s just the time or the emotional labor required, it just doesn’t leave space for people to get the research done. So it drives me a bit bonkers, that people really overlook how this stuff plays out in the classroom, because they think it’s not important. But the reason they think it’s not important is because they don’t experience it, and they don’t see it. And they don’t understand how much of a drain it can be and really derail people’s careers. But yes, I talk a lot about that on the podcast.

John: And you also had written a paper about classroom disruptions primarily involving white male students engaged in disruptive behavior in classrooms. Could you tell us a little bit about that?

Chavella: I think a lot of what I’m trying to do for the most part is give voice to the experiences of women faculty of color, because they are overlooked and invalidated. And it’s like missing or people try to find ways to explain it away. But honestly, there isn’t space for the voices of the experiences of women faculty of color. So that article that you’re talking about, in particular, was a research project that interviewed folk and it was about their teaching broadly. So it wasn’t even focused on the disruptions. But the pattern that became really clear was that all the women faculty of color, regardless of discipline, how much teaching experience they had, and their rank, because sometimes people say, “oh, once you’re senior, you won’t have to deal with it.” That’s not true. I’m a full professor. But guess what, I’m still black. [LAUGHTER] I’m also still a woman. And so what was found in that research was, again, across all of those differences, the women faculty of color had the same experiences with white male students in particular, over and over again. They would challenge their authority in a variety of ways. They would make them feel at threat, whether getting in their personal space, some sort of physical threat, or engage in behaviors that would make their careers seem like they were at threat. They would inappropriately challenge the legitimacy of their scholarship. Like they would say, “This is just your opinion.” It’s like, “No, this is expertise. This is scholarly expertise.” So those were just a couple of the themes that were in that data. But those things are common, and they happen on a regular basis. And that’s not acknowledged. And so that’s why I tried to do that research, and try to get it out there as much as possible, because people don’t realize that these are the dynamics that women faculty of color, a lot of them, not all of them, are dealing with in their classrooms.

Rebecca: There’s a lot of the “and” like, it’s the advisement… and the classroom… and course load [LAUGHTER]. They all really add up. Can you talk a little bit about the course load issues?

Chavella: Oh, my goodness, yes, you would think I just started researching this stuff. I’m still having visceral responses to it. When people tell you things anecdotally, sometimes people try to say like, “Oh, that’s not true.” When you look at the data, and see who’s getting the new course preps , who’s being assigned the service courses, which tend to have higher loads. Those tend to be our women faculty of color. Other folks are able to sort of choose, select, be assigned smaller courses, niche courses on their research. And that’s not happening. So for the most part, women faculty of color have higher loads. And again, to give you anecdotal, to see what that looks like, I was just talking with a black woman faculty member yesterday. And she told me that a piece of paper was passed along at a meeting, and her name was just next to three courses. And it happened to be three new course preps at the same time. And so people aren’t watching, essentially. They’re not keeping track of the assignments, they’re not ensuring that there’s parity. So she was completely frazzled, trying to get those new courses all prepped at the same time. And I think two of them were grad-level courses. So yeah, so that’s what it looks like is that when you look at the statistics nationwide of the loads for women faculty of color, they’re more likely to be assigned service courses, intro courses, and new preps. And that’s labor. It’s much easier to teach a course you’ve taught before. It’s much easier to teach a course that has 15 folk in it than one that has 50, 75, 150, essentially.

Rebecca: Beginning courses can take a lot of a toll on any faculty member when you have a lot of students who might not be interested in the subject matter. But you have that layer of extra convincing to do on top of all of this too… [LAUGHTER]

Chavella: Absolutely, absolutely, absolutely.

John: And you also have discussed some of the issues in terms of the pedagogical approaches that are used. Could you talk a little bit about some of the differences that appear there in terms of how faculty of color might teach differently in some ways than what students are used to in other classes? …or faculty are used to?

Chavella: Yeah, you’re right. Students and faculty… being used to… So, again, when you look at the research on faculty, what marginalized statuses, women faculty of color, in particular, they tend to use more… and I haven’t landed on like a particular label. Sometimes I say, innovative practices, but they’re not usually innovative. They’re just non traditional, you know what I’m saying? They don’t lecture the whole time. So that group of faculty doesn’t really stand in front of the classroom and lecture. They tend to do things that are more interactive. They tend to do things that are more participatory, whether it’s emancipatory teaching or the pedagogy of the oppressed, or whatever. I don’t advocate for or against any particular type of pedagogy, but just trying to make it plain that according to the scholarship on teaching literature, these are all the pedagogies that are transformative. These are the ones that are learning centered, and they’re doing that. And a lot of times they’re doing it intuitively, sometimes they’ve studied about it. But we know that graduate programs don’t really prepare faculty to teach. [LAUGHTER] Some of them are doing intuitively… some of them found their educational experiences lacking until they’ve read a little bit about… they’re doing it differently. But they’re engaging in all of these effective pedagogical practices that really transform students in all these different ways. And that are shown to teach them well, but they get great resistance from both students and from colleagues because they’re not used to them. So they’re doing the right thing. It’s just different, and there’s a lot of resistance to the fact that they’re doing something that’s different, even though they can usually demonstrate that the students have learned.

Rebecca: We already know there’s a lot of bias in course evaluations that students perform on courses. But when we have these other active approaches, the questions that are often on those evaluations don’t even match either.

Chavella: Exactly.

Rebecca: So it’s almost like a double whammy there.

Chavella: It is, and I’m opening up a can of worms. But the can of worms that I’m trying to not open is essentially that there’s a lot of misalignment between what our campuses say is great teaching, what’s on our course evaluation forms, and what’s actually in the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning, and what’s in a repertoire of what the people who are doing those evaluations actually know. For many of those pieces, there’s usually just a misalignment and disconnect between those pieces.

John: There was that study at Harvard done a couple years ago now, which found that students tend to find lecture much more effective, despite all the evidence that lecture is less effective than active learning techniques. So when you add in other forms of bias, that becomes fairly challenging. Anyone trying to use effective pedagogy has to make a case to students about its effectiveness. But when you add in some racial and gender bias, this problem may be a little bit worse, which may also tie into teaching evaluations, either by students or by observations from peers.

Chavella: My faculty development business is called effective and efficient faculty, because I am trying to find the easiest ways to get solutions into people’s classrooms and on the people’s campuses. I read all the literature so that people don’t have to do all that. I communicate it back to people in a way that they can learn it really quickly, but so that they can act on it. And I tell them the actionable pieces, because sometimes that becomes like a stall tactic. People are like, “Oh, I need to research and I need to read and we need to get this through committee… and our women faculty of color, don’t have time for that. So we need to get that stuff going as quickly as possible. And what you said, I mean, highlights what I was trying to say gingerly about the disconnect. All the research says that when you do something different in the classroom that students aren’t used to, your evals are going to go down. But people don’t take that into account when they’re reviewing you for tenure and promotion. Those people don’t know that research, they’re not reading it, they’re not applying it. It’s not connected. And to me, that’s what the problem is. So in terms of like, how do you address all of this, I think there are some institutional actions that people can take. And the first thing you can take is to bring the research to people. So if they’re not going to go to the research, bring the research to them. So people should be trained more on what effective pedagogy looks like. A lot of the people who are evaluating our teaching, are evaluating based on what they would do. And, eh…, that might not be right, for a range of reasons, [LAUGHTER] …might not be the right approach. It’s not grounded in research. But also we shouldn’t be evaluating people on whether or not they’re clones of us, what it is we would do, particularly if they’re people with different statuses. And I’m always trying to tell people, everybody based on their discipline, their pedagogy, their teaching style, what works for you might not work for me. And so there needs to be some flexibility. So, that’s the first thing, is that people need to be trained on what effective pedagogy is. That’s step one. The other things that can be done are, this is going back to the idea of classroom disruptions, every campus should have a classroom disruptive behavior policy, and if you don’t like the word disruptive, you don’t like the word policy, fine. It can be whatever language you like. I know that that sort of raises people’s hackles. But there’s a student code of conduct, you should be looking at it. And when it lists like, here are the things that are prohibited any place on campus, just make sure the word classroom is in there. Because sometimes people think, “Oh, that doesn’t apply to the classroom.” Hello, that’s where the work at a university occurs. Of course, it applies to the classroom. But let’s make it explicit by putting it in there. Some campuses have separate policies about classrooms, that won’t be a one-size-fits-all for faculty, because, again, people teach in different ways. What’s appropriate in one classroom might be not for another, you can yell out answers in my class, another faculty member might want you to raise your hand. But there’s a way in which you can write a policy that makes it plain that classroom management is going to occur in the classroom, and that there are going to be behaviors that will be disruptive to that classroom, and that those are not allowed, and that here are the consequences for that. And while that might make people uncomfortable, those policies already exist on our campuses, for dormitories, for public speaking events, for the dining halls, etc. And so it’s actually already normative to let students know that in order for us to sort of work and function as a community, here are the guidelines by which we should operate. And here’s what happens when you don’t abide by those guidelines. So the classrooms need to be looped into that. Student ratings, now that’s a can of worms. People will defend those things to the day that they die. I don’t get into that squirmish, that’s not the squirmish that I get into. The squirmish that I’m more interested in is I want people to read more about what the folks that make those things themselves say about their use in personnel reviews. They’re not saying they’re supposed to be used in personnel reviews. The history of those things are to give people feedback. So when you’re doing that new, innovative, fun thing, they’re meant to be a way for you to get feedback from that. They’re not meant to be evaluative and some of the items that people use, like the overall item that they actually say like “don’t use that item at al…” then people are like “that’s the best item to use.” So we need people to learn more about what student ratings say and don’t say about effective teaching and we need people to be trained, taught, learned, well versed, on what to do with the data from them. So if we’re going to use them in reviews, what is the best practice methodologically and statistically for how we use that data? So we need people to know that. And I think, just broadly, we need people to understand how to evaluate teaching for tenure and promotion. And they don’t. People might be methodologists in their discipline, and they know how to do that perfectly. None of that seems to translate to how we evaluate teaching on our campus. And again, none of these things are things that should take two years of committee work and five years of faculty governance meetings. I definitely teach people really direct simple things that they can do and shifts that they can make to get this into play. But I think those are the main magic wands, teach people about effective pedagogy, learn about student evaluations, learn how to use the data soundly, learn how to evaluate teaching, and make sure that you reward effective pedagogy. So don’t just learn about it. Don’t punish it, reward it… a novel idea. And to make sure that faculty have resources to get support off campus, because a lot of folks get relegated to the teaching center as though something’s wrong with them, like “Oh, go to the principal’s office, you got bad evals, go get fixed.” We want to make sure people have resources to go to other places where there maybe aren’t eyes. I know that teaching centers stay out of the evaluative process, but they’re overwhelmed. They’re overworked. People have put so much stuff on their plate and may not actually know some of this research, with intersections with women faculty of color, they may not have as much experience supporting women faculty of color. So you need to make sure that you give faculty resources to get the support they need off campus. So lots of magic wands.

