315. Unessays

An unessay assignment provides students an opportunity to demonstrate their learning in innovative and creative ways. In this episode, Jessamyn Neuhaus and Maggie Schmuhl join us to discuss how they have employed unessay assignments in their courses.

Jessamyn is the Director of the SUNY Plattsburgh Center for Teaching Excellence and a Professor in the History Department at SUNY Plattsburgh. She is the author of Geeky Pedagogy: a Guide for Intellectuals, Introverts, and Nerds Who Want to be Effective Teachers. She is the editor of Picture a Professor: Interrupting Biases about Faculty and Increasing Student Learning. Maggie is an Associate Professor of Criminal Justice and the Associate Director of the Center for Excellence in Learning and Teaching at SUNY-Oswego.

Show Notes

  • Neuhaus, J. (2019). Geeky Pedagogy: A guide for intellectuals, introverts, and nerds who want to be effective teachers. Morgantown, WV, USA: West Virginia University Press.
  • Neuhaus, J. (2022). Picture a Professor: Interrupting Biases about Faculty and Increasing Student Learning. West Virginia University Press.
  • Neuhaus, J. (editor) (2022). Using the Unessay to Teach History. Teaching History: A Journal of Methods. Vol. 47. No. 1.
  • Cavanagh, S. R. (2023). Mind over Monsters: Supporting Youth Mental Health with Compassionate Challenge. Beacon Press.
  • Jessamyn’s American Promise Unessay Assignment
  • Pittman, Chavella (2022). “Strategizing for Success: Women Faculty of Color Navigating Teaching Inequities in Higher Ed” in Picture a Professor: Interrupting Biases about Faculty and Increasing Student Learning. Ed. by Jessamyn Neuhaus. West Virginia University Press.
  • Pittman, Chavella (2023). Navigating Teaching Inequities. Tea for Teaching Podcast. Episode 291. May 31.
  • POD Network Conference
  • Teaching, Engaging, and Thriving in Higher Education Series. University of Oklahoma Press.
  • American Historical Association Annual Meetings

Transcript

John: An unessay assignment provides students an opportunity to demonstrate their learning in innovative and creative ways. In this episode, we explore ways in which different faculty have employed unessay assignments in their courses

[MUSIC]

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

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

John: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer…

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

[MUSIC]

Rebecca: Our guests today are Jessamyn Neuhaus and Maggie Schmuhl. Jessamyn is the Director of the SUNY Plattsburgh Center for Teaching Excellence and a Professor in the History Department at SUNY Plattsburgh. She is the author of Geeky Pedagogy: a Guide for Intellectuals, Introverts, and Nerds Who Want to be Effective Teachers. She is the editor of Picture a Professor: Interrupting Biases about Faculty and Increasing Student Learning. Maggie is an Associate Professor of Criminal Justice and the Associate Director of the Center for Excellence in Learning and Teaching at SUNY-Oswego. Welcome back, Jessamyn and Maggie.

Maggie: Hello.

Jessamyn: Hi. Thanks for having me.

Maggie: Good to be here.

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

Jessamyn: I am. In preparation for this very question, I’m drinking a wild sweet orange.

Maggie: Oooh.

Rebecca: Sounds nice.

Maggie: That sounds very fall. I am drinking a bread pudding tea. It’s a black tea from a little tea shop in Sacketts Harbor.

Rebecca: That’s a first on our podcast for sure.

Maggie: I think it’s called Tea Thyme, the little shop. It’s quite lovely.

Rebecca: Nice. I have Irish breakfast this morning. So we’ve invited you both here today to discuss unessay assignments. Could you tell us a bit about what an essay is?

Maggie: I guess I’ll say an unessay is anything but an essay. Jessamyn probably has some more nuance? [LAUGHTER]

Jessamyn: Not really, that is the basic premise. In classes where you might traditionally ask students to show their learning via a standard essay, either like the five-paragraph essay or a research paper, an unessay project asks students to demonstrate their learning, increased understanding, via any other kind of format.

Rebecca: Jessamyn, can you tell us a little bit about why you decided to use unessays in your class?

Jessamyn: Sure. And this also relates to… I know, we were maybe going to talk about what was appealing for historians, in particular, about the unessay. And some points for history professors generally and me, what attracted us to considering using the unessay. A couple of things about our discipline: first, that the unessay, it’s a good way for students to explore some key historical thinking skills in different new ways for them, so things like citation, research, and historiography. So trying to understand what other historians have written and argued about the past. There’s also been a pretty significant sort of public history turn in the world at large, like trying to better understand different audiences for historical research. Some other more general reasons were issues of equity and inclusion, especially around Universal Design for Learning, trying to offer students some options as a way to increase their learning, increase engagement. And the final thing I’ll say, just for me personally, is that I wanted to make assessment and grading a more joyful and happy part of my teaching life. It had really started to drag me down. And I didn’t want to approach assessing student learning as a soul sucking slog, not just for personal reasons, but also that it was interfering with my ability to accurately assess. If I was absolutely dreading reading a stack of essays, then something was amiss, and I wasn’t going to be able to, in my view, really accurately assess what has this student achieved.

Rebecca: About you, Maggie?

Maggie: I think really a lot of what Jessamyn said echoes in the reasons I decided to incorporate the unessay in my classroom. I was actually inspired by a talk that Jessamyn gave to our faculty, I guess it was over a year ago now, about the unessay and I immediately thought of my senior seminar class. So in criminal justice, in our department particularly, it was common for students to write a 20- or 30-page long research paper, and they dreaded it. It was a source of anxiety for students. It was something in the end that I’m not entirely certain they felt proud of. They just were trying really hard to get the A in the class, to make it perfect, to spend lots of late nights trying to perfect this project and I don’t think it brought about the kind of learning gains that I was hoping to see with my students, it seemed like there was a lot of going through the motions. And the unessay just gave us an opportunity to really turn that on its head and give some of that autonomy back to students and some of that creativity back to learning.

Rebecca: I’m loving these themes of joy, creativity…

John: …which are not terms we often associate with either writing papers as students or with grading them as faculty, and Jessamyn, you were the editor of a fall 2022 issue of Teaching History that focused on unessays. Could you tell us a little bit about ways in which you and other historians have been using them in your classes… some examples of ways in which students have demonstrated their knowledge?

Jessamyn: Sure, and I’ll just give a little promo here, Teaching History: A Journal of Methods is an open access journal. So you can just Google Teaching History: A Journal of Methods, and it’ll take you to the open access platform. It’s hosted by Ball State University. And so that issue is still totally available for anyone interested in reading it. I would say, like some specific projects that were explored in that issue, there was an article about using maps as historical documents, there were a number of projects that were exploring how to present history and historical thinking in a public history setting. So along the lines of museum exhibits, and especially in a digital format, the upsurge in digital humanities is something several of the authors were looking at. And then there’s a whole range of examples that were discussed in the two interviews I did for everything from board games, to graphic novels, to quilt, to the annotated recipes. All those were discussed in that issue.

Rebecca: What are some specific projects, Jessamyn, that you’ve done in your classes,

Jessamyn: A couple that have come up that I used… it’s interesting… Maggie used the unessay with her senior students. And I have helped students in the history department here, they also have to do a major research project. And I’ve been the advisor on a number of non-traditional projects is what I called them at the time, and now would say unessay. So at the senior levels, students did major research projects, like a fictional interview with a historical figure, historical fiction would be another example. I’ve had a couple of students do online exhibits and one person do an in-person exhibit. But I also use the unessay assignment in my intro level class, which is a basic history survey class. And those projects ranged from again, the board game, I had a number of posters, I had one student who was a trained professional baker do a set of cookies with icing, comparing different protest movements, the Bonus Army March in the 1930s with the more recent climate change activism. And one of my very favorites was a video recording that a student did, showing step by step how she made a family recipe. And since the theme of the class was the American Promise, and the way that throughout our history, as a nation, we’ve struggled to achieve the ideals of equality and liberty for all. And we get closer and we fall short. And her recipe was from her family’s background from India. And she took us step by step through it. She had music playing and was describing the importance of this particular dish in her own family history. The unessay was encouraging them to see their location in the American Promise. And it really struck me, in my previous life as a historian of food and food waste. So that was interesting. But most striking to me was, this was a student who had been very, very quiet in class. I felt like I didn’t know her very well. She was doing great work, but she was sort of on the edge of things it seemed like, and with this unessay, it completely changed my perception of her. I felt like I got to know her so much better and so did the other students as well. Having students share their unessays is an important part of the work and It really changed just the whole classroom dynamic in that way. So that was really notable.

Maggie: Nice.

John: Maggie, what are some of the projects that your students have done as unessay assignments?

Maggie: Yeah, so I mentioned before that I assigned the unessay for my senior seminar class. So it’s a sort of capstone project. And there were some really awesome projects that came out of this and I probably don’t have time to talk about all of them. So cut me off at some point when I’ve been going on for too long. But I had a student who wanted to be a elementary school teacher, and had gone through our program and decided that being a practitioner in the field of criminal justice was not exactly where they wanted to be. And so his project was to create lesson plans for second graders to communicate some of the harms of incarceration and how it affects youth when their parents or caregivers are incarcerated. And so it was a really wonderful project, all the students had worksheets, kind of like you can think about having when you were in second grade, and little matching puzzles and games, and it was a really cool experience. And for him getting interested in a master’s of education program, it was a way that he could then take that project and show to his grad school applications and advisors, like, “Hey, this is something that I’m really passionate about. I’ve been working towards this. And yeah, it was a lot of fun.” We had a good time, even some spelling words thrown in there. [LAUGHTER] It was great. Another student project was a choose your own adventure story. There’s various examples of this. But in my youth, it was the Goosebumps choose your own adventure where you read to a certain part in the story, and then it gives you the option of what you want your protagonist to choose. And then you have to flip to a different area of the book and see the fate of that character. And so the students started a really great project, unfortunately, didn’t get to finish it for various reasons, but started a really great project about reentry. And so the main character was someone who was being released from prison and had to navigate all of the barriers and circumstances around reentry that made it difficult for him to assimilate back into society. So that was a big fan favorite amongst the class. They really enjoyed that. Of course, we also had some board games, one in particular, was a monopoly game that examines varying socioeconomic status, and how that influences someone’s path through the criminal justice system. So the players started off with different amounts of money. And as they would pull community cards and have to purchase property and such, they would be challenged to need to pay a particular court fine, and how that would set them back from being able to find a job. It was a very well thought out game of Monopoly. But the goal to show and highlight the inequalities related to income and how that affects criminal justice processing. I could probably keep going, but it really gave a lot of opportunities for students to combine what they were interested in. There was a student who had run their own podcast for a period of time. So she conducted a podcast series on Amber Alerts and their effectiveness. And it was something that when she had been traveling down to Texas, and had received a number of Amber Alerts in the short time that she was there, she was like, “Are these things really working? And how can I explore that through a medium that she was already quite drawn to?”

Rebecca: Unessays always sound like so much fun?

Maggie: Yeah. And they’re fun for us. I know Jessamyn touched on that, too. It’s a whole different experience as someone assessing the work that they’re doing when you know that they’re passionate about it. And it gets me excited about assessment, which I don’t think is something we can typically say.

Rebecca: There’s not a big line of faculty raising flags saying assessment is fun.

Maggie: Right. [LAUGHTER]

Jessamyn: I also wanted to follow up on a point Maggie’s touched on a couple times about student autonomy and agency. I think for both our student populations, this is a really key academic, professional, and personal skill that many of our students need to build, that they arrive to college with a sense of themselves as very passive recipients of education and have not had the opportunity to really see themselves as producers of knowledge. as having agency in academic settings. So for me, one of the great glories of the unessay, is that it’s starting point really is, what do you want to do? What do you want to do to demonstrate that you understand this topic, and for a lot of students, it’s scary at first. A few might think that you’re trying to trick them. And I know this was something we did want to talk about. It does require, on our part, a fair amount of structuring and transparency and communication with students, maybe even especially the highest achieving students. One of my favorite students of all time went on to become a high school social studies teacher. And she did a fantastic job in the intro class with the unessay and then told me like a year later, “You know, I hated that assignment when I did it.” And it was because she was very, very nervous. She was a straight A student who was really nervous about doing something different. But she said, “Now, it’s my favorite, looking back.” So providing that structure and support and transparency, a lot of careful thought on the front end.

John: And one of the things we’ve been talking about in one of our reading groups, Mind over Monsters this semester, at both of our institutions, is the importance of autonomy, in terms of increasing student motivation and giving them more sense of control. It sounds like it’s really helpful in motivating students.

Jessamyn: Yeah, I think so. In both of our disciplines, criminal justice and history, there is a major learning curve to helping students see themselves as having agency in this particular discipline, especially the way they may have interacted with it before. And for me, coming from a lot of their previous experiences with history has been learning what happened and not actually doing history or thinking about those processes and the unessay could really help them move towards that particular desirable learning outcome.

Rebecca: I think one of the challenges that faculty who have been engaged in unessays before see before they enter in is the complexity of having students doing many different kinds of things at one time and managing those projects and also assessing those projects. Can you talk a little bit about how you help provide that structure for yourselves and for students?

Maggie: Yeah, so for my criminal justice class, I spent a lot of time the summer before I implemented this project, creating very detailed instructions and expectations. Jessamyn, I went to your website, and I use some of the self assessment tools, and I adapted them for my class as well. It was a very mindful process to think about how to give students the structure they need to feel confident in their ability to carry out this project, but also give them enough flexibility and creativity to take this project where they want it to be. I also spend a lot of time reading about different alternative grading practices to also incorporate in this, so I use kind of a combination of ungrading and specifications grading as well to help students assess their work. And I met with students quite often throughout the semester, particularly we had a midterm and a final exam meeting where we talked about the strengths of their projects, where they needed to go and what areas they needed to work on, whether it was engaging more deeply in the research and how to communicate that effectively in their projects. It was a lot of work for the faculty, but it was worth it in my opinion. It wasn’t so onerous and it wasn’t boring. It was exciting to meet with students, even if it meant spending my entire midterm week in the office with the students. It was almost every minute of my day for an entire week doing this, but it was, I think, a unique opportunity for making those connections with my students.

Jessamyn: I have been lucky. I have a relatively light teaching load and small classes. So that did make a difference in how I thought about structuring and implementing the unessay. There would be challenges on a larger scale. I would also say that there’s components of the unessay, that it’s not just do anything you want, and then nothing, and then in the end they turn in something. No, there’s stages and components like usually a proposal process and I also was able to meet with students. You could meet with students in small groups as well, if it’s a larger size class to go over the proposals, and many unessay assignments also do have a written component like a bibliography, an intro. At the midterm and end there could be a reflective assignment or sort of summary of work achieved. I did co-create with students the assessment guidelines for their projects. So taking the autonomy and agency a step further, I didn’t leave it totally up to them, we worked together on it, but asked them, “So this is your idea, this is the project you have in mind. How will it show these important skills? How will it show that you’ve met these course learning objectives?” And we work together on it. And that part is always great for me, I just really enjoy trying to de-center myself a little bit as the instructor which again, is something I can do from a place of certain privileges. I have tenure, I’m white, I’m cisgendered. But trying to enlist students as partners more, decentering myself a little bit, and asking them to reflect on what would show that you have achieved this learning outcome with this unessay assignment. A nice bonus is always students, at least one student, will say this is so hard, teaching must be really, really hard. [LAUGHTER] So bringing them in on that assessment process can help them even reflect on what does grading and assessment mean? What would show me that you’ve successfully achieved this learning, this desirable outcome?

John: Do either of you use rubrics for the unessay assignments?

Jessamyn: Well, when I co-created assessment guidelines with students, some of them used a rubric form. A lot of my students found rubrics helpful for things like deadlines. And I did set deadlines for certain benchmarks. And that was something that was easy to map out and help them structure their work time and stay on track as well.

Maggie: Yeah, I created a checklist with that self assessment that was on Jessamyn’s website, geekypedagogy.com. I did have students go through that and rate themselves, and then we got together in a meeting to discuss where we felt the accuracy of each of those points. But I think it gave them some comfort in saying, “Okay, I know I did multiple revisions of this, and I incorporated all of the feedback I was given. And here’s the changes I’ve made, or here’s the areas that I think I probably could have done better, or I could have focused my time a little bit better in this way.” And it just gave them, I think, a nice guideline to be able to talk about the strengths and areas of improvement for their project.

Jessamyn: I’ve used rubrics before, when I was co-creating the assessments. That’s fine with me, if that’s what they want to use. I will say that this part of it, while being very cognizant, like I said, of my own privileges and positionality and aware of that, your teaching context can really shape what kinds of assessments you can implement, for sure. But I also think that it’s at least worth considering the idea of our academic egos and our investment in our discipline and expertise. And what the unessay may challenge us to do is let go of the thing we know how to do absolutely better than anything in the world. So as a historian, a trained historian, I know how to assess student writing better than any other task I do as a teacher. I know so much about it. And it’s easy for me to do, not joyful, [LAUGHTER] but not difficult. It doesn’t push me to think about anything outside my comfort zone. And when I assign an unessay, I have to let go of that and think about things differently. And again, keeping in mind that I know bandwidth is limited, the incredible pressure on a lot of people in the pandemic pivot and for all various reasons, our limited energy, it might be too big an ask, too big a lift. But I would encourage listeners, if it’s possible, to consider maybe it’s not about me. [LAUGHTER] It’s not about us, and what makes us most comfortable as the person with the PhD in the room. That being a little uncertain. how can I assess did students meet this learning outcome with a quilt, with a board game, with a podcast, that it’s okay for us to feel a little bit discomforted. That’s about maybe getting out of the students way a little bit.

Rebecca: When I hear folks talk about unessays, both of you as well as others that I’ve heard talk about unessays, I see a big emphasis on process and the behaviors of a discipline, rather than necessarily the outcomes of something. So often in a research paper, we might assess on some of the polish of something like that, rather than really seeing always the process that goes into the thinking. But I feel like a lot of times with these projects, you end up knowing a lot more about a student’s thinking, because you’re talking with them about their projects in an ongoing way. Can you talk a little bit about that process piece with unessays?

Jessamyn: Well, one thing that jumped into my mind, Rebecca, when you were asking your question is writing a thesis statement for a research paper. Now, this happens to be something I’m incredibly good at helping students do, crafting their thesis statement. But, just like you described, it’s often so much about the academic writing skill that I’m helping them with, and when they have to write a thesis statement for the research paper they’re working on, that’s a great skill to have, if you’re going to be an academic. If you are engaging in scholarly writing, you have to know how to do that. And for a few students, that’s important. And that’s not like written communication skill. I’m talking about the highly academic scholarly skill of summarizing the argument you’re about to make in a paper. So for students who want to go on to be graduate students, I’m all in. We’re going to sit and we’re gonna go through this word by ever loving word to figure out the best way to state your argument. For a lot of my students, though, is that the best investment of their time, and the best way I can help them? There might be other ways to, just like you said, have them articulate and demonstrate their thinking, which, and I’ll just throw it out here in the age of generative AI and ChatGPT, this is at the heart of how we help students navigate is their original ideas really matter, their ideas, and their thinking matters. So if I can support a student being able to demonstrate their thinking and ideas in a way that matters to them, that they feel articulate doing, then, mission accomplished. That’s what I want. That’s what I want for students.

Maggie: Yeah, and I would say that, in my class, the 20- to 30-page research paper does serve students who are going to go on to graduate school. But like said, I don’t know if that is the best way to help them make the connection between what we’re doing in the classroom to what they are going to be doing on a regular basis in their various careers that they find themselves in. I wanted to make this project less about a means to an end for them, I wanted them to really think about how they start with an idea and how if they spend enough time thinking about that idea, and really focusing on how to communicate that expertise that they gained throughout the research on this idea, that they can create something that they’re proud of and they are hopefully less focused on the grade at the end of the semester and more focused on “Okay, I was actually able to start in one place, develop that project, develop this in a way that I can now go to my future employer or in an interview and say that I’ve developed these skills along the way that are mine and mine alone. They’re not ones that have been imposed on me by an instructor.”

John: We have increasingly diverse student bodies in terms of their prior preparation. Some have come through and had lots of practice writing throughout their high school careers and have developed those skills, others haven’t had as much preparation in writing. And we have lots of courses, though, that give them that but writing skills are not always one of the most important learning objectives for many of our classes. And it seems to me that perhaps using unessays can help provide a more equal playing field for students who may not have as strong of writing skills, but might be fairly comfortable creating videos or might be able to engage in some other creative activity that can demonstrate what they learned much more effectively than if they were constrained to having to do it in a written format.

Maggie: Well, I would say that was my experience for sure. I had a group of students make a series of TikTok videos and so they were quite excited about their ability to use something that they are on almost every day, if not every hour of their day, to use that as a platform to communicate the time topics that they were most interested in. And so it did mean that I had to learn a little bit about TikTok, I had to create a profile so I could follow my students and be able to see the videos that they had created. There’s an up voting system, too, I had to navigate [LAUGHTER] but yeah, in terms of equity, it does give students the ability to make decisions about how to present information in ways that they’re comfortable, but still challenging. I think that no matter what mediums students picked, it was challenging regardless. So it didn’t feel like students were just picking something that “Oh, well, I do this all the time.” It really was a strong motivator. And I think in a lot of the conversations we’ve been having in our reading groups about how to channel anxiety about something into a more direct way to accomplish a challenging task. I think it gave even students who are perhaps underprepared for academic writing, or find a lot of anxiety around that to shift their focus away from what they envision that they struggle with to then start in a place of, “Oh, I know I can do this, and I can communicate it in this way.” So I think it gave them some of that confidence back, that perhaps they find disappears when we impose a pretty lengthy paper or academic medium on them.

Jessamyn: There’s two aspects of the unessay and equity minded teaching I’ve been thinking of. One is the universal design for learning concept of providing some choice. It doesn’t have to be unlimited, it doesn’t have to be infinite choice. But providing some choice does increase accessibility. The second kind of key equity minded principle I have in mind with the unessay is that we should not be grading and assessing people’s life circumstances, we are grading and assessing their learning and their ability to show that they have reached certain benchmarks and outcomes. Just to put it in here as a caveat, I do think all kinds of writing is very, very important. Writing skills are very, very important. And a lot of the unessay assignment as I use it does include some clear written communication, because that is a skill we need in this world of ours. So the equity piece comes in though, that if I’m going to be assigning a grade assessing student writing, then it’s on me as the instructor to teach that and create the conditions in the classroom, the practice and the feedback, and more practice and making mistakes, and more feedback to do that writing piece. And if I’m taking into account the wide variety of academic backgrounds, what needs to happen in the course, for students to be able to demonstrate their learning accurately via a written essay, that’s a lot of writing work that I’m going to be doing to provide that equitable classroom. So the unessay as an option, that’s something a lot of people do offer the unessay as an option alongside a traditional essay option, the unessay as an option could increase equity in that way. I think it does convey the idea that our diversity is an academic asset. That all said, it’s interesting that the unessay could also exacerbate inequities without structure, without support. Students who have had very rich and varied past educational experiences may leap at the opportunity and see it just solely in terms of its benefits. Other students with less of that in their background might be extremely nervous about it as a whole new frontier for them. So without some structure, transparency, without all that prep work, Maggie, that you were describing, it could actually exacerbate some of those inequities.

John: And I think the scaffolding that you both described is really important in relieving some of that uncertainty, because I know some students when I’ve given similar types of assignments are really anxious about it and letting them do it a little step at a time and master that step seems to help relieve the pressure on them by just reducing the uncertainty.

