183. Student Workload

College students throughout the country have reported substantial increases in their workload during the 2020-21 academic year.  Few faculty members, though, intentionally increased student workloads during this challenging year. In this episode,  Dr. Betsy Barre joins us to explore some reasons for student perceptions of increased workload.

Betsy is the Executive Director of the Center for Advancement of Teaching at Wake Forest University. In 2017 she won with Justin Esarey, the Professional and Organizational Development Network in Higher Education’s Innovation Award for their Course Workload Estimator.

Show Notes

Transcript

John: College students throughout the country have reported substantial increases in their workload during the 2020-21 academic year. Few faculty members, though, intentionally increased student workloads during this challenging year. In this episode, we explore some reasons for student perceptions of increased workload.

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

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

John: &hellipand Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer.

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

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Rebecca: Our guest today is Dr. Betsy Barre. Betsy is the Executive Director of the Center for Advancement of Teaching at Wake Forest University. In 2017 she won with Justin Esarey, the Professional and Organizational Development Network in Higher Education’s Innovation Award for their Course Workload Estimator. Welcome back, Betsy.

Betsy: Thanks. It’s great to be back.

John: It’s great to talk to you again. Our teas today are:

Betsy: So, I’m not drinking tea. I’m having many cups of coffee today. [LAUGHTER]

Rebecca: Well, it’s still warm&hellip

Betsy: Yes, that’s right.

Rebecca: &hellipstill warm, and still caffeinated. [LAUGHTER] I’m drinking Irish breakfast today.

John: And I have ginger peach green tea.

Betsy: Nice.

Rebecca: &hellipan old favorite. So we’ve invited here today to talk about your recent blog post that addresses the impact of pandemic instruction on student workload. Can you talk a little bit about how the pandemic has affected student perceptions of their workload?

Betsy: Yeah, sure. So this issue has cropped up for many of us. I’m sure anyone who’s listening to this podcast has&hellip maybe in the spring, but particularly in the fall… and I think that’s really interesting to that in fall it became an even bigger issue than it was last spring&hellip that we started to hear from students in our online courses, and in our blended courses&hellip not just online&hellip that workload was overwhelming, perhaps even double. And we heard it at Wake Forest. We started hearing it anecdotally. And then I would talk to my colleagues at other institutions who, of their own initiative would bring it up, that they had heard it anecdotally as well, we saw on Twitter folks talking about this. And then we at Wake Forest did an all student survey where we didn’t ask about workload&hellip we probably should have. But it was the number one thing that came up in their open ended comments when we coded those. And so it just reinforced this idea that clearly this is a universal challenge. And it was a challenge across our schools to, so it wasn’t just our undergraduate students, We were hearing in our Divinity School and our law school and our business school. And so something was going on. And it was really intriguing to me, because clearly students felt like the workload was overwhelming. But, and this is what we’ve all said. It’s not as if all of us just sat down and said, “We want to give students a lot more work this semester.” So I was fascinated by it, talked to a bunch of people about it, was thinking about it. I know you all have been thinking about it, and just decided to write some of my thoughts in a blog post. One of the great things in the response to that blog post is lots of folks have come up with other ideas that I think are just as plausible too.

Rebecca: Do you think faculty believe that they’re giving more work to their students?

Betsy: That’s actually a really interesting question, because that sort of premise of my blog post is that, and this was Jody Greene said “No one sat down to give more work to students.” But since I’ve written it and talked to some faculty, there are some faculty who are like, “Yeah, maybe I did, maybe I did give a little bit too much work.” And that’s worth noting. But there are just as many faculty, maybe more faculty who say “Actually I have given less work this semester, and I’ve tried to dial it back and lower the stakes than I have in the past.” And so the fact that there’s that large body of faculty that think they’re doing the opposite, and then the student perception is something different. It’s really interesting.

Rebecca: One thing that you just said, Betsy, about the lower stakes piece, raises an interesting question, because a lot of professional development about going online and using effective teaching practices talks a lot about low-stakes assignments and the ability to check in on things more often. But maybe they’re smaller assignments. Do you think that’s happening more?

Betsy: Well, I think it’s a good thing that it is. And my guess is, that’s part of what’s causing the problem or the challenge&hellip maybe it’s not a problem, but just is causing this sort of disconnect… is that our faculty, particularly many of our institutions, in the summer did a lot of professional development around good online teaching practices, and just good teaching practices in general. And also really emphasized&hellip at least at Wake Forest&hellip we really emphasize this is a pandemic, our students are struggling, let’s lower the stakes on things, let’s be understanding. And so one way to do that is by having smaller low-stakes assignments, so instead of a big midterm, you have multiple weekly check-ins. But of course, our students can interpret that as, “more work,” because if you’re just counting work by counting the number of assignments, then it is, by definition, more work. So, instead of one midterm, you now have five short assignments, that’s five times the amount of work. And so instead of counting in terms of how much time the assignments take, they could be counting and just the overwhelming number of assignments seems like more work. And I think that’s what’s going on, or at least part of what’s going on. And I’ve said to some people that this is actually a good sign that change did happen over the summer, because we didn’t hear as much about this in the spring. People kept their one midterm and their final&hellip at least I didn’t hear about it as much, maybe you two did, but I didn’t hear as much about it in the spring. But then they redesigned their courses in the fall. And the fact that we’re all hearing about this suggests that people actually did things differently. Now, again, it still could be better, but that’s kind of a good sign to me. Now, the question is, how do you dial that back? And how do we communicate with students about it&hellip all really complex, but I do think it’s that breaking big assignments into smaller assignments is part of a contributing factor here.

John: . And we know that students tend to do a lot of cramming, they tend to do mass practice, but we know that spaced practice is more helpful and that we know the benefits of retrieval practice. And that’s something I think that most faculty development centers emphasized with faculty. And I know at our campus, we had more faculty participate than we’ve ever seen. We had more people participate in professional development workshops than we generally see over a four- or five-year period. For the people who were resistant to professional development in the past, they were learning about the benefits of retrieval practice and space practiced, and learning about the benefits of using low- stakes exams, as you were just talking about, and I agree that that’s a good thing. But we know that the practices that students use to study tend to be mass practice, they tend to do repeated rereading, and now they’re being asked to retrieve information. And we know that students believe that that’s less effective, and it’s certainly more work for students.

Betsy: So your point about retrieval practice, and we know students believe it’s less effective to be engaging in this continual retrieval practice, I think is really interesting. And I think that’s what we’re seeing when our students say, “We have more busy work.” So it’s not just that there’s more work, but that’s actually more busy work. And part of what’s going on there is that they think that that practice that they’re engaged in is not valuable, if you are giving assignments that are about practice. And as students see it as busy work, that’s part of us communicating the value of this work, and helping our students understand how they actually learn, and how it will help them on the later exams, I think is really important. That’s not the only challenge. I think busy work isn’t the only kind of challenge. It’s also, I think, for those of us in the humanities, I think what we’re seeing is that the new tools we have available to us make it easier for us to hold our students accountable for doing all the reading, when typically, they wouldn’t do all the reading. And typically students wouldn’t say it’s busy work, but there’s more reading that they have to do than they ever had to do before. And so that’s one hypothesis as well. But I think another point about the busy work and the retrieval practice, moving one exam to 10 short assignments is, and I talk about this in the post as well, is that there is a sense in which that could be adding to your work, in that they have to keep track of it all. And I think our students are not used to having to keep track of so many assignments. So typically, as a faculty developer leading a teaching center, I may have a faculty member come to me that wants to redesign their course. And I make all these suggestions, and they do it and it’s fine. And the reason it’s fine is because, yes, it’s a little bit more work and a little bit more stressful for the students. But it’s only one course. But I think what we saw is that all of a sudden, our students were moving from five courses where there were three assignments to five courses where there are 15 to 20 assignments or more. And that was even more compounding the exponential growth that they felt. So I teach with lots of small assignments, I always have. Students would sometimes say this is more work than in a typical class, but they weren’t upset about it. They didn’t feel overwhelmed by it. That’s because again, it wasn’t five of their courses that were doing it. So it is a really interesting question of when we go back post-pandemic, do we want all of our courses to work this way? And how do we help our students readjust to this is the new workload? or this is going to be the new experience of the new workload? Or do we not want to do that? And I think that’s an interesting conversation for all of us to have moving forward.

Rebecca: I know one of the things that I’ve had in conversations with students, just anecdotally, but also in some of the formal research that I’ve been working on related to students with disabilities, is the time management piece and just trying to manage and organize all the moving parts that are on all these different platforms is complex, but also that moving with more materials online has resulted in more reading and writing&hellip

Betsy: interesting.

Rebecca: &helliprather than other modalities that we might typically use in a face-to-face class like face-to-face conversation, which to them seems really much more time consuming. And it may actually be more time consuming, especially if you have a particular kind of disability.

Betsy: Right. So there are a couple of things to say there. So I did say one of the things I noticed is when you read student concerns about this, they will often say things like “It took me this much time to do a discussion post.” And that’s, I think, really revealing for all of us to understand. We often think, “Okay, the discussion posts are going to take the place of the discussion in class.” But right now, I’m just talking to you two, and I’m not thinking very hard about what I’m saying. And in fact, if you created a transcript of this, which you guys probably will, I’ll be embarrassed to read it, because I don’t think it’s as coherent as I want it to be. And if I were writing a discussion post, I would think very carefully about how I formulate my thoughts and my arguments, and even proofread. And it’s gonna take a lot more time, if I’m actually writing it out. And I think that’s really important for us to acknowledge that discussion posts and a discussion are not a one-to-one replacement. Or if we want it to be a one-to-one replacement, then we need to tell our students, we expect you to treat it as if you’re not actually writing something that’s meant to be thoughtful, we just want to hear your opinions about this. So that’s one piece. But then in terms of your point about disabilities, I think it’s really interesting in that all the best practices for Universal Design for Learning, we can revisit, and I didn’t talk about this in my post, but I should have, so thank you, Rebecca, for sharing this wrrinkle. Because I think it’s an important part of it is that giving students options for how they can do this work will also empower them to do things that they think are most efficient for their time. So if they can do a VoiceThread or make a video, or one of the activities that some of our faculty have found very successful as an asynchronous replacement for discussion, is to just put students in groups and tell them, in your own time, you get together, have a Zoom discussion about the material, record it and send it to me ,that you’ve had that discussion. So they actually have a discussion. It’s just sort of asynchronously done. But in general, giving students options, it’s not going to solve every problem, but it does empower them to have choice, because there will be some students who prefer to write than to speak. But there may be something like “I’m tired of writing, I want to actually just speak.” And then in terms of the material, I think there was this recent meta analysis that just came out like last week about video versus text, which was really interesting. And as a humanist, I’m sad to see this, but it’s not surprising that sometimes video can be better for student learning than a text can be. Because I often think, “Oh, I’ll just give them something to read, and that will be the replacement for a lecture.” But maybe sometimes there’s a way in which they’d rather watch somebody talk about that material, rather than read about it.

Rebecca: Or by extension, just listen to the material, like in a podcast or something.

Betsy: Yeah, podcasts are a great opportunity. And we’ve heard students say, when I’m walking around campus, or when I’m working out, and it allows them again, to expand their schedule where they have more time to do things and no screen time, which is something they really appreciate because there’s so much Zoom fatigue, that being able to listen to something where they don’t read online and then have to watch online, they can just listen to it is a real relief for them. Absolutely. Unsurprising you all like podcasts.

Rebecca: Anything that gets us off the screen, actually, is something that I work a lot to do with my design students, because whether it’s a pandemic or not, we spent a lot of time on the screen.

Betsy: Yeah, fair enough. So you’re an expert at this. Yeah. You’ve thought about this. That’s great. Yeah, for sure and I think we need to think about that more.

John: But I know even for people who are teaching asynchronously before, some people have started using new tools. On our campus, for example, people who used to give students readings as a basis for discussions now are having students use hypothesis for the discussions, which means students actually have to open the reading [LAUGHTER] and actually respond to the text, which can take a lot more time than just skimming over the abstract and responding to it. And similarly, I’ve been posting videos for 20 some years in my classes, but now I’m doing it where there’s questions embedded in it, which means they actually have to watch them now for a small portion of their grade. So I think some of the tools that people are using may provide more learning, may provide more engagement, but also is going to take a lot more time than how people use them before. And you noted in your blog post that many students would be able to get by and coast to get the grade they want without doing a lot of the things faculty assume that they did. [LAUGHTER] But again, I’m not sure that’s a bad thing. But it does require more time on average.

Betsy: Yeah, it’s a complicated question. It’s a self report, so it could be even lower than this, but just general self report on how much time students spend each week studying, it’s about 15 hours a week, on average, prior to pandemic, and that is for a full-time student. So imagining 15 credit hours they’re studying, it’s one to one, and many faculty assume or hope that it’s more than one to one. [LAUGHTER] But students are very strategic, they’re learning an important skill and figuring out what does need to get done and what doesn’t need to get done to be able to be successful in a course. And so certainly I appreciate that. But I think recognizing this disconnect is important because it helps us understand why faculty didn’t think they were giving more work, but students actually did have more work because faculty were mistakenly assuming that students were spending 30 hours a week studying when really they were only spending 15. And so being aware of that now helps us have a much more honest conversation about well, what do we expect the standards to be for students, and there are differences across different institutions and different programs. So our graduate professional programs are for folks who are working full time, have different sorts of informal expectations, I think, than others. And so it’s worth it for all of us to come together and to talk about that. But I will say I do think it’s just important to say&hellip I probably said this in the post… but we do know that the more time students spend on a task, the more they will learn. So it’s not just like we’re piling on the hours because we want to punish them or we think that’s just really what rigorous teaching is. It’s that actually we know you’ll learn more if you spend more time thinking about a text or practicing the problems, as you said, John, that this will help you learn more. So you obviously don’t want to expect so much that they can’t do other things they have to do in their life. So that’s the tension. I think my recommendation always be if you have to have a full-time job, you shouldn’t be a full time student, because that’s like too much work. So thinking about how do we calibrate the courses that students taketo how much time they’re actually able to put into it is really important. So yeah, I do think that that’s happening. It’s not the only thing. Again, I also think there are faculty who probably expect too much as well, because we’re not good at estimating how much time it takes for students to do things. I think Hypothesis is a great example. I use Hypothesis in my class, I love it. If you’re a humanist and you haven’t used, or if you have assigned readings and you haven’t used Hypothesis or Perusall go look it up and find it. It’s pretty amazing. But I think that remembering that, yes, it will make them read. So that’s extra time because they’re actually gonna have to read and they’re gonna have to read carefully enough to have good questions. [LAUGHTER] So they can’t skim it, as you said, John, but then all the time it takes to actually read everybody else’s comments, really remembering that and that’s where I as a newbie to online, that was like an aha moment for me when one of my colleagues who’s an expert in online teaching was like, “It’s not just the time it takes for them to write their own discussion posts, it’s also they have to read everybody else’s. There’s extra reading that’s involved.” It’s not just the text itself, but it’s also reading everybody else’s responses and so putting them in groups where they’re responding to fewer people or reading fewer people is a really useful tool. Again, I think probably all of these hypotheses are going on. And it’s worth us being honest about all of them, instead of saying, “Oh, it’s definitely the students,” or “it’s definitely the faculty,” it’s like we’re all in this together, and let’s figure out how we move forward.

John: A nice thing, perhaps, would be to give students information about how much time these tasks take. And it would be nice if there was a tool for that, [LAUGHTER] which I believe that you have created.

Betsy: So yes, we have a tool that actually we made pre-pandemic. But one thing I want to say, because a lot of people have used this tool, and I think sometimes people use it in ways that are asking you to do more than it was intended to do. And that it is very much an estimator. It is not meant to be a calculator, that is the exact amount of time that your students are going to spend on something. And it’s very broad. It was essentially just something that I was interested in creating as I was thinking about how much work I assign students in terms of reading and writing. And the original version of it is very much tilted towards reading and writing. So oftentimes, we hear from STEM folks like “What about problem sets?” And that’s and that’s just the Wild West in terms of how much time students spend on that, it’s much harder to get a handle on it, so it’s not there. But there are places in this estimator where you can add a new assignment that isn’t captured by reading and writing and just give your own estimates for how much time you think students will spend. And the main value of this estimator, I think, is that I found that many of my colleagues, myself included, are just not good at the head math required, we just keep adding these assignments, and we think we have a good sense, but literally sitting down and writing out like “Okay, they have to go to the library to get the source.” Well, it’s gonna take him some time to walk to the library and walk back&hellip like literally things like that, realizing how much time you’re asking your students, and then adding it up can be really valuable. And I would do it sometimes on the back of an envelope, but it was chaos. And so I thought, why can’t we just have a calculator that does that, So we have an old version of the calculator, we have a new version that my colleagues in online education at Wake Forest, Allen Brown, helped us work on to add in discussion posts and video lectures and other things so that it’s a little bit closer to what asynchronous online courses might involve. And it can be a tool for overall assessment, but also individual assignment assessment of like, how much time might it spend for them to do this type of reading or to do these types of videos. And if you disagree with what the estimator says, my favorite feature of the estimator is, you can manually adjust it. So you don’t have to get in arguments with us. Whatever your own assumptions are, you can go in there and put that in, and you’ll still be surprised with what the total amount is probably, at least I often am, that I’m giving more than I realized and I have to go back and make some hard choices. So hopefully, it’s a useful tool for everyone. But as John, you said, one of the best things about it is that allows us to better communicate with our students about what we’re expecting as well. And we’ve heard from so many students who have found it super helpful in the courses that have done this, both students who are struggling, but also students who are crazy overachievers, and who will spend 20 hours on a one-page paper. It’s a real relief to them. Even if they only spend four hours when they’re supposed to spend one, at least it’s four, and not 20. So it helps them manage their time as well.

Rebecca: One of the things that I’ve done, at least on longer term projects, that has worked really well for me and my students is having them keep a timesheet and asking them to divide out tasks. And I pose it to them so that we’re in the design field. So it’s to help them think about how they might price something in the future, so they know how long it takes them. So that’s how you get the buy in. But what it helps me do is see how long it takes them to do certain things. And realize it’s like, “Why did you spend this amount of time doing this thing that was really not important, as other thing was much more important?” And then you can coach the group on those sorts of things, which can be helpful. And along those same lines, one of the things that I run into, and this may fit more into the idea of problem sets or things like this is how much time students will try to problem solve a technical issue that they just aren’t problem solving in the right way at all. And so they could spend hours trying to do something that if they just asked a question… [LAUGHTER] &hellipit would have taken two minutes.

Betsy: Like ask for directions…. [LAUGHTER]

Rebecca: Yeah, so I’ve been reminding my students, especially since the fall, when we’ve been doing much more online,that, if you’re spending more than 15 minutes trying to solve this technical problem, A. take a break, you’re just going in circles, maybe come back and try again. But if you’re spending much more time than that, then that’s a good clue that you need to ask for help.

Betsy: That’s really smart. And really, I think, super helpful. And I think getting feedback from our students about how much time they’re spending is not just good at the individual level of coaching. It also is great formative feedback for adjusting our own expectations. Again, and it corrects the estimator, maybe you put it in the estimator, and has happened to me too. And I realized&hellip because one of the things about the estimator, it’s best about reading, usually, in terms of its reading estimates, but one of the central insights from the reading literature is that the difficulty of a text is just as much about students’ vocabulary as it is about the text itself. So I would guess “this is a pretty easy text for my second year students at Wake Forest.” And then if they’re all taking a lot longer, what I realized is that actually, I misjudged their familiarity with these concepts that would be in this book. That this book is actually harder than I thought it would be. So I need to up it in terms of the estimator to say “Actually, there are more new concepts than I realized that the students are engaging with and it’s going to take more time.” So asking the students is just as important as you communicating with them. It’s a two-way street for sure to get that formative feedback. I also think telling them about time management and struggling with time management. I’ve seen some really good strategies. I know our learning assistant center, who works with students, has some good counseling that they do with students about how do they create a master syllabus or kind of a calendar for when they’re going to do things. And I also saw somebody, I think, shared it on the POD listserv, but a strategy of creating a Google calendar with basically time slots for all of your activities in your course. And then students import it into their Google Calendar and move those around. So you would set it up like two hours for reading this text. And then they could move it in their calendar. And so that works for them. But they basically see the blocks of time that they need to set aside. And if they did that for every class, it would be even better, they could see “Oh, wow, this is 40 hours in a week, I need to set aside time to do this work.” And frankly, we should be doing that even before the pandemic. But we’re learning this lesson now of how to help our students manage time and due dates, and all of that, because it is a little bit more. And again, I also want to emphasize too, not just all the cognitive load of multiple assignments, but learning new tools also takes time. This is kind of your point about troubleshooting, Rebecca, like, if a student has never used the video function on Canvas, they may find themselves spending 45 minutes trying to get the video function to work, when that’s not in any of our calculations of their assignment. We’re assuming they’re just going to record the video and upload it. So being mindful of the time it takes them to learn a new tool in this scenario is also really important.

John: You mentioned the issue of reading tied to students prior knowledge and vocabulary. But that’s going to vary a lot across students. So I know a lot of people, when they include estimates from the calculator, will say this is an estimate of what this is, your mileage may vary and keep track of how long it takes you to do these things, and use that to adjust your future estimates of the time requirements for these tasks.

Betsy: That’s a nice idea too, to say you students adjust. So that’s really smart. I like that a lot. For sure, it varies across students. And especially, I mean, even thinking about students with disabilities is an even more interesting challenge. And there is an interesting question, I’ve had some good conversations about to what extent, if we’re putting that estimate… the average&hellip in the syllabus does that create problems for students who may be slower, they think that there’s a deficit. So you need to be thinking about how you frame it, I think is really important. And to be up front that saying it is expected and that is the normal course of things that we’ll all have different rates and this is a ballpark average. You can even put a range&hellip might be an idea too&hellip of ballparks there, but recognizing and saying it’s totally understandable that there’ll be jeans taking a different amount of time, because again, prior knowledge, not just ability, it’s all sorts of other things. How often have you read in the past? How often have you worked with technology in the past? Any of these things, they’re gonna make a difference.

Rebecca: One of the things that conversations about perceptions of workload lead me to is I wonder what the perceptions of learning are?

Betsy: Yeah, I think this is a great question. Because when we think about how students got “got by” in the past by doing less work, what they meant by “get by” was successfully complete the course and get the grade that they desired. If we actually ask them about how much they learn, I don’t know. I mean, that’s a really interesting question, would they say, “Oh, well, it takes more to get my A now&hellip” so that’s duplicating the workload&hellip “But, oh, by the way, I’m also learning more.” It’d be interesting to see. I mean, it depends on f the primary issue here is that students doing less work before and now they’re doing all the work we expected of them, then I think you would expect a lot more learning. But there could also be these issues of the pandemic, I’m in crisis, I can’t work as quickly. If those are the issues, or I’m overwhelmed by the multiple assignments, and I can’t keep track, then there may not be as much learning happening. So my guess is there’s probably equal levels of learning, it’s totally a guess. But in other words, that there are challenges to this moment that students learn less. But there are also things that we’re doing better than we have in the past that make up for that. But I hope that we get some good empirical data on some of this and think through it, because I do think that these strategies, while they are more work, are also probably likely to lead to deeper and lasting learning as well, if the students are able to do it. There’s also the challenge of students who just give up, and then get overwhelmed, and they’re just completely behind. And then they have no motivation to even do a little bit. And so we want to be mindful of that too. But if they’re able to keep up, I’m hopeful at least, that these things should, at least from the research, they should lead to more learning, but who knows.

John: In terms of student reaction, though, student perceptions of what’s most effective is often passive learning and repeated reading. Fluency illusion makes it seem that you’ve mastered the material without being confronted with some type of evidence that you really don’t know this stuff quite as well. And that all the techniques that we’re actively encouraging in teaching centers are giving students more feedback more regularly about what they know, and what they don’t know. And that doesn’t feel as good. And there was a study at Harvard about a year and a half or so ago, where they surveyed students on how they perceived their learning, relative to the actual learning gains they receive across both lecture-based classes and classes that relied on active learning. And there have been a lot of such studies where in general, the students believe that active learning is not as effective yet the learning gains tend to be significantly greater. So there is a bit of a disconnect between what students perceive as being effective and what actually is effective, which also can lead to that perception of busy work that you mentioned before?

Betsy: Yeah, I absolutely agree with that. I think, and this would be a whole other podcast you probably all have done all these podcasts thinking about this issue of student perceptions about learning. I think part of it is what they’re used to. There’s a lot of things that are going into helping all of us understand how we learn and what works and what doesn’t work. And so I think there is a hope for us to try to sort of bring them along with us, I guess I would say, I guess the valuable insight from the studies is that we shouldn’t take for granted that if students say they’re not learning, and if they aren’t learning, that we need to recognize that they may be. And so part of our job is to help them understand, with hopefully concrete evidence that we can show them, “Look, you’re actually learning here in significant ways” &hellipto help them understand why we are choosing these approaches. And it’s not just because we don’t want to teach or we’re lazy, or what are other stories people tell about active learning, moving forward. So I think part of the way we bring them along is to also acknowledge that sometimes there may be assignments that are not useful, and that there may be sometimes things that are overly burdensome in terms of time. And so instead of just always being “You’re wrong, students, you’re wrong here, let us tell you how it is,” to say, “Okay, let’s listen to our students” and say, “Actually, that assignment, it took more time than it was worth. And so we’re going to think creatively together about things that will work for you.” But also acknowledging that there’s a long literature on how people learn that should inform it, and not just perceptions that make a difference.

Rebecca: I think when I’ve even asked students about some of those things like “What do you wish you had more of?” &hellipthey do realize that when you have those little assignments to hold them accountable, and help them practice, I had students asking for more. In the fall, I had students saying “We had a few of those, those were helpful. We wish we had more of those.”

Betsy: Yeah, there’s no question. We saw that in our survey, too. And that’s the reality of anytime you do a study, it’s an average. On average, students think they’re learning less, but they’re always going to be students who, “Oh, I’m aware, I’ve seen this happening.” And they’ll be students who sort of totally missed the boat. But yeah, we saw that for sure. We saw students who appreciated the check-ins, but the number one thing that we saw from our students on various questions was that they wanted more opportunities to work with each other, which, normally, they don’t like that. And there’s literature, right? It’s like, “Oh, I want to be taught by a teacher and not my peer.” But in the pandemic moment when they don’t get to connect with their peers, like socially. So our students are back on campus at Wake Forest. But there’s lots of restrictions on what they’re allowed to do with each other socially. So especially for some of our first-year students who hadn’t made friends yet, this was their opportunity. Classroom collaboration was their opportunity to make friends. And so yes, it was tied to their learning. But they also really just appreciated it and said, “I want to be able to work more, they helped me understand the material more.” So they were calling out both the sort of friendship aspect, the social aspect, and saying, “Oh, it helped me feel more confident in the material, because I could ask questions.” So I certainly think it’s not a universal story, that students are upset about these kinds of active learning and small stakes things. But it’s more universal. I think that they feel like there’s a lot more work. And so that’s what’s so interesting. Rarely do you have a finding or experience where so many people are in an agreement about this. And so it’s just such an interesting thing that I have not met a person who said, “I felt like I had less work.” That’s kind of interesting. But there was one student in our survey, I think I quoted this in our blog post, that was really interesting, where she said, “The courses are easier, but they’re emotionally more difficult.” So the online courses are easier, but it’s emotionally more difficult and more difficult to try hard for. One of my hypotheses was that being in a pandemic makes our capacity to work lower. And so I think that’s part of what that person was getting at. Everything feels like more work, even if it’s the same amount of work. And I am guessing that it’s both that and also maybe a little bit more work too, that’s going on, I’m going to be curious to see what happens in the spring. We’re gonna do our survey again. And we did have some interventions where we talked about this, but there’s no mandates about what people are going to do. So we’re going to ask our faculty, again, what they’re doing. And then we’re going to ask our students and see if things got better. And hopefully, that’ll make us understand maybe which hypotheses are more or less likely to be true? Who knows?

Rebecca: If anything, at least, this is something faculty and students all have in common. We all feel like we have more work.

Betsy: Yeah, well, [LAUGHTER] and actually, we didn’t even mention this. And I didn’t mention in my blog post, because it was already too long, is some of this switch to low-stakes assignments also increases the workload for faculty. You don’t have to assess it all, but many of us are just used to that, so we look at everything and grade everything. And so certainly, we heard a lot on our faculty survey of “I cannot sustain this for another semester.” So, this semester, we may find that many of them have shifted back to fewer, larger assignments. So I’m not sure. We just heard some anecdotes, but I could see that happening too, for their own workload sake as well.

John: In addition to the trauma of the pandemic and all the issues associated with that, I believe you also mentioned the fact that many students signed up for face-to-face classes and just being in an online environment is going to make them less happy. And if you’re not as happy in that environment, it’s going to seem like more work.

Betsy: That’s right. Yeah. And this is where I had a throwback to my own time tracking that I did. Maybe five or six years ago, I did time tracking of my own time and I was fascinated because I wasn’t very good at predicting what I was spending my time on. If I didn’t like being in a meeting, I felt like it dragged on and on and on. If I was reading a book that was really exciting. I thought it was like this [finger snap]. But actually, if I went back, “Oh, I was actually spending a lot of time” or even just working on a design project, I would just lose hours staying up till however many hours in the night because it’s exciting to me, it doesn’t feel like work. And so my guess is that there’s some of that going on, too. And I will say in our survey, there was a group of students who were really unhappy with online learning in general, not specific teachers, not specific strategies&hellip that they did not want online. And so those students, obviously, if they had that much anger and sadness about being online, I can’t imagine that they would be excited and enjoying&hellip like, just another 15 minutes of online would be a slog for them, you know, and so I’m sure that things are slower, because they’re not enjoying it, because they didn’t choose it. And I think that’s a really important thing for all of us in higher ed to be thinking about is that, just because there are some students who are unhappy with online right now doesn’t mean that online itself is the problem. It’s partially giving our students autonomy and choice of how they experience their courses. And there are some of our students who just really want to be in person. And those students are probably also the people who really want to be socializing with their friends. And they aren’t getting any of that right now. And so they’re doubly upset, triply upset, like many of us, and that’s not a good position to be in to enjoy your work&hellip the work is really work. I’m sure that some of that’s going on.

John: I spent a decade working on our faculty assembly one semester. [LAUGHTER]

Betsy: I like that. Yeah, there you go. That’s true, right. Sometimes there’s something that just drags on. Time is tricky like that. Some of our students also commented on just sitting in their dorm rooms all day on their computer screen all day, and leaving to get takeout food and coming back. And they’re in singles, often&hellip a lot of them are in singles, because we de-densified our dorms, like it’s just not a great mode of existence. And so anything they can do to get away from the screen, as Rebecca, as you said, that I think is a really valuable strategy for all of us to try to incorporate into our courses.

Rebecca: I’ve noticed this semester, in my classes, I have really good engagement. They’re synchronous online, I can see people contributing. But there’s a lot less camera use this semester than there was even last semester with some of the same students. And maybe it’s the winter slog, “Oh, the winter won’t end.” But it’s just also just being on screen and feeling almost like you’re in performing mode. I think it’s some of that, too. I’d like to turn my screen off sometimes.

Betsy: I was just gonna say that for those of us that are in committee meetings all the time with our colleagues, like we’re still with screens on all day. And yeah, I absolutely think that there’s just an exhaustion and awareness that there’s another semester of this, we don’t know when it’s going to end. &hellipreally tough, certainly.

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

Betsy: Well, if I knew what was next for the fall, I’d be a millionaire right now. Who knows what’s next for the fall? I think that’s the biggest challenge for all of us, as we’re thinking about higher ed, in the near term, at least is what’s going to happen in the fall. But I do think with respect to the topic of this podcast, we often talk about when the pandemic ends. It’s going to be like a trickle, I think. There’s not going to be a sharp ending to it. But whenever we start talking about the future of higher ed in a serious way, I do think there’s going to be a very interesting question about how much do we expect of our students outside of class? And what is an appropriate workload? What is the nature of a credit hour? All of those kinds of questions should be on the table because I know for a fact that many of my faculty, even when they go back to in-person are going to want to keep using the strategies. They’ve read the research that we presented to them this summer, and they see that it’s valuable and that their students are learning and so it’s not as if the workload is going to decrease dramatically, I’m guessing, when we go back to in person, so we may need to have larger conversations about that in higher ed.

Rebecca: Thanks so much for joining us, Betsy. It’s always a pleasure.

Betsy: It was great to be back. I love this podcast. Thanks so much.

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

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

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182. Gender and Groups

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

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

Show Notes

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

Transcript

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

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

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

John: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer.

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

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

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

John: …really pleased to have you.

Rebecca: Today’s teas are:

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

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

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

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

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

Olga: Is it flavored Rebecca?

