294. The Allure of Play

Student learning is enhanced when active learning activities are used in instruction. In this episode, Victoria Mondelli and Joe Bisz join us to discuss how principles of game design can be used to create engaging active learning experiences. Tori is the Founding Director of the University of Missouri’s Teaching for Learning Center and is an Assistant Teaching Professor in the Department of Educational Leadership and Policy Analysis. She had previously served at the teaching centers at Mercy College and at the CUNY Borough of Manhattan Community College. Joe Bisz is a learning games designer and Full Professor of English at CUNY Borough of Manhattan Community College. Victoria and Joe are co-authors of The Educator’s Guide to Designing Games and Creative Active-Learning Exercises: The Allure of Play, which was published in March this year by Teachers College Press at Columbia University.

Show Notes


John: Student learning is enhanced when active learning activities are used in instruction. In this episode, we discuss how principles of game design can be used to create engaging active learning experiences.


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

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

John: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer…

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


John: Our guests today are Victoria Mondelli and Joe Bisz. Tori is the Founding Director of the University of Missouri’s Teaching for Learning Center and is an Assistant Teaching Professor in the Department of Educational Leadership and Policy Analysis. She had previously served at the teaching centers at Mercy College and at the CUNY Borough of Manhattan Community College. Joe Bisz is a learning games designer and Full Professor of English at CUNY Borough of Manhattan Community College. Victoria and Joe are co-authors of The Educator’s Guide to Designing Games and Creative Active-Learning Exercises: The Allure of Play, which was published in March this year by Teachers College Press at Columbia University. Welcome Tori and Joe.

Joe: Hi.

Tori: Hi.

Joe: Thanks for having us.

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

Joe: Oh, yes, classic chamomile.

Rebecca: …in a mug that looks handmade?

Joe: It looks handmade. But that’s just to make people think I have other skills as well. [LAUGHTER]

Rebecca: How about you, Tori?

Tori: Today I have a Starbucks espresso and cream in a fancy, fancy glass because it’s so special to be with you today.

Rebecca: She has upped to a stemmed glass. [LAUGHTER] How about you, John?

John: I am drinking a peppermint and spearmint tea in a Tea for Teaching mug.

Rebecca: That’s good. I have a cacao tea.

Tori: Very nice.

Rebecca: Cacao tea… the cocoa plant. And so it’s actually made from the plant rather than with tea leaves. So it’s not chocolate flavored. Made from the cacao plant. It’s very tasty.

John:I heard cat cow?

Rebecca: Cacao.

John: Well, I was thinking of the animals.

Tori: I was thinking of the yoga pose.

John: That’s right.

Tori: Cat cow. [LAUGHTER]

John: We’ve invited you here today to discuss your book, The Educators Guide to Designing Games and Creative Active Learning Exercises. What are the advantages of using playful activities in learning?

Joe: Well, I think I can take this start. Basically the foremost advantage of being playful is that your exercise can recapture the ageless allure of learning. As children,the first way that we all learn was by probing our environment, playing with it, inventing mock scenarios and then changing up the rules. As adults, I think that in our rush to instruct, our exercises can often become top down, and we can miss opportunities to inspire wonder.

Tori: Yeah, and I’d like to add, that’s why Joe and I really wanted our book to show teachers how to build their own creative active learning exercises to be easily appliable. We mostly come at it from a non-digital aspect. So we are recommending using basic materials, paper, cards, tricky questions, puzzles, point systems and role plays as some of our most common tactics.

Rebecca: Although, lucky for us, there’s plenty of digital technology that can make all those things happen in other environments too.

Tori: Exactly, and the book does have that. We have different sections of the book “design online,” and so recommending those tools as well.

Joe: Low-key though, low hyphen key.

Rebecca: So we know that students play games for hours, often weeks, months, and engage in things for long periods of time as they master new games and get engaged with their friends. What are some principles of game design that we can use to create and maintain student engagement in our classes?

Joe: This actually began some of our early research before the book, thinking in this direction. When designers make mainstream video games, or even elaborate board games, escape rooms, or interactive installations in museums, whether for children or adults, there’s often a lot of difficult content that needs to be taught. So as you mentioned, the designers rely on tried and true principles of interactive design to make these experiences feel engaging. In fact, there’s been a lot of work by other researchers in the past 20 years, exploring variations of these principles, and suggesting that we teachers can learn from these principles. But most of the focus was on proving the research rather than articulating how to apply these principles in a practical manner. This led to our own research collaboration, and eventually our very successful and hands-on professional development workshops. They use our methods.

Tori: So we have several sets of principles in the book, and I think this will be a perfect opportunity to tell you about our engagement principle. And we have five of those. The first one we call “narrative and fantasy,” the basic idea being that people need to hear stories that give context to what they’re facing in their own lives. The next one is “networked or sensory environment,” the idea that people thrive when they’re communicating in social groups using digital smart tools and multimedia. The next one, we would call “fast or random access,”
many people like processing information non-linearly and even simultaneously. Next is a classic one, “challenge,” people really want to challenge them feels achievable and personal. And the last one is also sort of a classic, I’d say, and that’s “rewards,” what we call “frequent rewards” or “feedback,” that we really as human beings crave feedback on our choices, even if that feedback is abstract, like .4 miles or something along those lines.

Rebecca: Can you share a couple of examples of what those engagement principles look like in the classroom?

Tori: Yes, Joe, do you think now’s a good time to talk about the simple mechanics?

Joe: Yeah, I think so. And this is basically a way that learning activities can be, as we could use the word converted, or transformed into some kind of playful activity. So there’s a spectrum, we think, to making an exercise more playful, or engaging. Of course, the first step is to just have it be active, have the learner actually be doing something other than just listening, the next step is to add a fun element. These are elements which researchers have shown add engagement or playfulness, we’ve classified some of these into what we call the five simple mechanics. And let’s see if we can explain them using audio only. So make the pace of your exercise a little bit random, or a little bit rapid. That’s two of the simple mechanics, rapid or random, or you can make its goal involve some kind of reward, such as points, badges, or some kind of rivalry, a little bit of competition, or students cooperating against a challenge, which still has competition, or some kind of roles. And we define roles pretty broadly, it could involve themes that have concentrated moments of emotions like feelings of suspense, it could be playing a historical, or fictional character, or just the students being on teams, and each student has a particular responsibility. So if just a part of it has one of these simple mechanics, not the whole thing, then you’re already on your way to creating something playful, so at least those moments would be playful.

Rebecca: So you’ve mentioned the five simple mechanics, can you give an example of what that looks like? So you’ve provided a frame, provided some playful things that we can think about, what would an activity maybe look like using something like that?

Tori: So one of the games that I like to play in the Teaching for Learning Center with faculty, and then what usually happens is they figure out ways to use it in their classroom, is a game that Joe designed a few years ago, we call it icebreaker bingo. So you can imagine a bingo card where there are prompts on each of the squares. And when people come in the room, and they’ve never met each other before, but there’s a common thread, those prompts will relate to that thread. And you circulate around the room and you go up to different people, you obviously introduce your name and other important details, and then you get right to it. You can ask them up to two of the prompts. And if they are true for them, they sign their initial, and then keep moving through the room. So the first person to get five across or five down or five of a kind, we have categories would shout “bingo.” They can think about the simple mechanics at play in that wonderful icebreaker certainly is random. Usually people don’t come up with a strategy for it, they just go up to random people and ask random prompts. And then they also can kind of get into the role of being an interviewer and selecting different prompts based on the ones that they like. The rewards is really strong in that particular icebreaker because there’s that joyous moment of explaining bingo, and then we’ll usually have a prize. And the rival factor is very heavy in icebreaker bingo. So that’s one that has a lot of these engagement principles, and is very popular with faculty and students alike, and can be just for general getting to know each other, but also could be used a little bit as a kind of quizzing mechanism as well.

Joe: And I like that Tori gave an example of what we would call basically a more full fledged game. But our listeners can also think about the simple mechanics as just little sprinkles onto something. So for example, for random, we have something that we named monkey wrench challenges, where you have any kind of standard activity with the students that are working on something. But then you make a point of changing things by calling out a sudden challenge that requires the students to alter their approach. So maybe it’s a new perspective by which they’re looking at the material and other concepts and kind of new information that they have to find. And even though you’ve planned it out, probably, unless you have a deck of these things that you’re drawing from, it’ll have a nice taste of random and nonlinear and break the order that students were doing something and therefore, for reasons known to these researchers, feel somewhat pleasing.

John: Can any active learning activity be converted into a more playful structure.

Joe: I think so because if we look at it as a spectrum, moving from active learning to adding a little bit of play, even if the rest of your exercises is exactly as you’ve already designed it, then anything can be converted. It’s just a question of whether one, after analyzing the need for what you’re trying to achieve, whether it needs it. The longer you have an activity that goes on that you might consider or your students might consider to be passive, we would argue the more the need for some element of it to change the pace, or to change the goal, so that it could feel a little bit more playful.

Tori: And Joe, in our decade plus time of doing this work, have you ever had an occasion where somebody came to you for advice on making a learning activity more playful or gameful where you’ve had to turn them away? I could say I have not, we always find something.

Joe: No, definitely not. Especially if they’re already crossed the chasm, and they’re actually interested in making a more playful,

Rebecca: …perhaps the very first step, right? So you note in your book that learning activities might be focused on skill and drill, or focus more on deep learning. Can you talk a little bit about how we can do a playful activity or a game for each of those different kinds of learning?

Tori: Yes, definitely. And if you’ll let me just kind of explain a little bit on how we classify skill and drill versus going more towards deep learning. So skill and drill, what we’re really talking about here are sort of facts, factual, and foundational knowledge that’s needed either in a discipline or sort of a general education curriculum. And so it’s really things that people need to commit to memory, just basic ease and facility with those facts or figures, that kind of thing. And then when we’re talking about deep learning, we start to move into the ability to, for those who love Bloom’s Taxonomy, is like moving into manipulating information using higher order thinking, but to do that in a way that really will be long lasting, because even over time that certain things can evaporate. That’s just human memory. So when we talk about games for deeper learning, it’s not enough to use the engagement principles and the simple mechanics. And there are ways of structuring it so that we get students to grapple more deeply with content and do things with content. So we’re delighted to bring the complex mechanic to people and readers with the ALLURE method. Joe, do you want to talk about that?

Joe: Yeah. So it’s perhaps a little unexpected in our book, because a lot of people who are talking about games are focusing on the engagement element. And immediately, we do talk about that. But we’re actually firm believers that, in addition to being engaging, well designed games and playful activities, can carry, as Tori was saying, deep learning principles taken from the cognitive sciences. So before the book, I started doing some research on ways that faculty were already approaching learning activities in the classroom. And I came up with a classification system that Tori also expanded on with me for the purpose of the book. And we looked at how these things could carry some of what we call deep learning principles, such as identity situated meanings, and the ability to pass information to students through cycles of expertise, so that the students slowly becomes a master and then is challenged by new information. We call these the complex mechanics, and to them will instantly be very familiar, I think, to most of our audience. One of them is called “trivia questions.” It’s pretty much the most common type of playful activity that educators use in the classroom. Another one is called “simulations,” which is also very common, especially at the high school level. And that can involve debates and roleplays, which in our opinion, are an example type simulation, also arguments. Very complex mechanics, we call “cut ups,” basically about sequencing puzzles, reordering information, mixing it up, and having to put it back together. Other ones would involve classification type exercises, such as sorting or matching. So these are already hard-core activities that are done sometimes in the classroom. But we’ve linked them to some of these deep learning principles and have explained how these teachers want to design something but they don’t want to reinvent the wheel, they could just look at one of these nine complex mechanics and they’re sort of gameful approaches, creating something. We also have deduction exercises, common to scavenger hunts, brainstorming, which is definitely playful and feel like a kind of game and interpretive exercises such as improv. I was just at conference a few days ago, called Playful Learning and improv was everywhere. It was the heart with all these teachers just talking about and it was so interesting to see all these examples of playful improv in order to illuminate the concept.

John: In your title, you have the ALLURE of play, but ALLURE is used there not just as part of the title, but it’s also an acronym. Could you tell our listeners what the acronym stands for?

Tori: Yes, A – ask where to apply the play. L- list the mental moves. Second L – link the mental moves to the play. U – understand how the learning principles operate. R – run the activity game. And E – evaluate the learner experience. So that spells ALLURE, and that’s our six-step method, the backward design guide. And we’re so happy that it worked out because we just love the word “allure.”

Rebecca: Can you walk us through those steps in how a faculty member might approach their class and designing an activity?

Tori: The first step really, an educator wants to ask themselves or work with a small group to really inquire in their own curriculum about where, to use a business term, where would the return on investment be for your student learning? Joe and I are believers that if it isn’t broke, don’t fix it. [LAUGHTER] So where are students struggling? Have you taught this class before? Is there a bottleneck in learning? Is there something that’s holding them back from the learning? And we think game-based learning is the ultimate in active learning pedagogy, as really, really strong to help students through and be successful. We advise educators to look at the curriculum and go where the student learning is being held up for some reason. Maybe there’s a student learning bottleneck, because cognitively it’s a difficult concept. Or maybe there’s an affective blockage. So Joe and I are strong proponents of game-based learning as the best active learning strategy. And so we think that you can go to your toughest student learning challenges and apply game-based learning there. So that’s what we’re really asking in step one is, where do you think you’ll have the most bang for your buck? Because game-based learning does take a good amount of talent and time put into it. So making judicious decisions. Is there a place where students are bored? Is there a place where just, semester after semester, you lose half the class, and to go ahead and apply your energies there. The next step, list the mental moves, really gets at when you have a student learning outcome that you’re working with for students in a class, oftentimes, that’s written in a way that is a little obtuse, you have to break it down to really get at what the student is actually doing mentally, what are the mental acrobatics that are going on there? So this is where we will say, “Let’s get granular. What are we really talking about? What are the mental moves?” Joe and I are both very inspired by the decoding the discipline scholarly community, and they have had, for decades, really strong practices in faculty working together, two faculty from different disciplines to help each other break down what the expert is really doing. And so the first couple of steps of the ALLURE method are really picking up on that tradition of where do you want this learning game to be successful in your curriculum? And then what is really going on at a minute level, the kinds of thinking steps, the kinds of mental moves that students need practice with. And then the third, I like to think of link the mental moves to the play… it really is the magic of the whole ALLURE method. Because when Joe developed the complex mechanics, he categorized them according to Bloom’s Taxonomy level. Now, what this does is it really takes a lot of guesswork out for educators who want to apply the method. Now all of a sudden, they can drill down on nine of the complex mechanics and say, “Well, I want the complex mechanics that are really going to help my students. say with analysis.” And then that gives them a subset of choices, that they can choose the complex mechanic that foster more analysis and build that in as the game play, so students are really practicing analysis, getting feedback on that analysis. And it’s really quite time efficient, thanks to that categorization.

Joe: So Tori just reviewed the first three steps: ask, list, and link. The last three steps are understand, run, and evaluate. So as soon as the teacher has finished thinking about what are the actual steps the students are doing, and connecting it to one or more of the complex mechanics, this is the moment when we ask them to brainstorm roughly what their playful activity will look like. So in the book, they take 20 minutes, putting together some ideas, making connections, then they have some tea, take time off and we move on. So this is all about the end of link moving into understand how the learning principles operate. Within understand how the learning principle operate, they then do a debrief and they’re examining what they came up with. And they’re comparing it to all the mechanics and principles that we’ve been teaching them so far in the book, not because their activity needs to have all of these things, that they’re looking for. have perhaps missed opportunities, or things that can be refined, or mechanics that they were working on, but perhaps didn’t come across as thoroughly as possible. We call these checklists. And they’re just going through and reevaluating their approach, and then tweak it one more time. In the next step, we have run the activity game. So ideally, the teacher would talk to either some play testers or some fellow colleagues in their discipline, and talk to them about what they’ve come up with, one more last chance for feedback. And then they would present it in the classroom to their students. And we have different methods for collecting student feedback and taking notes on what they’re saying. We realized pretty early on in our own workshops, that a lot of teachers are actually just uncertain how to even run an activity game in a classroom, much less one that they’ve designed. There’s so many facilitation issues to think about. So within our step, run the activity game, we also walk teachers through thinking about common facilitation issues that will come up such as: Do I have the right kinds of desks to hold these games or activities? Do I need a projection screen? How many teams are there going to be? Should students be in teams. In all these concerns, they can think about them ahead of time and have a good strike plan. After the activity game is run, we go to the last step, evaluate, evaluate the learner experience. And we have different rubrics and ways that the teacher can think about how successful was the students’ experience of this? And how might the activity game be iterated upon and changed for next time? Because we all know, we slowly work on our exercises, and we make them better year after year, till perhaps we get tired of them, or we put them aside for a while.

John: When you present this material, I imagine there’s some faculty who are resistant to the whole concept of building play into classroom instruction. How do you address that with faculty?

Tori: I never force it on them. We start with: “What brings you in today?” And we talk about we sort of have a co inquiry process of like, “What’s going well, what’s not going so well?” And then wel don’t always bring the play or the games at first. It seems like mostly when I advertise a game-based learning community of practice or a workshop, you’re sort of already getting people that are open to it. But I can tell a nice anecdote about working with the political science department. I started working with them about four years ago, just on a course redesign because their student success, or the grades, were not where they needed to be… a large enrollment course. And so we just started working together to boost student attendance, students really weren’t coming to class as they should be, and to boost presumably student learning, but they really had some assessments that I thought could be improved upon. So I was even questioning how much learning are we really evaluating here. So we began and worked with each other for a couple of years, just doing classic active learning redesign, before I even broached the subject with them about playing games. And what brought that about was an internal grant for $100,000 became available to do innovative creative teaching and learning. And so when I pitched that idea to them, I think our relationship and my credibility with them, that we’re not just adding bells and whistles, we’re really talking about some proper teaching and learning principles to not only boost engagement, but to deepen learning. And it’s been a wonderful project. And we have new board games and card games, we’re going to have our first video game. We’re working with Adroit Studios, our gaming lab on campus. And so they are very, very pleased and had never really been in game-based learning before.

Joe: And adding to what Tori’s saying, I think often the teachers just want to see like a little hook, a very quick understanding of what they could do to be playful. And then from there, they start getting other ideas. So we often lead with talking about simple mechanics. So we might say, well, for example, you make something a little bit more rapid, maybe you’re giving a certain amount of time for students to answer the question, not like a test question that’s worth something, but during an activity just to make it a little bit more playful, 10 seconds to think about something. Or taking another aspect of the rapid simple mechanic, one might have a very long activity that students have to do. There’s been research showing that if you can chunk that activity into shorter segments, perhaps that are assigned a certain amount of time, not really above timers, but just to get through all of them the day, students can more easily see the discrete tasks and operations you’re supposed to be performing in each of those segments. Make something a little bit more random. We mentioned earlier about the monkey wrench challenge, and try to use a little bit of roles in what you’re discussing. Roles are linked to narrative, and it really does help to give a theme or some kind of narrative directivity. For example, for discussing an essay, or a textbook entry, or any concept, tell a quick story that illustrates some of the concepts from that reading. Or ask the class to actually help you write a short creative introduction to the boring essay that everyone had to read or that you’re reading in class, and to use a narrative hook in that short introduction. So now we’re using the power of analogy and of fiction, well, not really fiction, but sort of narrative to help students see sort of a more macro way of tying concepts together before doing a deep dive. So these are all little ways to think how to quickly and briefly be playful.

Rebecca: I hear both of you describing some really interesting things in the classroom. But I also know that faculty can be really anxious about trying something new, or trying to make something happen. And as exciting as it can be, taking that first step can be scary. You’ve mentioned some of the simple mechanics and I heard you say something about low stakes and the way that you’re applying about points and not being a big test or a test question. Can you talk about the little ways to get started?

Tori: My favorite way to introduce faculty to this whole new world is to invite them to play a game Joe made years back called: “What’s your game plan?” And this is a wonderful card game in a team. And it’s cooperative play. And it’s a brainstorming game. It has been just a joy bringing faculty together where they can be playful together, and see what they come up with. It uses a lot of the simple mechanics, so it’s a great way to introduce them to the simple mechanics. And they can either bring a lesson objective that they have, or Joe’s deck has some common lesson outcomes. So it really takes the edge off. And they can just relax in what Joe and I like to call the sandbox, and just say: “Be creative.” …give them permission to play themselves. And that is one of my go to. I mean, there’s not a semester that goes by that I don’t lean on What’s your game plan? So grateful to Joe for making that. And then I guess we could also say: “Well, let’s start at the beginning with the ALLURE method.” Step A: ask where to apply the play and once you have that student learning bottleneck that you want to look at, maybe you’re not ready for the complex mechanics, but you can think about two or three of the simple mechanics that you can add to an existing activity you have for to convert even maybe a lecture or a mini lecture into something a little bit more playful, where the students are interacting with you in some way.

Rebecca: So I’m always curious to ask what’s your favorite, or one of your favorites… because we obviously can’t have favorites… your favorite game or playful activity you’ve seen implemented in the classroom.

Joe: I talk about this example a lot, my heart goes there immediately. One of the complex mechanics I was talking about, I said something about one called cut ups, which comes from sequencing ideas together. And I was trying to think about how to use this in the writing classroom since I’m an English professor. I was getting a little bit stuck looking at it on the level of just words, like cutting up a sentence, at the level of the word… reordering it. This is really only teaching grammar and I wanted something a little bit more sophisticated that was about reading and writing. And about this time, one of my colleagues, Julie Cassidy, without us really even having a conversation told me that she’d come up with something. She showed it to me. And basically, she had taken, I think it was a four paragraph essay, that was published about crab fishing. So we have something that’s explaining a procedure, how to do something, to cut up this essay on the level of the sentence. So, there are like 25 sentences, carefully inserted in an envelope so they don’t all get lost. And then we had a low-level writing classroom where the students were very weak. She brought it in, in groups of five, dropped an envelope in front of them, said, “Okay, put it in order.” She’s describing this to me, and I’m very excited. So I did the same thing about a week later. And it was incredible just to see their faces so utterly focused on the task in front of them. And one of them would like, move their hand forward to move a piece of paper with a little bit of timidity, but with deep interest, and then the other one would gently touch your hand and say, “No, no, it goes over there.” Then like “ah,” [LAUGHTER] and they’re like stroking their chin and moving. And this went on for like 12 Intense minutes before the groups had basically all solved the order for a possible order that made sense of the essay. So of course, they’re looking at transitions, their reading for sense, so there’s close reading here, they’re thinking of ways that information can be ordered for their own writing. And then a great way to follow up an exercise like this is to ask students to write their own mini essay. It’s teaching some kind of procedure, like creating a recipe. So this was a great example because it goes beyond just a quick moment of play into something that’s a longer activity and where you can really see the deep learning happening with the students. That’s one of my favorite examples.