Maggie: I know one of the things I incorporated in the project, and I think Jessamyn did this as well, that I gave students unlimited rewrites on any of the written work. So I did have a bibliography and I did have a proposal and a sort of artist’s statement reflection at the end of it. I think, again, I took that from geerkypedagogy[.com] and I gave students the opportunity to just keep rewriting and rewriting. And yes, it was a bit more work on my end. But it was so refreshing that students were actually taking my feedback into their work and they were making improvements. I think that whenever I’ve done drafts in the past, they might go through and make just the easy corrections and leave some of the harder things aside. But in this project, because we started a lot of those elements very early in the semester, we spend weeks and weeks just revising. And it really did give students, I think, a opportunity to make sure they fully were understanding and achieving those outcomes.

Jessamyn: Yeah, that point Maggie about your feedback actually being read and applied is so important for students and for faculty. It’s discouraging and disheartening to provide students a ton of feedback and then feel like it hasn’t been read. It’s up to us, though, to provide the opportunity for students to apply the feedback. If it can’t be applied, it’s very difficult to take it seriously [LAUGHTER] and to see it as meaningful and relevant. And I think another aspect of what you are describing that listeners might be interested in… if we haven’t totally convinced you yet [LAUGHTER] to use the unessay… is that it does get students’ attention, it cuts through the static. We get into a routine we’re just trying to get through, check that box for students who are overworked, overloaded, for whatever reason. I really feel like it kind of cuts through a fog that many of us, students and faculty, are in just by asking us to do something a little bit different.

Rebecca: Sometimes in those cases, and you guys have alluded to this before, that doing something different if they’ve not done it before, is risky and scary. And so all that scaffolding that you’ve built described as so important for students to be able to take that first risk and maybe take other academic risks in the future.

Jessamyn: Yeah, we can’t underestimate the impact of our traditional grading systems and traditional school systems where the stakes are sky high. You can’t overestimate them, financial aid, everything, is so tied to a student’s GPA, their families support, staying in school is often tied to GPA, their own sense of their selves as students, who they are, is defined by the grade they get. So asking them to, Rebecca, like you said, consider the process, not the end point. It is a big ask. So we can’t expect instant student buy-in, that they will immediately jump on board and with ease and joy, even if we are feeling that way about it.

John: So it sounds like it’s been a lot more fun, even though it may sometimes take more work for both of you. How have students responded? You’ve mentioned a little bit about student responses. But how do students generally respond at the end of the semester? Is it something that they find to be equally joyful?

Maggie: Jessamyn touched on this, but there was a bit of student buy-in that I had to get. And there were a couple of students who still wanted to write a traditional research paper. But in the end, they did a podcast element as well with it. So it was the sort of combination of the two, but it was the first time I had ever implemented an unessay in my classes. So I didn’t have a lot of student examples to show them. But I did spend a lot of time creating my own examples of what an unessay would look like. And I think for each of those scaffolded assignments I created a bibliography and a presentation and I tried to create an unessay myself so that they could see what it would look like. I think that gave them a little more confidence in knowing what was expected of them. But really, it took a lot of conversations with students on why I was doing this, what I thought the importance of shifting away from a traditional research paper, what gains they were going to have from that, and every student, at least to my knowledge, really enjoyed the process and much preferred the unessay over their 20- to 30-page research papers.

Jessamyn: The student resistance you just mentioned, Maggie, reminds me that I mentioned teaching context before, but it is important to underscore that any non-traditional teaching and learning practice and assessment, you can expect greater student resistance or reluctance when you quote unquote don’t look like a professor. So when you don’t fulfill the stereotype of what a professor looks like, if you’re navigating any kinds of intersectional biases, you may have to take into account the student resistance component and student biases. It’s a point that Chavella Pittman has emphasized for like an ungraded practice, that it’s very important to take those considerations into account. I will add that the biggest benefit besides my own grading joy is what I see… it’s extremely hard to measure… I couldn’t put it on my end-of-the-year file assessments of my own teaching, but students gain confidence, students gain some agency, some autonomy. I can see it in how they talk about it. If you can have a showcase or a gallery walk, you can see that they are proud of what they have achieved. When we’re doing senior presentations, that’s always very clear, like students’ sense of accomplishment is very notable. And it’s not that that doesn’t happen with the research papers. Well, it can, but the range of students who express and demonstrate to me that they’ve gained some confidence in themselves as students, as thinkers, as knowledge generators, as producers, it’s really heartening.

Rebecca: So we always wrap up by asking what’s next? Jessamyn, you want to go first?

Jessamyn: I’m headed to the POD Network Conference. I’m gonna do a session, with Chavella Pittman and Thomas Tobin, on faculty development that acknowledges teaching inequities. And I am working on a book on teaching and learning when things go wrong in the college classroom, and I just recently signed a contract for that book with the new series at University of Oklahoma press called Teaching, Engaging, and Thriving in Higher Education.

John: Maggie and I will both be at POD and will try to get to your session. And we’re looking forward to that book.

Maggie: I suppose what’s next for me feels like such a loaded question right now because I’m anticipating applying for a sabbatical. And so I’ve been really ruminating on this question of what is next for me. I’m entering into a mid-career stage, and so I feel like my answer is “I’m not quite sure yet.” But as far as the unessay goes, I do plan on bringing the unessay to my courses next semester. I’m teaching two elective courses on death penalty, and women and crime. And I think really any course, but particularly these courses, would be well suited for an unessay project.

Jessamyn: That reminds me, I am lucky enough, I’m going to be going to the American Historical Association Conference this spring and doing a workshop on the unessay, so any historians listening, I hope I see you there.

John: And we will include links to Teaching History, to that specific volume, as well as to the other resources that have been mentioned here. So check the show notes to find more of those resources. And thank you both for joining us again.

Maggie: Thank you so much.

Jessamyn: Thank you.

Rebecca: It’s always wonderful to talk to both of you

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

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

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314. Handbook of Online Higher Ed

Since its start in the late 1990s, asynchronous online instruction has spread throughout the world and has been the subject of extensive experimentation and study. In this episode, Safary Wa-Mbaleka, Kelvin Thompson, and Leni Casimiro join us to discuss their new handbook that examines effective practices in online learning from a global perspective.

Safary is an Associate Professor of Leadership in Higher Education at Bethel University in St. Paul, Minnesota. He has authored and co-authored more than 40 scholarly journal articles and more than 20 books and book chapters. Kelvin is the Vice Provost for Online Strategy and Teaching Innovation at the University of Louisville. Kelvin developed the BlendKit Course open courseware as part of the Blended Learning Toolkit, and he co-hosts TOPcast: The Teaching Online Podcast. Leni is a Professor of Education, the Associate Dean of the AIIAS Graduate School and Chair of its Education Department and the Director of AIIAS Online, the virtual campus of the Adventist International Institute of Advanced Studies (AIIAS) in the Philippines. Kelvin, and Leni are frequent invited speakers on topics related to online instruction. They are the co-editors of The Sage Handbook of Online Higher Education.

Show Notes

Transcript

John: Since its start in the late 1990s, asynchronous online instruction has spread throughout the world and has been the subject of extensive experimentation and study. In this episode, we discuss a new handbook that examines effective practices in online learning from a global perspective.

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

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

John: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer…

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

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John: Our guests today are Safary Wa-Mbaleka, Kelvin Thompson, and Leni Casimiro. Safary is an Associate Professor of Leadership in Higher Education at Bethel University in St. Paul, Minnesota. He has authored and co-authored more than 40 scholarly journal articles and more than 20 books and book chapters. Kelvin is the Vice Provost for Online Strategy and Teaching Innovation at the University of Louisville. Kelvin developed the BlendKit Course open courseware as part of the Blended Learning Toolkit, and he co-hosts TOPcast: The Teaching Online Podcast. Leni is a Professor of Education, the Associate Dean of the AIIAS Graduate School and Chair of its Education Department and the Director of AIIAS Online, the virtual campus of the Adventist International Institute of Advanced Studies (AIIAS) in the Philippines. Kelvin, and Leni are frequent invited speakers on topics related to online instruction. They are the co-editors of The Sage Handbook of Online Higher Education, which we’ll be talking about today. Welcome Safary and Leni and welcome back, Kelvin.

Safary: Thank you.

Leni: Thank you.

Kelvin: Good to be here.

Safary: A pleasure to be here.

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

Safary: I’m having water this morning.

Rebecca: A key ingredient to tea it might add. [LAUGHTER]

Rebecca: How about you, Leni?

Leni: I used green tea, particularly this Japanese matcha. [LAUGHTER]

Rebecca: Nice. How about you, Kelvin?

Kelvin: I have deconstructed tea. That’s also called water.

Rebecca: [LAUGHTER] Popular globally.

John: And speaking of globally, Rebecca and I are both drinking Moon Bird tea, which is a gift from one of our listeners in France who sent this to us a few weeks ago. So again…

Safary: Wow.

John: …thank you, Myriam.

Rebecca: Yeah, it has a nice hint of pear and elderflower.

John: …which is also a green tea.

Rebecca: Yeah.

John: We’ve invited you here today to discuss the SAGE Handbook of Online Higher Education. Could you tell us a bit about the origin of this book project?

Safary: The origin of this project is actually something that has to do with me having worked with Kelvin several years ago at the University of Central Florida. And right after that, I decided to work in the Philippines and that’s where I met with Leni Casimiro and we worked together. And at both institutions, we were working with online education. And eventually I was transferred to work for two years in Kenya. During the COVID-19. I happened to be in Kenya, and I quickly saw the great need of people wanting to have online education. The resources went up in the place. The things were scattered all over the place. And immediately the idea came that we needed a project that captured the whole world because now this was a worldwide phenomenon, it was no longer something peculiar to Kenya or Philippines or U.S., the whole world was in need of a tool like this. And that’s how I reached out to Kelvin and to Leni.. Thankfully, they both agreed to be part of the project. And I think, from my perspective, that’s where it came from. I don’t know about them… how they think about this? [LAUGHTER]

Leni: Well, for me, it’s really a big project that we did, combining the different parts of the world. You see where Kelvin comes from, representing the West, I represent the opposite, the East. And although Safary comes from the East as well, but he can represent the African continent. And so this really makes the book a global project, really a blend of different perspectives. And so I can say that online learning is represented all over the world in this particular book. And this is indeed, a big surprise to all the readers and a big discovery for everyone.

John: Speaking of readers, what is the intended audience of this book?

Kelvin: Well, I mean, honestly, I would say anyone, anywhere, around the whole planet, who in any way touches online or digital education, should access this book. It’s great for libraries and institutions to acquire and be in their communities. It’s a big book. There’s stuff in there for everybody. So I think it’s a great resource.

Rebecca: Speaking of the size of the book, the handbook contains 50 chapters. Can you talk about how you selected those chapters?

Kelvin: I think the scope and the sequence and the layout of the chapters and the sections sources originally to Safary’s proposal with the publisher, but it was intended to be rather comprehensive with sections like fundamentals and student support and administration and instructional design, instructional delivery, regional specifics, particular regions around the world, and how online education might differ a little bit in, say, the African context versus the European context. But over time, as we were recruiting authors, and as the writing process started, you get a little bit of evolution, the sections might morph a little bit, the distinctives of a given chapter might adjust based on interest and specializations of the authors. So that’s a little bit of the insight into the evolution. But I credit Safary for the vision, which I would say, is probably about 80 plus percent of what he originally had envisioned in the layout. That’s my guess. Safary, would you agree with that?

Safary: Yeah, the thing is that, when you work on a huge book like this, especially a handbook for Sage, they want to have the complete plan when you submit your proposal. Before I can get my co-editors to agree with me, they need to have kind of ideas, okay, this is what I have in mind. So usually, when I work on a handbook like this, I come up with a rough draft. And Kelvin and Leni were very good in catching certain things that I wouldn’t have caught because of their expertise, their experience, and their regions that they represent. And so in the end, what we have here is a product of the Table of Contents was really the product of these three brains that are speaking today.

Leni: I really liked the way Safary has chosen the chapters of this book. Well, we can say that he really originated the choice of these chapters. As you can see, from the perspective of a reader, when you look at the content, you can look in the sequencing, and you will find that you are actually looking into the step-by-step development, or the step-by-step process of engaging in online education. I will say it’s almost like a manual, almost every step that you will go through in undertaking online education in your institution is covered in this book. That’s why it’s really a very important book for every school to have.

John: We had some challenges coming up with a brief intro for each of you, because each of you has done so much with online education in many different roles in many different places. But you also have an editorial board for this book, which is a little bit different than many other books that we’ve seen in terms of handbooks. What was the role of the editorial board in putting this handbook together?

Safary: Yes, we had an editorial board. When you have a project of this magnitude, it is really important to have experts from different parts, especially at the global perspective of experts, and of course, experts on the different topics that are represented in the handbook. As much as we have experience with online education, we cannot assume to know it all… areas where we definitely need help. And so we selected very well known, very well recognized experts from different parts of the world. As far as online education is concerned, all the names that are there are people who are very well respected in the field of online education within their respective countries. The role they played was, for them to be our experts in checking the accuracy and the quality and the completeness of the chapters that were submitted to us. So basically, each chapter went to two to three reviewers and the editorial board members were the primary reviewers to help us really catch everything… and the work they did, I know that some chapters had more feedback than others, but I can say that contribution they gave through their feedback was very substantive in improving this handbook. I don’t know, Leni, how you found that when you’re working with the editorial members who are assigned to you?

Leni: Yeah, actually the editors we chose, I can say they are truly excellent and helpful. During the early parts of the writing of the chapters we lead editors are having like a tug of war with the chapter authors. They tend to bargain their thoughts with us, but when the editorial board came into the picture, it gave a more balanced outlook into writing the chapters. And so we really appreciate their services. The other thing is that this editorial board members are experts in the area and so we can truly depend on them. Their feedback were truly much valued and contributed much to the excellence of the contents of this book.

Rebecca: So the handbook is divided into seven sections. Can you provide a brief overview of each of those sections to give us the lay of the land?

Leni: Oh Yeah, seven sections, it’s nice to give an overview for people to know what the book contains. First section, of course, is the fundamentals of online education. It contains the introduction to the topic of the book, online learning, and some variations in online delivery, like blended, MOOC and ERT, emergency remote teaching, we just really call it ERT, and that became popular during the pandemic. The second section, online education around the world. This section is the most colorful part of the book, at least for me. Because it tours us around the world and gives us a view of how online education grew in varied contexts like US, Canada, Europe, Asia, Latin America, Africa, Australia, and the Middle East. The third section, Online Instructional Design, this section now brings us to the T-cell of online learning, the design of online instruction with focus on how learning happens online. This is now the more serious part of the book. While we came from the most colorful, we now go to the serious part of the book. And then the fourth one, Online Instructional Delivery, this section focuses on the hammer and nail of online learning, the actual online teaching, and this is the most exciting part. Because this is now the delivery, the previous one was the most serious part, this one is the most exciting part. And then perhaps, Kelvin, can you say about the fifth section [LAUGHTER] Instructional Technology for Online Education?

Kelvin: Here’s what I would say about that, if you’ve got the most serious, you talked about the most exciting that you talked about, maybe the fifth instructional technology for online education is the most invisible, maybe that’s what it is. Nobody thinks about plumbing until it doesn’t work. [LAUGHTER]

Leni: Thank you. So that’s technology, I would say this section is essential, because you cannot teach without knowing how to use technology [LAUGHTER]. And the sixth section, Online Education Administration and Management, I would say this is the driver’s seat of online bandwagon [LAUGHTER]. Online education can never prosper without the support of the school administration. So, leading school reforms, like entering the field of online education requires certain strategies to be certain of success. Therefore, I would say this section will indeed equip the readers with those skills, perhaps Safary, can tell us what section seven is?

Safary: I would say the last section is the Customer Service, given that the students are the customers. So the customer service, how to make sure we deliver the best customer service to the online students. And so it discusses all those different aspects of how to really prepare, plan effective service to the students, because many times when people are migrating from face-to-face to online or integrating online education, they forget that online students actually need serious support. And this support definitely needs to be defined. And people who are dealing with the students need to be trained. And so the last chapter actually deals exactly with that.

Leni: For me, because I was looking at the table of contents, and I was smiling in my mind, wow, this is really neatly done. And so this works came to my mind, and I said, Oh, the seventh section, this section focuses on the heart of every online classroom, the students. And so because the students are the reason why we offer online learning, thus we ought to know how we should support them.

Rebecca: One of the things that I love about working on collaborative projects that are really big, and then you have these opportunities to reflect together, is how you summarize what you did. It’s probably really different than while you were right in the middle of it. And it’s fun watching the facial expressions and things as you guys are describing the different sections.

John: With 50 chapters, there’s a great deal of breadth and depth on these topics. In section one, though, you address two topics which are not always considered as part of traditional, at least, online education, which is the use of MOOCs and ERT, emergency remote teaching. But these have played fairly important roles. Could you talk a little bit about the role of MOOCs and Emergency Remote Teaching in the larger environment of online higher education?

Leni: As I see it, MOOC and ERT are connected to the overall theme of the book, because technically they are both delivered online. Online learning can be synchronous or asynchronous. And it’s mostly taken asynchronously while ERT is done synchronously, because it is generally a replication of the face-to-face classroom through the web. However, there are certain arguments in the field as to whether can we classify these two under online learning, because they are believed to not use the principles of effective online teaching. And they say, is their instructional design in ERT? There are more questions to raise to the point that some people believe they should not be called online learning. But for me, we have a common denominator, course delivery through the web. Maybe we can hear from my co-editors here, Kelvin and Safary, what they think about it?

Kelvin: I was thinking, John, when you asked that question, I think the combination of Emergency Remote Teaching and Massive Open Online Courses, it’s part of the popular conception of what online education is, it’s sort of like what a layperson might think, is, it’s just one big thing. So if you didn’t address Emergency Remote Teaching, Massive Open Online Courses, maybe even Blended or Hybrid learning, those mutations, it might not provide quite the same way in for the broadest possible audience. But then, once we’ve ushered you into the house, through the front door, I hope we do a good job of taking you on a more detailed guided tour through the nuances and everything that online education can be, without just being stuck at that surface level.

Safary: If I may add something to the ERT. Personally, the reason why I wanted to see this chapter there was that outside of the United States and maybe Canada, and a little bit of Latin America, when ERT came, Emergency Remote Teaching came, many people call it online education. And as we know, online education, the way we know it traditionally, is much more than translating your face-to-face class to a Zoom class or Google meet class. And let’s face it, that the word there is emergency. This was an emergency modality, which obviously emergency is never the best option, it means better than the chaos that you’re going through. And so many people who didn’t know online education, they came to believe that Emergency Remote Teaching means online education. And many people who were against online education to start with, it was like, “Okay, we have already said that this thing is really bad because it was an emergency.” So it was very important to distinguish what Emergency Remote Teaching is. And in the future, if somebody wants to use that for another calamity that happens, then they know what steps to take, but it does not replace what is known, what we define as quality online education.

Rebecca: One of the parts of your book, The second section is about online education around the world. And getting that tour around the world is not something we typically get the opportunity to have. So can you talk a little bit about what some of the global differences in how online higher education is structured and practiced across continents and regions?

Safary: This section came up as we were trying to make the book global. We really wanted to hear the voices of the people from around the world and not just the United States… the United States being the lead on online education, no question about that. We wanted to know where things are in different regions that were represented. We had to even go online to try to track people down from different countries. It was not easy finding people from certain regions where we didn’t have a network. So as a result, we’re able to bring on board chapters from different parts of the world. We had a chapter from the United States, we had a chapter from Europe, from Canada, from Asia, from Latin America, from Africa, from Australia, and from Middle East. So we were able to see what was happening in each one of them. And these chapters we had, they were kind of similar in a way where we wanted to know what is happening, what are the challenges, what are the achievements that people have in those regions, so that people from those regions who decided to do more work on online education, they have a place where they can learn of what is happening in the whole region from this book. They can have this as a reference to understand what was happening in their region. It is true that when you have one chapter, for example, I co-authored a chapter on Africa, because I was still in Africa at that time. It’s a chapter that’s covering 52 countries, you cannot really cover 52 countries, we just had to have illustration from some of African countries, because there’s no way we have data on all the 52 countries, but at least, there were some common themes that were coming up from a different African countries if I can speak from that specific region.

Leni: I can speak from the perspective of an Asian because I come from Asia. And I would say, we cannot deny that online education started in the West. But because we live in a connected world, it spread easily. Basically, I can see a lot of similarities around the world. The only differences I noticed, because your question says what are some of the global differences in how online education is structured and practiced? Now, I would say the only differences I noticed are the approaches to online learning, depending on the level of their maturity, in using this modality, and the resonance of the context they serve. Institutions that have been engaged in online learning for a long time definitely deal with issues that are different from those of newcomers, the needs of the context they serve also differ, so the strategies utilized also differ. One thing I would highlight, though, is that you can clearly see the creativity and continuity of people in different parts of the world in running online education. And we still can learn from each other. That’s why I said a while ago, the section on the global online education is really colorful.

Rebecca: One of the things that I think is really interesting about that section, is that it can also give us insight as instructors that teach a global audience about what the contexts are that students might be coming from. And that’s something that we often don’t have a little bit of insight into.

Safary: I think that is a very good point. Now that we have online education, people are teaching in many different countries. I remember just a couple of weeks ago, I was approached by one of my former students who wanted me to teach a class in the Caribbean. If things worked out for me, for that class, I would have just glanced at that chapter that covers a little bit of the Caribbean and see what I need to watch out for. So that is definitely a good point for the section on the different regions. In this handbook.

John: When online education first started, there wasn’t really that much known about what would work effectively. And as online education evolved, we saw the role of instructional design become an important part of the practice of online education. And section three deals with online instructional design. And that’s helped facilitate and inform online education, along with a lot of research that’s been done since the early stages. How have instructional design practices evolved since the early stages of online education in the latter part of last century?

Kelvin: That’s a good question. And I guess I’ve been in this field watching this first hand and touching it for about 25 years now. So I sometimes say not exactly the first floor of the building, but just one step above. And what I would say is that when I started in the late 90s, what we saw a lot was adaptation of traditional instructional systems design models and practices, that is constructs that were used quite often in corporate education. See if this takes you back to the past: CD ROM development, military learners. Those kinds of methods, practices, and models were adapted to this online context. And some of that’s constrained, like you’re making a system, like it’s a bounded system that was, quite often the context, like a CD ROM. And now you’re talking about the internet, a network open system. And I remember some of those early days, like, “Okay, what can we learn from these models? How can we adapt those?” Over time though, we learned that this is a unique context, which then began to have its own models and practices and processes and research and iterations and development. And I think of even things like much newer developments, like alongside of constructs like inclusive pedagogy, we see practices and thrusts, like inclusive design, as being a very specialized subset. So we’ve got a very robust research and professional practice literature that has grown up and these, arguably, two and a half decades of online education experience to draw upon. And I guess I’ll just say this, about that. Throughout my time in this field, what I’ve seen is that online tends to make the formerly invisible, visible; formerly implicit, explicit. And I think that evolution of instructional design and development field, it has learned from that. Online education has drawn us along in what does it mean to bring learners in from really anywhere and bring them together in a learning community, and how do we excel in that. That’s been a really rich progression over these last two and a half decades.

Safary: If I may add to that, the reason why we had this section was that many people who are new to online education, they think that online education is about uploading all the files that you have been using face to face, and then let the students read that, and that’s online education. It leads to a lot of frustration from the students because there was no instructional design for online learning. And so we needed to have a section that would guide people into that. And also for instructional designers in college and universities where they already have instructional designers. Some of them have not gotten a degree in instructional design. So they have limited knowledge. They just happen to know a little bit more than everybody else, but they don’t really have a solid foundation. And so that section helps to kind of guide people in the proper instructional design for online learning.

Rebecca: So sections four and five focus on online instructional delivery and instructional technology. These are topics that we love to talk about and have episodes of this podcast on. But given the time constraints, we probably can’t dig in fully here. But can you help us identify some of the most important changes that have occurred in how well designed online courses are taught?