Rebecca: Yeah, it’s nicely spiced.

Olga: Nice.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rebecca: …sounds fascinating.

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

Olga: I know.

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

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

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

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

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

Olga: Thanks, Rebecca, thank you so much.

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

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

Rebecca: Thank you.

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

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

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181. Capstone Experience

Imagine a course in which the faculty member is a coach who guides students through a real-world project with messy data and the problem-solving that comes with it. In this episode, Dr. Kathryn Berkow joins us to discuss how a course with no content can provide students with a rich learning experience full of analysis and insights. Katy is an Assistant Professor of Management Information Systems at the University of Delaware. She is also the host of the On Cultivating Student Engagement in Higher Ed podcast.

Show Notes

Transcript

John: Imagine a course in which the faculty member is a coach who guides students through a real-world project with messy data and the problem-solving that comes with it. In this episode, we explore how a course with no content can provide students with a rich learning experience full of analysis and insights.

[MUSIC]

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

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

John: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer.

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

[MUSIC]

Rebecca: Our guest today is Dr. Kathryn Berkow. Katy is an Assistant Professor of Management Information Systems at the University of Delaware. She is also the host of the On Cultivating Student Engagement in Higher Ed podcast. Welcome back, Katy.

Katy: Thanks so much for having me on again.

John: We’re really happy to talk to you again. And our teas today are:

Katy: I’m having a decaf Earl Grey.

Rebecca: …good classic. I’m having a Scottish afternoon tea, which is my new regular.

John: And I am drinking vanilla almond tea. It’s a black tea from the Republic of Tea.

Rebecca: I really like almond teas.

John: This is my first, it was a gift from my son.

Rebecca: So we invited you back Katy to talk about your capstone course that you offer. Can you tell us a little bit about the course?

Katy: Absolutely. I love talking about this class. It’s one of my favorite courses to teach and I teach it every spring. And so having the break in the fall teaching my other courses gives me a lot of renewed energy for this capstone. It’s a senior capstone experience for our business analytics minors in their final semester as they prepare for their next steps after graduation. And the students have a variety of majors and a variety of perspectives in the class. And analytics is only their minor focus. And so in course design I have had, I would say, two influences. I have a colleague who designed a similar capstone for our management information system students that relies on semester long projects with an external sponsor. But also, before coming to the University of Delaware, I worked in the financial services industry as a quant analyst. So I worked through lots of long, larger scale, analytical projects. And so I modeled the course after my colleagues set up quite a bit, but I adapt it from my own professional analytical experiences. So when I first started teaching this course, I shied away from saying what I’m about to say, but now that I’ve seen enough students through the course to know that they learn so much over the course of the semester, I feel very comfortable sharing this: there is no content in this particular course, and I think that’s what makes it so much fun. So we spend the complete semester working on a large scale, real, unwieldy project that is truly representative of the type of projects students will face in their professional careers as data scientists. The students work on the project throughout the semester, they report to me or my co teacher as their manager every week. And we provide feedback on performance, suggestions and resources for how to move forward. When the students are stuck, we’ve usually seen something like that before. And we can brainstorm together how to get unstuck. And sometimes all the students need is confidence that the direction they’re planning to go in is a good one. But because there’s no content, the projects can really unfold and be the focus for all of us throughout the semester, and each student team gets a unique experience. So the two important things that I really want students to know after finishing this course, are: one, that there’s no perfect answer to a complex problem… there are only a degrees of good, better, better than that… when it comes to analytical solutions, which I’m sure is true in so many areas; and number two is that each unique problem needs its own thoughtful solution. We’re not trying to teach students in this class how to think about every problem, just how to think analytically now that they have the analytical tools. Not what to do in every situation, but how to think through each complex new situation they face.

Rebecca: Do students in this class all work on this same project, or do you have small groups working on projects.

Katy: So each student team is working on a project throughout the semester, and this semester, for example, I’ll have 42 students in the class working on nine distinct projects.

Rebecca: Do the students define their own projects, or do you have a predefined project.

Katy: So I create the projects for them with community members. Because there’s no content in the course, the project is the critical design component. So each year, I start getting ready months in advance curating these projects for the semester. In the past, we’ve worked with our own athletics department on a variety of projects, a large retail banking institution, a service provider of home repairs, a few local nonprofit organizations, and lots of others. And so the variety is exciting, because the students all have different interests as well. And I tell these organizations that all I really need from them is a sufficiently challenging research question. I mean, everybody’s got lots of questions, but we have to really hone in on one theme, and then enough data to support finding an answer to that question, perhaps. It’s not been too challenging to get project sponsors interested, because I’m offering free analytics. [LAUGHTER] And so I might contact someone through a friend of a friend and say, “Here’s a few naive questions, I think we might be able to help you answer if you have the data,” and people generally seem excited to have an introductory conversation. So, for example, some of the organizations that we’ve worked with want evidence of program efficacy. They might have survey data or some measurement of before and after metrics on the students or participants in the program. And we can use that data to answer questions. Others have said we want suggestions for how to price the seats in our new stadium which is super open ended and they’ll provide some data about ticket sales, for example, and so it’s a very open ended data-driven question but it’s not standard. And sometimes those non standard questions are even more fun. So I write up a project description after a couple of meetings, discussion, thought with the project sponsor. That might be two to five pages, it’s not a lot of information, and then I get the data into a format that students can work with, which sometimes is me doing nothing to prepare the data. I do want the students to struggle a little bit with formatting the data since data cleaning is a big part of learning to be a successful data analyst, but I provide lightly processed data and a project description to the students as their starting point. So, I ask them what project they’d like to work on after introducing the projects to them on the first day of class and I try to fit students to a project that they’re most interested in, but really sometimes i’m surprised that some projects are more popular than others and it’s not the ones that I expect

John: Paul Handstedt has a book called Creating Wicked Students: Designing Courses for a Complex World and what you’re doing sounds very much like what he’s advocating. Giving students really challenging problems where there’s no clear solutions, is a really good way of helping them pull together all the things they’ve learned. So in a sense the content is really everything they’ve done up to the capstone but you’re giving them an opportunity to apply it in ways that they’ll need to, if they’re going to be successful in their career

Katy: Absolutely. Completely. Because I did read that book and really felt inspired and I think I was already doing this style of course at the time, but it made me feel like I was headed in the right direction, that giving students this opportunity to try solving a problem that has no answer and most of the problems they try to solve in their careers don’t already have answers or we’d just be using those existing solutions. And so it is really good practice I think for whatever’s next especially in the field of analytics. Ee don’t know what the technology looks like or the methods are going to look like as we move forward and so they really need to be able to think critically about ethical concerns, methodologies, how to work with their data in a really honest and skilled way that can be applied to lots of wicked problems.

Rebecca: So, it sounds like in a process like this, which sounds similar to kinds of courses that I also teach, you act more as a coach rather than more of a traditional teacher, kind of coaching them along on how to respond to the data, respond to what’s happening in the moment. Is that correct?

Katy: Absolutely, and that’s something that I love about this class. I know a lot of your guests have talked about removing themselves from the sage on the stage position and becoming the coach or cheerleader in an active environment and that is one of the things I love most. When students are excited and driving the questions, I get even more excited to talk about what those answers might look like with them.

Rebecca: Do students have the opportunity to talk to your community partners or is it always through you?

Katy: So we staged the course in three sections and we have three presentations associated. So, the students will get started, spend maybe three weeks or so working with the data, getting to know it, generating some questions and some initial discovery points, and then they’ll present those results to their sponsor. And actually teaching online has been much easier for the project sponsors because they can easily attend presentations and provide feedback. Usually in that first round, the discovery period, the students present something and the sponsor can say, “Oh, let me explain that.” It’s sort of a back and forth where there’s a lot of sort of correcting any misunderstandings or answering questions. Phase two, the students are working toward what I call an initial solution. This solution might be a basic model that makes some assumptions that are maybe not appropriate, but just to get started. And it underscores what I love most about the class which is the idea of iterative solution. Presentation three is going to give them an opportunity to refine the solution, completely abandon what they did for presentation two, or improve it in a way that makes it more realistic, more robust, more an answer to the project sponsor’s research question. So, absolutely, the students get to interact with their project sponsors during those presentations where they are leading the show, they’re having the conversation, they’re hearing the direct feedback as though the project sponsor is their manager in that moment. And then I can sort of serve as a liaison, saying “I think what you’re saying is this,” “maybe we can put that on our to-do list,” and sort of just offering the support to both sides, to help everybody come together for a solution

John: How do you assess the contributions of individual students in the group project?

Katy: This will be the fourth time we offer this class and this has evolved quite a lot. A few things have remained the same. Those presentations I mentioned are a clear part of assessment in the class. But each week, I require that each team submit a status state. And that will be a highly detailed list of achievements toward answering their research questions, and also a list of highly detailed to-dos for the next week. So, even though it’s not a class in project management, they’re getting that scope of accountability for moving their project forward. And I require that each student’s name appear next to achievements, and next to to- do items. And that gives me an opportunity to really see what’s happening. But we also have weekly meetings. The students, instead of meeting in a classroom setting where the entire class is together, I’ll meet with each group for maybe 30 minutes. If they need more time, certainly, we can have an office hours setup. But 30 minutes is usually plenty for us to discuss anything from the status update, for them to get feedback from me, and for me to say things like, “It doesn’t really seem like we’ve done enough this week, what’s going on team?” …just like their manager would say in real life, maybe they haven’t had a chance to have that really, in-person accountability conversation before. The need for that is very rare. Most of the time, I’m saying things like, “Wow, I’m so blown away by what you’ve achieved this week. How can I best assist this week with your to-dos? What do you want to talk about in this meeting?” but those are the three components. I recently transitioned to specifications grading, which has been a ton of fun in this particular class, because the senior students are so independent and really prepared to graduate, that this gives them a lot of flexibility. So I require excellence in answering the research question as the C-level component. So the team grade is the C, do a great job on this project. And then I can add in individual components that will scale toward a B and an A. So for this semester, for example, the students will earn a B if they complete a data ethics module where they have to think and write about some ethical dilemmas in data science. They write reflections on visiting speakers who are analytical professionals that we have come to class via zoom, and they evaluate their own performance. And then to earn an A, I ask that the students take on a particularly challenging component of answering their team research question. And I don’t give a lot of guidance there except to say, discuss it with your instructor so that everybody’s on the same page. So I can help them determine what is sufficiently challenging to be truly deserving of an A, because every project is so different, I don’t want to spell out what they need to do. But an example would be if you’re working toward a C in the class, you could work with a team member to generate a model that answers a particular, say, sub question of your focus. But if you’re working toward an A, you need to be maybe developing that model on your own. The one thing that I do promise students is that there will be no surprises. I know it sounds like there’s some looseness in the specifications. But we’re talking about it every week in our meetings. And if students are not on track to earn that excellence, C-level grade, then they know about it with plenty of time. And I’ve really never had to give students much more motivation than “Hey, I haven’t really seen much from the team this week. Let’s talk about those to-dos for next week.”

Rebecca: It sounds like those meetings are really important in terms of processing learning, not only just moving the project forward, but also just processing “what are they learning?” …and how might they move that forward in the future, not just in their projects? And you also mentioned some sort of self-evaluation or reflection, can you talk a little bit more about that component?

Katy: Oh, sure. At the end of the semester, I ask them to do this performance evaluation of themselves in much the same way that I have to write one in my role and have done in the past. It gives them a little bit of practice self reflecting. I’m not really judging performance based on their performance assessment. I’ve already seen what they’ve done in the meetings. When they speak with confidence about something complicated, I know that they’ve learned a lot. So I really just ask them to be honest, and say, “What do you feel like were your greatest growth points? What do you feel like you still need to work on as you head into a professional role as a data analyst?” And I also ask for feedback about the course. {What were the elements that you felt contributed most to your growth this semester, and what things didn’t contribute anything?”

Rebecca: What have your student responses been to working on these projects.

Katy: So ever since the first time the course was offered, the students have expressed sincere appreciation for the help in making a transition from student to professional. It seems like by the time this course pops up in their schedules, they are really ready to start becoming more independent, and squeezing into a seat in a classroom just doesn’t feel comfortable for them anymore. So they express that this course and other capstones like it that are problem based really give them an opportunity to be in the driver’s seat and have more independence in their senior spring. Many also have said that they’ve learned the skills of analytical thinking, data cleaning, planning, modeling, but now they’re seeing for the first time how those things go together in a sequence and on a complete scale over much more time. This isn’t just a week long project where everything is abbreviated and if they’re going into an analysis role this is going to be what their career is like. So, I couldn’t be happier than to hear those two things. It makes it feel like a success. But, I’d also like to add something really selfish here. I get so much personal fulfillment from teaching students, at any level, but this class really gives me the opportunity to stand back and coach as you said earlier, Rebecca, rather than be that sage on the stage in front of the class with the slides. And I just get so much enjoyment from seeing students take off, watching them steer the ship for the first time, getting their answers. I also teach them at sophomore levels, the intro course, and so i’m lucky enough to see them again at the senior level and just saying that it makes me feel really proud is such a dramatic understatement because seeing them ready to leave the University of Delaware and become professionals… it’s really really fulfilling in a selfish way.

Rebecca: My experience with classes like that, too, is that students really appreciate the opportunity to try out this pretend career for a moment. [LAUGHTER] It’s a safe place to try that rollout and understand where they fit in the bigger picture or what specific role within an area or field might be a good fit for them in a way that an internship doesn’t, because it’s maybe a little more flexible or you have more of that direct contact with the faculty member during that process instead of just in the work environment. I’ve had students that have said that in those scenarios they’ve really appreciated that opportunity to fail without repercussions.

Katy: Yeah that’s a great point. It’s like we’re the coach but we’re also the bumper in the bowling alley… that we’re just trying to keep them on track and rolling forward. And I think what you said is true, especially as I think about what their roles might look like… different positions as data analysts… maybe they’re the best at doing the analysis, building the models, or maybe they’re the best at communicating the results and being the liaison between people who are super analytical and people who are not super analytical. So, this class, just as you said, gives them an opportunity to try on the different hats that might be available and see where they fit best in a comfortable supportive environment.

John: When you mentioned watching your students grow from seeing them as sophomores to seeing them as seniors, I have very much the same experience. I used to teach a wider variety of classes but in recent years, since i’ve been working in the teaching center, I primarily see them just as freshmen in a large intro economics course and then I see them generally as juniors and seniors in any econometrics class and in a capstone course, and seeing the change in them and seeing how they become confident with their material and seeing the work that they’re able to produce is really impressive. It’s a really nice feeling.

Katy: Absolutely and when you’re talking to people from other universities or if you’re talking to a panel during accreditation, it’s really, really nice to be able to speak to the entire scope of the educational process. When you see them one time as sophomores, or even one time as seniors,you only get that point in time feedback, but when you get to see the whole development process it just makes you so proud of what the students are learning and you have just such appreciation for all that your colleagues do along the way as well. It just makes it feel like there’s a symphony happening here and that you can see it much more clearly.

Rebecca: So, Katy, you’ve talked about this is the fourth time you’ve taught it. So, the first two times I believe were in person, then you had a time that started in person that shift out not in person. I imagine this time is remote.

Katy: Absolutely.

Rebecca: So, can you talk about that transition or transformation?

Katy: Sure. Last spring we were in person for five weeks and then we transitioned online and I was actually having one of my group meetings with students when the email came out. So, the email came out announcing that we were closing maybe at like 4:55 and we were meeting at five. So, I corralled the team into my office and I said “What’s going on? Just read it out loud. Let’s get this out in the open.” And it was so helpful for me to see the students processing the information live because I was processing it too but thinking in the way that they were thinking in that moment was so helpful to me. One student, for example, raised this question of “But i’m supposed to be on spring break when they say we’re coming back to school…” And i’m just like “Uh huh, let’s take it one day at a time. this is obviously new information for all of us.” But that’s how she was processing and the next student said “Are we going to not have a graduation?” …and I don’t know the answer to that. I said “Well I don’t know if this is going to be two weeks oor three months or longer, but we’re just going to take it one day at a time.” it was just so fascinating to hear what was happening in their minds. One of the questions that came up was “What’s going to happen in this class?” …like they felt almost more concerned about this class than some of their other ones transitioning online. And I said, “Well that you certainly don’t need to worry about. I feel less concerned about transitioning this particular class online than I do my other ones. Because all we do is have conversations. We have conversations together in this small group, we have conversations as a class where we’re listening to a speaker, and we have conversations with your project sponsors. And we can do all of that on Zoom.” I was lucky enough to have had some experience with Zoom beforehand. And so I just felt really confident that there might be one or two things I had to think through, but that most of the things that we were doing could easily be achieved via Zoom. So it was the other classes that were more, I’ll say, traditional in delivery format that I was worried about. So this, I feel like the students are getting exactly the same experience, they just don’t get to shake their project sponsors hand, which, you know, is a little bit disappointing. The networking component is really nice in person, but it’s not necessary. And I think meeting in these small groups, I still get to know the students just as well, and really can serve in the capacity of whatever they need, whether it’s mentor, thinking about helping them to find a job, or just project mentor, whatever is needed, I can do via zoom, because it’s in this sort of small group protected setting. And so it has been maybe the greatest challenge to transition other courses, not this one. So I really feel good about how this one has transitioned online,

Rebecca: I was shaking my head up and down the whole time you were talking, Katy, because I felt the same way about my project based courses. And in some ways, some of the logistics got so much easier being online. There’s some classes that I do that were project based, for example, our Vote Oswego project that I do with a political science faculty member in the fall, we do things with our classes together, it was so much easier to find a space we could all fit in on Zoom, we could easily get in and have the space to go into small groups without getting too loud. And some of those logistics actually were really fine online. And then even with some other projects that we were doing, having our community partners join us more easily, in a lot of ways, by being on Zoom, rather than having all the logistics of going to campus in person and finding a time that’s going to work, because there’s all the travel time involved and what have you as well.

Katy: Absolutely. One of our visiting speakers comes from Denver every year, just to be with us. She happens to be a graduate of the University of Delaware and loves spending time with our students and giving back in that way. But when I had to call her and say, “Hey, we don’t need you to come all the way to Denver anymore, we’re going to be virtual,” maybe that was a relief. [LAUGHTER] But now it just opens the door. I’ve heard a lot of your guests say it opens the door for so much flexibility in the future to just bring in more voices into the classroom and have an opportunity to learn from just a variety of different people because the commute time is zero now.

John: Going back to your point about students being a little anxious of how the course was going to proceed, I had a very similar experience with my capstone course compared to another more traditional type class. I met with them on the Monday before the shutdown began, and it wasn’t announced and there had been no discussion, at least that I had heard of on campus. But it was pretty clear that campuses all over the world were shutting down. So it was pretty clear we were going to as well. And I said “We should be prepared that this might be our last time meeting in person.” And they said, “Well, what are we going to do? How are we going to keep doing all these meetings and keep going?” And they wanted to make sure the class would be successful. I said, “Well remember how I told you, if you couldn’t be here sometime, you could just come in on Zoom? Well, that’s what we’ll probably be doing in the event of a shutdown.” Most of them had laptops there, I said, “Go to the Zoom website, create an account, [LAUGHTER] just so you’ll have it there, because you may want to create your own sessions for work within your groups.”And they downloaded Zoom to their smartphones and to their laptops. And I said,”Let’s just try connecting and just make sure you mute your microphone so we don’t get any feedback issues.” And they were pretty relaxed about it. And nothing really about the course changed other than the fact that they were meeting over a computer. They were doing all the presentations, they were doing all of their group work in breakout rooms instead of gathering tables around. And actually in a lot of ways it was easier because when they were meeting in small groups in the physical classroom, they were all looking over the shoulders of the people who were actually doing the writing at the time. And it was just so much easier for them just to share the screen and discuss it from wherever they were and have a much clearer view.

Rebecca: I think it’s really interesting that both of you are talking about how concerned the students were about being able to fulfill that particular class or that particular project and I think it really attests to probably their commitment to that project. And Katy, in your case, it might be just because it’s somewhat high stakes, right? There’s a client or a partner involved that you want to satisfy and it feels really satisfying to do real work for real people. And I’ve had this experience as well with community based projects that students just are all in on those kinds of projects, and just don’t want to see them fail at all.

Katy: That’s true. I’ve never had a problem getting students motivated. I told you once in a while, I’ll say like, “What’s happening this week?” and then you hear there were some tests or something like that. But honestly, the students are highly motivated all semester, because they’re getting to interact with those project sponsors during the presentations. And they’re going to be accountable to that person’s face or group of people during the presentation. And so sometimes I worry, as we get closer to the end of senior spring, that students are going to lose their motivation, and it really doesn’t happen. You know, they’re tired by the end, they’re ready to be done with the project, because this might be the longest project they’ve ever worked on. But they really deliver. And they always really impress me, I don’t feel any stress at the end of the semester with grades, because they, number one, they know what’s happening. We’re very clear all semester long about where their grade is headed, but also because they’re driving it. And this is a group of students who’s elected to have a minor in addition to their major studies. And they’re just highly motivated. Most of the class is earning an A by the end because of the excellent work they produce.

Rebecca: Sounds like a really fun class to teach.

Katy: I have so much fun. The hardest part’s the project. Once the projects are made, the rest is easy. I just show up and ask questions.

Rebecca: Mm hmm. I love my projects classes,

John: Is there any type of artifact that the students create that they can share with potential employers as a demonstration of what they’ve learned.

Katy: I would say I always encourage the students to include their project on their resume. But I do ask students to sign a nondisclosure agreements for their project sponsor. Tthat makes everybody feel more comfortable. Sometimes the data is sensitive if it’s got, for example, young children participating in a program, and other small businesses might not want to share their data. And so I have the students sign something. But I tell them, if you’re interviewing, you can certainly describe your involvement in the project in a loose way, you can talk about the specifics of the modeling you did, and how you contributed to the client’s end goals without saying, “Oh, I worked for this specific company.” And they also do create an executive summary. So that’s an artifact. They share their presentation slides, of course, with their customer, and they create an executive summary. But the goal of that artifact is to deliver information to their project sponsor, and not necessarily to serve as a portfolio. When I offer this class in the graduate level, where I have professional students who might be working, I don’t also ask them to work on a project for another organization. They collect their own project from publicly available data, and they generate a description of what the impact they could have studying this publicly available data might be. They create a digital portfolio using a WordPress blog. And then that’s something that they could really share as an artifact. So if it happened to be publicly available data they were studying, then they could certainly share that with a prospective employer.

Rebecca: It’s also a great opportunity at that capstone level to have conversations about the way that the profession works. Whether it’s nondisclosure agreements or copyright or whatever it might be related to what you’re doing. These are important times to have those conversations before the students graduate and move into their professional lives.

Katy: Absolutely. Because the data in our classes is often either… I’ll call it simulated, which is just made up by me, as an example, or some publicly available data that’s already in a nice format. So, it’s good for them to have the exposure to working with data that is just in a different format, because it comes from a different place. Or to see that not every dataset looks the same as the one your teacher might have curated in your sophomore level introductory course,

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

Katy: So Monday is the start of our semester at the University of Delaware. So what’s next for me is diving into nine really exciting projects this semester with our seniors this year. So I’m really excited about that. But for the course overall, there’s going to be a big change coming up. And that is that I mentioned we have minors in business analytics in the course. We recently added a major in business analytics. So I think the exciting thing to look forward to is that we’ll have an even greater mix of students coming up either next spring or the following spring that will include people who have had even more training in analytics during their time in the University of Delaware, and it’ll increase the variety of solutions that we can provide to our project sponsors. So that’s really exciting, as is being part of a growing program. But in addition to that, I’d like to concur with many of your other recent guests who have said that they’re focused on what the future looks like in their classrooms. Certainly what’s next is going to involve some changes. And it seems like there are lots of opportunities to reimagine our courses when we have the option of being in person, but also using the new tools we’ve learned for engagement and flexibility. So in the broader sense of what’s next, I really don’t know, but I’m thinking about it a lot.

John: Our students got an interesting email. For the first time since I’ve been at Oswego, we had about a foot of snow and it was coming down pretty quickly and instead of getting a notice that classes were canceled, they got a note that all classes will take place remotely today. [LAUGHTER] So one change is, I think, for those students who used to look forward to the occasional snow day in upstate New York, those days are probably gone pretty much everywhere.

Rebecca: It’s not just the students that look forward to those days. [LAUGHTER]

Katy: Absolutely, I agree. But you’re right, that’s a big change. And we’re seeing that at the University of Delaware as well, our winter session courses were not affected by snow.

Rebecca: Well, thanks so much, Katie, for joining us and sharing other great stories from your classroom. There’s so much to learn from your practice and I’m glad that you were able to join us again.

Katy: Well, thank you so much for having me back. I really enjoy talking with both of you. But also I enjoy learning so much from all the guests that you talk with on your show.

John: And I really enjoy your podcast as well and am looking forward to hearing more episodes. And this sounds like a really great project you have there.

Katy: Thanks so much. Yeah, I hope everyone will check out the On Cultivating Student Engagement in Higher Ed podcast and I’m hoping to put out a second season this spring.

John: And we will share a link to that in the show notes.

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

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

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180. Google Apps

Cloud-based collaborative software can support active and engaged learning in both synchronous and asynchronous contexts. In this episode, Dr. Kathleen Gradel joins us to explore how a variety of Google apps can facilitate collaborative learning. Kathleen is a Professor in the College of Education at SUNY Fredonia. She is a recipient of a SUNY Chancellor’s Award for Excellence in Teaching and a SUNY FACT2 Award for Excellence in Instruction.

Transcript

John: Cloud-based collaborative software can support active and engaged learning in both synchronous and asynchronous contexts. In this episode, we explore how a variety of Google apps can facilitate collaborative learning.

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

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

John: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer.

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

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John: Our guest today is Dr. Kathleen Gradel. Kathleen is a Professor in the College of Education at SUNY Fredonia. She is a recipient of a SUNY Chancellor’s Award for Excellence in Teaching and a SUNY FACT2 Award for Excellence in Instruction. Welcome, Kathleen.

Kathleen: Hi, John. Hi, Rebecca.

Rebecca: Hi.

John: It’s good to see you again.

Kathleen: It’s good to be here.

Rebecca: Today’s teas are:

Kathleen: I am drinking diet pop. That would also indicate where in the country I’m from, because I’ve just called it pop.

Rebecca: I picked right up on that, Kathleen.

John: …and I am drinking Spring Cherry green tea. As we’re surrounded by about a foot and a half of snow, I figured the spring cherry would be a nice mood to set here.

Rebecca: When you said it, I was like, you need to dial that up a little. [LAUGHTER] I have my Scottish afternoon tea in my T-rex mug because I need it today.

John: And Rebecca is holding up the T-rex mug by the microphone so you can all see it.

Rebecca: Yeah, it was for you guys.

John: We’ve invited you here to talk about some of the ways you’ve been using Google Apps in your classes. In a prior discussion, you recently mentioned that you were using the new Google assignment tool, which now has LTI integration into learning management systems. Could you tell us a little bit about the Google assignment tool? …because that was new to us.

Kathleen: For Google Classroom aficionados, it’s still fairly new. But it was a feature that the classroom people just totally glommed on to. And it gave a whole lot of functionality for distribution of assignments and built- in feedback, which was inherent to the classroom kind of stream, but added a little more LMS-ish stuff to the Google Classroom. So now it’s available to the rest of us. I saw an announcement early on that it was coming. And I was, “Oh, this is so exciting.” And I sent the request to our LMS administrator, I usually get a “Oh, no, that’s not going to work or won’t work yet or won’t work now,” but because it’s considered part of the education suite, the first answer was not “No.” So that was great. Because it already existed in Classroom and Classroom was part of our education apps suite. It looked like a possible. And then the second thing is, but usually these integrations don’t work very smoothly. And they tried it and I, of course, was the guinea pig. How exciting. And my first reaction was, “Oh, no, it’s not working.” And I’ll explain to you that the one glitch that I see happening with it, but this is what it does: it automatically, especially in our LMSs, if you had a template of something in a Google Doc, and wanted to distribute it, one copy to each recipient, each participant, each student, you could do it any number of ways. But it’s not a simple click, it wouldn’t work that way within most of our LMSs either. We’re in Moodle, you’re in Blackboard. So we’d have to think about how do we get that template out to students, so they could use it and then submit it as a “assignment” within our LMSs. So when I share this with faculty, they went like this: “this is like magic.” And I said, “Yeah, it does feel like magic.” So what happens is, once the integration is there, depending on the name of whatever your resources or activities are in your LMS, you add it. And then in the background, you have your instance, whatever your assignment is, it could be a table that students fill out, it could be writing prompts, it could be almost anything. And as soon as you click to distribute it, it goes out to everyone who is in that section of your LMS without you’re doing anything. When they open it, it automatically renames it using their name, whatever name they have in your LMS and it becomes editable by them. I don’t know if you’ve experienced this, I certainly have, people don’t rename their files. And then they forget how to share them to you when they’re ready to share their wonderful work. So what happens is the student or whomever interacts with their own doc, they click to submit it, in the little assignment screen. And then they’re actually asked to click “Submit” twice. As soon as they do that, they no longer have editing rights to that doc. You then automatically get it and have commenting and editing writes to the doc. They don’t have to share it with you, which is usually the downside for using Google Docs. My experience with students is they forget to do that. So there’s always that extra, “please share it with me: or whatever. So it eases the distribution part. And it’s almost like playing take a turn or play tennis. So it’s my serve, your serve, my serve, your serve. So as soon as I serve it to them, they then get it and I don’t interact with it till they send it back to me. So It really does feel like ping pong or tennis. My husband says I’m horrible at both. But I’m pretty good at this, because I get a signal that it’s in there by taking a look at my assignment in the LMS. They also, as soon as I give feedback, get an email reminder. And it appears in their dashboard as graded or they’ve gotten feedback. So that whole back and forth thing that happens, with practice, it works well. To gear somebody up to that level, often, that exchange sometimes takes a few extra steps. So I love that. The other piece that is really cool is it has a built in commenting. So I can create boilerplate, g eneral kinds of feedback, click on it, and then it will paste it right into a commenting bubble in my Google Doc. So if you’re like me, I have a lot of instances of where I go like this. “Could you give me an example of that?” or “Great start, can you finish this item?” Those common ones, I can put them right into individual feedback. And I can also use it for overall feedback. And I can grade with it, I can grade as well as give feedback within it. And, at least in Moodle, the integration ties right into the gradebook.

Rebecca: Now you’re talking magic. [LAUGHTER]

Kathleen: So for formative stuff, it makes all kinds of sense as most any interaction in a Google Doc would be, because we thrive on that. However, if I want to give them 10 points for that instance, and offer them opportunities to upgrade, it feels like a very natural prompt.

Rebecca: There’s a built in rubric option as well, right?

Kathleen: You’re right, Rebecca, yeah, you can either import one, or you can create one right within the assignment. So I think from the instructor side, or from the facilitator side, the ease of use is dramatic, especially if we want to keep students not thinking they’re in a different world because they’re in Google versus the LMS. So because it launches so well from the LMS, and because they’re actually viewing what I call their dashboard, but the view of the activity is embedded right within your LMS. It doesn’t just look like an external link sitting there that they will click to go to Google Drive. So it has that look and feel of just being part of it, which I think is a piece that sometimes helps ground students in thinking, “Okay, you want me to be in Moodle? Here I am. Oh, no, you’re setting me to Google Drive.” And so keeping that focus, I think. is helpful for both of us, the instructor and the students. We’re experimenting with how it would work with groups set up in the LMS, and distributing to groups. One of our biology instructors is is playing around with it, and one of our business people is experimenting with using one single assignment for the entire semester as a reflective journal. So what she’s doing is creating what would be a template, which has virtually nothing in it, just their name, and the name of the assignment is in the Google Doc. And then she’s providing weekly writing prompts within the LMS. This week’s reflective journal writing prompts are these three questions. So she’s not putting them into the Google Doc, she’s asking them to bring them over. And then they’ve done the first one already. They add their input, they click to submit, she gives them feedback, and then because of this really cool feature is able to change the grade within the assignment itself. So initially, the first assignment was 10 points, when she goes back into grade, she can actually grade the second week and up the points to 20. And give them both feedback and their cumulative grade right there. So she has a good pedagogical reason to do this, because she wants them to like in week three, go back, “Okay, now look at what you were thinking in week one. Let’s reflect on that, and see where you stand with that same thing.” So she doesn’t want to have to have them go refer to different docs. And I said that iterative use of a doc is “Oh, wow, super duper.” It’s great that this tool can help her to do that. And they’re not having to submit one after another after another.

John: If students are engaged in large writing projects, it sounds like that could be used to scaffold the project too, where instead of submitting things in stages, they’re just building it as they go at each stage, when they add more to the document.