Rebecca: So speaking of magic wands, I know you have some about workload related to advisement and course loads. Can you talk a little bit about those?

Chavella: Oh, yeah, absolutely, and these are simple. So this is actually a really good example of what I mean when I say, “Oh, even though I said a magic wand that sounds like it takes forever, that it’s really easy to resolve.” So for teaching loads, this is the magic: track them. Make an actual chart where you track people’s loads. And how many courses are service loads? What are the numbers of the loads? How many are their new preps, and you just want to keep track and make sure that there’s some equity, some equitable distribution across that, or maybe not even equitable, because if you know you’re going to give a woman a faculty of color a whole bunch of service stuff, then that means that they have a lighter load. But you need to track the load. And you need to be more mindful about the teaching assignments moving forward. So just track them. People don’t do that at all.

Rebecca: I think sometimes these things seem so obvious. But we need to say them out loud.

Chavella: Yes, absolutely. Yes, simple excel sheet, anyone can do that. They could do that today, if they wanted to.

John: And while this wouldn’t eliminate bias in evaluations, might it be worth having institutions revise their teaching evaluations, or any rubrics they use for peer evaluations, to focus a little bit more on evidence-based teaching methods in at least a general format, to nudge all faculty to move into the use of better teaching techniques, to reduce some of the disparities that are being observed there.

Chavella: Absolutely. And honestly, that’s what I teach people to do. And when you do that… obviously, bias is still going to exist for humans… but it gives you more evidence instead of just the bias, essentially. So one of the things I teach people to do is, this gets back to what you were saying, Rebecca, that someone might be using a different pedagogy, but that’s not represented on the evaluation form in any way, shape, or form. So one of the things I teach folks how to do is evaluate the faculty member on what they were trying to do, that’s usually not represented anywhere in the evaluative process. So what were they actually trying to do? How are they trying to get there? And what’s the evidence that that’s what they did? If you just start there from how you evaluate teaching and learning, because it’s an evidence-based approach, that goes a long way. So even if students are having resistance in some other way or form on evaluations, if you have some data that say I wanted to make sure that students knew how to apply a theory to something real world, and I say, “This is the strategy I use to teach students how to do it, I write about that and I explain it. And then I produce data that shows the students learned how to do that. That’s evidence versus the student rating of them having resistance to the strategy I used to teach them or their resistance to the topic. It’s a much better process.” So yes, an evidence-based process is way better than what most of our campuses are doing now, which is just looking at the evals and looking at the scores and saying, “This person is a great teacher, this person isn’t a great teacher.” But, that’s not what the evaluations are saying at all. They’re student reactions to various things about the faculty member: their course content, their personality, their pedagogy, their statuses. Students love lecture, but when you do objective measures of what they learned, they haven’t learned. Student reactions are important information, but they’re not always important information about whether or not effective teaching occurred.

Rebecca: Definitely. Learning’s hard.

Chavella: Yes.

Rebecca: I imagine that all of these things tend to show up in our student evaluations, because it’s just not always a comfortable experience. And so that tends to be reflected rather than whether or not they learned something.

Chavella: Exactly. And the research supports that.

John: In addition to in-class challenges, women faculty of color are likely to face other microaggressions from colleagues. Could you talk a little bit about that?

Chavella: Yeah, absolutely. I’ll cling pretty closely to the teaching ones, because I think they’re the ones that are overlooked. People talk about a lot of the other things that go on. Essentially, what happens is that the same way that students can be resistant, institutions want us to come in and provide these broad perspectives and these new ways of knowing and doing, but the colleagues are as resistant as the students are. So colleagues are like, “Well, why are you teaching that? You are teaching this, that means that you’re not teaching that, and that’s the canon…” like you have to teach so and so. Or if it’s like a survey course, and the person’s like, “Well, guess what… other people were around and involved in the development of this. And I’m making a point to include those voices that were omitted.” Colleagues resist that, it challenges their own preparation and expertise, and etc. So I hear that all the time, that people are like, they’re being told to not teach something, they’re being told to only lecture. So their advice for students resisting the teaching that they do that’s transformative, they say, “Well, just lecture, if you know, students don’t like that, just lecture.” So they’re effectively telling them to engage in the teaching practices that are popular, versus the ones that are effective. And so, on a regular basis, I’m hearing that a woman faculty of color is being told, “Don’t teach this particular topic, it’s not actually scholarship, don’t teach in this particular way, don’t make students call you by your title,” like, “oh, let them call you by your first name.” …just the level of, I don’t know, I wanted to say control. But that’s what it is. They’re trying to control their content, their pedagogy, their interactions with students, from their lens, not from the lens of that person with different statuses. And again, it’s not benign, this isn’t just interpersonal stuff, these are going to be the folks that are reviewing them. These are gonna be the folks that are voting on their tenure, these are going to be the folks that don’t understand that they haven’t been able to complete their book or their article because they’ve been told you have to get your course evaluations up. How the heck do you do that? Where’s the magic wand for that? That’s the magic wand I want to find. And the ones I know of are like the trickery ones, like: “give them pizza, give everyone A’s.” I’m not suggesting that at all. But these are the things that they’re being suggested to do to get their evals up. And faculty can be pretty aggressive and territorial about what’s taught in a class and how it’s taught. And that varies by disciplines, like I can think of a couple of areas of disciplines that people are very territorial, because, I think, for them, it waters it down, or it makes their stuff not seem as valid. So colleagues have been very aggressive about what women faculty of color teach and how they teach it… in their reviews, not just interpersonally, but in their reviews. And if people end up not tenured as a result, they get pushed out.

Rebecca: And then we wonder why there’s no faculty of color.

Chavella: Not only that, we wonder why there aren’t any. And then if you say, “I think teaching’s a problem, they’re like, “Oh, no, that’s not it.” It’s one of many problems, obviously, but it has to be on the list. And it usually isn’t on the list at all… just thinking of, again, of all these things that happen with colleagues around these topics. And in the water cooler talk like faculty member goes back and tells the majority member faculty member, “Well so and so’s teaching XYZ in her class ,”or “I don’t like so and so, they’re mean” or “this person doesn’t seem approachable.” The watercooler talk that gets rolled into some of the antagonistic colleagues that women faculty of color have, because students have come back and said, “Well, they’re unapproachable,” like they’re not unapproachable, you’re just not used to dealing with black women, or you’re not used to dealing with Asian- American women or your lack of experience might be causing some discomfort that may make you miss perceive that interaction. But that’s making its way back to colleagues and colleagues or passing judgment and that’s working its way into interactions versus them sort of pausing and saying “something could be going on.” But again, our colleagues aren’t used to having interactions with these statuses either, so they’re navigating at the same time the students are,

Rebecca: …which makes it very hard to mentor…

Chavella: Yes.

Rebecca: …because there’s many generations that need to undo learned behavior and learned biases and to start working on institutional and cultural change. But it takes a long time.

Chavella: Absolutely, absolutely. It doesn’t have to take a long time, you can make some small shifts in how you evaluate teaching and how you evaluate teaching what you do with student ratings, there are very small things that you can do that will make a huge difference, like you said, just looking at the dang gone teaching assignments, actually taking into account what the faculty member was trying to do when you evaluate them. People don’t do that. They’ll tell you, “Oh, that’s biased. It’s like teaching to the test.” Excuse me, how do you know if my teaching was effective if you’re not even looking at what I was trying to do?” You’re only looking at the student ratings. That doesn’t make any sense. But it’s what a lot of people do, and they stick to it, right? And that’s what we’ve always done. That’s how we evaluated so and so, so it’s not fair to change now. Well, those ways of being stuck are things that maintain inequality, essentially.

John: You’ve talked about some ways in which institutions can make changes, are there any other things that institutions can do or individual faculty and departments can do to help reduce some of these challenges?

Chavella: Well, I’ll definitely revert back to all the magic wands I said earlier, and I will get like a broken record, because I want people to start those places. And like Rebecca said, they seem so easy, but a lot of people don’t state them out loud. Not only do people not state them out loud, but when they hear that they sound easy, they don’t do them, either. They’re like, “Oh, that won’t make a difference.” I’m like, wait a minute. So I will say the same things over and over again and encourage people to do them. So, same things. So what I would love for people to do, administrators or institutions alike, pull open your student code of conduct and see if there’s anything in there explicitly about classroom behavior. I want people to do that, immediately. I would like people to look at the definition on their campus for what’s effective teaching, and then look at their student rating form and see: is there alignment? Now that doesn’t mean revise the heck out of the student rating forum to increase alignment, because the student rating forum isn’t the place for all of those evaluative things to occur, there has to be some peer evaluation involved in that, but at least looking will shake up the way people feel that the student rating form is like the beginning and the end of the evaluation for faculty. Look at your peer observation process, is that aligned with the institution’s definition of effective teaching? Do the ratings form or the observation form, take into account what the faculty member is trying to do? See, these are all very simple things that institutions can do, like how do we incorporate what the faculty member was trying to do that day into what we’re observing, into what we think the data is telling us? So these are very small shifts… and then start putting some money aside. Our women faculty of color have been beat up this past 14,15,16 months, like, the shouldering of the emotional labor of the pandemic, of folks’ heightened awareness for racial injustice. It’s been a lot of us, you know, doing a lot of that labor. And so people need to put their money where their mouths are, I’ve had a couple of kind of painful moments of women faculty of color saying that they’re suffering on their campus. They make their way to me, and an institution has said, “No, we have a teaching center.” And I’m like, “Uhhh, the teaching center isn’t equipped to do that for a range of reasons. They’re overloaded, all the teaching and learning people are like “pandemic, much?” like, “have you not noticed, our hands are full.” People really need to free up funds to help people get the support that they need for these things. So those are the things I would suggest people do as individuals. Make money available for women faculty of color, look at their classroom disruption policy, look at their student evaluations, their peer observation form, learn about the dang gone research on student rating, learn about how to evaluate teaching, and the real call to action: “Don’t take two years or one year of committee to do it, make a change that you’re going to enact in fall.” And if you need to figure out how to do that, and that seems impossible, then make your way to me, and I’ll help you figure it out.

Rebecca: I love that your approach is so actionable. I think a lot of times we spend our time in some conceptual space, spinning our wheels, not doing anything, but you’ve given us many very specific, very actionable items. So I hope our listeners will take your lead and just take those steps.