Leni: That’s a nice question. Kelvin also said a while ago, he was mentioning about the early years of online instructional design, I would say, perhaps 1998 to 2000, those are the early years I’ve been involved, still in the planning stages of online delivery. Most of the online courses we developed were primarily text based, and are delivered asynchronously. That was after the military, Kelvin used, online learning, it was already in the university. Why text based? Because even our students, in the context we are serving also did not have the capability or the capacity to access videos or higher level technology tools. That’s why we designed the way they can access us. And so, yes, it was primarily text based and asynchronous. However, through the years, I would say two forces caused the major changes in the way we design online courses, first, technological developments, particularly in instructional technology. And second, changes in the needs or nature of our stakeholders, the students. Well, technological developments without a doubt have increased the repertoire of instructional media that we can use in designing truly engaging online courses. But as I’ve said earlier, technology is not the heart of online learning… it’s our students. And we saw how the nature of our online students change over time as well. While many of them were happy with plain text based asynchronous online courses during the early days, now they want more real-time meetings. And the flexibility they want is indeed tremendous, I tell you. We notice that there is a greater demand now for more flexible and personalized learning approaches. And these topics are dealt with in this handbook. I know Kelvin has written on this. And some other chapters also addressed this flexible learning, personalized learning approaches. These are now the needs and demands of the new generation of online students.

John: This is bringing me back to a time when I started back in 1997 teaching online when many of the students had 300 baud… [LAUGHTER] …or 1200 baud modems, and you couldn’t do much more than text. And I remember putting in some flash-based videos, and many students couldn’t access those because they didn’t have the download speed, especially students in more rural areas. So there was a lot of resistance to online education when it was first introduced, which is one of the reasons why I think instructional design practices became a part of early online education to help ensure the quality of that. And we do have, in most institutions a fairly elaborate process of instructional design assistance and instructional design review for online courses, which is something that’s never really happened in the same way for most face-to-face courses. Might it be time to start applying some of the techniques and practices of design that’s being used for online course delivery to in-person course delivery?

Safary: I remember about 15 years ago, I was training faculty on online teaching in the Caribbean. And I remember many of them, at the end of the training, saying, “I have improved my face-to-face teaching because of the training that I have been going through for online teaching.” So I definitely believe that if people get the proper training in online teaching, they can use that knowledge to improve face-to-face teaching. Because let’s face it, many people are teaching not because they have a degree in education, but because they have a degree in whatever field they come from, they have never learned how to teach. And so when they go through the training for online teaching, they discover a lot of principles that they should have even been using face to face. So I definitely agree with you on that one.

Kelvin: Yeah, it’s true. I say it all the time online makes the formerly implicit, explicit; formerly invisible, visible. And I think that’s why online has been a vehicle for applying thoughtful design and teaching practices and the improvement thereof. Once you sort of concretize the elements that make up an online education experience, then you can see well, how are they arrayed? Are they lined up properly? Does this cause lead to the desired effect, and you can work on improvement, no offense to anyone in this, but when we just are dealing in the ephemeral, we will walk into a space, four walls and a door, and we say words into the air, it’s much harder to see how those parts fit together or don’t. And it’s harder to be reflective. So, I think that’s the reason that online education has brought more emphasis to potential improvements, continuous improvements, and so I welcome it as a vehicle for a more thoughtful process in general. I love this elegant turn of phrase Caroline Boswell says she frames teaching as a student success intervention. Or as I put it, I’m one of those odd people who sees a connection between teaching and learning. And not everybody does.

Rebecca: You’re kind of queuing up our next question perfectly Kelvin. The final section of your book is really about student support. And our students are often distributed when we’re teaching online. So what are some of the biggest challenges in terms of supporting students that are in these online programs or online courses?

Kelvin: Yeah, I would welcome Leni’s and Safary’s viewpoint on this as well. But to me, I’ll keep it simple and say that the biggest challenge is the diversity of student profiles. The different backgrounds, the multifaceted demographics, and resource or not resource, or technological connection or not technological connection, that diversity makes it awfully hard to assure kind of an equitable experience for everyone. So that’s the gap that emerges, that student support is trying to offer… not to mention the diversity of approaches to design and development in the actual experience. But I’m curious what Leni and Safary would say to that.

Leni: I would go for the opposite, on the side of the teachers, I would say the greatest challenge in student support is personalizing your support. It’s related to your diversity. Almost every online student has her unique needs and contexts. So considering different personalities and backgrounds as well, you may be able to personalize your support. But in the name of efficiency, you’ll find yourself dehumanizing the process. What do I mean by this? Well, machines can never replace human touch. And human touch is what every online student needs.

Safary: If I may speak a little bit from experience I had in Kenya during the COVID-19, we migrated our classes to the online delivery. And I quickly realized that… and this was something that was going on in all of Africa, I know this because I was involved in different international association for online education all over the continent…. and so we were meeting and discussing some of these issues. The major challenges that were going on at that time, I don’t know about today, were dealing with infrastructure, because most universities that didn’t have online education platforms, or online education structural systems, so the technology was not in place. Many students there were not access because the internet was extremely slow, some were using loads of data to access the materials and they would run out. Some had issues with electricity. These are things we take for granted in the West. These are the not issues that we will discuss even in textbooks of online education, but they are real issues that cannot be ignored. And so that was a major challenge in supporting online students, because the infrastructure was not in place. And I think the issue is still the same. But more and more work is being done. I remember, for example, in Kenya, what the government did, they gave the free data access to all the faculty in the whole country, as long as it was used only for instructional purposes [LAUGHTER]. If you want to use it for something else, it wouldn’t work. I mean, that was quite creative, to try to help people to help education move forward, because everything was just stuck because of COVID-19.

John: Over the past year, we’ve seen a fairly explosive growth and use of generative AI large language models, including chat GPT, Claude, and a few others that have come out very recently. And that opens up a lot of interesting opportunities, but also some challenges for online education, particularly concerning the assessment of asynchronous learning. How do you see online education adapting in response to the widespread availability of tools like this, which will only become more powerful over the next few years?

Kelvin: It’s sort of the very definition and epitome of disruptive innovation or disruptive technology. And just to be clear about this, I don’t think it’s limited or focused on asynchronous online education, I think it’s everything. For me, it’s really an opportunity to address learning and assessment of learning much more meaningfully, and I’ll use one of Leni’s words, more personalized and relational. I think one of the things we’re seeing with the injection of these various forms of artificial intelligence into the learning setting is the value proposition of the human. And I think it was Cathy Davidson, years ago, from HASTAC said something like, “If we faculty can be replaced by a computer we should be.” That is, if all you’re offering is something that is easily rendered more efficient and scalable by a machine then, well, what are you doing it for? I think that the opportunity to really gauge learning, which is a very personal and a meaningful thing, we act like it’s something that’s kind of homogenized and industrialized, but learning… I don’t know what learning is, frankly, I can’t crack open a human and see what all is happening with the connections and making of meaning in all the background experiences. All I can do is get insight, but in dialogue, in the creation of artifacts I get a glimpse. If we’re product oriented, to the exclusion of the process, and to the exclusion of the human context, well, that can be certainly disrupted, maybe stolen by artificial intelligence in machines. But if we keep the emphasis on humans, on “Well, John, tell me about this…” that’s more meaningful. I learned a practice a long time ago from a faculty member that I studied under, where she adopted a practice of a learning summary. And in any course, again, that’s just one artifact, but it gives a glimpse into the articulation of what learning is really about. So I think we need to push the envelope in “What does authentic assessment mean? What does meaningful learning look like?” Now, that’s hard to do at scale. Are you going to have a personal oral defense with every student for every assignment, probably not. But if we see artifacts, and products, as breadcrumb trails leading to a destination of a more substantive dialogical process, well, then maybe that’s something. So I don’t think we know yet how this is going to play out. And I think your listeners are gonna find cold comfort from me in getting to an easy solution. But I think the future of responding to generative AI is to lean more into the human and the relational than less.

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

Safary: Well, as far as this project is concerned, what is next really, we want to continue building a community of online higher education scholars, practitioners, so that this momentum that has been created by this book can continue, because this is one of the few maybe rare books that really have so much global contribution to online education. Many of the books that are written, they’re usually kind of regional to a specific region of the world. And so this is the first time we have a network of, I think, around 100 people who contributed to this, coming from many different countries. And I feel this has created synergy on the discussion of online education in a way that we should not let that go. So one of the things that we have been talking about is the possibility of holding a summit on online higher education in the next few months, once everybody has gotten a chance to hold a copy of this book, and to bring different experts together from different parts of the world, and try to address online education from different parts of the world, while addressing common issues such as assessment, which is one of the major controversial issues anywhere have been, everybody talks about the challenges of online assessments. So that’s things like this, and probably this artificial intelligence, which is a new thing, we may want to go deeper into that… we’re not able to dig too deep with that, although we addressed it in the book. But we didn’t go too deeply because it was still kind of new ChatGPT was just coming out when we were finishing the handbook. And so that is one of the things that we are looking into, there is another handbook in the making with SAGE that will focus specifically on instructional design in higher education. So that would be like an extension of this project. So we want to continue building on this work, because we consider it’s very important.

Leni: I’m really optimistic about the next steps on this because it’s like a seminal book that really got there’s a global perspective, as Safary says it’s not the same as the other online learning books. So we can also see a lot of developments coming up. And so I will say, this book is just step one, the next steps will really be coming up definitely, because the field is always growing. We have seen its growth, and it will still grow. And so there’s more to follow, I believe.

Rebecca: Well, thank you all for joining us. I know that our listeners will really enjoy the handbook and all that it has to offer.

John: Well, thank you, and it’s great talking to all of you and we’re looking forward to reading the book.

Safary: Thank you so much for the opportunity. Really appreciate that and wish everybody a wonderful reading experience.

Kelvin: Thanks for having us, Rebecca and John.

Leni: Thank you very much.

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

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

Ganesh: Editing assistance by Ganesh.

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313. Supporting Neurodiverse Students and Faculty

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

Show Notes

Transcript

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

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

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

John: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer…

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

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

Liz: Thank you. I’m happy to be here.

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

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

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

Liz: Yes, sure.

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

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

Liz: That feels fair.

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

Rebecca: I know. [LAUGHTER]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Liz: Exactly. {LAUGHTER]

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rebecca: That sounds like a lot of fun.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Liz: Yes.

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

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

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

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

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

Liz: …performative hardassery…

John: That was the technical term…

Rebecca: [LAUGHING]

John: …but it was…

Liz: Yes

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

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

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

Rebecca: It was great talking to you. Thank you

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

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

Ganesh: Editing assistance by Ganesh.

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310. Community Effects of Incarceration

Some students receive substantial support on their educational journey within their homes, communities, and schools; others face substantial barriers. In this episode, Arpit Gupta joins us to discuss his recent study that examines the effect of community incarceration rates on the academic performance of children in affected households and on their classmates.

Arpit is an Associate Professor of Finance at the Leonard N. Stern School of Business at NYU. Arpit has published extensively in highly ranked finance, economics, science, law, and management journals on topics ranging from housing markets, infrastructure investment, bail, local journalism, racial housing gaps, incarceration, and remote work.

Show Notes

  • Gupta, Arpit and Hansman, Christopher and Riehl, Evan (2022). Community Impacts of Mass Incarceration. May 3.
  • Norris, S., Pecenco, M., & Weaver, J. (2021). The effects of parental and sibling incarceration: Evidence from ohio. American Economic Review, 111(9), 2926-2963.
  • Lazear, E. P. (2001). Educational production. The Quarterly Journal of Economics 116(3), 777–803.
  • Chetty, R. (2016). Improving opportunities for economic mobility: New evidence and policy lessons. Economic Mobility Research and Ideas on Strengthening Families Communities the Economy, edited by Brown, Alexandra, Buchholz, David, Davis, Daniel, and Gonzalez, Arturo, 35-42.
  • Chetty, R. (2021). Improving equality of opportunity: New insights from big data. Contemporary Economic Policy, 39(1), 7-41.

Transcript

John: Some students receive substantial support on their educational journey within their homes, communities, and schools; others face substantial barriers. In this episode, we discuss a recent study that examines the effect of community incarceration rates on the academic performance of children in affected households and on their classmates.

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

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

John: ;hellip;and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer;hellip;

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

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Rebecca: Our guest today is Arpit Gupta. Arpit is an Associate Professor of Finance at the Leonard N. Stern School of Business at NYU. Arpit has published extensively in highly ranked finance, economics, science, law, and management journals on topics ranging from housing markets, infrastructure investment, bail, local journalism, racial housing gaps, incarceration, and remote work. Welcome, Arpit.

Arpit: Thanks so much for having me.

John: It’s great to see you again. It’s been a while since we last talked… 20 years or so.

Arpit: Yeah, it’s been a while. So I owe my economics career to John having him teach me at a very formative time in my life. Very happy to be back here.

John: Back at the TIP program, way back. And you would have probably done that anyway, because you had a lot of interest in it even back then. Today’s teas are: …are you drinking any tea, Arpit?

Arpit: …just drinking water at the moment.

Rebecca: It is the foundation of tea.

John: It’s one of our more popular teas.

Rebecca: I have an Awake tea today.

John: I have a Darjeeling tea today.

Rebecca: So we’ve invited you here today to discuss your May 2022 working paper on community impacts of mass incarceration, co-authored with Christopher Hansman and Evan Riehl. Could you tell us about the origin of this study?

Arpit: Yeah, so Chris, Evan, and I were all graduate students at Columbia University. Chris and I were also roommates. And we had a third roommate who was a public defender. So we would just come home and hear interesting stories of his experience at work and things he was seeing. One of the things that he brought home and kind of talked to us was the fact that bail was an interesting process. And there was an interesting random assignment across bail judges. And so that was our first project, it kind of stemmed directly from talking to this roommate and his collaborator on that project. And another thing that he was mentioning is that the way he saw it is that incarceration spells really had rippling effects, not just directly on individuals concerned, but kind of affected broader communities in different ways. And we felt that that was a really interesting insight that has been explored in some other non-economics research. And we wanted to just explore this concept further, because we felt it was an important essential public policy question. And so we spent many years to try to get the right data and setting to explore further at these broader community impacts of incarceration.

John: So earlier studies had found that incarceration of a parent had significant effects on education for children within the household. Could you just talk a little bit about those effects before we talk about your contribution to this literature?

Arpit: Yeah, absolutely. So there is a pretty broad literature on this topic. And I would sort of separate some of the papers that are not in economics from the papers that are in economics. There are a number of great studies that, for example, will track cohorts of people across generations to kind of see what are the rippling long term implications of incarceration. There are a variety of these papers that explore I would sort of describe are the multi dimensional aspects of incarceration on different outcomes for individuals and families that are concerned. And I would sort of characterize this non-economic literature as really highlighting the disproportionate spatially concentrated incarceration. And that’s kind of the key insights of this broader sociological literature, that you think of incarceration as something that affects a lot of people in very concentrated ways and bad ways. The economics literature has taken a little bit of a different approach and has primarily focused on the direct impacts of incarceration, with some literature starting to look at how that also affects household members. A lot of literature has been in Scandinavian countries where they have a different justice system and really good data. Some of those papers have actually found positive effects of parental incarceration on children outcomes, which might make sense if you’re removing, for example, a negative role model from a child’s life or if the criminal justice system itself offers positive remediation, restorative justice, and so forth, that kind of improves someone’s outcomes after they’ve returned from prison. The closest paper to our study in the United States is going to be a paper by Norris and Weaver, which focuses on the effects of incarceration for students in Ohio. And there, they argue that incarceration of a parent improves the odds that the child is going to be involved in the criminal justice system in the future, so that they are less likely to be arrested in the future. And they find more mixed evidence on the education impact. They don’t find much evidence for negative education impacts. But that’s done on the kind of little bits of a smaller sample with larger standard errors.

John: Your study, though, goes a little bit further, because you’re looking not just as the effect on children within the household, but also spillover effects into their classrooms and schools, from incarceration of adults in the household. How did you separate out the effect of differences in incarceration rates from all the other factors that might influence such outcomes in those communities?

Arpit: Absolutely. So this is going to be, of course, a key distinction between how economists think about the problem versus other disciplines. We’re thinking upon the question of identification. How can we identify whether the negative impacts or positive impact you’re looking at can be attributed to incarceration, or are just reflective of other background trends. Let me start first with actually how we think about these effects in aggregate, because that gets at like the community dimension of the problem, which is kind of our central focus. So the big question that we’re really interested in is what happens to a community, when a lot of people within that community are behind bars? How does the impact on that set of individuals spill over and impact the overall community. And of course, this is an even harder identification problem than just looking at the attacks on one person, because you wonder what the omitted background factors that can affect entire communities. But we find that when a county has a relatively more strict set of judges, that actually has a large impact on the overall performance of all the students in the area. So that suggests that there are large impacts of incarceration that kind of broadly affect all the students in a particular area. And that motivates us to think about what is the size of the effect of incarceration on children’s outcomes, and what are the mechanisms by which they’re affected? But we then dig more deeply into thinking about the effects on the directly affected children, those whose parents are themselves incarcerated. There, we similarly use judicial variation, and we also look at the spillovers onto other children in the classroom. So the key innovation, the key contribution, I think, of our analysis is to take this question that has been studied before, but adopt it to the problem, thereby thinking about the more aggregate consequences and the mechanisms by which incarcerations affect broader communities.

John: And you also use an event study approach too, to provide more support. Could you talk a little bit about that part of the analysis?

Arpit: So we use those in both our direct and indirect analyses where we were trying to understand what is the impact on a student if their family member is incarcerated. And the event study approach basically looks before and after that arrest and looks at the outcomes for the children as measured by outcomes such as the test scores, the suspension rates, misbehavior rates, and so forth. So we’re interested in a little bit of a multi dimensional set of outcomes for children, because we want to know both how is this child doing, we want to know whether there are behavioral disruptions that may stem from having a background incarceration at home, that may then affect other children, because if you’re misbehaving in the classroom, that’s something that will negatively potentially affect other children’s learning in the classroom. The event study is looking within the child before and after that arrest period. And we also do that same event study analysis at the classroom level, basically. So looking at what happens to the performance of other students in the classroom, when one of the students’ family members is arrested.

Rebecca: How big was the impact of incarceration on children in the affected households and in the classrooms.

Arpit: So for one individual child, the effects on math and English scores is something 5% of the standard deviation. So it’s an effect that is sizable enough, if you think about many educational interventions as having very heterogeneous effects, and it’s very hard often to kind of get meaningful moves in child performance. But the really big part of the analysis, I think, was trying to reconcile those direct effects, the ones that are one to one and a half percent of the standard deviation against the overall impact of incarceration on the whole community. So what happens if I take a whole county and I change the mix of judges and I have much more incarceration? What is the overall educational impact there? So when we looked at that overall community level perspective, we actually found that changing a one standard deviation in the county level stringency is actually affecting test scores by between one and a half to three and a half of a standard deviation. So we’re basically getting very big aggregate effects that the individual effects alone can’t explain. And so we think that there’s scope for these spillover effects, by which one directly affects how a child behaves in a certain way in the classroom that then spills over to the other children in the classroom that thereby amplifies the effect, so as to generate larger negative overall effects. And one channel that we use to identify those is to look within the classroom itself, not gonna measure all the potential spillovers between children, but it’s one area where we think there’s spillovers, and we think that those spillovers can also account for some fraction of the overall community effect.

Rebecca: Can you translate some of that standard deviation talk [LAUGHTER] to people that don’t know anything about statistics.

Arpit: For example, at the county level, when we are thinking about a one standard deviation increase in the stringency we’re thinking about a 15 to 20% increase in incarceration. So that’s kind of the range of variation that we’re looking at at the county level when thinking about what are the typical shock to incarceration, and that’s a kind of pretty substantial increase in the incarceration levels we’re seeing as a consequence.

John: So you’re finding the effect on any one other student is relatively small, but the aggregate effect on all the students in the class is relatively large. Is that correct?

Arpit: That’s right. So when we look at those other students in the classroom, we’re getting effects for those students in response to the incarceration of a peer’s family members, they’re on the order of 0.3, 0.4 percent of a standard deviation. You should just basically think of that as a really small number. And the only way we’re kind of getting the power to analyze this is that we’re looking at this North Carolina data, which is really great, a lot of people have worked with it, exactly because it is so comprehensive. So we’ve got all the student rolls, we’ve got all the arrest records, all of these are matched together. And so using this really holistic sample allows us to try to quantify these effects that are pretty small for any one individual child, but they’re just a lot of exposures that can aggregate up. And so we think that this classroom disruption channel can explain something like 15% of that relationship between aggregate incarceration and test scores. So it kind of all adds up to explain a more meaningful fraction of this overall relationship between what happens when a lot of people in the area go to jail and what happens to student performance in that area.

John: What sort of mechanism are you hypothesizing might be the cause of the spillover effects to other students in the classrooms?

Arpit: So let’s start with what we can measure in our data. So what we observe is that children who are affected whose family members are incarcerated are looking at increases in suspension days, they’re absent more often, they’re involved in more fighting incidents, typically it takes two people to fight. So that sort of tells us that there are other people involved in the classroom for these affected students. And so we think that this relates very closely to the idea that there are classroom level externalities, and there is a large literature, actually papers by Lazear and others that highlight the importance and implications of classroom level externalities, classroom disruptions, when it comes to learning. It also comes up, by the way, when I talk to people in North Carolina who are teachers. One thing that they really bring up is that children come into the classroom with all sorts of backgrounds that change behavior in the classroom, and that impairs the learning experience for other students in the classroom. So that’s what we can measure most cleanly, is the existence of these behavioral disruptions by students affecting how they behave in the classroom, and influences, through that channel, the learning experience of other children. That doesn’t need to be the only mechanism that’s going on here, there can be other spillover channels between children that we can’t observe in our data. There can also be other channels outside of peer interactions between children through other community interactions between people as well, that we also can’t measure in our data. So we think of this project as really trying to open a set of analysis that we’re considering and thinking about the broader web of social interactions, when incarceration happens.

Rebecca: What are some of the public policy implications of the study?

Arpit: So the challenge, of course, is that you’re measuring one side of the equation, we’re measuring sort of the cost of incarceration, and so you have to balance those against some of the possible benefits of incarceration, because children are also affected by crime in the local community, as well. And so it’s a difficult trade off to try to balance both the costs and benefits of incarceration in tandem. So I don’t think our results actually have a clear takeaway. I think the biggest thing that I personally kind of took away from the analysis is that if we have different techniques, if we have different ways of trying to reduce and address crime, it would be ideal if we were able to lean on ways that rely less on the incarceration channel, which impose these additional externalities and costs and burdens on local communities, and instead found other ways of trying to address and mitigate and reduce crime. So for example, when it comes to a different setting, when it comes to thinking about bail, which is a topic we’ve also researched before, there is sometimes a choice between arresting the individual and putting them in jail, compared to something like house arrest, compared to something like electronic or digital monitoring. These systems are also not perfect. There are also a lot of costs and tradeoffs there. But to the extent that you can find ways of deterring, mitigating, crime that don’t rely as much on the incarceration channel, I think that lowers the spillover negative effects on local communities, I want to mention that, when we look at these multi-dimensional impacts of the original incarceration event on the student, we actually find, consistent with prior literature, that to the extent that we can observe juvenile offenses, we don’t observe increases in crime, if anything, there are decreases in criminal activity. That, again, is consistent with some of the prior literature. And the way to interpret that, I think, is to again think of there as being multiple dimensions by which people are affected. So you can observe that there’s a negative role model effect, you observe someone going to jail for a crime… Well, I’m not going to commit that crime, but you may still act out in the classroom. So we shouldn’t think of the responses to these kinds of disruptive background events as happening on some uniform spectrum of good behavior or bad behavior, but it’s much more multi-dimensional in how people respond to stressful situations.

John: Did you find a difference in the effect whether it was a male or a female in the household who is incarcerated in terms of the impact on children?