Tori: And I have one also that’s quite well known for deep learning, and that is the whole suite of games called Reacting to the Past. So I’ve had the honor of attending and playing a lot of these games, and they are deeply immersive role-playing games. Most of my experience is with history games, but they’re all across the curriculum, even in some of the sciences now. And here I just marveled at the amount of hard work that students will do in order to play their characters really well and meet their objective. So, the writing of speeches and other kinds of rhetoric and communication, the behind the scenes faction politicking, they’re willing to do, the, I would say, transcendence of one’s own identity to kind of widen perspective of other that goes on in these games. Kudos to Mark Carnes and all of the reacting creators and trainers around the country and around the world who are doing such great work with that. At the University of Missouri, we have recently made a game that’s akin to Reacting in the sense that it’s a role playing game. But it’s more of a card game than a reacting game, and it teaches students about bureaucracies, and how frustrating bureaucracies can be, but that hiring more people isn’t always the right scenario. So it takes the role-playing mechanic and then we throw in unexpected stress bombs, we’ll call it, of the government goes on furlough, all of the workers have to cease what they’re doing for 20 minutes or something like that. And it just has all of these likely events or unlikely events that can happen. And the students are really in their roles to solve a problem. So we’ll take things from current events, like recent scandals or problems and have the students work through that. And then there’s a peer review piece of it, where they’re actually scoring each other’s solutions. And that’s been really wonderful to help the faculty create, and we’ve been play testing it and we’re really excited to bring it to a live real class in the fall.

Rebecca: That sounds really exciting.

Tori: Thank you. Yes.

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

Tori: Well, Joe, and I do a lot of professional development events, we are often going to conferences. I’m really excited coming up soon, I’m gonna get to take ALLURE abroad. I have a trip to Thailand to Prince of Songkla University to present there. And then I’m going to Germany in the fall for the Decoding the Disciplines conference. Joe, I know you’re always doing lots of things, if memory serves, you’re going to Gen Con, this summer to do a lot of workshops.

Joe: Yep. So for any teachers listening who will have a strong interest also in playing tabletop games, there’s a conference, a convention called G-E-N C-O-N, Gen Con. And they have a pre-day, an earlier day, which is all about using learning games and thinking about games of education. And I’ll be running at least four or five workshops there, just for all you applying the ideas behind learning games.

Tori: And we always love for people to get in contact with us. You can reach us through AllureOfPlay.com, our website. We have a growing contact list that we’d like to keep people apprised of our different online workshops and in-person opportunities. And there’s a lot more on that website.

Joe: Yeah, we’ve even …was it two years ago, Tori? …there’s a whole section on our website about using playful activities online. So on your discussion board, your Zoom class, we made a video that walks teachers through thinking about these ideas, also how to design in the lowest easy possible for the online space, basically through using PowerPoint, and creating little things students can manipulate and using your class should that be of interest to you, and also a lot of other free resources and activities and games that you can download.

John: We’ll share a link to that in the show notes file that will accompany this episode.

Rebecca: Well thank you so much, Tori, and Joe for sharing ALLURE with us.

Tori: Thank you, so great to be with you

Joe: Thank you very much.


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

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


290. Transparency in Learning and Teaching

While instructors know what they expect from students, these expectations are not always clear to their students. In this episode, Mary-Ann Winkelmes joins us to discuss what happens when instructors make their expectations transparent to their students.  Mary-Ann has served in leadership roles at campus teaching centers at Harvard, the University of Chicago, the University of Illinois, the University of Nevada – Las Vegas, and Brandeis University and is the Founder and Director of TILTHigherEd.


John:While instructors know what they expect from students, these expectations are not always clear to their students. In this episode, we explore what happens when instructors make their expectations transparent to their students.


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

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

John:…and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer…

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


Rebecca: Our guest today is Mary-Ann Winkelmes. She has served in leadership roles at campus teaching centers at Harvard, the University of Chicago, the University of Illinois, the University of Nevada – Las Vegas, and Brandeis University and is the Founder and Director of TILTHigherEd. TILT is an acronym for Transparency in Learning and Teaching in Higher Ed. We are very much fans of the TILT approach and have referred to it often in workshops on our campus (and on previous podcast episodes). Welcome, Mary-Ann.

Mary-Ann: Thank you. I’m really delighted to be here with you. And I appreciate the opportunity to speak with you on Tea for Teaching.

John:We’re very happy to have you here. You’ve long been on the list of people we’ve wanted to invite. So we’re very pleased that you’re here today. Today’s teas are:… Mary-Ann, are you drinking tea?

Mary-Ann: I am indeed. And I’m drinking a Sencha green tea today. That’s my new favorite kind of green tea, Sencha.

Rebecca: Nice. I have English breakfast today.

John:And I am drinking a mixed berry Twinings black tea…

Rebecca: Hmmm.

John:…which I haven’t had in a long time. I wanted to mix it up a little bit today.

Rebecca: …mixing it up with mixed berries. So, Mary-Ann, can you tell us a little bit about how the TILT project came about?

Mary-Ann: Sure. This was years back, I want to say in the early 2000s, late 1990s, where I was working at the BOK Center for Teaching and Learning at Harvard University. And I was leading a seminar group discussions about teaching and learning. And we began to think about the question: “What happens when you tell students why you’re teaching how you’re teaching, just what happens when you tell the students more about your choices as an instructor, how you’re choosing to shape the learning experiences for the students?” And that’s not often something that we think about first when we’re thinking about what’s the content of the course. But we began to think about that a lot. And we had a kind of metaphor about the Wizard of Oz, and pulling back the curtain to show what was happening behind the scenes to build the experience. And then somehow through that conversation, the word transparency emerged. And that became the word that we used pretty regularly from that time on. When I moved to the University of Chicago, that was the word we were using, and it kind of stuck. So that’s kind of where it started. And it started alongside of my career as an educational developer. And it’s kind of been, for me, in the background or on the side, as something that I’ve been kind of tracking along with as a project. It’s still there, it keeps going. And just about a year ago, I began to work on TILT as my full-time job, which I’m really happy to be doing now because it gives me an opportunity, not just to do a guest talk here or there, or a keynote address, which is usually a one time-interaction. But now I have the flexibility to connect with institutions around a longer-term project. So if there’s a faculty learning community that emerges from a first talk that I would give, I get to follow up with them later and see what’s happening and check in with them. Sometimes I get to see the assignments before and after, which I really like. And I invite those now, because we’d like to publish some of those on the TILThighered.com website. And there are some schools that I’ve been working with in the state of Washington for several years now running with their TILT projects. And that emerged from a project we did with the entire state system of Community and Technical Colleges in Washington State. So I have opportunities now like that, where I can work with larger scale TILT projects that take more time, because this is my full-time job now. And I’m really happy about how that’s working, because I feel like it’s getting larger beneficial impact for students in a way that’s more efficient than when my full-time job was at an individual institution.

John:Could you give us an overview of the TILT framework?

Mary-Ann: Absolutely. So the TILT framework is meant to be a very simple tool that is a framework for an ongoing kind of communication among teachers and students. And in all of our studies, we asked teachers to use this framework in their own way at their own discretion, because we know that it’s not really possible to expect that people would do the exact same things with it. So our research is based on the premise that people are using this framework in their own way, at their own discretion, in a way that feels consistent with their teaching style. So there are three parts to this framework: purpose, task, and criteria. And what we ask in all of our studies is for teachers to engage students in conversation about three aspects of a particular assignment or a project or even an in-class activity. Before the students do a piece of work that we want them to complete, we’re asking for teachers and students to have a conversation about three aspects of the work before the students start working on it. And those three aspects are the purpose, the task and the criteria. Now the purpose kind of consists of two pieces. The first part is talking about the skills that students will practice while they’re working on the assignment. And then how are those skills useful, not just now in this course, or maybe in college and other courses, but how are these lifelong learning skills that will be useful for the student in their careers after college or in their lives ongoing? And then the second part of the purpose is about the content knowledge. What new information or what disciplinary information will the students be researching, or gaining, or applying when they’re working on the assignment? And how will that be also similarly useful to them, not just now, or in college, but beyond in their lives? The task, that’s the second part of the TILT framework, and the task is sort of about what are the teacher’s expectations about how students will approach the work? And for the students, it’s kind of like mapping out their game plan, like, what’s the first thing they will do? Will they Google something? Will they go to office hours? Will they go seek out a research librarian? Will they go into the lab and start mixing something like, what’s the first thing they’ll do? And then a sequence of what they plan to do after that until they submit the work. In an ideal world, the teachers and the students would have similar expectations about how that would go. In some cases, though, teachers have a pretty legitimate pedagogical reason for hiding that, that they don’t want students to know how to do the task. And I found this to be the case, particularly in fields where creativity is really important: performing arts, studio arts, even engineering or some STEM courses, where teachers really want students to cast about for a while and kind of use their imagination and see if they can come up with something unique, if not into the discipline, at least unique for the student to try to figure out some new process. And there’s value in that. When teachers want to do that, we did have some pushback from teachers in our original TILT research studies, where they said, “What happens if we don’t want to tell students how to do the work, like part of the task is for them to figure out how to do the work?” So in that case, we asked for those teachers to just say something like, “Part of the purpose of this assignment, in addition to the skills and the knowledge we’ve talked about, part of the purpose is for you to struggle and feel confused, while you invent your own approach to the question.” And we think this is what helps to preserve the student’s sense of confidence and their sense of belonging. Because instead of having that moment of panic of “Oh, no, I don’t actually know how to do this, I don’t even know where to start, I don’t know where the resources are, I don’t know what I’m doing. Maybe I shouldn’t be doing this, maybe this isn’t for me, maybe I shouldn’t be in this major, or in this course.” Instead of going to blaming it on themself or to questioning whether they’re up to the task at all, students can say instead, “I am totally lost right now. And that is exactly where I’m supposed to be. I know I’m on track. I’m doing great. This is the confusion part that comes before the clarity. And I know that because we talked about that and the professor said, this is part of what we expect to happen. This is intentional, this confusion, you’re supposed to feel lost right now.” So that’s sort of what we can say about the task. And the benefit of students knowing upfront what the task is, or knowing how they plan to approach the assignment or the project, the benefit there is that students get to spend 100% of the time they’ve allocated to work on this project, doing their best quality work, and they don’t lose time trying different approaches to see if this or that is going to work or looking for resources that aren’t what the teacher intended for them to be using. Instead of losing time, on the “how,” students get to spend their time so that what teachers receive then is most of the time what we’re looking for, which is “What is the student’s highest capacity right now?” Let’s see an example of the best work that the student can do right now, so we know where they’re at and we can bring them further so that they can advance in their learning. But if we accidentally end up in a situation where a teacher didn’t intend for the students to be confused, they expected the students to take a particular approach that they may have even mentioned at some point in class. So that’s why they think the students know that that’s the expected approach. I don’t want to say the correct approach but at least what they expect students to do. So if we think that students know how to do what we expect them to do, and the students don’t know what we’re expecting them to do, then there’s this chunk of lost time, where what we’re measuring then in the end is what happens after the students spend a chunk of their time lost trying to figure out how to approach the work, and then whatever time is left after that doing their best quality work in the amount of limited time that’s left. So part of the “task” piece of the framework is about what do we want to measure? Right? Do we want to be assessing the best quality work that students can do? Or do we want to be assessing what happens when you give a really varied, diverse group of students a particular assignment to do and you don’t give them 100% clarity about how to do it, and then kind of what you’re measuring is which students have, through no fault of their own, not encountered that information in their lives before coming to this course. And then you also get to identify who are the students that maybe because they had some other kinds of privileges that not all the students had, who are the students that can figure it out faster, because they come equipped with those privileges. So you can begin to see that this is an equity issue. So if talking about the purpose of the assignment kind of speaks to the student’s motivation, and to the value that they will gain from doing the work, and maybe to their ability to assess if they’re getting that value while they’re doing the work, the task speaks to even more of an equity situation where we’re trying to get all of the students to the same starting line of understanding of how to do it, and of having all the resources they would need to do the work to complete the work. And we want to make sure that students are all at that same starting line before they start the assignment. So that’s kind of the equity piece of this. And then finally, the third part of the framework is about criteria. We want students to be able to understand while they’re doing the work, how well are they doing. We want them to be able to make corrections, if they end up with a finished version that doesn’t look like what successful work would look like in this kind of a scenario. But if the students have never seen what successful work looks like, and they probably haven’t, because why would you assign them to do something that they’ve already seen many examples of; they wouldn’t be learning anything new. So kind of by definition, students aren’t going to know what successful work looks like when it meets this or that criterion in the discipline. So what we encourage teachers and students to do there when they’re considering the criteria is to offer students more than just a checklist or a rubric, because the words on a rubric or checklist might mean something different to the student who hasn’t done this kind of work than they do to the teacher who’s really immersed in this kind of work. An example I sometimes offer is, let’s say, I asked students to write up an analysis of a 15th century wooden painted sculpture of the Madonna and child from when I was teaching Italian Renaissance art history courses. In an art history course, the word analyze, like the tasks, the actions that you take when you are analyzing something, that’s a very, very different activity than analyze in the context of an economics course, or in the context of a chemistry course. But if the student hasn’t done this kind of analysis before, you can’t know for sure that they know what you’re asking them to do. So we kind of have to talk that through and students are going to need to see some examples of real world work in the discipline so that they can, with you, in a class meeting, talk about how do we evaluate analysis in this example from the real world, or in that example from the real world. And you won’t find any one example that matches every criterion of the assignment you’re asking students to do, usually, so you need several examples. The benefit of several examples is also that you can begin to talk about the relative success with which different examples are meeting a particular criterion as well. So once we’re in a conversation with students, and we hear back from them, that they’re telling us, what we had hoped they would understand about the skills they’ll practice and the knowledge they’ll gain, that purpose, about how they’re going to approach the work, the task, and about how they’ll know that they’re doing good quality work, the criteria, once we hear students telling us that, that’s the moment that things have become transparent. It is that activity of communication, that conversation with students about purposes, tasks, and criteria, that’s where the transparency comes from. And when we are done with that conversation, we know that students are at the same starting line of readiness In terms of their understanding of what they’re going to do, and also, in terms of their confidence that everyone has the resources that they need, in order to complete that work

Rebecca: What faculty believe is important for students to learn doesn’t always align with the goals of students. Can you talk a little bit about some strategies for bringing these into better alignment?

Mary-Ann: Sure, I think that this kind of speaks to the purpose part of the transparency framework. And often teachers are expecting students to learn something that is very valuable, we wouldn’t spend our time teaching things that don’t have a lot of benefit for students or that they would only use today and it wouldn’t be useful to them later in life. We like to teach things that have value. And so, when we are communicating with students about that value, we’re talking about the skills that students will be practicing. They won’t perfect them on this assignment, but they will begin to strengthen a particular kind of skill set. And they will gain some sort of disciplinary knowledge that can be useful to them later. And we know that sometimes disciplinary knowledge changes over the years as people discover new things and publish new things in any field. Sometimes that knowledge changes. But having some knowledge now does give you important value if you’re going to continue in that discipline or if you want to understand basic principles of a discipline that you might find useful elsewhere. So if students and teachers have a transparent conversation or communication, it could be a written communication, it could be something that they record and put on a website, it could be an asynchronous kind of conversation in an online course. But whatever form that communication takes, I think students and teachers when they’re on the same page about what the knowledge is, what the skills are, that are the focus of this assignment, students will feel more motivated to do the work, because they’ll see that it has benefit for them. And it doesn’t feel like a rote exercise, or just churning out another problem set or another art history analysis paper. There’s some value here that the students know upfront what that value is. And when the teachers hear the students reflecting back to them in this communication, that this is the value that they will be gaining, then we know that students have a kind of motivation to benefit from this assignment.

John:One other issue is that students have come up with some way of learning while they’ve been in elementary and secondary school. But those methods that they picked up are not generally the ones that are most effective. How can we encourage students to adopt learning strategies that they may be resistant to because for example, students, when there have been surveys of what types of learning strategies they found most productive, students often say they prefer to be lectured at, because they learn more from the professor that way. And also, many students don’t like active learning strategies. While they learn more, they don’t perceive it that way. Partly because of those desirable difficulties you referred to before, that when they’re struggling with something, it’s a little bit less pleasant than sitting there nodding and smiling and having everything seem to make sense. How can we encourage students to accept those desirable difficulties associated with learning so that they can learn more effectively,

Mary-Ann: I want to say that this is something that the TILT framework can definitely help us with. And this is not an uncommon phenomenon at all, I even find in my TILT workshops that I do with instructors, that instructors don’t love collaborative learning either. And in fact, many of these TILT workshops that I do will begin with some kind of a research review about “How do we know TILT works? What are the studies and what do they tell us and show us the data?” So we get off on this kind of role, where we’re almost in a traditional lecture format, where like someone’s delivering some information, and people are listening, and then they have questions about it. Or maybe they have challenges to say, “Wait, this doesn’t make sense, let’s talk about this.” And then I kind of switch the method that we’re using. And I’ll ask people to break off into small groups and begin to analyze a particular assignment and talk about where do they see the purposes, the tasks, and the criteria? Before I do that, I acknowledge the fact that we are shifting gears, and that we were doing fine with this sort of Q&A format. You know, look at the research and then think about it and talk about it. Ask questions. Why would I switch that up now? Like we were on a roll, we were doing great. Everybody was sort of on board. Why would I change that now? And so I use the TILT framework to talk about why we’re shifting gears now. What is my purpose in having you use this different method? So if it’s a peer learning method, as it is in the workshops, or as it might be with students in a class, we want to tell students: “Why are we now manipulating your learning experiences this way? Why would I do that to you when I know that sometimes students resist this, when I know that it can be uncomfortable, because I don’t personally always like to do it when I’m in a learning experience?” So if we can tell students, here’s why this is going to benefit you, because you don’t just hear it, but you have to struggle to apply it, you have to fit it not to the situation that I was talking about, where it all sort of makes sense when it rolls over you and you’re hearing it. But you now have to take the principle of what we were talking about, and apply it to this new unfamiliar scenario. And the benefit of that is that you will discover you will hit a barrier at some point in that process, where you will discover the exact piece of information that’s missing for you. You will discover exactly where you hit a barrier to your understanding. And you will have an opportunity right now, right here with me, the teacher in this class, to address that confusing point. And the benefit of doing that now, as opposed to later when you’re doing a graded assignment, is pretty obvious, you get the benefit of having the difficult learning experience in a safe environment that doesn’t lose you any sort of points on your grade. It doesn’t have any negative impact on you the way that it might if you waited until the end of the term to do some massive project and you hadn’t really done a lot of the homework or done a lot of the practices and so you didn’t really know what you didn’t understand until it was kind of too late to do anything about. So I think in short, what I’m trying to say is when we’re asking students to do something uncomfortable, that has a really solid pedagogical reason, that has evidence behind that, it is an evidence-based practice, we want students to know that upfront, because that then will increase their motivation to do it, because they see how they’re going to benefit if they do this thing.

Rebecca: One of the things that students often struggle with is when they start new courses with new faculty, and new ways of doing things and determining what the instructor will expect out of them and out of that learning experience. Can you talk a little bit about how the TILT framework could allow students to shift their focus to learning if it was adopted in the design of the course rather than just an individual single assignments?

Mary-Ann: Yes. And in fact, this is a way that lots of faculty are using the TILT framework, is to think about how do I TILT not just a single assignment, but a whole course. So usually, when people are introduced to the TILT framework, the original ask for all our research studies is would you please do this two times in an academic term, just twice? Because we wanted to see how little change could you make and have a beneficial impact on students’ learning, because small change is much more likely to happen than massive change. But once you’ve made that small change as an instructor, and you see that when you do this with two assignments, there’s some real benefit for students. And on the TILThighered.com website, there are publications by faculty who talk about not just how the quality of students’ work increases, but how the teachers experience in grading, or in responding to students, or in how many students will ask for an extension at the last minute, like these difficulties that teachers often face are diminished, while the benefits for students and the quality of students work increases. So once you begin to see this in the small scale of assignments, teachers then, maybe in the subsequent term, will think about what else could I TILT? Could I TILT in-class activities? Could I TILT a unit of this course? Could I TILT the whole course? And then the effects or the applications can grow. So we can apply this to a single assignment, we could TILT a whole course, we could TILT a curriculum in a department, we could TILT a program, we could TILT an institution’s learning outcomes and thread them through not just all the courses, but through all the co-curriculars too so that students might discover in their work-study job that they’re practicing one of the critical thinking outcomes, that’s a goal for the whole university that connects with what they were doing in their accounting class. And then we can even think about this in terms of a national framework of learning outcomes as well. So there are many scales at which you can apply that to a framework. And one of the things that I’m really enjoying about doing TILT full time, is that I can work with groups of schools, groups of institutions, so not just the Washington State group that I mentioned to you, but several weeks ago I was in the state of Kentucky where working with teams of teachers from institutions across the state, for the whole state system, to think about aspects of how do you map out a path for students to succeed in fulfilling their curriculum? And then how do you pursue that path? How do you complete that path? And in that case, we were using the TILT framework as a strategic planning framework to think about once we know what the plan is, like, once we’ve mapped out our plan for how students can effectively complete their degrees, how do we then communicate the value of that degree, not just to the students who are doing the degree, not just to the students’ families who may be contributing to the costs of doing that degree, not just the costs of the student’s tuition, but the cost of the student not being an earner in that family. And we want to communicate this to all the stakeholders, so the students, their parents, faculty, and staff at the institution, to state legislators who may be voting on packages of funding to higher education in their state, to individual grantors who might be funding particular scholarships. And we want to be able to communicate the value of this degree to every stakeholder in a state system that way. And the TILT framework is very helpful for thinking across multiple audiences, because that’s a pretty difficult task to communicate clearly to all of those different kinds of audiences. But it’s pretty essential for the success of higher education in this country. And so we spent a couple of days using the TILT framework as a strategic planning framework to think about how do you communicate the value of a degree? There are lots of ways that you can apply the TILT framework. Another example is I was working with a school in Texas over the summer, and they were TILTing their entire college success course. Many institutions have that kind of course in the first year, and some of them had TILTed individual assignments. And they decided they wanted to put the team of all the teachers together, and then subdivide that so that a smaller team of teachers was working on each week of the course. And then all the assignments and the lectures or discussions that would go into that week. And then we use the TILT framework as a larger framework to connect that whole course. So that from week to week, the purposes, tasks, and criteria were pretty clear. And students understood the path for all of their learning across that course.