Chavella: I hope so, because I’m watching the women faculty of color that get weeded out through negative tenure promotion reviews, or renewal reviews if they’re like adjunct or something like that who leave the institution. So while people are spinning the wheel, people are suffering. So it seems like an intellectual exercise to some people. But it’s like “Hello, people’s livelihood and health are on the line.” So I don’t have the luxury of all that committee work. I’m trying to support folks now, because they needed to support yesterday, but I’m trying to help them now.

Rebecca: So we always wrap up by asking what’s next? It seems really, really, really loaded.

Chavella: Well, I’m writing a book, actually, I’m writing a book. And again, that same frustration, anger, and hope that you hear in my podcast is pretty much what the book is about. I’ve been doing this for over 20 years. And I think I thought that, at some point, institutions were going to catch up, particularly as more research has come out even when it’s not about race or gender at all, when research has come out that says these are the best pedagogies, here’s the best way to do this, that and the other I thought great people were going to start making hard left turns and do something different, or the more and more research that comes out on women faculty of color’s experiences around teaching, I thought, “Oh, great, people are going to make a turn.” They’re not. And so I’m writing a book. And the book is explicitly for women faculty of color to help them navigate the challenges that they’re most likely to face. And to do it using the scholarship of teaching and learning. And it’s very much so about helping them be their most authentic selves in the classroom and finding joy, but protecting themselves from the review process. So it’s all about retaining women faculty of color, but allowing them to also continue to teach authentically and joyfully and I’m frustrated that I even have to write the book. But I’m hopeful, because I know that I can get it into people’s hands and they can feel much more empowered until their institutions catch up, essentially. So that’s what’s next.

Rebecca: Unfortunate that it’s a needed resource.

Chavella: Yes.

Rebecca: But, glad that we have someone who can write it.

Chavella: Yes, thank you. I’m excited about it.

John: And much of what you’re advocating is just doing better at our jobs and teaching more effectively, which is something I hope we’ll all take seriously in moving forward. But progress has been slow, as you’ve noted.

Chavella: Yes, absolutely.

John: And we should note that if anyone would like to learn more about these topics you’re Teaching in Color podcast is available on all podcast platforms, and is one that people should listen to.

Chavella: Yes, it’s interesting, I hope that people will find it interesting. And I wanted to say that the podcast and the book that I’m writing, even though it’s directly for women faculty of color, I do want allies to listen, participate, and buy, because the more that they know, the more they can make some of these things normative and get some of these changes moving. So I’m very intentionally writing to women faculty of color, because they’re usually ignored and silenced. But there’s a lot there for allies to learn. So, whether they’re allies in a teaching and learning space, or ally administrators, or ally faculty, there’s a lot for them to learn from the podcast and from the book to help them support these folks to be successful.

Rebecca: Well, thank you so much for joining us today and for all the work that you do.

Chavella: Thanks so much for having me and for encouraging me to go enjoy that tea that I have.

Rebecca: There’s always time for tea.

Chavella: Yes.

John: And we hope we’ll be talking to you again in the future. Thank you.

Chavella: Absolutely. Thank you. Thank you so much.


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

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


185. Model Online Teaching

The Society for the Teaching of Psychology has identified 6 evidence-based criteria for model teaching. In this episode, Aaron Richmond, Regan Gurung, and Guy Boysen join us to discuss how those principles translate into effective practices in both physical and virtual environments.

Aaron is a Professor of Educational Psychology and Human Development at Metropolitan State University of Denver. Regan is the Interim Executive Director of the Center for Teaching and Learning and Professor of Psychological Science at Oregon State University. Guy is a Professor of Psychology at McKendree University. They are the authors of A Pocket Guide to Online Teaching: Translating the Evidence-Based Model Teaching Criteria (2021) and An Evidence-Based Guide to College and University Teaching: Developing the Model Teacher (2016).

Show Notes


John: The Society for the Teaching of Psychology has identified 6 evidence-based criteria for model teaching. In this episode we discuss how those principles translate into effective practices in both physical and virtual environments.


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: Together, we run the Center for Excellence in Learning and Teaching at the State University of New York at Oswego.


John: Our guests today are Aaron Richmond, Regan Gurung and Guy Boysen. Aaron is a Professor of Educational Psychology and Human Development at Metropolitan State University of Denver. Regan is the Interim Executive Director of the Center for Teaching and Learning and Professor of Psychological Science at Oregon State University. Guy is a Professor of Psychology at McKendree University. Welcome, Aaron and Guy, and welcome back, Regan.

Regan: Thank you, John.

Guy: Thank you.

Aaron: Thank you.

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

Guy: I’m drinking coffee black tea. I guess that’s coffee. [LAUGHTER]

Rebecca: So I heard.

Aaron: My coffee is Dunkin Donuts coffee, kind of a guilty pleasure every morning. Currently on water. It’s a little bit late for me to be drinking caffeine.

Regan: Still pretty early here in the Pacific Northwest in Oregon. So, coffee it is.

John: And I’m drinking chocolate mint oolong tea

Rebecca: I was ready for you to say chocolate milk or something. I was like, “Alright, there’s no tea here.” [LAUGHTER] I have Irish breakfast today, heavily caffeinated.

Regan: Timely this week with St. Patrick’s Day and all that. So, yeah.

Rebecca: I try. It just happened to be the one open.

John: We’ve invited you here to discuss your new book together, A Pocket Guide to Online Teaching: Translating the Evidence-Based Model Teaching Criteria. A few years ago, you had written an Evidence-Based Guide to College and University Teaching to help faculty apply the model teaching characteristics that were developed by the Society for the Teaching of Psychology. In the new book, you shift your focus to online instruction. Could you tell us a little bit about the origin of this new book?

Regan: Aaron, you can do the whole origin story since really Aaron, being Chair of the task force that first kicked this off, can give us the whole etiology. So give us the origin story, Aaron.

Aaron: Well, of course, the origin story starts with Regan, [LAUGHTER] as almost every story starts with. And so Regan was coming on as the Society of Teaching of Psychology President which is a division of the American Psychological Association Division Two. And he had like 105 taskforce that he created for us to do. And I was in charge of somehow more than one, it wasn’t just the model teaching competencies. But in terms of this project, he really wanted us to create a committee or a task force to really kind of get at what is it that the model teachers are doing. They originally started in psychology, but then branched out into other disciplines for sure. But really, the call was, what are people doing? What’s the evidence behind what they’re doing that is going well and is doing great work, and all facets of education and Guy was instrumental in that it actually ended up spanning two presidencies, almost three, because it was such a colossal task and ask where that committee was a really good working group. We met twice a month, I think, there for a while. And then we were meeting once a month for two to three years, basically. And so after much, much research, much of it spearheaded by Guy, the task force came up with the model teacher competencies, and we published a couple of articles on it, a kind of a white paper for Division II STP. And then that was the catalyst for Guy, Regan, and I jumping into the first book, the model teaching competency book.

Rebecca: For those that aren’t familiar, can you just talk about what the model teaching competencies is?

Guy: I will say that my memory of how this came about is a little bit different. I kind of envisioned it as almost like a survivor Island type of deal where we were initially this huge task force, and then it turned into an article and a few people dropped off, and then it turned into a book and it was just the three of us. So it’s kind of like we were the people with the endurance to keep trying to push these model teaching competencies down people’s throats until they would sort of accept them. But we think we’ve got good stuff here. And that’s why we stuck with it as we really do believe in these competencies. Basically what we did on that task force is we tried to say, if you’re going to be a good teacher, what are the key things you need to be able to do and so we said, part of that is just being trained. You have to have a little bit of training behind and know some pedagogy. You have to have some basic instructional methods that you use. You have to be teaching content that’s relevant to what you’re doing. And you have to assess learning related to that content, put together a syllabus that’s reasonable. And then also just be asking students how you’re doing, so using teaching evaluations, both formative and summative. And those are the areas we agreed on. And then we defined it by breaking it down a bunch of different ways. And so, I think, to get back to the original question, I think we realized that these things work in the online format, but in our first book, we didn’t really talk about that context very much. I think if you pull out any sentence from our first book, it applies to online teaching, but we certainly didn’t talk about online teaching or LMSs or some of those specific things that would specifically speak to online teachers. So that’s part of the origin for the new book, I think.

Regan: To add to that, not only did it apply, but we didn’t make the connection. I think on the other side of the coin, there’s just so much that goes on in online teaching that is in addition to what normally goes on as well. So, there was a clear cut need for “What does this look like in an online context?” So even though we have six, there’s a nice number to wrap your heads around, there are six model teaching criteria. And you look at all six of those, and yes, they can apply to the online, but it’s a whole different thing when you say, “Okay, let’s actually start from online teaching.” And that final pragmatic piece as to how this came about is we were actually approached by the publishers to do a revision of model teaching, of the original. And this happened to just, if I remember correctly, when the pandemic was kicking off. And I think that’s important, too, because we were all thinking a lot about what does it mean to teach remotely? What does it mean to teach online? And we quickly convinced them or they convinced us and I think it’s more the latter, they quickly convinced us that, before a second edition, maybe if we could address online teaching explicitly, that would be better. And hence, the Pocket Guide. It’s not the full blown, it’s the “let’s explicitly look at online teaching and see what we can say.”

John: At the beginning of this book, you talk about how, at one point, each of you was somewhat skeptical of online instruction until you actually worked with it. I think that’s true of many people who went through the transition to remote or online instruction in the spring of 2020. Could you tell us a little bit about your own transition to online teaching, as well as how your courses were modified as we move to remote instruction in the spring of 2020.

Aaron: I had been teaching online for a very long time. And so I think the pivot for both Guy and Reagan was a little bit different than mine. I had other stressors associated with the pandemic, namely, having five people in my household full time, and kids learning on, and my wife learning online. But for me, I’ll let Reagan and Guy answer the question, mostly because I started teaching online in graduate school as a way to build my curriculum vitae and built my teaching experience. And so it wasn’t as big of a quote, quote, pivot for me, as it is for a lot of my colleagues.

Regan: Yeah, I think I will go in reverse order this way, because I think I’m sort of next up with somebody who had done some online teaching. I had taught online before the pandemic, but hadn’t taught it recently. And I think to fine tune your question, John, personally, it was just more of a question of not having done it as much. In fact, I think I’ll go on record as saying that if you asked me 15 years ago, what I thought about online teaching, before I actually looked into the literature, I had a very different take on it then after I looked into the literature, and then after I really did it. So, it was much more of a question of had done it, but hadn’t done it to the extent and hadn’t looked at the research on it to the extent that I’d wanted to, but that changed very quickly.