Arpit: Everything I’ve said, so far, I’ve been trying to be careful in sort of saying , these are individuals in the household, because really, what we’re doing is the household level match. So we’ve got the address, and so what we really know is that this is someone that lives at this address that is arrested. We view that mostly as a strength of our approach, which is trying to identify household members. It sort of recognizes the intergenerational and complicated family backgrounds many families have, but it does make it a little more challenging to establish the sort of true relationship between individuals. And so one thing that we kind of did there is sort of try to identify probable female parents or guardians, male parents or guardians, or simply assign kind of age ranges and things like that. We did find the effects on children were much larger when we were looking at the incarceration of a female payment. So that kind of makes a lot of sense, if you think that mothers and female guardians kind of play uniquely important roles within the household. And when it comes to the child themselves, the effects were actually pretty similar between boys and girls.

John: In the US, we have one of the worst rates of intergenerational income mobility, might this type of an issue be one of the causes of that, in that in low-income communities where incarceration rates tend to be higher, it’s putting children in those communities at further disadvantage, which can have some long-term consequences.

Arpit: One thing I want to mention is where we’re kind of taking the paper is to adopt the community frame and think about other community outcomes that might potentially change as a result of incarceration. So I do think that probably one of the reasons that we have this, not just low on average in the United States, a low rate of social mobility in the United States, but also it’s very regionally varying rate of social mobility differences across the United States. I remember when the first Chetty map was released that showed the geography of economic mobility in the United States. My home state, North Carolina, is actually incredibly low for social mobility. And that’s surprising, actually, because North Carolina is where everyone’s moving to. It is incredibly economically dynamic, it has lots of job centers, but moving there is low cost of housing. It has a lot of features, which you might expect should be associated with high economic mobility. And in fact, like much of the south and very regionally varying patterns across United States, you actually observe pretty low social mobility. And I do wonder whether one reason for that is that we have these very high rates of incarceration across much of the United States. And that’s not an easy thing to just stop incarceration, because we all know that the system of criminal justice, that is also there to protect in low- income communities from the negative consequences of crime. So the public policy challenges of how to figure out what to do about this are really complicated. But we want to know why is it that people that grew up in the same state that I did, don’t necessarily have great opportunities compared to people who grew up elsewhere. So we’re hoping to use the setting, use this analysis to dig a little bit deeper into this question. And one fact that is kind of already out there that I think is very related, is that analysis by Chetty and others, which looked at the geography of social mobility, found that a big correlate, something that associates strongly with social mobility across United States is the presence of two-parent households. So the number of absent fathers, that associates very strongly with the lack of social mobility in an area. Of course, that is not a causal statement, you could imagine things go the other way. So lack of social mobility kind of impacts in different ways. But I think that’s a diagnostic that is suggestive of the idea that something about incarceration affects broader communities, affects the family formation, affects family stability in ways that impact people’s ability to build stable relationships. And all of that kind of has really persistent negative impacts.

Rebecca: As an educator, this study makes me think about if I’m a teacher in a classroom, I’m kind of experiencing the phenomenon that you’re studying, and the kinds of things that I might consider doing for classroom management or the way that I might better understand even just what’s happening or what I’m observing, I think is food for thought for educators to just be more aware of what’s happening in their communities.

Arpit: The other kind of question, I think, for economic policy is about these measures of teacher value add, which are being thought of as ways of assessing or even compensating teachers for the increase in test scores, that they’re resulting in the classroom that they have, right? And this makes sense to economists we want to value and grade people based on the incremental add that they’ve done to a population kind of coming in. But one thing I actually hear a lot from teachers is they’re very worried about this possibility as something that affects them as a teacher, because they’re saying, “Well, it’s not my problem, if I happen to have a classroom in a particular year where the children are going through a lot of stuff at home, they’re not necessarily going to learn as much, that might affect other children in the classroom as well. And that’s something that I will potentially be judged for, something outside of my control.” And that is a very strong problem for this whole teacher value add methodology, because these kinds of background events don’t necessarily follow a predictable sequence. And so they can kind of happen at various times over students’ lives, over a teacher’s career across different classrooms. And so it’s very hard statistically, to separate out whether a student is doing well or badly because of the teacher, or because of some background events. It also impacts, I think, how we statistically evaluate and think about evaluating teachers.

Rebecca: I imagine it also impacts classroom management and observations of classroom management and other tools that we use to evaluate teachers currently… behavior in that class is different than others, or they have different traumatic experiences impacting their behavior. That’s not necessarily being observed by an observer.

John: And we have put probably far too much weight on teacher and school compensations and budget tied to student performance, because, as you said, there’s so much that’s outside the control of the teachers or the school districts.

Rebecca: That’s also the schools that tend to struggle to get teachers and things too, right?

John: And we’re penalizing those teachers and those school districts, often, that face the most severe challenges and need the most support. You mentioned this dataset from North Carolina is a very rich one, but you had to do a bit of work to get all that data together. Because there is a lot of data on student outcomes, but you also have to tie this to incarceration. Could you talk a little bit about how you matched the household data, or the incarceration data, to the schooling data?

Arpit: Oh, man, this is my favorite part of the project, because it allows me to reminisce about my sort of a Moby whale moment of a project. So I think all of us as researchers need to sort of think about what are the projects that we really want to see live, what are the ones that we’re really going to go to bat for, and this is one of those projects for me. I just felt that this needed to be answered. And so, together my collaborators, we really just spent a really long time trying to figure out how to get the right data for this. So you have to put together the criminal justice records for a given area, you need to put together the education records, and then you need to figure out how to link the two of these. So some states you can get one, some states you can get the other and it’s very hard to find a set of states where the two of them match. So we tried a whole range of states, a whole range of datasets, many times we got very close, but were stopped at the last minute. And finally, we were able to work with the state of North Carolina, which has an excellent set of education records, has these great criminal justice records, and were able to figure out a way of merging and matching the two sets of documents at this household level, have a pretty good sense of the direct linkages between the children in our sample and the criminal defendants and then using the classroom identifiers in the dataset to identify other spillover effects, looking at the broader geographic implications. So all of that wound up working out for us at the end, but it was a long haul to get there. And I think it’s definitely a lesson that I took away from this project that if you want something to do well, you really got to work at it. There’s no substitute for putting in the shoe leather for calling people, cold calling people, emailing people and just hearing no, no, no, no, no again and again and again until you’re able to figure out something that works.

John: And the matching between households for the students and the incarcerated people was based on household addresses. Is that correct?

Arpit: That’s right. So that match was done by the North Carolina education folks. They took their records, they imported the criminal justice records, matched that at the household level, and then gave us a data set that had removed all identifiers that we could work with for research.

John: It’s a wonderful data set and it’s a really impressive piece of work.

Arpit: Thank you very much.

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

Arpit: For us on this project, we’re really trying to see if we can think about some of these broader implications of incarceration on communities outside of the educational impacts that we’ve been talking about so far. So thinking about the impacts on family structure, thinking about whether it spills over into the usage of other government programs, whether it has employment effects, kind of housing market access, I think that there are a whole range of different outcomes, particularly at these broader community levels that I think are shaped by the number of people in that local community that are impacted by incarceration. So I think those are the overall community spillovers, we’re interested in understanding.

John: Well, thank you. This is some really impressive work. And I have to say I’m really impressed by all the work that you’ve been doing in so many areas. You’re doing some wonderful work on some really important topics.

Arpit: Thank you very much, John. I had an economics teacher growing up who inspired me to work on these topics.

Rebecca: Well, thank you so much. We’re looking forward to sharing this with our audience.

Arpit: Thanks.

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

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

Ganesh: Editing assistance by Ganesh.

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308. Design for Learning

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

Show Notes

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

Transcript

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

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

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

John: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer…

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

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

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

John: It’s good to see you again.

Jenae: …Good to see you, too.

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

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

Rebecca: Yeah, I have English tea time.

Jenae: We’re matching…

Rebecca: Yeah…

[LAUGHTER]

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

Jenae: That sounds really good, though.

John: It is.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jenae: Wonderful, and likewise, thank you again.

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

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

Ganesh: Editing assistance by Ganesh.

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306. Gender Bias and Timing of SETs

 A number of studies demonstrate gender bias in course evaluations. In this episode Whitney Buser, Jill Hayter, and Cassondra Batz-Barbarich join us to discuss their research that looks at the timing of when these gender differences emerge and theories for why they exist.

Whitney is the Associate Director of Academic Programs in the School of Economics at Georgia Tech. Jill is an Associate Professor of Economics in the College of Business and Technology at East Tennessee State University. Cassondra is an Assistant Professor of Business at Lake Forest College. Whitney, Jill, and Cassondra are the authors of an article entitled “Evaluation of Women in Economics: Evidence of Gender Bias Following Behavioral Role Violations.”

Show Notes

Transcript

John: A number of studies demonstrate gender bias in course evaluations. In this episode we discuss research that looks at the timing of when these gender differences emerge and theories for why they exist.

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

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

John: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer…

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

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John: Our guests today are Whitney Buser, Jill Hayter, and Cassondra Batz-Barbarich. Whitney is the Associate Director of Academic Programs in the School of Economics at Georgia Tech. Jill is an Associate Professor of Economics in the College of Business and Technology at East Tennessee State University. Cassondra is an Assistant Professor of Business at Lake Forest College. Whitney, Jill, and Cassondra are the authors of an article entitled “Evaluation of Women in Economics: Evidence of Gender Bias Following Behavioral Role Violations.” Welcome Whitney, Jill, and Cassandra,

Whitney: Thank you for having us.

Cassandra: Thank you so much.

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

Whitney: I am. I have some jasmine tea.

Rebecca: Always a good choice. Jill. How about you?

Jill: Harney and Sons Hot Cinnamon Spice.

Rebecca: Oh, that’s such a good choice. I love that one. It’s a family favorite at my house. How about you, Cassandra?

Cassandra: Yesterday, we made a sun tea on the porch. So it’s sweet peach tea.

Rebecca: This is a good variety. How about you, John?

John: And I have ginger peach black tea from the Republic of Tea.

Rebecca: So we’re combining choices here [LAUGHTER]. And I have Awake tea, despite the fact that it is early afternoon here.

Jill: I also had three cups of coffee this morning.

Rebecca: It’s one of the most popular kinds of tea, Jill.

John: We’ve invited you here today to discuss your research on gender bias instudent evaluation of instructors. Could you tell us how the study came about?

Whitney: Jill and I have been working on this for about six years, believe it or not. It’s been a long process for us. And actually at the very beginning we had a different third working with us. And the original three of us, we met at the conference, and we had just attended a session that talked about teaching evaluations. And afterwards, we just naturally began talking about this, because we all had these really, really strong feelings about teaching evaluations. All three of us at the time were young, young in our careers, young age wise. We were female PhD economists. And we were all earning tenure, or I think Jill had just earned tenure. But we’re all in this similar experience of having what we felt like was a very positive class climate, and a lot of camaraderie between ourselves and the students until the grades were returned for the first time. And then we could feel a definite shift and it was upsetting to all of us. We all got into this because we love teaching and we want to do a good job in that. It was just something that we were picking up on. So that was our anecdotal experience, Jill had a little data on it herself, because she would do mid-semester evaluations herself, just to gauge the class climate and see what students were needing. And I had an experience where in my first position, they did a surprise midterm evaluation, just to kind of see how the new professor was doing, that I didn’t know about. And I got glowing reviews from the students, everything was very, very positive, wonderful and six weeks later, same students but grades returned, evaluations looked a little different. And the comments were a bit different. So we had a little data to backup this idea too, and one thing if the people listening today haven’t read the literature, there’s an extensive literature on course evaluations. And it consistently finds gender bias in those. But the thing about that literature is it only looks at evaluations, which are typically done on the very last day of class, maybe even after that, maybe a couple of days before, but at the end of the semester. And we really haven’t seen anyone look into how these opinions of students evolve over the semester, or how students feel at the beginning or the middle of the semester. So that’s what we wanted to do with that. And in my opinion, and this is just me speaking here, Jill can have her own other motivations, or our other co-author that has worked with us before could feel differently. But for me, it was really important to acknowledge that society has come a long way in the past several years with gender bias. And I don’t think that modern students are shocked by female faculty any longer, I don’t think they have an explicit distaste for female faculty. Anecdotally, I feel that my students are actually happy when they meet me. And they have expectations of me to be warm, comforting, approachable. But I do think that when you expect someone to be more comforting and approachable, and they give you a grade back, that’s not always an “A” in a difficult quantitative subject like economics, you can get a bit of a Grinch Who Stole Christmas effect. I thought it was going to be one way and now my expectations are taken down. We all know no one likes that dopamine depletion of having expectations not met. So, to me, if we’re going to talk about gender bias, we really have to talk about it in this nuanced way, so that it doesn’t get automatically dismissed by people who don’t see an explicit bias and then say, “Oh, hey, there’s nothing here.” And then the last thing that I think is really important here for the motivation for the paper is that we have this expectation that bias would grow over the semester. So if bias grows over the semester, that means the earlier in the semester you evaluate, the smaller the bias will be. And one thing that the literature is missing is a very concrete objective way to deal with bias. What we were hoping to find was: move the evaluations up in the semester a bit, and you minimize or eliminate bias and that’s a concrete objective. Towards the end today, we’ll talk about what we actually found and whether or not we knew that. But that was one of the motivations.

Jill: So that’s how the original paper found in terms of motivation, but then Cassandra, she is a PhD in Psychology until she had read and she was doing work in the area. And she had reached out to Whitney and I. She had read our paper, she had read the results of our paper. And so then a second paper with Cassandra takes a more psychology approach in terms of a lot of what Whitney is talking about and Cassandra is going to talk about it later, with respect to the role-incongruity theory, social role theory, and she’s going to talk more about that later. And Whitneys described the motivation of that first paper, the second paper takes a very different perspective and looking at it from a more psych perspective. Cassandra, you might want to chime in?

Cassandra: Absolutely. I think you summarized it well, I joined the paper, as Whitney and Jill were trying to find a home for it. And we thought that our interests, though coming from very different backgrounds ,would blend nicely for this particular topic, as there’s a lot of scholarship in psychology that looks at understanding reasons behind this bias. And so I was brought in to really help kind of think about how do we frame that in a way that might appeal to even a broader range of audiences.

Rebecca: At the beginning of the paper, and Whitney, you’ve kind of pointed to this today about being a young faculty member, you also noted in the paper that women are underrepresented among economics faculty, especially at the level of full professors. Can you tell us a little bit about the extent of this under-representation?

Jill: Women have earned more than half the doctoral degrees for over a decade. But particularly among tenure-track faculty are underrepresented. In the paper we cite 36% of full professors are females. In economics, that’s a smaller percentage, 17 and a half percent of full professors are females, in the area of economics, although 35% of PhDs in econs represent females. It’s a smaller percentage of female faculty receiving full professor rank in economics. That’s what we mean by that under representation. In terms of economics, specifically, it’s oftentimes left out of the STEM fields, and depending on which university or college that you’re out at, economics can sometimes could be found in the social sciences and in the arts and sciences, or it can be found in the business school. So at my institution, Whitney’s institution, I believe, and Cassandra’s I think we’re all represented in the business school. But sometimes, you know, economics wanted to put in there with the social science field, it’s not thought of as being this more quantitative, heavy subject, and it oftentimes is, it is by nature of it. And so females in those more math heavy classes, like the STEM classes. I think my students when I started off, and I think Whitney was getting at this, with us being more junior faculty members. I can considered by students peer, instead of the professor in the course. And that made it tough, because to Whitney’s point about that returning grade feedback and the perception that students had of me a day one versus midway through the course, I was now coming across as someone that was handing back maybe less than 100% or “A” grade. So in my business school, my principles of economics courses are required. They might not even want to be in there, but they have to be in there to get a business degree. Earlier on, that was a challenge I faced, I’m 13 years into my career. I’m going up for full professor this summer. But starting off was really a challenge. And I remember having female mentors in my graduate program. They tried to prepare me for this, they tried to say it’s going to be challenging early on, you’re going to have to go against some of these perceptions, alot of the perceptions that we measure in this paper..

John: To what extent is the underrepresentation of women faculty due to a cohort effect where women have become a larger share of PhD economists in the last few decades, but that was less true 20 or 30 years ago and how much of it might be due to the impact of gender bias on evaluations on career pathways for women?

Jill: Really what this paper looks at, the standard evaluations of teaching and the bias or potential for bias, that exists there. So I’ll just speak to that and that where I currently am, evaluations of teaching are weighted heavily for retention of faculty, promotion of faculty, tenure and promotion decisions. And then when we’re hiring new faculty, looking at any previous course evaluations and experience with teaching. At every level in academia, these are used as some gauge for teaching effectiveness. I think one of the questions that we’re looking at and accrediting bodies are looking at is whether or not this is the measure that should be used. And looking at different measures that might be options for measuring teaching effectiveness, we know that they’re flawed, that our study is showing that they’re flawed, but also previous literature has suggested that they’re flawed as well. And so the fact that for most schools, this is the single measure that’s being captured… and I know that it’s different depending on again, at my institution, some departments don’t give them a whole lot of weight in tenure and promotion decisions. But certainly, my experience in my College of Business and Technology that these are weighted heavily. And so in thinking about a junior faculty member starting off, when Whitney and I met at the conference, if my evaluations were lower, I’m putting a lot of time into my teaching and improving and bringing up those scores. My male colleagues, in discussion just with them, didn’t have the same experience that I was having with respect to these SETs. And so we think about allocation of time and resources as a tenure track junior faculty member, I’m putting more in what I would consider just catching up, getting those SET scores higher, so that it’s reflected in my tenure and promotion packet. And that’s less time that I’m allocating toward research or other things. That’s my view on it. I think Whitney has a couple other thoughts on that.

Whitney: One of the things we tried to make clear in the paper is that the literature is very clear that evaluations do have a gender bias. And if these evaluations are being used, and they are, in hiring decisions, annual evaluations, promotion, tenure evaluations, and merit pay raise decisions, then they’re being used at every single level of advancement. It’s not one small piece. It’s a piece that’s used throughout and very integrated late in the process.

Rebecca: You mentioned at the top of our interview that the second paper shifts more towards psychology, and specifically describes ways in which both social role theory and role-congruity theory may explain the bias against female faculty in student evaluations. Can you briefly summarize these arguments for our listeners?

Cassandra: So social role theory was a theory that has been put forth for decades by Alice Eagly, a very prominent scholar in the social psychology world, as well as her colleagues. And this has been used as a framework to really understand the complexities and origins of gender gaps in our workplace in particular, whether that be inequities and experiences, the expectations that are different for women, and of course, the outcomes such as promotion at work. Essentially, social role theory suggests that the reason we see these gender inequities today in society or that they originated from men and women being distributed into social roles based on physical sex differences, so that women biologically were able to have children, men, on average, were physically stronger, which those differences 1000s of years ago, had an evolutionary benefit to a well functioning society, people were supporting in the ways in which they were best equipped to do so. And the assignment of men and women into these roles led get them to adapt role-specific qualities and skills. So women who were bearing children were friendly, helpful, sensitive, concerned with others, kind, caring. We refer to these now as more communal qualities, and men and the provider, the protector, role led them to have attributes such as ambition, being assertive, authoritative, dominant. These are qualities that now we label as agentic. So while technology of course has since caught up and made these biologically driven role assignments unnecessary, society continues to see a division of labor along these lines in the modern world and society at large. And society at large still holds the belief that women do possess these traits, and should possess these traits, these more communal qualities, and men do and should possess more of these agentic. Relatedly, role-congruity theory helps us understand the consequences when men and women fail to fulfill these expectations. And we know the failure to fulfill these expectations are more consequential for women, this experience of bias driven from the failure to behave in communal ways. In other words, violating these cultural expectations can be seen in all areas of society, but particularly in traditionally male-dominated positions, like college professors, or in male-dominated fields like economics [LAUGHTER]. And so women that are in these roles are already going to experience some degree of backlash for being in gender-incongruent positions. But that is especially true if they are also going to behave in traditionally more agentic ways, being more assertive, demonstrating their power, which we argued was what was occurring when you give critical feedback back to students.

John: To approach this, you gave evaluations to students at two different points of the semester. Could you tell us a bit more about the study design, how large the sample was and how many faculty and institutions participated in the study?

Whitney: Sure, we had a really rich data set for this study. That’s one of the reasons we were able to get two different papers out of it, and maybe even some future research, because we took all of this data, and we collected it in person on paper and entered it, which was an arduous process. As I said, we had been working on this project for about six years, about a year and a half of that was just data collection. And we have a lot of people to thank that did that for us for no author credit on this paper, so we had males and females across the United States gathering that data for us, that we’re really appreciative to have. So in the end, we wound up with about 1200 students in total, we weren’t quite 50/50, we were 60/40, favoring men, which is typical for economics classrooms, even though it is required in a lot of majors (that’s where you’re getting a lot of the women taking it). And like you said, John, we surveyed them twice. We surveyed them on the second day of class, we wanted as close to a first impression as possible without having a major sample issue with drop/ad. And then we surveyed them the day after they got their first midterm grade back. So we got the first impression, and then we got the way that they felt after they had had their first grade returned. We did this at five different colleges and universities, we had three male professors contributing data and four female professors contributing data. One of the big questions that people have asked us over the time is “Well, how does race play into this?” And that’s something that’s beyond the scope of our research, I will say that we only had one underrepresented minority in our sample, again, typical of economics professors, it was one of our male instructors. So, we would expect a downward bias from race and maybe an upward bias from gender, or getting those two, at least watching one another out in the paper. And when we asked these students about how they felt after their grades were returned. This was about four weeks into the semester, so still pretty early in the semester. What we did was we really wanted to ask about the specific qualities that had been hypothesized in the literature as drivers of bias or drivers of differences. So we just asked students to rate their instructor on a bunch of different qualities. Cassie really helped us out here because she came in and she says, “Well, you know, we can categorize these qualities into communal qualities and agentic qualities and neutral qualities…” which was really the way to approach it because of course, we get different things in communal versus just qualities. So we asked our students things like: “How knowledgeable do you find your professor? How challenging? Do you find them to be approachable? Do you find them to be caring? Are they interesting?” And then we asked a couple of very general questions: “Would you recommend the course?” All of this set us up to have a really nice dataset where we could look between genders and across time as well.

Rebecca: So I think everyone’s probably dying to know exactly what you found. [LAUGHTER]

Jill: I’m just going to provide an overview of the results because we do a number of different specifications and use different econometric methods in the findings. And so you can get all of those results there in detail. But in general, on the second day of class, we find that women are receiving lower ratings across the five agentic and gender-neutral instructor characteristics that we measured. They were rated higher on that second day of class on those more communal characteristics. And not all of those differences were statistically significant. Immediately after the first exam grade was returned to students, women were receiving lower ratings for all seven measured characteristics. Each difference was significant except for those caring and approachable, more communal characteristics. And then men were now having higher ratings in all the different aspects relative to time, or the second day of class. Over time, what we see was that men’s evaluations were getting higher on all characteristics from the second day of class to the period after the first exam was returned. And then in contrast, women’s evaluations were not trending upward. So we had a couple that were staying the same, but overall, they were going down. So those are just some overview findings. Again, those more specific results, by specification, can be found in the paper.

John: We will include a link to both papers in the show notes too, so people can go back and review them. To summarize, what you found is there was relatively weak evidence of significant gender bias on the second day of class, but that gap increased fairly dramatically after the first graded exam. So what do you attribute that change to, was it because of the feedback students were getting from grades as Whitney had mentioned before?

Whitney: We were attributing, and Cassie can talk about this with more authority on the theoretical point, but we’re attributing that to backlash theory, this idea that if I expect one thing, and I don’t get it, there’s this need to back off so that things go in congruence.