Kathleen: Right. And a lot of us do have that submit your idea, then come back and do a elevator talk, five bullet points, and then come back and do an intro piece. I think you have to be strategic about where does that sit in the LMS. So that’s one thing that this business professor has thought about is, rather than embedding it into one week, or one module, she’s taken that assignment, she’s put it in our Moodle at the top in a separate section that she set up as common assignments, so that they know to go there to get it not to the particular week. So I think thinking about where it’s going to fit. Because it’s a unique bird.

John: I could see that working with Google docs, could it also work with Google sheets or Google Slides as the base document?

Kathleen: Yes, one of our math instructors is going to do it with this sheet. Now, when we first introduced this, only about a month ago, I tried it out with my graduate class in the fall, a group of people that were I would say, not technically very savvy,and very distracted because they are graduate students, and they’re working and they’re worried and everything else. So adopting a new tool is not their cup of tea. So I tried it with them, and they didn’t miss a beat. When we introduced it to the campus, some of the questions were, “What would be the right Google tool to use with this?” And it was such a wonderful discussion, because we really have some good decision making about “Well, what is the right thing to do? Did you really want to share that whole Google Sheet with everyone? Did you really want them to have their own? Did you really want to collect data, put it into a viewable Google Sheet, rather than whatever?” So teasing through some of those: “What do I want to do? How do I want to do it? And why? With what level of access?” That was a very, very healthy discussion. Ultimately, you start with the end in mind, what do you want to end with? Do I really want an individual something coming in from every student? If I don’t, then maybe this is not the right choice. For example, I can still easily share templates with groups of students or with students by just posting a forced copy link, and have them make a copy and do the routine kind of sharing. It really depends on how I want to use the activity.

John: For those who are not familiar with that really powerful forced copy link, could you just explain to people how they might do that with the share link that they might otherwise have view or edit or comment access on?

Kathleen: This is where you have to buckle your seatbelts because it’s always done better visually, John. So, let’s see how good I am at painting a picture. So I always say, look up at your browser window, when you have your Google doc open, look at your omni bar. And then you see that very long, long, long series of letters and everything else that is the url for that Google doc. When you look at it and go all the way to the right, you’ll see that the last four letters, this is where four letter words really come in handy. The last four letters in that string, are e-d-i-t, edit. So what you want to do is put your little mouse at the very, very end, by the T, and delete those four letters, replace it with this four letter word, copy, c-o-p-y. So then you take that, I usually just take it, do a Ctrl-C (copy). I open up a new tab to make sure it works. And I paste it in there. And when I do that, automatically a screen pops up that says “Do you want to make a copy of this, blah, blah, blah, whatever the name of the doc is, or whatever it is doc, slide deck, whatever.” And when you click to do that, it makes an automatic copy of whatever that original looked like. And then what I usually do is I shorten it. So I take it to bit.ly or one of the other shorteners. And I don’t have to do that, but then it makes it a little bit easier if I’m actually going to display it. One caution to that is, if you’re dealing with teacher educators whose internet service is delivered through most of our regional BOCES, the BOCES do not like short urls, because they will actually ask you to plunk it into their lengthener, because they want to make sure that they’re not being sent to somewhere that is not as desirable. They want to be able to see where they’re going. So for some of our teacher educators, we say, “Just a reminder, you’re not getting somewhere and it says we don’t like short urls, blah, blah, blah.” The forced Copy Link, though, I can’t tell you how many people have said, “You have changed my life.”

John: I used that just this past Monday night in a class to give students a template for a document that we’re working on. And they would just kind of amazed by that. They asked how they could do that, because it was a really nice technique.

Rebecca: What you’re describing Kathleen are so many things that I’ve done in my classes that the workflow would be much easier. I was just doing an assignment this semester with my students where they’re doing an online digital sketchbook really using Google Slides. And the first assignment is “Give me your URL.” I have to make sure I have commoent privileges, and then you have to resubmit it if I don’t. And then the next week now we actually start the sketchbook. So each time it was an assignment, and I have them just resubmit the same URL each time in the LMS. But this workflow that you’re describing would be much more efficient. And I’m sure there’s many other examples where that workflow would make sense as well. So that’s really exciting to me. Are there some barriers that students face [LAUGHTER] or that faculty face using this technique that we should be aware of?

Kathleen: I’ve run into a couple of things. Number one, this does not feel like Google for people that are or Google people. People that have glommed onto Google, and they know the things that Google will do, this feels like it can’t be working in the LMS, I can click and go to Google and do all those things I would want to do. So, there literally is I’m not sure this is working. The other thing we’ve experienced, regardless of being hardwired or on WiFi, is when you click to submit, there is a delay. When you click to access, there’s a slight delay. And so when I’m presenting on this, I say something like this, “Remember, it’s magic. And sometimes it takes a second or two for the magic to work. So we’re all going to cross our fingers.” And by then it’s loaded. I think it is just the crossover between the LMS and Google world that’s happening, and all the scripting behind it. So that’s the one piece, because with some of our click happy people, it may not feel as fluent as they want it to be. The other thing we’re running into is students are reporting that they can’t see where to click to submit. So right now, there are very few examples of Google assignments, the standalone version out there. As far as demo videos, most of them are how this works in Google Classroom. So if you’re trying to use a ready made demo video, rather than creating your own, there are not many instances of it. I think the problem is that people don’t have their viewing window wide enough or deep enough and they’re just missing the bottom of the screen and they’re looking for a place to submit. It uses an iconic blue button to submit but then it also resorts, and we’ve all seen this in Google, that little blue link button, and you have to click twice: the blue button and then the blue link. So I think those are things that probably they’ll fix as time goes on. I think they’re getting used to this not living in classroom, because that doesn’t exist in classroom. So those are the two things that we’ve seen so far.

Rebecca: It sounds like some of the same problems that students may already face using an LMS across screen sizes, because they’re not fully responsive in terms of design in working in different browser window sizes. That’s a problem that I think students face regularly on different screen sizes with our LMSs. I face it as an instructor in Blackboard all the time, where I have multiple screens open. So I have one that I’m grading kind of narrow and I also can’t find the submit button because I have to scroll to get to it.

Kathleen: Now, I don’t think those are horrible things to deal with. And I also think those are good things for users to learn. Because this is not the only time they’re going to run into it, as you point out. So I don’t mind getting through those hurdles. The other hurdle is this. I don’t know about your campus, but ours, even though we’ve been at Google campus since way back when, getting help from our ITS folks, as wonderful as they are getting help on the Google side, especially on something as new as this tool… not there. So the students end up asking the instructor, which I think is great, because our early adopters are hitting on it, are playing with it, whatever. But a more naive instructor may assume that students can get the help that they need, not just about this app, but plenty of the Google stuff. There’s help at Google. But because it’s pretty new, not the depth and breadth of help that would exist, will exist probably, in just three months from now.

John: Several years back, I think it was about six or seven years ago, I was teaching a collaborative course with someone in Mexico where we had students from Oswego working with students from Mexico. And they were collaborating by using shared Google documents. And one of the things that the students universally at the end of the course said is that one thing I’m taking away from this is how easy it is to work with other people either synchronously or asynchronously when you have these shared documents. Could you talk a little bit about some of the ways in which Google facilitates collaborative work?

Kathleen: First of all, I have to admit, I never use the Google search tool. DuckDuck is my favorite, because I don’t have to worry about ads being generated based on what I search for. So I love everything else about Google, though. And that’s the primary thing, which is ease of collaboration, whether it is a small group, a larger group, or just the student and me. I’ll give you a couple of examples. So with our freshmen, I was involved in the relaunch of our freshman seminar until we grew it enough so that it would be embedded in all the majors. And most of the students came in and said: “Yay, we’re Google.”

Kathleen: I think they really thought the search engine, and some of them had used Google d ocs before, but primarily, for example, to do their senior paper. So they could go back, it was automatically saved. They knew those features. They didn’t know a lot of the other features, including looking at feedback, using the feedback, and making changes in their work, whether the feedback came from a friend, someone in a study group, or their instructor. So what I often try to do is tease students into the value of using that input within slides, within a Google Doc, for the greater good… for either the good of the group or the good of their own selves or to earn the grade they want. So, from an academic perspective, having something where you get a chance to basically brainstorm live with other people doing something is very cool within the safety of a zone. So I was never a basketball player, I was always a manager. The joy of zone defense is that we have a canvas, and we have a canvas that is going to automatically capture all of the things that we think about. When you think about Google that way, for me, it opens up the world beyond “what do we just say in this last two little seconds that just evaporated into thin air?” So I can capture a whole lot of things in a Google something that is our joint work, including chat, including commenting, including live edits, if that makes sense and if I’ve given people permission to do it. So I usually started with the freshmen using Google Slides, because the zone is very limited. Everybody gets a slide, or three slides. But they’re there’s until we say, “Okay, now, we want you to go in and look at the next person’s which is the next slide, and use the commenting tool to plus them or to ask them where they got that image or whatever.” So teaching them some reasonable conventions around academic collaboration and sharing made so much sense within the Google environment because it was kind of controlled, and it was within a zone. And the way that we did that is by having them build their own memes. And that’s a feature that I wanted to talk with you about as well, because Google has changed their mindset about how the Explore tool which is a built-in find it and use it kind of research tool within Google. When I search for an image within a Google slide, right within the slide, and I bring it into the slide, my choices of images will only be Creative Commons licensed images, images that are licensed for some level of reuse. For me, this is a way to ease in, to scaffold students into, some very complex digital literacy concerns that I want them to get acquainted with, but not become masterful at initially. So I said, “So freshman year, we need to build some memes for next year’s class: ‘How do you survive freshman year? What’s the first-year student gonna do?’” Well, the first thing they did, 99% of them was leave the slide deck, go out to the big world of Google search, bring in images of athletes that were licensed, of the minions which are licensed, of Disney which are licensed and they put them in there. And I thought this is exactly what I wanted to happen. They didn’t follow directions. That was okay. So the prompt for their peers was to go in to their friend’s slide and ask them: “Where did you get this image? And can you make sure you put the link to it in the speaker notes underneath the canvas of the slide?” And then we darkened our screens, and we talked about it. I said, “Where did everybody find it?” Well, they googled, you know, blah, blah, blah… Well, hmmm… let’s pull up some of them. So, give me one. And I would say, “Oh, quick close the door, because the Disney cops may come and get us. What are we going to do with this one? Mickey Mouse? Minnie Mouse? I love them to death. These are licensed images, you have to pay to use them. Alright, give me another one.” I did a few together. And I said, let’s go back to the drawing board and take a look at what you found and talk to each other. Where did you get them? Now let’s try another way. So let’s go in, insert the image from within the slide deck. Now go to your friend, show them what you did, go to the image itself and let’s take a look at the license. Now most of my students were like this: “Why are you doing this to us” initially? Three weeks later, we have some new people join our class. And I said the main thing, “Can you help our new students understand how you got that license and confidence that the Disney cops or the whatever cops aren’t gonna come and get you and we are being good digital citizens. And we did it by putting our heads together, collaborating. They were like this, “You won’t believe what we did.” They explained it. Now, the first hit on it was very, very, very problematic. Because they had always done that. They always just searched in Google. So I was trying to capitalize on the Google tools, which is feedback within the slide deck. And also ways to then go back and use that feedback and say, “Oh, I did it. Now I can resolve it.” That practice of using the feedback to inform your practice and then get rid of the prompt but I know I can open it up again. So for me that’s a learning process. So that’s an example of using the slides where the canvas is limited, but the potential is great. So it doesn’t have to be a picture. And lots of times I asked students to build things using, for example, Google Slides to create content that the course then uses. So they end up with a joint product that they’ve each contributed to. But they each get authorship, ‘cause I make sure that they put their names and then I will often ask, “Let’s look at the licenses, which license do you want to pick for our products? Do you want to pick one that people can use this and change it, use it just period, use it and make money off of it?” “Oh, no they shouldn’t make money.” But that kind of process where they build together and then we use it for a purpose is so easy with some of the Google tools.

Rebecca: I love that you’ve described this iterative process of learning how to give and receive feedback and use the different collaborative tools in Google because I think we tend to just assume that our colleagues and our students know how to collaborate with us in these digital environments. But we often need to introduce how and that there are different ways: you can use the suggest mode, you can use the comment tool, you can type right in. So I love that you have such clear boundaries and scaffold them through that process. I found the same thing to be really important in the work that I’ve done with my students, and copyright… it’s so important in the design world, in what I’m doing, so we do some very similar kinds of exercises, thinking about this copyright piece of it too.

Kathleen: And the live chat piece can be very helpful. A lot of students will say, “I don’t really want to come to your office hours, but can you visit me in my doc? Can you take a look at my doc?” And I’ll say, “Absolutely. Want to join me there during office hours?” Well, they’re not attending office hours, they’re in their doc. So we go in, and I will do commenting for different purpose. But I’ll open up the chat stream, which they’re of course way familiar with. I’m almost 70. They’re totally into chat, not necessarily with their instructor. So I’ve had some interesting conversations within docs and within slide decks, sometimes I’ll be in there and I’ll be chatting and somebody will say, “Can you believe all the hard work we have to do in this class?” And another student will say, “Hey, Gradlel’s here.” [LAUGHTER] It’s kind of interesting to use the things for the purpose that you want them to be used at that time.

John: One of the things I’ve been doing with group work in synchronous classes is I’ve been sending them to breakout rooms, and creating a Google slide deck and assigning them to create something, often something different on each slide for each group. But the nice thing about it is, while they’re in the breakout rooms, I can have the slides open with a panel on the side, and I can see which groups are working and which groups aren’t. And then I can choose to go visit them just to check to see how it’s going. And sometimes they’re talking about something entirely different. Sometimes they’re actively discussing it and just haven’t put anything down yet. But it’s a nice way of monitoring what’s happening in the breakout rooms in real time, especially for things that might take a little bit longer. And that’s another really nice feature about doing this in a synchronous online class.

Kathleen: That’s a really good example. And I bet, John, you do this before you start something as serious as that, is make sure the introduce that practice in a lesser valence activity, I find that the middle school person in all of us comes out, when we’re first acquainted with the thing, like I’m going to go in and change the font to all pink on your slide and see what you do. So I’ve seen a lot of that. So that zone defense conventions or whatever is important to get them underway with it. I think your example is a great one, starting things out synchronously, and then building on it asynchronously where you can actually capitalize on individual contributions, as well as group contributions is an important thing for them to learn using the tools. So respecting who’s done what, when, where that thing is in the learning curve, and where my contribution is, and taking ownership of making it the best it can be, taking feedback to fix it or whatever. So, I think that is a great example.

Rebecca: I think one of the things related to that, Kathleen, that I’ve shared with students that they’ve been amazed by is that you can see the history of a document. They just have no idea. How did you magically know that I was the one that did X? [LAUGHTER]

Kathleen: Right.

Rebecca: So you know, you can capitalize on the magic of that initially to just know who’s doing what, but just so that they can see especially if they’re collaborating in a small group, they can see what’s happened since last time they were in the document can be really helpful.

Kathleen: We have, in education, we have a literacy technology class, which is kind of laughable because that should be embedded in every class, but I teach it. They will be in small groups to do certain products. And I point out the ways that I will know and they will know how they have met the accountabilities by both the setup of the Google doc where I asked people to do a visible initial for some of their contributions and I show them the revision history and I also ask them to do constructive peer reviews of different sections. So we have the comment stream working. And so all those things, when you think about it, can fit so well into that learning cycle that we often have difficulty capturing when we’re not in a tool like a Google doc. So all of those things, I think it’s so important for them to learn that there are things that are going to help them work with other people, be responsible, and end up with a product that they can share of theirs and/or others, and then correctly attribute the work. So I think it’s that “got to do it 21 times until you get kind of good at it.” So we have a lot of opportunity in a regular length semester to do that, using various tools. The other thing that happens with at least my students is they think it is just tool specific. And that is what is a really nice feature of a lot of our Google stuff is the actions are very similar across the different things. So across sheets, across slides, across docs, the basic actions, commenting, making copies of, and finding out who did what, those are all the same kinds of things, even though they look different.

Rebecca: in my classes this semester… and I did this last semester, too… I invited students to use the comment tool on my syllabus, which I provided as a Google doc. And that was really interesting. And I encouraged them to ask questions about things on the syllabus or indicate things that they were excited about. And there was a healthy mix of both. I told them that they had to make a comment. So it was a healthy mix of students making positive comments about things they were excited about, as well as asking rich questions by requiring them to make a comment of some sort. If they didn’t have a question, they had to provide something. And what’s been really interesting is that they seem to think that that’s still an open invitation, which is great, I’m still engaging, I get the notifications, little questions come up about assignments, as things become more relevant to them as the semester has been going on, which has been really interesting to continuing to have a conversation about the course. But that was one way that I introduced commenting as a way of using this collaborative environment from day one. And it’s worked really well.

Kathleen: And it also showed the value of joint thinking around something that kind of looked like a finished product. Because our syllabi did look pretty finished. I think that piece too is kind of underneath the surface and showed how brave you were too, Rebecca. [LAUGHTER]

Rebecca: Well, I also know that, since the pandemic, I’m even more aware of how quickly things can shift and change. But in the kinds of classes that I teach, I tend to be really responsive to where students are at. And so what’s on the schedule may very well change. And so I just keep it up to date. And I use the syllabus as the place to do that. So everyone has a complete copy of what we’re doing. So it is something that’s regularly revised, at least parts of it.

John: I know a number of our faculty have moved to a liquid syllabus approach where they’re creating a website and letting students know that it will be revised based on circumstances and based on how things are going, where they’re asking students regularly for feedback. And certainly putting it in a Google doc is a good way of doing that.

Rebecca: My advanced students this semester, through our brainstorm process. decided they were all going to work together on a project. And so that really kind of threw some things in my syllabus out the window, because the structure I had in place wasn’t gonna work for that. I was open to their idea. So now we’ve had to go in and edit and adjust as a result of their proposal. But I think it’ll be a really exciting opportunity for those students.

Kathleen: One group of honors students a couple of years ago… and our Honors Program is across years. So I had freshmen all the way to seniors. And I asked them to construct the syllabus. And there were 15 students in the class… 15, 17… something like that. And I just set them at it, because we were going to use a project-based learning approach anyhow in the course. And I wanted an assessment of what our baseline was. Thank goodness for Google docs. However, what they did is they created their own, they divided into little groups on their own, then they created separate Google docs, and then had this problem of how do we merge them. And I was very, very happy to see them using Google docs in their small groups so efficiently. And it gave great context, as we got to the point of how do we make this into one, not only by building consensus, but also creating a joint product that now is that five armed tree octopus. How do we do that? So it was perfect. It was a whole course on digital literacy and digital growth, so it was a perfect baseline. And we couldn’t have done it without Google. There’s one other kind of hint or maybe pandemic smart suggestion related to Google, and I’m not sure that this is possible on all campuses… I know it’s possible within your own private instance of Google… is turning offline mode on. Notice I said that slowly so I didn’t trip over all the words. Having the ability to work on a doc that sits on my stream on my home computer and then sync back to drive as soon as I log back on, I have found to be a very powerful solution given just people’s reality of being able to access and fight for bandwidth at home and wherever they are. Our campus took a long time to turn that on.

John: I actually don’t know if it’s available here, because I have it turned on on my personal account. And I’m prevented from doing it on the other, I think it may be turned off at our campus, I’m not positive,

Rebecca: I have it turned on on my app. But I don’t know if that’s different for my campus account

Kathleen: Before we started the actual podcast where we’re talking about some of the challenges with respect to Google on our higher ed campuses. And that would be one is taking a feature that has a whole lot of potential functionality, and convincing whoever it is you need to convince on your campus that that needs to be toggled on, and the rationale for it. I think it took a very, very long time. And then when they turned it on, they didn’t tell anyone.

Rebecca: Well, the big rationale there is the word equity.

Kathleen: Yeah. and then, thankfully, they had done it before the pandemic hit. And the reason I’m saying thankfully, is because there was a sufficient, let’s call it herd mentality, not herd immunity, herd mentality, so the people could help each other in the absence of direct support from an already overstretched IT department. So the more we have little worker bees around able to do things and help each other, I think the better off we are. So, there were enough people that had turned certain things on, not turned other things on, and their fear, rightly so, is that the floodgates would open and the individual user wouldn’t know to not do that, and then have everything on their local drive rather than up in Google. So that’s a piece, though, that I have found to be very helpful, especially when I get students in our area. Well, you’re remote, too, you’ve a lot of rural areas. We have folks that literally have very limited stable internet access. So let’s recognize that, and then it doesn’t mean that you can’t still work, you can’t do certain things, but you can resync when you get back on.

John: And whether that’s enabled on your campus or not, you do have that option with mobile devices, and many of our students are working with mobile devices. I used to use that when I was traveling. And I might not have network access if I was on a plane or if I was on a train, or just in a place where there was a dead zone, and it’s really convenient. We’ve talked a little bit about using Google slides and Google docs. But one tool that both Rebecca and I use quite a bit is Google forms. One of the nice things I like about forms is when you’re having students submit a variety of things, they automatically get stored in a folder, and you can share the spreadsheet created back with the whole class, so they all have access to the work of the rest of the class in a really convenient format, without ending ability. Could you talk a little bit about some of the ways in which Google forms might be used effectively?

Kathleen: Well, I like your idea, especially when people are doing independent or small group projects that are housed in Google. Actually, they could be housed anywhere, let’s pretend they were doing padlets or anything else that generated a url. Just by collecting those through a Google form, the work is done for you. It’s done for them. As soon as they submit, it’s done for you. And then you have your master spreadsheet, which you can then easily adapt. So you can either share the whole thing with them to view or filter certain data out of the spreadsheet or make instances of it so that different groups can use different things. Again, have in mind, what do you want to end up with, and what level of access do you want students to have. So if anyone wants to collect joint data on anything, don’t share the spreadsheet with more than two people that you trust.

John: Specifically, the way I used it was I have students doing a podcast project and they submit their audio file, they submit a transcript, they submit an abstract. And also they answer a question about whether they want it posted publicly or not. So all the podcasts are shared within the class, but only some of them make it out into the rest of the world. And it’s their choice. And sometimes students will have multiple submissions, because they may have a few drafts with feedback. And I’ll just delete any first drafts of that and then make a copy of the spreadsheet and share that with the whole class, where that way they can get all that information from all the students either on individual pages or in just the spreadsheet itself.

Kathleen: Right. So the more complex the contribution, the more forms is a tool of choice. I also use it as a hook. So we think of forms as a survey tool. It actually has a quiz function built into it now. Originally, it didn’t. On a broader scale, though, just finding out what people know before they step into new content can help them get grounded: “Oh, I’m not the only one who does or doesn’t know this stuff or has done this stuff before” So, it can ground them. Most essentially, for us as instructors. It can drive what we end up doing the next class or for the final assignment or whatever. Ad I also think that we need lots of opportunities for students to take a look at what are the data telling us, regardless of whatever topic it is. So I will often create a Google form where they, at the beginning of a synchronous class, or even before coming to class, or in an online class or remote class that may tease into “what’s your experience with this? And what’s your favorite thing, or whatever the thing is.” And I usually start with easy things like “what’s your favorite app, and why?” Because they always want to tell, and then it’s the data are all collected automatically. And in Google forms, I don’t even have to go to the spreadsheet, the beautiful charts are automatically created. So I can actually, without anything, just click, show them, or I can share it so they can see, especially if I have made sure to not ask for students’ names. And we can use that as a pivot to what we’re going to do next. So that piece in that learning cycle… before, during, after… it’s perfect for things like muddiest point, like “What was the thing that was most confusing about this class?” Instead of having just a conversation, even though we may have a conversation, that’d be something visual that people can look at and say, “Wow, most people’s said the most confusing thing were my directions. Let me work on that. What would have helped?” I think there’s also this thing of, we’re asking people to put skin in the game. And that’s part of my whole mindset, I want you to put skin in the game during… I will too. I’m also going to listen to you. And here is an example of how I’m going to do it. So forms has been my favorite tool for that purpose. I’m also showing them they can use it in different ways, not just as a quiz, not just as a collector, but also as a way to gather information and then use the information for certain things. Do I have students create quizzes using Google forms? Yes, I do. If they’re going to build content, they’re going to want to know what their content users think of it, or what they learned from it. So instead of going to an external tool, I will usually drive them right back to Google to do it. Google forms is one of my favorite go-tos. And most students have used it.

Rebecca: I’ve used it a lot for self assessment, as well, for students, there’s a lot of great opportunity for scales and things like that, as they’re looking at their own work. Or in my advanced classes, where we run more like a design studio, I have them do like little performance reviews at different points of the semester to kind of mimic what the professional world might be like. And that’s worked really well. It gives me a great way of seeing where everybody’s at all at once at a quick glance, I can have one-on-one meetings with students. They also have like a little checklist of things to be paying attention to. So it works on a lot of different levels. So I found that to be really particularly useful. We use it for accessibility purposes for the work that our students design with a little checklist and going through and checking each thing and marking whether or not it passes certain tests as a self check before they submit their work.

Kathleen: That’s very nice. For my online classes, I use a holistic rubric. And I just use a scale function in Google forms. That is the last thing they do at the end of the module, they self assess on our five criteria that I use across every single module. And I ask them to point out the things that they think they really did well on, the things that they ran into as problems, and how they tried to address those problems. Then I use that information when I give them feedback. I also want them to get in that process like you… self reflection, we’re gonna live and die by it as we go forward. So again, that practice, and your right, forms is the way to do it.

John: And you mentioned the muddiest point, I often will use that generally as some sort of an exit ticket at the end of the class. But, a nice thing about using that is, if you teach a large class, as I used to a decade or so ago before the pandemic began, where I didn’t want to get students turning in three or four hundred sheets of paper for me to scan through, you can just put up the form with a QR code on the screen or a bitly, a short URL that they can type in, they can do it right from their mobile device. And it just takes a couple minutes. And you can quickly scan through the spreadsheet just to see what sort of patterns there are. And you can then address that the next time the class meets and it allows you to scale that technique to a larger level without putting a lot more work on yourself or on the students.

Kathleen: Thanks for mentioning QR codes. The first time that I put a QR code on a slide deck for my freshmen students, they didn’t know and I said you have seen these on bananas and ketchup bottles and other stuff like that and on billboards and whatever. But we never saw it on anything for school. And all they wanted to do is get their phone out. And here’s a slide deck in front of them. But I loved it because as soon as it’s in their device, they have it. So I usually, even though that url is there, it was way cooler to just scan the QR code. And sometimes I would go to slide two, and they wouldn’t see the QR code. “We didn’t get the code.” “Okay, now this happens to also be in our LMS” …and I loved it because if they’re flipping through that slide deck while we’re using it in class… if I told you to do it, you wouldn’t. Thank you for doing it. The lure of the QR code, right?

Rebecca: Do you have any other Google favorites that you want to share before we wrap up today?

Kathleen: Just a couple of teasers. People don’t think about these. But some students say to me, the only way I learn well is by YouTube. Well, thank you. I’m on YouTube. So here we go, haha. And you’re going to be on YouTube in this class, too. But one of the things that I encourage students to do is build their own playlist of things. And lots of times that feature they use all the time, but they don’t use it for their academic work. So I actually ask them to build playlists about certain things for each other to use online for survival, your best way to get through a tough book. What are your best study skills? And then in content areas, when they’re doing specific things related to their major, I ask them to find, rate and vett pre-existing videos and put them into playlists, and then do an infomercial that tells people why this list of videos makes sense. So I asked him to use pre- existing content, but get better at using it and vetting against things like duration, captioning, and transcripts that don’t have a lot of errors and then stuff like that. So, trying to get them to use a tool that they say they like an awful lot. I use playlists as well. And of course, have playlists that are built into the courses. But I really want them to do though, is build their own because that shows that they’re actually using stuff that they would normally use anyhow, but putting it into more of a package of purposeful use, and then share, share with each other. So another collaboration, I think the other couple of things that are underused…alerts, Google scholar alerts, and alerts, when at the beginning of a semester, if I know that they’re going to have a long-term project, let’s generate keywords. Right off the bat, I want you to read a couple things, generate some keywords, and I want you to create a Google scholar alert for yourself for these things. If you do it today, I promise you, unless it’s something really obscure, you will get some things coming to your email box that will help you as you move ahead. Again, it’s not to become a master at it, they’re going to need to do that over time in order to be effective. But I think it’s way different than kind of the scatter approach to let me search in Google and look at the five like… ‘cause I know you’re only going to look at the first five things anyhow. So at least now you’re going to get some regular stuff in that are key things that are key to your interests or your priorities. I also have used and asked you this to use the custom Google search engine. Most students do not understand that that little search bar everywhere is a custom Google search tool. So when they are creating content, I ask them to create often, not often in a class, but at least in every course, as they share content, I asked them to create a custom Google search tool for their users. And they’re in awe that they’ve created their own little search bar. And it has in it only the things that they put into it. And I use this as an example of how they need to be very careful, because think about the very few things that you’re allowing people to search and get results from in your custom Google search. Does that say anything to you about what happens when you use Google? What’s happening to what not being exposed to you? What is happening to what’s being exposed to you? This constant reminder about data and tools, data and tools. And for elementary teachers in particular, who are working on differentiating content for students with very differing ability and skill levels, that’s been a really functional thing. So I asked them to do a lot of background work to do good selection of resources. And then when they tailor the stuff for their students, for example, using the custom Google search engine helps them kind of put a icing on top of the cupcake. So, that’s been kind of interesting. And I think the other piece is Google Maps and Google are underutilized. And on our campus block, despite all kinds of reminders that we do have several GIS courses and we have other courses that would use Google Earth and Google Maps within our Fredonia identity, if we have those available. So people that are committed to using those tools actually go back to their personal, which is not what our campuses want to encourage. So I think that we have a long way to go in the Google world to advocate for tools that are functional and explain that functionality to the people that are making decisions.

John: One other tool that I know we’ve talked about before that you’ve used is Google jamboard. Could you talk a little bit about how you’ve used that?

Kathleen: I’m going to say 10 years ago, I scrambled around I was like, “Where can I find a flexible, viable online whiteboard that doesn’t make me sign in and pay at least something or that will allow lots of users or that has a limited number of tools so the learning curve is short. And now we have it. So Google jamboard, not the one you pay $5,000 for that sits in a room, not that jamboard. But the Google doc version basically, is a wonderful addition to the suite. So jamboard is a Google Doc that facilitates typical online whiteboard functions. But otherwise, pretty much acts like a Google Doc, I can share it, I can unshare it, I can share it to individuals or groups of users. I can capitalise on the functionality of the device because of the app that works. on that device. The mobile app of jamboard is slightly different, and really cool than the desktop version, or the one that would run on your computer. Similarly, on Chromebooks, there’s a slight difference, because it’s paying attention to the device that it’s on. So, for example, writing is often difficult depending on the type of math you have, and if you don’t have a stylus. So on the mobile version, there’s an option to choose to convert your scribbles to text and it will automatically convert your entry to a readable text version. So, there’s some really nice device specific nuances that you don’t often see with a tool like this. So what’s also neat… easy to duplicate, easy to export. And for people that really want to have custom, not just the blank whiteboard, you can either use templates that are readily available as backgrounds, you can easily create your own background, bring it in, and then that serves as the frame for people to contribute to. Otherwise it works pretty much like any kind of regular online whiteboard. There’s sticky notes, there’s doodling tools, there’s writing tools, not a lot of colors, but enough to play with. John, you mentioned breakout rooms… perfect solution for some of our breakout rooms for our synchronous meetings, because you can easily click to duplicate right within that one jamboard. If you have five breakout rooms, dup, dup dup dup, and then you say you’re in jamboard one, you’re in jamboard two, breakout room three has number three, and everyone has access to them, you can then click to turn off editing, and then use it as a piece for people to talk about on and on. They can’t use a commenting function per se, but you can build it into the instructional flow. So it can be as great as brainstorming, or it can be as structured as the old four corners activity that we do in cooperative learning, like go to corner one if you are a high end user, go to corner for if this is a brand new thing to you. So you can do that with sticky notes and other things in a structured kind of way, or you can have people generate concept maps or move things around or have it so that the range of generation to addition, like generating from scratch or adding to, or subtracting from, is very easily done. And without a lot of time commitment on your part. I encourage people to try it. Don’t overuse it, just like any tool. Like “Oh no, we have to get creative here.” We don’t want that kind of a response, right? Again, though, a great way to capture the ideas, then that URL is shareable in any way. Also, you can capture everything, bring it down as a image file or as a PDF and use it in other ways. So I’ve used, for example, a jamboard… I call it a stream, but a jamboard frame and started one-on-one instance one meeting, and then we can come back to it on the second meeting. See where we were in our thinking, for example, at the end of the last frame, somebody’s points for that. I actually use that four corners thing a lot in jamboard, use that as a reference point as we move into the next class activity or the next meeting. I’ve done it with faculty and faculty development, they think it’s really cool. And they want to play an awful lot, which I don’t mind because it is pretty engaging…and another way to collaborate, very different than the typical text kind of contribution… which is a good way to trigger people whose brains don’t quite work in a text linear fashion.