John:Have you tried taking on the Florida Legislature? [LAUGHTER]

Mary-Ann: I have not.

John:That’s a real challenge, I suspect.

Mary-Ann: Yeah, I have worked with schools in Wisconsin. Last week, I was working with a school in Tennessee, right after a couple of their legislators were expelled temporarily. This kind of a framework, I think, can be effective in a lot of different higher education systems and contexts. That’s one of the beauties of it. Because this is something that teachers can do, starting right now, to complement any kind of larger, institutionally driven or federally funded program that might focus on student success. A lot of the time, those programs don’t necessarily feel like they’re directly connected to what faculty members are doing in the day to day in their classes. But using this TILT framework is something that you can do that will advance students’ success that will then make you feel more like you’re connected to these larger ongoing efforts that might be focusing on something that you don’t do directly, like targeted scholarship funding, for example. But that’s part of the beauty of the TILT framework is that it can work in many, many different contexts, and across different scale sizes of projects, as well.

John:And it works nicely for faculty because you end up getting work of the quality and the type that you expect, rather than getting student work that you find disappointing. And similarly, students end up doing work that they’re much more happy with, because they were not guessing at what the instructors want. So it just seems really, really logical. But it’s not always so widely practiced. Your efforts are really helpful for all of this.

Mary-Ann: I think one of the reasons why people might be hesitant to use the TILT framework, you don’t necessarily want to try doing something different that could suck up time that could take time away from delivering important content in the course, and what teachers have discovered and written about and published in the National Teaching and Learning Forum and other places you can see on the TILThighered.com website, what teachers have discovered is that if you take some class time to talk about the purposes, tasks, and criteria for a project before students do it, by the time that practice is completed, everyone has saved time; that time gets recouped, and students have learned a larger quantity of what we had hoped they we’d learn because when we deliver content in a course, we don’t know that students are absorbing it the way that we’d hoped or that they could apply it the way that we’d hoped. So I think by the end of the course, if you’ve used the TILT framework a couple of times, you’re in a situation where you’ve worked in a way that is more time efficient, somewhat, and you arrive at a place that, as you say, is more satisfying for students and teachers, because more of the time has been spent with the students doing the highest quality work possible.

Rebecca: I think one of the things that can be challenging for faculty initially is that if you’ve never communicated in this way, it’s hard to do it the first time, because anything you do the first time is difficult. But once you have a little practice doing it, it’s easy to adopt and expand across a course or across a set of courses.

Mary-Ann: That’s so true. And I think that the way that we’ve structured the TILT framework, it looks so simple, it’s a three-part framework. Applying it then gets you into some complexities that are important to clarify. I think you’re absolutely right, the first time we try anything that’s unfamiliar, just like for students, it’s more difficult. And then we kind of get the hang of it. And then it comes much smoother, and much easier. The TILT framework for starters, is pretty simple. It’s got three parts, right? And I think you could probably share a link to the one-page version of the framework that we give to students, that sort of spells out the framework: purpose, tasks, criteria, the knowledge and the skills. And then at the bottom, there are some of the evidence behind why we know this works and some footnotes, so that students can see on one page, this is a real thing. It works, it helps you. It is, in some cases, equitable, and it is probably worth giving it a try. And if you can see all that on one page as a student, then you might be more willing, especially in a context where a teacher is describing to you why this will be good for you, why this is a benefit for all of us. And then for teachers who have not encountered the TILT framework, when students can bring in this one pager that has some studies listed at the bottom and footnotes, they can see that when the student is asking me, why should I bother? This is actually a legitimate question. This is not a troublemaker student, this is a student who actually knows that they will benefit from knowing a little bit more in advance about this assignment that they’re planning to do. So we try to make it as easy as possible to implement. And then we also try to say only a little bit of this will make a statistically significant difference for students’ learning, so that you only have to try it a couple of times in a whole term. And you’ll probably see the kind of differences that we saw in terms of increases to students’ confidence and their sense of belonging, and their metacognitive awareness of the skills that they were practicing and developing. So if you’re doing anything new or different for the first time, yes, there’s some difficulty to that, but this one is a very, very desirable difficulty. [LAUGHTER]

John:We’ll share a link to that one-sheet document as well as to your website in general. And you do have a lot of research cited on your website. And there’s also some ongoing projects. Could you talk a little bit about those?

Mary-Ann: Yes, we are sharing all the resources that we possibly can on the TILT higher ed website, because we want for everyone to have access to this. Some of the places that benefit most are places that might have the least amount of money that is allocated for faculty development or educational development. So we want to make sure that this is accessible to anyone who would want to try it. And then the studies that we’ve done in the past, there are a few studies that have indicated to us a number of the benefits of TILT. One of the first studies we did was the national study we ran with the Association of American Colleges and Universities. It was funded by TG Philanthropy and my colleagues working on that project were Tia Brown McNair and Ashley Finley. And what we did there was we worked with a group of seven minority-serving institutions from across the country that represented every possible type of minority-serving institution, as well as a range of educational contexts like urban and rural, two-year, four-year, research university, really small in scale, large, residential and non residential campuses because we wanted for teachers to look at our results and see, “Oh, well, this worked for those faculty at that institution, and there are students like my students in that mix, so maybe this would work for my students. And in that study, we started with 35 professors at seven schools and we surveyed about 1200 students and we saw that, for the students who received the more transparent instruction, their competence and their sense of belonging and their metacognitive awareness of the skills that they were developing, those increased, those were higher for the students who got more transparent instruction than for those who got less transparent instruction. And then we also saw in that study some differences that showed us that while all the students were benefiting to a statistically significant level, underserved students were benefitting slightly more. So first-generation students in their family to attend college and ethnically underrepresented students and low-income students have slightly larger benefits than the benefits for the whole group. And then in our second study, we focused on how long does this effect last. So we worked with a group of University of Nevada – Las Vegas students. At the time we were working with that study, University of Nevada – Las Vegas had the most diverse undergraduate student population in the nation, according to US News and World Report. And we know from other studies, like Walton and Cohen’s, 2011, Science Magazine article, for example, we know that when students’ confidence increases, when their sense of belonging increases, they tend to persist longer in a course. So in courses that have higher levels of confidence and belonging, fewer of the students would drop the course, for example, more of them more likely to complete the course. And we wanted to see how long does that last. Is it just that course? And some studies indicate that this could last for a year. And what we did was we kept looking at the retention rates of these students to see how many of them were still registered a semester later, a year later, two years later. And we saw that by the time students were in their third year of university as undergraduates, those students who had received transparent instruction in one of their large gateway intro courses in their first year, those students were a little bit more likely to be still registered as students in their third year. And we’re now tracking that out to six-year graduation rates. So we saw that not only does transparency have a beneficial effect, it’s statistically significant, but that effect lasts for a good long time. And then in the state of Washington, we’re now writing up that study I mentioned with the Community and Technical College System. And I think that TILT is particularly helpful in that environment, because the population of community colleges and technical colleges is a little bit more diverse. And we have more students who belong to that underserved category of students, first-generation, low income, ethnically underrepresented. And what we’re finding from that study is we’re understanding a little more about how does transparency work, and I want to thank all of the researchers who are contributing to all of these studies too, because I’m not an educational statistician, so Daniel Richard, and Carolyn Weisz and Kathryn Oleson are contributing to this study and doing a lot of the analysis, along with help from some graduate students who have been working on this project over the years. What they’re discovering is that transparent instruction has a direct impact on students’ awareness of the skills that they’re learning, and it has a direct impact, similarly beneficial, on students’ sense of belonging. And then separately, sense of belonging has a direct impact on students’ metacognitive awareness and skills that they’re developing. So TILT has this direct effect. And then there’s this other effect between belonging and skill development as well. So we’re finding out more about precisely how TILT works for the benefit of students in these studies. And I think in terms of next studies, I want to be asking questions that really matter to populations of faculty and students around the country. So we open up the TILT research team to anybody who’s curious about this, and a number of faculty have asked about, can we say something more about how this works in an online setting, in an online synchronous setting in an online asynchronous setting, and we’ve got a few publications up on the website about that, but others are looking at that a bit more. And then we have another person who’s looking into just the impact on low-income students to see if we can find out more there about the details of how this works. And I’m really curious to see if we can work with large state systems, what can we find about the most time efficient, most beneficial ways to apply transparency and learning and teaching in community college settings. And I’ve also noticed that as I begin to do more work internationally, because I now have more flexible time to be able to do that, the colleges of applied sciences, like in the European Union, for example, they have a kind of three-year degree that is similarly focused on students’ learning something from their degree like they do here in a community or technical college that will lead them on a path into sustainable long-term employment and a career. So I think that this is going to be a really beneficial place to focus TILT efforts and to do some more research about how can we long term have an impact on not just students’ education, but how that is a pathway into a career. And I’m hopeful that we can find out more about that, like the longer long-term effect of TILT. But I’m also really open to inviting anyone who wants to do more research with the mountains of data that we’re sitting on, to discover something that is of interest to them about how students are learning, and how we can help students succeed more.

Rebecca: I really love all the resources and examples and research materials, worksheets, that are on the website. They’re really handy for folks who are starting out. We always wrap up by asking: “What’s next?”

Mary-Ann: What’s next for me, and then what might be next for teachers and students too. So we’ve talked a lot in detail about how TILT works, and how we know it works, and what more we want to discover about how it works. But I want people to remember that this is really a small effort, it’s a very easy lift that has a really large benefit from the size of that lift. And so I would really encourage teachers and students, if they’re going to do anything at all, even if they have no time to adjust any assignment prompts or to adjust anything about the way that they’re teaching or learning in a classroom. If you use any one single thing, I would say use that framework that we built for the students that has the footnotes at the bottom, and it’s called the “unwritten rules” and that framework, and I think you could probably provide a link to it, that’s what I would hope people would do next, just take that framework with you to anywhere that you’re communicating with your students. And the students will tell you how to make the work more transparent for them. Ask students what they see as the purpose, the task, and the criteria. And you’ll discover very quickly, very efficiently, how you can make that work more transparent so that all students are starting to do the work with the same understanding about what’s expected and with the same set of resources that they need in order to do it. So that’s what I hope is next for teachers and students.

Rebecca: And I hear all the faculty cheering about efficiency, and quick. [LAUGHTER]

Mary-Ann: That’s good. Yeah. So that would be the most time efficient thing to do, I think is to have students teach us more about how to be more transparent. And then in terms of researchers, I’m hoping that researchers will think about what can we learn more about? Can we learn more about what motivates students? Or what forms students’ sense of belonging? Is there anything in our survey data that would shed light on any kind of work you’re doing around that? Is there anything in our survey data that would shed light on more of the research on neuroscience and how that’s impacting learning? Or is there anything in the research that we have in our survey data that might help clarify what would be most beneficial for the very most at-risk students? So if we look at federal government statistics, National Center for Education Statistics about retention rates and graduation rates of different populations of students? Can we double down and look at those students with the very lowest graduation rates? And can we find something about TILT that would be the most beneficial for that population of students? To me, that’s a really important and interesting question. And then I really do want to be finding more locations where TILT could be useful, small scale for teachers and students, large scale for state systems or national systems to be thinking about how to apply this all for the good of students success, and for the satisfaction and time efficiency for teachers work as well.

John:If you’re finding these results of long-term persistent effects from just a single intro course, imagine what would happen if all intro courses use the TILT approach. I imagine the effect would be magnified if it was adopted at a broader level and it is being adopted at many institutions at a broader level.

Mary-Ann: I absolutely agree with you that applying TILT across the largest introductory gateway required courses at any institution would be probably the most efficient way to improve retention and graduation rates. Because if you go for the largest group of students as they enter, and you reduce the number of those students who might be thinking or doubting or wondering if they should continue, and if you increase the number of students who feel confident, who are aware of the value of what they’re learning, in terms of skills and knowledge, and if you increase the number of students who persist from the first year on, then that’s where you’re going to have the best success in increasing retention and graduation rates. I agree with you. I think that’s a really strategically wise place to invest TILT effort.

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

Mary-Ann: And thank you so much for the opportunity to talk with you this afternoon, I really appreciate it

John:Thank you for all the work you’re doing.


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.


286. Grading for Growth

Traditional grading systems provide incentives for students to focus on maximizing their grades, rather than their learning. In this episode, David Clark and Robert Talbert join us to discuss alternative grading systems that encourage students to recognize that learning from mistakes is a normal part of the learning process.

Robert is a Professor of Mathematics at Grand Valley State University and the author of Flipped Learning: A Guide for Higher Education Faculty. David is an Associate Professor of Mathematics, also at Grand Valley State University. Robert and David are co-authors of Grading for Growth: A Guide to Alternative Grading Practices that Promote Authentic Learning and Student Engagement in Higher Education, which will be published this summer by Stylus Publishing.

Show Notes

  • Talbert, R. (2017). Flipped learning: A guide for higher education faculty. Stylus Publishing, LLC.
  • Talbert, Robert and David Clark (2023, forthcoming). Grading for Growth: A Guide to Alternative Grading Practices that Promote Authentic Learning and Student Engagement in Higher Education, Stylus Publishing.
  • Nilson, L. B. (2015). Specifications grading: Restoring rigor, motivating students, and saving faculty time. Stylus Publishing, LLC.
  • Grading for Growth blog
  • Robert Talbert’s other blog


John: Traditional grading systems provide incentives for students to focus on maximizing their grades, rather than their learning. In this episode, we discuss alternative grading systems that encourage students to recognize that learning from mistakes is a normal part of the learning process.


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

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

John: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer…

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


Rebecca: Our guests today are Robert Talbert and David Clark. Robert is a Professor of Mathematics at Grand Valley State University and the author of Flipped Learning: A Guide for Higher Education Faculty. David is an Associate Professor of Mathematics, also at Grand Valley State University. Robert and David are co-authors of Grading for Growth: A Guide to Alternative Grading Practices that Promote Authentic Learning and Student Engagement in Higher Education, which will be published later this year by Stylus Publishing. Welcome, Robert. And David.

David: Good to be here.

Robert: Thanks for having us.

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

David: I am.

Robert: I am drinking tea. I’m more of a coffee guy normally, but I figured for the occasion I would bust the tea out.

John: What type of tea are you drinking?

David: I have, because its afternoon, a really lovely almost white jasmine right here.

Rebecca: Nice.

David: …really delicate and anybody who cares about tea is going to be horrified that I sweetened it with honey,

Rebecca: But it is in a really nice polka dotted mug. It is a lovely mug. Thanks.

Robert: And I have cheap stuff from the grocery store, because that’s my brand. This is a Bengal Spice by Celestial Seasoning, and my wife and I are addicted to this tea. We drink probably four or five cups a day of it, though to be honest when it’s cold out, but it usually is [LAUGHTER] here in Michigan.

Rebecca: And I have Jasmine dragon pearls today.

David: Oh, nice choice. Both Jasmine.

John: And I have spring cherry green tea. It’s a very cold wintry day here as we approach spring in upstate New York. We’re recording this a bit before it’ll be released, so by the time you hear this, we should be having the beginning of spring both here and Michigan, I’m hoping.

David: We hope, yeah..

Rebecca: Your tea choice is definitely a big wish for spring. [LAUGHTER] So we’ve invited you here today to discuss Grading for Growth. Can you talk a little bit about how this book came to be?

David: I don’t remember, Robert, if we were in person, or on a Zoom call or something, but I remember you saying at some point, I got a phrase for you: academic book about alternative grading. And I said, “You know, I need a project for my sabbatical.” And then I think it just happened from there [LAUGHTER], and so…

Robert: Yeah, we were in person, David. David and I, we’re not on the same hallway, we’re kind of on opposite arms of a T-shaped hallway. And so we run into each other, sometimes literally, at the intersection of these two hallways, and that happened one day. It was pre-pandemic, I guess. And it was just like, “Hey, Dave, I have this idea, Somebody should write a book about alternative grading. Because David and I have been using various forms of alternative grading in our classes for a while. And he was like, “Yeah,” and that was it. [LAUGHTER] But I think we were also tapping into some stuff that we have been hearing and around our Math Department and elsewhere, our colleagues outside of Grand Valley that started growing even three years ago, just a growing interest or dissatisfaction with the way grading is working. And we’ve been trying some stuff and thought, don’t you know, the best way to make change is to just get your ideas out there. And so this seems like the right place, right time for us.

John: So what types of alternative grading systems do you discuss in this book?

David: A pretty wide variety. And actually, something I’ll say, I think, both Robert and I tend to try to avoid labels too much for these, like there’s useful names to describe different approaches. But we do things like standards-based grading, specifications grading, ungrading, standards-based assessment. standards-based testing, but we look at a really wide variety of alternative grading approaches. And we’ve actually tried to come up with a framework that sort of describes what their common elements are, so that we don’t have to worry as much about names as what the useful features of them are. We found that people can really get locked into an idea of what, for example, upgrading means, and it’s not always a super useful thing to argue about with them.

Robert: Yeah, I would echo that too. Being mathematicians, Dave and I are both really into abstraction and so we look at these specific things that we see, but we’re more interested in the big, general overarching unification principles like what are all these models that are all good, and all applicable, in different places, to different levels of success, and what do they all have in common? And we do discuss ungrading, we do discuss specifications grading, standards-based grading, and a whole lot of approaches that are kind of in the in-between interstitial space, mostly through other people’s stories. I think the heart of this book and David’s real amazing contribution, what you really spend your sabbatical doing, Dave, was interviewing dozens and dozens and dozens of actual real life frontline professors, nobody is in one camp exclusively, everybody’s using some kind of combination, some kind of mix of all these different ideas. And so I think, to me, what the real contribution that our book makes is showing how different things can look, you can start from these basic building blocks, but real people with all kinds of different classes and life situations and professional situations are making this work by listening to their students and adapting appropriately.

David: I can’t emphasize enough how much variety there is in the people we’ve interviewed and the disciplines that they’re in, the types of classes they’re teaching, like it was an amazing thing to talk with all these people and see, okay, they’re able to use different types of alternative grading but absolutely across the board: in labs, in huge classes and tiny classes, and upper-level classes, and absolute freshman-level intro classes. And so it’s been just fantastic to hear how everyone’s doing this and try to put it together into something that could work for anyone, that everyone will find something useful.

Robert: Yeah, no two of them are alike either. And what’s even more amazing to me is that we had to cut a lot of those case studies. And we almost have enough material for a second book just for the case studies. We’re going to keep it on the blog, I think, unless Stylus wants us to do it. But, I mean, there was a lot out there that we don’t talk about in the book. So there’s more where that stuff comes from.

Rebecca: You mentioned that these alternative methods have some common themes or common threads. And maybe it would be helpful to talk about those common threads in relationship to the problems with traditional grading that lead people to these other alternative methods. Can you talk a little bit about that?

Robert: Well, I think one of the places that you begin to see some of the shortcomings of traditional grading is just looking at the history of where traditional grading came from. And it’s sort of a weird and checkered, and very short, history. Many of your listeners might be surprised to know that the current system of points based A-B-C-D-E-F, 4.0 GPA type of grading system is only about 100 years old. It’s a relatively recent innovation in higher education. Higher education, formally, is about 1000 years old. 1088 was the first university and the first readily identifiable grading system that we know of now is like 1890s. So it showed up very, very late to the party. And immediately it was co-opted by Industrial Revolution era approaches to teaching and learning which treated students more or less as subjects. The word “grading” really comes from agriculture, when it comes to like grading Grade A beef and grading grain and flour and that kind of thing. And pretty soon it became entrenched. And we have a situation now where when you look at where grading has led us, it’s highly questionable whether grades really do what we want them to do. And it seems almost certain that they do some things that we don’t want them to do. They lead to issues with ranking and sorting students, pitting students against each other. It’s not clear to me that the statistical validity of points-based grading is even well established. I mean, we put points on things, but they’re not really numerical data in any sense. Computing an average of points across a system of exams does not necessarily tell you how much a student knows. And that, to me, in my view, is the fundamental issue that I have with traditional grading, why I moved away from it. I just didn’t feel like the data was telling me anything.

David: I’d like to jump in on that one, in particular. A thought experiment that I think is really helpful for anybody to do is, let’s say you give a big exam, and a student takes it and they get 60%. So, most systems, that’s basically failing. What does that 60% tell you? What did they know? What don’t they know? Why did they do that poorly? Did they actually do poorly? Do they know 60% of the things that you’ve covered on that exam really well, and the other 40% not at all? Do they have a mediocre level of understanding of everything? Maybe they understand absolutely everything great, and they had a terrible day, and they had to get the kids to Grandma’s house or their work had to keep them late. Maybe they’re sick. All those things are wrapped up together, in that 60% and you just don’t know what it means. And then to add to that, if that student learns, and they really show great effort, and they can tell you later on, “Hey, I’ve got all this stuff, and let me show you how, maybe on like a cumulative final, that 60% is still averaged in and it’s going to permanently weigh them down and their final grade won’t represent what they actually came to know.

Robert: Right. And so grading really cuts against the very process that humans engage in when they learn anything. When I’m learning how to play a song on my bass guitar, and I play it once and I do terribly at it, if I eventually learn how to play it, people should not be looking back at the first time I tried it, [LAUGHTER] they should be looking at the last time I tried or the maybe the best time I tried it. That’s not how recording artists record. It’s not how athletes are ranked, and so forth. And it’s all because of this sort of Industrial Revolution era routes where we have everything measured and sorted out and put together and it inhibits growth. It sort of poisons our relationship with students, it leads to all these extrinsic goals that students now have. Rather than focusing on learning and growth, students get the idea that it’s wrong to fail at things the first time, whereas it’s actually normal to fail at things the first time and then grow from it. And I guess that’s where the name of our book came from, I forget where that phrase “Grading for Growth” popped up. It was way before we were asked for a title for our book. But it’s like that’s what we really want. We want to have a system, even if we must call it grading, we want it to be a system evaluating student work that focuses on and encourages growth as you are learning because that’s one of the great things about being human is that we do grow and we do learn from our mistakes. So where is it in our assessment systems? That’s kind of the fundamental question we’re asking.