Cassandra: Exactly, Whitney is spot on there. What we thought this was evidence of was women behaving in gender incongruent ways, women are supposed to be warm and caring and friendly. And when you get a perhaps grade that maybe wasn’t an “A,” that feels harsh and critical, and a woman is asserting their power and dominance in the classroom, which again, they already are in a male dominated field profession. And those two things together combined can result in this backlash.

Rebecca: So if we take these findings, and think institutionally, what are some things that institutions might want to think about moving forward?

Whitney: That’s a good question. If you remember, from the very beginning, we were saying, we’re really hoping to find this nice objective concrete solution, we anticipated finding it through timing. And that’s what I would really like to do with future research is to be able to find something concrete and objective to treat this with. We weren’t able to do that because we found bias from the beginning. And we found that it came so quickly in the semester that it’s not something that we can just move back evaluations to midterm or something like that. Since we can’t do that, we’ve talked about other ways for institutions to take this. And one takeaway really is just an awareness that these gender biases exist and that these evaluations are flawed. This is really well established in the literature, but not necessarily in the general sphere of knowledge. When we published this paper, Georgia Tech did a little feature in their daily digest, and I had two female engineering faculty email me and say, “I knew this in my gut for years, but nobody’s ever quantified it.” That to me, is just evidence that it’s not in the general sphere of knowledge, even though the literature defines it well. Some of the impact of the concrete solutions that we have seen is we’re seeing a lot of schools and accreditors, like AACSB, they’re starting to require multiple indicators of teaching effectiveness and evaluation. So evaluations and peer reviews, or maybe something else to see the observation, something to that effect to where we have more of a global and inclusive way to look at someone’s teaching effectiveness. So this is a great takeaway, hopefully that will reduce the weight of the impact of evaluation just by having other factors in there. And just one final point that I want to make. And this is just a really big sticking point to me for the paper is that all of us are researchers, we all deal with statistics and statistical significance, and robust research methods. And then when those of us in Chair and Dean roles go to look at evaluations, all the sudden, all that training completely goes out the window, and we look at the difference between a 4.2 and a 4.4. And I know those differences sound really small, they are that small. And we say, “Oh, well, this person does better than this person, this person deserves to be hired over this person.” Never in our research, or in a formal presentation, would we ever compare two means that small without significance testing, number one, and without making sure they’re actually comparable, and say, “Oh, there’s a difference.” It’s just something that I think we need to recognize, we would not recognize this as good research or good methodology in any other area of our work. It’s just something that we should keep in mind as we move forward with this.

John: Now, you mentioned the use of peer evaluations as another way of providing, perhaps, more balance, but might they be subject to the same type of bias?

Whitney: Yeah, all the things that we would see for student evaluations, I can imagine how you would see with peer evaluations as well.

Jill: But there are creative ways to do peer evaluations that I think here at ETSU, we have a Center for Teaching Excellence. And I’m confident Georgia Tech, and Lake Forest has their own version of that. And so there are creative ways. And again, not that SETs are necessarily bad, but knowing what we know about the flaws in them, that, coupled with an additional measure or two, can be a lot more insightful, I think, to the teaching effectiveness, like true teaching effectiveness of instructors.

John: And one thing I’m wondering is if the measured effect might be larger in economics, because at least at many institutions, grades and economics and STEM classes are often lower, which might magnify the effect of this difference. It would be interesting if there was to be a study that also included some classes, maybe in humanities, to see if perhaps there’s less of an effect because of that role-incongruity issue there. It may not appear to be as severe in disciplines where grades across the board tend to be higher.

Whitney: I think you’re right about that, most people when they take economics, it’s a required class and certainly the grades are a big factor, then the two things that showed the most significance outside of our key variable of interest was interest in economics, and expected grade. Those were the things that across the board… now we still found gender bias controlling for those things, but it mattered.

Rebecca: So we talked a little bit about things that institutions might want to start thinking about: institutional policy and things that might shift how we use teaching evaluations. Are there any other strategies that institutions or instructors can use, or adopt, to try to reduce this bias in the short term?

Cassandra: That’s really the million dollar question. Because this type of bias exists in a lot of different domains, whether we’re talking managers and their subordinates, teachers and their students. One thing that’s often suggested or recommended is simply making people aware that this bias exists, and providing training on how to better approach evaluations, whether that’s how to use a rating scale and ensuring that you aren’t engaging in a halo effect, for example. Another strategy is requiring that people justify their ratings that are provided with qualitative comments… that if you’re just asked to fill out on a scale, on how competent is this person? Well, bias may creep in more if you aren’t asking for a justification of why that particular rating was given for competence. A last recommendation that I’ll share here is making these evaluations more public. So if there are a couple of people, say peers, that are evaluating myself or Whitney or Jill in the classroom, well, they need to come together, share and publicly disseminate their evaluations that they had given to us. This social accountability can help to mitigate bias and for people to ensure that the ratings that you’re giving are, in fact justified.

John: So we’ve got a long ways to go with this. It’s a problem that’s been recognized for quite a while with a lot of studies. But there hasn’t been that much done to address that. And those are some good suggestions that institutions may want to try. We always end with the question: “What’s next?”

Cassandra: [LAUGHTER] That’s a good question. Of course, I think that the three of us collectively would say we do hope that administration and decision makers start asking questions about their use of student evaluations of teaching and how they might seek to mitigate this bias, based on the recommendations Whitney had already shared. But we also hope that women faculty perhaps feel more empowered to advocate for themselves when it comes time for promotion and tenure decisions to be made. My Institution, a part of the promotion process, is writing letters, and going through interviews. So speaking to this, bringing an awareness to the people who are making the decisions that this exists, and that it is not just an opinion, that there is empirical evidence of its existence. But we are really interested in exploring more fully how providing feedback, particularly critical feedback, like in our study, where the professors are giving back grades might impact the perceptions of men and women in other contexts as well. So is this a phenomenon we would see, for example, between a manager and their team? Do people respond differently to critical feedback from a manager because of their gender? And how much are these differences, perhaps, driven by perceptions of how communal or agentic they are in their delivery of that feedback? So in other words, are we seeing the same pattern in other contexts? Ultimately, we hope that by better understanding how perceptions of communion and agency impact interactions that women have at work, particularly women in male-dominated or gender-atypical roles, this greater understanding will allow us to also discover ways to alleviate some of that backlash through more targeted interventions and training and perhaps better timing. Because at a minimum, it’s important to highlight the various ways gender bias continues to persist in our society. Because without that awareness, nothing can be changed.

John: Whitney, Jill?

Jill: I think that was great. [LAUGHTER]

Whitney: Yeah, I think, Cassie, you did a great job. And Cassie certainly helped us out with bringing formal language and theory to things that we felt as intuitive and we felt in our gut as important. We don’t have a lot of language for that in the economic space. And so blending these two disciplines together has been very helpful for looking at the situation.

Rebecca: Well, thank you all for joining us. And the research that you’re doing is really important and impactful. So we hope our listeners will use it.

Whitney: Thank you so much.

Cassandra: Thank you.

Jill: Thank you so much.

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

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

Ganesh: Editing assistance by Ganesh.

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305. 80 Ways to Use ChatGPT in the Classroom

Faculty discussions of ChatGPT and other AI tools often focus on how AI might interfere with learning and academic integrity. In this episode, Stan Skrabut joins us to discuss his book that explores how ChatGPT can support student learning.  Stan is the Director of Instructional Technology and Design at Dean College in Franklin, Massachusetts. He is also the author of several books related to teaching and learning. His most recent book is 80 Ways to Use ChatGPT in the Classroom.

Show Notes

Transcript

John: Faculty discussions of ChatGPT and other AI tools often focus on how AI might interfere with learning and academic integrity. In this episode, we discuss a resource that explores how ChatGPT can support student learning.

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

Rebecca: This podcast series is hosted by

John: , an economist…

John: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer…

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

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John: Our guest today is Stan Skrabut. Stan is the Director of Instructional Technology and Design at Dean College in Franklin, Massachusetts. He is also the author of several books related to teaching and learning. His most recent book is 80 Ways to Use ChatGPT in the Classroom. Welcome, Stan.

Stan: Well, thank you ever so much for having me on. I have been listening to your podcast since the first episode, you guys are crushing it. I recommend it all the time to my faculty. I’m excited to be here.

John: Thank you. And we very much enjoyed your podcast while you were doing it. And I’m hoping that will resume at some point when things settle down.

Rebecca: Yeah, we’re glad to have you here.

Stan: Yeah, thanks.

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

Stan: A little bit of a story. I went over to the bookstore with the intent of getting tea. They had no tea in stock. I went to the vending machine on the same floor. The vending machine was down. I went to another building. I put in money. It did not give me tea. I’m stuck with Mountain Dew. I’m sorry. [LAUGHTER]

Rebecca: Not for lack of trying. Clearly. [LAUGHTER]

Stan: I tried. I tried.

Rebecca: I have some blue sapphire tea.

John: And I have Lady Grey.

Rebecca: You haven’t drink that in a while John,

John: no. [LAUGHTER]

Rebecca: Little caffeine today huh. [LAUGHTER]

John: Yeah well i am back in the office, I’ve returned from Duke and I have more options for tea again.

Rebecca: That’s good. So Stan, we invited you here today to discuss 80 Ways to Use ChatGPT in the Classroom. What inspired you to write the book?

Stan: Well, I’m an Instructional Technologist and my responsibility is to help faculty deliver the best courses possible. And in November 2022, ChatGPT came onto the scene and in December, faculty are up in arms, “Oh, my goodness, this is going to be a way that students are going to cheat and they’ll never learn anything again.” And as an instructional technologist, I see technology as a force multiplier, as a way to help us do better things quicker, easier. And so I didn’t feel threatened by ChatGPT. I’ve been looking at the horizon reports for the last 20 years. And they said, “AI is coming. It’s coming. It’s coming. Well, it’s here.” And so it was just a matter of sitting down in January, write the book, publish it, and provided a copy to all the faculty and we just started having good conversation after that. But the effort was that we should not ban it. That was the initial reaction; that this is a tool like all the other tools that we bring into the classroom.

Rebecca: Stan, I love how you just sat down in January and just wrote a book as if it was easy peasy and no big deal. [LAUGHTER]

Stan: Sell, I will have to be honest, that I was using ChatGPT for part of the book, it was a matter of I asked ChatGPT kind of give me an outline, what would be important for faculty to know about this, so I got a very nice outline. And then it was a matter of creating prompts. And so I’d write a prompt and then I would get the response back from ChatGPT. It was a lot of back and forth with ChatGPT, and I thought ChatGPT did a wonderful job in moving this forward.

John: Most of the discussion we’ve heard related to ChatGPT is from people who are concerned about the ability to conduct online assessments in the presence of this. But one of the things I really liked about your book is that most of it focuses on productive uses by both faculty and students and classroom uses of ChatGPT because we’re not always hearing that sort of balanced discussion about this. Could you talk a little bit about some of the ways in which faculty could use ChatGPT or other AI tools to support their instruction and to help develop new classes and new curriculum?

Stan: Yeah, absolutely. I guess first of all, I would like to say that this is not going anywhere. It is going to become more pervasive in our life. Resume Builder went out and did a survey of a couple thousand new job descriptions that employers were putting out. 90% of them are asking for their employees to have AI experience. As higher education, it’s upon us to make sure that the students that are going out there to be employees know how to use this tool. With that said, there has to be a balance. In order to use the tool properly, you have to have foundational knowledge of your discipline. You have to know what you’re talking about in order to create the proper prompt, but also to assess the proper response. With ChatGPT sometimes it doesn’t get it right… just how chat GPT is built, it’s built on probabilities that these word combinations go together. So it’s not pulling full articles that you can go back and verify, kind of like the human mind has been working. We have built up knowledge all these years. My memory of what happened when I was three, four or five years old is a little fuzzy. Who said what? I’m pretty confident what was said. I’m pretty confident, but it’s still a little fuzzy. And I would need to verify that. So I see ChatGPT as an intern, everybody gets an intern, now. They do great work at all hours, but you as the supervisor still have to verify the information is correct. Back to the classroom, students can’t or should not, or regardless of who’s using it, should not just hit return on a prompt, and then rip that off and hand it in to their supervisors or instructor without verifying it, without making it better, without adding the human element to working with the machine. And that is, I think, where we can do lots of wonderful things in the classroom. You know, from the instructor side of go ahead and use this for your first draft. Now turn on the review tools that track changes and show me how you made it better, as you’re working towards your final product. Instructors can go ahead and craft an essay, craft out some supposedly accurate information from ChatGPT. tThrow it in the hands of the students and say: “Please, assess this. Is this right? Where are the policies? Where are the biases? Tell me where the gaps are. How can we make this better?” And using it to assess it.” Those are some initial ways to start asking students or using it in the class. I don’t know if I’m tapping into all the things. There’s just so many things that you could do with this thing.

John: And you address many of those things in the book. Among those things that you address was having it generate some assignments, or even at a more basic level, having it develop syllabi, or course outlines and learning objectives and so forth, for when faculty are building courses.

Stan: Oh, absolutely. We have a new dean at our School of Business. And he came over and wanted to know, “Tell me a little bit more about ChatGPT, how we can use this. They’re looking at creating a new program for the college. And it’s like, “Well, let’s just start right there.” What are the courses that you would have for this new program and provide course descriptions, titles, and descriptions? Here comes the list of 10, 12 different courses for that particular program. Okay, let’s take this program, what are the learning outcomes for this particular program? So we just copied and pasted, asked for learning outcomes, here comes the list of outcomes. Now for these different outcomes, provide learning objectives. And it starts creating learning objectives. And so you can just continue to drill down. But this moves past the blank page. Normally you’d bring in a group of faculty to work on that program, what are your ideas and send everybody off, and they would pull ideas together and you would start crafting this. This was done in 30 seconds. And now okay, here’s the starting point for your faculty. Where are the problems with this? How can we make it better? Now go. Instead of a blank page, starting with nothing? That was one example. But even for your course, using ChatGPT, having a course description, you can ask it to say, provide me a course plan for 16 weeks. What would I address in this? What would be the different activities? Describe those activities. If you want it to have the activities use transparent assignment design, it’ll craft it in that format. It knows what transparent assignment design is, and it will craft it that way. And then going back to assessment, you can build content. So looking at that OER content, open education resources, that it can get you a jumpstart on that OER content. What are gaps that I want or taking content that’s there and localizing it based on your area to say here we are in New England, Massachusetts, specifically, I need an example. Here’s the content that we’re working with. Give me an example, a case study, and it will craft a case study for you. It allows you to go from that zone of drudgery to your zone of genius very rapidly. I’ve been working on a new book, and got down to the final edits, and I was like, “Oh, I’m missing conclusions to all these different chapters.” I just fed the whole chapter in and said, “Could you craft me a conclusion to this chapter?” And it just knocked it out. I mean, I could do it. But that’s my zone of drudgery, and I’d rather be doing other things.

Rebecca: It’s interesting that a lot of faculty and chairs and administrators have been engaged in this conversation around ChatGPT quite a bit, but many of them haven’t actually tried. ChatGPT. So if you were to sit down with a faculty member who’s never tried it before, what’s the first thing you’d have them do?

Stan: This is an excellent question because I do it all the time. I have a number of faculty members that I’ve sat down, looked at their courses and say, “What is the problem that you’re working with? What do you want to do?” And that’s where we start. We say “What is the problem that you’re trying to fix?” ChatGPT version three had 45 terabytes of information it was given. They say the human brain has about 1.25 terabytes. So this is like asking thirty-some people to come sit with you to work on your problem. One class was a sports management class dealing with marketing. And they were working with Kraft enterprises that has the Patriots, and working on specific activities for their students and developing marketing plans and such. We just sat down with ChatGPT and started at a very basic level to see what we could get out of it. And the things we weren’t happy with, we just rephrased it, had it focus on those areas, and it just kept improving what we were doing. But, one of the struggles that I hear from faculty all the time, because it’s very time consuming, is creating assessments, creating multiple choice questions, true and false, fill in the blank, all these different things. ChatGPT will do this for you in seconds. You feed all the content that you want, and say, “Please craft 10 questions, give me 10 more, give me 10 more, give me 10 more. And then you go through and identify the ones you like, put them into your test bank. It really comes down to the problem that you’re trying to solve.

John: And you also know that it could be used to assist with providing students feedback on their writing.

Stan: Absolutely

John: …that you can use it to help generate that. Could you talk a little bit about that.

Stan: We’re right now working with the academic coaches. And this is one of the areas to sit down. I’m also not only the Director of Instructional Technology and Design, but also my dotted line is Director of Library. So I’m trying to help students with their research. And the writing and the research go hand in hand. So from the library side, we look at what the students are being assigned, and then sit down and just start with a couple key terms or phrases, keywords that we want and have ChatGPT to give us ideas on these different terms. And it’ll provide ten, twenty different exciting ideas to go research. Once again, getting past the blank page. It’s like “I gotta do an assignment. I don’t know what to do.” It could be in economics, I don’t know what to write about in economics, it’s like, well, here pull these two terms together, and what does it say about that?” So we start at that point. And then once you have a couple ideas that you want to work with, what are some keywords that I could go and start researching the databases with, and it will provide you these ideas. It’ll do other things, it’ll draft an outline, it’ll write the thing if you want it to, but we try to take the baby steps in getting them to go in and research but getting pointed in the right direction. On the writing side, for example, I have a class that I’m going to be teaching at the University of Wyoming to grad students. I’m going to introduce ChatGPT. It’s for program development and evaluation, and I’m going to let them use ChatGPT to help with this. One of the things that academic writers struggle with is the use of active voice. They’re great at passive, they’ve mastered that. Well, this will take what you’ve written and say, “convert this to active voice” and it will rewrite it and work on those issues. I was working with one grad student and it was after playing with ChatGPT a couple of times, she finally figured out what really was the difference and how to overcome that problem and now she is writing actively, more naturally. But she struggled with it. With ChatGPT, you can take an essay, push it up into ChatGPT and say, “How can I make this better?” And it will provide guidance on how you can make it better. You could ask it specifically, “How can I improve the grammar and spelling without changing any of the wording here.” It’ll go and check that. So for our academic coaches, because there’s high volume, this is another tool that they could use to say, “Here’s the checklist of things that we’ve identified for you to go work on right away,” not necessarily giving solutions, but giving pointers and guidance on how to move forward. So you can use it at different levels and different perspective, not where it does all the work for you but you could do it incrementally and say, “here assess this and do this.” And it will do that for you.

Rebecca: Your active and passive voice example reminds me of a conversation I had with one of our writing faculty who was talking about the labor that had been involved previously of making example essays to edit of to work on writing skills. And she just had ChatGPT write things that [LAUGHTER] are of different qualities, and to compare and also to do some editing of as a writing activity in one of her intro classes.

Stan: Absolutely. What I recommend to anyone using ChatGPT is start collecting your prompts, have a Google document or a Word document, and when you find a great prompt, squirrel it away. Some of the workshops that I’ve been giving on this, I demonstrate high-level prompts that are probably two pages long that you basically feed this basic information to ChatGPT and it talks everything about the information that you’re going to be collecting, how you want to collect it, how you want it to be outputted, what items are you going to output, and you’re basically creating this tool that you can then call up and say, for example, developing a course, that it will write the course description, give you a learning outcomes, recommended readings, activities, and agenda for a 16 week, all in one prompt. And all you do is say “this is the course I want” and let it go. It’s amazing what problems that we can build this tool just like we build spreadsheets, we build these very complex spreadsheets, to do these tasks. We can do the same with Chat GPT, we just have to figure out what the problems we’re trying to solve.

John: Our students come into our classes with very varied prior preparation. In your book, you talk about some ways in which students can use ChatGPT to help fill in some of the gaps in their prior understanding to allow them to get up to speed more quickly. Could you talk about some ways in which students can use ChatGPT as a personalized tutor,

Stan: I’m going to take you through an example that I think can be applied for students. A student comes to your class. Ideally, they’re taking notes, one of the strategies that I use is I have my notebook, I’ll open my notebook, and I’ll turn on otter.AI, which is a transcription program. And I will go over my notes, I will basically get a transcription of those notes, I can then feed that transcription into ChatGPT and say clean it up, make a good set of notes for me. And it will do that. And then I can build this document and then I can review what we did in class, build a nice clean set of notes, and have that available to me. Over a series of setw of notes, I could do the same thing by reviewing a textbook and highlight and talk about, transcribe key points of the textbook or I can cut and paste. And then I can feed that information into ChatGPT and say, “Build me a study bank that I can build a Quizlet, for example, or I need to create some flashcards on what are the key terms and definitions from this content?” Here you go. Create some flashcards from that material. It could be that no matter how great the instructor is, I still don’t get it. They introduced a term that is just mind boggling, and I still don’t get it. And so I can then ask ChatGPT to explain that at another level. They talk about non-fiction, some of the best non-fiction books or the most popular that are out there getting on the bestsellers list, they’re written at a certain grade level. And I know that I write typically higher than that grade level, I can go ask ChatGPT to rewrite it at a lower grade level. I could, as a student, ask ChatGPT, to give an explainer at a level that I do get to understand. Those are certain ways that you can do this. And you basically can build your own study guides that have questions that have examples of all the materials, so you can feed that material in and get something out, just enhance it. And I think for faculty, this is also an easy way to create good study guides, that you can get the key points and build the study guides a lot easier, just going with the blank page and trying to craft it by hand, can be very difficult. But if you already have all your material, you feed it in there, and then say here, let’s build a study guide out of this year with some parameters, definitely much more useful.

Rebecca: We’ve talked a lot about how to use ChatGPT as an individual, either as an instructor or as a student. Can you talk a little bit about ways that instructors could use ChatGPT for in class exercises or other activities?

Stan: Absolutely. And I’m sorry, some of the examples other folks have actually contributed first, and I saw him and I thought they were just brilliant, but I don’t have their names right in front of me. So I apologize ahead of time. But as an instructor, I would invite ChatGPT into the classroom as another student. We call it Chad, Chad GPT and bring Chad into the classroom. So you could have an exercise in your classroom, ask the students to get into groups, talk about an issue, and then up on the whiteboard, you start getting their input, you start listing it. And then once you’re done, you can feed Chad GPT the same prompt and get the list from Chad GPT, and then compare it to what you’ve already collected from the students, what their input has been. And from there, you can do a comparison, like “We talked about that, and that, and that, oh, this is a new one. What do you think about this?” And so you can extend the conversation by what Chad GPT has provided? …and there I go, Chad, I’ll be hooked on that for a while. But you can extend the conversation with this or if students have questions that are coming up in class, you can field that to the rest of the class, get input and then say “Okay, let’s also ask Chad, see what Chad has to say about that particular topic?” Those grouping exercise we typically do the think-pair-share exercise, well part of that is each student gets to get Chat in that group. So, each group you can have Chad come in where they have to discuss, they have to think about it first, write something down, pair, discuss it, then add ChatGPT into the mix, talk about it a little bit more, and then share with the rest of the class. Lots of different ways that you can bring this into the classroom, but I bring it right in as another student.

Rebecca: Think-pair-chat-share. [LAUGHTER]

Stan: Yep. And that’s that mine that actually somebody was clever enough, they found that. I just happen to glom on to it. But yeah, definitely a great way of using it. It’s a new tool. We’re still figuring our way, but it’s not going away.

Rebecca: So whenever we introduce new technology into our classes, people are often concerned about assessment of student work using said technologies. So what suggestions do you have to alleviate faculty worry about assessing student work in the age of ChatGPT?