Guy: And that’s totally accurate to say that I was the least experienced, I’m fully capable of admitting that. And we have a fully online psychology program at McKendree, and I had designed courses, and I had been trained in the basics of online instruction, but I’d never done sort of a deep dive into the literature like I did when we were preparing to write this book. It was interesting, since in the last year, I’ve taught literally face to face, I’ve taught online, and I’ve taught various versions of hybrid. And then I taught whatever the heck last spring was, as well. So, I’ve gotten a taste of everything in this last year. And so I’ve learned a lot, both writing the book and having to teach in ways that I hadn’t taught before. So I had done the design component of it, and been trained a little bit, but had never actually pulled the trigger and taught a fully online course as an instructor before the pandemic,

Aaron: What I loved about the three of us, and I always love working with these two other folks. But we had this strata of experience with online education. And poor Guy even had the wonderful opportunity to learn a brand new learning management system like two weeks before the start of the fall semester. And when we talk about online education, chalk is chalk, right? But learning how to do certain grade things in an LMS, Guy was really kind of a little bit of a guinea pig, and it was nice to have those three levels of experience because I think we could get fresh perspectives for the book. I’m Quality Matters certified, which is one of the national certifications for online education, and then Reagan and then Guy with not as much experience, and so I think it was a really serendipitous opportunity for us because of that.

Regan: And just along those lines of serendipity, I think one of the things that the pandemic did was had many of us have more conversations with the experts on online teaching on our campuses. Here at Oregon State or e-campus program is one of the top five in the nation with our psych program being number two in online psych majors, which was great, which meant I could go in… actually, I was gonna say go in but during the pandemic, there was no going in anywhere but I I had all these conversations with wonderful people and shout out to Shannon Riggs and Kate Linder, wonderful people who’ve done a lot of work already on online teaching. And we have these conversations, great email exchanges back and forth that really informed, I think, what we then went and talked about.

Guy: I would be interested in hearing, we’ve never had this conversation, whattyou all think, Aaron and Regan, about whether people during the pandemic are actually doing the type of online teaching we’re talking about in our book, or if they’re doing something that’s more of like an emergency remote teaching, because I’ve noticed in my institution, there’s a lot of people who are basically teaching the same class, it’s just that it’s over a Zoom meeting.

Regan: [LAUGHTER] We could probably do a whole podcast on remote teaching versus online teaching. I’ll just say, in brief, Guy, you are absolutely right. What I have seen is the entire spectrum of instructors who are, somewhat alluding to what Aaron said, trying to make sure they can keep teaching. And I think everybody’s circumstances vary. And I think that resulted in a lot of variance in what those courses look like. Some of the courses would look like, I think, what we’d call online teaching, and what we talked about, and then there are others that are very, very quite clearly remote, emergency, doing the best “giving it all I’ve got, Captain” kind of stuff that are working towards it. And of course, now, literally one year later, I can actually see courses that have made that transition that were here spring term, that were here fall term, that were here the next winter term, and so on and so forth. But you’re absolutely right, Guy, it’s not. When you talk about online teaching, and in these conversations, I try very hard to keep remote teaching separate from online teaching.

Rebecca: The visual description of Regan’s hand was moving up, as he was saying here, here, and here. [LAUGHTER]

Aaron: Thank you. Guy’s trying to get us in trouble with our colleagues. I think that the short answer from my department, and we’re a large department, we have over 25 tenure track faculty, and then a whole army platoon of affiliates. Luckily, within our department, because we had a program that was Quality Matters (QM) certified, we had had a lot of core courses that were already certified. And then they were shells given to faculty members. And so in those scenarios, you had what we are talking about in this book, we had a really good pedagogy, a really good online teaching situation. But there was also other classes where, frankly, some of those instructors didn’t know what LMS stood for, had never used an LMS, a Learning Management System, didn’t even use PowerPoint, didn’t use a computer, like literally still wrote on the whiteboard. And so they had to rise to the occasion. And I think it’s more along with what Regan is saying, some of those folks were really just remote teaching, or doing some sort of synchronous teaching, and then some sort of asynchronous teaching that probably wasn’t the best practices. But that’s why we wrote the book.

Guy: Yeah, and don’t get me wrong. I’m not necessarily trying to criticize anyone in what they’re doing. But I do think it’s important to distinguish between what we ended up talking about in the book and what has emerged from some people who don’t have as much training in online teaching and what they’re doing, and are basically just trying to recreate their classroom in a synchronous video session.

Aaron: What we did in our department as well is we buddied up, in a sense, if there was somebody that had a lot of experience online, they would help build the course with the other instructor who had less experience or who needed more assistance, for sure.

Rebecca: I think one thing that you’re alluding to Guy that I wanted to ask about is the literature historically talks a lot about asynchronous online, and when we’re thinking about online education, that’s generally what we’re talking about, but there’s been a lot of experimentation over the last year with synchronous online, and it may or may not be trying to recreate the classroom, there’s a mix of people trying to actively use that environment to do active learning and these sorts of things, and then others that are perhaps resorting to lecturing at in a meeting kind of setting. Can you address that a little bit in terms of whether or not your book addresses the synchronous component, or if it really is focused more on this more traditional asynchronous aspect of online education?

Aaron: We do address that. Our book is organized by really three kind of different types of interactions: one is the student-to-student interaction, one is interaction with content, and then the other is interaction student to the instructor. And I was largely responsible for that section. And it’s a great debate. The whole synchronous versus asynchronous learning’s been debated for as long as we’ve had distance education. And so I think it really comes down to context and situation. For instance, students at Metropolitan State, typically 51% of them are first-generation college students. We’re a Hispanic serving institution, we have the largest military population in the state at our institution and over 60% work full time. And so we try to steer away from a lot of synchronous learning because they’re working full time… just restricting them to a schedule just doesn’t really work. But I think that really depends on the class, it depends on the institution, it depends on the department. And so it’s really contextually driven. And it’s really dependent on the situation. There’s pros and cons to both synchronous and asynchronous learning. There’s definitely engagement with synchronous learning. You could see this face to face, I just saw this meme, it was actually aTik Tok, and I’m not onTik Tok, but I saw a Tik Tok. [LAUGHTER] And it was basically the student walks into the college classroom, and they’re all wearing masks, and it’s like “Hey, professor.” And the professor kind of looks at him like, “Mmmm, I’m not making a connection.” And he’s like, “No, it’s John.” “…not making a connection.” And then he holds up a J in front of his face, [LAUGHTER] and he goes “Oh, John!” …and so there is this idea about synchronous learning and engagement that is really, really important, for sure. And having that one-to-one rapport and connection, but there are asynchronous things that you can do to also increase that rapport as well.

Regan: Well, I think that’s why this debate, not only is it a really interesting question, but like the three of us our motto is, “Well, what does the evidence say?” And I think we’re going to be taking a lot closer look at the evidence in the year ahead. Speaking of evidence, Fox and colleagues, there’s a 2021 report that just came out in January, that actually maps how the percentage of courses that were synchronous versus asynchronous, changed over last year from spring before and then to the next winter. And what you see is a lot of courses. And this is, of course, descriptive data, it’s not causal in any way, but what you see is a lot of courses that started off primarily synchronous, or exclusively synchronous, even remotely, started adding asynchronous components. So even though I think many institutions said, “Look, we were on campus, we’re going remote,we just do everything that we did remotely,” the context changes and you can’t just do everything that you did in a face-to-face class synchronously, remotely synchronously all the time. Now, how much of the time? Which classes? What can you do? Those are all the really cool questions that I think we are now taking a much closer look at.

John: Last March, a lot of people suddenly transitioned to either a remote or online format. But then many people, as we just heard, have been shifting to more and more asynchronous work. In your book, you talk a little bit about some of the challenges that people may face when they’re not experienced teaching online, could you talk a little bit about some of the adjustments people have to make to an asynchronous online environment, as well as perhaps some of the affordances, some of the advantages, that people have come to see, once they start teaching online?

Guy: Well, as the newest recruit to online, I guess I’ll start off here. And I would say my biggest challenge has been just the differences in immediacy between a face-to-face classroom and an online classroom. It’s just a completely different game to say something and make eye contact with students in different rows… front row, back row… and be able to tell whether they’re staring at you or ready to move on versus being online and you have to be reading a discussion board or looking at a quiz score. So it just doesn’t have that immediate feedback. And if you’re talking about the synchronous Zoom meeting type things, then really, it’s kind of soul crushing. I don’t lecture that much, but when I do lecture, and I’m lecturing to the empty space of blank Zoom tiles, it is truly crushing. It is just not an enjoyable experience. It’s just like talking to yourself. There’s some of that spark of immediacy that really energizes the classroom, I have found it difficult to recreate. But the engagement is just different, right? So the engagement might happen in a breakout room, rather than me talking at them in a full classroom. The engagement might happen on a discussion board or on a group project that they’re collaborating on using chats outside of things that I witness. So it’s different. But that’s the thing that was the most challenging for me, is the immediacy.

Aaron: I think I would add a couple things, too. I would definitely agree with what Guy said, I would think also, too, one of the difficulties in that transition is you have to be a little bit more cognizant about your time, and especially if you’re talking about asynchronous learning is like I grade a lot in the evening and at night, because that’s kind of my schedule, but my students, generally speaking, that’s when they’re doing most of their work, because they’re working during the day. So that’s one issue, I think. For a lot of new concepts, too, it’s really understanding time management. I think another thing is, and this is one of the things that Guy alluded to was, I have been teaching online for a very long time, and when I would have a student who had me as an online instructor first, and then took a face-to-face class with me, almost invariably, on the first day, they would come up to me after class and they’d be like, “Man, Dr. Richmond, you are not who I thought you were.” And I would say “What do you mean? They’re like, “Well, I kind of thought you were like this stick in the mud, but you’re kind of a short funny Hobbit.” And after that happened the first couple semesters, I became really aware of it. And really what Guy was kind of alluding to is how do we establish this rapport with our students? How do we establish immediacy which is actually nonverbal immediacy? That’s my hand gestulating, you know, all that kind of stuff, the visual things of teaching? How do we establish those things in an online environment. I think that’s one of the biggest adjustments that most teachers, when they pivot to online having never done it, struggle with, because they take all these face-to-face interactions for granted. They’re not cognitively thinking of how their body posture or the jokes they might use, or the eye contact as G uy was saying. And I still struggle with one of the most difficult things with online engagement rapport, and that learning alliance, as Rogers would call it.