David: So it might be helpful if we talk a little bit about this four pillars framework that we have in terms of where we go with that. We kind of spent a while trashing traditional grading here, and I could do that all day. So what did you do instead? What are the things you want to do instead of these things you don’t? And so from my point of view, the most important thing I want to know out of a grade is what does the student actually know? What do they learn? And so, as I said, we have this four pillars model, we talked about four pillars that any good rating system should have and one of those is really a clearly defined description of what it is you’re assessing. So we call it clearly defined standards. I don’t want to catch on to the name standards too much there, but a description of what it is you’re assessing and what it is that matters in that assessment. So how do you know that the student has achieved it? And what is it that the student has achieved? So in that way, that takes care of this issue of what does that 60% mean? 60% of what? And if you’re grading based on a specific thing that you’re testing a student about, then you can say, okay, maybe they’re achieved that or they have not achieved that specific goal. And then we try to incorporate in our other pillars, this idea of feedback loops. So humans work on feedback, they work on trying things multiple times, they work on trying and failing, and having to come back again, and that it should be the ultimate level of what they know, that really matters. So focusing on feedback, rather than focusing on numerical rates. So focusing heavily on feedback, on what’s happened, and how that relates to the standards or the specifications, or whatever the description is that they were trying to reach, and then making that feedback actionable so the student has a chance to actually act on that, and either through a new attempt show that they’ve got that idea, or through revising previous work, show that they come to understand it in a way that counts fully, so that they’re not penalized for needing multiple attempts, just like Robert was talking about with his bass, we’re not going to look at well, the first time you tried, it didn’t work out, too bad. We want to know, ultimately, where were they, so we shouldn’t penalize multiple attempts at understanding something. And finally, it feels like a technical thing, but it’s actually a really big move, moving away from points or percentages and instead, if you’re gonna put a grade on work at all, to make that grade something that’s sort of a descriptor of the feedback, something that basically says, you’ve met this standard or you’ve met these requirements or you haven’t and gives the students an idea of where to go next: you need to revise this, you should try this again, you’ve made it, something like that.

John: I know you’ve experimented with a variety of alternative grading systems. Could you talk a little bit about how you view some alternative grading systems in your own classes?

Robert: Sure, I’ll jump in on that. So around 2017, I described this in the book in my origin story where I came from with this. I had just taught a calculus class and I had just a terrible experience with grades. One student in particular, a fantastic student, she was the epitome of what we’re discussing here. She was on a 10 day delay from the rest of the class and after those 10 days were up, she’d be at the top of the class, but the exam is today, and so her exam scores just went down, down, down, down, down. It was just an awful way for a student to experience my subject. And so I started casting about and I read this book that had just come out by Linda Nilson, who is a legend in the area of professional development, and my former boss at Vanderbilt University. And it’s called specifications grading, and I said “What is specifications grading?” So I read this book, and I was converted on the spot. And I’ve been using specifications grading in almost all of my classes, except for one instance of ungrading last year, ever since. And so, I’m in various forms, and always tweaking, always experimenting, and trying to change things up. But, specifications grading is exactly along the lines of these four pillars that David is mentioning. There are clear content standards that we call specifications. The idea is not to give like points, but marks, to use a sort of a non-American term for those, marks that indicate progress, like you’ve met the standard, that’s what you get instead of a 10. Or you’re progressing, that’s what you get instead of a five, and giving lots of helpful feedback and especially letting students retry things without penalizing them for retry. To me, that’s like the thing that drives the loops. That’s been my main sort of area ever since for the last several years,

David: I’ve used a pretty wide variety of different alternatives. It’s come to the point for me where I think about all these different types of alternative grading systems that have names like standards-based grading, or specifications, or ungrading as elements to put in and they may be appropriate in some classes and not in others, depending on a whole bunch of factors. For example, I’ve taught intro level classes where I use a lot of standards-based grading where that means I’ve sort of divided up the topics into fairly fine-grained standards describing what a specific skill is, and what it would look like for a student to achieve it. And then the grade is essentially based on have they shown me that they thoroughly understand that, they can do the thing described in each of these standards and grades are based on meeting or not meeting those standards. And that can look like pretty traditional assessments, quizzes or exams or homework or such things. But instead of getting an overall grade, they get a mark, like Robert was talking about, for each standard. Yup, you’ve achieved this. Nope, you haven’t yet. Maybe they need to do it a few times. But that’s one element. It’s really useful for sort of discrete skills, intro level things. I’ve used specifications in a similar way that Robert is talking about. One of the strengths of specifications is that you sort of look at a student’s work holistically and say, “Have they overall shown me they can put these ideas together, understand the concepts, use all the different things that I think matter within this assignment,” and that works really well on written work… We’re mathematicians where students write proofs, it’s a detailed explanations of why something’s true, or in a project or in a portfolio or something longer than that. It’s really useful, maybe in upper-level classes or in places where I want students to show synthesis. And I’ve gotten pretty deeply into ungrading, or at least as I use the word ungrading, meaning removing grades entirely, even marks, in the way we’ve been talking about as another element that can be useful either in an entire class or just as individual things to do within some assignment. So I’ve covered a lot of this, I continue to push on what’s most appropriate in different classroom situations and different student situations.

John: I’ve tried some of the same things too. But one concern from a lot of faculty who have tried mastery grading systems or mastery quizzing and those types of things, is that it can put a lot more work on the instructor to do the grading on multiple attempts. In Linda Nilsen book, she suggests giving students a certain number of attempts, but limiting those. How do you keep the work manageable so that you’re not spending all of your time grading additional attempts, as students are working towards mastery.

David: Yeah, the thing you mentioned from Linda Nilson’s book, attempts without penalty doesn’t mean attempts without limits, and that is really important. And yeah, limits like that are one way to do it. There can be limits on number of attempts, or on frequency of re-attempting something or revising something once per week, once total, something like that. Those sorts of limits can just be really useful. And I know, I always encourage new instructors or people just starting to use these systems to start out limited, and then add flexibility because that way, they will be able to do it if they need to, and not do it if they don’t want to.

Robert: Yeah, you know, another thing too is, not just in the reassessments, but in your overall design of your course, including the grading system, you got to keep things as simple as humanly possible. This is something David and I just hammer home constantly, like every other paragraph ends with keep it simple, because people who want to mess around with grading systems are people who like tinkering with systems, and I am one of those people, and I know that when you start tinkering, it’s very hard to stop. And you end up with this massive Rube Goldberg like device that is your class and to you, it looks beautiful, but when you face it towards students… I mean, the first time I did specs breeding, I had 68 learning objectives that students had to meet throughout the semester and it was a nightmare. At the first of the semester, I thought, I’m a genius. I mean, look at this beautiful grading system I’ve devised. It’s going to revolutionize everything. And the only thing it did was give me a grading jail for four months. Just keep it as simple as humanly possible, and you’ve got to cut the work off at the source, I think. David and I wrote a book about grading, but we don’t like grading. I mean, nobody really likes the process of it. But it can be made at least a fulfilling undertaking if you are orienting it towards growth. But you still don’t want to be doing it 8-10 hours a day. So keep things as simple as humanly possible and put some limits on that. It’s okay to create a little bit of scarcity when it comes to the reattempt side of things. The feedback needs to be helpful that you give to students, but it doesn’t have to be incredibly lengthy. It might just be a couple of sentences, it might just be: “You did this really well, and this needs work.” …to kind of keep it right to the point, and then that helps the students who are on the other end of this too also experiencing a workflow possibly overload. And I worry more about them than I worry about myself. And so this makes it more likely they’re going to read your feedback if it’s shorter, more concise, and it makes it shorter to give.

David: Yeah, I want to emphasize that it can be a lot of work for students as well. Something that I suggest a lot is, if you want to use a system that emphasizes these pillars, especially reattempts without penalty, you’ve got to then think about those re-attempts as part of the regular workload of your class. Really what it means is you’ve got to think about the process of learning, that whole process, is part of the time that students are going to have to invest into it, and that you need to value that in your timeline for the class. So I like to think of maybe if you expect a student to work, however many hours per week on your class, account for whatever time each assessment takes, add another half for how much they might need to do revising or reassessing or reworking on things. And that can lead to really difficult decisions. You’ve got to cut stuff out if that’s going to happen. I don’t know, basically, anybody who looks at a classroom teaching and says, you know, there’s not enough in here. And so you got to make those difficult decisions, but it is worth it. Because what comes out of it is a student knowing things that are still in there way better than they would have otherwise.

Rebecca: I think one other barrier that faculty sometimes face is learning management systems, and how they guide you towards particular kinds of grading systems and evaluation systems. I wonder if you can share some tips that you have from your own experience of dealing with a learning management system to help you and your process rather than getting in the way of implementing some of these techniques.

Robert: We’re a Blackboard campus, and we’re making a transition right now and I’m honestly not sure how the new system handles those. But in at least the next to most recent version of Blackboard there was a thing called a schema, which is basically a way of going into your gradebook and defining a way to map number inputs to text outputs. And so I can set an assignment up to be graded on zero or one point. And then I can only enter in zero or one. But I could tell Blackboard if I enter in a one put “meets expectations” in the gradebook, and if I’ve put a zero put “does not meet expectations” or a happy face emoji and a frowny face emoji or whatever I feel like doing. And I have zero experience with any other learning management systems over the last 15 years, so I can’t really speak to that. But I know that many memory management systems allow you to customize the way that your numerical inputs present themselves in the students’ gradebook. And if you can find out how to do that, that’s the way to go, as far as I’m concerned.

David: And even if you can’t, the thing Robert mentioned, that essentially everything is a zero or a one, these systems all want to use points. So just refusing to play that game by making everything a zero or one. Even if students are seeing the zero or the one, it’s a lot easier to interpret the zero or one as success or not, than it is if you have points showing up somewhere else, and you’re trying to convince students No, no, no, when I put in a five, that meant something that doesn’t mean five points, that’s not going to fly. So limiting it to just a zero or one, a complete or incomplete, something like that works pretty well. That’s also true for spreadsheets. So if you just want to keep your info in a spreadsheet, they still want to work with numbers for the most part, but you can think of everything as a zero or a one. And then you start to change your mind from averaging or totaling things to counting. So I’m counting how many standards a student has completed, I’m counting how many assignments they’ve met the specifications on. And that’s really the same as saying, how many ones do I see here? One last thing is, everybody seems to have a different LMS. Even those of us who use the same one don’t quite use the same version of it [LAUGHTER]. So the best thing to do is to find someone who knows it really well and talk with them and say, “How do I make this type of thing display?” …and they probably know a way,

Rebecca: I’m gonna have this conversation with John about our LMS.

John: We’re using Brightspace from Desire to Learn, and it does have those capabilities.

Robert: And one thing I would say is that these days, as the ideas about alternative grading get more and more airplay, I think the tech companies are starting to listen to these things. I mean, you’re actually starting to build these things in as a competitive device like “Ah, you should adopt our LMS, because we can let you do ungrading and you don’t have to deal with all the hassle of hacking your own LMS. So I feel like ed tech companies should be paying attention to all this great interest that’s swelling up, it’s like this is a way to earn customers, honestly.

David: Something I’lll say most LMS’s do seem to do pretty well is to allow you to get feedback in a variety of ways. And so if you can de-emphasize that grade portion, just 0-1 or hide it or something, especially like I accept all assignments through Blackboard nowadays, giving feedback’s pretty easy on that. So that, in my mind, is a benefit.

Robert: Yeah, Blackboard does a really well, actually, that if you submit a PDF into Blackboard as an assignment, it’s easy to leave comments on it, and it keeps all the versions of it. So you can go back and easily see the students trajectory from the very first draft that they do all the way to the present day. And I think that’s really powerful, actually.

Rebecca: I’ve used rubrics to set up essentially specifications as well, like it’s met or not met.

David: Absolutely, yeah. If you know what you’re doing setting up rubrics, I don’t, that’s the problem for me. But if you know what you’re doing, that’s fantastic and it can also save you time.

John: Since the pandemic, there’s been an explosion of interest in ungrading. Does this approach work as well in all contexts, and for all students?

Robert: People are starting to use ungrading to mean anything other than traditional grading. And I think that’s leading to a lot of confusion, honestly. I was working with some teachers recently who were saying that, “Oh, I’m using ungrading but don’t have time, I’m being overwhelmed by all these quests for reattempts.” And it turns out, they weren’t using ungrading at all, they were totally grading thing. When we say ungrading, we mean like a specific approach to evaluating student work where nothing gets a mark, literally ungrading. You get a letter grade at the end of the semester, because most places require that, but it’s all based on a term that’s come up recently, that I really prefer, is collaborative grading. You’re working together with the students throughout the semester to talk about the quality of work, but nothing is getting a mark on it. I have a comment for you and you can either choose to iterate on that comment with a feedback loop or leave it alone. At the end of the semester, you’re going to sit down together and collaboratively determine what your course grade is based on the body of work that you’ve accumulated in some sort of portfolio situation with some clear standards for what an A would look like, a B would look like, and so forth. So that’s what we mean by ungrading. The explosion of interest in “ungrading” may or may not be all about ungrading the way we’re referring to it. So I just want to be clear about the terms before we answer this question.

David: And just add even another thing, it’s both that sort of umbrella term and what Robert just said and the general philosophy and a buzzword that people attempt to apply to random things they use. It’s unclear what someone means when they say ungrading.

John: When we’ve been talking about it, we’ve been talking about it exactly as you described as an extreme form of alternative grading where there are no grades other than one that is decided in consultation with the student at the end of the semester. And sometimes at midterm if that’s required in the institution. From what we’ve seen, this is used quite a bit in humanities fields, but it tends not to be used very much in the STEM fields. What are some of the barriers or some of the concerns that might be raised for ungrading in terms of in what contexts it may not work as well.

Robert: I have tried to fully ungrade a course once, and I might use it again. But the issue that I was coming up with with my students, is what I say is that ungradiing works precisely as well as students’ ability to self assess. If you have students who are struggling with the ability to self assess, or they’ve never tried it, or they’re new students, or younger students who maybe are still emerging with that idea… the whole thing about ungraded is that it’s predicated on students looking at their own work and self evaluating. And if that’s an issue, then I’m not totally sure that ungrading, as we’re defining it, best serves that population. I know I struggled with it. And this can be more me than anything else. Maybe I just don’t know how to draw students out and I need to work on that. It’s an area of growth for me, certainly. But if you have a population of students, for whatever reason, whose ability to self regulate or self evaluate is questionable, or kind of low, we’re not going to say bad students, because we’re all growing… it’s the whole point of our book… if you deploy ungrading with that population, you might be sort of targeting the weakest point in your class. And so maybe, in that case, some marks wouldn’t be such a bad thing, like use a specifications grading approach where the marks are just like: you’re progressing or you’ve met the standard. Just some kind of simple mile marker that shows students where they are. When I used this, once, it was an upper-level class, it did have a lot of writing in it, a math class. I would leave comments on their paper and I would just get questions like, so does it meet the standard or not. And I didn’t like to sort of be telling students this, but I felt like this is the way I helped them. I said like, “hasn’t met our standard yet, here is what you need to do.” So I thought, if I’m going to do that, why don’t I just put a mark on it? It seems like I’m just beating around the bush and trying to be cool by not giving marks and it’s like I’m thinking more about myself than I am about the students at that point.

David: I think that a general thing that everybody needs to think about when using any kind of alternative grading is, this is something new for students… almost guaranteed. And like any other new thing, it needs time to learn, you need to encounter it a few ways, you need to try to make sense of and probably fail initially, and then come back and you’ve got to work to understand it. Ungrading is sort of an extreme form of that. There’s more that needs to be understood about how it works, there’s more skills that need to be built. And I think, as instructors, we need to think about that and think about teaching how our evaluation systems are working and how the grading is going to work. And think about what skills we need students to build up in order to successfully engage with those. And ungrading asks a large amount of that. And I say this, as I very much enjoy using ungrading also in some upper-level math classes and I think it’s worked pretty successfully for me. But this sounds funny to say about something called ungrading, it requires scaffolding, it requires helping students build up that ability to self evaluate, advocate for themselves, to be able to understand what it is that matters in that particular system. But what I just said is also equally true for standards-based grading or for specifications grading, but with different skills that they’re building up. It’s also true for traditional grading, although it feels more familiar to students, but it still requires some scaffolding for them to understand what exactly is going on in the evaluation in this class.

Rebecca: Can you talk a little bit about some of your own experiences with ungrading and how you have done some of that scaffolding, what some of those early stages of scaffolding might look like, to understand the system.

David: So initially, I was having I think it was three check in meetings per semester, where I would meet with every single student in my class, like a 10- or 15-minute discussion, and we would talk about where they’re at. And that inevitably brings out students’ questions, and they don’t understand this part of they don’t know what that is about. And so that was one thing that I did, right? Those were the collaborative aspects of ungrading, and it was overwhelming, it was too much to meet with every single student that often. I still love being able to meet with students. And I use that as one of the tools in the toolbox. But nowadays, to sort of help build that up, I have a system where… this is actually done through homeworks for me… it’s like periodic homeworks and there’s some mathematical content. And there’s also some little additional thing where I ask a question, and early on, it might be something like, “Okay, what is a specific goal related to… and then I might have some of the math related content in the class or as a specific goal you’d like to work on related to this.” And that’s a fairly small thing. I ask students to say something along the lines of “I really want to work on improving my understanding of this one thing” and I can either respond to that as “Okay, great. Here’s the way I can suggest that you work on that,” or I can respond to it as… well, I don’t say it this way, but… “I can see that you’re having trouble elucidating the goal and so let’s talk about that” instead. And then another week or two down the line, there’s another maybe slightly higher-level task having to do with assessing themselves or thinking about their progress in the class. And so they’re scaffolded and I can, at each stage, see if a student is succeeding, in sort of the way that I’m looking for them to be thinking about their progress. And if not, then I can pull in a, “Hey, let’s actually meet and talk about this. And then I’m gonna give you a task to practice with that.” It’s really individualized, which can be a tough thing. But for me, it’s really fun to actually see students grow in that particular way, in addition to growing in the mathematical content.

Rebecca: So faculty that want to move to less traditional methods, what are some small steps a faculty could take to get started?

Robert: Well, I really appreciate that question. Because we don’t ever want to give the impression that you have to go all in on one particular grading system in order to like, be cool, or be a good professor or whatever, because everybody’s in a different position. Some people may not be in a position to ungrade, and we are never going to come out and say, “If you really care about students, you will do ungrading or you’ll do standards-based grading or whatever.” It’s like people care about students all over the place and just can’t or have mitigating circumstances. So I would say we laid out these four pillars: clear content standards, helpful feedback, marks that indicate progress, and reattempts without penalty. If a professor takes one of those pillars, and kind of drills into it on just a handful of assignments, that’s definitely progress in the right direction. So for example, you could take your next test you’re gonna give, experiment with letting students reattempt it, or reattempt different versions of it. So go one test, one class, allow reattempts without penalty, or give feedback that really gets to the point, not gives points, but gets to the point of what’s being done well and what isn’t being done well. Just pick one of these four pillars and just go with it. There are some small scale methods you might think about, let’s say, instead of grading your final exam, how about ungrading your final exam. Just say you need to lay out some standards for what constitutes successful work on your final exam and maybe that’s like 70% on the content. And then you got to write some reflective essays, and say, if you don’t meet expectations on the final exam, that’s a minus on your course grade, or something like that. So you can roll in aspects of alternative grading systems, whatever seems to resonate with you on small-scale individual assignments. And that’s really good progress. It’s really good data for you as the instructor too. You run these experiments, you ask students how it went, and then you just make notes and you iterate on that. It’s exactly the same thing that we asked students to do in these grading systems. You try something, you get feedback on it from a trusted third party, you iterate on it and try again.

David: I want to add one thing, because this is something that I always see happen when people first start using some kinds of alternative grading. Just for yourself, write a really quick list of what you think the major topics are in your class, aim for 10 to 20 things that are the important things to get out of the class, and then go pick some of your exams or quizzes, or whatever, and match them up. “Oh, on this one I was addressing these things and on this one, I was addressing those things.” And that can help you actually think about, “Oh, you know, I’m not really addressing this thing in my assessments at all, that I said was really important.” Or “Holy Moly, I have hit this one thing over and over and over all the assessments at the cost of not covering a bunch of others.” The first time you do this, even if you’re not showing students what the standards are, it can be amazing. “Wow, I’m not assessing what I say matters.” And that can adjust just how your assessments are focused.

John: Sounds like you’re advocating a backwards-design process where you start out with clearly defined objectives, and then you make sure that there’s alignment. And also, I think it might be important to make sure that students see the connection between those things, and that it’s a transparent process, which I know is something you’ve advocated in terms of your work on assessment.

David: Absolutely. And sharing your reasoning with students I think is very valuable, bringing something in from above and saying we shall now do it this way, because I said so, doesn’t work and you’re gonna get a lot of pushback, but talking with students about why you’re doing things and how it’s good for them, that makes a huge difference.

Robert: And don’t call it an experiment, okay. [LAUGHTER]

David: Yeah.

Robert: I’ve read some syllabi lately. It says, I’m going to be experimenting with this experimental new experimental grading system. And of course, you know what that is going to sound like to students… that I’m the subject of an experiment. What am I doing here? And so you’ve instantly killed your buy-in.

David: I’ll actually say, I don’t even give names to what I’m doing. So I am ungrading a class this semester, I have never used the word ungrading or any other name for it. I find that giving a name to things like that can help people sort of reduce it down to like a one dimensional idea, rather than engaging with what it actually is. I’m just “Oh, this is what we’re doing, and here’s why we’re doing it this way.”

Robert: Yeah, I have to share this story. When I started doing specs grading I did actually put we are using a thing called specifications grading on my syllabus. So, I got a call from our research office on our campus, they had gotten a call from the parent of one of my students complaining to them that I was experimenting on their child without informed consent, that I needed to give an informed consent form to my students before this happened. And I thought, well, that’s a weird flex from a parent and they call up the Office of Research Compliance [LAUGHTER] and complain about the Professor, but as you can just see even just the barest mention… Just tell students what you’re doing, and why you’re doing it. If I have to name it, nobody cares what the name is, it may not even have a name. And all this we mentioned before, that most of the people we interviewed for the book are not using any sort of canonical form of anything. It’s just like a little bit of this, a little bit of that, like cooking in your kitchen, you don’t use just one spice, you combine them, that’s where you get your unique flavor of what you’re doing.