Stan: Well, students have been cheating since the beginning of time. That’s just human nature. Going back to why are they cheating in the first place? In most cases, they just got too much going on, and it becomes a time issue. They’re finding the quickest way to get things done. So ensuring that assignments are authentic, that they’re real, they mean something to a student ,is certainly very important in building this. The more it’s personally tied to the student, the harder it is for ChatGPT to tap into that. ChatGPT is not connected to the internet yet. So having current information, that’s always a consideration. But I would go back to the transparent assignment design, and part of the transparent assignment design that is often overlooked is the why. Why are we doing this. If you use ChatGPT to do this, this is what you’re not going to get from the assignment. So, when building those assignments, I recommend being very explicit that yes, you can use ChatGPT to work on this assignment, or no, you cannot, but here’s why. Here’s what I’m hoping that you get out of this. Why this assignment’s important. Because otherwise, it just doesn’t matter. And then when I have an employee that just simply hits the button and gives me something from ChatGPT, I’m going to ask, “Why do I need you as an employee? Because I could do that. Where’s the human element? …bringing that human element into it, why is thisimportant?” What learning shortcut or shortcutting you’re learning, if you just rely on the tool and not grasp what the essence of this particular assignment is. But I think it goes back to writing better assignments… at least that’s my two cents on it.

Rebecca: Thankfully, we have ChatGPT for that.

John: For faculty who are concerned about these issues of academic integrity, certainly creating authentic assignments and connecting to individual students and their goals and objectives could be really effective. But it’s not clear that that will work as well when you’re dealing with, say, a large gen-ed class, for example. Are there any other suggestions you might have in getting past this?

Rebecca: John? Are you asking for a friend? [LAUGHTER]

John: [LAUGHTER] Well, I’m gonna have about 250 students in class where I had shifted all of the assessment outside of the classroom. And I am going to bring some back into the classroom in terms of a midterm and final but they’re only 10 and 15% of their grade, so much of the assessment is still going to be done online. And I am concerned about students bypassing learning and using this, because it can do pretty well on the types of questions that we often ask in introductory classes in many disciplines.

Stan: That’s a hard question, because there’s certainly tools out there that can identify where it suspects it’s been written by AI. ChatGPT is original text so you’re not dealing with plagiarism, necessarily, but you’re dealing with, it’s not yours, it’s not human written. There are tools out there, but they’re not necessarily 100% reliable. Originality.AI is a tool that I use, which is quite good, but it tends to skew, everything is written AI. TurnItIn, they’ve incorporated technologies into being able to identify AI, but it’s not reliable. This honestly comes down to really an ethics issue, that folks who do this feel comfortable in bypassing the system for the end game, which is to get a diploma. But then they go to the job and they can’t do the job. And a recent article that I read in The Wall Street Journal was a lot of concern about employees not having the skill sets that they have, and how to convince students of this, that “why are you here? What’s the whole purpose of doing this? I’m here to guide you based on my life experience on how to be successful in this particular discipline, and you don’t care about that.” That’s a hard problem to fix. So I don’t have a good answer for that. I’m always on the fence on that because it’s hurting the integrity of the institution that students can bypass, but it’s harder. Peer review is another tool, you know, to have them go assess it. They seem to be a lot harder [LAUGHTER] on each other. Yes, this is a tough one. I don’t have a good answer. Sorry.

John: I had to try again, [LAUGHTER] because I still don’t have very good answers either. But certainly, there’s a lot of things you can do. I’m using clickers.I’m having them do some small group work in class and submitting responses. And that’s still a little bit hard to use ChatGPT for just because of the the timing, but it was convenient to be able to let students work on things outside although Chegg and other places had made most of those solutions to those questions visible pretty much within hours after new sets of questions have been released. So, this perhaps just continues that trend of making online assessment tools in large classes more problematic.

Stan: Well, I mean, one of the strategies that I recommend is master quizzing. So master quizzing is building quiz that are 1000s of questions large and randomly drawn from it. And they get credit when they ace it. And then the next week, they have another one, but it’s also cumulative. So they get previous questions too. And you have to ace it to get credit. Sorry, that’s how it is, cheat all you want, but it’ll get old after a while.

John: And that is how my course is set up. And they are allowed multiple attempts at all those quizzes, and they are random drawings. And there’s some spaced practice built in too, so it’s drawing on earlier questions randomly, but, but again, pretty much as soon as you create those problems, they were very quickly showing up in the online tools in Chegg and similar places. Now, they can be answered pretty well, using ChatGPT and other similar tools. It’s an issue that we’ll have to address, and some of it is an ethics issue. And some of it is again, reminding students that they are here to develop skills, and if they don’t develop the skills, their degree is not going to be very valuable. I

Rebecca: Wonder if putting some of those like Honor Code ethics prompts at the beginning or end of blank bigger assessments would [LAUGHTER] prime their pump or just cause more ChatGPT to be used. [LAUGHTER]

John: That’s been a bit of an issue because the authors of those studies have been accused of faking the data. And those studies have not been replicated. In fact, someone was suspended at Harvard, recently, and is now engaged in a lawsuit about that very issue. So the original research that was published about having people put their names on things before beginning a test hasn’t held up very well. And the data seems to have been… at least some of it seems to have been… manipulated or fabricated. [LAUGHTER] So right now, ChatGPT allows you to do a lot of things, but they’ve been adding more and more features all the time. There’s more integrations, it’s now integrated into Bing on any platform that will run Bing. And it’s amazing how well it works, but the improvements are coming along really rapidly. Where do you see this as going?

Stan: November 2022, was ChatGPT built on GPT3 , we’re now into four. And this is only half a year later, basically, that we got into four. I mean, it’s everywhere. For example, in selling books, one of the things that you want to do is try to sell more books. So I went back to Amazon, pulled out all the reviews that I had, sent them into ChatGPT and said “Tell me what the top five issues are.” In seconds it told me it just assessed it where this would take large amount of time for me to do this and it just did it nice and neatly. Everything is going to have AI into it. Grammarly AI is being built into it. All the Microsoft products are going to have AI built in. We’re not getting away from it. We have to learn how to use this in our professions, in our disciplines. With ChatGPT4, it was said somebody had drawn a wire diagram of a website buttons and mastered and text and took a picture of it, gave it to ChatGPT4 and it wrote the code for that website. It’s gonna be exciting. Buckle up, and we had consternation about January, we’re gonna have a lot more coming up. It’s just part of what we do. We have to figure out how to stay relevant, because this is so disruptive. In the long line of technologies that has come out, this is really disruptive. We can’t fight against it, we have to figure out how to do it appropriately, how to use this tool.

Rebecca: The idea of really having to learn the tool resonates with me because this is something that we’ve talked about in my discipline for a long time, which is design. But if you don’t really learn how to use the tools well and understand how the tools work, then the tools kind of control what you do versus you controlling what you’re creating and developing. And this is really just another one of those kinds of tools.

Stan: Well, even in the design world, I’ve gone to Shutterstock. And there is something that allows you to create a design with AI. So the benefit for a designer is they have a certain language, tone, and texture. Their language is vast, and for them to craft a prompt would look entirely different from me, a snowman sticks for arms, it’d be entirely different. But getting the aspect ratio of 16 x 9, everything that you craft into this prompt and feed it in, somebody who does design and knows the language would get something then a mere mortal like me putting that information in. So for somebody who’s in economics, you have a whole language about economics. Somebody who is trying to craft a prompt related to that discipline has to know the foundationals, the language of that discipline, to even get close to being correct in what they’re gonna get back. And students have to understand this, they cannot bypass their learning because they will not have the language to use the tool effectively.

John: And emphasizing to students the role that these tools will be playing in their future careers, might remind them of the importance of mastering the craft in a way that allows them to do more than AI tools can. And at some point, though, I do wonder [LAUGHTER], at what point AI tools will be able to replace a non trivial share of our labor force.

Stan: It’ll affect the white collar force a lot quicker. And I look at it… a nice analogy for the AI was in the Marvel, you have Iron Man, Tony Stark. And it is the mashup of the human and the machine. He’s using this to allow himself to get further and faster in his design, and to do things that we hadn’t thought about before. And I see this tool, being able to do this, that we’re bringing so much information and data to this, it’s mind boggling that suddenly you see a spark of inspiration that you couldn’t get there by yourself without a lot of labor, and suddenly it’s there. And you can take that and run with it. For me. It’s tremendously exciting.

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

Stan: Great question. Right now, I’m getting edits back from my editor for my next book, it’s Strategies for Success: Scaling your Impact as Solo Instructional Technologists and Designers. I’ve been doing this for about a quarter century and mostly as someone by myself, helping small colleges on how to do this, how do I keep my head above water and try to provide the best support possible? So sharing what I think I know .

Rebecca: Sounds like another great resource.

John: Well, thank you, Stan. It’s always great talking to you, and it’s good seeing you again.

Stan: Yeah, absolutely. And also, free book… I’mgonna give a 100, first 100 listeners, but I can go more. Yeah, so there’s a link it’s bit.ly/teaforteachinggpt . And so it’s in that set of show notes to share, but the first 100 gets a free copy of the book.

John: Thank you.

Rebecca: Thank you.

John: We’ll stop the recording. And, and we’ll put that in the show notes.

[MUSIC]

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

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

Ganesh: Editing assistance by Ganesh.

[MUSIC]

303. Higher Ed Then and Now

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

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

Show Notes

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

Transcript

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

[MUSIC]

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

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

John: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer…

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

[MUSIC]

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

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

Rebecca: Isn’t that cool?

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

Todd: I feel very special.

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

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

Rebecca: John, how about you?

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

Todd: Love Claire, she’s fantastic.

John: And it has kangaroos on it.

Todd: Yeah.

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

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

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

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

Todd: Well, that’s a nice mug,

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

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

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

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

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

Todd: That’s true.

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

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

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

Rebecca: Just a couple.

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

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

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

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

Todd: Yeah.

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

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

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

Todd: Woosh, yeah.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rebecca: It would be so helpful. [LAUGHTER]

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

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

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

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

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

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

Todd: Yeah.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

John: …available from… [LAUGHTER]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

John: it’s in the early stages.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rebecca: Who is your audience for that book?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rebecca: I love it too.

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

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

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

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302. Flipped Team-Based Learning

Flipped classrooms allow for class time to be used to put content into action. In this episode, Tina Abbate joins us to discuss the team-based approach that she uses in her classes to help develop the real-world skills important in her field.

Tina is a Clinical Assistant Professor at Stony Brook University’s School of Nursing. She holds a collection of credentials including a PhD, MPA, an MS, and is a registered nurse (RN). She teaches in-person and online undergraduate nursing classes at Stony Brook and conducts research on active learning strategies and the retention of information. She works as a nursing supervisor at two local hospitals.  She is the recipient of the 2023 SUNY FACT2 Award for Excellence in Instruction and was a recipient of the Stony Brook University Award for Excellence in Teaching an In-Person Course.

Show Notes

Transcript

John: Flipped classrooms allow for class time to be used to put content into action. In this episode, we look at one instructor’s team-based approach that emphasizes real-world skills important to the field.

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

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

John: ….and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer….

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

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Rebecca: Our guest today is Tina Abbate. Tina is a Clinical Assistant Professor at Stony Brook University’s School of Nursing. She holds a collection of credentials including a PhD, MPA, an MS, and is a registered nurse (RN). She teaches in-person and online undergraduate nursing classes at Stony Brook and conducts research on active learning strategies and the retention of information. She works as a nursing supervisor at two local hospitals. She is the recipient of the 2023 SUNY FACT2 Award for Excellence in Instruction and was a recipient of the Stony Brook University Award for Excellence in Teaching an In-Person Course. Welcome, Tina.

Tina: Thank you. Thank you so much for having me here today.

John: We’re very happy to see you again. We saw you at the SUNY Conference on Instruction and Technology (or CIT) about a month or so ago. And our teas today are:…. Tina, are you drinking tea?

Tina: I am. I am drinking a chai tea. Very good.

Rebecca: That sounds nice and warming.

Tina: Yup.

Rebecca: It’s a little chilly here, although it’s summer and it was hot yesterday. It is not hot today. [LAUGHTER]

Tina: Yes, for sure the weather has been very odd.

Rebecca: So I have my tea for teaching mug today. And in it, I think actually a mix of a couple of different black teas because I switched when I had a half a cup left. [LAUGHTER] I’m not sure what we call this today, but it’s a mix of black teas.

Tina: That sounds delicious.

John: Well, it sounds like a great tea to have while discussing blended learning.

Rebecca: A high quality blend. [LAUGHTER]

John: And we’re having a real cold spell here in Durham, North Carolina. The temperature has dropped down to 87 today, and I am drinking a tea forte black currant tea.

Rebecca: That’s a nice summer tea.

John: It is.

Rebecca: So we’ve invited you here today to discuss your use of active learning tools. But before we jump into that, we were curious about your wide range of degrees, credentials, and certifications. We didn’t even list them all. Can you share a little bit about your pathway into your current position at Stony Brook?

Tina: Sure. Well, when I went back to grad school, I certainly didn’t intend to get three graduate degrees. I had gotten into Binghamton and gotten into their BS to PhD program because I wanted to do research and my ultimate goal was to do executive leadership position at a hospital because I really enjoyed the leadership role of nursing. So just to backtrack, I graduated Binghamton University in the year 2000 and started right in the NICU (neonatal ICU) at Stony Brook and I worked as a NICU nurse for six years. And in that time, I knew that I wanted to go back to school. And like I said, I got into the BS to Ph. D. program at Binghamton. They awarded me a fellowship program. So I moved from Long Island. My daughter was one at the time. And I started my education there at Binghamton, continued it for the graduate program. And about a year into my doctoral studies they had asked if I wanted to teach clinical and I’ve taught in other capacities. I used to teach violin and piano when I was younger and I never really thought of teaching as a career goal for me. However, I was a poor graduate student, and I said, “Sure, I’ll do it.” And I had about six students in the NICU. I was teaching clinical, and, I don’t know, something came over me. I found my professional soulmate, something clicked so hard for me in that clinical that I wanted more. So I continued asking for teaching assignments. And it’s hard to articulate the feeling that you have, but I felt like I found my niche. And so I did clinical instructoring for about six years and then I moved into the classroom setting. So at that time, I still worked as a nursing supervisor, so I enjoyed the leadership role. And Binghamton started a dual master’s degree program, where you get your master’s in nursing with a concentration in whatever you wanted, I chose education. And the other part of the dual degree was a Master of Public Administration. So I was the first cohort to move through that program. So I graduated first with my Masters of Science in Nursing and my functional role was educator. Then two years later, I completed the Master of Public Administration, and then eventually the PhD. And it all just aligned so perfectly in my current career, because obviously I’m an academic at heart through and through. So those degrees have assisted me in that role. I still work in administration. I teach research, I teach leadership and management. So all of the degrees I’ve utilized and I still utilize actively every day. So this pathway was kind of carved out for me, I think, and I just feel very fortunate that I’m able to apply all of the degrees that I’ve gone for.

John: At the SUNY Conference on Instruction and Technology, you gave a presentation on how you structure your courses. And you mentioned that you were using a flipped team-based learning class structure. Can you tell us a little bit about how your classes are structured, and what a typical class day would look like in one of your classes?

Tina: Sure. So any class that I’m involved in or coordinate, the structure that I utilize is a flipped team-based learning approach. And this essentially requires students to prepare prior to coming to class. It has some benefits there, there’s flexibility, students can learn at their own pace, it really amps up the student responsibility for learning, as we know, and then it also gives us the opportunity for higher level learning because they’re interacting with the concepts outside prior to class. And the team-based part of it I like is because that increases that collaboration amongst students. We know that nursing healthcare is a team sport, so I like to engage the students in teamwork so that they can collaborate and work on their team dynamics, and their own personal team skills. So how my classes operate is, prior to each class, students complete a set of videos, and they’re interactive videos, they’re accessible videos for all types of learners, and it carries weight in their grade. So basically, in these pre-class videos, students get a little voiceover content from me about a concept, and then they get tested on it using a variety of types of questions: matching, true-false, multiple choice, hotspots, you name it. As they move through the videos, they are taking notes on a note-taking guide. So all the concepts are there for them to just follow along, take notes. So they’re seeing, hearing, they’re doing something as they move through the videos. And that note-taking guide eventually acts as a study guide for them, because they have to take a quiz every single class. So they complete these videos before class. And then I start each class with a micro-lecture review using Kahoot!, which is just a game-based learning platform. And in this micro-lecture review, I’m really drilling down to the concepts and helping these students reconcile any last residual confusion that they may have about these concepts. And then after the Kahoot!, they take a quiz. Now, since they’ve interacted with the concepts so many times prior to taking this quiz, I push the level of the questions in these quizzes. There are 15 questions and I try to push the level as high as I can. And the students are able to rise to the occasion because they are not hearing the information for the first time when they walk into class. They have a vague sense of the concepts, we nail it down, and then they take the quiz. After the quiz, the rest of class is comprised of team-based activities. And that’s how every class looks like for me.

Rebecca: Can you talk a little bit more about the embedded questions that you have in the videos and how students have responded to that aspect of a flipped classroom?

Tina: Absolutely, I use a program called Articulate 360. Articulate 360 has many different types of functions in it. But I focus more on the storyline aspect of this product, where I’m able to set up these video clips. So if you already have voice overs, you can basically chop up that voice over into different bits, put it into a story, the type of file that they reference there. And then in between each clip, you can embed any type of quiz question that you could possibly imagine. And you can set up different parameters. So for example, I like to elevate the stakes a little bit, so the students, for these pre-class videos, the grade that counts is their first pass. So it’s not like they can retake the video for a higher grade. It’s whatever they get at the end of that first pass of the video is the grade that counts. And they have two opportunities to answer each quiz question correctly. And I also embed a lot of feedback, so if they get the answer wrong, they’ll see a pop up with some review, and then if they still got it wrong, or they got it right, then there’s an explanation that pops up for the right answer. So I do survey my students in the middle of the semester using a Google form. And then at the end using the university platform, and the feedback about the videos has been very positive, they really do appreciate even though it means extra work, I’m still not giving them 20 chapters to read. I’m giving them something that passes along a bit more quickly and has a better chance of sticking in their memories. And they also appreciate the note-taking guide because it also becomes a study guide, not just for the quiz, but for the final exam at the end.

Rebecca: Like I’ve counted four or five layers of countability on that same content. [LAUGHTER]

Tina: Exactly.

Rebecca: We’ve got the note taking guide. We’ve got the embedded questions, and we’ve got the Kahoot!, and then we’ve got the quiz, and then the exam at the end.

Tina: Yeah, so it’s all about building on these concepts, having the knowledge and then being able to apply it in the classroom

John: In your presentation, you mentioned that you were de-identifying the names of students taking the Kahoot!, but maintaining a leaderboard in the classroom. Could you tell us a little bit about how that works.

Tina: So Kahoot is based on answering the questions correctly or incorrectly. And part of the score is how quickly you answer the question. So ideally, you want to answer quickly and answer the questions correctly. So at the end of the Kahoot!, they get a score. And just again, to raise the stakes, students have to hit a certain benchmark of points to receive full credit. And I try to push that benchmark a little bit, not to make it impossible, but just to make it a little bit challenging for them to give them something to work towards. So for example, in one semester, they have to reach 70,000 points to get the full credit, and then it’s prorated from there. So every time I have a class, I load the data into this program that was built by our Center for Excellence in Learning and Teaching on campus. One of the computer scientist was able to put this leaderboard, showed me how to upload the files, which are basically just CSV files. And what it does is this leaderboard shows their rank in the class, their total score, and the score for that week, so that they can monitor their progress. And everybody else is de-identified and random words, but they can see their name, and they could see their rank in the class.

John: And one of the advantages, I think, of using Kahoot! is it does provide some practice in developing automaticity. So that students can practice retrieving information quickly, which I would think would be especially important in health-care situations.

Tina: Absolutely. And I’ll have some students that come to me and they just absolutely despise Kahoot! because of the stress. And if you’ve ever taken a Kahoot!, and I have, it is stressful, you have to really think on your feet very quickly, especially since your score is based on how fast you answer the question. So what I tell them from the beginning is if you really are struggling with Kahoot!, and you don’t like Kahoot!, Kahoot is really for you, it’s meant for you, because I want you to think of a situation in a hospital setting. If a patient is deteriorating, we call something called a rapid response. And a team of people flow to the room to address whatever issue it is, perhaps the patient’s having difficulty breathing, whatever, chest pain, this now has become a very emergent situation. And in that situation, you have to be, as the primary nurse or a nurse assisting someone else, you have to have laser focus, and someone may ask you to just go get a piece of gauze. And if you’re new in the role you may be so flustered, just by getting that piece of gauze. So, this is really like a precursor to that. So I tell the students to use Kahoot! as a mechanism to help with your laser focus in situations where the outcome is dependent on what you’re doing.

Rebecca: Another thing that seems really relevant to a healthcare setting is the team-based learning aspect of your course. Can you talk a little bit about how you arrange the team-based activities and also how you set your students up for success on teams.

Tina: So with team-based learning, as we know, it’s simply a collaborative learning strategy and how the team activities look depends on the course. So I can talk to you about my research course. That happens every fall semester, and I have 160 students, this is the graduating class. These are the seniors, they’re in the last two semesters of the program. And what we do in that course is the team-based activity portion of class is working on a project. So I’ll tell you a little bit about the project which is experiential in nature. Stony Brook University is attached to Stony Brook University Hospital. So every year, I pick a unit, I meet with the manager, and they give us a clinical problem to solve. So for example, this fall the students and I will be working with the surgical ICU and the clinical topic is nurse wellbeing. So, as we know, we’re in this post-pandemic world and wellbeing has really moved to the forefront. Things like burnout, compassion fatigue is very prevalent in the healthcare environment and just globally as humans. I think we’re just a little tired of living in this fight or flight for so long. And now we’re trying to come back from this. So this fall semester, the students will be working in teams to find a solution for the surgical ICU for nurse wellbeing. So what we do is we search for articles together, and that’s how they get to their solution. We use a framework we use Melnyk’s seven steps for evidence-based practice. So in undergrad nursing, even though it’s called the nursing research course, the students are expected to utilize the research that has been done on a topic to make changes to their practice. Our expectation is not for them to actually conduct research. That’s a PhD level thing, but according to our essentials in baccalaureate nursing, that our accrediting body tells us what curriculum to teach to the students, the expectation is that they know how to read the research, how to critique it, how to appraise it, how to synthesize it, and how to use the research to develop solutions. So from there, they work in teams of eight throughout the semester, they develop their solution, they put it into a video project, the six-minute video project, and I choose the top two projects. Those top two projects then move on to the implementation phase. So then the unit will implement and evaluate the solution. And in addition to that, we put in for posters at conferences. For example, last year, we had two posters at ENRS. I was assigned the course of research, I was like, “Oh, boy, how am I going to make this interesting?” …because we know that research content can be a bit dry. So I ran the course for a couple years, and I knew that I had to do something with it. And that’s where I started moving towards this more experiential learning opportunity for the students. And so far, it’s been going really well.

Rebecca: So I heard you say something about teams of eight, and I almost maybe had a heart attack, [LAUGHTER] just thinking about how big that team is, and how to manage that. Can you talk a little bit about some of the structures you have in place to help a group that size, which is relatively large, be successful?

Tina: Sure. So teams of eight… that means I have 20 teams in total. And we’re all reviewing the same articles. So then I know the answers to all the questions. And basically, Google Drive is my answer. Every team has their own folder, within that folder are subfolders, I have them buddy up and be assigned to a certain number of articles. As a team, they have like individual and buddy responsibilities, which is clearly articulated in a contract that they review and fill out at the beginning of the semester. So they have individual responsibilities, buddy responsibilities, and they have team responsibilities. And every single class looks the same. So by the second class, they’re already into the mode. I don’t throw them any curveballs, every class structure is exactly the same, so they know what to expect. And they have appraisal forms to fill out. They have tables to fill out as a team to keep all of their literature organized. And the structure that I have in place seems to be working because there’s very little confusion now that I’ve kind of worked out all of the kinks. And I also always keep instructions projected just to make sure that they are apprised of the flow of class.

John: You mentioned Melnyk’s, seven steps of evidence-based practice. Could you give us a brief overview of that framework?