Rebecca: Well, thanks so much for so many great ideas and a wide range of thinking about Google in the classroom in a way that maybe folks haven’t thought of before. We always wrap up by asking what’s next?

Kathleen: What’s next is trying to figure out what will happen to changing grades in a google assignment in the LMS gradebook. We’re experimenting with that, as far as the people that want to use a single thing and change the grade base. That’s a piece that we’re working on. And the other thing for me, at least, what’s next is following up with people that are doing some really great fun things with jamboard and trying to get a kind of informal community of learners around using that tool, because we have everything from biology to business [LAUGHTER] playing with it and I think those examples are going to really be important to hook other people in the disciplines that aren’t quite so much of early adopters. So for me, those are the two next steps.

John: Well, thank you. I’ve learned a lot from you over the years with all the workshops you’ve done at the SUNY Conference on Instruction and Technology, and just from other conversations and working with you on various committees and things.

Kathleen: Thank you. Both of you are excellent at this, and great ideas. Nice to talk.

Rebecca: Thanks for coming. We appreciate it.

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

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

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179. It’s Been a Year

A year ago, our campus announced that it was shutting down for a two-week pause so that the COVID-19 pandemic could be brought under control. To help faculty prepare for remote instruction, we released our first episode of many on March 19, 2020, with Flower Darby. We thought this would be a good moment to pause and reflect on this journey.

Show Notes

  • Flower Darby (2020). “Pandemic Related Remote Learning.” Tea for Teaching Podcast. Episode 126. March 19.
  • Todd, E. M., Watts, L. L., Mulhearn, T. J., Torrence, B. S., Turner, M. R., Connelly, S., & Mumford, M. D. (2017). A meta-analytic comparison of face-to-face and online delivery in ethics instruction: the case for a hybrid approach. Science and Engineering Ethics, 23(6), 1719-1754.
  • Means, B., Toyama, Y., Murphy, R., Bakia, M., & Jones, K. (2009). Evaluation of evidence-based practices in online learning: A meta-analysis and review of online learning studies.
  • Lang, J. M. (2020). Distracted: Why Students Can’t Focus and What You Can Do about It. Basic Books.
  • Linda Nilson (2019). “Specifications Grading.” Tea for Teaching Podcast. Episode 86. August 21.
  • Susan Blum (2020). “Peagogies of Care: Upgrading.” Tea for Teaching Podcast. Episode 145.  July 22.

Transcript

Rebecca: A year ago, our campus announced that it was shutting down for a two-week pause so that the COVID-19 pandemic could be brought under control. To help faculty prepare for remote instruction, we released our first episode of many on March 19, 2020, with Flower Darby We thought this would be a good moment to pause and reflect on this journey.

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

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

John: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer.

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

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John: Our teas today are:

Rebecca: I’m drinking English Afternoon for the first time in about a year. Because I’ve been home, and working from home, I’ve been drinking pots of loose leaf tea instead of bag teas. And so I’m bringing back the comfort of a year ago.

John: And we still have in the office several boxes of English A fternoon tea, but they are wrapped in plastic. So I’m hoping they’ll still be in good shape when we finally get back there …once this two week pause that we started about a year ago, ends.

Rebecca: Yeah, when we recorded that Flower Darby episode was the last time we saw each other in person.

John: Well, there was one other time…

Rebecca: Oh, when you dropped off equipment.

John: I dropped off a microphone and a mixer for you so that we could continue with this podcast. Actually, I think we saw each other from a distance because I left it on the porch because I had just come back from Long Island where infection rates were very high.

Rebecca: Are you drinking tea, John?

John: …and I am drinking Tea Forte black currant tea today.

Rebecca: A good favorite. So John, can you talk a little bit about where you were at mentally and just even conceptually, in terms of online teaching and things,when the pandemic started a year ago,

John: We were starting to hear about some school closings in other countries and in some cities in the US where COVID infection rates were starting to pick up and it started to look more and more likely that we’d be moving into a shutdown, in the week before we were to go to spring break. I was teaching at the time one fully asynchronous online class and two face-to-face classes. When it was looking more and more like we’d shut down I talked to my face-to-face classes about what options we’d have should we go online for some period of time. And I shared with them how we could use Zoom for this. And we had already used Zoom a few times for student presentations when students were out sick or had car trouble and couldn’t make it into class. Because they were actively using computers or mobile devices every day in class, anyway, they all had either computers or smartphones with them. And I had them download Zoom and test it out, asking them to mute their mics. And very quickly, they learned why I asked them to do that. I wasn’t very concerned because we’ve been doing workshops at our teaching center for many years now with remote participants. And we’ve been using Zoom for at least five years or so now. So I wasn’t really that concerned about the possibilities for this. And I thought the online class would go very much like it had and the face-to-face classes would work in a very similar way… for the short period that we were expecting to be shut down. I think even at the time, many of us thought that this would be somewhat longer, but I wasn’t terribly concerned at the time, because infection rates were still pretty low. And I think we were all hopeful that this would be a short-run experience.

Rebecca: And also maybe the fact that you’ve taught online before didn’t hurt.

John: Yeah, I’ve been teaching online since 1997, I believe. And so I was pretty comfortable with that and I wasn’t concerned at all about the fully online class, I was a little more concerned about the students who were used to the face-to-face experience adapting to a Zoom environment.

Rebecca: I had a really different experience because I was on sabbatical in the spring working on some research projects related to accessibility. Because of that, I was able to quickly adapt and be able to help some communities that I’m a part of, related to professional development. So I stepped in and helped a little bit with our center and did a couple workshops and helped on a couple of days with that. And I also helped with our SUNY-wide training too, and offered some workshops related to accessibility and inclusive teaching at that time. And the professional association for design locally, we had a couple of little support groups for design faculty.

John: I wasn’t too concerned about my classes, but I was a little bit more concerned about all the faculty that we had who had never taught online. And so, as you just said, we put together a series of workshops for about a week and a half over our spring break helping faculty to get ready for the transition to what we’re now calling remote instruction.

Rebecca: At that time, too. I had no experience teaching online, I’d used Blackboard and things like that before, but not to fully teach online. So for me, it was a really different experience. And I was helping and coaching faculty through some of those transitions too, not really having had much experience myself. So I had the benefit, perhaps, of seeing where people stumbled before I had to teach in the fall. But I also didn’t get any practice prior to fall like some people did with some forgiveness factors built into the emergency nature of the spring.

John: I think for most faculty, it was a very rapid learning process in the spring and instruction wasn’t quite at the level I think anyone was used to, but I think institutions throughout the country were encouraging faculty to do the best that they could, knowing that this was an emergency situation, and I’m amazed at how quickly faculty adapted to this environment overall.

Rebecca: One of the things that I thought was gonna be really interesting to ask you about today, John, was about online instruction, because you have such a rich history teaching online, and there are so many new faculty teaching online, although in a different format than perhaps online education research talks about. Many people taught asynchronously for the first time, but there’s also a lot of faculty teaching online in a synchronous fashion. There’s a lot less research around that. How do you see this experience impacting online education long term.

John: I don’t think this is going to have much of a dramatic impact on asynchronous online instruction in the long term. Online instruction is not new, it’s been going on for several decades now. There’s a very large body of literature on what works effectively in online instruction. And under normal circumstances, when students are online and faculty are online because they choose to be, online instruction works really well. And there’s a lot of research that suggests that when asynchronous courses are well designed, building on what we know about effective online teaching strategies, they’re just as effective as well designed face-to-face classes. However, a lot of people are trying to draw lessons from what we’re observing today. And what we’re observing today, for the most part, does not resemble what online education normally is, primarily because the students who are there, and many faculty who are there, are there not by choice, but by necessity. And one of the things that has come up in some recent Twitter conversations, as well as conversations that we’ve had earlier, is that many online students in asynchronous classes have been asking for synchronous meetings. In several decades of teaching online, I’ve never seen that happen before, and now it’s very routine. And I think a lot of the issue there is that, in the past, most online students were there for very specific reasons. So they may have had work schedules that would not allow them to sign up for synchronous classes. Some of them are in shift work, some of them were on rotating shifts where they couldn’t have fixed times of availability. Some of them would have large distances to commute and it just wasn’t feasible, or they were taking care of family members who were ill, or as part of their job, they were required to travel. In most of the online classes I’ve had in the past, there were some students who were out of state or out of the country. I had students during the Gulf War who were on a ship, the only time they missed a deadline was when their ship went on radio silence before some of the attacks down there. They simply would not have been able to participate in synchronous instruction in any way. And I think a lot of the people who are now taking asynchronous classes, strongly prefer a synchronous modality and are disappointed that they’re not in that. And I think a lot of what we’re seeing is a response to that and I think we shouldn’t ignore all the research that has come out about effective online techniques in light of the current pandemic, because this is not how online instruction normally has occurred. And people are in very different circumstances now in terms of their physical wellbeing in terms of their emotional well being and just general stress.

Rebecca: Yeah, during the pandemic, many more people are in isolation, and might really be craving some of that social interaction that they might not expect out of an online class traditionally, especially if it’s an asynchronous class. But if you’re just alone, and you’re not going out of your house, there might be more of a desire during this one moment of time …this one really long moment of time. [LAUGHTER]

John: During this two-week pause? [LAUGHTER]

Rebecca: Yeah. One other thing, I guess, is important to note as we’re talking about research and what evidence shows is that hybrid can be really effective with the combination of in-person instruction complementing some asynchronous online instruction. And of course, in that traditional research, hybrid really means this in- person and then asynchronous online, this synchronous online thing wasn’t really a thing prior to the pandemic. [LAUGHTER]

John: Right. And we can’t really draw too many conclusions about this giant worldwide experiment that’s being done in less than optimal conditions without really having a control of normal instruction to compare it to. And yeah, several meta-analyses have found that while face-to-face and asynchronous online instruction are equally effective, hybrid instruction often has come out ahead in terms of the learning gains that students have experienced. Certainly, we know a lot about hybrid instruction, face-to-face instruction, and asynchronous online, but not the modality that larger of our students are in. One other factor is that when people signed up for online classes before, they did it knowing that they had solid internet connections, they knew they had computers that were capable of supporting online instructional environments. They had good bandwidth and so forth. That’s not the situation In which many of our students and faculty are working right now, because faculty and students often do not have any of those things. And they’re often working in suboptimal environments that are crowded, where there’s other people in the household sharing the same space. And it makes it really difficult to engage in remote asynchronous or synchronous work as they might have when they chose to be in that modality.

Rebecca: I do think that, during this time, though, into kind of forced online instruction, although there are certainly people who don’t like that they’ve been forced to be online, and they prefer to be synchronous or in person, I think there’s a cohort of people who thought online education wasn’t for them, both faculty and students, who have discovered that it actually really does work for them. And even me, although I teach web design and do things online, you’d think online education would seem obvious to me. But in the past, it hadn’t really occurred to me. Our education tends to be in person, and you tend to replicate what you’ve experienced. [LAUGHTER] And although I have taken some online courses related to design and technology and coding in the past, it hadn’t really occurred to me to consider some options. And I think what we’ve discovered is some of our courses work well in this modality and some don’t. Some of our courses are better positioned to be potentially online or work well in that format, and could help with some collaboration pieces, or some other things that we might be doing. It might support the work that we were already trying to do in person.

John: And I think now, all faculty have gotten much more comfortable with a wider variety of teaching techniques and teaching tools than they would have experienced before. For many faculty, just having dropboxes in the learning management system was something new, moving away from paper assignments was something very new. And suddenly, faculty were asked to use a wide variety of instructional tools that they had been very careful to avoid doing in the past. And one of the things that struck me is how many of the people in our workshops who’ve said that they were perfectly comfortable teaching in a face-to-face environment, and they just didn’t see the need for, or they didn’t think that online instruction could work for them. And now that they’ve tried all these new tools and these new approaches, they’re never going to go back to the traditional way in which they were teaching. So I think there are going to be a lot of things that people have learned during this that they’ll take back into their future instruction, even if it is primarily in a face-to-face environment.

Rebecca: It may also be some changes in technology policies in the classroom as well related to just seeing how helpful technology can be for learning, but also where it can be distracting. So I think there’s some reconsideration of what that might mean.

John: While there haven’t been so many things that I’ve enjoyed during the pandemic, one of them is that this whole issue of technology bans have pretty much fallen to the wayside. I’m not hearing faculty complaining about students using computers during their class time now. And that’s a nice feature, and perhaps faculty can appreciate how mobile devices can be an effective learning tool. And yes, there will have to be more discussions such as one we’re having in our reading group this semester, where we’re reading Jim Lang’s Distracted: Why Students Can’t Focus and What We Can Do About It. There’s a lot of discussion about when technology is appropriate, and when it’s not in those meetings. But I think faculty have come to recognize how ed tech can be useful in some ways, at least in their instruction, whether it’s in person or whether it’s remote.

Rebecca: I think it’s also important to note that how some of the synchronous technology, video conferencing technology like Zoom, has some advantages, even if our class is not synchronous online. It could just be an in person class in the future. We’ve seen the power of being able to bring guests in easily without having to deal with logistics of traveling and the scheduling considerations that are often involved with that. We don’t have the disruptions and education related to snow days and illness, both on the faculty and student side. Obviously, that depends on how severe the illness is, right? [LAUGHTER] Professional development has worked out really well online, although we’ve done online or had a Zoom component where you can kind of Zoom and being all on the same platform at the same time has been really great, being able to take advantage of breakout rooms and things like that. We’ve seen record numbers attend, and then also with advisement and office hours. It can be really intimidating to have to find an advisor’s or a faculty member’s office and you have to physically go there. And then it’s kind of intimidating. What if the door’s shut? What if they’re look like they’re busy? [LAUGHTER] There’s all these things that can get in the way that online or Zoom calls can just remove some of those barriers and also allow for more flexibility because now you don’t have to plan for walking across campus which might take some time. Or you might be able to squeeze in something at a time you wouldn’t be able to otherwise.

John: And a lot of our commuting students are commuting from 30 to 60 miles away, and it was not terribly convenient for them to have to drive up to campus at a time that was convenient for their professors just for the chance of sitting there and talking to them for a few minutes. So, the access is much easier using Zoom or other remote tools.

Rebecca: We should also get real. Zoom fatigue is a real, real, thing. It’s about 4:30 right now that we’re recording. We’ve both been on Zoom calls since early this morning. And kind of constant. Our students have been as well. There’s no let up, there’s no breaks. We don’t get the little stroll across campus to the next meeting. [LAUGHTER] There’s none of that. One of the things that I am experiencing, as someone who’s definitely introverted, is this performative nature of being on camera all the time. And I know our students are too. And John and I were talking about this a little earlier today, that, in the fall, I had tons of students participating with their cameras on and their microphones on, and even in the beginning of the spring, but there’s something about the dead of winter in Oswego, that kind of Doomsday nature of it, it’s gray here. And then the black boxes just kind of emphasize it further. And they’re not as visible as they had been before. And I think it’s partly because it’s so performative, and you’re being watched all the time. And it’s not necessarily not wanting to participate or feel like you’re present. But really, it’s just a little much.

John: And neither of us pressure our students to turn their cameras on. We welcome that, we invite them to do that, but we know there are some really sound reasons not to, because people are often working in environments that they don’t want to share with their classmates or with their faculty members. And they may have bandwidth issues and so forth. But it is really tedious to be talking to those black boxes. And as Rebecca and I talked about earlier, both of us are also creating videos. So, we get to talk to our web cameras a lot, and then we go to class, and we talk to our students. Most of our students, I think, turn their microphones on. So we get to hear them one at a time. But it’s challenging to be talking to people you can’t see all day long.

Rebecca: I think it’s particularly challenging for faculty, because there’s more of an expectation for faculty to have their cameras on both in class and in meetings than students. So I think there’s an extra level of fatigue that’s happening with faculty and staff, because it’s more performance more of the time. Some days, I really feel like I wish I could be a student and I could just turn my camera off.

John: I have a night class that meets for about three hours. And typically when we met face-to-face, we’d take a 7 to 10 minute break in the middle of that. I asked the students if they wanted to do that the first two weeks, and each time they said “No.” I said, “Well, if you need to get up, use a restroom, or walk around, please do it. But what I wasn’t considering is the fact that, while they were doing that, I was still here interacting with them the whole time. And that three-hour session can be a bit challenging by the end of it, particularly if you’ve been drinking a lot of tea.

Rebecca: That’s actually important to note that, kind of unusually, John and I are both teaching three-hour classes, that’s probably not the norm for most faculty. I’m teaching studio classes. So for one class, it’s three hours of time, two times a week, and you’re teaching a seminar class, right, John, that’s three hours?

John: Yes, that meets once a week.

Rebecca: These longer sessions, we can break up by physically moving around the classroom and things when we’re in person, it becomes more of a challenge online. And I know that I’ve been thinking more about the orchestra of it all and changing it up in my classes. So we might do something in small groups then may do something as a big group, we participate in a whiteboard activity, then we might do something else, then we take a break, then we try to do something that’s off screen for a little bit and then come back. And so I’ve tried to build in some opportunities for myself as well to be able to turn my camera off at least for a few minutes during that three-hour time or take a little bit of that time during breakout sessions or whatever, because I need a break too. Our good friend Jessamyn Neuhaus has mentioned this to us many times before, that we’re not superheroes, and we should stop trying to be superheroes. And this seems like a good moment to remind ourselves of this as well. I know for me, it’s like I need a snack, I need to go to the bathroom, I need a drink. I would do that in a physical class. I take breaks then. So I’ve been making sure we build it in, and actually even padding it a little bit and giving people longer breaks than I would in person.

John: And our campus, recognizing the challenges that faculty faced with this last fall, put in two wellness days where no classes were held, and people were encouraged to engage in activities to give them that sort of break. I’m not sure about you, but I ended up spending about seven and a half hours of that day in meetings that were scheduled by various people on campus.

Rebecca: Yeah, and students also said that they ended up really needing that time to just catch up, because the workload in terms of student work hasn’t reduced, but being on screen has increased for most people, and you just need some time away. So, it ends up taking more hours of the day, just in terms of logistics, if you actually going to give your eyes a break and things. I did a little survey of my classes and they said they spent a lot of that time kind of catching up, although maybe the pace of the day was a little slower.

John: Going back to the issue of cameras being on, one of our colleagues on campus did a survey of the students in her class asking why they chose not to have their cameras on. And the response seemed to indicate that a lot of it was peer pressure, that as more and more students turn the cameras off, they became odd to leave them on. So I think many of us have experienced the gradual darkening of our screens from the fall to the spring,

Rebecca: I found that there’s some strategies to help with that as well. One of the things I did last week was invite students to participate in a whiteboard activity online indicating what they expected their peers to do so that they felt like they were engaged or part of a community. What should they do in a breakout? And what does participation look like in an online synchronous class? And they want all the things we wanted them too. They said, like, “Oh, I want people to engage.” And we talked about what that means, that it might mean participating in chat, it might mean having the cameras on, and things like that. And that day, right after that conversation, so many people during that conversation turn their cameras on. So in part, it’s about reminding, or just pointing out that it’s not very welcoming to have not even a picture up.

John: And this is something you’ve suggested in previous podcasts to that, while we’re not going to ask students to leave their cameras on to create a more inclusive environment, you could encourage students to put pictures up.

Rebecca: Yeah, we feel as humans more connected when we see human faces. So we feel much more connected than looking at black boxes. [LAUGHTER] So I’ve definitely encouraged my students. On the first day, I gave instructions to all the students about how to do that. And then when we had our conversation the other day, when I was starting to feel the darkening of the classroom and more cameras came on, I also just invited and encouraged everyone else. If you can’t have your camera on, or you have a tendency not to be able to put your camera on, that’s not a problem, but we would really welcome seeing your face or some representation of you as an image.

John: What are some of the positive takeaways faculty will take from this into the future?

Rebecca: It’s been interesting, because we’ve had far more faculty participating in professional development opportunities, initially out of complete necessity, like “I don’t know how to use Blackboard” and starting with digital tools and technologies, and then asking bigger and more complicated questions about quality instruction online as they gained some confidence in the technical skills. So there’s some competency there that I think is really great. And that’s leading to faculty wanting to use some of these tools in classes, it might mean just using Blackboard so that the assignments are there, and the due dates are more present, and just kind of some logistical things to help students keep organized. But also, there’s a lot of really great tools that, as we mentioned earlier, that faculty have discovered that they want to use in their classes. So maybe it’s polling and doing low-stakes testing in their classes during the class. I’ve discovered using these virtual whiteboards, which actually logistically work better than physical whiteboards in a lot of cases in the things that we’re doing, because everyone can see what their collaborators are doing better. So there’s a lot of tools that I think faculty are going to incorporate throughout the work that they’re doing. But also they’ve learned a lot more evidence-based practices. And maybe you want to talk a little bit about that, John,

John: At the start of the pandemic, the initial workshops, were mostly “How do I use Zoom?” But very quickly, even back in March, we also talked a little bit about how we can use evidence-based practices that build on what we know about teaching and learning. In the spring, there wasn’t much faculty could do in the last couple of months to change their courses. But we did encourage them to move from high-stakes exams to lower-stakes assessments to encourage students to engage more regularly with material, to space out their practice, and so forth. And at the start of the summer, we put together a mini workshop for faculty on how to redesign their courses for whatever was going to happen in the fall. And it was basically a course redevelopment workshop, where we focused primarily on what research shows about how we learn and how we can build our courses in ways that would foster an environment where students might learn more effectively. Our morning sessions were based primarily on pedagogy and then in the afternoon, we’d go over some sessions on how you can implement that in a remote or an asynchronous environment, giving people a choice of different ways of implementing it. By the start of the summer, people were starting to think about doing things like polling, about doing low-stakes testing, or mastery learning quizzing, and so forth. And people started to implement that in the fall. And then we had another series of workshops in January. We normally have really good participation, but we had, I believe, over 2000 attendees at sessions during our January sessions. And during those sessions, we had faculty presenting on all the things that they’d learned and how they were able to implement new teaching techniques. And it was one of the most productive set of workshops we’ve ever had here, I believe. And what really struck me is how smoothly faculty had transitioned to a remote environment. At the start of the pandemic and during spring break, we were encouraging people to attend remotely and yet faculty mostly wanted to sit in the classroom with us, and we wanted to stay as far away from those people as we could. But about half the people attended virtually. Butwhat’s been happening as people were getting more and more comfortable attending remotely and we’ve been offering the option of people attending virtually since I took over as the Director of the teaching center back in 2008, I believe. However, we rarely had more than a few people attending remotely. And it was always a challenge for people to be participating fully when they were remote while other people were in the same room, which gave us some concerns about how this was going to work in the reduced capacity classrooms that many colleges, including ours, were going to implement in the fall. And we knew we didn’t really have the microphones in the rooms that would allow remote participants to hear everyone in the room and vice versa. Once we switched entirely online, where all the participants in the workshops were in Zoom, it’s been much more effective to have everyone attending in the same way, so that we didn’t have some people participating in the classroom and others attending remotely. And I think that, combined with faculty becoming more comfortable with using Zoom, has allowed us to reach more faculty more effectively.

Rebecca: One of the things that I saw so powerful this January, in our experience on our campus, was all of the faculty who volunteered to do sessions and talk about their experiences and support other faculty experimenting with things. And I think it was just this jolt that caused us all to have to try something new, that was really, really powerful. We all get stuck. Even those of us that know evidence-based techniques, we get stuck in our routines, and sometimes just allow inertia to move us forward and replicate what we’ve done before because it’s easier, it saves time, and we have a lot on our plates. And it’s really about being efficient, because we just have too much to do. So it was nice, in a weird way, to have that jolt to try some new things. I heard some great things from faculty that I’ve never heard from before I learned some things from some other faculty. And it was really exciting. And the personal place in my heart that I get most excited about, of course, is how many faculty got really excited about things related to inclusive pedagogy, and equity, and accessibility. We offered, on our campus a 10-day accessibility challenge that we opened up to faculty, staff, and students as part of our winter conference sessions. And we had record accessibility attendance… never seen so many people interested in accessibility before. But that came out of the experience of the spring and the fall, and people really seeing equity issues and experiencing it with their students. They witnessed it in a way that it was easy to ignore previously. And so I think that faculty, throughout this whole time, have cared about the experience that students have and want students to have equity. They just didn’t realize the disparity that existed amongst our students. And the students saw the disparity that existed amongst students, which was a really powerful moment, really disturbing for some students who had to share that moment with other people, but also a really useful experience for faculty to really buy into some of these practices about building community, about making sure their materials were accessible. And all of that has resulted in a much higher quality education for our students.

John: It was really easy for faculty to ignore a lot of these inequities before, because the computer labs, the Wi Fi, the food services, and library services, and lending of equipment provided by institutions, compensated for a lot of those issues, so that disparities in income and wealth were somewhat hidden in the classroom. But once people moved home, many of those supports disappeared, despite the best efforts of campuses in providing students with WiFi access with hotspots or providing them with loaner computers. And those issues just became so much more visible. It’s going to be very hard for faculty to ignore those issues, I think, in the future, because it has impacted our ability to reach a lot of our students. And it has affected the ability of many of our students to fully participate in a remote environment. But going back to that point about people sharing, I also was really amazed by how willing people were to volunteer and share what they’ve learned in their experiences. Typically, when we put our January workshop schedule together, we call for workshop proposals from people. And we typically get 5 to 12 of those, and they’re often from our technical support people on campus. And it’s rare that we get faculty to volunteer. And normally we have to spend a few months getting faculty to volunteer so that we get maybe 20 or 30 faculty to talk about their experiences. We had about 50 people just volunteer without anything other than an initial request, and then a few more with a little nudging, so that we ended up with 107 workshops that were all very well attended. And there were some really great discussions there because, as you said, people were put in an environment where the old ways of doing things just didn’t work anymore, and it opened people up to change. We’ve been encouraging active learning and we’ve been encouraging changes in teaching practices. But this pretty much has reached just about everybody this time in ways that it would have been really difficult to reach all of our faculty before.

Rebecca: It’s easy during a time like a pandemic to just feel like the world’s tumbling down. And there’s no doubt about that. But it’s a time where I’ve also been really grateful to have such great colleagues. Because not only have we seen faculty supporting each other and using new technology, the advocacy that they’ve demonstrated on behalf of students who really had needs has been incredible. Likewise, for faculty, we’ve witnessed some really interesting conversations amongst faculty about ways to reduce their own repetitive stress injuries and other accessibility issues that faculty are also experiencing, equity issues that faculty are experiencing, caregiving responsibilities that are making things really challenging for faculty. But there’s a really strong network of support amongst each other to help everyone through and there’s no word to describe what that means other than being grateful for it, because people have been so supportive of each other. And that, to me, is pretty amazing.

John: Faculty have often existed in the silos of their departments. But this transition has broken down those silos. It’s built a sense of community in a lot of ways that we generally didn’t see extending as far beyond the department borders. There were always a lot of people who supported each other, but the extent to that is so much greater.

Rebecca: So we’ve been talking a lot about this faculty support. John, can you give a couple of examples of things that faculty have shared that have worked really well in their classes that they weren’t doing before?

John: One of the things that more and more faculty have been doing is introducing active learning activities and more group activities within their classes in either a synchronous or asynchronous environment. And that’s something that’s really helpful. And as we’ve encouraged faculty to move away from high-stakes assessment, and many faculty have worked much more carefully about scaffolding their assignments, so that large projects are broken up into smaller chunks that are more manageable, and students are getting more feedback regularly. Faculty, in general, I think, have been providing students with more support, because when in a classroom, you were just expecting students to ask any questions about something they didn’t understand. And sometimes they did and sometimes they didn’t. But I think faculty realize that in a remote environment, all those instructions have to be there for students. So in general, I think faculty are providing students with more support, more detailed instructions, and often creating videos to help explain some of the more challenging parts that they might normally have expected students to ask about during a face-to-face class meeting.

Rebecca: I think previously, although faculty want to be supportive, they may not have been aware of some of the mental and emotional health challenges that students face generally, but have been amplified during the pandemic. Students who might experience anxiety or depression and how that impacts their ability to focus, their ability to organize themselves and organize their time, all of those things have become much more visible, just like those equity issues. And so I think that faculty are becoming more aware of that emotional piece of education and making sure that people feel supported so that they can be successful. And even just that kind of warm language piece of it, and being welcoming, and just indicating, like, “Hey, how are you doing? I really do care about what’s going on with you.” And having those chit chat moments sometimes even in a synchronous online class, open up that discussion and help students feel like they’re part of the community and really help address some of those issues that students are facing.

John: And I think a lot of the discussion is how can we build this class community when we move away from a physical classroom. So there have been many discussions, and many productive discussions, on ways of building this class community and helping to maintain instructor presence in asynchronous classes, as well as helping to maintain human connections when we’re all distanced, somehow.

Rebecca: I think that also points out the nature of some of our in-person classes and the assumptions that we made, that there were human connections being made in class when maybe they weren’t, or maybe there wasn’t really a community being built, because students may also not know each other there. So I think some of the lessons of feeling isolated maybe themselves, or seeing their students feel isolated, has led faculty to develop and take the time to do more community-building activities. So that there is that support network in place sp that students are able to learn, the more supported they feel, the more confident they feel, the more willing or open they’re going to be to learning and having that growth mindset.

John: And we’re hoping that all these new skills that faculty have acquired, will transition very nicely when we move to a more traditional face-to-face environment in the fall.

Rebecca: …or sometime ever… [LAUGHTER]

John: At some point, yes. [LAUGHTER] But one thing we probably should talk about is something I know we both have experienced is the impact on faculty workloads.

Rebecca: It’s maybe grown just a little, John, I don’t know about you, but there’s some of it that has to do with just working in a different modality than you’re used to. So there’s some startup costs of just learning new techniques. Then there’s also the implementation of using certain kinds of technology that are a little more time consuming to set up than in person. So, the example I was giving to someone the other day was, I might do a whiteboard activity in person that requires me to grab some markers and some sticky notes. That’s my setup. But in an online environment, I need to have that organized and have designated areas for small groups. And I need to have prompts put up. And there’s a lot of structural things that need to be in place for that same activity to happen online, it can happen very seamlessly online, but there’s some time required to set it up. So there’s that. We’ve also all learned how low-stakes is so great, and how scaffolding is so great, but now there’s more grading. And somehow, I think there’s more meetings.

John: Yes, but in terms of that scaffolding, we’re assessing student work more regularly, we’re providing them with more feedback. And also going back to the issue of support materials, many of us are creating new videos. And when I first started teaching, it was very much the norm for people to lecture. And basically, my preparation was going into the cabinet and grabbing a couple of pieces of chalk and going down to the classroom and just discussing the topic, trying to keep it interactive by asking students questions, giving them problems on the board, having them work on them in groups. But I didn’t have to spend a lot of time creating graphs with all the images on my computer. I didn’t have to create these detailed videos and these transcripts and so forth, that I’d share with all my students now. And there’s a lot of fixed costs of moving to this environment, however, we’re doing it. That has taken its toll, I think, on all of us, as well as the emotional stress that we’re all going through during a pandemic.

Rebecca: I know one of the things that I’m concerned about is the ongoing expectation of time commitments that are not sustainable… period.

John: It’s one thing to deal with this during an emergency crisis. But this has been a really long emergency crisis.

Rebecca: And I think we’ve all seen the gains that students have had or felt like it’s worth the time and effort to support students. But it’s also time to think about how to support faculty and staff who have been doing all of that supporting and we need a reprieve… like, winter break wasn’t a break, summer break wasn’t a break, there isn’t a spring break, wellness days weren’t a break. Everybody just needs a vacation.

John: Yeah, I feel like I haven’t had a day off now since the middle of March of 2020.

Rebecca: I think one of the next things we need to be thinking about is: we created a lot of things that we could probably recycle and reuse in our classes, and so there were some costs over the course of the year. But perhaps they’re not costs in the future because we’ve learned some things. There may also be some strategizing that we need to do about when we give feedback or how detailed that feedback is with these scaffolded and smaller assignments so that we can be more efficient with grading. We’ve talked in the past on the podcast about specifications grading and some other strategies and ungrading. So maybe it’s time to think a little more or more deeply about some of these things now that we have them in place. How can we be more efficient with our time and work together to brainstorm ways to save ourselves time and effort and energy and still provide a really good learning environment?