John: Would it be fair to say that, given the title of your book and focusing on grading for growth, that one of the things you’re addressing is how to shift students from focusing on trying to maximize their grades to maximizing their learning?

Robert: Yeah, absolutely, yeah. I think a lot of frustration that I know I feel and I hear from other faculty is students tend to spend an order of magnitude more time talking about what they have to get on exam X to get grade Y than they talk about the actual content in the course. And we teach math, and I think some of the students who struggle the most with our math are doing like these amazing statistical calculations to try to figure out what the average has to work out to be. It’s like, “where was this in my actual math lesson?” I remember riding the bus home one day, from our downtown campus back to where we live, and I overheard this conversation and I said “Oh, this is this has got to come to an end.” [LAUGHTER] And absolutely, we want students to focus on their growth and I think students want to focus on their growth, too. I mean, students really, in the end, don’t want to think about all this stuff. They want to think about, “How am I growing as a human being? Is when I’m doing really meaningful? Where am I as a learner? Do I have any value in this vast educational system that I’m entering into?” And so if we can even just orient one small thing, like our grading system, towards convincing students that they have value, and are human beings in a stage of development, I think that’s worth it.

David: And that means we need to believe it, too. So I like to tell people who are thinking of using an alternative grading system, think about why you’re doing it, and what your students are going to get out of it. But definitely approach it as like, “Okay, I care about my students, and I want them to succeed.” And we’ll sometimes talk about incentives… grading systems set incentives in a class, and that can feel sort of like you’re trying to mess around with people and then incentivize you to do things a certain way. Traditional grading systems set incentives that are really kind of perverse towards learning. And if we can change those incentives, or just remove some of the ones that aren’t as good, that’s really a lot of what we’re aiming for here. And yeah, just respecting how people naturally want to learn anyway, that just allows them to do what they are as human beings going to do anyhow, or what they would naturally do.

Rebecca: So everyone wants to know, when can we have your book in our hands?

Robert: Well, it looks like on the Stylus website, it says July. So that’s what we’re going with for now. [LAUGHTER] I guess it’s sort of out of our hands at this point. We have one more round of copy edits to do. But it says July, you can preorder it now through the Stylus website and should be in your hands this summer.

John: My preorder has already been sent in. [LAUGHTER] So I’m waiting for a copy.

David: Awesome.

Robert: Awesome. Thank you.

Rebecca: And you mentioned earlier something about a blog. Do you want to tell us a little bit about that?

David: Yeah, if you’re interested in some of our ideas, go check out our blog, it’s gratingforgrowth.com …all spelled out. So, Robert and I started this sort of as a way to workshop some of our ideas for the book. So you can see proto-ideas. And we’ve also posted some examples of some of the case studies of some of these interviews that I have done with people using a lot of different alternative grading systems there. Every week, we post something new, or we have guest posters. There’s a really huge variety of ideas that show up on there.

Robert: And if any listener wants to contribute a guest post, we are accepting applications at this time… not really applications, just reach out. And we’re looking to hear. Now that the book is kind of close to coming out, we’ve had this discussion, you and I, David about where does the blog go from here once the book is out, and I feel like a great use of our time is to elevate the voices of other people. I mean, there are so many people out there doing great work, who are not education rockstars, they’re not on the lecture circuit or whatever. They’re just rank and file heads down people doing great work in the classroom. I love those people getting their ideas out there and seeing what they’re doing. So to me, that’s been a really rewarding experience.

David: So gradingforgrowth.com.

Robert: Right. It’s actually a substack. You can subscribe to it. It is free. It’s never going to cost anything and it comes every Monday. Except for taking planned breaks for holidays, we haven’t missed a Monday in two years.

David: Well, now you’ve cursed us, Robert. [LAUGHTER]

Robert: No, I put the pressure on me because then I got to step up. I think I’m next, actually. No, you’re next.

David: Oh, crap. [LAUGHTER]

Robert: Sorry, Dave.

John: We will put a link to that in our show notes.

Robert: Great.

John: Are there any other topics that you’d like to emphasize?

Robert: Well, I think I would just re emphasize simplicity. I mean, simplicity is the ultimate sophistication. I think Leonardo da Vinci said that. And so, when you’re designing a class simplify as much as humanly possible, and no more. But I think your students are going to be well served by less, honestly. I think we tried to do way too much in our classes, and we will be well served by this too. I mean, I have another blog that deals with productivity and time management in academia. And that’s the key thing. I mean, a lot of faculty struggle with overwork and burnout or just doing too much and there’s a lot of stuff you can say no to and I think keep things very, very simple and that can be a whole lot. podcast about how to simplify your life in higher education, especially applyied to course design and grading systems. You don’t want to make choices in July when you’re planning your fall courses that you end up regretting by October.

David: I will say that something that did come up earlier, briefly, but there’s not one right way to do it. You should not feel like you must go all out ungrading, you shouldn’t feel like you have to do specifications grading exactly the right way. Find something that works for you, look for models, pick and choose the things. If you look at something and say, “How could that possibly work?” then don’t do that. And yeah, we’re not judging you. Find something that works well and it’s going to be good beer students.

Robert: Yeah, and especially the last thing you just said, David is so important. All this stuff is predicated on actually communicating with your students. Don’t just sort of wait for the course evaluations. You have to really get in and talk, actually talk with your students on a regular basis and get feedback and see how things are going. And that’s one of the great strengths of all these four pillars sort of oriented approaches is that it really does get students talking with each other and with their faculty members. And I think that’s, maybe in the end, the best thing about all this.

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

Robert: Well, for me, I know I’ve been spending the last two years not only as a faculty member, but working in our president’s office under what’s called a presidential fellowship. And I’ve been coordinating large-scale institutional cross-institutional teaching and learning initiatives, mostly focused on active learning spaces. And so that’s been a particular focus of mine for a few years. That is wrapping up now. But we’re looking at maybe some interesting and exciting extensions of that idea where we’re going to try to surface and looking for what our faculty are already doing in terms of instructional innovation. There’s a lot of stuff out there, like we said earlier, but even in our own institution, a lot of faculty are doing really innovative and creative things and effective things but are kind of working under the radar. So the President and I, and those around us, are kind of thinking how can we look and find these faculty, get them together, elevate what they’re doing, and sort of make Instructional Innovation a normative practice at our university. So that’s that’s kind of what’s next for me is figuring out how to make that work on a practical level.

John: Sounds like a wonderful plan. I know, we’ve been talking about some ways of doing the same thing at SUNY-Oswego. And it’s a challenge.

Rebecca: It’s no small task. [LAUGHTER]

Robert: It is, it is.

David: Something that I am getting more and more interested in is what helps instructors be successful in any kind of educational innovation, not just alternative grading and changes in their pedagogy, anything like that. But especially when it comes to grading, there’s so many variations. And in so many different situations where instructors are working, what are the things that help them best succeed? And what are the things they do that help their students buy in and succeed most? And so looking at those sort of things from a more fine grain perspective, I think it’s going to be somewhere that I’m going next.

Rebecca: That sounds exciting.

John: It does. And I hope you’re both come back and talk about the success of these initiatives in future podcasts.

Robert: We’d very much like to.

David: Absolutely.

Rebecca: Well, thank you so much for joining us and sharing your stories. And I know that many people are looking forward to your book.

Robert: Thanks a lot for having us.

David: Yeah, it was great to be here. Thank you


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

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

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


284. Learning That Matters

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

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

Show Notes

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


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


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

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

John: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer…

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


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

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

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

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

John: Julia?

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

Rebecca: …there’s always one ,Julia.

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

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

John: I haven’t seen that one.

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

John: And Caralyn?

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

John: Wonderful.

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

John: And I have Darjeeling tea today.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cynthia: Absolutely.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rebecca: Those are all really good points.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rebecca: It would be a lot easier.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Caralyn: Thank you.

JULIA: Thank you.

Karynne: Thank you


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

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


277. Write Like a Teacher

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

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


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


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


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

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

John: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer…

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


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

Jim: Thank you.

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

Jim: Of course. Always.

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

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

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

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

Jim: Ahh!

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

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

Jim: I know that feeling.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jim: Thank you.

Rebecca: It’s amazingly incredible, for sure.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jim: Yes.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jim: Yeah. Okay, I like that.

Rebecca: It’s gold. [LAUGHTER]

Jim: I like that.

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

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

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

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

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

Jim: I agree, I agree.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rebecca: So I’m looking forward to it.

Jim: Thanks.

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

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

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

Jim: Absolutely.

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

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

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

Jim: Likewise. Thank you.

Rebecca: Yeah, thanks, Jim.


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

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


276. Teaching at its Best

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

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


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


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


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

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

John: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer…

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


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

Linda: Thank you very much.

Todd: Really appreciate the opportunity to be here.

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

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

Rebecca: It’s very pure.

Linda: Yes, very pure. Very pure.

Rebecca: How about you Todd?

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

John: Especially at Family Medicine.

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

John: I am drinking pineapple green tea.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Linda: Yeah, oh yeah.

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

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

Linda: Yeah, Yeah.

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

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

John: And it’s been a great resource.

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

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

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

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

Rebecca: So you snuck an extra 3 words in.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Linda: Yes. Yes. Yes. Yes.

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

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

Todd: That is good.

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

Rebecca: I don’t know any of them.

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

Linda: I apologize.

Todd: Sorry about that.

Linda: I apologize.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rebecca: Did you say 33,000 pieces?

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

Rebecca: Oh, ok.

Todd: …was difficult. [LAUGHTER]

Rebecca: Yeah.

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

Linda: Nothing to it. [LAUGHTER]

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

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

Todd: That’s great.

Rebecca: That’s something to aspire to.

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

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

Todd: Oh, you haven’t.

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

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

Linda: Yeah.

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

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

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

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

Todd: It was so much fun. Thank you


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

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


270. Fall 2022 Reflection

The time between semesters is a good time to engage in reflective practice. In this episode, we take a look back at our teaching practices and student learning during the Fall 2022 semester as we prepare for the spring 2023 semester.

Show Notes


Rebecca: The time between semesters is a good time to engage in reflective practice. In this episode, we take a look back at our teaching practices and student learning during the Fall 2022 semester as we prepare for the spring 2023 semester.


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

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

John: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer…

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


John: We’re recording this at the end of 2022. We thought we’d reflect back on our experiences during the fall 2022 semester. Our teas today are:

Rebecca: I have blue sapphire tea once again, because it’s my new favorite. And I have discovered that the blue part are blue cornflowers. That’s what’s in it. So it’s black tea with blue cornflowers.

John: And I have a spring cherry green tea, which is a particularly nice thing to be having on this very cold wintry day in late December, in a blue Donna the Buffalo mug, which is one of my favorite bands.

Rebecca: We had a few things that John and I talked about ahead of time that we thought would be helpful to reflect on and one of them is our campus, like many SUNYs, is in the process of transitioning their learning management systems. And we did move to Brightspace for the fall semester. So how’d it go for you, John?

John: For the most part, it went really well. Returning students were really confused for about a week as they learned how to navigate it. But overall, it went really smoothly, it helped, I think, that I had taught a class last summer in Brightspace, so I was already pretty comfortable with it. But, in general, it had a really nice clean look and feel, it brings in intelligent agents where we can send reminders to students of work that’s coming up that’s due, reminding them of work that they’ve missed that they can still do, and just in general, automating a lot of tasks so that it seemed a bit more personalized for students. And that was particularly helpful in a class with 360 students. And also, it has some nice features for personalization, where you can have replacement strings, so you can have announcements that will put their name right up at the top or embedded in the announcement. And that seemed to be really helpful. One other feature in it is it has a checklist feature, which my students, periodically throughout the term and at the end of the term, said they really found helpful because it helped them keep track of what work they had to do each week.

Rebecca: Yeah, I used the checklist feature quite a bit, because I have pretty long term projects that are scaffolded and have a number of parts. And so I was using the checklists to help students track where they were in a project and make sure they were documenting all of the parts that needed to be documented along the way. I think generally students liked the look and feel of this learning management system better. But I also found that I was using some of the more advanced features and a lot of their other faculty were not. And so that difference in skill level of faculty using the interface, I think, impacted how students were experiencing it. And that if their experience was varied, they struggled a bit more, because it was just different from class to class. So I know that students struggled a bit with that. But it was also my first time teaching in that particular platform. From a teaching perspective, I think it went well. I found it, for the most part, easy to use and I like the way it looked. But students and I definitely went back and forth a few times about where to put some things or how it could be more useful to them. And we just negotiated that throughout the semester to improve their experience. So I think that was really helpful.

John: You mentioned some of the more advanced features, what were some of the advanced features that you used?

Rebecca: Yeah, I mean, I used the checklist, which not a lot of students had in some of their other classes. I know you used it, but I don’t think a lot of faculty were using those. I had released content, just I know you also use some of these things, too, but a lot of other faculty were just like, “Here’s the content. Here’s your quiz.” …and kind of kept it pretty simple. But I teach a stacked class, so I had some things that were visible to some students and not to other students. Occasionally I’d make a mistake there, so that caused confusion.

John: And by a stacked class, you meant there’s some undergraduates and some graduate students taking the same course but having different requirements?

Rebecca: Yeah, and also different levels. So within both the undergraduate and graduate students, I’ve beginning students and advanced students. So there’s really kind of four levels of students in the same class.

John: It does sound a bit challenging…

Rebecca: Yeah.

John: …especially on your side.

Rebecca: Yeah. So it’s easy to sometimes make mistakes, which can certainly result in confusion. I think students were also just trying to figure out the best way to find stuff like whether or not to look at it from a calendar point of view, or from a module point of view. They were just trying to negotiate what worked best for them. And there were some syncing issues between the app and what they were doing with checklists in particular. So it caused a lot of confusion at the beginning, but we figured out what it was and that helped. So new things, new technical challenges result in some learning curves. But I think, throughout this semester, we worked through those things and students were much more comfortable by the end of the semester.

John: And by next semester it should be quite comfortable for pretty much all students.

Rebecca: Yeah.

John: So what went well for you, in this past semester?

Rebecca: I had a couple of really good assignments. Some of them were experimental. [LAUGHTER] I wasn’t really sure how they were gonna go and I was pleasantly surprised. One practice I continued, that continues to go well, is using warm ups at the beginning of my class for design and creativity. And that seems to continue to be very helpful for students. I teach longer class periods than a typical class because it’s a studio. And so transitioning into that space was helpful for students, and also starting to teach them ways to foster creativity when they feel very stressed or have a lot of other things tugging on their minds they also reported was very useful to just learn some strategies. We did things about prioritization, creativity, planning, related to the projects that we were doing. So that continued to be really useful. And then I did a brand new project that I’ve never done before. And the work was fantastic for the most part. I collaborated with our campus Special Collections and Archives. And we made a couple sets of archives available to students that were digitized. And then my students created online exhibitions and focused on that experience, so that it’s not just “Here is five things,” [LAUGHTER] but rather like it’s a curated experience that had kind of exploratory pieces of it. And that went really well, students got really curious about the materials in the archives. These are students who maybe have never really took advantage of these kinds of library resources before and started to learn how to dig into understanding these primary sources better as well. So that was really exciting.

John: What topics were the archives related to?

Rebecca: There were two collections. One of them was a scrapbook from the early 1900s that had a lot of example trade cards, or industry cards, and advertisements. And so in a design class that became interesting materials to look at. And then another collection was digital postcards from the area. So they were looking at the city of Oswego and the campus at different time periods. And they found that to be kind of interesting. And there’s others that we’d like, but we went with ones that were [LAUGHTER] primarily digitized already, to make it a little easier.

John: And what did they do with those?

Rebecca: They had to pick a collection they wanted to use. And then they had to select at least 10 pieces from that collection, come up with a theme or some sort of storyline that they wanted to tell about those objects, and then they had to create this online experience. So they created websites, essentially, that had interactive components. And there were a wide range of topics. One student did something on women’s roles in the early 1900s through media. Another student focused on like then and now. So they took the postcards and then they went and took their own photos of those same places and did some comparisons with some maps and things. Some that were telling the history of the institution, which was kind of interesting. The history of boating in the area. So people picked things that were of interest. Snow was a big topic [LAUGHTER] … there’s a couple students that did things about snow and documentation of snow over time. But they were good, they were really interesting works. And we’re looking to get those up in a shared OER format. We’re getting close on being able to get that and share that out, but we’re hoping to deposit a copy of the projects as a unified whole back to the archives and then have them live online as well.

John: Very nice.

Rebecca: How about you, John? I know you were continuing your podcast project.

John: In my online class, which is smaller, it’s limited to 40 students, it worked really well this time. One thing that was different is that nearly all of my online students were genuinely non-traditional students. They were mostly older, by older I mean in their late 20s, early 30s. And they were just very well motivated and hardworking, and the class in general performed extremely well. They got all their work done on time, they were actively engaged in the discussions, and they really enjoyed creating the podcast in ways that I hadn’t seen as universally in past classes. Several of them mentioned that they were really apprehensive about it at first, but it turned out to be a really fun project. Because it’s an online class, they didn’t generally get to talk to other students, but they worked asynchronously in small groups, typically groups of two or three, on these podcasts and it gave them a chance to connect and talk to other students that they wouldn’t normally have outside of discussion boards in an online class. And they really appreciated that. And they really appreciated hearing the voices of the other students in the class. So that worked especially well.

Rebecca: I know you’ve also had, in some of your classes in the past few years, when there’s more online learning happening that maybe wouldn’t typically be a “distant learner” or someone who would choose to be online. And so this semester, you’re saying that the students who were in this class were actively choosing to be in an online class and that maybe made a difference.

John: They were students who generally were working full time and often, under really challenging circumstances were engaged in childcare, working full time, and taking three or four or five classes, sometimes working a couple of jobs. And yes, in the past, a large proportion of the students in online classes were, even before the pandemic, dorm students who weren’t always as well motivated as the students who were coming back to get a degree at a later stage of their life, who had a career and perhaps wanted to progress in that career. And during the pandemic, so many students were in online classes who really didn’t want to be there, it was a very different experience. So we moved past that now, or at least in my limited experience with a very small sample last semester, the students who were online were students who benefited greatly from being online and actively chose to be online. It’s a much better environment when students are able to take the modality that they most prefer to work in, for both them and for the instructor.

Rebecca: Yeah, then you’re not pulling people along who haven’t had that experience of taking an online class before, as well as trying to get them to do the work. Were there other practices or activities or other things that you employed in your class that worked particularly well this semester?

John: in general, I didn’t make too many major changes in the class because the transition to Brightspace alone was a bit of a challenge on my part, because it did require redoing pretty much all the materials in the class. But on both my large face-to-face class and my online class, I use PlayPosit videos to provide some basic instruction in the online class and to help facilitate a flipped class in my face-to-face class, where I have a series of typically two to five short videos each week in each course module with embedded questions. And students generally appreciated having those because they could go back and review them, they could go back and if they didn’t do too well on the embedded questions, they could go back and listen again or look at other materials, and then try it again. And basically, they had unlimited attempts at those and they appreciated that ability. Those were the things I think that probably went best. It was overall a challenging semester.

Rebecca: What was one of the biggest challenges you think you faced this semester as an instructor, John?

John: The two biggest challenges that I think are very closely related is… the class I was teaching both online and face to face is primarily a freshman level class, an introductory class… the variance in student backgrounds, particularly in math and the use of graphs is higher than I’ve ever seen it before. Some students came in with a very strong background, and some students came in with very limited ability and a great deal of fear about having to do anything involving even very basic algebra or arithmetic even. And it made it much more challenging than in previous semesters. And I think part of the issue is that we’ve seen some fairly dramatic differences in how school districts handled the pandemic. The learning losses were much smaller in well-resourced school districts, then in others that were more poorly resourced school districts in lower income communities. When schools had fewer resources and when the students in the schools had limited access to technology, and so forth, the shift to remote instruction had a much greater impact on those students. And that’s starting to show up at a level that I hadn’t seen in the first year and a half or so of the pandemic; it hit really hard this fall. And the other thing is that a lot of the work that was assigned outside of class simply wasn’t being done. I’ve never seen such high rates of non-completion of even very simple assignments, where students would have five or six multiple choice questions they had to answer after they completed a reading. And between a third and a half of the class just chose not to do it. It was very low stakes, they had unlimited attempts to do these things, but many of them just simply chose not to. And I ended up with many more students withdrawing from the class than I’ve ever seen before.

Rebecca: So I think there’s a couple interesting things maybe to dig into a little bit more. We’ve certainly seen students prior to the pandemic have a fixed mindset about math skills, for example. But when we have a deep fear of things, it’s really hard to learn. How have you helped students work through the fear? And is the fear rooted in just not coming prepared? Or is it a fear of trying something new?

John: It’s a bit of both. Because they already come in with a lot of anxiety, it makes it more challenging for them to try the work outside of class. And that’s part of the reason for the use of a flipped classroom setting in my large face-to-face class, because we go through problems in class. We’ve talked about this before, but much of my class time is spent giving students problems that they work on, first individually, and then they respond using the polling software that we use (iClicker cloud) and then they get a chance to try it again after talking to the people around them. So it’s sort of like a think-pair-share type arrangement where, if they don’t understand something, they get a chance to talk to other people who often will understand it a bit better. And in the second stage of that process, the results are always significantly higher after students have had a chance to talk about it, to work through their problems, and so on. So having that peer support is one of the main ways that I try to use to help students overcome the fear when they see that other students can do this and they can talk to other students who can explain it at a level appropriate for their level of understanding, that can work really well. And then we go through it as a whole class where I’ll call on students asking them to explain their solutions, or I’ll explain part of it if students are stuck on something, and doing some just-in-time teaching. And normally, what that does is it resolves a lot of that anxiety, and it helps people move forward. But that just wasn’t working quite as well this time. And I’m not quite sure why.