Tina: Absolutely. So there’s many evidence-based practice models out there. Stony Brook goes with Melnyk, and there are seven steps and actually I begin with step zero, step zero is igniting that spirit of inquiry. And that’s one of my main end goals of the course is for them to stay curious about how they can improve practice as a nurse for their patients. So that’s step zero. And then basically, what we do is we take the clinical problem, and then we frame it in the form of a question, a PICO question. And that helps us to find our articles. So once we find our articles, we go through the articles, we decide what we’re going to keep, what we won’t want to keep, then we start to critically appraise these articles, review them, read them, understand them, the students put that information into a literature review table, which is just the main elements of each article. After we’ve appraised all of the articles, the next step is to synthesize all of the articles. So what is the bigger picture? For that synthesis class students do complete synthesis tables. And when they create these synthesis tables, now the beginnings of their proposed solution begin to emerge. So then students put their solution together based on the synthesis table. And then the next step in this process is to implement the solution and then evaluate the solution. And of course, dissemination is always the last step.

John: You also mentioned that you use collaborative testing on exams. I’ve done this with a two-stage exam process where people take the exam individually first and then submit that but then take it again as a group. It also appears to have been and that’s been tremendously successful. It’s also appeared to have been really beneficial in terms of student learning, and it’s just so much more fun to watch the students work in groups on exams, than it is to go over the exam the next day with the whole class. That collaborative exam format has been so much much better than I ever expected it to be. Could you tell us a little bit about how you do collaborative testing on your exams?

Tina: I absolutely adore collaborative testing. If you have to assess students using exams, this is really maximizing the use of exams. So in my courses, students take collaborative exams in teams of three. And as we know, the research says that collaborative testing may decrease test-taking anxiety, the students have to take a large licensing exam at the end of the program. So it may help some of these students with that, like you said, immediate feedback on test performance, it really scales back the number of questions, I don’t even do exam reviews anymore, because the immediate feedback that they get, they’ve reconciled any confusion on the exam, that an exam review is no longer required. It increases student engagement and collaboration. I love how they, like you said, they debate, they discuss, that peer instruction. There are some people out there who can read a book and retain 100%. But generally speaking, you’ll have a better chance of retaining more information if you’re teaching someone else versus reading a book. Of course, that just varies learner to learner. So that could be really something to hone in on when it comes to collaborative testing. So, yes, the traditional way is to take the test individually, and then they take it again, in a team. And in our program, the clinical courses like medical surgical nursing, pediatrics, all of those, I would always recommend to do individual than collaborative because you really want to assess that individual on their performance and understanding of the concepts. And so I teach research, and I teach leadership and management, these are non-clinical courses, I skip the individual part, and take them right to a collaborative exam. So for example, for my research course, the students don’t know who they are paired up with, or in a team with, until about an hour before the exam. They get two articles, a quantitative article and a qualitative one. And then they have a set of questions to answer. Essentially, we’ve been preparing for this type of exam throughout the semester. So they end up doing really well. In my transitions to professional practice, where I’m teaching leadership and management, that is a traditional final exam, multiple choice, select all that apply, type of questions. And again, I actually do it on Zoom, they go into breakout rooms, they share their screen, and they take the exam, there’s a scribe who enters the answers. And also when it comes to accommodations, kind of as a side note, I’ve been able to set up strategies for individuals that do have accommodation so that they can maximize their experience as well.

John: When I first tried this, I was so excited about how the students were reacting with the collaborative exam that I took a short video clip while they were doing it and sent it to Rebecca. She was working with me in the teaching center at the time. It was just a remarkably positive experience.

Tina: Do you notice a difference like I would say an estimate of 10 points between the individual and the collaborative mean.

John: Generally, yeah. And the group one is virtually always higher than each individual score, except in one case in my class, where one student had a higher score than his group, and that’s because during the group discussions the student gave in to peer pressure within the group. I encouraged him to be more assertive when he’s confident about his answer. But that only happened with one student on one exam.

Tina: that’s pretty rare. I just love just watching them engage like that. So I’ll pop into like the breakout sessions, and they’re collaborating and negotiating and it’s just fantastic.

Rebecca: You mentioned earlier about your research class having a project coming up about well being. And I think that’s a topic that we’ve been talking a lot about in higher ed in a lot of situations. Can you talk a little bit more about that project and some of the research that’s going into it and some of the outcomes of it?

Tina: Absolutely. I mean, wellbeing is such a hot topic right now in probably every type of job you could think of. And it’s interesting wellbeing is kind of always been in the background. And I think the pandemic really shoved it into the forefront where it really should have been. That really needs to be, in my opinion, the top priority of any workplace because if your employees are well, it has a positive trickle down effect. So it has gotten to the point now where our accrediting body who tells us the essentials that we need to teach to our students, they have added a wellness component, and we’re adopting these new essentials in the next year. These are new essentials for us to follow. So it made it into the essentials, which is very telling. And now faculty are charged with teaching students, monitoring students, about their wellness and wellbeing. So this was pretty timely, because of the pandemic, the clinical topic that we’ve been doing for this EBP project has been things like compassion fatigue, burnout. And now this year, we’re doing wellbeing. Last fall, we worked with the cardiothoracic ICU. And the EBP project topic was compassion fatigue. And we wove in a lot of wellbeing into the solution, which is actually kicking off on July 1. So this year, instead of doing compassion fatigue, which has a bit of a negative connotation, let’s flip it to the positive. And like I said, we’re working with the surgical ICU, and we want to customize a wellness solution for that unit. So in the meantime, by proxy, I can teach the students about their own wellbeing and their own wellness. So I have a lot of content in there, so that they’re learning about this clinical topic to help develop a solution, but they’re also learning about it for themselves. And I do a few things with them, and definitely evolving this as we move along. And I’m lucky enough that I have the graduating class in the fall and the spring. So I move it through from the fall to the spring semester. So in addition and educating them on the different ways to promote your own wellness, we start each class with a mindfulness activity. I have a sound bowl that actually a student gifted to me, we do meditation, mindful breathing, every class is something different. This year, I’m inviting students to lead some of these sessions. So I want it to grow so that other students can participate and lead us and it’s literally three to five minutes at the beginning of every class, all lights down, devices off, phones flipped down, and we just take the time to be as present as possible. And I also help them keep an eye on their level of burnout. And I give them the professional quality of life survey at the start of every class. And halfway through, I’ll do a comparison of statistics between the different cohorts. Because I have the traditional cohort and I have the accelerated one, we look to see how our scores are doing over time, just to have that educational component to it. And then also the Insight Timer app, that’s an app that you don’t have, I would highly recommend that you download it. It has so many mindfulness type of activities that you can do. There’s a journal, you can track your progress. They have classes, and even the paid version, which is I think, maybe $60 for the year, they offer so many different bells and whistles, it’s really just a phenomenal app to use if you’re looking to promote your own wellness. So the other thing I wanted, I attended that CIT conferences, is I would love to use ChatGPT to develop a wellness assignment. So I’m still thinking about the inner machinations of how that would work. But hey, you know, if AI is here, might as well see if we can use it to promote wellbeing.

John: And it’s nice to have that focus of using ChatGPT positively because this is something that’s going to be part of students’ lives going forward, maybe not this specific tool, but AI tools are not going to disappear and using them for good would be a nice alternative for the concerns that many faculty have about the use of these tools. During your presentation at the CIT conference, you also mentioned using a variety of edtech tools. What are some of the tools that you use in your classes?

Tina: Sure. So I’ve trialed some apps here and there, I’ve used Plotagon. I used Go Animate for Schools, which is now VYOND, just for them to create case scenarios in their leadership and management class. And based on feedback, the one that they really liked is now a bit pricey. So I tried a free version of an app, and it really didn’t go well based on feedback. And that’s how it works in education. You try something out and you survey the students and if the experience over time is really not positive, you need to move on to something else. But things that really have stuck is I told you about Kahoot! and Articulate 360. How I communicate with the students. I use GroupMe. I prefer to communicate with them using that application over Brightspace or traditional email. They join via QR code and I have them all in one group chat and I can post quickly. They could send me direct messages, they could post questions in our group chat. And it just seems to really streamline communication because we’re all competing for their cerebral real estate, they have a lot going on, a lot of deadlines, so I find that this GroupMe app is really helpful. And I also try not to spam them with too many messages, thoug. It really seems to work. And then again, Google Drive, I can’t even begin Google Drive for everything, whether I want to survey them or whatever it is, Google Drive has it for us.

Rebecca: So speaking of Google, [LAUGHTER] you mentioned earlier using a Google form for a mid-semester evaluation. Can you talk a little bit more about that, and how you’ve used that to make adjustments in your class for the latter half of the semester?

Tina: Sure. So a Google Form is a pretty nice way to just give a quick survey to your students, I do that in the middle of the semester. And I have to tell you, that’s where I get my best data, because they are in the throes of it. And my response rate is typically over 90%, as compared to at the end, where they’re kind of just fizzling out, tired, maybe a bit over it, generally speaking. So I don’t get the response rate in the final that I do in the mid semester, when I analyze it, very short, a couple Likert questions: What do you like? What don’t you like? …and if there’s enough of a theme in the qualitative questions, or in the Likert scales, I’m able to make changes prior to them departing from me, instead of waiting for the next cohort to come in. For example, some things that came up was: “It can be a bit loud in the classroom.” So I’ve done something to control the volume in there, because it’s a very active classroom, or we feel like we’re sitting around too long during the TBL activities. So now I have a mechanism for them to let me know when they’re done with their activities, so that they’re not sitting around waiting. So those types of things. If they say, “let’s skip the final exam,” then that’s not anything that I can honor. But I’ve gotten some really good raw feedback that’s helped me evolve my classes. I’m just always so grateful for the student experience, because they inform me where this needs to go. Another way that I use a Google Form is with team-based learning. Michelson says that you should have the team members evaluate each other on their team performance. And typically, this is done at the end. But I like to do it in the middle of the semester, where they’re evaluating each other so that they have an opportunity to remediate, and then by the end, hopefully, their team’s performance scores have gone up. The challenge, though, with a Google Form is it’s very hard for me to share the feedback back to the students, it requires a lot of copying and pasting. And there’s a lot of room there for error, human error. So currently, I do bring in the students that are rated poorly just to give them some one-on-one guidance on how to improve their team performance. But in the meantime, to work around that I did trial a product called Kritik that offers that ability where the students will get their feedback back. But I reached out to our Center for Excellence in Learning and Teaching. And right now what we’re doing, we have a sandbox, and we’re working on trying to do a Kritik-like type of peer evaluation in Brightspace, using PeerMark. And we’re getting very close to ironing out some of the finer details. So I’m going to finally have an evaluation where every student can see their feedback from their team members based on their performance, so they know what they’re doing well and where they need to improve.

John: You teach both face to face and also online. Do you use many of the same techniques in your online classes that you use in your face-to-face classes? How do you modify your class for online delivery?

Tina: So I do everything the same, except that it’s in an asynchronous format. So students really have to be self disciplined in an asynchronous online type of environment. The online classes that I teach are post-licensure undergrads, so they have their two-year Registered Nurse license, and they’re looking to get their four-year degree. So some of the assignments, we tailor a little bit differently just because they have nursing experience, whereas my pre-licensure students do not. So maybe the assignments vary a little bit, but the structure is the same, using Articulate. I don’t use Kahoot! with them, only because I don’t have them in front of me, but they do have the quiz. And they have the TBL activities and things of that nature. So it’s the same, but it’s just in an asynchronous format.

Rebecca: I know that we mentioned in the intro that you do some research on some of your teaching practices. Can you tell us a little bit about some of that work?

Tina: Sure. So a colleague and myself got IRB approval, and we’re just starting to do some research on this evidence-based practice project that the students do in my class. And we’re just starting off with a cross-sectional study. We have a valid tool that’s been out in the literature that measures their perceived knowledge, skills and attitudes regarding evidence-based practice. So, I’m not building logistic regression models or anything yet, but starting off with a cross-sectional study to understand pre and post, the beginning of class and at the end of their research class, if there’s any impact or change in their knowledge, skills, and attitudes regarding evidence-based practice. So that’s where I’m starting. And I’d like to move on from there eventually.

John: And speaking of moving on, our last question is: what’s next?

Tina: So, I just would like to continue publishing and presenting. And continuing my research. Like I mentioned earlier, I’d like to introduce an AI tool for wellbeing, and Stony Brook just purchased several VR headsets. And because my courses include a lot of content about compassion, wellness, well being, I would love to develop a simulation about empathy. I think that would be a fantastic use of VR, apart from like, typical clinical scenarios. And that’s really my plan for now.

John: Well, thank you for joining us. And when you do have some results from your research, we’d love to have you come back and talk about it.

Tina: Thank you. Definitely. I really appreciate you inviting me. This is a wonderful opportunity for me. Thank you.

Rebecca: Yeah, thank you for letting us use your class as a little case study for folks to think about ways that they could change, improve, and reconsider their own classes. Thank you.

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

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

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301. A Return to Rigor?

Some faculty have advocated a return to “rigor” to address perceptions of growing student disengagement in our classes. In this episode, Kevin Gannon joins us to discuss an alternative approach that provides students with cognitive challenges in a supportive environment. Kevin is a history professor and the Director of the Center for the Advancement of Faculty Excellence at Queen’s University of Charlotte. He is also the author of Radical Hope: a Teaching Manifesto, which is available from West Virginia University Press.

Show Notes

  • Gannon, Kevin (2020). Radical Hope: A Teaching Manifesto. Morgantown: West Virginia University Press.
  • Gannon, Kevin (2023). “Why Calls for a ‘Return to Rigor’ Are Wrong.” The Chronicle of Higher Education. May 22.
  • Imad, M. (2022). Trauma‐informed education for wholeness: Strategies for faculty & advisors. New Directions for Student Services, 2022(177), 39-47.
  • Freire, P. (1970). Pedagogy of the oppressed, New York (Herder & Herder) 1970.
  • Boucher, Ellen (2016). “It’s Time to Ditch Our Deadlines.” The Chronicle of Higher Education, August 22.
  • Vygotskii L.S. (1984). “Problemy detskoi (vozrastnoi psikhologii).” In Sobranie sochinenii v 6-ti tomakh, vol. 4, pp. 243–432. Moscow: Pedagogika
  • Cavanagh, S. R. (2023). Mind over Monsters: Supporting Youth Mental Health with Compassionate Challenge. Beacon Press.
  • Jack, Jordynn and Viji Sathy (2021). “It’s Time to Cancel the Word ‘Rigor.’” The Chronicle of Higher Education. September 24.

Show Transcript

John: Some faculty have advocated a return to “rigor” to address perceptions of growing student disengagement in our classes. In this episode, we discuss an alternative approach that provides students with cognitive challenges in a supportive environment.

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

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

John: ….and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer….

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

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John: Our guest today is Kevin Gannon. Kevin is a history professor and the Director of the Center for the Advancement of Faculty Excellence at Queen’s University of Charlotte. He is also the author of Radical Hope: a Teaching Manifesto, which is available from West Virginia University Press. Welcome back, Kevin.

Kevin: Thanks. Great to be back with you all.

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

Kevin: I am drinking Cheerwine because I’m in North Carolina now. And this is how we roll in this state. And it’s so damn hot outside, a hot beverage is the most unappetizing suggestion right now.

Rebecca: All right, we’ll let it slide. [LAUGHTER]

John: I would have been tempted to have Cheerwine because it does have that whole North Carolina flavor, which I had never heard of until I came down here, the first time in 1987. But it’s incredibly popular.

Rebecca: What is it?

Kevin: It’s a cherry soda, basically. You got to be ready for sugar. You got to get your pancreas in shape and then prepare to go, but it’s quite tasty.

John: It’s a very inexpensive and popular cherry soda.

Rebecca: Interesting. It sounds like medicine.

John: No, it’s more sugary than medicinal.

Rebecca: Okay.

John: …but Duke, some time before last year, removed all of the soda from the vending machines and every place where they serve beverages on campus. You only have choices of healthy drinks: water, fruit juices, iced tea, they have of course, because it is North Carolina.

Rebecca: Is it sweet tea then?

John: It is not sweet tea, it is unsweetened tea. So I have a Tea Forte black currant tea that came down with me in my new Duke University mug.

Rebecca: And I have an Irish Breakfast tea because it’s 90 degrees outside and I have a hot tea because… I don’t know why. [LAUGHTER]

John: And I would not be drinking tea if I were not sitting in a very nicely air conditioned classroom here at Duke. So we’ve invited you here today to discuss your May 22 Chronicle article where you address the arguments that some people have raised advocating a return to rigor as a solution to what seems to have been a substantial reduction in student engagement Since the start of the pandemic. What do you think is the source of the disengagement that faculty have been perceiving?

Kevin: Well, I think there’s a lot that goes into it. But I will say that I think it’s important for us to remember that there’s: A) no one cause or explanation for it, which leads to B) there’s no one solution that’s going to fix it all. And we know this, I think, but in the day-to-day practice or dealing with this room full of disengaged students, it’s hard to remember that sometimes. And so I think the root cause of this disengagement comes from the fact that we went through and are still dealing with the effects of rolling trauma on a global scale. And we can talk about trauma-informed pedagogy all we want, but it’s not going to erase the fact that trauma happened and for some of our students, and for some of us, continues to happen as well. And of course, what we saw as a result of that was the pandemic laid bare so many of the other things that were already in place that were unsustainable, and didn’t let us hide from those things anymore. So whether we’re talking about the so-called racial reckoning of the summer of 2020, or we’re talking about the ways in which people from different socio-economic groups experienced the pandemic and or healthcare as a result of that. And we’re in an age now of sort of creeping authoritarianism, pseudo-fascism, whatever you want to call it. I don’t think anybody could realistically expect folks to bring all of their cognitive energies to bear in a classroom with all of this going on in the background. It’s like trying to read a book while you’re in the spin cycle of a washing machine. There’s no way. And I think we can talk about creating spaces that are sanctuaries from that, but I don’t think that we alone can solve all of the things that are leading to disengagement. In fact, disengagement, the diversion of cognitive bandwidth, defense mechanisms, these are all things that are actually, I would argue, fairly healthy responses to everything that we’re seeing around us. And we need to have the sort of empathy and understanding of what many of our students and ourselves are going through to allow space for that to happen.

Rebecca: Yeah, sometimes it feels like there’s a request to just snap out of it.

Kevin: Right. One of the refrains I’ve had over and over is we’re not going to pedagogy our way out of like systemic collapse. And so I think Mays Imad actually put it very well, when she talks about learning as a sanctuary. Our classes can be a sanctuary from this, and that’s important. And we should be doing that work and we should be providing those spaces and curating those spaces and nurturing those spaces for ourselves and for our students, but to put all the pressure upon educators to get students “reconnected,” despite everything else that’s happening around us, I just think it’s unrealistic, and it sets us up for failure. And the same is true, I would argue, for K to 12. Teachers, during the pandemic, educators were expected to sort of fill in the gaps of all of the missing social services over and above “just education.” And I think that when we talk about this disconnection, there’s a danger of us moving into that space where we’re being expected to solve systemic problems, when we are not in a position where we’re able to do so. And in fact, we are suffering from the effects of those problems, in many ways the same as our students.

John: And at the same time, I know our campus at least, and I think, throughout the US, we’ve seen an increase in the diversity of our student bodies. There’s many more first-generation students coming into our classes, there’s many students from historically minoritized groups who simply were not generally attending, and those students often come in with less knowledge of, as you note in your article, the hidden curriculum of education. We have to help them learn that curriculum. And that brings us to that whole question of the push to rigor. In the article, you describe two approaches to adding more rigor, one is adding more logistic rigor, and the other is adding more cognitive rigor to classes. Could you talk a little bit about those?

Kevin: Sure. And so when we think about this idea of rigor in the way that we normally talk about as faculty members, I do think that there are these sorts of two camps that rigor falls into, I don’t think that we… and I’m speaking broadly here, and certainly implicating myself, in some of this… I don’t think we always do a great job specifying which one or the other we’re referring to. So it’s very easy for me as a faculty member to say, “I’m making a very rigorous class.” And maybe all of that is one type of this rigor as opposed to a balance. And so I think when we look at rigor, what it basically boils down to is there’s sort of two broad ways in which a course could be challenging, it could be difficult. One of those is what we talk about as faculty as the good stuff and what I call cognitive rigor, complex thinking, higher order thinking, the ability to critically interrogate information, the ability to step outside of one’s own perspective, all of the things that we know higher education should be doing. And then there’s the other kind. There’s, for lack of a better term, I call logistical rigor. And that’s where you see things like inflexible policies, volume of work, not necessarily difficult work, but so much of it that the sheer volume in itself is what makes the difficulty exist for students. The classic story, I keep saying it’s apocryphal, but when I tell this story at various workshops I do at other campuses, people always swear it happened to them. So I think it is real. But the apocryphal story of the big lecture class where the professor strolls out of the first day and says, “Look to your left, look to your right, only two of the three of you will be here by the end of the semester,” like that’s that sort of logistical rigor that I think we see a lot. The problem is, as I note in the article, we often mistake one for the other. We often say that our classes are rigorous. And we think in our faculty braids that they’re cognitively rigorous, but the way our students are experiencing them is actually through logistical rigor. And so if you look at some of the research, and I linked some of it in the article, what really surprised me as I dove into this, were the vastly different perceptions that students and faculty had about a rigorous class. There was an article that listed the top 10 features of a rigorous class according to students. The top five of those were what I would call logistical rigor, the number of pages that were assigned to be written during the semester, the reading load, the pace of the scale of work, none of the good cognitive rigor stuff came in until the bottom five on that student list, and the numbers there were significantly lower. And this is just one study, but there’s a pattern across when we look at student perceptions of rigorous courses, of difficult courses, it’s a pretty clear thread that students are experiencing difficulty as logistical rigor. And so when we as faculty say, “Well, we’re really after these cognitively rigorous courses and that’s what it’s all about.” Well, that’s not what our students are seeing, which leads me to wonder if that’s really what we’re doing. And my suspicion is, is that no, that we’re often creating these logistically rigorous course spaces, and thinking that it’s cognitively rigorous, and of course, those are two very different things.

Rebecca: Well, and I think sometimes that code word of rigor, and I intentionally use the word code here is that it’s often used to weed certain students out and then we wonder why particular disciplines aren’t diverse or don’t have new faces as a part of the fields and disciplines, as if having structure or support or scaffolding is somehow the antithesis of rigor.

Kevin: Right. And this is really the crux of it, and of course, everybody’s brains will first go to STEM courses because STEM fields have really been struggling with this. But as a humanities guy, there are humanities fields, including some sub-fields in my own discipline of history. I would argue philosophy wrestles with this as well, where rigor in this logistical sense is exactly as you put it, the sort of weeding out, its code for “Some of y’all should be here, and some of y’all shouldn’t, and by the end of the semester, we’re going to have that sorted.” And of course, is that what we want to be doing? Is this how we reproduce our disciplines? If your answer to that is “yes,” I would argue that you’re probably in the wrong line of work. So we need to be thinking, what is it that we’re actually doing? There’s a difference between saying “our uses of rigor are counterproductive” and “we should dumb everything down.” Those are two separate things and that’s not what I’m saying. But our uses of rigor are doing the very things that you point out, Rebecca, that we’re putting barriers in front of students, we’re closing off pathways and opportunities for them to engage in our discipline. And given this moment of where we’re at in higher education right now, I think that’s a horrible, horrible strategy. Rigor, it has become such a loaded concept, because it has become this stand in for weeding out or culling or all these other awful metaphors that we use in higher ed to talk about kind of thinning the herd, so to speak, and that language matters.

John: When you were talking about the difference in faculty and student perceptions of making courses more rigorous. It reminds me of the discussion that we often see about active learnin. When faculty are surveyed in terms of the extent to which they use active learning activities in the class and the proportion of time that they lecture. When students are surveyed on the same questions, we get a remarkably different picture, suggesting that faculty are doing a lot more lecturing, and a lot less active learning than they believe that they are. And it might be nice if we could get a little bit more dialogue going back and forth between students and faculty and getting perhaps more student feedback in general. But it does suggest that we’re seeing a disconnect between what students observe and what faculty think they’re doing in their classes.