John: Specifications grading is one way of doing it. But having students provide more peer feedback to each other is another really effective way of doing that. We’ve talked about that in several past podcasts, but that is one way of helping to leverage some of that feedback in a way that also enhances student learning. So it’s not just shifting the burden of assessing work to students, it’s actually providing them with really rich learning opportunities that tend to deepen their learning.

Rebecca: I know one strategy that I’ve implemented this semester, that definitely has saved time, although I just need to get more comfortable with my setup, but just I need to practice it, is doing light grading and the idea of having a shortlist of criteria. And then that criteria is either met, its approached or it doesn’t meet. And it’s a simple check box. And essentially, the basic rubric is what it looks like to meet it. And either you’ve met it or you haven’t. And that’s a much more efficient way of…

John:…either you’ve met it, you’ve almost met it, or you haven’t…

Rebecca: Yeah. And so that’s worked pretty well for me this semester. And I think it’s helping me be a little more efficient. And then I say like, “Okay, and ‘A’ is if you have met all of the criteria, ‘B’ is if you’ve met a certain percentage of the criteria, and approach the rest,” that kind of thing. The biggest thing for me is just getting used to my new rubrics and not having to like “Wait, what was that again?” when you go to grade it. But, I think, with practice, next time I go to use them, it’s gonna be a lot faster.

John: Going back to the point you made before, a lot of people have developed a whole series of videos that can be used to support their classes. Those can be used to support a flipped face-to-face class just as nicely as they do in a synchronous course, or a remote synchronous course. So a lot of the materials that faculty have developed, I think, while it won’t lighten the workload of faculty, can provide more support for students in the future without increasing f aculty workload as much as it has, during the sudden transition when people are switching all their classes at once to this new environment we’re facing. I know in the past, when I’ve normally done a major revision of my class, it’s normally one class that I’m doing a major revision on. And then the others will get major revisions at a later semester or a year. But when you try to dramatically change your instruction in all of your classes at once, it’s a tremendous amount of work.

Rebecca: I think another place where we’ve seen a lot of workload increase is also an advisement. There’s a lot of students that are struggling, many more students have questions about what to do if they’re close to failing, whether or not they could withdraw. what it means to leave school or come back to school, we’ve had the pass/fail option. So that raises a lot of questions. There’s a lot of those conversations that certainly we have, but they’re just more of them right now. And I would hope that as the pandemic eventually goes away, then some of that additional advisement will also start to fade away as well. We’re just drained. We imagine that you’re all drained too.

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

Rebecca: God, I hope there’s a vacation involved. Our household is dreaming about places we can go, even if it’s just to a different town nearby, as things start to lighten up, just to feel like we’re doing something… anything.

John: The vaccines look promising, and the rollout is accelerating. And we’re hoping that continues. And let’s hope that a year from now we can talk about all the things we’ve learned that has improved our instruction in a more traditional face-to-face environment.

Rebecca: The last thing I want to say is I hope everyone has, at some point, a restful moment in the summer, and we find the next academic year a little more revitalizing.

John: I think we could all use a restful and revitalizing summer to come back refreshed and energized for the fall semester.

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

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

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178. Teaching for Learning

As we again begin planning for the uncertainties of the fall semester, it is helpful to have a rich toolkit of evidence-based teaching practices that can work in multiple modalities. In this episode,  Claire Howell Major, Michael S. Harris, and Todd Zakrajsek join us to discuss a variety of these practices that can be effectively matched with your course learning objectives.

Claire is a Professor of Higher Education Administration at the University of Alabama. Michael is a Professor of Higher Education and Director of the Center for Teaching Excellence at Southern Methodist university. Todd is an Associate Research Professor and Associate Director of Fellowship Programs in the Department of Family Medicine at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Claire, Michael, and Todd are the authors of many superb books and articles on teaching and learning in higher education. In June, they are releasing a second edition of Teaching for Learning: 101 Intentionally Designed Educational Activities to Put Students on the Path to Success.

Show Notes

Transcript

John: As we again begin planning for the uncertainties of the fall semester, it is helpful to have a rich toolkit of evidence-based teaching practices that can work in multiple modalities. In this episode, we discuss a variety of these practices that can be effectively matched with your course learning objectives.

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

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

John: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer.

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

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Rebecca: Our guests today are Claire Howell Major, Michael S. Harris, and Todd Zakrajsek. Claire is a Professor of Higher Education Administration at the University of Alabama. Michael is a Professor of Higher Education and Director of the Center for Teaching Excellence at Southern Methodist university. Todd is an Associate Research Professor and Associate Director of Fellowship Programs in the Department of Family Medicine at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Claire, Michael, and Todd are the authors of many superb books and articles on teaching and learning in higher education.

Rebecca: Welcome, Claire and Michael and welcome back, Todd.

Todd: Thank you, Rebecca.

Michael: Good to be here.

John: Thanks for joining us. Today’s teas are:

Todd: I got myself a nice hibiscus tea, in my favorite little mug.

Rebecca: Awesome.

Michael: And I have a nice regular Co’ Cola.

Claire: Chocolate milk, signing in here. [LAUGHTER]

Rebecca: I think that might be a podcast first, Claire. [LAUGHTER]

Claire: I’m 12, basically. [LAUGHTER]

Rebecca: I’m drinking Scottish afternoon.

John: And I’m drinking ginger peach green tea. We’ve invited here today to discuss the forthcoming second edition of Teaching for Learning: 101 Intentionally Designed Educational Activities to Put Students on the Path to Success, which forms a nice acronym of IDEAS. The first edition provided faculty with a large variety of evidence-based learning activities that faculty can adopt to enhance student learning. These were grouped into eight categories of teaching approaches, lecture, discussion, reciprocal peer teaching, academic games, reading strategies, writing to learn, graphic organizers, and metacognitive reflection. What will be new in the second edition?

Michael: Thanks, John, for the overview and also for having us here today to talk about this. We’re very excited about the second edition. I think we’ve got a great team here, I so enjoy working with Todd and Michael on it. Basically, we’ve kept the same structure that you mentioned before, we have the same eight categories. We have the same structure within each chapter where we move from research to practical tips and specific ideas that people can use in their own classes. The idea is that it is a very broad kind of technique that we include when we include the techniques and when we talk about the research. So it is something that people from all disciplines and fields could in theory use for their own classes. Now, in practice, people have to make decisions about what will work best for their learners at their institutions and their disciplines and fields. So that part has stayed the same. We have updated the research from the first edition to the second. So it’s five years later. So we have included many new research studies to support the message and what the research shows us about what works well in higher education, what has been shown to change educational outcomes of learners, what can faculty do in particular that will help student learning. Another thing that is new in this edition, and I think this is really timely right now, is a focus on online learning. So in the first edition, we talked a lot about how these would work in in-class or onsite settings. In this edition, we go that next step and say, “Here’s some of the theory about what it means to do this online and here are some techniques.” And then within each specific idea, we say specifically, here are some tools that you can use to implement this in an online environment. So we have spent a lot of time working through that. We know how many people have shifted from onsite to online or hybrid courses and how important this is for successful teaching right now. So there’s a big focus on that.

Michael: One of the things as we were going through working on the online elements of this. that’s only become that much more important in light of the pandemic, is understanding the ways to blend the in-person technique and technology together. And that’s something, I think, as we’ve certainly gone through the last year everyone has done that in a much more detailed way. But I think what we’ve in part set out to do here, because we started working on this before the pandemic, is there elements of technology and teaching that faculty should be including afterwards after the pandemic is over? …And so one of the things I think readers will be able to take away. This is not a book written in response to the pandemic… that we can take these various techniques, take technology, take the understanding of your learners and context, as Claire mentioned, and then together figure out what is the best activity in your setting. Think that’s, as we set out identifying the various techniques throughout the book, is understanding that no class, no instructor is going to be comfortable with everything. So we’ve tried to give what I like to think of as a broad menu for faculty under each of the broad topics but also in terms of individual strategies and techniques that faculty can use in their setting. And the hope is, if you need an idea to use in your class that day, you can pick this book off the shelf, and somewhere in there, it’s going to be something that’s gonna work.

Rebecca: I think we really love the mix of both the research and the practical aspects of the book. I think sometimes either it’s just practical, or it’s just the research, and it’s hard to bring them together. So having everything in one place is very handy. [LAUGHTER] Faculty like that. We like convenience for sure. One of the things that I’ve been doing some research on recently is some students complaining about this online environment being so text heavy. And so I’m kind of curious if you could talk a little bit about maybe some of the research on graphic organizers and some of the strategies because that’s a visual way of handling some information in a time where students are feeling really bogged down by text.

Michael: I think to your first point, this is critically important. As we first started talking about this book in the very, very early days, one of the things we wanted to do was to bring together both the research literature, what do we know from the scholarship, but also what are the practical things that faculty need to know how to implement these ideas. And so we very much kept that. That DNA was part of our very early conversations, and is still part of the second edition. And I think one of the things that we found in terms of writing the book, and I think, as we’ve heard from folks who’ve read it, subsequently, is to be able to have access to the research for faculty, those of us who are in teaching centers, and faculty developers, we live this stuff every day, we know where the research is, and what the most recent findings are. For most faculty, whether at an institution focused on teaching, or even researchers, that access is much more difficult to find, right? It’s spread out in hundreds of journals, most of which just folks in the disciplines don’t necessarily read. And so trying to bring that out, and also insights from related disciplines. This is very difficult to access all this literature, because it’s spread out in so many different outlets, it’s in books, it’s in journals, it’s in places like podcasts, there’s all these places to get the information. It’s really difficult, I think, for a faculty member with a limited amount of time to dedicate to course planning and preparation to find all these resources. So that’s what we wanted to do was bring that together, but also remembering that faculty need to be able to take all that information, I think it’s all of us have worked with faculty, we found that they want to know that it’s researched-based, and what those research findings are, but then they want to quickly get to: “Now, what do I do with this information?” And so that’s the way we’ve set up the book is we’re going to go through the literature, if you want to do a deep dive there, all of that information is there. But then we also want to be able to provide some really tangible tactical things for a faculty member to do. And so as we designed all the ideas and thought about the updated literature, that’s still the core tenet of what we want to do.

Todd: Next. I think the second part of the question,you said, Rebecca, was the visual aspects, specifically. So, I thought Michael covered it really, really well. But there’s a whole section in the book with graphics, of course, and just so many different ways you can use the tools that are out there: concept mapping right now, and doing word clouds, and setting up different ways for people to share a space and to drop in photos and images. And there’s a lot of them in there. And I like what Michael said in terms of there’s so much information, it becomes really overwhelming. So my educational technology list is 118 different educational solutions right now that are being used. And so what we try to do in the book was spread out not all 118 of them, but we spread them out. So if you’re interested in concept mapping, here’s a program called Cacoo. And if you want to do word clouds, there’s the traditional WordClouds. But there’s also AnswerGarden, which gives you a little bit more opportunity to put some text in there. But. lots of things on graphics.

John: Going back to that division of teaching and research and practical tips . The research is not just on the general principle of how these things work, but specific studies of how the individual tools or the individual approaches have been used, and that I found really helpful. In the new addition, is this most appropriate for people teaching synchronous courses, or you mentioned that there’s the addition of online components, are the online components primarily asynchronous online, or synchronous online, or some combination of those.

Todd: Actually, that’s great, because this was a really exciting project to do. And one of the things we did to update the book was we went in, and actually, there’s not 101. The title of the book is 101 Intentionally Designed Activities. I would challenge anybody who wants to sit down and rattle off 101, I want to hear you do it. Because when Claire and Michael and I got together we did, we said yeah, 101 sounds great. And we got up to 100. And then everything started to sound like a variation on something we’ve already done. So the hundred and first one is actually a do it yourself intentional. Isn’t that great?

Rebecca: It’s perfect.

Todd: Take your information and apply it. And the reason I bring this up is that means there are 100 in there, 100 different suggestions we have of how to engage your students. For this second edition we went through and we came up with one synchronous and one asynchronous way of doing each one of those. So this book actually has 200 different ways to engage your students in synchronous and asynchronous classes. And I got to tell you that I was really impressed with the team here. To be able to pull that off is really, really challenging. Some of them are very easy. If you want to basically do a small group discussion or post something, you use Padlet or something is really easy. Some of them became really interesting. So for instance, Kahoot! is a great adaptation to something like a Jeopardy type of thing. But then how do you do something like Jeopardy in an asynchronous course, where it’s going across time? So we’re digging through and Kahoot! It turns out has a way of doing that. So, really excited about having different ways of doing this in both synchronous and asynchronous class.

Claire: John, you mentioned how much research there is about the individual techniques. And I just want to share that there is so much research being done in education right now. It’s just blossomed as a field of study, and that’s wonderful. But I think Michael alluded to the fact that faculty members don’t have time to sit down and read 1000 studies, but we do, right? We did. And so we’re sharing that information. We’ve synthesized and collated and culled out what didn’t look like such a good study, or trying to make it into something that’s accessible for faculty who are busy and may not want to read that much educational research… I don’t know, hypothetically. So we are trying to say, “Okay, here’s what it says,” and then definitely apply it to practice. You also mentioned the distinction between onsite and online. I think that distinction is becoming a little more blurred than it used to be. When I teach an onsite class anymore, I’m still having my learning management system set up, there’s still stuff that I’m doing through the learning management system, there’s still stuff I’m doing online. When I teach online, I still have, maybe not face-to-face meetings, but I have Zoom meetings, I have these synchronous ones. And it just is not such a hard and fast distinction, I think. It’s like “I do this with people in the room in real time, or I do this through the technology.” And I think we can use things in all kinds of settings, and that’s what we’ve tried to share a little bit. And I do want to give a shout out, or a special credit to Todd on this. Because there are some things that, like he said, just one technique, how would you do it on every one? I’m like, “Oh, well, that’s an assignment, you submit that through your LMS.” And Todd’s like, “No, here’s 47 different other ways you can do that.” [LAUGHTER] And it’s like, there are some really creative ideas, I think, in there about different tools that you can use to do things in different ways. And so it’s not all just submitted as an assignment through your LMS. There are a lot of really cool tools out there, and to go back to Rebecca’s point, can make things more visual and more creative. And I think that involves students in ways that producing more text may not. It’s like “Oh, wow, I get to make this beautiful, professional looking product and share that with others.” And that causes or at least creates an opportunity for engagement in ways that others can’t. So yeah, we tried to share some good ideas about how to use technology. And that technology might be in an online class, or it might be in a hybrid or hyflex class, or it might be in an onsite class where you use technology in a way that supports onsite learning.

Rebecca: I really need to know what strategies were the most difficult to come up with across platforms or cross modalities. I must know. [LAUGHTER] You have to share.

Todd: There was one that took me about four days to get to and so here’s one for you. One of our onsite ones that we did was Pictionary, you know, drawing. So you divide your class into two teams, and somebody takes a marker and starts to draw. And then of course, everyone has to yell out an answer. Do that in an asynchronous class, that becomes challenging. But I stumbled across a program… actually, I shouldn’t say stumbled across, I’ve used it a couple times. But as I was thinking about this, after a couple days, I was thinking, “No, you got to turn that a little bit.” So there’s a program on there called Formative. And Formative is something that you basically come up with an image that you start and you draw like a circle or something and you present that to the class, And then each class member draws what they see of that, and then you can get feedback on that. And it suddenly occurred to me as instead of having people guessing back and forth real time that way, what you could do is provide the basic image for the class and then say, “Okay, I want everybody to draw something and submit it on this date. And then the first person who can figure out what it is, you basically write in.” And so it’s a way to do kind of Pictionary in an asynchronous way. But that was one of the trickiest ones.

Rebecca: That’s funny that you mentioned that particular thing, Todd, because I’m teaching a class this spring, a new class for me, where I was trying to come up with a way of doing Exquisite Corpse, which is a folded paper drawing, where one person would draw a head and then you try to do the body and then the next person does legs or something… something like that with my class. And I came across an example of having different boxes, essentially in a whiteboard app, for each student. And I’m going to do pet robots. And so everybody draws one part of the robot, the nose, and then you pass it to the next person. And then you say, like, “Oh, draw the head,” or whatever. So it’s a way of doing that. But that took me a good few days to come up with a solution.” [LAUGHTER]

Todd: Yeah, it does.

Michael: Well, I thought I knew a lot about technology. And as Claire said, Todd would pull something out that never ever heard of before or heard of, but I never thought to use it in that way. And I think that was one of those challenges is, anytime you’re writing a book, you don’t want to be obsolete by the time it comes out. And so it’s always tricky with technology, because websites change and services change and the ability to do different things change. But I think what we were able to do in the end was, even though it may reference a particular website or software, the underlying design principle will hold even as we get different technology over time. And I think that was one of the things we struggled with five years ago, because I’m just not sure technology across all 100 ideas was there. But I think now we’re at the place where you could at least have some semblance of how you would do this, even if that particular service was no longer available.

Todd: I really liked that you said that because the one that I’ll have to admit, one of the very first times I did exactly what you’re thinking of here is I love doing gallery walks in classes, the traditional gallery walk. And I’m sure the listeners know, but you set up four or five flip charts, you put students in groups, smaller groups, each groups in front of a flip chart, they respond to a prompt, different prompts for each flip chart, and then you rotate and you keep rotating until you come back essentially to the first one. and I thought about it for a little while and thought this would work out really well on a Jamboard. So you go to Google Jamboard, and you set up five boards and people go through it. But just like Mike was just saying, if Jamboard goes away, alright, let’s do it with Padlet. And if Padlet goes away, alright, we’ll do it with something else. So once you think this is a way through technology to do this, then it becomes actually fairly easy to find other ways to do it.

John: For faculty who are reading this for the first time, and they see now 200 techniques, maybe only 100 of which might apply for their courses, they might be tempted to try a lot of those. Would you recommend that people who are redesigning their courses or restructuring their courses try doing many new things all at once? Or should perhaps they use a more gradual approach?

Claire: I think the answer to that question depends a lot on who the faculty member is. I think some faculty members want to go all in and try a lot of new things. I think some might do well trying one new thing, and seeing how that works, and then trying another use thing. I also think that again, it depends on who your students are, what your discipline is. A lot of our techniques, though, are things that can be done in addition to other things. Like you might lecture for 10 or 15 minutes, and then do a think-pair-share. Or you might do a punctuated lecture where you stop and say “What are you thinking about right now?” …or something like that. So these are ones that can be incorporated into what faculty are already doing for the most part. So I really think it depends on what the faculty member wants to accomplish and what works best for their particular situation.

Michael: I agree with Claire, I think there’s a notion of, depending on how many times you’ve taught the class, for example, there may be a different freedom to innovate in different ways. I think the other part though, is we have to be careful if we talk about teaching innovation in this way, is beginning with the end in mind. Changing something for the sake of changing something is not a good idea to use one of these techniques. The idea is: know what you’re trying to get the students to learn. What is the content you’re trying to get them to learn? And then look for a technique that best gets you there. Certainly, as I talk to faculty, and think about ways they might do something different in class, you’ve got to start at that point, then decide what is the most effective way to get your students there. Now as much as I love all of the ideas in the book, they’re not all going to work in every situation, even if you were game to try them all. And that would probably not be an effective way to teach class. But if you know what you want your students to learn… and then we always preach backwards design, there’s a reason we do that. We start there and get them to “what we want to know” and then figure out what’s the best way to do that. And I think that’s, to me, when I think about using these activities in my own classes and as I talk to other faculty, is if I know what I’m trying to convey, I can then say, “Well, now I need to go look for a game because this might be content that’s a little dry, or I know from the past that students don’t enjoy it as much. So maybe a game would be a good thing to spice it up a little bit.” Or if I know this is really important content, and they need to understand it in a very specific way. Well, now let me look for a lecture activity that I can convey that content. So I think that, if you know what you’re doing, then you can use the book and we’ve got the full menu available to you. But if you don’t know what type of restaurant you’re going to, the menu is going to be gibberish.

Claire: I absolutely agree with that. I do want to follow up with one thing though. I would say for the person who is, and surely nobody’s still doing this, lecturing for 50 minutes without a break. Even if you don’t know why you’re going to stop every 15 minutes to do a short thing, like maybe an interpreted lecture or pause procedure or something like that. Even if you don’t know why, go ahead and do it, [LAUGHTER] because it will help your students learn better is why. That’s the answer. We all know about human attention span and all that good stuff, but also just varying the activity a little bit and giving them something to reset their attention span will be really, really helpful to their long-term learning. So even if you don’t have the perfect learning goal crafted out, if you could just stop every 10 or 15 minutes and give them something to do, something short to reset their attention span and get them back on track, they’re going to be able to listen to you more in that next lecture segment. So I absolutely agree with Michael, the one caveat is just stop every 10 or 15 minutes and do something different.

Todd: I love what you just said there, Claire, but I’m not even sure its attention span. I don’t think it’s attention span. And I mean, that is part of it. But cognitive load.

Claire: Well, that’s part of it, too. Yeah.

Todd: Anytime you’re trying to learn something new, how many times have you start to watch a video, a YouTube clip on how to do a change your carburetor on your lawnmower or whatever, that you have to stop after about three steps and say, “Whoops, wait a minute, what was that stop again? We’re the experts and we start spewing all this information. And I love that Claire said that. And I live by backward design. So, I love that one too. But the one thing we know from all the research, that’s the most clear thing out there is that putting something with a lecture always enhances learning. If you’re only doing the lecturing, and then you put something with it, it always does better. My biggest fight over the last three or four years, the research doesn’t actually really say it’s lecture versus active learning. If you read the research, the titles will say that at times… people argue that all the time. It’s not lecture versus active learning. The research is lecture alone versus lecturing with active learning, and lecturing with active learning kicks butt all the time. So I love that.

Rebecca: There’s a lot of faculty who are now teaching online synchronously, which is, you know, a newer modality that’s not written about quite as much. And John and I’ve been talking about that a bit the past few months on our podcasts.

John: …certainly, since March.

Rebecca: Yeah, I guess it’s coming up on a year. But I know one of the things that faculty are struggling with is ways to do some of these activities and build community online as part of that and get students connecting with their peers. Can you talk about some strategies that might be in your book that we could point faculty to looking into more?

Michael: You know, it’s such a great question, because I think if I think about all the way back in the beginning of March, when we had faculty on our campus that have never heard of Zoome before, we’d had Zoom for a while, but most people had never had a reason to really use it. This is the single biggest challenge I think our faculty have faced. For some getting in the learning management system was a struggle, but we could get past that fairly easily, at least to a threshold to be successful. Learning what to do… and I think to some extent, it gets to Claire’s answer about lecturing, we still have a number of faculty that do lecture almost exclusively. And so, as soon as the pandemic took hold and we moved online, we had faculty that were just lecturing the entire time. And particularly, I think this is somewhat better at least for some student populations, you know, the internet capabilities and things. We were all just overloaded, right? Yeah, and nobody could get on and constantly got the messages about connectivity problems, and Zoom and all the rest. And so faculty started recording lectures, then what happened, at least with our students, there was no reason to go to class anymore, I can watch that lecture and put it on two-times speed. And I can get out of class in half the time I used to. We’ve had a lot of conversations with faculty about how to make that time important. And especially for some faculty who are concerned about, “Well, once I record all my lectures, you don’t need me anymore.” Well, if all you’re doing is doing those recorded lectures, we probably don’t need you anymore. But do the thing that faculty are best at. It is building communities. It’s encouraging curiosity and creativity and all those things that get those of us in teaching, really jazzed to get up in the morning and go to class, be it in-person or online. And so I think for me, and as we’re thinking about some of the techniques, the more complicated the modality gets, whether we’re talking about something like hyflex or synchronous online, I think in some ways, that’s where getting back to the basics can be helpful. So using some of the lecture and discussion techniques, where you take a break and change as we were talking about just a minute ago. I also think breakout rooms… and I know this is something I think Claire’s talked about before… breakout rooms can sometimes be an extra layer of complication we may not need. And so thinking about the ways that small group discussions can be had in Zoom, or any online platform, but I think that at the end of the day, for me, it’s when we’re using complicated technology, and it may not be complicated technology wise, right, but different modalities that we’re not always comfortable teaching in, and none of us would have designed in an ideal setting. We’re clearly far from ideal. But if we can take some of those basic ideas… think-pair-share as an example. That’s one that we’ve been using for forever. Can we use that in an online platform in a way that you’re not trying to do too much technology. We had faculty early on who were trying to use every piece of technology in every class session, and they couldn’t remember which login, and then this would crash and that would crash. It was just too much. So using the basic functionalities, some of the discussion techniques where you can use the chat window, I think many faculty are probably not using some of those basic functionalities as much. So I think that’s, to me, as you’re looking at the various techniques, if you can make it easier, the more complicated the student situation is. If you know you’ve got students that are working all day and come into class at night, then maybe being super technical in different software packages… that may not be the time to do that. If you’re working with traditional 18-year olds who are savvy using a lot different technology than maybe you could. And I think that’s for me been one of the lessons of the last almost year now is can we get back to basics, and then let the technology help us to reach our students, build a community, build their engagement, use Zoom to access office hours and some of those kinds of things in which I think we’re finding our students are having much more engagement with, if we can get them to show up. So that’s to me, if we can get back to the basics, then it would be helpful, I think, for both faculty and student learning.

Claire: I’d like to pick up on this too. And that’s in part, I’m a mom, I have a 10th grader, the 10th grader is in the room right next to mine, I can’t help but overhear sometimes. I try to stay focused on my work and not pay attention, but the house is only so big. And so I’m just hearing things, and some of his teachers…..well, they’re all wonderful people… they’re lovely, lovely people doing excellent work and a pandemic. But some of them will talk for the full 60 minutes of the class. And I’m going to tell you, my kid who is a wonderful, lovely person and a really, really good student, like you might expect… both of his parents are profs, we’re nerds, we’re a nerdy family. So he does well in school, he is not managing to stay focused for those 60 minutes. I will see him get up and go to the kitchen, maybe walk through, there may be a little pacing. It’s just not happening. And then there are other teachers who will do some of the things that are in our book to mix it up. And he is in there. He’s engaged. He’s talking to the screen, talking to the teacher, he goes into breakout rooms, they’ll ask a question like, “What did we talk about last week,” like “Today, I learned…” “What did we talk about last week? And why is that important today?” Or they’ll say “Okay, so what do you think is gonna happen in this experiment that we’re about to do in chemistry?” …so like an anticipation or taking a guess kind of thing. They might occasionally go into breakout rooms to work a problem or to compare their notes for the session. They might break out and do some kind of jigsaw activity where they work together and then they teach each other. They might even do just a quick prewriting, they’ll say, “Write for a minute, and then we’ll take their responses.” And it is like night and day, he doesn’t leave the room, he is focused the whole time, he is able to maintain that attention and engagement. It’s not just attention, like Todd said, it’s more than that. It’s the ability to hang on, to concentrate, to process, for his working memory to really be able to stay with the whole thing. And so I think that what we can do is use some of these techniques when we’re teaching these synchronous things. So we’re not just giving everybody Zoom fatigue. So we are giving them good educational experiences, and not just 60 minutes wall of sound from the teacher, because that’s just not the best way. They’re not going to learn the best in that kind of situation.

Todd: Well, I heard a learner recently put it in the way that really helped me out. She said “I think about classes as to whether or not I could spend the entire class period ironing or not.” [LAUGHTER] And she said, “If I could stand up and iron an entire load of clothes while class is going on.” And all I could conceptualize in my head is “Oh, that’d be the same as like watching a soap opera or a television program while you’re ironing.” And she said, “Yep, if I can do that, I don’t need to be in class, I can just look at the recording later.” But just like what Claire was just saying, if you’re doing all those things, my goodness, it’d be interrupting your ironing all the time. [LAUGHTER] Make them do something. One of the things so fascinating about teaching is that you’re constantly straddling a line that has cut points of boredom and frustration. You got to be above boredom, you got to be interesting enough or present information in an interesting enough way that people will attend to it. But you can’t do it in such a complex way that they’re frustrated by it, because they just can’t get it. And so how can you take a learner and engage them, but not frustrate them? And that’s what you have to always be looking for techniques or ways to do that.

Michael: You know, it’s funny you say that Todd, because right before we started recording, I went out, and I’ve got a sixth grader and he was in the kitchen and getting some peanut butter cookies my daughter made this weekend. And I said, “What are you doing?” And he said, “I’m getting some peanut butter cookies.” I said, “Okay, what are you supposed to be doing?” Oh, I’m in class.” The laptop’s upstairs. He’s downstairs in the kitchen. And he had his headset on and was listening. But I contrast that with other times when, like Claire, I go past and he’s in class and when he’s got a notebook out and he’s working. His art teacher right now… because I think in some ways, certain disciplines are kind of naturally inclined to go this way…. With art, he’s got different media out, he’s got his markers, and his crayons and colored pencils and different type of paper, and he’s doing this stuff. And then he’ll be in another class, and he can go to the kitchen and get cookies and not miss a thing. And while yes, we’re all doing the best we can, I do hope when we come out of this, there’s going to be some lessons we take away from it. And one of those being: if we can just hit record and walk away, that’s maybe not the best thing for an hour class or even longer for those who have longer classes. But if we can engage students, if we can stop for a minute, if we can make them think, if we make them do something, the combination of those two things. It’s hard right now. If somebody was trying to do active learning for an entire 60 minute class, that also would be really hard to do right now given everything. But this blend, as Todd said earlier, the research shows when we can put lecture and active learning together and put some of these different techniques together, that’s where I think we’re gonna see some benefit. And I think that’s true whatever we were teaching, if we were talking about K-12, or higher education, or anything in which you are trying to communicate.

Todd: And that made me think of something else too, real quick, that I just heard a session done by someone who works at Zoom. And keeping in mind, Zoom is not static. For those of you who are using Zoom, it’s changing all the time. So they have now changed how the reaction buttons are used. They’ve got them set up in a much more easy format, they have some things that stay there until you take them off, some things that don’t, there’s all these other techniques too. Closed captioning, Zoom has finally got it, it just was launched, I believe, yesterday, or the day before it came out. I got students who have babies, they can’t have the sound on. I mean, that’s a new thing that’s good. They’ve got another one now and they blur out the background. And here’s what I really love about this with the guy who was explaining it, he said, “We’re now gonna have the capability instead of virtual backgrounds to blur the background, we did that for a more equitable situation for students who are uncomfortable with their housing situation. I was blown away that that’s the reason the guy said they did it, not because “Oh, here’s another thing that people would like.” So again, the technologies keep changing. But we as teachers, it’s what Michael and Claire both said too is we as teachers have to decide what to do and why, again, back to backward design.

Claire: And I’d like to pick up on the point too that, I think right now, making connections with other human beings is really, really important. And that’s not just watching your teacher on TV, that is actually having some kind of meaningful exchange where you get to talk to another human being. And a lot of people haven’t left their houses not much since March, or they’re not in class, they’re still online, just making that human connection is absolutely essential. And some of our techniques allow for that. They’re putting people together where they’re connecting, either through discussion or group work or something else. And I think those things, even if they’re just for a brief period of time, are probably some of the most important things we can do right now.. is give them that space and time for exchanging ideas and sharing and making that contact.

Todd: My gosh, and I know we got to move on.. this question we’ve been on it for a while, but Claire, that was such a great concept. I remember, a student in one of my classes from almost 30 years ago, and it was a night class, she kept dozing off. And I kept walking by her desk and saying, you know, “Maybe you better go splash some water on your face,” and I walked by again, and “Maybe you should just like walk around the building once real quickly.” And at the end of the class I talked to her real quickly and I said “How are you doing? I’m really concerned about you.” She said, “I’m so sorry. I’m so so sorry. I almost didn’t come to class tonight, because I just worked a double shift and I’m absolutely exhausted. But this class is the only time during the week that I feel like a real valued human being.” You know, what Claire said, even without the pandemic, a lot of individuals are in home/life situations. They’re in jobs where they’re not appreciated by their colleagues. I mean, it’s one time during the day that students can feel like they mean something. And so even more so in the pandemic, but yeah,Claire. I’m glad you said that. I hadn’t thought about her for a long time.

Claire: Nice. Yeah, it is connections. It’s very important and very meaningful. And students, I truly believe they really appreciate those opportunities all the time, but especially right now when their opportunities are more constrained than they might normally be.

Rebecca: Not just students as faculty…. [LAUGHTER]… the interactions too. I remember last semester there were times when I had some really nice deep conversations with some of my students and it was like, “Wow, alright, this is the first time I’ve had a conversation with someone who’s older than three.” [LAUGHTER]

Claire: …outside the immediate family… it’s lovely.