Rebecca: I think although I’m not using the same kind of format in my classes, a design studio really does rely a lot on collaborative feedback and [LAUGHTER] interacting with other students and coming to class prepared having done something outside of class, and then we have something to give feedback on and continue moving forward and troubleshoot and things together in class. So we’re using class time also to work through the hard stuff rather than outside of class. So the interesting thing about doing that in class, and really a lot of active learning techniques in class, is that it does depend on students coming prepared and having done something ahead of time. And if they’re not doing that ahead of time, it really changes what can or cannot be done in class. And the other thing that I experienced related to that is, some students just reported a deep fear in sharing things with other students that I’d really not experienced before. In the past, that’s always been a really positive experience. And those who get fully engaged in that continue to say it was a positive experience, but there were some who would actively avoid any of those opportunities to share their work. I don’t know why. I think there’s two things, there are some students that just were not doing things outside of class. So they were embarrassed or didn’t want to have their peers think that they didn’t know what was going on, or they didn’t want to reveal that they were behind. And then there’s another group of students who actually were overly prepared and did all the things, but they have a deep fear of being wrong or not being perfect. And there’s a lot of anxiety around that. And so working through that was a real challenge for some of the students this semester as well. And I’ve always had a few students, they tend to be what you would think of as high-achieving students who sit in this category. But it seems like it’s actually a bigger number of students or like stress and anxiety around this perfectionism seems to be elevated, causing students to become paralyzed, or the inability to move forward.

John: And I would think that the stacked nature of your class would make that a bit more of an issue in terms of the variance between people who have more background in the discipline and those who have less,

Rebecca: Yeah, I have my class structured so that students are doing things in groups with students that are at a similar level in experience. So yeah, I experienced that in the classroom as a whole, but within their smaller groups, not as much.

John: I think one of the issues that may have affected my class is at the start of the class, I was in the early stages of recovery from a broken leg. So I was kind of just leaning against a podium or sitting on a chair near their podium for the first couple of weeks. But one of the things that was different for me this semester is normally when students are working on problems, I’m wandering all through the classroom, and I kept hoping to be able to do that. But it wasn’t really until the end of the semester that I could even stand and move around a little bit through the whole class. But I did miss the ability to interact with students and help them work through their problems in small groups as I wandered through the classroom. I was very lucky to have a teaching assistant who was able to move around, but it would have been better if we both had that mobility. And I’m looking forward to being able to wander through my classes this spring.

Rebecca: It’s interesting that you say that, John, because this was the first semester I was back in person. The last two years, I’ve taught fully online, synchronously but online, and one of the things I missed about the kinds of classes I teach is that during class, we are often working on projects, and I in person can easily wander around and see where students are at and bring students together and do impromptu critiques or technical things a little more easily than I was experiencing online because, although they may be working, I couldn’t see, kind of casually just walking by, I couldn’t intervene when students weren’t where they needed to be, or were struggling and just didn’t want to ask for help, because I didn’t know, because they didn’t tell me. But when it’s in person and I’m wandering the room, I can make those observations and do those interventions. I did notice that in my walking around and doing interventions this year is a bit different than it had been prior to the pandemic in that some students would actively avoid me if I was coming near them… It was like, “Oh, no, I have to go the bathroom” or they would just disappear. And I would miss them in a class period because they were gone when I was heading their way. And those were students who were struggling and struggled throughout the semester. So it was students that didn’t want to admit that they needed help or didn’t want people around them to know they needed help. And what’s interesting, related to that, is that during synchronous online learning, I could help people one on one without other students knowing, because I could easily pull them into a separate breakout room and we could privately talk in a way that, in a studio environment, is not as possible. So it’s an interesting dynamic, finding my way again, because the things that used to work don’t quite work the way they used to, as you were also describing, and then other practices I got very used to in a different platform also just aren’t available in a face-to-face format. So I’m interested to see how I might be able to balance these things, because I’m teaching more of a hybrid format in the spring, and I might be able to get a little bit of the best of both worlds. I’m not sure.

John: Well, there is some research that suggests that a hybrid teaching format works better than either face to face or fully asynchronous. So it’ll be interesting to hear how that goes.

Rebecca: Yeah.

John: I used to learn a lot about what students were struggling with just by overhearing their conversations as I walked along or by interacting with students directly. And I did miss that this semester and I’m looking forward to never ever having to deal with that again in the future.

Rebecca: Yeah, that was one of the things that I found most joy in being back in the physical classroom was just being able to wander around and greet students and have more low-key interactions with them, which also helps I think, with helping students move along and move through struggles.

John: One of the things you mentioned was the anxiety of students. And I know in my classes, students have become much more comfortable revealing mental health challenges. I’m not sure how much of it is that students are more comfortable revealing mental health challenges, or they are just experiencing many more mental health challenges than before. It’s good to know the challenges our students are facing. But when you hear dozens and dozens of such stories in a class, it can be a bit of a challenge in dealing with those.

Rebecca: Yeah, I found that I had a number of students who disclosed physical and mental health challenges they were facing this semester. And that did help me understand significant absences by those same individuals. And it also explained a lot of the struggle that they were experiencing in the coursework. Unfortunately, when students have so many things tugging at them, it’s really hard for them to focus on studies or to even prioritize that… they may need to prioritize some other things. And the student work or the students’ success in that population of students wasn’t as strong as some of the other students who were able to be present all the time and could do the outside work or were doing the outside work. I don’t know if it was “can” or “wanted to…” [LAUGHTER] …how that outside of class work was getting done. But those who are staying on top of the coursework as it was designed were more successful than students who had a lot of things that were causing them to be absent or to miss work.

John: And I know in our previous conversations, we’ve both mentioned that we’ve made more referrals to our mental health support staff on campus than we’ve ever had before. And it’s really good that we do have those services. Those services, I think, were a bit overwhelmed this semester and from what I’m hearing that’s happening pretty much everywhere. It’s often a struggle thinking about these issues. I know many times I’ve been awake late at night thinking about some of the challenges that my students are facing,

Rebecca: Students disclose things to us and then you do think about them, because we care about them as humans. Most of them are really nice humans. Some of them aren’t doing the coursework, but that doesn’t stop them from being nice humans that you care about. And it does take mental energy away when we’re thinking about these students and thinking about ways that we might be able to support them. And sometimes the ways to support them is completely outside of the scope of our jobs as instructors. And that’s disheartening sometimes, because there’s not an easy way for us to help other than a referral and you can see them struggling in class and you know why they’re struggling. But there’s not a lot of intervention, from a teaching standpoint, that can really happen sometimes with some of those students. And that’s just emotionally draining. Do you find that to, John? …that’s you’re thinking about them, but then you don’t really have a good solution for helping them often, academically anyway?

John: It’s a bit of a struggle, because you want students to be successful and you know, they’ve got some really serious challenges. One way of addressing this is to provide all students with the opportunity for more flexibility. And I know most of us have been doing this quite a bit during a pandemic. But one of the concerns that I’ve been having is that the additional flexibility often results in more delays in completing basic work that’s required to be successful later in the course, and the students who are struggling the most often are the students who put off doing the work to learn the basics that are needed to be successful. And I think that’s one of the reasons why I saw so many students withdrawing from the class this semester, much larger than I’ve ever seen it.

Rebecca: This is also, though, the first semester of a different policy related to withdrawals on our campus. And so some of that might be that students didn’t need to provide documentation to withdraw, like they would typically during the last few weeks of the semester. They were able to continue to withdraw until the very last day of class.

John: I’m sure that’s part of it, because many of the students who did withdraw had stopped working in the first week of the semester. And despite numerous reminders, both personal reminders and automated reminders using some of the tools built into our learning management system, they just were not responding. So I think some of them had made the decision fairly early to withdraw from the class.

Rebecca: Flexibility is an interesting thing to be thinking about. And I think both of us have advocated for levels of flexibility throughout the pandemic ,and prior to that as well. I don’t really have an extra penalty for students who miss class, their penalty is that they miss class and now it’s a struggle to keep up. And that often is the case. I provide flexibility in the kinds of assignments or what they might do for an assignment, some flexibility in deadlines, but the reality is, a lot of our classes are fairly scaffolded. And so if they don’t get the kind of beginning things, they’re not able to achieve the higher-level thinking or skills that we’re hoping that they can achieve by the end of the semester, because they haven’t completed those often skills-based tasks to help them practice things that they would need to perform higher-level activities.

John: I do have regular deadlines for some material in class. But what I do is I allow them multiple attempts at any graded activities where only the highest grade is kept. So they can try something, make mistakes and try it again, and, in many cases, do that repeatedly until they master the material. But there are some deadlines there along the way where they have to complete it. Because if they don’t, they won’t stand a chance of being able to move to the next stage of the course. To address issues where students do have problems that really prevent them from doing that, I end up dropping at least one grade in each of the grade categories. So that way, if students do face some challenges that prevent them from timely completing work by those deadlines, it won’t affect their grades. But I still encourage them to complete those assignments even if they’re not going to get a grade on it because they need to do that to be successful.

Rebecca: Yeah, deadlines can be really helpful for students who have trouble prioritizing or figuring out when to do things on their own. So deadlines are actually really important. Our scaffolding as instructors can be really important for students that need and want structure. And most students benefit from having structure in place and deadlines are part of that structure to help people move forward. But there can be flexibility within that. But if we provide too much flexibility, it becomes a challenge not only for students in terms of being able to level up in whatever they’re studying, but also in terms of faculty and workload and having to switch gears in terms of what you’re evaluating or giving feedback on. If we have to keep task switching, it’s a lot more straining than focusing on one set of assignments at a time.

John: One assignment where I did provide lots of flexibility was the podcast assignment, where I let students submit revisions at any time on that or submit late work because there were some challenges in finding times, and so forth. And I had a lot of work come in a month or more after it was originally due. And it did result in a lot of time spent during the final exam week and during the grading period after that, where I was spending a lot of time grading work that would have been nice to receive by the deadline, say 2, 3, 4 or 5 weeks earlier. But it did provide them with the flexibility that was needed, given the nature of the assignment, and one where they didn’t lose something in terms of their progress in the course, by submitting it late.

Rebecca: Yeah, projects are one of those things that I always encourage some continuous improvement on because often they’re so close. And if you just give them a little extra nudge or a little extra time, they can complete something at a higher level, especially when it’s something like a podcast or like my exhibit assignment that has a very public nature to it. We want students to feel like they’ve achieved something that they’re willing to share. And sometimes that means giving them a little extra time so that they can polish it. So it feels like it’s something that they can share and be really proud of. I guess that’s another argument for time and flexibility around non-disposable assignments. Right?

John: One of the other bright spots of the last several months was a return to more in-person conferences, where we got to see people that we haven’t connected with in person other than on Zoom or other tools for the last few years. And while we’ve attended many conferences over Zoom, one of the main benefits of in-person conferences are those little side conversations right after a session ends, or when you get to talk to the presenter after their session, or those conversations in the hallway over coffee. And it was really nice to return to those again, because that’s where a lot of the value of these conferences come from.

Rebecca: Yeah, it’s interesting how much maybe I started longing for some of that again. I was finally starting to experience that on campus, again, as more people have been more physically present on campus, which has been nice. Those casual conversations often lead to interesting projects together or new ideas or initiatives, they improve my teaching, and they just improve relationships over time. And I think I was feeling a pretty strong loss around that. And it was nice to have that reinvigorated.

John: And it was especially nice to be at these conferences where there are a lot of other people who are really concerned about teaching and learning. And it helps rebuild that community that changed its nature during the pandemic, when people were very actively connecting but it was over social media, back when we had Twitter [LAUGHTER] as a functioning social network platform, and through online interactions, but it’s nice to have those in person connections again.

Rebecca: Yeah, I definitely agree. I had started to feel, not totally burnt out, but I was headed in that direction and reconnecting with people in person has gotten me excited about possibilities in higher education again. I lost interest. I wasn’t even following news for a bit. I had really pulled back a little bit because I just felt overwhelmed by everything around me and it was hard to stay on top of what was happening. And I think some of these in-person conferences reconnected me to some of what was going on and some of the people who are doing that work. But it definitely got me re-interested in a way that I was just starting to become a little uninterested.

John: It’s a reinvigorating experience.

Rebecca: So should we wrap up, John, by thinking about what’s next?

John: Yes, what’s next for you, Rebecca?

Rebecca: [LAUGHTER] Nice toss there, John. [LAUGHTER] Next semester is likely to look different for me. I’m only teaching one class in the spring as I focus some more attention to some interesting initiatives in Grad Studies on our campus. And that one class is going to be hybrid and relatively small. So it’s a really different kind of teaching experience than I’ve had before. So I’m looking forward to that new adventure, or both of those new adventures. How about you, John?

John: I’m teaching the same classes I’ve been teaching for several years, but I’m looking forward to them, it’s going to be nice to work with upper-level students again. My spring classes are primarily juniors and seniors, mostly seniors. And it’s a nice time to reconnect with those students that I had often last seen in class when they were freshmen. And it’s really rewarding to see the growth that students have achieved during their time on campus, and to see the increase in their maturity and their confidence. And I’m very much looking forward to whatever project they’re going to be doing in the capstone course. Because for the last four years, they’ve done book projects, I’m not sure what we’re going to be doing. And I enjoy that uncertainty at this stage, which I have to say the first time I did, it was a little bit more stressful. But now it’s something I look forward to, letting them choose what they want them to have as a main focus of their course. So I don’t know exactly what’s next, but I’m looking forward to it.

Rebecca: That’s wonderful. I’m thinking that my spring classes are all advanced students, which doesn’t typically happen, and so I’m really looking forward to the opportunity of taking a break from a stacked class and actually just teaching a smaller group of advanced students and allowing them to take me on an adventure, which I know it will be. And I look forward to more of that mentor kind of role in that course.

John: And I’m looking forward to more episodes of the podcast. We continue to have some really good guests coming up and these discussions are something I always look forward to.

Rebecca: And definitely something that has kept both of us, I think, afloat during this pretty challenging time over the last few years.

John: Definitely.


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.


262. What Teaching Looks Like

Video recordings of faculty teaching classes have long been used for professional development. In this episode, we examine Martin Springborg and Cassandra Volpe Horii join us to discuss how still photography may also be used for this purpose. Martin and Cassandra are the co-authors of What Teaching Looks Like: Higher Education through Photographs. Martin is the Interim Dean of Liberal Arts and STEM at Dakota County Technical College. Cassandra is the Associate Vice Provost for Education and Director of the Center for Teaching and Learning at Stanford University.

Show Notes


John: Video recordings of faculty teaching classes have long been used for professional development. In this episode, we examine how still photography may also be used for this purpose.


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

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

John: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer…

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


Rebecca: Our guests today are Martin Springborg and Cassandra Volpe Horii, co-authors of What Teaching Looks Like: Higher Education through Photographs. Martin is the Interim Dean of Liberal Arts and STEM at Dakota County Technical College. Cassandra is the Associate Vice Provost for Education and Director of the Center for Teaching and Learning at Stanford University. Welcome, Cassandra, and welcome back, Martin.

Cassandra: Thank you.

Martin: Thanks for having us.

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

Martin: Oh, yeah. In preparation for this.

Rebecca: Awesome.

Martin: So normally, I drink coffee all day. Today I’m drinking one of my favorite drinks, a London fog, which is Earl Grey tea made into a latte.

Cassandra: Very nice. That sounds great Martin. And I have an iced Jasmine green tea, given the summer nature of what we’re doing and being out in California, but I had my coffee earlier.

Rebecca: [LAUGHTER] Well, I appreciate the real effort to have good tea for the day. I have a jasmine black tea today.

Cassandra: Another Jasmine drinker.

Rebecca: A nice summer flavor.

John: And I have spring cherry green tea.

Rebecca: We’ve invited you here today to discuss What Teaching Looks Like: Higher Education Through Photographs. Can you talk a little bit about how this project got started?

Martin: I started this project when I was teaching photography courses, and specifically an Intro to Photography course at Inver Hills Community College in Minnesota. So I had been teaching, I don’t know, maybe three or four years, going into this a little bit in the book, but I was doing nothing but teaching. So I was really wanting to do some of my own work again, and I decided to make this project that both I can work on and my students can work on at the same time. We were learning about documentary photography at the time. We’re talking about photographers, like Robert Frank, other photographers in this area. And just really getting to that subject, I encouraged them to make photographs of their lives as students. And I told them, I would make photographs of my life as a faculty member. So they could just see what that looks like. And I could learn about them. It blossomed from there. So it was a great project in class, and I loved it so much that I wanted to keep doing it outside of class, and even when I moved out of teaching and into educational development, and away from the college, I started doing this project, or kept doing this work, and actually named it something and said I was going to do this thing on my own and made some photographs of Minnesota State Colleges and Universities, then that’s where our system was called. I think I presented the work at the POD conference. Cassandra was there, and she liked the work, and she invited me out to CalTech, and I’ll let her take it from there.

Cassandra: Yeah, I was blown away by these photographs when I first saw them. It was around the time that Martin and I were both interacting through the professional organization, the POD Network, and working on conference organizing. So we had some committee work together, and they just stopped me in my tracks. I’d never seen anything like them. I hadn’t ever seen represented what happens in classrooms in this visual, but also visceral, way that got to the heart of what mattered, what I loved about being in a university environment. And at the time, I was starting up a new Center for Teaching and Learning, really working on communicating what teaching was all about, how to engage with teaching. And so Martin’s visit was, I think, the first outside of Minnesota. We got him into classrooms of a great variety of different formats, lecture formats, but also labs, and discussions, and conversations between faculty and students and teaching assistant meetings behind the scenes, and that work ended up being so impactful and important in the change process for our institution. It’s something that we started talking about and building on. And then I think, as Martin went to other institutions, became a part of the conversation. We also had the thought at some point, “Hmm, what if we talked with the faculty whose classrooms were photographed and started to really understand the impact on them.” So from that, we developed a protocol for consulting about teaching with faculty using photographs. And again, it just grew from there, and I think Martin could tell us a little bit about the inspiration for, actually, the book.

Martin: Yeah. So from there, we were talking with so many faculty after making photographs in their classrooms, and really just, in a lot of cases, shadowing them throughout their entire day, in other roles they were in. Getting faculty to reflect on their teaching practice, and other things about teaching, related to teaching, it was just really inspiring, and we thought, “well, this can’t be just kept between us, just can’t be this secret.” So then we started to dig into what else had been done, like if anything else had been done in this area. What could we learn from that? And how could we lend what we had done to whatever scholarship existed out there on this topic? We saw scant offerings out there on this topic. Some people who were doing video consultations, which is a very common way of doing teaching consultations with faculty… set up a video camera in a classroom, let it roll and then have the faculty member watch it and then talk about it. Nobody was really doing the still photograph approach to that. So we put together a book proposal. And really, the book proposal, I think originally was nine chapters, we narrowed it down in scope a little bit. But basically 15 years worth of documentary photography, institutions across the United States under the broad title of “The Teaching and Learning Project.” We billed it as the most comprehensive photographic exploration to date of contemporary post-secondary education in the US, which it is. And then the book proposal also included in those chapters, insights about the state of teaching and learning, challenges and solutions, and how and why to integrate photographs in an educational change and improvement work at organizations, institutions at that college level. And now, we’re hearing back from a lot of people who are diving into the book, and they’re just saying that it’s timeless. And there’s something we really didn’t expect to see. We got some feedback early on in the book proposal process that, well, now that we’re in COVID, this is just going to play as a time capsule of what teaching was. But that’s not what it is at all. And we’ll get more into that I’m sure later as we dive into how it’s being received now. But yeah, that was really the crux of the proposal.

John: What Teaching Looks Like is part of the Elon University Center for Engaged Learning Open Access series. Why was open access important for you as authors for this project?

Cassandra: Yeah, thanks for that question. So as you’re probably getting a sense, and you’ve taken a look, I’m sure, this is a very different kind of book about higher education and for higher education. Not only does it contain photographs, but it’s probably half photographs, it’s nearly 200, and those are really integrated with the text so that they sit in this co-equal fashion, the purpose is also somewhat different. So given these unique factors, we wanted it to be as fully accessible as possible in format and also in terms of cost. So we found that the editorial team at the Elon University Center for Engaged Learning, including managing editor Jennie Goforth, and a series co-editors, Jesse Moore and Peter Felton also had that clear vision and dedication. They were very excited to be able to make the supplementary resources readily available, and to explore the capacity, I would say, and the possibility of this format. Just for one example, we worked very closely with the editorial team on exactly how and what kind of descriptive text would be provided for these nearly 200 photographs. So that descriptive text is embedded right there in the electronic format, in a way that works with screen readers, and it’s also potentially enriching and available to all readers. So the other piece is that we really believed in the potential and the possible impact of the book and helped us zoom out for a moment. And, you know, through your conversations with authors that there are so many more excellent high quality books available and emerging about how to teach in higher education, how to teach in different disciplines, through different methods, and we think those are incredibly important. And now we’re seeing more books, volumes, articles coming out about how change works in higher education, how to structure change, strategies for systemic change, also incredibly important, and Martin and I are working on those things too. The thing that What Teaching Looks Like does that I think is different is it gets at why to change, why teaching matters, why to improve, and provides some new tools in our collective repertoire that engage people’s whole selves in that work. So when we talk about culture change, which is so important to sustainable and systemic change, there has to be that drawing in and sustainable interest in participating so that it’s not purely top down, it’s not a forced experience. The other thing we know is that reflection is so important, pausing to really deeply think about why we teach in particular ways and how to go about change, also incredibly important. And what we found was that, like Martin said, we were missing this whole avenue of engaging with people, and we need everything we’ve got to really tackle the challenges in higher education. So kind of circling back around to why open access. These factors are not necessarily a well-tested formula for publishing in higher education. But again, we think it’s really vital. And as Martin mentioned, the early reception to the book is indicating that it’s landing, so we’re getting messages back in email that you People are saying, like “I’m blown away. This is reminding me what I love about teaching. It’s making me think in new ways,” …and a real sense of excitement about the things that they want to do and the conversations that they want to have with their colleagues.

Rebecca: As an artist and a designer, I was really fascinated by this project since Martin first mentioned it to us, a while back, in part because we don’t typically think of SOTL as something that is visual, or that is documentary in nature. Can you talk a little bit about the methodology and what it reveals that some of these other methods don’t? You’ve started hinting at some of these things, but I’d love to hear more about “why photography?”

Martin: First of all, since high school, it’s the way I’ve communicated. So I’m used to communicating that way. And I think you touched on something.SOTL is typically text based. There’s a lot of great stuff there. But you’d have to dedicate yourself to sitting down with it for quite a long time. And if we’re asking faculty, who was really our main audience for this work, to learn from something, photography was just the first place I went, as far as just being a SOTL project, because still photographs instantly land with you. If you look at something, you have an opinion about it, whether you like it or don’t like it, whatever you see in there, immediately, it hits you at a very gut level, the longer you sit with something, the more you see the intricacies of it and more maybe the message that was intended by the author or the photographer, but because it was familiar to me as a way of communicating, that’s really why the methodology, and that’s why I see it as different from a lot of SOTL work is because it takes so little time comparatively, to get into it. You can use photographs to teach faculty something in far less time.