Kevin: Right. And a lot of times will be talked about, “Well, I do X in my class,” like I know in my own case, there are a lot of occasions where what I say I’m doing is actually more aspirational than actual. I would love to be doing these things. And on a good day, these things are happening. And maybe they’re working. And I get that. There are some days in some classes where the stuff that we know is most effective and most desirable, just doesn’t work the way that we would hope or the way that we would want. But that doesn’t mean that we stop trying. I think there are plenty of opportunities in place for us to have that sort of dialogue you’re talking about with students to see: are the actual experiences of my students aligned with what I think they are? And this is why we do assessment. This is why we do, at least in a perfect world, student ratings of instruction, if this course was designed to get you from point A to point B, and I want to say that you got to point B, I need to be able to prove that. And I need to be able to describe what that experience was like for you as students. And so how do I bring student voice into this. So you could do informal midterm feedback, you cn do weekly reflection papers, you could do check ins with students. The faculty development world has, I’ve seen it referred to as the small group instructional diagnosis, which is a unwieldy term for a kind of guided reflective discussion for midterm feedback and input from students about how a course is going. I think there’s a lot of tools already there that, working together…. and this is the other hard part….working as colleagues, working outside of my old office and department, and with my faculty development people or with other academic support, can I bring these folks into the process where they could work with my students as well, and help me gather that data? Am I doing, in actuality, what I say that I’m doing? What is my students’ experience of this course? And is that in alignment with what I have designed the course to be?

Rebecca: We all hit barriers like time and things that cause us to slip into old habits occasionally. So those aspirational moves certainly occur for all of us. But I also think that that transparency piece about like, “Why are we doing this active learning thing?” or “Why are we slipping into this old habit that’s maybe not the most ideal?” …can actually be really healthy, because then students can also share that and have that dialogue going back and forth so that they know where they’re at in something and vice versa, like we know where we’re at in terms of the classroom.

Kevin: Well, and it’s an excellent model, too. I think modeling transparency with our students in any way that we can about the course design, about the content, about the ways in which we might be collectively engaging with that. All of that is to the good. We want students to understand that learning doesn’t just happen by accident. We want them to get into this place where they’re thinking metacognitively, and to me really the only effective way to do that is to have this sort of radical ethic of transparency. If a student says “Why are we doing x in this course?” If my syllabus has, here’s all the stuff that we’re going to do this semester, and I can’t come up with a good answer to that, that’s a problem. And so this helps, as you suggest, keep us in this place where we’re ensuring that what we’re doing is in alignment with our goals and our values as disciplinarians, in other words, as members of our discipline, as well as effective instructors and human beings. Does this stuff align with what my professed core values as an academic and as an educator are. The only way we’re able to do that, I think, is to be in this place of transparency to model what that looks like for our students.

John: One issue where the logistical question comes up is that during the pandemic, a lot of faculty relaxed deadlines, and sometimes dropped deadlines entirely. And that certainly provided students with the flexibility they needed. But one concern is that some students would end up getting further and further behind in the course. And there’s a lot of research that suggests that without some structure in terms of deadlines, and getting things done in reasonable periods, the quality of student learning tends to deteriorate. What sort of policies might give students some flexibility, but still make sure that they’re progressing through the course, so they can keep up with other activities that they’re supposed to be doing as the course progresses.

Kevin: And so this is the key issue. And so I think it’s important to establish that, when I suggest that rigor, at least as we sort of traditionally used it is actually failing us, is getting in the way of actual learning, I am not suggesting removing structure from a course. And I wish I could remember which of his writings it’s from but there’s this piece of one of the Paulo Freire books or essays that I’ve read, where he talks about what we would call learner-centered instruction. And he basically says if we’re in a rowboat, and I teach you to swim by throwing you overboard, that’s learner centered, but that’s not necessarily helping you learn how to swim in that moment. And his point is structure is a necessary part of what he would call a liberating pedagogy, that it’s not just throw people in and say, “Okay, go learn, you are the agents here.” And so I think it’s important to realize that you can do this work well and meaningfully only if there is a structure in place, but it has to be a structure that’s explicit, that’s decipherable for students. Back to your notion of the hidden curriculum, if it’s hidden, [LAUGHTER] and the students are running up against these sort of invisible barriers without being able to name what they are, that’s a problem. But if there’s structure in the course, where students are able to see “here’s what I’m accountable to, and here’s how I’m accountable to other students in the class,” then you’re in a place where you could do what we might call that desirable level of difficulty. And so I think there are ways to bring in structure and maybe more structure than what we had during the pandemic. Getting through what we got through was a victory in and of itself, and whatever we had to do to do it, we got through it at least relatively unscathed as higher education. I think that’s a really important win to acknowledge. But it doesn’t mean that we have to go all the way back the other way now. And so I’m a big fan of the sort of nuts and bolts level of policies that build in flexibility, but don’t get rid of structure entirely. And so Ellen Boucher wrote a great piece in The Chronicle back in 2016, and had the headline, “It’s Time to Ditch our Deadlines,” which is unfortunate, because that’s actually not what she argues. She advocates for a two-day grace period, no questions asked, for her students. And if you needed more time than that, then you had to have a conference with her and come up with a plan, like “Okay, I can’t get this paper to you on the due date. I’m going to take the two days.” While I need more than the two days we’re going to have a conference and as the instructor, I’m going to work with you and say “Here’s the game plan. Here’s your next step. Here’s what you’re going to be accountable for and when you’re going to be accountable for.” So I’m doing extensions, but I’m not just saying turn it in whenever. I’m not leaving students to figure out “Okay, what are my next steps? What are my next actions?” Because in the case of deadlines, we know that when students are failing to meet deadlines, as you mentioned, this stuff just snowballs, and it becomes worse, and then they just ghost us, because the whole thing has become so overwhelming that the avoidance reflex kicks in. And so something like Boucher suggests where right off the bat, here’s a two-day policy, if you need it, just tell me you’re taking it, I don’t need to hear about whatever stomach ailment you had, or I don’t need the graphic email describing your symptoms. Just tell me you’re taking the two days if you need more than that we got to talk first. And so that’s an example of a policy that has a structure there but still it explicitly packages in that type of flexibility. And I think that’s a good model for where we need to be, understanding that for different students life is happening in different ways. And yet, there’s still we can’t just say “Okay, turn things in whenever,” because as most of us design courses, stuff builds on each other, right? That’s the whole point of scaffolding and getting rid of deadlines entirely or not having that sort of structured accountability in place does prevent the type of things from happening that should be happening. And so I think finding ways to preserve structure but flexibility within that structure, which, I get is… as I listen to myself say that, part of me goes, “Well, that’s a really just kind of wishy-washy answer.” But I do think, in this case, that moderating it, there was a reason we got rid of so much structure during the pandemic, with this recognition that it was absolutely necessary for the way that everybody’s lives were unfolding and happening. That didn’t go away, like people’s lives still unfold and happen in very complex ways. And that’s true for our students and us. So we can’t just say, “Oh, we’re going to swing all the way back, 180 degrees to the other side, and have deadlines by God.” I just think that’s an incredibly counterproductive thing. And I think that the folks who have been trying that are the ones who’ve been seeing a lot of resistance, and not a lot of success in terms of their students meeting those things. And that’s where we hear some of this frustration that’s coming out in the discourse.

Rebecca: I think the other thing that sometimes rubs up a lot against rigor is this idea of relationships between students and other students and students and faculty in the classroom and that sense of belonging… somehow these are like diametrically opposed. It’s not like rigors over here and belonging is over here, and they can’t possibly happen in the same place.

Kevin: Yeah, and doesn’t that speak to what we’ve seen with the sort of debate such as it is over active learning? The conversation starts from an erroneous proposition that you could either do active learning or you could have a “real class,” like you could do this namby pamby arts and humanities, sit in a circle and sing Kumbaya and braid each other’s hair kind of stuff or you could do real learning and manly-man stuff. And I’m exaggerating, actually only slightly. [LAUGHTER] A lot of times the conversation about rigor and challenge starts from this erroneous sense of mutual exclusivity, that you can have a compassionate flexible pedagogy or you could be rigorous, but you cannot do both. When it actuality it’s and you have to have one to have the other. You cannot have a challenging learning experience where your students can actually meet those challenges if you don’t have a compassionate empathetic pedagogical space, because the whole point about rising to challenges is you can’t do it by yourself. This is what the Vygotski talks about the zone of proximal development, learning is social, you need other people around you, you need an instructor, you need classmates. Well, why is that? It’s because we help each other when it comes to the point of really challenging and pushing ourselves cognitively to get to that achievement of that goal, that desirably difficult goal. We cannot do that if students don’t feel that they belong in that space. We cannot ask students to take intellectual risks or to try something that they have never tried before, if they’re at a place where they don’t feel secure in doing so. Because we wouldn’t ask that of ourselves either, if we’re being honest. And so rather than posit: “you could be rigorous or you could be flexible and compassionate,” it’s “you can be flexible and compassionate and then you can be challenging.”

John: At Oswego this fall we’re going to be using for one of our reading groups, Sarah Rose Cavanagh’s book that you reference here, her newest book, which is Mind over Monsters, and you cite that basically as suggesting the importance of bringing both of those things together. And it’s an excellent book, by the way, which I would recommend to anyone interested in addressing some of these questions.

Kevin: Absolutely. It’s a brilliant book. And I think it’s a vital intervention in this very conversation that we’re having.

John: A term that you use in the book, which was a technical term I hadn’t quite seen used in this context, was that many faculty when they tried to introduce rigor, essentially are adding more “hard-assery”, I think was term that you uses rather than actually more cognitive challenge. Why is that happening? Why do people do this?,

Kevin: Yeah, and the phrase I use is performative hard-assery. [LAUGHTER]

John: Oh that;s right. Sorry, I forgot. [LAUGHTER]

Kevin: Well, I’m glad that that resonated, because I’m really proud of that phrase. But I really do think that that is where a lot of the rigor conversation is. My classes are hard, my students write, they read a bunch, they do all these things. And it’s like, “Do they? and what is the result of them doing those things?” It comes back to the student perception of rigor as the more pages I decide to read and write, students don’t talk about what they learned, and they talk about what they had to do. They don’t talk about what they became. They don’t talk about how it made them feel. They don’t talk about how they changed. They just talk about things they have to do. And I think that that’s a really important distinction when we think about the student experience in all of this. And I think it’s very easy for us to say, “Well, I’m doing my job because I’m assigning my students a ton of work, and it’s hard and I grade hard.” And again, I’m not saying we shouldn’t be challenging. I think we should absolutely be challenging. But how are we structuring those challenges? Am I giving my students a challenge just sheerly through volume. Is my class just kind of a death march through this enormous swamp land of content that’s just going past them a mile a minute, or Is it challenging in the sense that they are taking the time to be deliberative thinkers, to be critical consumers of information, because those two things look a lot different. And again, especially coming at this sort of not quite post-pandemic stage that we’re at, is a very real desire to bring some structure back, but thinking about bringing that structure back in terms of just assigning more stuff, because from our own graduate school experience, that’s how we structured our very lives. And so if we think about structure, and again, I’m saying we very intentionally here, that’s the first place our mind goes to. And so I brought back structure, because I’ve assigned a whole bunch more work. And now I also get to complain about how students aren’t doing the work, because I’ve built in this sort of self-fulfilling prophecy, it makes me feel good, it makes me feel like I’m “doing my job,” but am I? Are students learning? Is this advancing learning, because chances are, it’s probably not,

Rebecca: As you’re describing these two scenarios, the marching through the marsh, for example, I’m thinking of the really long checklist that accompanies it. And then in this other environment, this luxurious amount of time to contemplate something and wrestle with something and think through it, and how there needs to be space around that sometimes, to really have the time to process and understand what it is that we’re trying to grapple with.

Kevin: On a micro level, we think about this as instructors all the time, when we think about trying to foster an effective discussion in class. We know that asking a good question is the essential piece of having a good discussion. If I ask a complex question that requires a fair amount of cognitive heavy lifting, I need to give my students time, I can’t expect my students to answer it right off the bat. If it’s a good question, there’s going to be some silence afterwards, as students think about and chew on it a little bit before they decide how they want to respond. And it’s true on a course level too. Are we providing space for our students to do this work, to do this processing? Or is it just more, more, more, more, more, faster, faster, faster, faster, in the name of rigor, in the name of structure, in the name of challenging, but it’s really kind of the cognitive equivalent of trying to drink from a fire hose, like what’s really happening there?

Rebecca: Sometimes not much. [LAUGHTER]

Kevin: I have actually stood in front of a fire hose, not willingly, but I’ve been hit by a fire hose. And I can tell you, it’s not pleasant, it hurts and you’re really wet and miserable afterwards. And I would argue that those are not the things [LAUGHTER] we want associated with learning spaces. And yet, this is, a lot of times, where we, and again, speaking broadly, where we kind of lay it…this sort of, we’re gonna fire hose everything out, and it’s up to the student. And I’m exaggerating slightly for effect, but again, not very much.

John: If the solution to the student disengagement is not dumping more work on students and having more students fail along the way, as many people seem to see it, what can we do to get students a bit more engaged with the class? Because that’s been a complaint. I’ve heard from a lot of people at many institutions in the last year or so.

Kevin: So I think there’s two things I would use to answer that question. And the first I would say, engagement’s not going to be 100% all the time. And if we are thinking that it was somehow that way, magically, before COVID, we’re deluding ourselves. And so we have to give ourselves permission to fall short in that category, not every student is going to be engaged in everything at every time, no matter what we try to do, because that’s the world we live in, that surrounds the spaces we’re in. And so let’s be realistic in what it is that we’re after, how do we engage students in a meaningful and at least most of the time kind of way? And that’s where I think we can do a lot. And so there’s a couple approaches that I think hold a lot of promise. One is we do have to be challenging, we do have to provide challenge, people like to meet challenges. If students think they know something already, they’re going to hear it and “Oh, I already know this, I’m already checking out.” So we have to put in this level of difficulty, of mystery, of complexity, but we have to provide support in helping them meet those sorts of challenges. And we have to be clear and transparent about how we’re providing that support. The idea of a safety net under the trapeze artists, the trapeze artists who’s doing incredibly complex and really, really difficult things that they’ve practiced a lot to do, but they’ve had a net underneath them, just in case it didn’t go well. And at a much lower risk sort of way, that’s what we’re doing. I’m asking you to do difficult things, things that you have probably not been asked to do before. You may fall short of the goal, but that’s okay, because here’s the supports underneath you. This is a space where it’s okay for that to happen. And so depending on the type of class and the discipline you’re in, that might look a little different. But when people talk about desirable difficulties, in other words, challenges that people can actually meet, even if it takes a lot of effort, but there is a solution. And again, I reference Vygotsky’s zone of proximal development, a lot in this. It takes a while to get there, but you get there and that’s what the important part is. So how do we create teaching and learning spaces where the challenge is centered, but the ways in which students are being supported in meeting those challenges are also at the center. Right now we’re very good at centering challenges. I would argue we’re less proficient at centering those other things. And so how do we support students in meeting those challenges of what should be a demanding education? And so Cavanaugh calls it, in her book compassionate challenge. I suggest in the article that the question we should have as our litmus test is: does this advance learning? Does this thing I’m doing advance learning in the sense of what are the goals? What are the outcomes that we’ve established for the course? Those sort of transformations, those promises, to use Ken Bain’s words, that we’ve made to students? Are we getting there? Do you know how we’re getting there? Are you able to assess as a learner yourself what’s working in getting you there? Those are the sorts of things that need to be at the center of the teaching and learning experience. And if we’re just doing challenge for challenges sake, or that sort of performative hard-assery shtick, our students are not going to be interested in having that conversation with us or with themselves even, about what’s working for them in terms of the strategies they’re adopting, and the things that they’re doing to meet the challenges that they’re faced with on our course.

Rebecca: Thinking about procrastination in relationship to what we’ve been talking about. And sometimes procrastination reads as lack of motivation, or a lack of engagement. And sometimes the reason for the procrastination is that there isn’t the deadline, or there isn’t the structure or there isn’t the milestones to move you along. How do you see the relationship of procrastination to rigor and this idea of engagement?

Kevin: That’s a great question. Because I think if we err too much on the side of the so-called logistical rigor, or it’s like just really hard, inflexible policies and strict deadlines and this high volume of stuff, we’re actually creating the circumstances that procrastination will become an epidemic among students, because what we’re giving is an unrealistic amount of work to do in the time that’s allotted. And it’s very easy to get from there to just sheer avoidance, I can’t do this, I don’t see a tangible way through this, I cannot see myself getting through this gauntlet. So eff it, basically, is how that works. And so I’m going to do other things, whether I’m doing this consciously, or subconsciously, or some mixture of both. That’s like the perfect storm. When it’s all extrinsic motivation and when it’s all insurmountable barriers, at least from the perspective of the student, that’s like the perfect storm for avoidance. And I’m someone who personally struggles with this all the time. My avoidance reflex is keenly developed over the 50 years of my life. [LAUGHTER] And I do not do well with unstructured time. And so getting back to this question of how do we find that balance, I think structure is important, not an overwhelming or a suffocating amount of structure. But there needs to be something in place to help our students fit themselves and their work and their lives into the framework of the course. We need to be able to give them the tools to do that without pre-determining every outcome or stifling every option. But I think thinking about what are the causes of procrastination, what are the effects of procrastination, because one of the things that when folks talk about student disconnection is this phenomenon that we’re seeing more and more of students just kind of ghosting, just dropping out, like they were in class for six weeks, and now they’re gone. And I think a lot of that is things have built up to the point where they seem so overwhelming that there’s no realistic solution in place. And a lot of that is exacerbated by that cycle of procrastination. And so by the time we get to the point where the student is feeling so overwhelmed that they just want to leave everything, which they do, it’s way too late. So we have to be intervening in the earlier part of that process where it’s procrastination that is creating the conditions that this sort of overwhelming volume is going to grow out of a little bit down the road if we’re not able to intervene. So I think thinking about procrastination is the way you frame it in these very explicit and sort of fraught of mind terms is a really important part of all of this.

John: Since I’m at Duke, I’ll mention a study that Dan Ariely had done a while back where he worked with one of his colleagues at MIT at the time, and they were giving students writing assignments where they had to write three papers over the course of the semester. In one class, they had fixed deadlines for submitting these papers that were evenly spaced. In the other section of the course, they were given the option of setting their own deadlines, which could be at any time during the semester. If they chose, they could set them all at the end of the term. And what happened was that students who had either fixed deadlines or who set the deadlines evenly over time ended up performing better than the students who chose to put the deadlines at the end. And I should also note, there was a one-percentage point penalty for each day they were late. So it was a small penalty, but it was a non-trivial penalty. So the logical thing is to put all the deadlines at the end and then try to get them done evenly. But the people who had deadlines later did the work later and did lower quality work. So those deadlines can be important as long as there’s some sort of incentive structure with it. And I think that has helped encourage me to not drop deadlines entirely. Usually I allow some scores to be dropped or allow some deadlines to be flexible, but warn students that if they don’t meet the deadlines they’re going to have trouble with these in-class activities that are going to be done based on the things they were supposed to have done before they come to class. But it’s a challenge. And I haven’t found a good balance

Kevin: That speaks to exactly the type of balance that we’ve been talking about. We don’t have to choose between strict, rigid, inflexible deadlines, or no deadlines, or complete student set deadlines, like the Elen Boucher piece that I referenced earlier. Here’s the structure, here are the deadlines. And then here’s the wiggle room that comes along with them. And so your desire to sort of have the deadlines but to balance them with flexibility in your classes, and to have students understand, this is why you need to have these things completed, or at least aiming for this particular juncture, because you’re going to need it in the next phase of the course, etc. This is all part of what we talked about supporting students to meet these challenges, this is the type of support. Support could be encouraged through our course design, as well as the actions that we’re taking on a day-to-day basis. And so again, I want to be really clear that I think rigor as we’re using it kind of higher education wide, has outlived its usefulness as a word. It has too much baggage, it has been wielded in exclusionary, inequitable, and sometimes very horrible ways. But that doesn’t mean that we don’t talk about challenge. And so I think like Cavanaugh does, and like a lot of other folks who have landed on this idea of thinking about ways that we can challenge our students. And the way to do so is to create structured environments where the structure facilitates rather than suffocate students as they endeavor to meet those challenges.

John: And at our teaching center, we’ve given hundreds of workshops over the years, but never once have we advocated rigor, or even used the term rigor in our framework we always refer to challenge and the benefits of that. And you cited a Chronicle article that was the basis of a podcast episode with Sathy and Jack. And we’ll include a link to that in the show notes.

Kevin: The headline was, “It’s Time to Cancel the Word ‘Rigor’” and playing on everybody’s sort of obsession with the boogeyman of cancel culture. And I think that that got in the way a little bit of folks engaging with the very real truth of the article was that, as Rebecca alluded to earlier, rigor has been wielded rather than used it’s been wielded like a cudgel, it’s been a barrier, it’s been exclusionary. And when we talk about rigor now, I think everything has a history, this is my own discipline talking here, I don’t think rigor with the amount of baggage it’s carrying, I just don’t think it can be constructively used when we’re talking about challenging students. And because students have experienced rigor, defined that way and referred to with that word, to the point where there’s that kind of baggage with it too where it’s sort of the pedagogical equivalent of hazing, as opposed to anything else. It helps us as educators ask ourselves, are my challenges cognitive or just logistical? Are my challenges supported for students? Or am I just sort of asking them to close their eyes and jump off the cliff and trust that no bad things are happening. And it helps me as an instructor hold myself accountable to ensure that again, I’m not doing the things that I would rather avoid and that I am doing the things that I tell students I’m doing to help support their learning. In the tradition of first-year student essays everywhere, look at the Webster’s definition of rigor, it talks about things like extreme inflexibility and rigidity. There are connotations, you know, rigor is for corpses. So I think that it’s a concept that has no usefulness for the questions that we’re trying to answer and the knots that we’re trying to untie at this particular moment in higher ed.

Rebecca: There’s a lot to think about. Thanks. [LAUGHTER] So we always wrap up by asking what’s next?

Kevin: Well, right now, I’ve actually thinking a lot about the course spaces in which some of these things that we’ve talked about play out all the time, and that’s the intro or survey courses. And I think the project that’s kicking around in my head right now, and I’m getting dangerously close to actually starting to write stuff, is thinking or rethinking the intro/survey course, sort of a critical interrogation. What are they supposed to be? What are they actually functioning as in reality? How large is the gap between those two things? And what are some ways in which people are creatively answering some of the problems that the survey course presents in terms of not just teaching but designing effective spaces as well as some of this comes out of my own field in history. We’re wrestling with again this death march through content. World history in two semesters, Plato to NATO in an academic year. Is that really what we’re after here? Or should we be doing something else? And so from my own discipline, I’ve developed an interest in thinking about this and thinking about the ways in which other fields and disciplines are wrestling with similar types of questions, which of course, then leads to the larger question of what is the point of these things? And are we doing the things that we say these courses should be doing? Because of that, thinking a lot about not just teaching and learning, but about first-year student success, about things like just and inclusive teaching, things like student-centered pedagogy, a lot of really interesting and fun things that are kind of swirling around. So the short answer, rather than that very long-winded one is I’ve researching survey and intro courses to see if there’s better ways that we might be doing it.

Rebecca: Sounds like a great project. Maybe you need a deadline so you get started on it. [LAUGHTER]

Kevin: Let’s not get carried away because I am going to take that two-day grace period, I can tell you that right now.

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

Kevin: Well, thanks for having me back. It’s a real treat to be with you two again.

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

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

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