John: We thought we’d ask each of you to share one of your favorite techniques that are in this book,

Rebecca: …or most impactful for you

Todd: …comes down to a lot of different things. But sometimes I’m actually gonna jump in and say it’s kind of a combination. It was one that I didn’t actually do, but it was one I just saw, but a technique… these techniques are so cool. Having a person open a Google form. We’ve mentioned Google forms several times in the book, but asking a quick question for the Google form of “What do you think about this?” The learners then typed what they thought, the individual was able to take those very quickly, download those into a word cloud, and then presented the word cloud. Now we’ve got AnswerGarden as a word cloud that we mentioned on a couple of the IDEAS, and Google forms is something else we use in it. But the ability to capture that information and turn it into a visual that quickly was just one that I thought was really amazing.

Michael: I think my favorite is one, it’s called “Houston, we have a problem.” And it’s taken from Apollo 13, of course. And it’s that great scene in the movie where the engineers have to figure out how to get the oxygen thing working on the spaceship. And so they have all this stuff. And you can’t give them new supplies and new tools, because they’re halfway to the moon. And there’s this great line: “you have to make this fit into that using just this.” And so what I love about this is it’s fundamentally problem solving, but it brings together knowledge and skills. And so you give students, and it can be different depending on whatever class of course, it can be a set of terms or methodologies or equipment or whatever it might be, but the students have to take these things and figure out how to use them. And I love the notion of that. I use versions of it in my own classes, the notion of having students take something, even things that might be out of the context of the class, or even the discipline, and figure out how to make it work. Because I do think fundamentally, to me, it gets to what you do when you leave us. The academy’s this great place where we can play with ideas and information and learn skills, but it’s somewhat sanitized, it’s hard to really get to the messiness of what students are going to face when they leave us. And that, to me, is such a great activity where you’ve got to figure out how to get to a solution, and you don’t have all the information, you may not have everything you need to solve it. But you collectively as a group have to come. So I think we called it a game, I’m not sure if it’s entirely a game, there’s probably a game element to it. But I just love the notion of students having to work together and kind of fight to a solution.

Rebecca: Michael, did you say that you do this in some of your classes?

Michael: I have,yes. Probably my favorite way to do it is for research design, actually, and give students a variety of different data sources and analytic techniques, and a question they’re trying to solve. And so they have to decide if I’m going to use this quantitative data or I’m going to use this qualitative method or I’m gonna use a survey, and they’ve got to figure out how to do it. Amd I usually do it in a fairly compressed amount of time, because what I’m trying to do is quickly think about the tradeoffs in making methods decisions and research develop. And so they can’t do everything they want to do. But they have to figure out how am I going to be able to answer this research question. And so it’s real simple where I usually give them like index cards with terms in them, but then they have to work through and figure out the way they would do it. And what’s often is impactful is to see how the other groups, for the same question, how they got to a different way to get to the answer, then it opens up some great conversations about the methods and rigor and validity and trade offs in research. And it’s kind of a fun way to learn about those ideas.

Claire: I like a lot of those. And it’s really hard for me to choose. But I’m gonna say jigsaw, just to pick one out of a hat, really. And I think jigsaw… I mentioned it earlier, it’s where you create base groups, and students work in base groups to study something and learn about it, and to decide how to teach each other. And then you recombine groups, one person from each base group joins the team. So they then teach each other what they learned in their base groups in their jigsaw. And I think it’s a wonderful technique to encourage collaboration. And it involves students. It engages them. I have a story about it. I teach a college teaching course. And I remember one year early in my teaching of this course, I wanted them to know about the history of college teaching, I thought it was important to have them understand where we come from and how we’ve gotten to where we are. So I created this lecture. It was so long ago, y’all, that it was on overhead. Remember the clear overhead slide you put on the overhead projector, it was like that. And when I teach, one of the things that I do that’s pretty useful is, at the end of every class, I take notes on how things went, and then I put it away, and I pull it out the next year I’m teaching or the next time I’m teaching the course. And so I had created this lecture about the history of college teaching, about pedagogy in higher education. And I gave it, and the next year I came back and I looked at my notes and it said “This was bad. [LAUGHTER] This was really bad. This was bad for you. This was bad for them. [LAUGHTER] Don’t do it.” I had no memory of that at all. I thought, “Oh, good, I’m gonna give my lecture. I’ve already got it done and everything.” And so I… [LAUGHTER] …I pulled back and said, “Alright, what I’m gonna do is a jigsaw with this.” So I gave each group a period of time: y’all got the colonial period, y’all got the antebellum period,” and so forth. So there were four or five periods, I don’t remember how many I divided it into, and they got together and then they taught each other. And they broke out into their new groups, taught each other. They were using games to teach each other. I think they busted out like Jeopardy and Pictionary and all these great things. They were so engaged and into it. And they learned so much more, I promise, through that jigsaw than they ever would have through my lecture. And it was just a really good and useful activity. So that remains one of my favorites for that reason. But I also want to add that I like a lot of the metacognitive activities. It’s one of the best ways to improve the learning, right? But I think it’s something that we don’t always think about doing. And so things like wrappers or even opinion polls, or the “today I’ve learned…” “what’s the most important thing you learn today?” They take so little time and can really, really deepen learning

Rebecca: And that’s only three or four out of 200. [LAUGHTER]

Todd: Well, I gotta say, while we were chatting about that, and Claire was talking about, I just pulled up the chapter that we just finished. And if I have it right here, there’s 14,000 words in that chapter. That was the metacognitive chapter. So this is a pretty dense book in the sense of there’s tons of stuff, but if anybody’s interested, we have 14,000 words on metacognitive strategies, [LAUGHTER] the research behind it, and how to apply it.

John: And that’s something that most faculty tend to ignore. So, including that I think is really, really helpful. The evidence on that’s overwhelming.

Claire: It really is. And I would say maybe not dense, like I don’t think it’s a real dense read. I think it’s chocked full of goodness, right? Here’s a lot of… [LAUGHTER]

Todd: Well, that’s a good point.

Claire: …rich… information rich, yeah.

Todd: I’m actually curious to see how the new books gonna look, though, because when I was looking to the as we were going through updating everything, the standard out there is you’re supposed to change 20% of the material, I think we added something like 30% new material over and there was nothing to take out, because there was nothing in there that was outdated. Nothing we’d written from the first edition was no longer valuable. So the previous book plus about 30% new. So it’s gonna be a very meaty book. But it’s a good resource… not meant to be read from cover to cover. It’s just meant to open it up to what you need.

Rebecca: So when can we start reading this book? Exactly.

Todd: The book will be available in the latter part of June.

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

Todd: In the universe, or…

Rebecca: However you really want to address this, because there’s a lot…

Michael: Todd, do you wanna go first?

Todd: Sure. I think what’s next is just to get through spring. Michael brought it up too, and we’ve kind of touched on it. This is really hard…. the pandemic, with everybody shifting to everybody, we know months and months and months ahead of time that we’re going to do this…” We all want to get back together. So for many of us, UNC Chapel Hill was right at the lead of this one, is students arrived on campus, and seven days later, they shut it down. And then spring came along. And it’s like, “Okay, but now we’re going to be able to be face to face, right?” And we’re still doing either online teaching or emergency remote teaching. The differentiation, of course, the online teaching is a very thoughtful process where people put together this whole package of how you deliver education and emergency remote is we just do the best we can with the time we got. So I think the “what’s next” is to get through the spring, take the summer, I wholeheartedly believe in the fall we’ll be closer to being back together in classrooms. And then I think it’s coming back to what both Clair and Michael have said, is pulling the essence of some of the really cool things we’ve learned and embed those into classes for faculty members who have never even considered teaching online a year and a half ago or a year ago, to now implement those strategies. And so I think that’s what’s next is: how do we find some good out of all of the garbage that’s been happening? And that’s what I’m looking for. Pathological levels of optimism. I think we’re going to get through it and then we’re going to be better off in the future than we were in the past. I’ll use one quick example of this because I work in a medical school, flu rates are almost non existent this year. And I knew that was going to happen six months ago, because nobody took flu that serious… I shouldn’t say nobody, a lot of people didn’t… 30 to 50 thousand… it’s hard to get these numbers, sometimes 30 to 50 thousand people a year die from the flu. And now what we’ve got is a whole population that knows we should wash our hands, stay home when you’re sick, and don’t be in each other’s space all too much and wear masks when you need to and because of that I think next flu season is going to roll around and I think people are going to put their masks and stand back, and we’re going to see flu rates with maybe 20-30 thousand people less dying every year. So with teaching, with health, I think down the road is putting new practices into place.

Rebecca: Sounds like a lot of metacognition might be going on.

Todd: I’m a metacognition nerd. [LAUGHTER]

Michael: So I agree with Todd, I think there’s a lot of lessons to be learned from the pandemic, and what’s going to happen afterwards. I think the other really negative implication of the pandemic is that this moment of equity and inclusion has been too easily forgotten, I think, in corners of higher ed, myself included at times. We’re so trying to get through the day that this reckoning that’s happened, I worry that those of us in higher ed have forgotten it. And so we absolutely need to take some lessons from the pandemic for teaching. But I also think we’ve got to continue to work on the inclusion in our classrooms, be it an in-person classroom or an online classroom. That work is gonna take a lot longer than the pandemic, I suspect, but is equally as important.

Todd: Boy, Michael,I’m really glad you just said that, because this whole thing has shown a huge light on the inequities in our systems. I think the inequities are huge. And I really do hope we can, at least with the big flashlight on there, maybe we can sort a few things out. But I’m really glad you said that.

John: Those inequities became much more visible to faculty with the shift to remote teaching, it was really easy to ignore these differences when everyone has access to the same computer labs, the same wireless network, the same study facilities and some degree of food security with meal plans on campus. But when students dispersed and went home, all that broke down, and faculty suddenly had to become aware of that, and faculty are attending workshops at rates I’ve never seen before. Our attendance has just skyrocketed. And a lot of people have come to appreciate backwards design and building new things into their classes. So I’m really optimistic about many of these things. But we certainly need to do a whole lot more work on equity and inclusion issues.

Claire: I think one thing I’ll say is that faculty aren’t typically taught how to teach, it’s not something we usually take classes on in graduate school, it’s not something that we receive a lot of training before doing it. Most of us have to learn through trial by fire, or we have learned by watching our own teachers, growing up, going through grade school and high school and college, we figure out what works by being participants in it. So I think the result of this is a lot of us haven’t had, again, that formal education in how to teach. We don’t have the research grounding, the theoretical background, and a lot of times when we’re just starting, we don’t even have the practice. So what this pandemic has done has changed that, because we’ve shifted to a new modality that most of us have never engaged with before. Most of us hadn’t taught an online course, or an emergency remote course, and so we’ve had to figure it out on the fly. But what I think this is done is put it in the forefront. All of a sudden teaching is something we really have to think about is something we really have to figure out because I’m doing it in this whole new way, and I can’t just bank on what I suspect works, I have to figure out this new system. And so I think we do have a lot more people thinking about it. I think we also have more institutions investing in professional development in ways that we haven’t before. And we have more faculty participating in professional development than we have before. And so I think it has highlighted teaching in a way that it hasn’t been for everyone for a while. And I think that’s good. If we’re looking for some kind of silver lining here, I think we can say that, all of a sudden, people are at least more often really aware of teaching and thinking about what makes good teaching. And when you have to plan out an online course, it really makes you think through the process. I know we went in March to emergency remote teaching, but a lot of us were teaching online in the fall. And so when you have to think through a whole course in this new way, you really have to think through the process from start to finish. And I think it changes the way you think about teaching, to teach online. And I hope in good ways, like Michael’s saying, I hope that we can learn from what we’ve done and figure out, “Hey, this is stuff that works really well” or “This is stuff that maybe doesn’t work as well,” and that we can take that back into whatever teaching mode we are in in the future. So I do think that there has been a big shift, and I think that’s going to stay with us. I expect we’re gonna see more things done online going forward. And I don’t want to say completely online. I am absolutely not saying higher ed is going online. I’m saying people may use some of the pieces of online activities that worked well for them. They may do an online assignment if they never did before, or they may have a Z oom virtual office hour or something like that. So I think there are going to be some things that we take from this experience.

John: And I think Todd has a book coming out on that, which we discussed in a podcast that was released on January 27.

Todd: Oh, Creating Equity-Based Digital Learning Environments. Oh yeah, I remember that.

Rebecca: Maybe that one? Yeah.

Claire: I want to add too that, I think faculty… I want to believe this… have become more aware of the need for compassion in their classes. I mean, it’s easier when everybody seems healthy and well to say, “You know, no late assignments,” or whatever, and “it’s in the syllabus,” and my late policy is this. But I want to think that people understand that people are sick, or caring for sick people, and that life circumstances are changed, maybe they have their little kids at home with them. I think it’s important to be compassionate for students and to understand their needs. And I think this is highlighted, in addition to equity and inclusion, just some more issues, that people have lives. And they’re different when they’re not on campuses, and that we can be compassionate and kind to people. And that doesn’t make us any less rigorous or whatever. It just means that we’re kind and compassionate, and I think our students will learn more when we are more aware of them as humans.

Todd: we’re seeing that in the POD network, and the Lilly conferences, the stuff you just brought up, Claire, anything dealing with mindfulness and compassion, those types of things. People are just swarming to those sessions, they just love those things. Because it’s vital right now.

Claire: You know, sometimes students will, when I send out something, and I’ll say… I just sent out a note to a student today, and said, “Oh, your assignment didn’t come through, I think you didn’t respond to a peer, so it didn’t come up in the gradebook. I just want you to know, I’m not going to count off late, please just get it done.” It’s just like, “Oh, my gosh, thank you so much for reaching out. I so appreciate it.” It’s like: “who hurt you?” You know… [LAUGHTER] This should not be like this. And this has happened time after time, where I’m just like being a nice human being to say, “hey, you missed this,” or, “hey, don’t forget this,” or whatever. And it’s just this overwhelming response. And I don’t think it needs to be that way. I think we need to show students that we do care about them and understand their situations and just want them to learn. And that doesn’t mean I’m a softy, I don’t want to say that we don’t need to expect them to work hard and do the work and show up and all that. We absolutely do. We just need to understand their circumstances as well.

Rebecca: And not assuming that mal intent. I think sometimes that’s what was happening before the assumption that “they did it on purpose”, or they’re skipping out or something rather than just being like a reasonable human being who made a mistake or forgot something.

Claire: Or you hear the thing, “Oh, their grandmother died. How many grandmothers do you have?” Well, it doesn’t matter how many grandmothers you have, you know, it’s like stop being that way. Maybe they do actually have three grandmothers or maybe they have situations that they don’t want to tell you about. Give them the benefit of the doubt until you can’t, I think. But that’s me. That’s me. Not everybody feels that way.

Todd: Here’s the quick teaching tip on this one I’ve just stumbled in this years ago, and it worked out really well. For me, I will have eight to 10 kind of general “rules.” Just don’t lie to me. Just be honest about stuff. And when I ask you a question and for those types of things, I’ll just say, “Here’s 10 things.” And I did this with face-to-face classes a lot. And I’d say now get into groups of four and come up with two or three things for each group that you’d like me to consider. What are some additional things you’d like me to consider. And the reason I brought this up is because of what you just said, Claire with the “who has hurt you.” The very first time I did this, I just thought this would be a neat way of showing them. It’s a communal organization. I have expectations. So do you. One of my students started out by saying, “If another student starts to attack me, don’t come to my defense. But please moderate the conversation. I can fend for myself if you’ll control the situation.” I thought, well, that’s a really good one. The next one was “If we provide an answer, and it’s wrong, please don’t call us stupid.”

Claire: Oh my gosh.

Todd: And I thought to myself, they’re not making this up. They’re saying things that have happened to them. And so again, the quick teaching tip is on your first day of class, it can be online or it could be face to face, is just “Here are some of my expectations. And now I’d like to hear what are your expectations.” And that’s where you find out who’s hurt them and you address it.

Claire: I’ve also heard of people doing like “life happens” passes the you get one assignment or two assignments or whatever, it is no questions asked. Use the card when you need it. And I don’t need to see your doctor’s note. I don’t need to see anything. Just you have your passes and use them as you will. And I think that’s a fine way to handle it. Or you can just listen to them and say, “Okay, you can have an extension.”

John: Well, thank you. This has been a fascinating conversation and it was great talking to you. And we’re looking forward to the new edition of your book. Your first edition was invaluable as a resource. And this sounds like it’s going to be even more.

Rebecca: It’s like next setting, level up. It sounds like.

Claire: Thank you.

Todd: Yes. Thank you both.

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

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

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177. Blogging in Unexpected Disciplines

Maybe you’ve seen professional development sessions about digital portfolios or blogs and thought, “that is not relevant to my classes.” In this episode, Dr. Kathryn Berkow joins us to discuss how she has used blogging in her Business Analytics class to allow students to share their learning journey. Katy is an Assistant Professor of Management Information Sciences at the University of Delaware. She is also the host of the ON Cultivating Student Engagement in Higher Ed podcast.

Show Notes

Transcript

Rebecca: Maybe you’ve seen professional development sessions about digital portfolios or blogs and thought, “that is not relevant to my classes.” In this episode, we look at one example where blogging has been used to share students’ progress on business analytics projects with an audience.

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

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

John: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer.

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

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John: Our guest today is Dr. Kathryn Berkow. Katy is an Assistant Professor of Management Information Sciences at the University of Delaware. She is also the host of the ON Cultivating Student Engagement in Higher Ed podcast. Welcome, Katy.

Katy: Well, thanks so much for having me. I’m a huge fan of your podcast.

John: And we’re fans of yours.

Rebecca: Our teas are:

Katy: I am drinking tea today, I just made a cup of something called Scandinavian detox, which is an herbal caffeine free blend.

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

Rebecca: Oh, back to an old favorite. Me too. I’m back to the Scottish afternoon tea… just delivered.

John: We’ve invited here to discuss how you’ve been using blogs in your business analytics class. Could you first describe the class in which you’re doing this?

Katy: Absolutely. So I teach business analytics at the University of Delaware. And the course that we’re talking about today is a reformulation of a traditional second course in statistics, and it’s for sophomores and juniors. So this is a required course in the business school for most business majors. For some, it’s their last statistics class they’ll ever take. And for others, it’s creating the opportunity to introduce perhaps more study in analytics. There’s a wide range of students in the class, lots of different majors, lots of different interests. And the topics that we focus on, are sort of three-pronged instead of a traditional two-pronged approach. So we focus on introducing a programming language, which is always a topic that introduces some fear for many students. We talk about statistical modeling, which also brings some fear. And the third, the part that introduces the reformulation of the class is the communication around the results of building a statistical model. And the potential impact on the research question and what the potential is for using these analytics. We really want to connect the students to the impact that their analytics could have on an organization.

Rebecca: Statistics isn’t necessarily the first topic that comes to mind to meet a blog assignment. So can you talk a little bit about how you decided to introduce blogs into your course?

Katy: Absolutely. And I completely agree with you, Rebecca, this didn’t come on suddenly for me. There were two things that were happening concurrently. The first was, I was experiencing a lot of frustration with my multiple choice homework assignments. When I started teaching the course, I had traditional exams, and these multiple choice questions. And there was always a problem with the multiple choice questions. I’m not putting enough time into writing them well, and generating the multiple questions for each topic that’s going to create that ability to randomize selection for different students. And there was always a problem, you know, a student would email and say, like, “I think I got this wrong, but I don’t know why.” And we would discover that there was actually a problem with the question. But the second thing that was happening as I was becoming more and more frustrated with my homework assignments was that I attended a workshop about digital portfolios. And it was the kind of workshop where you go to several sessions over the day, and you have a great choice. And this was one that I was like, “Well, that sounds interesting, but I’m not sure it’s going to be useful for me,” just like you said, I’m not sure that’s a statistics class was an obvious digital portfolio class. But I just kind of listened, I loved the idea and filed it away. They were giving examples of using it for writing courses or art classes to feature students’ work. But eventually, this moment came where I realized that the two could absolutely go together and highlight the communication in my class that’s missing from the multiple choice homework questions. The students were not getting practice at communicating the impact of their results, or the meaning of their results, in multiple choice questions, really. So the idea to create a space for them to not only report results, but to talk about them in their own words, really made me excited. And I just immediately started developing this new assignment, knowing that I was taking a risk, but I was really excited about it.

John: And so as they’re reporting this, is this something they’re doing over the course of the whole project?

Katy: Yeah, absolutely. So the way the project begins, that first week of the semester, I have students select their own data set of interest from some resources I provide. So an example of that would be like I send them to Kaggle. As a first source. Kaggle.com has lots of publicly available data that people have put up on the site to share. And I’ll have the students select a data set of interest, and work with that particular data set all semester long. So they start by generating an interesting research question to them. And you know, I’m just asking them to put some context around. So some students will select something very serious. Last semester, some students wanted to work with COVID-19 data, which is so relevant and interesting, but others did not want to work with COVID-19 data, they wanted to work with something that was maybe feeling like more of a break from what we were experiencing. So, a lot of students choose sports related data. And whatever the students choose, they’ll work with that data set. The intention is for them to work with that data set all semester long, and apply every skill to that data set and report out. So, there are a variety of different topics, and I also include In my syllabus that we should just be conscious that we’re not all going to choose the same type of data. Some of us are going to choose very serious topics and we should all treat the discussion of those topics in a serious way, and some of us are going to choose some things with a little bit of levity like studying the winners of the bachelorette and what their characteristics are like, and that we should appreciate the levity in that too, and just appreciate each other’s choices.

Rebecca: One of the things that I know that I’ve appreciated in doing projects like this in my class, is the ability for students to practice that professional communication and have an audience. Can you talk a little bit about who the audience of the blog is, and whether or not it’s public facing?

Katy: Oh, sure. So the blogs are intended to be public, because they’ll submit the links to their posts as their homework assignment. And then we use Canvas as an LMS. So Canvas loads those assignments right up, and I can look at them right away, which is great. But because the blogs are public, I also include some notes about that in my syllabus, pointing out that you wouldn’t want to report personal information, for example. You can keep it as private as you’d like to, in that you don’t have to identify yourself as the author if you don’t want to. But I encourage them to keep a professional tone, especially if they want to use this as a potential portfolio to share with future employers as evidence of their study and their work. And I tell them, they can spend as much or as little time as they’d like making it look beautiful, with some really beautiful images. Some students choose not to do that at all and it’s just a plain white background with a title. And that’s fine, too. So I tell them, I am their audience, but that they should consider that this is a public space, and that they might have a broader audience. But I also include in the syllabus, if anyone is uncomfortable with the idea of a public facing blog, they can request a different option. I’ve never actually had to offer that option. But I would offer like, let’s create a Google Doc that is more like with chapters instead of a blog with individual posts.

John: What platform are students using? Do they get to choose our own? Or are they all working in one platform?

Katy: So, I suggest WordPress because it has a free option. And because that’s where I built my example blog, which I’m happy to talk about as well. And I can provide more detailed instructions and troubleshoot with them a little bit more easily. But if they want to choose Wix or something else that they’re more comfortable with, I’m completely fine with that so long as they know that I’m not an expert in any of these other platforms.

Rebecca: Do you want to talk a little bit about that example you just mentioned?

Katy: Absolutely. So the example blog that I built was sort of my first experience with understanding if this could work in the class. As I was trying to formulate what we would do, I was writing my own version of the blog, which later turned into a resource that can help students as an example. So I selected a data set about understanding diabetes, and its relationship to age and blood pressure. And this is a very common data set on Kaggle. So I was writing. The goal is for students to take each topic that we learn in class, and there’s about, say, 15 topics over the course of the semester. So if we learn to build a basic regression model, the students will then apply the basic regression code that we’ve learned in class, and we’ve seen a couple examples and apply it to their own data set. So now I’m thinking about COVID-19 and I want to understand the relationship between, say, rates of cases and age groups, something like that. So they now have my example blog to go to and read and see how I structured what I did. And they’ll say, “Okay, Katy built her model relating blood pressure to age, and I’m going to do something similar.” And one of the reasons why I like creating the example is so that they can see where they’re going. But I also really liked that it serves as sort of a textbook support where we don’t have a textbook in our class. So in the later, more complex topics, I also write a lot about how I’m interpreting my results, and why, so that they have a little more support as they try to make those interpretations. And of course, if they’re having any trouble making those connections, they can always come to office hours and ask questions. But those who have used the example blog as a support really report that it’s useful.

John: You mentioned that you don’t have a textbook, but I’ve seen on your website that you have created videos that serve as a substitute for a textbook.

Katy: Yes, as we’ve transitioned to online remote teaching, I had actually been very lucky to have had experienced teaching online before. And I wasn’t using those videos that I had used in the online version of the class in my on campus class at all. But there have always been students not able to attend class for various reasons. You know, “I’m an athlete and I’m going to be traveling, I’m going to miss class” or “I’m just sick and I’m going to miss class.” So for lots of reasons, students have needed an additional resource and, without a textbook, that’s always been a concern. So I wanted to provide those additional supports but, of course, as I’m sure you’ve considered before as well, does providing the video reduce my attendance in class? There’s this constant struggle. But as I have been doing this online remote teaching, I think that I don’t care, I just want to provide all of the resources, so that every student can find this material in whatever way is easiest, most flexible, most accommodating to their lifestyle. And so that means putting out the videos in what I’m calling a digital textbook. And I can also refer it to students even when we’re on campus as an additional support if they need it after class.

Rebecca: How have your students responded to working through this information in this way? And have they had the opportunity to look at each other’s blogs and comment and do some peer feedback as well?

Katy: That is a great question. I have not incorporated any peer feedback of the blogs into class… except this semester, as we were doing the remote teaching, I was meeting in small groups, so the students would watch the videos from the online class. And then we would come together in conversation. And the only peer feedback that I’ve ever incorporated is having the students present their issues as they work through their blog posts during these small group sessions, and then having others weigh in. And I found that to be so rewarding, it was just so much fun to have them identifying each other’s problems. And there were lots of students in each group studying similar types of data. So one student is studying hockey, “Oh, I’m also studying hockey, did you find this…” and so it really was fun to make those connections. So in that way, we have had some peer oversight and I think I’d like to find ways to continue that kind of small group discussion about the blogs. But overall, the feedback on the blogs has been positive. The way that I know that is I’m looking at course evaluations, I would say, in maybe 40% of my course evaluations, students are mentioning the blogs in general. So, not everyone by a longshot. And when they do mention it, it’s in two ways, in general: 1. I really loved the blog posts, or 2. the blog posts were really hard, but I knew I was learning. And so seeing comments like those, it really makes me feel like I’m achieving the goal of helping the students to get to a place where they’re ready to apply the skill in a new setting. So that’s the beauty of the blog, that it captures what we really want them to do, which is to get into their professional setting, ready to apply it to a new situation, because they have my example blog, they have their example blog, they can remember how to do this given those skills.

John: You provide students with a sample blog, but do you give them any other guidance on what they should include in their blog post?

Katy: Absolutely. So in each problem description, so for each blog post assignment, I’ll give a bulleted list of items that they should include. But in addition to that, because I probably go on a little bit in my bulleted list, I also provide a rubric. And Canvas, as an LMS is really helpful in this way, because I can include the rubric right in the assignment and tell students how I’ll be calculating the points for each assignment. So I can have one point for including an image showing the results, I can have one point for correctly interpreting the intercept, etc. So the students will know as they’re writing, what are the things that I’ll be looking for. But even better than that, they can also see where their blog posts needed improvement. So after it’s been graded, and by the way, it’s very easy to grade in Canvas, because it can take me just a few minutes to read through a post and know whether the student has done the five or six checklist items in the rubric and just click, and I’m done in just a few minutes per student, which is great if you have a large number of students say whether it’s 50 or 150. It’s relatively quick. And I’m very lucky to have the help of a TA with that. But the beauty of the rubric in canvas is that the students can see which buttons I’ve clicked so they can know “Okay, I got a five out of six on this post. And where I wasn’t effective was at describing what the meaning of the intercept was. So now I can go to tutoring or to office hours or talk to the TA about how I could change that for a project or an assessment.”

John: How many posts do they have to make as you’re working through the project.

Katy: So the students will work on a post for every topic over the course of the semester, which ends up being 14 topic related posts. I also have them create a welcome post that’s just “Hey, I’m here blogging as their first assignment…” that just officially sets up their blog and creates their first post walking them through the process. And they create one additional post about “data and impact” I call it so they report which dataset did I select? Why? What’s the potential impact? So I have them create a research question they’ll be focused on through the semester and describe what impact it could have. Now this is a business analytics class, but I think of it more like an organizational analytics. So even if you’re studying the bachelorette, you can position yourself to think about, “Okay, I work for Netflix, and I’m trying to understand, is there a theme here? Do we need to have more diversity and inclusion in our bachelorette or bachelor? So what are the dynamics around the situation we’re studying?” And obviously, some things lend themselves more to a traditional business analytics context than others. But I want the students to know that any organization can have any research question. So you can create that context. And then they do a final post with conclusions at the end of the semester.

John: Do you have a generic rubric that works with all of the posts? Or is there one for each of those stages?

Katy: Great question, John, you’re pointing out that there was quite a bit of setup on the front end of this. So it was good that I was really excited about it when starting the experiment, [LAUGHTER] because I had to build that example blog, I had to build each of the 17 total assignments, and that kind of semi-custom rubric to each one. So each one includes the requirement that an image must be posted, for example. But, if we’re studying linear regression assumptions, I’m going to have one point associated with each assumption that needs to be tested correctly. So there is a lot of customization. However, after creating, because these are so generic or agnostic to the material the student is studying, after creating that first batch of assignments, I’ve been doing this two years now, I have never needed to change it. And I really haven’t had any issues with these assignments when it comes to “this wasn’t clearly enough defined,” for example, because while the students do tend to become frustrated with open-ended assignments, they hear me say, a lot of the time, business analytics is an open-ended kind of structure. It has a lot of art, and a lot of science. And I can’t answer the questions, always in a direct way because your real life is not going to have direct answers to every question. And so over the course of the semester, I do find students tend to get more comfortable with this ill-defined nature. But they also have the support of specific rubrics to give them some sense of structure when possible.

John: Would you recommend this approach to other faculty outside of the more traditional writing fields?

Katy: Absolutely, but I won’t pretend to know how. What I would say is that I encourage just hearing what other people are doing, like I get so much value out of listening to your podcast, and to Bonni Stachoviak’s podcast, just hearing what people are doing in their classrooms that’s engaging their students, because one of the reasons I created my own podcast was to generate more sharing, because what happens in our classrooms is so opaque to others. As I told you, I attended that session a couple of years ago, maybe three or four years ago now. And I didn’t really think it applied. And I know we all say like, “Oh, well that’s not for me,” or “that’s not gonna work,” I just feel like the more ideas we have circulating in our minds that you know “don’t work,” and the more issues we face on our own in our own classes about, especially now, how to engage students under these changing circumstances, I just feel like having a glossary of ideas that you can pull from and maybe adapt to your own class is so helpful. So I think there are lots of potential applications to this, that I could see. In fact, I use this in my other courses. So I teach a capstone course at the senior and graduate level. And when we’re not using proprietary data related to an organization, which I do in my senior capstone, like in the graduate course, I do have students select publicly available data, I also use a blog reporting structure. So I did need to develop a similar framework with rubrics. But it creates this sort of agnostic space where no matter what project you’re working on, you can report out on that topic, and all you need to do is share a link with me and then I can see your status update for the week. And you can really tell a lot by how students are writing about what they’re doing. Now in, say, a finance class where there’s a correct answer to every question, I’m not sure a blog is going to be a perfect fit. But it’s just really nice to have it as one option for reporting something because probably there’s going to be a report or a reflection or writing assignment in some space, where digital reporting is a really nice way to reduce paper, make our classes much more streamlined for remote delivery or flexible delivery as we move into the future. I do think it has a potential for tons of applications that I certainly haven’t thought of yet. But I really like this delivery method in class.

John: And you mentioned reflection, and that’s something that’s useful in any discipline, and that’s one way in which it could be fairly easily integrated. You’ve made my life a lot more complicated this week, because I’m supposed to be preparing my syllabi this week. We’re recording this in late January. We’ll be releasing it a little bit later. And when I saw the description of what you were doing, I was thinking this is something I should try this semester. So I’m probably going to be trying to implement some of these ideas in my econometrics class this semester.

Katy: Well, that’s great to hear. I hope it works.

John: I hope I can get it all together.

Katy: Well, I’d be happy to share anything by the way, like if you want to see my example blog or if you want to see an example rubric or an example assignment description, I’d be happy to share any of those things.

John: That would be very helpful. Thank you.

Rebecca: It is funny that sometimes we get these really great ideas to try out these new things, and John and I certainly experience this frequently. As podcast hosts, we’re exposed to so many great ideas, and then we have so many. But it’s really great, even though that sometimes there’s a lot of time involved in the setup of these things, they often play out in saving time over time….

Katy: Absolutely.