John: And imagery can be really powerful. When we think back to many historical events, key photographs from those events often have a much longer impact than any text that was written up describing those events. So I think you’re onto something quite interesting here. But could you talk a little bit about the structure of the book, and what readers can expect to find in each chapter?

Cassandra: Yeah, I’d be happy to take you through the outline of the book a little bit and preview what you can expect. So in the introduction, we talk a little bit more about the origins of the project itself and some of that surrounding work, which we alluded to a bit here. We also give readers a chance to anticipate how they might interact with the book and think about some strategies for observing the photographs, for taking that pause to really look closely. We continue to do that throughout, of course, but there’s this little primer in the beginning for just interacting with this type of a book, several of the chapters take up place, or a kind of experience in higher education, because we started with really the thematic commonalities that were coming through in these really 10s of 1000s of images that Martin had from multiple different campuses across the United States. Those often pointed to these thorny, challenging questions about what’s current, what’s difficult, what’s interesting about being in higher education today. So in classroom interactions, one of the chapters, it starts out with this quote from one of our participants, “if I were lying on my deathbed, I would want to look at these pictures to know that I did some good teaching.” When we heard that, we just got goosebumps, at least I did, and it speaks to this visceral power that we’ve been talking about. That chapter also looks at what the absence of photographs to date says about the value we place on teaching, what kinds of things we learn when we do have photographs. It’s interwoven with some of the theory and critical perspectives on what photographs are and how they function. We also look at, in another chapter, student perspectives, and really think about the student experience today, what kinds of emotions and forms of engagement, collectively, we’re willing to showcase and what we might be hiding from students that could get in the way of the deeper learning that we’re trying to get at, as well as we know that roles for educators are shifting as we move more toward active and engaged forms of collaborative learning. We also think in another chapter about our interactions with technology and spaces, that interplay that’s also speaking to the importance of those resources. They set the stage and the kind of agency that we might still have and the power relationships that we do have the capacity to change in those environments, and even looking at the nuances of partnerships beyond campus, of community engaged learning. There’s a set of chapters too that take on a little bit more of a philosophical slant. So we look at the productive chaos and the messy nature of education… a sort of deeper exploration of order and disorder, and really a critical admission and questioning of perhaps, the sort of secret aesthetic that we might come to in our experience as educators. Many of us might think that there’s something beautiful about learning, but it’s not something that we say, and we need to say it, but we also need to question it. And then there’s also kind of a real look at the behind the scenes, hidden work, the hidden labor behind education that we almost never show: the work of contingent faculty, adjunct faculty, tenure-track faculty, alt-AC staff, administrators. And we really see the liminality of some of those positions showing up in the images themselves, but also the capacity for that to connect across roles and generate empathy. And then the arc of the book ends with thinking about photographs and change agents, and how they can play a role in campus communities, making intentional, institutional, and educational change through the ways we communicate, how we bring people together through exhibits of photographs, through having this representation in our shared spaces, and then how photographs can have an impact on our teaching practice through the conversations that we might have about them. So every chapter ends with some open-ended questions for reflection, and those are expanded on in the website resources.

Rebecca: I really appreciated seeing the collection of photos and what you were saying about the absence of such photos existing or that documentation existing really resonated with me. I’m working on our graduate student orientation in our new learning management system, which is much more visual, and I’m trying to collect images and represent some ideas, and what I was quickly realizing, at the same time I was looking at your book… this was happening at the same time… was, “Wow, we’re not really great, just generally, taking photos of what learning really looks like or what being a student looks like, or what being a teacher looks like, what being in grad school looks like, because a lot of the things are very staged or focus on extracurricular spaces or they’re just very staged…” it was thinking about other opportunities where I’ve gotten to see something which I appreciate being able to see something in action, but often those seeing of the things in action are staged.

Martin: I’ve given talks to faculty at institutions when I’ve gone to to make photographs. And that’s one of the things that is often in those talks is wrestling with how we project ourselves to potential students and their families, the balance between marketing and what they would love to do, and the reality of what students see when they get to college. They’re often not the same thing. So we project a lot of images that don’t represent ourselves in truth. And I think that’s potentially why students are shocked often when they get to college. And they realize that, “oh, this is a wild mess,” in a lot of aspects. “This is crazy. I don’t know if I can take it.” What I’m trying to say is, if we do have more photographs available to students, sadly, if we’re able to have discussions around those truthful photographs… I won’t say truth… but around those honest photographs, then I think we circumvent a lot of that, we take some of the shock away from what it is to be in college, what it is to be a student, what it is to be a faculty member. If we showed photographs like this to our graduate students more often, they would understand what’s ahead of them when they teach their own classes. They get that in the teaching assistant roles, of course, but there’s more in those photographs to learn in that respect.

Rebecca: Yeah, the authenticity of the collection is really impactful. I really also appreciated all the companion resources, and would love for you to talk through some of those. There was multiple things that you’ve included, not only within the text itself, but also as this companion material on the website. And there were a couple that I was particularly interested in that I hope you might walk us through. One of them is the close reading and observation activity. Can you share a little bit about that?

Cassandra: Yes. And in fact, if you’d like we can try that out a little bit right here. Are you game for that, Rebecca and John?

Rebecca: We can try. We can try anything.

Cassandra: Alright. So the companion resources, as you alluded to, includes a set of close observation, close reading exercises, which excerpt, one photograph or sets of photographs around several themes, and then offer some prompts for reflection, conversation, discussion. We imagine that these… and they are actually…. being used in a reading group and book groups. I have given workshops on my own campus and Martin and I have done similar things in conferences where we take this similar method and really work with a group. It’s a great warmup, gets people very engaged, gets them thinking, also a wonderful activity in the context of reflecting on teaching. So lots of different uses, but I’m gonna have John and Rebecca, and Martin, if you like, open the resource called close reading and observation exercises, just to the first photograph that you find there. So it’s on the second page. And it’s called Introduction, close reading exercise. Is everybody there?

John: And we will share a link to all the resources, especially this one, in the show notes.

Cassandra: Fantastic. So let’s just start out by engaging, looking at this first photograph. And I’m going to ask John and Rebecca to share what you notice, in this image… start to describe it. Of course, we’re on audio. So your description will be helpful for listeners, and it will tell us something and yourself something about what you think is important and what stands out. What do you see?

Rebecca: I just want to verify that we’re looking at the figure 2.01.

Cassandra: Yes, 2.01.

Rebecca: So what I see is two groups of students, and each group is organized around a computer monitor. In the group that’s closest to us, I see a diverse group of students. And there’s one student who is gesturing with his paper at the screen, two students leaning in to see this screen, and one student hanging back a little bit… looking, peeking at what’s on the screen, but not quite leaning in like the other two are.

Cassandra: Awesome. Thank you. So there’s no wrong answers here. All of those are things that are present in the photograph. John, is there anything you would add, just at first glance, of what stands out to you?

John: Well, the students all seem focused on the same material, they all seem to be actively engaged in the activity, which is not something we always see in classrooms.

Cassandra: And as you think about, look at this photograph a little bit more, is there anything in it that maybe seems typical or atypical?

Rebecca: I think the level of focus is not always typical, as John mentioned, but it’s also, like a super win [LAUGHTER] when that level of focus is there. So I’m feeling the winning happening. It gives a teacher who is probably walking around the classroom, and you’re feeling like, yeah, the students are into this thing. So I can’t see that. But I’m feeling that.

Cassandra: Yeah, well, and that emotion is coming through in the details that you already have observed. So Rebecca, you pointed out some of the expressions and the body language that you’re noticing in this photograph, some of those signs that you see about what engagement might look like, what happens when students are getting engaged, that sort of leaning in, and the gesturing that’s happening. So there’s this action that you’re noticing as well. One more little question is this, you might not be able to tell from the photograph, the person closest to the lens, whose back is toward us, and who has the piece of paper gesturing toward the screen is actually the professor, the teacher in this setting. So any thoughts about knowing that about this image now, what might be going on and what you notice about the roles?

Rebecca: To me, it seems like the faculty member is checking in on something that’s happening, and now they’re having a conversation and maybe some explanation of where there was a misstep. And really the leaning in of like, “Wait, I want to know the answer. I want to understand this better.”

Cassandra: Yeah, fantastic. So I don’t want to go on too long. But I think, hopefully, that demonstrates that just with that moment of looking and some prompts and questions, you start to really get deeply into the photograph, deeply into the experience. And if we were in a course design institute, we might use this prompt and this image, to start to open up a conversation about how we want to structure in-class work, once we have some learning outcomes defined, the big goals of the course. And think about different ways we want to get students engaged and what that’s going to be like for the instructor. If we’re thinking about active learning, we might use this as a starting point to really reconsider the role of the instructor, the moves that they need to make, how to check in with students, we also might be thinking about student groups and how they’re interacting. So there’s lots of ways we can go and it’s that sort of open-ended, reflective quality that is really exciting, and I think fun to engage in and can open up some new possibilities.

John: And it’s especially nice to see all these resources provided with an open access piece of work, because that often doesn’t happen. These are really useful and powerful supplements that make these tools much more usable for professional development.

Martin: Another thing that I want to mention, in reference to this question about additional resources is the guide to photo-based consultations that Elon has on their site. So this is just really us offering our complete template to conducting a photo-based teaching consultation. It’s exactly, with very little modification, what Cassandra and I used every time we sat down with a faculty member that we photographed and guided them through reflection on their teaching practice using the photographs as a reference point, and I think it’s a very powerful way of conducting a teaching consultation, it was often an emotional experience for the faculty that we talked to, and I don’t even remember how many of these we did, we did quite a few at several institutions. They’re all very valuable experiences.

Cassandra: There’s a standalone published article about the teaching consultation framework and some of the findings about what we coded as incidents of reflection and different kinds of reflection that came through in these photographs. And then material from that same study is also incorporated into the book. So readers will see it again, less as the formal research study, and more as a compliment and an accompaniment to the images around these different themes.

Rebecca: We’ve talked a bit about the photographs that you’ve taken and the discussions around the photographs. Can you talk a little bit about the process of actually making the photograph and what the interaction was like with a faculty member to set up that opportunity? And then to follow them around all day? [LAUGHTER] And that was like, and how do you keep that authentic?

Martin: I’ll just start by saying it’s not easy, and it especially wasn’t easy in the very beginning. The first people I photographed were my colleagues, because they were colleagues and also friends, they trusted me. They’re like, “yes, you made this work in your class of yourself, for your students. But how are you going to do that of me in my class?” So it took some getting used to in the very beginning, and then we have like a two pager guide to making photographs in the resources on Elon site as well. But the biggest thing to remember is that things were more than likely be a little weird for about five minutes, you just have to keep making a lot of pictures, and only after you make a lot of pictures of the first few minutes that you’re there that people just tune you out, it does happen. You just have to trust the process, it’s just, you see all the photographs in the book. I had been in those classes with that faculty member trailing that President for some time, and they acted as though I wasn’t even there. And then the photographs, you can see that the people are acting naturally, as though nobody else is in the room with them. That’s my biggest piece of advice. For those that are wanting to do this on their own, I think that the biggest thing to keep in mind is that those moments will come. And you have to remember the ultimate goal of why you’re there and what you’re doing.

Cassandra: One question that we often receive is about permissions for the photographs, which is very important to protect the privacy and let people course consent and elect in to being represented in photographs. So everything that’s in the book, and in Martin’s body of work, every single person has consented actively and signed a photographic release. And when you’re working in your own institution, it’s a good idea to consult with your communications colleagues, potentially General Counsel, just to make sure that you’re following your own institution’s guidelines. Sometimes there’s a blanket photographic release that students elect into or out of that you can access. And in this case, because Martin was also exhibiting and presenting the work outside of the institution, that separate release was very important.

Martin: It’s important to note as well, that the release form gives equal use rights to both myself and the institution. So we have a shared ownership of the images, when I’m finished photographing at a location. And I just give them a complete set of the photographs that I made, so that they can use them for whatever purposes they need to use them for. I’ve almost always worked just with Center for Teaching and Learning staff. They’re going to use those photographs to really put teaching and learning out there visually as a priority at their institutions, and many of them have done that.

John: You visited many campuses and lots of classrooms. What were some observations that stood out in terms of really effective practices or effective activities that were occurring in these classes?

Martin: That’s a tricky word, “effective,” I think. So I’m going to dodge that question, I think, a little bit and talk about the different things I saw that on face value wouldn’t seem like they would work in terms of teaching students things, but ultimately did work to teach students things. So one part of the book that Cassandra mentioned earlier, that messy nature of teaching and learning gets into a situation I was in at one of the institutions where it was this kind of like a giant office hour or recitation session for students in an enormous class with three or four hundred students. It was right before an exam. There was a lot of nervousness in that room. Students were crammed in there together and they were all just sort of tossing notes back and forth… literally through the air, in some cases… handing laptops back and forth from table to table. But in that mess, were also a lot of TAs and the professor of the class, just making round after round after round, consulting with students. And that, if you were to just walk by, would be very loud, as it was loud and chaotic. And you would think “what’s happening here? What good could possibly come from this?” But if you get into the nuances of those photographs, those still photographs, you’ll see that sort of emotion and caring that’s in those interactions between the TAs and the faculty member and those students. And you’ll see on student faces, those moments where they’re like getting it, those “aha” moments. If you teach, you know the face, and those faces, or in those still images, I’m gonna dodge the most effective methods and go to those kinds of moments where I discovered something that to the outside wouldn’t appear to be working, but actually was working very well.

Rebecca: Were there any other really prominent moments, Martin, that really stuck with you?

Martin: There are so many. One situation I was in, I’ll always remember it. So I photographed a large lecture class, it was at night. So there were some students at the back of the room, and the hockey game was on their laptops. They weren’t paying attention to the lecture, it was nine o’clock at night. And then there were other students very engaged in that class, what I wanted to do was capture everything that was happening. When I make photographs of a complete class, which is always what I do, I never want to go into a class and photograph for 15 minutes and exit, I want to be there at the beginning before class starts, and then photograph even after it ends, and students coming up and talking or asking questions. Because that’s the whole thing. So I make probably hundreds, easily, of photographs. And then I whinnow that down to about 60 or so. And then I give those photographs to the faculty member to reflect on for teaching consultation moments that we have, because there are bad photographs, you’re gonna make a lot of bad photographs. But I try, in those 60 or so, to give them a summary of what happened from everything that was happening in that class. Well, this one faculty member just didn’t believe that that was what was happening. He just didn’t believe it, and wanted to see every single photograph and the timestamp on the photographs to know exactly that I got the whole class. And he wanted to see them not in black and white, he wanted the color just because he knew that they existed. I take color photographs, and I make them black and white. So that stuck with me and the reaction after I said “fine, I don’t mind giving you all these, here they are.” But the reaction after that was like, if you can summarize the email that would summarize it as like aha moment where it’s like, that really did happen. All that stuff was going on. I’ll never forget that. I don’t know why. But that’s one moment, one opportunity that stands out to me amongst all the others.

Cassandra: On the flip side, if I can add, there have also been these really striking conversations when instructors were having the chance to observe maybe the student in the back corner of the room that they maybe don’t engage with directly as much or who is quieter, and seeing them get really excited when the instructor is somewhere else in the room. So there was also a lot of seeing things for the first time, seeing students get excited, and recognizing the real difficulties that students are sometimes facing. There’s one image that I don’t think is in the book, but I will always remember seeing this and talking with the faculty member about it, where a student was in a class, computers were being used. There’s lots of stuff in the room. But this one student had laid very carefully on the table next to the computer a white food service uniform that was clearly needing to stay clean and crisp and pressed probably for the job that the student was going to go to after class. And that student was also engaged in the class, but clearly juggling a tremendous amount of life and work. And that’s all there in that image for that faculty member to reflect on and understand.

Martin: We could go on for a really long time. I want to mention two other photographs that stood out to me. So there’s one of a faculty member conducting office hours. And in the office, she’s really intently working with a student. And then you can see the student is really struggling to get it, like physically, the hands on the head. And then outside down the hall, you can see a line of students sitting on the floor waiting for their opportunity in the office hour. I think to me that just sums up what office hours should be and what they are. And it’s a thing that people don’t understand. If you’re not faculty you’ve never taught before, you’re outside of higher education, you don’t understand that that’s a part of faculty work. You can see that same struggle lined up in the hall many times more for that faculty member. And then one more photograph that I want to mention, because it’s funny, and both Cassandra and I laughed hysterically about it. So I photographed a large exam happening. This is one of those exams where it’s proctored by a graduate assistant and it’s timed, it’s very, you got to do everything by the book. This one student in the front row taking this exam is in a panda suit, like a panda costume [LAUGHTER], and it’s just a beautiful moment.

Rebecca: [LAUGHTER] These things do happen. I wanted to pick up on one more thread that you had mentioned at the top of the conversation, which is the power of… and you’ve hinted at some of these examples… the power of these photographs to instigate change. Change, perhaps for that faculty member, and I’m pretty sure I heard both of you imply that it could happen beyond the faculty member too, and I’d love to hear a little bit more about that.

Cassandra: Yeah, I could start this one off. And Martin, please feel free to jump in, of course. Some of the ways in which campuses were, first of all, initiating a project to capture photographs, and then really creatively engaging their communities with the photographs were pretty striking. So one example comes from the University of Michigan, and we’ve discussed this and have some wonderful reflections from colleagues there in the final chapter of the book. Looking at the largest courses on campus, this initiative was really trying to understand what was happening in them, what students were experiencing, what faculty were experiencing. And so that set of photos served as both a kind of baseline for the project, and an interactive tool to engage with those communities about how to change those courses, how to make them better, how to consider what would be most important. In other cases, campuses, and we did this actually on my own campus, created exhibits of photographs in museum spaces, but also in other kinds of spaces in a Center for Teaching and Learning, in an important office on campus. We’re hearing of more places that are also doing similar things now. Some temporary exhibits really brought presidents, and provosts, and deans, and chairs together with faculty teaching the courses, with these large-scale photographs that sparked new kinds of conversations, conversations across disciplines, across administrative and faculty, potentially, sometimes what’s perceived as barriers or misunderstandings. And in some cases, we heard stories about people walking off with the photographs because they wanted them for their own offices for their own.

Martin: They were told they could leave with their photographs at that one event.

Cassandra: That’s good.

Martin: They didn’t steal them.

John: One of the things you mentioned, Martin, was faculty being surprised by what was happening in various corners of the room. And that’s an issue that I think might be really enlightening information for people teaching large classes if they don’t normally walk around their classroom. Because nothing you said there seems surprising to me, I’ve been teaching classes of three or 400 students, and I generally get in often 3 or 4 thousand steps during an hour and 20 minute class because I’m as likely to be teaching from the back of the room or working with small groups of students as I am to be up at the podium. Or at least that was true until very recently. I’m hobbling around a little bit right now, and that actually is a concern I have going into this semester, that I’m going to be a little bit less mobile for the first few weeks. I had a bit of an accident a while back that broke my leg in a few places. So I’m very concerned about not being able to be out there with students for at least part of the semester. But I think it does illustrate the importance of being out there amongst the students. And we’ve often heard people talk about teaching by walking around, and it’s a really effective technique, and having these photos can encourage that in cases where faculty members are skeptical about what you observe in portions of the class.

Martin: Yeah, I don’t want to make it sound like that was the only large lecture situation that I found. I did photograph quite a few large lecture courses where the instructor was up and down the stairs, constantly making the rounds around the room all the time with a Bluetooth headset, rather than being behind the podium. You’re right, you talk about effective teaching methods, and that’s definitely one for those large lecture courses. Not only having the instructor in there, but also having TAs, graduate assistants wandering around constantly, and using the time and the space to conduct group work because you do get around the room.

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

Martin: One thing that we’ve been able to do since the book has come out is engage more communities. I’m still asking myself what’s happening. What is my life right now? Because soon after the book came out, we gave two book talks to a contingent of educational developers in Asia. It’s this organized two events for people who wanted us to talk about the book with them. And just due to the reach of the book, and what Elon has been able to do, promoting it in that way, it’s so exciting to be engaging more and more communities of folks about the work. Also, we have institutions that are inviting us back, and mounting exhibitions of the work. So one example is St. Louis University, this fall in their museum of art is mounting an exhibition of the work that I made there. I’ll be going back there to make more photographs this fall, as well as Brown University. And I guess the third thing I want to mention for next things is we’re just hoping to build on models from the book, and conducting more educational development and teaching related professional development.

Cassandra: I’ll just add, we’re really excited to observe how communities pick this up and run with it, we’ve talked a little bit about those supplementary resources. So it’s really an approach that campuses can adopt, adapt, and run with. So for example, in one of the recent discussions with the SOTL Asia network, one faculty member was very excited to start to work with students on them documenting and sharing their own experiences as a way for them to reflect on their post-secondary experience, and really be able to communicate it in a different way. Others were immediately thinking about all kinds of contexts that they realized had never been shared about their own learning contexts, their own classes, sort of specific forms of special kinds of classes or environments that they realized were really important and should be shown and should be captured, those kind of hallmarks of the institution or the program or the community. So we’re finding that often just this idea of communicating with images brings to mind the images that haven’t yet been made and the engagements that haven’t yet happened about those representations, those forms of teaching and learning. And we’re hoping to have more of those conversations and to engage with more folks around the work that they’d like to do.

Rebecca: Well thank you so much for sharing your work. It’s really interesting, exciting, and really something we haven’t seen before, and so we’re looking forward to sharing it and spreading the word.

Martin: And on that note, I’ll say one more thing about what’s next. We just talked about this the other day. So now we have this visual baseline of what teaching looks like, and we can refer back to it maybe in 10 years and see how teaching has changed visually.

Cassandra: It’s been wonderful speaking with you. Thanks so much for having us on Tea for Teaching.

Martin: Yes, thank you.

John: Thank you both for joining us.


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

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


261. Social Justice Assessments

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

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

Show Notes


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


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

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

John: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer…

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


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

Meghanne: Thank you.

Katelyn: Thank you.

Judie: Thank you.

John: Today’s teas are:

Judie: …I have Lady Grey.

Rebecca: That’s a good one…

Judie: …In my DTL mug.

John: …a nice Desire to Learn mug.

Meghanne: I have iced green.

Rebecca: And Katelyn, how about you?