Regan: Lets also add to that, in a face-to-face class, there’s that time before class starts, there’s that time after class ends, where you’re chatting, and you’re talking about stuff. But there are two very significant components to add, both in terms of teaching online, but also teaching remotely, it applies to both. I think the first thing is judging how much work is enough work or not enough work. And I think that’s a huge problem that we’ve seen, is the switch to teaching online or putting something into an online class. If you are not watching how much work you’re giving students, it’s very, very easy to have the tendency to say, “Hey, we’re not meeting for all this face-to-face time or synchronous time. Therefore, let’s have you do more assignments. Let’s have you do more of this and more of that.” And there are some really great time calculators out there right now that I think are important. Related to that, it comes back to there is such a great body of research and training done by instructional designers to help individuals with the management of how much to assign, but also, to get to what Aaron and Guy were saying, how to use all those different tools of a learning management system to try and do those things that you’re used to doing in a face-to-face online class. And there’s a wealth of tools out there in a learning management system. Yes, discussion boards, but even how you use discussion boards and all of that, and how you use chat, that you can do that. One additional thing, and this truly relates to synchronous versus asynchronous, not necessarily face-to-face versus online. But I think one of the things I personally discovered is how to leverage, you use the word affordances, how to leverage things such as the chat, and at first, I was extremely wary of the chat because I’m thinking, “Hey, I have 295 people in this class, is the chat gonna go wild and crazy?” And it went pretty wild, it didn’t actually get crazy. But on top of that, I can tell you what I relied on to look at and see in faces, I was now getting from comments typed into the chat. And I still want face to face. But I can tell you that having that chat open and monitored with rules of conduct, but students were responding in chat, the stuff I was talking about, that I normally wouldn’t see in a face-to-face class.

Guy: And just building off of that in terms of moving to strengths a little bit more. As someone who really loves assessment and appreciates data from students, my, there is a lot of stuff you can assess using the LMS. And I really appreciated being able to log in and see if my students had logged in and see what they had clicked on, and all of this granular information. I had a very small class, so I did not have to explore that too much. But in a larger class, being able to do that and set up agents to monitor them and email them if they’re not logging in, and all these different things you can do. It’s just a wonderful way to increase the engagement in a different way. So in some ways, it almost seems mysterious, now seeing a student every other day, in a face-to-face class, and not knowing whether they had to open their book or not. But if I was teaching a online course, [LAUGHTER] I would know exactly what they have done in between. And I could still have more LMS stuff in my face-to-face class, but it’s different than when it’s all based on the LMS.

Rebecca: So we talked earlier about the model teaching principles. Do they apply in online? Or how are they different in an online environment?

Guy: I said this earlier, but I would definitely say that you could pull out any one of our criteria, the individual ones from our original book, and not tell someone which format it’s in, and they would pretty much all apply. There’s gonna be a few things about teaching very specific teaching skills that might be kind of written in a face-to-face format. So I really do think, almost surprisingly to me, they really do generalize. Training is important in both. Intentional design is important in both. Intentional assessment of learning is important to both. Student feedback is important in both. And, if anything, one of the things I maybe found surprising was that actually what we were saying, however many years ago, eight years ago, nine years ago, when we first started this, is very similar to the stuff that the online quality matters and the instructional designers have always been saying about how courses should be designed before you jump into them. So I was actually a little bit surprised, I think, when I got into the online teaching literature, just how much overlap there was.

Regan: Absolutely. I mean a few words different. I look at a figure that I know normally use when I’m talking about model teaching criteria, and it says “classroom” in there, but apart from little words like that, everything holds. And actually one of the first things that three of us did was we took a look at our self-guided measure that we had created that was in the back of the first book. And we went through it and asked ourselves, which of these don’t apply? And most of them were in there.

Aaron: Yeah, principally, I think that it just holds water. And that’s the beauty of the model. I think you just tweak certain ways in which you accomplish those tasks or accomplish those competencies to the online space.

Rebecca: Aaron, can you give an example of one way that one of those needs to be adapted in an online space?

Aaron: I think the syllabus is a really good example. The online syllabus has changed dramatically in the last 18 months, it used to be a standard format, is you upload a PDF, and don’t get me wrong, I’m not speaking flippantly about syllabi, because that’s my bread and butter, I do a lot of research on it. But you might just load it up into the LMS. And “Hey, go check it out.” But now, I think we’re kind of deconstructing the syllabus a little bit. And really, a lot of people are doing it, where they’re really putting it to the “Start Here” module, and they’re deconstructing the syllabus to where it’s all these different components to it. You can still have a standard syllabus that somebody links on, and if they want to print something out, old school, and they can have, but you really are kind of reincorporating, that syllabus into a startup module, a “startup week one,” however, you want to organize your course. And you’re really kind of diving into it. So structurally, it’s the same, but functionally, how it’s delivered, changes. And I think that’s just one example of the principles there. It’s just how is it surfaced? How is it realized to the learner, it might take on a different form.

Guy: That’s really interesting, because even in I’m teaching in person this semester, and I found myself essentially designing courses, like online courses, where my syllabus is deconstructed to an extent. And I just put the pieces into various modules, so that students don’t have to necessarily go back and read the whole syllabus. So there is a sort of a weird transition, now, and this could be a positive of all this extra work that people are putting into transitioning remote and online is that people will take advantage of some of the things that are in LMSs is a little bit more. So if you wanted to make some money, you could probably start a company right now, or add something to Brightspace or Blackboard where you build the course in the LMS, and then it automatically builds the syllabus for you or something like that. That would be a great feature that I think teachers would love, you wouldn’t have to deconstruct one to make the other, essentially.

Regan: I wanted to go back to something that Guy said earlier that I think is really important in this context, and what Guy said was the overlap between what we all experienced when we read more of the other literature’s in online teaching. And I think far too often, many of us who only have taught in the classroom. And there are still many faculty out there who only teach face-to-face who haven’t taught online. They have missed out on a world of pedagogical practices that instructional designers have been really well aware of for a very, very long time. And so that overlap that Guy alluded to that we all saw, when we looked at that literature, I think, is just a great testament to the fact that there still needs to be some better coordination and communication between those people who talk about and train folks on what the better practices are. And right there when I say that, many individuals who teach online at most universities have to go through some kind of training, but few universities make people teaching face to face go through some sort of training. As somebody who works at a Center for Teaching and Learning, I wish there were more prescriptions to come in and take some guidance on pedagogical practices. So I think that’s a big deal there. Instructional designers have these things down that we could have used. And Guy, I had exactly the same experience about maybe 8, 8, 10 years ago, when I took a Quality Matters course and then immediately used all those practices for my face-to-face LMS. What a great world out there and we need to do some more cross fertilization.

Rebecca: Regan, I think one of the things that’s really interesting that you’re pointing out is we often think about the silos of higher ed as being disciplinary, but it’s also in terms of modality and between staff and faculty. So there might be research done by instructional designers, but somehow that lives in staff world, and it doesn’t live in faculty world. And there’s not a lot of integrations or conversations across those lines. And the pandemic has forced us all to talk to each other in these ways and troubleshoot more because we’re trying to solve some immediate problems. Being more aware of these treasures that are available in different silos that we don’t usually dip into can be helpful.

Regan: Absolutely.

John: And I know a lot of faculty at our campus have been attending workshops at rates they never had before, because they started learning about all these new techniques and tools, and many of them have said that when they go back to a purely face-to-face environment, they’re not going to teach their class in any way, like they were doing before, that they’re going to port this over. And I know I had the same experience several decades ago when I first started teaching online. All of the tools I picked up and some of the techniques have been used in my face-to-face classes as well. Going back, though, to that discussion of the syllabus, one of the things you note in your book is that it’s really important to provide people with more detailed instruction in an asynchronous environment than it would be if you’re meeting with students synchronously, because students are working on their own and they need more information. And I think that’s part of the issue that you’re referring to with a syllabus, perhaps, by building more information into it. Could you talk a little bit about that?

Aaron: Yeah, I think there are several strategies. We’re always going to compare face-to-face to an online or even a flipped or hybrid course, you have these side conversations in a face-to-face course, like you might have this little 30 second “Hey, don’t forget to do this” and “I want you to really pay attention,” “Work on your APA style,” whatever the case may be. You don’t have that at all in the online setting. So you have to create opportunities for that. And so one strategy that I’ve seen pretty successful is making mini short tutorial videos. Just like a six-line email, students are not going to watch a video that’s more than six minutes. I haven’t quite seen the research on this, but I can almost guarantee you, to a certain degree, there’s this Sesame Street effect, their attention spans not gonna be that strong. Because it’s in a video format. It’s asynchronous. So there’s not a lot of interaction. So I’ve seen a lot of people do assignment tutorials, just generally how to take a quiz, how to do an assignment, how to actually have a discussion, not “Well, I met the minimum rubric criteria and I responded to two people and I cited in reference my work, which is actually to have engaged into a asynchronous conversation. And so you see a lot of video tutorials. And here’s another thing about how principally it works within the model teaching competencies face to face, it just looks a little different in online format. The beauty about all those too is they can be the transcript, they can do a video and if you do it through YouTube or whatnot, you can get closed caption, you can get a written version of it. And so that’s one example I think of having to, what I call, make implicit procedural knowledge. So somehow, you’re supposed to know how to do it, but nobody tells you. And so making it explicit. And so those types of tutorials I’m pretty big on. I was slow to come onto that train a little bit, because there is a lot of upfront work. But once you get good at say Loom (that’s the program I use) or Camtasia, or whatever the program is, you can get pretty quick at doing a three-minute video, posting it, and you can also monitor if they’re watching it, and that kind of stuff.

Regan: And I just wanted to add something else that adds on to Rebecca, to the question you asked, that’s relating to this, which is, what are the things that are different and varied? And I think when we teach face to face, we take just the power of presence for granted. And I think we more implicitly think about what can we do for a student to student interactions. And I know that was something when we were writing this book and thinking about the online nature, if you’ve never taught online before… and really, that’s where we geared this book towards, it’s people who’ve taught a lot of face to face, perhaps, but kinda need to start thinking about what’s different in online. And I think that’s one of those big things that’s different with online, is thinking about, you don’t have people sitting in the same room physically, what do you need to do to explicitly build that student-to-student interaction, so that it’s not just student-to-content and student-to-instructor? But, what are those things we can do to make it an engaging student-to-student environment? And that’s a really big challenge

Rebecca: Regan, you’re making a really good point. And also maybe assuming that students feel that connection with students in a physical face-to-face class that they may not actually feel. But just because they’re in the same space, we make these assumptions. I think that being explicit, maybe we’re learning it for online, but it certainly applies to going back into the classroom as well. [LAUGHTER]

Guy: Yeah, and just to connect a couple different lines here, just with the explicitness of it, the engagements, you even have to be explicit in how you engage what the rules are, what the minimal standards are. It’s something that in a classroom that’s face to face, you say, “Okay, turn to your partner and talk and you can watch and see and they have whatever, two minutes, five minutes, 10 minutes, whatever it is, but online, you literally have to tell them, “Okay, your first comment is due by X, and then you respond by Y, whatever day it actually is.” And so there’s a little bit more of you have to be intentional about setting expectations and, I don’t want to use “moderating,” but really controlling… that’s not a better word is it?… [LAUGHTER]… facilitating the exact behaviors that you want. And I definitely learned that in the spring with the pandemic teaching and even a little bit with the online courses. If you allow students to post online when they want to it will be near the deadline and that’s not a great way to foster engagements. So, you have to design engagement. It’s really about intentional design. You can’t just walk into the classroom and wing it, like a lot of us who were experience teachers can do face to face.