Rebecca: …presuming you stay with it, right? [LAUGHTER]

Katy: Well, absolutely. And that’s one of the things that has been the neatest for me, because one of the issues with the multiple choice questions is that they were so specific, and there was so much opportunity to make a mistake, missing a dollar sign or writing the wrong variable name. With the blog assignments, they’re so open ended. All I’m saying is: “Apply using linear regression with two variables to your dataset.” How can I get that problem description wrong? I can’t. So the beauty of the blog is that the nature of the description of an assignment is so open ended, but so directly flowing from what we did in class that the students really know how to accomplish each step.

Rebecca: I’m sure they also can see the practical application and how all of this skill sets not only from the statistics part of it, but also from the blog component of it, or the digital reporting of it, is practical for their future careers and things. And I think that tends to give students a little bit more buy-in to these kinds of assignments.

Katy: I think you’re right. And it achieves two other critical things. One of them is that it brings the sort of inherent motivation that we know is so important for student learning right up front, the students are choosing what they want to study. So they’re going to have a lot more excitement. And honestly, I see that when I’m talking to them. I don’t know anything about professional hockey, but when my students are working with hockey data, and that’s the area that they have the greatest interest in, I see them light up when I ask questions about like, “Now, how did you make this interpretation? Why do you think this is related to this?” So inherent motivation is a big deal. But the second thing that is a really fun byproduct is that having read what students are doing and having spoken to them in office hours, it brings up a ton of fun examples to talk about in class. So I might remember that Adrian is working on, you know, the COVID-19 data, and I can sort of bring that up casually in class. We found this weird thing that happened in Adrian’s dataset, and why do you think this is happening? Or what do you think is a good solution to this problem that Adrian’s facing and we can talk about things that I had never imagined would come up in class just because of a quirky dataset that was publicly available.

Rebecca: I could see how that also puts students in the position of being an expert or a co- teacher in some ways, which I can see as being another motivating factor.

Katy: Absolutely. That’s such a great point, because they’re also experts in each other’s conversation. So in the small groups that I was doing in the remote teaching in the fall, one student would say, “Oh, well I bought him an idea for your data set based on our conversation last week.” And even if you just watch hockey, and you’re not working on a hockey dataset, but you really like it, you can be an expert in someone else’s space. And clearly I can’t, because I’m upfront with the students about what I know and what I’m interested in and what I’m not. So like, I don’t watch a lot of hockey. so you have to help me understand. And that sort of puts me in a backseat in the same way it puts them in the front seat.

John: Earlier, you mentioned that one of the motivations for doing this was that you wanted to move away from multiple choice tests. Have you eliminated multiple choice tests from this course?

Katy: So yes, I have… sort of. In the remote teaching environment, I have relied more on team projects and multiple choice quizzes. I was trying to model after folks I’ve heard on your podcast and others say that having smaller-stakes quizzes is much more inclusive, gives students more of an opportunity to learn and to course correct, and so I was having these multiple choice quizzes. But I’m finding that the multiple choice quizzes are really an obstacle for students. And I am as frustrated as they are with them. They’re doing great on the blogs, but they’re not doing as well on the multiple choice questions. And I suspect it’s because of the poor design in the multiple choice questions and not because the students don’t know what they’re doing. They couldn’t do a great job on the blog if they didn’t have the skills. So as we head into the spring, where I’ll be teaching remotely again, I am planning to drop the multiple choice quizzes completely. That’s not to say I’ll never use multiple choice questions again. In my in-person class, I have used multiple choice questions or a multiple choice final as part of assessing students. But for now, it seems that the multiple choice quizzes really have not been effective. So this semester, I’m going to be grading students on their blog posts, team project, and participation, which is just an interaction metric

John: Are the team projects the same as a project they’re reporting on the blog?

Katy: Oh, great question. So when I assign a team project to students, it is on a data set that I’ve selected. So at the beginning of the semester, they are downloading a folder of lots of different data sets that they’ll need for examples working through the course skill videos that we’ve talked about. And I’ll choose a data set that they might not have seen yet and write some questions that are somewhat open ended, “build a model,” and I’ll try to randomize across teams like which variables they should use in their model. So they’ll all be predicting sales, for example, but they might have different predictor variables. So team one is going to choose variables, 1, 2, 3, etc. So they’re all working with something a little bit different, but they’re trying to end up in the same place: predicting sales. And these are totally open ended. But they get to work together, and that helps. And I’ve also been using specifications grading in this class over the last semester, which has been a lot of fun. The students have started to appreciate it toward the end of the semester, though, maybe I shouldn’t have selected a semester that was so much in transition to experiment with that. [LAUGHTER] Maybe it created a little stress at the beginning. But by the end of the semester, the students were saying things like, “I really liked that I could choose my level of interaction with the course.” The reason I bring this up is because I would require revisions in team projects. So every team had to score 100%, which of course is alarming to students until you say, “there will be revisions required until you’ve scored 100%.” So I want us to move past these topics, but we are going to make sure that we learn them. And I think that was a really neat experience for me to be able to coach students through finally getting mastery, which I have never done in class before. If a student didn’t master a topic, we just move on and maybe there will be an opportunity down the road. But it really was nice to see students come to a place where they had achieved a particular benchmark.

Rebecca: Were your collaborative assignments done during class time, or were they outside of class?

Katy: So this semester, I allowed students to have an entire day that they could complete the assignment anytime between 12am on that day and 11:59pm. I also encouraged my international students to do it during that 24 hours, but to make sure it was done during that eastern time 24 hours. And they could work on it during the class time, during the scheduled class time. Because it was a day that we would have had class, but they didn’t have to. So they had the flexibility to choose a time that worked for them. If it was late at night, great. If it was early in the morning, great. Or if it was during class time. That’s fine with me too.

John: We’ve really been enjoying your podcast. And you’ve mentioned this a little bit. But can you tell us a little bit more about how you decided to start this podcast?

Katy: Absolutely. First, I want to thank you both for listening. I’m such a fan of your podcast and others that are similar. And just like the digital portfolio idea, the possibility of creating a podcast has been in the back of my mind for a while, listening to some others like yours. So just as I have learned so much from hearing what others are doing via podcasts like yours, I just feel like I can’t get enough examples of creative ideas that people are using to engage their students. And not just big ideas like “Oh, implement a new grading system.” But small ideas like “Oh, I spend the first minute of my class engaging my students in this way,” or “I have this micro assignment that we do only occasionally but builds community.” And as I mentioned before, what we do in our classrooms can feel so opaque. It’s really that I just wanted to contribute in a time when we can all use more sharing of the things that are working for us, and not every idea is perfect for every person. But just more sharing of what’s working so that we have more options to choose from when teaching feels so different and so challenging to so many of us right now. And so the podcast is generating, selfishly, tons of new ideas for me, which even if that’s the only thing that comes out of it, that’s enough. But it’s also doing the service of drawing attention to the great ideas around me at the University of Delaware this semester, and hopefully, in a broader sense in the future. And so I just really appreciate being able to feature great ideas that are happening around me that might not otherwise be heard about except in documentation of excellence, for example.

John: And often those are only seen by a few people on review committees and sharing it more broadly, both within your campus and across the whole academic community, raises the visibility of that work much more extensively.

Katy: That’s my hope because the more people I talk to, I just feel so impressed by the exciting ideas that I’m hearing from different people and to be able to amplify their voices. I couldn’t be happier to be able to do that.

Rebecca: Well, you’ve talked about some really exciting things that you’re working on. But we always like to raise the ante by asking: what’s next?

Katy: So next, for me would be a second season of the podcast. I’d really like to incorporate more ideas from a broader range of places across the University of Delaware, but also bringing in others from outside just to add to the discussion. And also, I’m really thinking a lot, listening a lot to your podcast, and thinking a lot about what the future looks like in my classroom. I will have taught remotely now for…. this will be my second semester in the spring teaching remotely. And I’m learning so many things about how we can make learning more accessible to more students under the current circumstances. But I think a lot of it applies to what our future looks like. So I’m really not sure when we go back in the fall, I’m hopeful we’ll be back in the fall safely, but I’m really not sure what my class is going to look like. I can’t imagine that I’m just gonna slide back into what I used to do without incorporating some new things. And finally, I am expecting a baby in June. So there is a new chapter ahead for me that will bring some other fun changes. And so that is what’s next.

John: Congratulations.

Rebecca: Congratulations. Yeah.

Katy: Thank you very much.

Rebecca: …definitely exciting times on so many fronts.

John: Rebecca had that experience fairly recently.

Katy: Oh, congratulations.

Rebecca: Yeah, my daughter is three and a half now, but yeah, it was a great adventure and continues to be a great adventure. So I know you’ll have a great time.

Katy: Yeah, I’m certainly looking forward to understanding all the things that are ahead and totally different and maybe they’ll also inspire some new ways of thinking about learning from seeing it through a different set of eyes

Rebecca: It definitely did for me. [LAUGHTER]

John: I think it does for everyone who raises children. And actually Josh Eyler, after watching his daughter learn and experience the world…. it inspired him to study more about learning, which is ultimately the source of his book on How Humans Learn.

Katy: I think I heard him talking with you about that on your podcast.

Rebecca: Well, thanks so much, Katy. This has been a great conversation.

Katy: Well, thank you both so much for having me. It’s really been a pleasure chatting with you.

Rebecca: Hopefully we’ll have you back in the future to hear more about the fun things you’re doing in your classroom.

Katy: That sounds fantastic. Thank you.

[MUSIC]

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

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

[MUSIC]

176. Critical Thinking

“I want my students to think more critically” is a familiar statement in higher education, especially when we mix in conspiracy theories, pseudoscience and fake news. In this episode, Dr. Linda Nilson joins us to discuss practical techniques faculty can use to help students develop the skills necessary to become critical thinkers. Now Director Emeritus, Linda was the founding director of the Office of Teaching Effectiveness and Innovation at Clemson University. She is the author of Infusing Critical Thinking Into Your Course: A Concrete, Practical Guide as well as many other superb books, book chapters, and articles on teaching and learning.

Show Notes

Transcript

John: “I want my students to think more critically” is a familiar statement in higher education, especially in a social media environment filled with conspiracy theories, pseudoscience, and fake news. In this episode, we discuss practical techniques that faculty can use to help students develop the skills necessary to become critical thinkers.

[MUSIC]

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

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

John: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer.

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

[MUSIC]

John: Our guest today is Dr. Linda Nielson. Now Director Emeritus, Linda was the Founding Director of the Office of Teaching Effectiveness and Innovation at Clemson University. She is the author of Infusing Critical Thinking into your Course: a Concrete, Practical Guide, as well as many other superb books, book chapters and articles on teaching and learning. Welcome back, Linda.

Linda: Thank you very much for having me back, John.

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

Linda: I certainly am. And this is Twinings Berry, multiple berries.

Rebecca: Oh, yum.

Linda: Yeah. It’s delish. And I’m so glad you’ve helped to get me back into tea. [LAUGHTER]

Rebecca: As everybody should be,

Linda: Yes, yes, yes. It’s a wonderful thing.

John: I had some of the Twinings mixed berries early today. But I’ve got a chocolate mint black tea, which is really good.

Linda: Ooh, chocolate.

Rebecca: Chocolate anytime of day is excellent.

Linda: Yeah, really.

Rebecca: It’s an important food group. [LAUGHTER] Just like tea. I’m drinking that palm court blend that I have recently started making pots of. It’s pretty decent.

Linda: Great.

John: We just saw a note that you have this forthcoming book on critical thinking. What motivated you to write this book, now that everyone has this universal agreement on facts and reasoning and logic…

Linda: Yeah. Oh, yeah.

John: …and we don’t have a lot of disputes on these things anymore? [LAUGHTER}

Linda: Ha hah… Ah, yes. Actually, politics had nothing to do with it, if you can believe that. Originally, I got interested in critical thinking in the 90s. I decided to give a talk on it for some conference. And I got into the literature. And I said, “Okay, as soon as I get this talk over with, I am never, ever, ever going to do anything having to do with critical thinking, again, because the literature, it’s just a siloed mess.” So anyway, I just put that away. Well, then I guess it was something like eight years ago or so, Clemson University, in its infinite wisdom, decided to select critical thinking for its QEP, its Quality Enhancement Plan. And I thought, “Oh, no, do you know what you’re doing? Do you have any idea how difficult this is going to be?” And of course, I figured, like, I’m going to be doing workshops, so I got to get back into this literature. And I realized what I had to do was synthesize it for the faculty, because why should I inflict a literature’s flaws and warts on them. So that’s what I decided to do. Well, then, as it turned out, Clemson wasn’t the only university picking critical thinking for a QEP, and so I started getting invitations to do workshops, so I got on the road, and that’s always fun to do. I was back into it, but trying to make it as practical and as easy to implement for faculty as possible. So that was my goal, is always to make the faculty member’s job easier. So, I was comfortable with that. Well, a couple of years ago, David Brightman from Stylus contacted me, asking me to write a book on critical thinking. And I thought, “Well, I’m kind of enjoying being semi-lazy and just traveling around, oh, what fun.” And then I thought, “Well, look, I don’t know about this. But let me just start outlining the book and see how it feels.” Well, it felt really good. I was amazed. [LAUGHTER] And I thought, “Okay, lazy is not so interesting to me anymore. I’m going to write this book.” Well, he was happy. I was happy. And so I immediately started writing it, and because I had these workshops to work off of… updated by reading of the literature, of course… but other than that, it was probably the easiest book I’ve ever written. And so, this is fun, this is neat, this is great. And so I finished it really very quickly. And I was glad to do it. I finished it in four months or so… four to five months, the whole….

Rebecca: Wow..

Linda: Yeah, I know. Well, I was a house afire and I had nothing better to do. [LAUGHTER] So anyway, that’s how I was inspired to do it. It was really David Brightman ‘s idea. And if he was excited about it, that kind of got me excited about it. And I knew the need was out there. I knew the need because there were still universities crazy enough to adapt critical thinking as a QEP. I had also acquired some friends in the critical thinking community by then and so “Okay, this is fine. This is great. I’m going to do this.” And so I did it. And so now it’s due out March, maybe April, because you never know about these things. So it’s really happened. [LAUGHTER]

Rebecca: I found that a lot of faculty really believe in the idea of critical thinking, but have no idea how to define it or explain it to students.

Linda: Yes. And that’s a perfectly reasonable reaction for them to have, because of the massive literature out there. And it’s just the idea of critical thinking, it’s such an abstract, squishy, ephemeral idea. And we’re like, “What is it?” …and of course all faculty think they’re teaching it, right? But they’re not ,unless you make critical thinking, an outcome, a specific outcome that makes sense in your course. And you tell your students about it, and you call it what it is, that you’re not teaching critical thinking. It’s not going to happen by osmosis. It’s not going to happen by happy accident. Critical Thinking just doesn’t do that, it has to be a very, very conscious effort. And there’s a lot of literature to back this up.

Rebecca: So what is it? [LAUGHTER]

Linda: Oh, that’s a good follow up question. Well, I’m not going to go through the litany of definitions that you can find out there in the literature. But what I was able to glean from that literature is this: it’s interpretation, analysis, and/or evaluation, for the purpose of making some sort of decision or solving some sort of problem. And that’s it. But you could get definitions out there that go on for a couple of paragraphs, you can get definitions that seem to change color from one chapter to the next. I mean, they’re all there. And I just found it very confusing myself. But again, it was all about synthesis to me… all about synthesis, taking the best from these different silos, these different frameworks, and try to put them together into something that’s easiest, into a pocket definition: interpretation, analysis, evaluation. Now, you can put that in your pocket. And so can students.

Rebecca: I’m sold. [LAUGHTER]

Linda: Alright. That’s wonderful. That’s wonderful.

John: I remember when we introduced a critical thinking Gen Ed requirement here at Oswego, that everyone agreed that that was something that was desperately needed. It’s just everybody had a different idea of what it was. [LAUGHTER] And so eventually, it became infused within the disciplines. But I still think that that discussion of what exactly it is was never really resolved. It was kind of a way of sublimating that whole discussion and debate. So is critical thinking the same across disciplines? Or is it really going to be different depending on your disciplinary context or lens?

Linda: Okay, well, when you’re talking about interpretation, analysis, evaluation, yeah, that goes across the disciplines. But that’s not of much help to faculty. And so I put it in the disciplines, or I should say, in disciplinary clusters, because let’s face it, chemistry shares a lot with biology, right? …just in terms of general approach to observation, its approach to testing, just the general scientific thinking. And the humanities, there are a lot in common. And by the way, sometimes the social sciences pretend to be humanities, when you’re talking about the theories and things like that. Now, the social sciences, I look at them as sciences. So I put them in that scientific cluster. And then they’re the arts. Well, they’re off somewhere else entirely. They’ve got all….

Rebecca: Hey! [LAUGHTER]

Linda: Ah… oh, I’m sorry. You’re in it. But the arts are in a beautiful place. And they’re far more beautiful than the other disciplines. And then there are the, what I call the Applied Sciences, they’re different still. Oh yes, they share some overlap with the sciences. But so what I do is, there’s one chapter where I talk all about critical thinking outcomes by these disciplinary clusters. And now I have a list of different outcomes for each cluster. So take your pick, add more, but it’ll sound familiar to faculty. It’s using their vocabulary, it’s addressing their concerns, the sort of things that they strive to teach, the sort of things that they want their students to be able to do. And so I like to put it in the, at least, disciplinary clusters. Now it’s still you know, yes, you have to bring it down to your particular discipline, and then your particular course. But other than that, there are all kinds of tremendous overlap. But it’s such a different context. Sometimes you’re not even using the same verbs, and you’re certainly not using the same direct objects. I can assure you of that.

Rebecca: Why do faculty think it’s so hard to teach?

Linda: Oh, well, they’ve sure got good reasons. And I have a whole chapter on 10 reasons why teaching critical thinking is so challenging, and it’s got all kinds of reasons. First, there’s the literature, okay, that’s reason zero, okay. And so, I’m sort of, in a sense, telling faculty “Don’t read the literature, just don’t worry about that, or pick one and have fun” … whatever, but that’s not going to help you a lot. And that’s what’s different about my book, that mine’s, again, practical, concrete… here’s what you do… connect the dots. But reason number one is critical thinking about certain kinds of thinking, like that definition I gave you, but also a certain kind of subject matter. And there are courses out there that don’t have that subject matter. There has to be, in this subject matter, it has to be content containing claims, statements that may or may not be complete, valid, or at least the most valid, or the most viable, and for perfectly good reasons as well. For instance, there might be other respectable competing claims, the evidence supporting a claim may be weak or ambiguous, the data may be suspect, the source may have a lack of legitimacy or conflict of interest. So anyway, there are some courses that just seem to just be teaching undisputed facts. Now, if you’re teaching disputed facts, that’s fine, then you could talk about critical thinking. But there has to be some sort of dispute, some sort of competition, something among different claims. And again, there are, unfortunately, some courses that don’t have that… now you can add them in. Another thing about teaching critical thinking… It’s difficult for people to do, for students to do and it’s unnatural for students, for learners, for people to do, because we all want our current beliefs and values and ways of thinking confirmed. That’s what we are usually going for. And then there’s the whole struggle of learning. Learning is struggle, learning is effort. And students don’t seem to accept that. It’s like we’re supposed to make learning so easy. As easy as it was in elementary and high school. Isn’t that our job? …to make learning easy and effortless? No. But in any case, they might fight that: “Well, this is hard. So you’re not a good teacher. And anyway, students also bring biases and misconceptions into the classes that interfere with critical thinking. They’re not aware of these, and so you have to make them aware of them. And students don’t necessarily like that. Critical thinking requires self regulation, or metacognition. If you’re not observing your thinking, there’s no way you can think critically, I’m sorry, you have to question yourself all the time. But you’ve got to be aware of what that thinking is to even talk about it. Here’s another one and it’s nasty. Critical thinking requires the traits of good character. So virtues like integrity and determination and morality and inner strength. And some of our students just don’t have those virtues. Now, there are ways, there really are ways, that you can teach them about good character and bad character. And just the way good character is portrayed in our media and our literature, in movies, television, whatever, it makes good character look good, makes it look more attractive. But students don’t necessarily know what even good character is. And they can’t do self-regulated learning without having some intellectual virtues, like perseverance, like wanting to pursue truth, intellectual integrity, intellectual humility, certain dispositions that are absolutely essential. Otherwise, why bother to do critical thinking? Why put yourself through this? Here’s another thing that critical thinking requires: mental health, emotional health. Now, on the level that you can start increasing students’ mental health is on the level of defense mechanisms. But if you’ve got students out there, and I bet you do, who have personality disorders, they’re narcissists, they;re sociopaths, they’re psychopaths, so they might murder you someday. Forget about them, don’t even have hope for them. They have no interest in pursuing truth at all. That’s why they don’t wind up in the psychiatrist’s office. “What’s wrong?” “Nothing’s wrong,” right? And so what’s wrong with my thinking? Nothing’s wrong with my thinking. So they’re not into this, forget about them. Critical Thinking also requires students to respond to questions. And students don’t always like to respond to questions. They don’t mind telling you what day of the week it is. But beyond that, if they’re going to have to think, they might not be eager to do this. Now, if everybody else is doing it in the class, that helps. It really does. So yeah, there are all kinds of reasons why critical thinking is very difficult to teach, but it’s not impossible, and it’s not mystical.

John: You mentioned self regulation, what are some techniques that we can use in our classes to help students become more self regulated in terms of developing critical thinking skills that let them analyze evidence more effectively and interpret arguments more effectively?

Linda: Yes, well, again, awareness is where you start. So the first thing you want to do, the first habit that you want to develop in your class is whenever you have students give a statement… I don’t mean an undisputed definition, okay, I mean something that’s addressing a claim or making a claim in some way? And you’ve got to just keep asking them: “Well, how did you arrive at that response?” Now, you’re going to sound like a broken record the first couple of weeks, and then students will realize, “Okay, I’m not going to talk unless I have an answer to that question, because I know that Professor so and so is going to ask me this question.” So they start to think about this on their own, and they’re ready to answer it, or they’ll keep their mouth shut. But it’s not so impossible to look into your head as to how you came up with a certain answer. And initially, students will have to say, like, “I don’t know,” and you know what, that’s okay. Because now you have their attention. If they don’t know that that’s a perfectly fine answer, you need to start thinking about that, you need to start observing your thinking. And that’s the first thing you get them to do. Now, in terms of like, with readings, or if you’re having them watch videos and these sorts of things, you can give them reflective assignments to accompany those readings, and for that matter accompany any other kind of assignment. But what you want them to do is you want them to reflect on perhaps their affective reactions to the reading, or what they found particularly important, or what they found particularly surprising when they do a reading and then they have to answer this question or couple of questions at the end. And again, there are no wrong answers. This is like no stress, folks, just I want at least 100 words from you, that students start looking over what they just read and thinking about it from their own viewpoint. What did they find most important? How did they react emotionally? What connections did they make to what they already knew. So it’s making them more aware of what kind of impact that reading had. And those are just the simplest things in the world with substantial assignments, writing assignments, what you want your students to do is sort of a meta assignment at the same time. And again, you can’t go wrong, folks. And all you’ve got to do as a faculty member is just to check these in, just make sure that they did it and if you want 200 words, perhaps, “Okay, describe your reasoning in solving this problem.” or ”How did you reason through this case, in debriefing this case? What questions did you ask yourself along the way? What skills did you improve in the course of doing this assignment?” There’s so many different possibilities. And so, yeah, self awareness, self awareness. And then, of course, after a test when they get a graded exam back, make them aware of how they prepared or how they didn’t prepare. And so it’s making them face the music about, “Okay, what did you expect to get on this exam? And what did you get?” Gee whiz, how do you feel about that? Now, “A” students are gonna “Oh, yeah, I thought I got an A,” or I thought I’d get a “B” but I got an “A,” and so I feel whoopee.” Okay, don’t worry about them. They’re already self regulating, they self regulate to the point of paranoia, they’re the least of your worries. [LAUGHTER] But other students need to become aware of, “Okay, so how did you study? Did you study the way I told you too, which is quizzing yourself? Or do you just reread, reread, reread, reread the way I told you not to, because that’s a waste of time? How many hours did you study? Was this enough? What are you going to do differently on the next exam to do better?” And so students have to think about a strategy, they’re meta-studying in a way. And so they’re thinking about their learning strategies. And they really need to do a lot more of that. Any kinds of like, experiential activities… there are all kinds of questions that they can ask themselves, or you can ask them to write about, “Well, what were your goals originally? And how did they change through the simulation or the game or the role playing?” And this would be true of like service learning or field work or any of these things. “How did you respond to other people involved in the interactions? And why would you respond differently next time?” So there’s a lot of self assessment going on. And this is a good place to start with self assessment. It’s a safe place to start with self assessment, because usually everybody changes their strategy from the beginning through the middle to the end. And that’s good. That’s what they’re supposed to be doing. That’s called learning. [LAUGHTER] But it makes them aware of that learning. That’s how you do it. Yeah.

John: It sounds like there’s quite a bit of overlap between improving students’ critical thinking skills and improving students’ metacognition,

Linda: Absolutely.

John: Is it effectively the same type of strategy used in both cases? Or is it essentially the same process In both cases?

Linda: What’s different about it is with critical thinking, you’re dealing with real disciplinary content. And you’re not necessarily doing that with metacognition. Yes, self awareness is definitely a part of critical thinking. But that’s not all. I mean, you’re actually trying to come to some sort of conclusion or solve some sort of problem, maybe even decide to take some sort of action. You’re examining claims, you’re examining data, you’re examining sources, you’re examining a lot of different things along the way that you’re not necessarily doing in metacognition, but metacognition, it precedes critical thinking. I mean, if you’re not aware of how you’re thinking, how in the world, are you going to come up with a well reasoned approach to a problem? So there’s a lot more. You’re using metacognition, to extend reasoning into something that is disciplinary based.

Rebecca: I’m so glad we’re having this conversation today. Because I’m working on a new class where practicing thinking moving into higher-level classes is the goal of the class. And so I was working on a lot of reflection assignments. So I was just doing a little editing while we were chatting. [LAUGHTER]

Linda: Oh. alright, See, I’m glad this is useful, and that’s the whole thing. I want that book to be useful. And that’s what makes it, I think, different from the other books out there and critical thinking, because most of them are in a particular silo, they’re coming from a particular silo, they’re may be extending that silo in some way. And I was looking for common ground across multiple silos, and then maybe not all of them, but multiple silos, I tell you one thing that they all have in common, they all say that critical thinking involves metacognition or self regulation.

John: And I remember reading a really good book on creating self-regulated learning.

Linda: Oh yeah, that one, yeah.

John: That might be something we’d recommend to faculty.

Linda: Yes.

John: We’ll include that in the show notes as well.

Linda: Okay, good. Yes, indeed, I’m glad I wrote that book beforehand. I really am. [LAUGHTER]

John: And it ties in nicely with a lot of your discussion in the book. In this new book, you’re also addressing how specifications grading could be used. And I know there’s a really nice book on that as well.

Linda: Oh yeah, yeah.I remember that one.

John: You mentioned that when you grade things, that it doesn’t necessarily require a lot of work for the faculty member. Could you just talk a little bit about how specifications grading could be used to evaluate these types of activities?

Linda: Sure, absolutely. First of all, all assignments, not courses, all assignments are graded pass/fail, and for that matter tests, but you don’t pass either a test or an assignment at a C level, you raise your expectations to a B level. But guess what, you’ve got to know what components in that essay or that paper or whatever that design that you want to see to achieve a B level. Now, if you already have rubrics, fine, you can start looking at the top level of the rubric and maybe take a few from the next one down. But those are the things that have to be in the piece of work for it to pass. And by the way, you explain this to students. Now the stakes suddenly become higher for students. So guess what? They read the directions? Isn’t it wonderful? They do, they want to pass. Now, initially, they don’t believe that they could possibly fail at anything because of partial credit. Well, guess what, there is no partial credit here. But they won’t believe it till they fail something. So you always want to give them some get out of jail free cards, so they can maybe fail a couple of times, and then redo the assignment the correct way, because they realize, “Oh, he or she is really serious about this. Oh, goodness. Okay.” So yeah, they really start reading the directions and doing what you asked them to do. And you know what? If they’re worried that they’re not doing it, they visit you, they call you, they email you, they actually ask for clarification, because this means something. And we’ve been lowering the stakes and lowering the stakes and lowering the stakes for years now, because we don’t want to cause them any stress. Well, you know what? We’re going to have to cause some stress. Learning is stressful, sorry. It’s just the way life is. So anyway, when you know what you want to see there, and this is where the thinking is… this thinking it might be before the course starts. So once the course starts, you’re on easy street, because all you have to do is look for those elements in the piece of work that the student hands in. Something missing? You mark which element is missing. If you want to make other comments, hey, far be it for me to tell you not to write comments. But you don’t have to, you don’t have to, and relatively short assignments. You don’t have to, unless you want to. I mean, if you’ve got a student, they had all the elements in that, you want to draw a happy face, knock yourself out. [LAUGHTER]

John: Or at least for the artists, among us. [LAUGHTER]

Linda: Exactly. Now, if you want to go specs grading… because we’re talking about specs, we’re talking about specifications, like in a computer program, essentially… but you really have to look in the mirror and say, “What do I want my students to be able to demonstrate that they can do in this assignment, or on this test, or in this particular essay?” And that can be hard, because we’ve never had to be so specific, but this is what students love about specs grading. We get specific, we tell them what we want, they know what our expectations are, and they haven’t known, this might be the first time they’ve ever really known, what we wanted, because we have to be specific. And if we left out a specs that we wish we’d put in, well, better luck next semester, right? Just remember to put those in. But you can’t change those once you give students your list of specs. And then there’s bundling. With specs grading, you can also bundle assignments and tests together for various grades where students decide, “Oh, you know, you have to do so much work for an A, and it looks very difficult. I’m not going to go for an A. How about if I go for a B and that way this isn’t that important of a course to me. It’s alright.” And they might decide to go for a C. And you know what? what should you care? This is their decision, and if they’re going to be happy with a C, you can respect that. And otherwise, we look at C students like, well they were lazy and didn’t care and this and that. No, no, no. Students choose it for themselves. Fine. No problem. We don’t look down on our C students, as we unfortunately will kind of do sometimes. Anyway, but that specs grading. We’re on critical thinking and critical thinking, if you have the specs for something written, or a presentation for that matter, but if you know what you want students to show that they can do in terms of critical thinking, this is an easy way to grade, it really is. All the work is upfront.

Rebecca: Yep. It’s very time consuming upfront with what I’m doing right now. [LAUGHTER]

Linda: And it’s stressful. It’s stressful for us, because we “Oh, should I give this five points or six points?” Forget it. Don’t worry about that. And you know, students will go to you and argue for a half a point, they don’t mess with that with specs grading at all. They don’t do that. So it saves you a lot of wear and tear. And it’s better for your relationship with your students.

John: In large classes, how can you help students develop critical thinking skills if you don’t want to read lots of written work?

Linda: Ah, okay. Well, this is the beauty of groups. There are two methods that are particularly important in teaching critical thinking, there’s discussion, and that includes, by the way, debate…. debate’s really good, but discussion, debate. And you might have to do that in terms of just teaching in small groups. And that’s okay. Because the whole idea is that students are getting different points of view on a claim or a statement or something like that and then they have to defend it. But that’s all something that you can have students do in groups, those sorts of activities. Another thing that’s very important are some kinds of problems to solve. And I don’t mean the cookbook types. I’m talking about complex problems, fuzzy problems, if you will. And again, usually we have students work in groups for that, anyway. So that’s how you can teach it in large classes. It’s lovely if you have a small class, and everybody can hear everybody else’s statements and discussions and things like that. But if you don’t have that luxury, you can still teach critical thinking in large classes. And again, this is where spec grading can really, really shine. Because your grading time is cut to a fraction, an absolute fraction. Let me say one other thing. I talked about methods, but really the key to teaching critical thinking is questions, the questions that you ask your students, whether it be in class, or whether it be a writing assignment, or a paper or for a design or presentations, whatever it is, the key is questions. And each silo, each framework offers certain questions, that here you should have your students do this or answer these questions. So what I did was I put all of those together, synthesized them into a list of 45 critical thinking questions. Take your pick. Now, of course, you can look at your outcomes, and they make excellent assignments and questions and things like that. But these are general questions that make students think critically. And of course, you always follow up with “Well, gee, how did you come to that response? How did you arrive at that?” So anyway, there are certain questions that guarantee students are doing critical thinking and you have to adapt it to your particular class, but a lot of them, they go across the disciplines. And this is where you can see some of the similarities, like asking about the source of a claim, for instance, can you trust this source?”

Rebecca: How do we help students that come in with biases, preconceptions and things?

Linda: Oh, yes, absolutely.

Rebecca: …resisting facts. How do we start to overcome that?