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

Rebecca: Sounds nice and calming.

Rebecca: I have hot cinnamon spice tea.

John: And I have black raspberry green tea.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Katelyn: I’m so glad you said that.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Katelyn: Absolutely.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rebecca: Change is hard.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Judie: Nice.

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

Rebecca: Meghanne, do you want to add anything?

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

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

Katelyn: Thank you.

Judie: Thank you for having us.

Meghanne: Yeah, thank you.

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

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

Katelyn: Likewise.


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

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


250. Hacking Assessment

Traditional grading systems often encourage students to focus on achieving higher grades rather than on their learning. In this episode, Starr Sackstein joins us to discuss how classes can be redesigned to improve student engagement and learning. Starr has been an educator for 20 years and is currently the COO of Mastery Portfolio, an educational consultant, and instructional coach and speaker. She is the author of more than 10 books on education, including the best-selling Hacking Assessment: 10 ways to go gradeless in a traditional grades school, which has just been released in a new edition.

Show Notes


John: Traditional grading systems often encourage students to focus on achieving higher grades rather than on their learning. In this episode, we discuss how classes can be redesigned to improve student engagement and learning.


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

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

John: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer…

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


Rebecca: Our guest today is Starr Sackstein. Starr has been an educator for 20 years and is currently the COO of Mastery Portfolio, an educational consultant, and instructional coach and speaker. She is the author of more than 10 books on education, including the best-selling Hacking Assessment: 10 ways to go gradeless in a traditional grades school, which has been released in a new edition. Welcome, Starr.

Starr: Thanks so much. I’m excited to be here.

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

Starr: I am drinking water. No tea unfortunately, not yet.

Rebecca: Not yet. Okay. See, there we go, there’s promise there. I have Scottish Breakfast tea today.

John: And I have spring cherry green tea.

Rebecca: Well, that’s good.

Starr: Those both sound delicious, really.

Rebecca: So, you haven’t had that one in a while, John.

John: I haven’t had any in a while…

Rebecca: true that…

John: …we took a pause in recording for about a month. [LAUGHTER]

Rebecca: Fair. But even prior to that it had been a while I think.

John: I think so too.

Rebecca: We invited you here today to discuss Hacking Assessment. The first edition of your book seven years ago helped to launch the ungrading movement. Could you give us some background on what prompted you to move away from traditional grading systems?

Starr: Absolutely. In years one to five when I was in the classroom, I would say that I pretty much did grading and assessment the way it was done to me. And the one major significant thing that changed during that time was I had a child. And in his elementary school, they actually use standards-based grading. And when I got his first report card and saw just how much information I got from his teachers, and how the behaviors were separate from the actual learning and the narratives were really aligned with where he needed support and what was going on. I was like, Mmmh…for someone teaching AP English, only having the opportunity to give one grade, with pre slugged sort of comments that I was allowed to bubble into my… back then we were still using Scantrons for entering grades. I’m definitely dating myself by saying that, but it’s the truth. And I started getting really frustrated with that. And from there, I started doing a lot of reading. Alfie Kohn has really played with a lot of these ideas for a long time now. And then folks like Ken O’Connor, who had the book 15 Fixes for Broken Grades, his first edition, I think it’s been republished twice already, in the time since I’ve read from there. I read his book, and I was like, “Oh, my God, I am doing all of this wrong.” There are so many things on this list that I do, and I never thought about it that way, and it’s just not how I want to keep doing things. And I think there’s a synergy with when you decide to read a book, whether or not it resonates with you and whether or not you’re ready to start implementing the things that you learn. And I think I was very ready to first acknowledge that the practice I was doing wasn’t serving my students as well as I could. And I was looking for alternatives. So having those jumping off points, having read a bunch of different things, and then meeting Mark Barnes along the way as well, and experimenting with alright, well, these are suggestions for this kind of space. What does this look like in New York City public schools, as an 11th and 12th grade English teacher and also as a journalism teacher? How do I start making this work? And that’s sort of how it all happened and then it took years to figure out how do I make this work well, because I did it for a while before it worked well. [LAUGHTER] There were a lot of mistakes, unfortunately.

John: We’ve been dealing with a number of people starting to experiment with ungrading in college, but it’s a little bit easier in a college environment, I think, to make these changes, because there’s a little bit less structure imposed on teachers. How were you able to implement this in a K through 12 system?

Starr: So I think I was very fortunate to be in a very small community when I started doing this. We were six to 12. I was already a very established teacher in that community. I had a track record of getting students prepared for college. And most of the families when I made choices, always kind of knew that they were intentional, and there were reasons. And in my AP classes, that was probably the most struggle, because parents get nervous when they have 12th graders, what is this gonna look like on the transcript? How is this going to impact my students moving forward from school? And I just really tried to set up systems and to be super transparent about everything that we were doing so that first of all, I live streamed my class a lot, for better or for worse. And I say that because not every class was a winner. So if you were watching when it wasn’t a winner, like, well, this is reality, it wasn’t a good day. But I think they were able to see the rigor of what was going on in the space and despite the fact that it didn’t look like what normal AP classes looked like, they could appreciate my wanting to be flexible to the individual learners in my classroom… that even the creative projects I was asking them to do was often a lot more intensive than just doing a test or just writing a paper and gave that level of inquiry into that process as well so that students could be really excited about the learning they were doing. And the more comfortable I got with different technologies… I experimented with blogging to increase reading. That’s one of the biggest problems in English classes. I think most kids don’t read the books for a lot of different reasons. So how do you get them to read when you’re teaching a literature class, beyond just the five or seven or 10 books you’re reading as a whole class. So they started blogging, and we started using the blogging communities for recommendations on different books they were enjoying on their own and why they enjoyed it. And I really encouraged them to use that space too as a way to develop their writing voice. So it wasn’t like analytical writing all the time, it was more conversational… reaction sort of stuff to what they were reading and focused instead of like overviews of everything that they read… an analysis paper, which isn’t always fun for every single kid. I started tweaking that and I think parents appreciated my transparency. I did screencasts of our dashboard, because I had changed the way I was using the tool that my whole school was using. So like, if you have any questions, this is what it looks like, this is what you’re seeing. And if they emailed me, I just really tried to get back to them immediately, so that I could really put their concerns to rest before they started doing the thing that parents do, where they start making it a lot worse than it actually is. So I tried to catch that right away. To be honest, though, my colleagues were the ones with the greater pushback than parents and students… a couple of students, but just shifting the conversation away from grades, instead of what did I get? What did you learn? How can we track that progress over time? How do you know you learned it? Where do you see that evidence in your own learning. And I think very soon after getting in the routine of this is how we do things now they got it and saw that the level of metacognition as well as the rigor in the actual tasks were much greater than what they would have been seeing in a regular class anyway. So sometimes I got the: “this writing reflection is like a whole other paper that you’re asking us to do.” And I’m like, “Yeah, it is. But it also helps me give you better feedback, and it also helps me know where I need to adjust my instruction. So there’s a reason and it’s worthwhile, and it’s gonna help you, when you’re not just in school. This is a practice that you’ll probably carry with you.”

Rebecca: One of the things that you just brought up, Starr, is something that I definitely want to follow up on, which is getting our colleagues to also buy into this, and administrators. We exist within systems that require grade inputs. Grades are transcripted. So how do we get the people around us who support us professionally, to get on board? And what does that actually look like, functionally, when we’re generating grades when we’re saying we’re kind of ungrading all semester.

Starr: So those are really good questions. And in the second edition, I actually have built in leadership tips to support leaders who are unfamiliar with this kind of assessment practice and how they can support teachers who want to do it, if they’re not doing it wholesale as a school. I advocate for systemic use of this practice, because if we catch kids much younger, by the time they get to high school, their language and fluency in discussing their own learning is a lot greater. I was a 12th grade teacher, my kids had come through an entire system where this was not how it was done. So it was like, literally at the last minute, I’m like, “Yeah, I know, that’s the way you’ve been doing it this whole time. But we’re gonna do it a little differently and I promise you’ll still get into college.” It’s a different vibe. And my colleagues, I think, knew my students appreciated it, because they would start hearing from my students: “How come you don’t do this?” …which is also like a little bit of a target was put on my back, because if a school or a district is going to make the shift, it requires a lot of professional learning. And if you aren’t the kind of teacher who makes the time to do learning on your own, then there really does need to be supports put in place prior to it’s happening. And I’m a super reflective teacher, I did National Board Certification, I will go out of my way to get myself to a conference even if my school wasn’t paying for it. Because as an educator, I felt it was an essential part of my job to continually grow and model that for my students. But not every teacher is like that. And I’m not suggesting that everyone has to be or whatever their process is, but I do think it’s important to invite colleagues into your space, give them that “what you could do tomorrow kind of tips” like what are the first few steps you could take to try this out before you commit to it wholesale. And in terms of the grading aspect, the way that I got around the traditional grading was assessment conferences with my students. So really building in a vibrant and robust portfolio system where students were collecting their learning over a larger period of time, giving them the vocabulary to talk about their growth as they looked at those things, and then a conversation just like this. So based on the standards we worked on this marking period, where do you find yourself in terms of mastery? And what does that translate to for a report card grade, because I had to put a grade on the report card as well. So it was really just making them acutely aware of what exemplary work looks like, how they were meeting benchmarks to get there over time, and then also switch that transactional sort of relationship around getting grades to a more progress minded model, where they understand learning doesn’t happen in one sitting. And even though you may have successfully completed one assignment, that doesn’t mean you’ve mastered a particular skill, it’s just your first go at it. In order to get to that mastery level, you have to do it over time with less and less support, and kind of do it on your own.

John: What sort of buy in did you get from other teachers that you were working with?

Starr: It was secret at first. There were like people just dropping by out of curiosity to see what was going on in my classroom. Then a couple of other people just asking, “what would this look like in my gradebook?” I was very lucky in the one sense that our whole school was a portfolio school. So that part of it was already there. And then I also did some PD with my colleagues around reflection practices. We tried to really create something that was consistent, and also the same. So like I had created a process for doing reflection, which is that five steps sort of: first, you have to reexamine what was it I was asked to do? What were my steps for completing the assignment? Where do I think I’m meeting the goals that I set for myself? How am I doing that? What level am I doing that at? And what would I do differently in the future? And then we kind of scaffold that down to sixth grade up to 12th grade. So what is that kind of reflection look like in a sixth grade classroom, a seventh grade classroom, all the way up to 12. So that there are realistic expectations in that space around those things. And my classroom was always open. And I resented the fact that when my principal decided that she wanted us to go to a standards-based model, I implored her to not do it the way she did. I think we should have a pilot team, we should have a committee that does this, we should test it out first, try to get either a grade level team or a content area vertically to commit to doing this and then have input from more people. And then we need to train folks in the areas they aren’t already familiar with, starting with unpacking standards and getting them comfortable with that kind of language and what our expectations are. But that’s not what happened. It was like an email that went out. We’re going to do this this year. And it was a disaster. And I got attached to the disaster as a direct correlation to how all that happened. And unfortunately, you get one good shot to make a significant assessment or grading shift in a decade, because unless your folks are leaving quickly, no one forgets. So really setting up systems in the future, if folks who are listening want to do this on a bigger scale, set yourself up for a three- to five-year implementation plan, start small and grow it organically and provide tons of support along the way so everybody feels confident and not just your teachers, your community also. What does this look like for your parents? What are they going to be receiving that’s different? And just make sure that you have answers to commonly asked questions on the front end, so that when new stuff starts coming in, you’re ready to triage that, you’re not just answering the standard questions over and over and over again.

John: You mentioned in your first edition of the book that one of the motivations for this was to get students to focus on their learning rather than on grades. How successful was this? Did this work for most students?

Starr: For most, yes. And believe it or not, the ones that don’t traditionally do school well, who don’t play the game, it worked best for them. And as three educators sitting on this podcast right now, I think we can all agree that sometimes our brightest students are not the ones who do the best. The ones who do the best are the ones who are most committed to getting high grades and kind of checking the boxes and doing everything that they have to be compliant for in order to get that score. So when we shifted the focus away from that and started looking at skill acquisition and content deepening, and really getting them to be able to advocate for their own needs in that specific area, I think that it wasn’t just about them completing the tasks I asked them to do, but it required them to engage with me in a dialogue in the kinds of tasks they wanted to be doing, the way they wanted to be doing it. And it required my flexibility with taking that input and actually putting it into action. So I think that once they saw that I was listening to their feedback actively and using it right away to shift the way class looked, they understood that I wasn’t just saying, “I’m asking you to do this,” it was a real partnership, where if this is going to be successful, and you want your voice to be heard, you need to contribute or else you can’t complain when you don’t like what ended up happening, because I really did try to say “yes,” just about to everything, if they could articulate how their decisions and their choices aligned with what the objectives were, then I was totally hands off in their process to sort of help them be successful in the big picture. And it also really decreased the amount of folks who didn’t participate in the group work or didn’t participate in the learning. So when people say my students don’t finish work, or they don’t submit things, to me, that’s a red flag that either something else is going on that you need to get to the bottom of, or the kind of learning you’re asking them to do isn’t resonating. And rather than just pulling out the binder from what you’ve done for the last 20 years, you really do have to make a concerted effort to make changes so that it meets the needs of the kiddos that are sitting in front of you right now.

Rebecca: So you’ve talked a lot about reflection, and the role reflection is playing. Can you talk a bit about how you were able to get students up to the level of reflection that is really meaningful and gets to this metacognitive skill, building

Starr: Feedback, feedback, feedback. We give a lot of feedback to everything that kids do in the classroom. But the first few times we ask them to reflect, it’s so important that we’re also giving them feedback on their reflections, providing exemplars for them, really creating success criteria too, like that co-construction, like if I’m telling you, these are three examples that are wildly different, but all successful, what do you notice about all three of them? What are the things that need to be a part of every single reflection that we do. And then as they do them, rather than have them revise every single one that they do, since they’re doing them with every major assignment, it’s like, “alright, well, now take the feedback you got from the last one, apply it to this one and let’s see if we can’t grow you.” And usually by, I would say November, they’re already writing fairly good reflections and their ability to have conversation about their level of learning already starts to increase, because by November, you’ve already had a progress report conversation, you’ve already had a quarter one report card conversation. And I was doing a lot of modeling myself, like I would reflect openly on how successful projects went, in my estimation, and be really, really tied to the outcomes. And not just what I think or what I feel, but what I noticed, and how I would do it differently if we had the opportunity to do something similar again. And I think, again, that level of transparency and my comfort with saying to them, I don’t know how to make this better. What do you think? What made this experience challenging? Were my directions not as clear as they could have been? What do I need to learn from this experience? So it was very much a two-way street, which took time. And I do want to say that too. Like, I think I was seven or eight years into the classroom before I was comfortable enough to say “I didn’t know something.” That takes confidence in a way that you don’t really think. In the beginning of my career, I felt like I needed to be the expert over all of the students in my room, and I had to have an answer for everything. And I said a lot of wrong things because I was trying so hard to look like an authority. And I think the older I get, the more I work with educators, the more I realize that I’m a learner, I don’t know everything, even the stuff I’ve spent a lot of time teaching I don’t know everything about and new perspectives are incredibly useful in how I approach something because it’s the first time this group of kids is seeing something I might have tried before. Their input is extraordinarily useful for me to make changes moving forward.

John: It’s also a great way of nurturing a growth mindset in students by reminding them that we’re all part of this learning experience together. And that no matter how much experience you have, there’s always more you can learn. And so I think that’s a really great process. And it’s something that I think it generally takes a while for most people to get to.

Starr: Yeah.

John: So you mentioned having conferences with students, how often do you conference with students?

Starr: So, there’s lots of different levels of conferencing. So you have your in-class formative conversation where they’re asking questions and you’re taking the pulse of whether or not you’re going too fast or if you need to stop the class and do a mini lesson on something you notice everyone’s struggling with. Or if you pull a small group because only a small group of kids are really having an issue. So there’s that kind of on-the-fly conferencing where you’re walking around with a clipboard or an iPad and you’re taking notes on what you see. And then listening to the questions kids are asking and making a determination as to whether or not this is a small or bigger issue that needs to be addressed. And then there are formal conferences where kids are coming prepared to have that conversation where you’re giving them time in class. So part of my structuring… because remember, I said it took me a long time to find a system that worked that ended up in Hacking Assessment… so I started creating Google Forms, where there were very targeted questions that also aligned with the assessments that we did, and the different pieces of learning and the standards that we were addressing at that time. And before they could set up a conference, they needed to fill in that whole Google form, then I had all that informatio, so I could really target clarifying questions or gaps that we could spend our five minutes talking about. If they had done all the work to do certain things, they don’t have to rehash what I could read. And if I had 34 students in most of my classes, so there’s a lot of kids, there’s a little time, you really have to make that three to five minutes count, and give every student the opportunity to give you the most information that you could have to be able to determine what was going to go on the report card. So those conversations certainly got a lot better over time as well. The first one, there was a lot of prompting from me, a lot of questions to get them ready by conference number 2, 3, 4, and certainly by the end of the year, if you watch on my YouTube channel, I have examples of what those look like. By the end of the year, the student is doing 98% of the talking. And I’m just redirecting if they kind of get off a little bit, or if they miss a spot versus at the beginning, it’s more of like a 40-60 where I am interjecting and kind of bolstering confidence, helping them set goals and stuff. So there’s more of a give and take at the beginning of the year.

John: You mentioned giving students some choice in terms of the assignments and so forth. What are some of the more interesting assignments or learning activities that your students have come up with?

Starr: The one that always comes to mind was, towards the end of my time in the classroom, before I became an instructional coach, I literally gave my students my entire unit plan for Hamlet. And I said, “Alright, this is the way I always teach it. But I want to do it differently this year. So I want you to look at the overall objectives. And as a group, I want you to come up with something different, then we’re going to vote as a class, which group suggestion we want to go with, and whichever group is chosen, you’ll come meet with me at lunch, we’ll design an assignment together and work through the success criteria and benchmarks for doing it successfully.” And if I tell you some of the things these kids came up with, I would have never come up with in a million years. And what we landed on was these psychological profiles of the characters of Hamlet, where they had to first use the text, to use Shakespeare’s language, to diagnose them with some kind of psychological issue. For example, Gertrude would be a narcissist. And then they do research on the actual issue, so there’s a research component as well. And then they had to come up with a treatment plan for the character and create a movie that demonstrated the growth from whatever the treatment plan was. And what it really did was have this really in-depth character analysis of each character from Hamlet, regardless of which character you did, you were set on a course. And then we also created this Google form, so that when we had screenings of the movies at the end, students were actively taking notes about what they learned about the characters and giving feedback at the same time to the creators of those movies about what they learned and what they were still curious about. And it was really phenomenal, honestly. I think that I wish I would have started doing stuff like that sooner. Other examples would have been students creating movies in Minecraft, like for our satire movies, that’s usually so like, just technology, but I was very uncomfortable with, that they were able to use that. I was like, yeah, “If you could do it without my support, I could help you with content, but you’re on your own for the technology.”

Rebecca: So you’ve hinted at some of the changes in your second edition. Can you highlight some additional changes between the first and second edition?

Starr: Okay, so yes, there are a lot more resources. So over the last seven years, part of the reason I hadn’t made a second edition up till this point, was because I really wanted there to be a value added. I wanted there to be new voices I can highlight. I was really also looking for systems that started doing this work because I wanted there to be more case study material that kind of went in that it wasn’t just single teachers kind of playing with it, but actually systematizing it in ways that work for them. So there are brand new hacks and actions for every single chapter, all of them have read the first edition and implemented it in their own way. So what you’re getting is people’s take on how what they learned looks like. I really tried to implement K to higher ed. So Susan Blum did write a section as well on what it looks like in college for all of my reticent K-12 folks who were like, “This isn’t going to be viable in the future.” I had central office people write about stakeholder buy in and how they brought this into their space from a leader perspective, instead of just a classroom perspective. A lot of new tools that have been developed in the last seven years, lots of stuff about that, rubrics, progressions, not just in English, which was my background, obviously, really trying to span math, science, social studies, related arts. So there’s one with a music teacher writing about how they’ve done that in that area… elementary teachers. So there really are tons of resources with a lot of different fresh voices who are using this now, as well as a very intentional talk about equitable practices. I think a lot of this stuff is equitable, but I never thought of it in that lens until COVID. And then once COVID happened, really trying to talk about how these things address some of those gaps that need to be addressed, but weren’t explicitly tied to them in the past. So that’s really where the bulk of things have shifted. And then there’s an incredible appendix with lots and lots of examples of everything.

John: And your first edition was wonderful. It provides a lot of good resources. And in each section, it talks about how to deal with pushback, which is one of the things anyone introducing something new has to deal with. So I’m assuming that continues into the second edition.

Starr: Yep, sure does.

John: So your first edition was very successful, and has received a lot of traction at all levels of education, and helped spur the ungrading movement at the college level that we’ve been talking about a lot in the last couple of years with our guests, and with many of our colleagues. For those people who have read the first edition, what would be the benefits to them of picking up the second edition, and who should they share that with at their institutions?

Starr: So I’m really hopeful that this time, it’s not individual teachers picking the book up on their own, although I certainly advocate for that. I want to see teams use this as a PLN opportunity and explore the text in a way that makes sense to them. It is not narrative, necessarily. So each chapter is its own sort of entity. And so I would encourage folks to choose the chapter that they’re most ready for at this moment and pick it apart in a way that’s going to make most sense for their practice.

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

Starr: Oh, I’m so glad you asked. So what’s next for me right now, we are doing a free book study with the new book when it launches August 2, and it’ll be on Amazon. And then also, once this one launches, and things are moving, I’m under contract with ASCD for my next book, which is specifically about portfolios and student-led conferences. So that is still something that’s a little thinner in Hacking Assessment, because I think that that really requires a little bit more depth than I could give it in that book in one chapter. So I am currently working on that and really trying to gather with some of the districts that I’m working with to build really great systems for building portfolios. What does that look like? And how do you parlay that piece into these student-led conferences so that you can have a robust system in your space?

John: That sounds like a great supplement. Well, thank you. It’s great talking to you. We’ve heard mention of your book from many of our past guests, and I’m glad I was finally able to get to read it. And I’m looking forward to the second edition, which should be arriving soon.

Starr: Awesome. Thank you so much.

Rebecca: Yeah, thank you so much. This is such great information and we’re looking forward to all your new work as well.

Starr: Thank you.


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

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