Regan: And great use of the word design, Guy. And I think, really, that’s something that’s so important. Even when you’re teaching face to face, there is design. Teaching should not be an impromptu act, it needs thought, it needs forethought, it needs intentionality. Every once in a while I run into folks who go, “Hey, I really know my stuff well. What’s there to teaching? I step into the class and voila, there you have it.” No. Design, people. Intentionality.

Guy: Out of all the stuff that I picked up in the last year learning about online, the thing that has been most gratifying is this idea that your whole course is in the bag and ready to go before the first day. I’ve been doing that since day one of my teaching, and it’s so nice to hear reinforcement for that’s the way it should be done. And so I think that’s a message that, if we’re talking about learning from the experience of doing online in the last year, that’s definitely one that I hope gets generalized outside of the online environment, because it’s just so important for students and for the instructor.

Rebecca: As an interaction designer, I have to say, Yes, we should design experiences. [LAUGHTER]

Guy: Yeah.

Regan: I also want to be respectful of individuals who are in situations where, due to courseload, they cannot be as intentional as they would like, because of lack of training that they don’t know how to be intentional, I think it’s very easy to say that’s a good thing. But it’s really up to colleges and universities to help their faculty, to help their instructors be able to do those things.

Rebecca: It’s a heavy lift to be intentional.

Aaron: And I think I would add to that, as well is two things: one is that and maybe this is opening a different line of thought and questions, but the diversity, equity, and inclusion issue in online is real. And this is kind of related to it. I just read a couple different studies where they’re measuring, essentially in online learning, essentially what modality or what tools students are using, and it varies widely, but it’s somewhere between 40 and 80% of students are only using their phone to do an online course. I accept late work for partial credit and I do that because I don’t want to judge people’s excuses. That’s just not something I want to do. And I just got an email from one of my students that just said, “Hey, I’m going to be late, I understand the consequence, I’m sharing a computer with my roommate. I just got a positive COVID test, so I don’t think I should use this person’s computer…” which is like, of course, right? But I think we need to understand access, we need to understand bandwidth. When we pivoted in March of last year… our university uses Teams and to be honest, sorry, Microsoft, it sucked at the beginning, it was horrible. It took a massive amount of bandwidth. And if you didn’t have really high speed internet, you couldn’t engage in teams at all. So I purchased Zoom, ‘cause Zoom’s bandwidth was like I think a 10th of what Teams… and teams has cleared that up since then… but you have to think of things like those equity issues in what students have access to. And so I think that, in line with what we were talking about, in terms of intentional engagement, you have to realize that not all students can do those things. They just don’t have the opportunity or the access or the virtual bandwidth, the metaphoric bandwidth to do it.

Guy: I’m curious if anyone has read, if there is research on that, with online instruction, that students who maybe are coming in with some access issues if they’re as successful or less successful than students who don’t have those, because I think we’ve seen basically the same sort of stratification in terms of the health effects of COVID, the educational effects of COVID, I have friends who are therapists, and it’s the exact same thing for them, they have patients who are doing just fine, and they have patients who are doing really bad because of all kinds of other issues. But has anyone read research on that?

Aaron: I’ve seen a little bit on internet accessibility, but most of that stuff is in the K-12. My wife is a third grade teacher and teaches online remotely right now, and has the whole time during the pandemic. And she will literally spend hours with one student just getting them to upload a document. But I think that, going back to the original discussion about intentionality, you can build into your online courses, flexibility, and something that transfers from the MTC to the online setting, and whether that means “Okay, I have 12 quizzes, but I’m only going to take your best nine scores,” or “I have 10 discussions, I’m only going to take your best seven…” T here are ways in which you can build in DEI issues, if that’s related to it, where you’re flexible. You still have great standards and high standards, but there’s flexibility and autonomy within your course as well.

Regan: And I see a lot more sensitivity to the kinds of issues you brought, Guy, in online teaching that I see in face-to-face courses. Many online and e-campus programs do such a wonderful job of preparing students for the class. They acknowledge that the online course is different, and they do very different things. And I think, boy, just like faculty training, I think the more we can do to prepare students for face-to-face classes, the better. A long-term gripe has been: in college, we assume that those students know how to study. And one of my pet areas is study techniques and study skills, and all of the skills that we build. And I take a lot of time in my first few days of class to talk explicitly about how best to study for my course. And I think that a lot of folks who make the assumption that people know how to study, and I think together with the “how to study,” I think we need to be more aware of “Do you have access to the material?” Gosh, “Do you have access to food?” …is a big thing. Something that I think a theme that you’ve seen us mention many times that I want to underline is don’t take teaching for granted and don’t take online teaching for granted just because you’ve taught face to face.

John: We always end with the question, what’s next? And we’ve all been wondering that for at least a year now.

Rebecca: So please, please enlighten us. [LAUGHTER]

Regan: So I’ll tell you the writing that’s on the wall here, and I think what I can see in higher education. I think we’re looking at a new modality, remote teaching, and not just what can we take from remote teaching that can stay when we get back, but looking at that modality in and of itself, especially to get at issues that we’ve talked about, access and reaching people who may or may not be able to come in to some of our schools. I see the sweet spot in remote teaching that it unearthed new ways for us to connect to our students, new ways to share content, new ways to get engagement, that I think we need to capitalize on and fine tune and study so we can better use it. I think that’s what’s coming down the pike as far as I can tell.

Guy: Almost the same comment but maybe a little bit different terminology is, I posed the question is everything hyflex now? And so hyflex meaning that basically, you’re delivering all modalities at once to all students online, face to face, video, and the students can basically choose which of those modalities they interact with. And just to use an example is, for students who are in quarantine or what have you, this semester, we’ve been encouraged at my institution to zoom our classes. Well, that has expanded a bit in what students are expecting even in face-to-face classes to have accessibility to classroom videos. And so is that now happening for everything? Is that just something that students are going to expect from here on out? And is that necessarily a good thing? Because in small institutions, there’s not hundreds of students, it can be difficult to plan for a class, if you’ve got 15 students, and you don’t know how many are going to be there, and how many are not going to be there. And you maybe don’t have a classroom that’s set up to do both types of teaching. So it definitely is, I think, been useful for students who have to step away from the classroom for health reasons or for safety reasons. But I’m curious to see what happens if the student culture is going to change in terms of what they expect and if the teacher culture will change in what they’re willing to offer students who desire that type of flexibility.

Aaron: Yeah, one of the reasons that Guy and Regan and I work together a lot, it’s because we think very similarly. And we also have our unique perspectives on things. I think that higher education is gearing up for a paradigm shift. I think that there’s going to be massive differences in models in how we approach classroom instruction, brick and mortar versus a virtual environment. I think what the pandemic has done is, for some students, conditioned a new way of approaching their education. And I think you see this at the K-12 level, I think you see at this higher education level as well. And so I think that the schools and institutions that jump on this opportunity… we haven’t had a situation in which institutions can reinvent themselves in modern times, and I think this is definitely one of them. I think a lot of programs can reinvent themselves. And enrollment is up and down across the country. There are certain schools that are really getting hit. Community colleges are really taking a massive hit in the pandemic. And they’re having to reinvent themselves and figure out how can we do online instruction? How can we do this flex instruction? And so I think that, as a scientist, we are in a reinvigoration of scholarship of teaching and learning… how to do these different things. It’s going to be an exciting next five to ten years, I think, in higher education, from a teaching perspective, from the learner perspective, and from a scientist perspective about studying what’s going on. there’s going to be a lot of opportunities to basically treat the pandemic as a catalyst for change.

Regan: Absolutely.

Guy: In terms of opportunities, I think my response came off as pretty somber, but I would say there are some things I’m very excited about. So I’m the type of teacher who hates snow days. So I’m excited by the fact that we’re never going to have another snow day ever again. You never have to cancel a class ever again. Every single teacher knows what to do to replace a class that’s canceled for a snow day. And I’m really excited that more people who maybe would not have used an LMS in the past now are realizing the benefits of it. So, we’re going to have more people using those, which is, I think, only beneficial for students. And I’m hoping that more people are realizing that they can move a lot of the stuff that they used to just talk at students in the classroom, that they can move that online. So those are some of the things, as someone who’s still primarily a face-to-face teacher, that I’m excited about how online teaching will have a bigger influence as we move forward.

Regan: Guy said the word face-to-face teaching, and let me say something I’m excited by is that I don’t think there’s ever been as much scrutiny to teaching and learning as we’ve seen in the last year. And I love that. May that continue.

Aaron: I’ll second that.

Rebecca: Well, thank you so much for joining us and sharing some insights from your book and getting us all excited about picking up a copy of your book and also really thinking forward to what is next for us as teachers.

Aaron: Thank you.

Guy: Thank you for inviting us.

Regan: Thank you, Rebecca and John.


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.


182. Gender and Groups

When we sort students into cooperative learning groups, we often attempt to create balanced groups that reflect the diversity of the students in our classes. In this episode Olga Stoddard joins us to discuss her recent research that suggests that this approach can be harmful for female students in classes in which a majority of the students are male.

Olga is an Assistant Professor of Economics at Brigham Young University, a Research Fellow at IZA (the Institute of Labor Economics), and the Research Director at the Science of Diversity and Inclusion Initiative, and the Co-Director of the Gender and Civic Engagement lab at BYU.

Show Notes

  • Stoddard, Olga B.; Karpowitz, Christopher F.; Preece, Jessica (2020) Strength in Numbers: Field Experiment in Gender, Influence, and Group Dynamics, IZA Discussion Papers, No. 13741, Institute of Labor Economics (IZA), Bonn
  • Zölitz, Ulf and Jan Feld (2018), “The effect of peer gender on major choice.” University of Zurich, Department of Economics, Working Paper.
  • Sandberg, S. (2013). Lean in: Women, work, and the will to lead. Random House.


John: When we sort students into cooperative learning groups, we often attempt to create balanced groups that reflect the diversity of the students in our classes. In this episode we discuss recent research that suggests that this approach can be harmful for female students in classes in which a majority of the students are male.


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: Together, we run the Center for Excellence in Learning and Teaching at the State University of New York at Oswego.


John: Our guest today is Olga Stoddard. Olga is an Assistant Professor of Economics at Brigham Young University, a Research Fellow at IZA (the Institute of Labor Economics), and the Research Director at the Science of Diversity and Inclusion Initiative, and the Co-Director of the Gender and Civic Engagement lab at BYU. Welcome, Olga.

Olga: Thanks so much for having me. It’s great to be here.

John: …really pleased to have you.

Rebecca: Today’s teas are:

Olga: I was going to be prepared and I have my mug, but unfortunately, it’s only filled with water because I ran out of time to heat it. [LAUGHTER] So, water for me today.

John: Tea is mostly water. We’re recording this in mid February when there’s a bit of a nationwide snow covering. And I’m drinking spring cherry green tea to set a better mood for the future.

Rebecca: I think that seems like a good plan. And for a change, I’m drinking Chai.

John: Wow. Okay, I don’t think I’ve seen you drink that on here before.

Rebecca: It’s not a common one for me. But it’s nice to mix it up occasionally. Of course my Chai doesn’t have dairy in it. So it’s just the tea part of the Chai

Olga: Is it flavored Rebecca?

Rebecca: Yeah, it’s nicely spiced.

Olga: Nice.

John: We do normally in our office have a variety of flavored Chai teas, but they’re safely locked up in our building. We haven’t visited in a long while. We’ve invited you here today to discuss your research with Chris Karpowitz and Jessica Preece concerning how the gender composition of teams affects women’s participation and role in team activities. Could you tell us a little bit about the study?

Olga: Yeah, absolutely. So this study was a collaboration with a top 10 accounting program in the US. We partnered with them to randomly assign different gender compositions of teams in this program. So, like many programs in the US, especially business programs, like MBA programs, this particular program relies on a pedagogical group-based approach in which students are assigned into teams, in this case, teams of five. And they work together quite intensively throughout the semester. So throughout the four months that’s their first semester in the program, they work on assignments together, they meet socially outside of the classroom, they even do some of the exams as a group. And so there’s a lot of interaction between those students within those seats. for that period of four months. Normally, because this program has a really small percentage of women, so about 25% of the students in the program are women, the way that these groups had been formed in the past is to assign one woman per group, so as to sort of dilute the women, to have men have experience in an academic and professional setting interacting with women. There is some prior research in the laboratory that has shown that this really is detrimental for women’s ability to be influential, for their willingness to participate, to be engaged. And so what we wanted to do is we wanted to test whether that laboratory evidence plays out in a similar way in the, so to speak, real world setting, more naturally occurring kind of environment. So we partnered with the program and randomly assigned some women to be in the condition where they were the only woman in the group. So the status quo, this is how things have been done. One woman and four men in a five person group, and then other women were randomly assigned to be in a condition where they were in the majority. So there were three women and two men in a five person group. We then tracked these students for the following two years. We had them complete monthly surveys and peer evaluations of their group members. We had them come into the laboratory twice a semester, where we had them work on a team-building exercise, and we watched who’s participating. These exercises were recorded, so we could see who’s speaking, who is interrupting, with speaking for how long. so that we could precisely measure women’s participation, but also measure their level of influence. Because on these tasks, the way that we designed them, women could exert more or less influence depending on certain decisions they make. So we had different ways to measure their level of influence, their participation, and whether others perceive them to be influential, and sort of more like leaders in the group. And so we did that for the following two years. We had two cohorts of students participate in the study. And what we found is that women who were randomly assigned to be the lone woman in the group were perceived to be significantly less influential, and were actually exerting a lot less influence in the group than the equally qualified women who had been assigned to be in the majority in their group. And so we saw really striking differences across those two conditions. Again, these are equally qualified, very well prepared academically women. This program is very competitive. They have prior leadership experience. And yet we find these huge differences across the two conditions in our case, depending on whether women were in the minority or the majority, they were seen significantly less influential by their peers.

Rebecca: Was the perception of the women in the groups different from the start of the study or the beginning of the group formation versus the end of the group formation? Or was it kind of consistent?

Olga: Yeah, that’s a good question. So one advantage of our study is that we can track these students over a relatively long period of time. Most laboratory studies up to date have relied on sort of these one-shot types of interactions, where strangers meet for a period of an hour or so and never interact again. One thing we wanted to know is do these patterns that had been observed in the lab to date, exacerbate over time, or do things get better as team members get to know each other, they get to experience women’s authority or their expertise. And what we found is that it’s mixed evidence on this. So in these surveys, these are monthly surveys that students have to fill out about each other… we call them peer evaluations… and in these peer evaluations, we ask them “Who is the most influential member of your group?” And they state who is the most but also who’s the least influential. What we found that over time, over the course of those four months that these students work together as a group, there is an improvement for the lone women, that their peers perceive them to be more influential over time. For the women in the majority, there seems to be no change. And so we do see the gap closing by the end of the semester, relative to the large gap in the beginning of the semester, but only in the survey data. Once we actually look at the data from the lab, where we observe students interacting in teams, where we can measure who is exerting influence on a task, we see no difference over time. So it seems that there is some improvement for the lone women in these sort of general assessments of influence in these monthly “Who was the most influential member of your group over the course of the month?” But when you actually get down to the specific tasks, we don’t see any improvement for women over time.

John: I know you were looking at this in a very broad context, in terms of teams and organizations and firms and so forth. But in terms of classroom groups of the sort that you were actually experimenting with, a growing number of classes in pretty much all disciplines now rely on group activities. What does the study suggest about how we form these groups in terms of the gender composition of groups, so that everyone can have an active role in the group?

Olga: Like you said, both in the workplace and in many academic settings, group work is crucial. And many faculty members rely on group- based activities. Understandably, they prefer collaborative thinking and develop the skills that students will need as they go on in workplaces where increasingly there’s reliance on group work. And so certainly the implications from our study are that assigning groups in which women are the lone woman or in the minority is going to have costs for women, costs in terms of participation, in terms of influence, in terms of whether they’re seen as authoritative, as leaders in the group. Those are the types of questions we ask and things that we can measure. And so certainly, if at all possible, groups that are gender balanced, or groups in which women are in the majority, are going to be significantly better for women in terms of these types of outcomes. Now, I would add a couple of caveats here. One is that in our study, we can track the grades. We can see what students actually get at the end of the semester. And we find no penalty for women, as far as grades can tell, when they’re in the minority. The women who are in the minority receive about the same grades as women who are in the majority. However, the grades in this program are largely group based. So it may not be surprising, because so much of the grade is based on the group work that we’re not finding those differences. Moreover, we don’t know how women get to those grades. It’s possible that because of these influence gaps, they’re having to work extra hard to get the same grade, or to be seen as sufficiently expert in that particular class. And so those are the two caveats that, even though we don’t observe differences in grades in our study, that doesn’t mean that there aren’t underlying differences in how hard students are having to work or how much effort they’re having to exert. I would also note that, regardless of the gender composition, there were no differences in man’s perception. So the man, whether they were in the minority, or in the majority, saw no deficit in influence, they were equally likely to be seen as a leader, they were seen equally influential. And so, if one thinks well, putting men In the minority is going to all of a sudden hurt the men in the group. That’s not what we’re finding. And there is in fact quite a bit of literature now confirming that. There are laboratory studies and studies in different settings, like nursing school, where men are in the minority, and in fact are not incurring any kind of deficit as far as influence or participation or authority that the women are incurring in these kinds of settings in which they’re a minority. I would also mention one study, it’s a working paper by a PhD student at University of Zurich, and it’s a really great working paper. She’s looking at a setting in which women are a minority… economics… a setting we’re familiar with. And in that setting, she’s using some data from, I believe it’s University of Zurich, it might be another university in Europe, but at that university, they also created different study groups, just like in our study, except these are larger study groups. These are sections of about 50 to 60 students, and they also randomly assigned gender compositions of these study groups. And what she shows is that, over time, the women that are assigned to be in a group in which they’re a minority, are much more likely to drop out of the study group altogether; that they not only incur these potential influence deficits, which we document in our study, but there are, in fact, very serious consequences to their ability to thrive in that class, or to thrive in that environment in which there are a minority. So that’s closely related, of course, to our study, and confirms really similar patterns.

John: We’ll share a link to both studies in the show notes. You mentioned that in disciplines like economics, and more generally, in STEM fields, women are often underrepresented as students, but they’re also underrepresented in faculty. It’s likely that these types of issues will carry over into group meetings and team meetings and department meetings and so forth on campuses. What can women and departments do to address this problem?

Olga: Yeah, that’s a very good question. Certainly, the setting in which we study these topics is student groups. But we are more than confident that these kinds of patterns replicate in a variety of settings, including professional settings, whether you’re a faculty or a student, being in the minority as a woman entails these costs to your level of influence, to your ability to exert influence, to your ability to be heard and taken seriously. And certainly there are other studies that have found very similar patterns in other kinds of settings. So I would not be surprised that if we ran this study in a professional setting or a workplace, we would find very similar patterns among women at all levels, including leadership. Certainly, some studies have confirmed similar patterns among the board of directors, female directors. The question of what can women do to sort of fix this is a really complicated one. And I say that because, what we find in our particular study, for example, is that women can’t just overcome that deficit by working extra hard. One thing that we observe is their levels of participation, how much time they put into coursework, and things like that. And we find that to be the same, regardless of the condition in which they’re in. They’re working extra hard already. Another thing that we observe is their talk time. In this laboratory setting, we can measure how long each person talks. And so you might say, well, maybe women, they’re just not leaning in, maybe they’re not participating enough in these group discussions, and so of course, they’re not seem as influential. Well, we find that’s not the case. These women are in fact leaning in. They’re speaking just as much regardless of the condition in which they’re in. The women and the minorities are going out of their way to try to get their opinions heard. They’re speaking just as much, as far as we can tell, based on the speaking turns and speaking time that we can observe. And so the failure to lean in can’t explain this gap in influence. So the common sort of Sheryl Sandberg “lean in” approach is that women just need to participate more and become equal participants in the process. That doesn’t seem to be supported by our research. Even when they try to do that, that doesn’t help them overcome this gap in influence. And so that’s kind of a depressing thing to discuss, that there isn’t much women actually can do to change those kinds of outcomes when they find themselves in these settings where they’re underrepresented. That it’s really men’s attitudes and men’s behavior that seems to be changing when women are in the minority versus women in the majority. So in our study, it’s men that are evaluating women as more influential when they are randomly assigned to be in a group with more women relative to when they’re in the group with just one woman. But of course, these underlying causes are really structural. So if you were to ask me, you know, what can organizations do to avoid those kinds of consequences for them, and I would say, “Well, number one is they need to hire more women.” Creating an environment in which women are no longer in the minority is certainly the direct implication of our research. However, that might be the more longer term goal. If organizations, say a tech firm, says over time, “We’re trying to hire more women, but we just don’t even have enough qualified women in the pipeline. What can we do now? How can we fix this given that women are still going to be in the minority for a while…” Then thinking about the structures of the teams and how they’re assigned, but also the norms within those teams? So for example, my co-author Chris Karpowitz has done some research in the past about the norms of deliberation and whether teams make decisions by majority rule, or whether teams make decision unanimously. That seems to be really important to women’s ability to contribute in environments in which they’re underrepresented. So maybe restructuring some of the team norms so that decisions have to be made unanimously, such that women’s voices are heard and they’re able to contribute even when they’re in the minority.

John: One thing I’ve been thinking when I read your paper and during our discussion is that there’s a similar cultural issue that affects teaching evaluations. And there’s at least some research that suggests that the negative bias that students may have in evaluating female professors can be overcome somewhat when students are made aware of the existence of this. And one nice thing about studies like yours is that it is making people more aware of this. But it would be interesting to see if students were given information about this at the start of their group formation, if that may affect the way in which group behavior is formed.

Olga: I am aware of those studies and I like them very much, because they show us one way, an easy nudge, which can change behavior, in this case, in the context of student evaluations of teaching. So in our study, of course, we try to keep the framing about students’ participation in this research, very neutral. We didn’t want them to be primed that this was a study about gender dynamics in groups and things like that. But I can envision future work thinking about the next step, which is what can be done to reduce this gender gap, what can be done to improve outcomes for women when they do find themselves in the minority, and one of those could be making students aware then making these patterns a lot more salient. Because honestly, if you probably ask a lot of the students whether they think that women in these groups are incurring any kind of penalty, they would probably say, “No.” The majority of the male students would probably not think that these things are happening. They’re happening in a subconscious basis, not through explicit discriminatory practices. It’s certainly possible that some male students are explicitly discriminating. But one measure that we have of that is how satisfied students are with their groups. And what we find is actually, regardless of the condition in which women are in, they report very high levels of satisfaction with their group. So even when they’re in the minority, and we can see that they’re incurring this really strong cost or deficit of influence, they still report being equally satisfied with their groups, and as happy with the group interactions as the women in the majority. So it seems that even the women themselves are not often recognizing that these deficits are occurring, let alone the male students in the group.

Rebecca: They’ve experienced it forever, it doesn’t seem different, right? [LAUGHTER]

Olga: That’s right, and this is not the first setting in which they’re experienced in this. There’s research showing that these kinds of patterns exist as early as school levels, where difference in competition is found as early as kindergarten, basically. And so the socialization that takes place even prior to college is probably conditioning women to feel that that is a normal kind of environment.

Rebecca: Your study reminds me a lot of conversations around all girls schools in K-12 and some of the benefits of that for women and also thinking about compositions of committees and things that might exist in professional environments where they’re trying to diversify, and they diversify by having token representation. And we often see that that can be problematic, but this is demonstrating other ways in which it can be problematic, which I think is a lot of interesting food for thought.

Olga: Yeah, absolutely. That was one of the biggest motivation… thinking about this is when you look at these policies, both private and public initiatives that are aiming to diversify these settings, like school boards or corporate boards, political assemblies, often, like you said, the solution is let’s just add one or two token women or minorities to the setting to help us be more diverse, and certainly we wanted to know what impact is that having on the women that are added, the women that become those token or lone members of the group and it’s not looking great. [LAUGHTER]

John: It’s a cultural issue and cultural changes tend to be slow. And as you said before, the only real solution is to have more balanced representation in all groups.

Olga: Absolutely. Yeah. And often, of course, what you hear, especially in the private sector is, “Well, it’s a meritocracy. Everybody can apply for these jobs, and we’re just not finding enough qualified women. And you know that certainly could be a valid concern in some stages of application process, but it is an important hurdle to overcome and think about how do we get more women into the funnel? How do we make sure that our women persist through the application process and actually make it into these jobs, because there are barriers at different levels, at different stages of that process that lead to these gender disparities in the share of women that go into these occupations, it’s not all choice. Choices are made, not in a vacuum, they’re made based on the constraints and information that people have. And so making these environments more appealing, more welcoming to women, should be an important objective of any organization that is struggling to increase diversity, gender diversity, in their rank and file.

Rebecca: As someone who teaches when an area of design that is also not balanced, [LAUGHTER] I teach in a more tech heavy side, it’s much more male dominated, because there’s more code and stuff involved and so historically, there’s less women, I’m thinking about all the group work that I do in my own classes, in the context of your research, and thinking about how productive and exciting it’s been to see some groups of all women, and what that looks like and what that feels like. But also having that little voice in the back of your mind saying maybe we need diverse teams that represent different kinds of people, because we’re designing for different kinds of people. And that, for the benefit of males in the class of interacting with women, maybe it benefits them, but they already have a benefit. And so that’s a really interesting consideration that I don’t think we often think about… not in a systematic way… or thinking about groups. I thought about majors and all kinds of things when I was formulating my groups, but I didn’t necessarily think about this.

Olga: Yeah, and I think that’s very common, especially in environments where there are serious binding constraints, you only have a few women. So I’m at BYU, and we have our share of women in the majors only about 20%. So any faculty trying to form group is going to be faced with these really serious constraints. One thing I would say is, in addition to this quantitative evidence that has been generated over the years showing how harmful it may be for women to be in the minority, there’s also, in our study, some qualitative evidence that we find. And since we’ve presented this study in different places, it’s been such an interesting experience, because you get these women just nodding their heads and saying, “I know exactly how this feels having been in the minority, and having compared my experience as a woman in the majority, just how much more heard and influential I feel in those kinds of settings.” So I think compiling qualitative evidence, pointing to the fact that it is significantly more difficult for women in the minority in these group settings to exert their influence and to get their voices heard.

John: Are you thinking of extending this research to other areas in terms of say race or other categories in which there may be similar effects?

Olga: Yeah, absolutely. So the original study certainly can only speak to gender, we have very few non-white students in the sample and can’t say very much since they weren’t randomly assigned across the group composition. But our goal long term is to look at whether these patterns extend beyond the gender domain. My guess is that we’re going to find very similar patterns for racial minorities, for example, who find themselves being underrepresented in many kinds of similar settings. They may even be exacerbated relative to the gaps that we find for women. And so we’re very interested, we’re in conversations with one firm and another institution trying to design a study that might work but this is a work in progress. And I hope it happens, because certainly we want to know whether other kinds of minorities find themselves in similar predicaments when they are underrepresented.

Rebecca: It also seems like it would be interesting to know whether or not, if you have multiple people from different underrepresented groups, if that somehow starts treating that more as a majority of underrepresented people, or if it’s just specific to a particular group at any given time.

Olga: Yeah, that’s a good point. One thing that we are doing is we do have a study in the field that is sort of following up from their original study, which includes the groups in which women are still in the minority, but they’re not the only woman. In our original setting there’s either one woman and four men, or three women and two men. So it’s not a symmetric kind of setting. And that’s by design, because there’s so few women in that program that if we created two women groups we wouldn’t have enough sample size to confidently say whether these results are statistically significant. But in the follow up study that we have been doing in the field, actually, for the last year and a half, we do have groups with two women and groups with two men. So we can compare sort of more symmetric, does it help to have another woman in a team? Or does it not make a difference, because you’re still in the minority. Some preliminary findings that we have, are that, unfortunately, it’s not tipping the scale… that unless women are in the majority, they’re still going to incur those deficits in terms of influence. And that’s supported by some of the prior laboratory research. But this is still ongoing… so, unfortunately, not the full findings yet. Another interesting extension of this work that we have started implementing, sort of by accident, or by necessity, rather, when COVID head and a lot of the group interactions have moved online… our entire lives have moved on to virtual settings… we wondered whether these same patterns would be exacerbated in virtual settings. There’s some anecdotal evidence that it’s even harder for him to get their voices heard in these kinds of settings. And so the study that we had been running in person has been turned into a study using Zoom as a platform. So we can now, at the end of this semester and next semester, say something about whether these patterns are different in online settings versus actual face-to-face settings, and what kinds of additional burdens may fall on the women when they’re having to influence outcomes or participate in the deliberative process in an online setting.

Rebecca: …sounds fascinating.

John: It’s a great natural experiment. …let me rephrase that… [LAUGHTER] we should probably not refer to the pandemic as a great experiment…

Olga: I know.

John: …but it does provide an interesting source of data on that issue, and virtual work is likely to become much more common in the future anyway.

Olga: Absolutely. It doesn’t seem like it’s going to go away. Even if the pandemic ended today, people are getting used to these kinds of interactions. There are advantages to them in terms of flexibility and the kinds of geographical constraints that no longer seem to apply. But they may also have these unintended hidden costs that I think are important to be able to quantify, particularly as it relates to these gender and racial disparities that already exist in a lot of these settings and workplaces.

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

Olga: So this study has really led us to think carefully about these gender disparities, and to try to understand what kinds of interventions can help improve the outcomes for women. So the next step is certainly for us to try to test and evaluate the effectiveness of some of these interventions. So for example, I mentioned we’re doing a study in the field using Zoom as a platform for team meetings, we’re playing around and designing different kinds of changes in group norms, which operates through Zoom on, for example, who gets to start the conversation, or timing each participant in the group, so they know how long they’ve been speaking for… things that have been possible through technology, and trying to see whether those kinds of interventions will help improve the outcomes for women when they’re in the minority. So that’s one direction in which we are continuing this research agenda. And then another one, of course, is looking at other kinds of minority status. So particularly looking at race, we’re very interested in collaborating either with firms or other institutions that have ethnic or racial minorities, and are interested to know what implications do these settings have on their minority employees or students?

Rebecca: Looks like a lot of great work coming down the pike. I’m excited to hear what you find.

Olga: Thanks, Rebecca, thank you so much.

John: You’re doing some wonderful work, and I’m looking forward to seeing more of it in the future.

Olga: I really appreciate it. Thank you guys. It’s been a pleasure. Thanks so much.

Rebecca: Thank you.


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