Linda: Well, I think what you need to do is you start your course… you might have to start your course anyway… with selling critical thinking to your students. Because first of all, critical thinking is a skill that employers want. And I start my book with that, just so much evidence of that, say analytical thinking and that’s the same sort of thing. But there’s also beyond employment, there’s a quality of life. Now, if your students do not want to be suckers and fools, and if they don’t learn to think critically, that’s exactly what they’re going to be, suckers and fools. For instance, it takes critical thinking to avoid scams and shams. And if you google “scams,” you get billions of hits. It’s horrifying. Questioning and other things like they don’t know how to make sense out of popularized research studies. Well, a critical thinker knows enough to check those things. Advertising, that’s another place where you have to be very discriminating. And you have to critically think about “Well, what did that mean that such and such is twice as effective? Twice as effective as what? And what does ‘twice as effective’ mean?” There’s propaganda, fake news, disinformation, demagoguery, doublespeak, all this stuff to cover up the truth. And what students don’t know… a lot of people just don’t know… is there are fact-checking sites out there, there are quite a few of them. I talked about eight of them in my book, and how to get there and where it’s from, who puts this together. But it’s a good idea, I would say to give students an early exercise. And it could be, if you’re teaching chemistry, make it chemistry, if you’re teaching political science, make it political science, politics, to give them some fact-checking assignments. And if you’re worried about the politics, like all of these sites will call both sides of the political debate down on their lies or their distortion. So they’re fair that way. And so, if you want to get students to question their own politics, it’s great if you can get some good examples of things that they can go research where there’re lies on both sides, and that shows them that. But then they start realizing, “Oh, my god, there are lies. Oh, goodness, I’ve been believing all this.” There is Politifact.com. There is FactCheck. There is FlackCheck. There is OpenSecrets, Media Bias / Fact Check. There’s apnews.com/apfactcheck. There’s Snopes. There’s Truthorfiction.com. I mean, there’re all these sites. There’s so many of them, and that’s just the few that I talked about, because they tend to be better known. And they’re put out by like AP or something or Annenberg Foundation. And so that will teach them how much is garbage out there. Again, from both sides. Both sides in the political debate are full of garbage. But you also have debates going on in biology or in medicine. Remember, I’m sure you do, when they were saying, “Oh, coffee is terribly bad for you.” And then three years later, “Oh, it’s very good for you.” So it really hits all fields. Some of my very favorite ones is doublespeak. And I don’t know if students are aware of doublespeak like “servicing the target.” That’s military talk for bombing, to service a target. Yeah. “Neutralize” that means to kill. “Downsizing” means firing employees, “misconduct,” white-collar crimes committed by politicians, business leaders, military professionals, the police, that’s misconduct versus crime. “Detainee” is a prisoner of war. I mean, I could go on and on and on. And I do in my book.

John: You mentioned how important critical thinking skills are to employers. What does the evidence show about how effective colleges are in terms of helping students improve their critical thinking skills?

Linda: we’re not so hot, but it’s just put it that way. According to Academically Adrift, we improve the critical thinking skills of about one third of our students. Now, I don’t think that’s anything to celebrate myself. But I mean, at least we do that. But, these are often the students who came in with some critical thinking skills to begin with. The ones who need the help the most to critically think are not getting that help. They’re just not getting it. And so we’ve got to go out of our way to reach them. Again, most faculty think they’re teaching critical thinking when they’re not because they’re not consciously doing it. So there’s a sense in which we haven’t even scratched the surface of what we can teach in terms of critical thinking. And again, with all the different definitions out there, and all the different silos, I don’t blame faculty at all.

John: We can hope that your book will help reach more faculty and help us be more effective in this task.

Linda: Let me add one other thing that you can sell students on. Critical thinkers, and there’s research on this, tend to experience fewer difficulties in life than others do, whether they be health difficulties, financial, personal, legal, they just lead less troublesome lives. So if you kind of want to be happy, it’s a good idea to think critically, because it’ll keep you out of difficulty.

Rebecca: A good selling point, a good selling point.

Linda: Yes, it is a good selling point. [LAUGHTER] It is. And that’s just it. You might have to sell students on it. And you’re going to have to explain what critical thinking is to students, but they can take that pocket definition. It’s not negative thinking. It’s not just criticizing things. It’s nothing like that at all. And it’s not leftist, that’s not it at all. But they need that clarification because they’re coming in with misconceptions about what critical thinking is. And what the words sound like. Maybe it’s not a really good name for it, but that’s what we’ve been calling it. So we’re stuck with it.

Rebecca: It also seems like faculty make a lot of assumptions about students knowing how to analyze or how to interpret and what the question focus that you’ve indicated we should pay attention to, is really getting at that by asking the questions to get them to do the activity that we want them to do, when they might not know what that word actually means. Because it’s not been modeled.

Linda: Exactly, we should stop and model and then say, “You know, this is an analysis question that I’m asking you or that I just asked you.” We need to label things, so students get to understand what these cognitive operations are. And unfortunately, we make assumptions and studentsmight say, “Oh, analysis, that something a shrink does.” No, no, no, no, no, no. Interpretation. “Well, that’s something that people who read novels do.” No, we are all doing it all the time. So even chemists do interpretation. You interpret the data, and you can come up with different things.

Rebecca: And a lot of students get stuck right on describe, they don’t go much past that, and they don’t know that that’s what they’re doing

Linda: …or summarize. Yeah.

Rebecca: I’ve had conversations with students about those kinds of words before and it was really productive.

Linda: Yeah, yeah. because nobody’s really told them what these words mean.

John: It seems that higher ed is not doing quite as well as we’dlike in terms of increasing students critical thinking skills. Should this be an important focus for higher ed?

Linda: First of all, the buck stops with us. Otherwise, they go out into the world. And they could be adrift in general, without our teaching them critical thinking. They’re not likely to learn this in K through 12. I’m sorry. Oh, yes, they will in prep schools, but we don’t worry about those kids. So we have to keep people who are in power, and people with money honest, and the only people who really have ever wound up doing that are fairly well educated people. That’s why higher education is so important. And unfortunately, over the years… certainly, from when I was in college to now… the whole reason people go to college, and what they want out of college has changed. Now they want a job. Well, I hate to use this phrase. Back in my day, we wanted to develop a sound, sophisticated philosophy of life. Now that fits right in with critical thinking, critical thinking was very much a part of it. But now, that’s kind of like out the window. Well, to keep a job, you need to become a critical thinker. This is what employers need. This is what the world needs. And we can’t do good production without it. But even more important than that, we talk about freedom, for this society, any society, our freedom lies in our awareness of our patterns of human cognition, how they can be exploited, these patterns. And just, in general, our awareness of this worldwide pandemic of dishonesty in the pursuit of money and power, and it’s almost considered okay, because it’s all around us, we see it. Well guess what? It’s not okay unless we say it’s okay. So if we want to preserve freedom, we absolutely need this awareness. And it’s not like we’re doing something that hasn’t been done before. Because really, this awareness and this watchdog-type thinking really gave rise to a lot of successful movements, the environmental protection movement, the conservation movement, sustainability, recycling, stronger vehicle safety standards, and that’s just to name a few. And they all came out of critical thinking and awareness of where our weaknesses as human beings are. We all have a mind… well, almost all of us have a mind… and we need to know how it works so we can protect ourselves from all the advertising and scams and shams of demagoguery… which by the way, appeals to emotions… to all these different trips that individual institutions, organizations, corporations are trying to lay on us. And they are, because, hey, its profitable to lay the sawdust if we buy into it, we can’t afford to. We should not.

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

Linda: Ah, yes. What’s next? Well, first of all, I hope getting back to travel.

Rebecca: Me too.

JON: Me too.

Linda: Yeah, exactly, exactly. Doing workshops and keynotes instead of this virtual nonsense where you’re talking into a screen. To see an audience tells me everything about what I need to do next in the workshop or in the keynote. But aside from that, I’m just finishing up another book: Online Teaching at its Best, the second edition. And in the second edition I talk about the kinds of teaching we’ve been doing lately, like remote teaching, hyflex teaching, Well, hybrid, we’ve been doing, but talking about it in another way. And in addition to the fully online learning that we talked about… Ludie Goodson and I talked about in the first edition… but the second edition has a lot more about what we’ve been doing lately because it’s possible universities and colleges might decide to keep some of this remote stuff. Hyflex is very much a disaster when you’re dealing with this pandemic and masks and all that. But, anyway, universities might say, “Hey, you know, it’s cheaper to do remote, we don’t have to build any more buildings, students can learn at home, hey, students might like that.” But again, they might not. But I’m afraid they’re going to do this with conferences, and it just makes me want to cry. Let’s do virtual conferences. We don’t have to pay hotel bills. And people don’t have to worry about getting travel funding. But in any case, it worries me that we’re going to get too accustomed to and accepting of, this virtual communication, which we all know, deep inside of our hearts, that’s not as good as human face-to-face contact. So anyway, but that’s next, that book will be coming out, I think, in the summer. And right now Ludie and I have the manuscript in but we’re still doing some pre-production stuff having to do with author queries, proofs, all that nonsense that makes you wish you didn’t write the book. [LAUGHTER] Writing is the fun part. This isn’t. But I’ll do it. I promise.

John: More information on effective online teaching, I think, is especially important these days. And I think we’re gonna see a lot more people doing it even when the pandemic is over, now that people have learned that it can work.

Linda: Yeah, it can work. But we just started doing these things, not knowing how to make it work. And learning has suffered, grades have suffered, and rigor has suffered. So far, no real good has come out of the switch. It can, it can, and that’s what the second edition will hopefully begin to do.

Rebecca: Well, thank you so much for joining us again, and having such a rich conversation.

Linda: Well, thank you for this opportunity. This has been great. Thank you.

John: And our faculty very much appreciates all the work you did with ACUE as well, because they keep bringing up some of the things they learned watching some of your videos in that course.

Linda: Oh, good. I’m glad to hear that. Well, thank you ever so much for this chance to talk about a book that isn’t even out yet but that I’m truly in love with.

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

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

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175. Embracing Change

Faculty who had to shift to teaching online for the first time due to the pandemic were forced to confront their habits and typical ways of teaching in order to adapt to and support students in a new modality. In this episode,  Colin and Jonikka Charlton join us to discuss ways in which faculty and departments have embraced and resisted change during this transition. Colin is the chair of the Department of Writing and Language Studies at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley. Jonikka is the Associate Provost for Student Success and Dean of University College, also at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley.

Show Notes

Transcript

John: Faculty who had to shift to teaching online for the first time due to the pandemic were forced to confront their habits and typical ways of teaching in order to adapt to and support students in a new modality. In this episode, we discuss ways in which faculty and departments have embraced and resisted change during this transition.

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

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

John: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer.

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

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John: Our guests today are Colin and Jonikka Charlton. Colin is the chair of the Department of Writing and Language Studies at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley. Jonikka is the Associate Provost for Student Success and Dean of University College, also at the University of Texas, Rio Grande Valley. Welcome.

Jonikka: Thank you.

Colin: Thank you. Thanks for having us.

Rebecca: Today’s teas are:

Colin: I’m actually drinking blackberry sage, made by a company I don’t remember because I’m freezing, ‘cause It’s like 50 here. [LAUGHTER]

Rebecca: That sounds really warm. I’ll go with that.

Jonikka: I’m just a water drinker. Colin’s the tea drinker in the family.

John: I am drinking a chocolate mint oolong tea.

Rebecca: Well, that sounds good.

John: It is. It was a gift from my son.

Rebecca: I was gonna say, I think that’s a new one for the podcast, John.

John: I think it is.

Colin: That’s pretty cool.

Rebecca: I have a new one today, too. I have a Palm Court blend from Harney and Sons.

John: Ok. We’ve invited you here to discuss some of the challenges associated with teaching writing during a pandemic. But first, could you tell us a little bit about how your institution has handled and adjusted instruction during the pandemic?

Jonikka: Yeah, I guess I’ll start from kind of a wider institutional perspective. I was honestly really surprised and really proud of the institution, because when we switched to online really rapidly in the spring, we kind of stayed there. And so there wasn’t a lot of pressure internally, or even externally, for us to have a lot of students on campus. And in the valley, the households are generally pretty large. So there are extended families, large families, living in the same household. And so the threat, I think, was a little bit higher, potentially, than in some other areas. And people having barbecues and family get togethers all of the time, it’s really, really important. So in the spring, we were completely online, we started having to distinguish between asynchronous modality and synchronous modality. And then we pretty much kept that for the fall semester, there were probably maybe 8,10 percent, a mix of hybrid courses and face to face. And then now in the spring, I was just looking before we got on here, and it’s about a third asynchronous, a third synchronous, and about 18% is face to face and the rest are hybrid. And we’re really starting, even those hybrid, are starting online. And hopefully, if we get as many people as possible vaccinated, then we maybe can move toward the end of the semester, a little bit more people onto campus. But that’s kind of the way we have. We did a huge investment in online faculty development over the summer. And so the fall was when we got to really test and see how that worked and get some feedback from students, which I’m sure we’ll talk about a little bit today.

Colin: I can speak from the developmental, and, I guess, the program level. So we did tons of training, as Jonikka said. I think the bulk of the response at the very beginning, whenever that was, I feel like it was a year ago, but it’s actually just a few months. So the bulk of it was invested in technology, both in terms of trying to figure out how to help students get access when they were sitting in Burger King parking lots trying to get Wi Fi at the very beginning, but that disappeared so quickly. So it’s like having whiplash from rapid response kind of triage stuff, like, something happens, Spectrum gives everybody free Wi Fi. We don’t have enough bandwidth to have more than so many Zoom meetings or recordings, and then we get an extension and now we have unlimited hours or something like that. It’s like being part of a really gigantic cable company, they keep giving you more stuff to try to make sure everything keeps working, [LAUGHTER] except the cable company actually works in your favor in this case. So there’s a lot of technology stuff, a lot of blueprinting for online classes. For faculty support, there emerged a need for psychological and wellness and self-care support. But that really wasn’t as much at the front of what was happening. But you can tell that people were starting to need it because there was a lot of discomfort and just unfamiliarity. And a lot of people doing things they knew they had to do, but they didn’t know how to do them with the technology side of it. And then from the program side, department side, at least in our department, we backed away from a lot of that and tried to offer something as an alternative to talk about concepts, because a lot of the work was in the logistics of getting things built and getting classes built, making sure people understood that you have to tell students how to navigate your courses, because that was a new thing for a lot of faculty, right? And at the same time, I’m trying to basically, not reinvent the wheel, but trying to get people in the department to have a talk about what engagement is and what teaching is, which I know probably sounds weird as a thing to do. But we had to have that discussion in a very small, private, disturbing, communication, like difficult conversations kind of moment. I guess it was conceptual training that was going on or retraining. And then there was also institutional support, that, I think probably allowed us to do the other because I don’t think if we had had the technology part stripped away from us or we had to be responsible for ourselves, I don’t think we would have found the space to do the wellness stuff and the conceptual training. I don’t know how widespread that was. I know every department handled it a different way. But we’re a big department. And we handle so many freshmen that we just had to do it for the writing program and for the language programs and all of those things, which went from zero asynchronous to literally 100% asynchronous writing classes over the course of the summer. That was a big lift.

John: That’s a pretty dramatic shift from going from zero to 100%. How did the faculty adjust? How did they come out of those difficult conversations?

Colin: At the Dean’s level, at least for our college, we were told we could let the faculty decide what they wanted to do in terms of their own level of comfort and preparedness, right? And so you had a few people who wanted to know just how protected were they’re going to make the classrooms because they couldn’t teach with a mask on and they couldn’t teach online. And so they felt like they had to have a situation where they were going to be with their students, and even getting some of those faculty to understand that they could only meet with half their students once a week and the other half. because of the room size constraints, like those conversations had to happen. So those faculty were incredibly stressed. And so faculty were making their own decisions. And I was trying to coordinate all of that, so that at least made sense, so that there would be as little damage done. Plus, I live with Jonakka, and she says things like “You don’t have any synchronous classes for writing. Are you stupid?” like, “What have you done?” [LAUGHTER] And she reminds me that I must have made a mistake somewhere, but that’s what faculty chose to do. But when you talk to the faculty who chose to do that, who I couldn’t believe some of the faculty that asked to do that, it was because they thought they were doing the students a favor, because it would allow the students to arrange the rest of their schedule. We get through summer, we survive the fall, we have already made the schedule for the spring. And then about half of those teachers said, “You know what, you were right. I want to do synchronous, but is that going to hurt the students?” And so those faculty had even more adjustments to make, I think, because they tried the asynchronous for the right reasons, but they lost more students than they were used to. They had difficulty with assignment completion, and all the things you have difficulties with every time you do a new class, but just kind of multiplied. But we have 97 people in the classroom in our department, that includes all the TAs, all the part-timers, everyone. So 43 of those are first-year writing teachers. And they were incredibly happy that 10 people blueprinted the courses for online asynchronous and just went with it. So that’s also something that you don’t often see. In a big program, you see a lot of people doing a lot of different things and asking if they can stretch the syllabus a little bit this direction. And nobody wanted to do that. Everybody was so worn out and tired. They were just like, “This syllabus is great, and when it doesn’t work in three weeks, I’m gonna blame you guys and feel just fine about all of it.” [LAUGHTER] So what does that mean? I guess there were new stressors they didn’t expect. And there were collaborative moments that they also didn’t expect. So they leaned into the stuff that you would expect them to be resistant to because of necessity, but they also then had better discussions, I think, about the purpose of teaching writing online, how you talk to students when you don’t see them in real time, that kind of stuff. I don’t think those conversations would have happened. So yeah, every time they would get comfortable, then it would be a new issue that came up about why are students disappearing and that kind of thing,

Rebecca: …a pandemic… time to get uncomfortable with being uncomfortable. [LAUGHTER] Right?

Jonikka: Yes.

Colin: Right. Learn to unlearn or learn to learn on a daily basis or…

Rebecca: …learn that you’re also a learner.

Jonikka: Exactly.

Colin: Exactly, and that it’s okay. I think that was the hardest part for our folks is, I set up teams and made people leaders that had never been leaders before for technology support to try to lift the burden away from the people you were expect to always go to because I knew what was going to happen. And that worked out great. But then they would also get lost in all the permutations of “Well, if you do it this way… if you do it this way.” So they burned through their need to explain how they do things in their class really, really quickly. Because you know how teachers do that thing there, unless I’m being unfair. It’s like, “Oh, let me give you three examples from my class about how great things go, or how terrible things go” …or whatever. They burned through all those anecdotes. And then they were left with the whole thing, like maybe the assignment really sucks and that’s why the students aren’t turning it in. Or maybe I was really boring on Monday and they just had to live with that. And that’s hard. [LAUGHTER] Is that not true, Jonikka?

Jonikka: I was just reminded, it’s really interesting to me that the writing program has a lot of really great teachers. It’s a very robust culture of teaching in that department at the institution. And so what I saw both there and across the institution was faculty who had their identity as being really great teachers who are able to engage students and their students come back and they do well. And so you saw a lot of those faculty whose students just disappeared, and then they were like, this has never happened to me before or not since I first started teaching. And so I think there’s that component of it, that it took us probably four or five or six months to get to that place when people realize I had a whole semester of this and I’m not having the same success I had before and I think we have to have conversations and find places for faculty to have those conversations and to know that it’s okay. It doesn’t mean that they were a fraud all along, or they didn’t do a good job and that sort of thing. So what you said reminded me of that.

Rebecca: It really is a different space.

Jonikka: Yes,.

Colin: Yes. And I don’t know how many of the teachers that were really stressed were stressed because of access. Because honestly, if you’re teaching face to face, and you have students that aren’t showing up, you have the same problems trying to contact them. I think we all have a sense that because we’re seeing people regularly, that we’re somehow seeing them more often, which is totally false. And so I had so many emails from faculty about how do I get in touch with students who won’t respond to me? And I’m like, I know what they were saying. But it’s a silly question, right? It’s like, “everybody who’s not here today, raise your hand” kind of question. You can’t get in touch with them, because they’re not paying attention to you. And you can’t make them pay attention to you if they’re not paying attention to you. But that reality was just heartbreaking for some of them. And we’re talking about people that are really just stressing over like having a 14% drop rate, because they’re used to having a 3% drop rate, or if like a DFW rate is like 3%. But our enrollment was up. What was it up, J?

Jonikka: it was like 18%, it was huge. We had a huge influx of new students in the fall, largest breaking enrollment and all of that. And so we also had the pressure of really huge classes. So that just exacerbated the whole thing, I think. We had lots of students who didn’t go to Austin, or they didn’t go to Rice, or wherever they stayed. A lot of that was that too.

Colin: And nobody wants to hear me say, and I’m the last person that wants to say it, but nobody wants to hear your department chair say, “Look, when you have a 16% increase in enrollment, you’re going to lose some people, because there have to be a high percentage of those people coming in who are somehow not college ready, or who are experimenting or who are at risk, and we have no way to help them or support them, because we don’t know why they’re here. Because this is unprecedented.” And so that doesn’t help.

John: Most studies have found that freshmen are much more vulnerable when they’re in online classes, the drop-fail-withdrawal rate for freshmen and even sophomore students is a lot higher than it is for upper-level students. Add to that a pandemic. And then you mentioned a lot of additional students coming whose plans were not going in the direction they originally anticipated, which just adds to all the stress. But having a drop-fail-withdrawal rate in that range is pretty low, actually.

Jonikka: Yes, it absolutely is. And he’s talking about like some really great faculty in his department. That’s not the case across the institution. And I remember back in April, May, as we’re having these conversations about modality moving into the fall… it’s great… and I’m supportive of the idea. And it’s kind of amazing, actually, that as an institution, we said faculty choose your own modality. A lot of institutions didn’t do that. But I was trying to be the consistent voice that was saying, “But could we at least make some more strategic decisions around classes that freshmen are going to take, because your sophomores, juniors, and seniors and your grad students, they’re going to be able to adapt in ways that our freshmen are not. It’s one thing for a first-year student to come in and have one class out of five or six on their schedule that’s online. But we’re in a situation where literally their entire schedule was online, none of the courses were organized in the same way, even though they may all be using Blackboard it just looks different, the whole classes operate differently.” And so I was really worried about that. And I was right to worry about that. Because as we moved into the fall, our first-year persistence rate from fall to spring is down about six and a half percent from where it normally is. And everyone’s really concerned about that. And of course, attention is also starting to shift to this year’s seniors and what that first-year experience is going to be like next year. We did a survey and I’m sure at some point, we’ll talk about the survey. But even the students who did well said this was not for me. Yes, my grades look okay, but I don’t feel like I learned what I needed to, so I’m going to stop out in the spring. And like, “I’ll catch you on the other end in the fall, when hopefully things are okay and we’re back in an environment in which I feel like I can learn.” And so that’s been really startling, I think, to some on campus. We’re trying to figure out what we have control over and what we don’t have control over and how you can shift an entire institution’s worth of faculty. We could not have moved and said everybody’s going to be teaching at a really high level. And I think too, the pandemic and what’s happened has just kind of uncovered some things about teaching and what was going on in classrooms that I promise you is going on in face-to-face classrooms. But now it’s been uncovered and people are concerned about it and more heightened awareness, I think, around it. But, that’s one of the opportunities too. I think it’s enabled us to say “Hey, let’s shine a light on and have those conversations about what teaching and learning really is about and how do we engage students?” And I was really happy when I heard a few engineering faculty say, “You know what, when we go back face to face, we didn’t know what we had, we didn’t know the opportunity that we were kind of squandering before in our face-to-face classes. Now they’re talking about flipping their classroom.” And I’m like, okay, that’s 20 years ago, or whatever. [LAUGHTER] But now you’re in that place where you see why that would be helpful to you, and what you could do differently when you go back face to face. That’s exciting to me. I haven’t been in the classroom in a while, but my first love and my first identification is as a teacher, and asking those things about learning and teaching and why we’re doing what we’re doing. I think it’s great that more people are doing that.

Rebecca: I think the same kinds of themes have come up in a lot of conversations that we’ve had over the last few weeks with guests about what’s happening between the fall and the spring and students timing out and faculty changing what modality they’re teaching in, and also just reflection upon what they might want to do in the future, too. So it’s kind of these interesting themes that are happening that may have not have happened otherwise, for sure. I know, Colin, you mentioned faculty choosing to be more synchronous, perhaps in the spring, can you talk about some other things that were learned from the fall that are going to improve the experience for everybody in the spring?

Colin: I think it’s across our department. And I think there’s a lot more people across the university, too that realize that there’s no such thing as a neutral delivery method anymore. And I think people like me and Jonakka knew that, because our training in teaching actually made us teach in different ties, even if we weren’t comfortable with them. The more people, I think, understand something that when I ran the writing program, however, many years ago, that was probably nine years, I remember telling people, your students who will turn in their assignments if you teach them how to do the whole course in the first week, and then just repeat over and over again. And a few people would do that, but very few people would do it because they do what teachers tend to do when they’re content focused, which is they say, “I can’t get through that many chapters of a biology book, if I take a week out to teach them how my class works,” or “I can’t have them read as many articles as I want them to read, because I’m taking this time out to basically train them metacognitively on how to actually take a Colin class.” Right? People complaining about that, they left my department and were replaced by strange little clones that wanted to say, “Hey, is there any way we can extend the first two weeks and just do an introduction about what online learning is?” And they got all these ideas and even like, I remember, we opened Blackboard a week early in the fall, but not at this spring. Our people were contacting their students and talking about how the course was set up. So I think there’s awareness. I don’t know how deep the awareness is. But there is an awareness with at least our people who teach 4000 freshmen a year that you’re not designing your class for yourself and your students, you’re designing your class for the students who go to four or five other classes, because they will drop you quicker than other people if they don’t feel like they have an anchor in your class. And sometimes that’s understanding how to navigate, sometimes that’s having a personal connection with a teacher, sometimes it’s knowing your peers’ names, whatever that engagement factor is, if they have it in your class, they will stick with your class, which means in a writing class, there’s more of a chance we’ll stick with their other classes, because we’re usually the ones that get dropped, I think. Either us or math, unless, J, you have different statistics. I think anecdotally, when we talk to students who haven’t been coming to class, and we find out they’re not doing well, they will usually stop coming to the writing class, because they feel like there’s no way to make it up. So I think there’s a sense across the writing instructors now that it’s not okay to build designs that work for 75% of the people. And then there’s this 10%, that will average out in the middle. And then there’s 10% that just don’t see how to get over the hump because they never have a success, or they never see an end product. And so they just cut that class. More like an algebra approach, you don’t understand the first three chapters of algebra and you feel like you’ll never be able to catch up because you have to know those things in order to move to the next. Actually, it’s a very forward thinking kind of threshold concept type of student that I’m imagining, because they really don’t feel like they can get enough under their belt to move forward. So I think we learned,as teachers, we’ve learned a little bit about that. I really hope that all the students that we worked with in the writing program, I hope that a large percentage of them took to heart what we said about having real conversations with their teachers and other students, there was a lot of conversations in our “Designing your life course” and in other courses where I saw students were constantly talking about setting up peer networks, or in our roundup and kickoff activities and that kind of stuff. They were constantly talking about the need to do that. But they had no idea how to do it online in online classes. They knew how to do it online. So as soon as people like me said, “I don’t care how you set up your community use WhatsApp, use whatever,” then it all went crazy. So there’s also I think, an understanding that students can organize themselves better than we can, or at least we should try to negotiate a way to organize ourselves that’s okay with the teacher and it’s okay with the students. Because nobody wants me teaching a Twitter assignment, because I don’t understand it. Like I don’t know how it works. But you also have to let students organize themselves in the peer network so that it will survive. And not just with team-building things because you don’t know how to run Zoom. And so you just force everybody into a breakout room because you somehow think that somehow is the same as having them work together in groups in classrooms. So I think we’ve learned quite a bit about design strategies, or at least design thinking, even if nobody’s going to call it that, but me. Maybe there’s a few other people at the university that will call it that.

John: You mentioned spending some time at the beginning of class, focusing on metacognition and helping students learn how to learn more effectively, is that something that’s widely done in the institution? Or is that something that’s becoming more widely done in the institution?

Jonikka: I would say it’s becoming more widely done. It’s very much at the heart of our first year writing program: metacognition, reflection, the whole thing. It’s just very built into the DNA there. And then we have a first-year experience course, that was kind of built on some similar kinds of principles. But I think some of the feedback from our student survey was that students felt their courses were completely disorganized. And they didn’t know when anything was due, they didn’t know when they were supposed to be working on something, or how to find what it was they were supposed to be working on. In some sense, that’s one of the easier things for a faculty member to address. Because it could be like a beginning of the semester video explaining how your course is organized or whatever. In terms of sticky teaching problems, that’s not terribly sticky, you can see a path forward to figuring it out and to helping students with that. My hope is that we can help those faculty transfer their understanding of that situation to their understanding of how to teach a project for a course, or when they make a big assignment. If it’s a writing assignment, or any other kind of assignment, that they recognize that the same metacognitive moves would be helpful for students. So I think that that would be an exciting thing to see happen. I don’t think we’ve had enough conversations yet about the feedback from students, both what we heard through our survey, but also what faculty may have heard through their course evaluations, or just their own experiences. I went to faculty senate before the break, and I had a number of faculty, and they were really good teaching faculty, talking about how they had gone through the blueprinting process and they had been asked to do all these assignments and stuff for every single learning objective and things like that. And they realized that they had gone too far, that they had overwhelmed the students. So now they were gonna back off after that. So they’re engaging in some metacognition themselves, which is good, and I think the more that we can encourage that in faculty, and then help them make the connection between what they’re learning and how they’re applying what they’re learning to the next iteration of the course, to what their students go through. I know I spend a lot of time having those conversations with my own faculty in my college. And now I’ll often say to them, I’ll try to find a gentle way of saying it, but like, I’ll say, “Would you think that’s okay from your students?” And how would you go about doing that with your own students and think about that for yourself. That’s my hope.

Colin: We also had a very small pilot for students as learners and teachers that at least that Alyssa Cavazos ran out of our Center for Teaching Excellence. And it was only five teachers, I believe, It may have been six, and I was one of them. But the other four teachers were from history, philosophy, I think it was physics, may have been just math, I cannot remember the other one. But they have never had a student observe them officially in a class. And we all spent an entire semester with a student partner, basically doing metacognitive work. And it did a number on me, and I know how to do that work. I respect student voices and I want them with me. And so it was really fun for me. It changed the other four people’s lives. And so there’s at least four other people in four other colleges, because we spaced them out around the university, who worked with a upper-level student about their classes and redesigning it and thinking about student reactions on a daily basis. And I hope we can scale that up somehow in a way that isn’t completely uncomfortable, but a little uncomfortable. Because the good parts are the uncomfortable parts. The good parts were where the students asked like, “How do we tell the teachers what we really think?” And the teachers were like, “How do I tell the student that I don’t really care what they think?” …like, those things happened at the beginning. And once they got over them, the conversations that happened as designers as co-designers were fantastic and amazing. And it was with people that are resistant, they wanted to be in the project. But they were not. They did not go into it thinking they were completely open to what a non- major student would say about their teaching as an observer that had been trained to observe. I hope that projects like that continue and thrive. And people don’t just let it go because things go back to normal and they don’t have something driving them to think about how to make their classes work better. It’s probably up to people like me and Jonikka to make sure they keep asking these questions and don’t just let them drop, right?

Jonikka: Well, we’ve been asking, the Interim Provost here and I, have been asking on a regular basis, like what will next fall look like? What will we basically have learned that informs what next fall looks like? And I don’t think most faculty were ready, at least before the break to have those conversations. Everyone is completely exhausted, students are exhausted, faculty, staff, everyone was just exhausted. And I think it’s gonna be a long while before we ever restore ourselves to some sense of space and ability to look at and reflect on the things that have happened in a way that enables us to move forward in a more substantial way.

Rebecca: One of the things that has come up in conversations I’ve had with arts faculty and writing faculty, here anyways, is the processing of what’s happening in a pandemic. That sometimes happens through writing or making in some way, or also the want to escape from what’s happening in writing or making. [LAUGHTER]

Jonikka: Yeah.

Rebecca: And that complex dance that’s happening and different people need some different things. Can you talk a little bit about how faculty in your departments tried to balance some of those needs, concerns, wants?

Colin: We had one faculty member who started a journal writing, like, initiative right at the beginning of everything. And it wasn’t because of this. He had wanted to start it and he was going to retire. And he just wanted to give it one last stab to see if he could recruit some people. The students that joined that I know and the faculty said that it was incredibly insightful, and they wanted to talk about their writing, and they wanted to journal and talk about what was going on. So that was really great for him as a faculty member. I know that there had to be a shift for… I know that this may be a weird way to answer the question, but it felt like there was a shift from faculty always pointing students towards more…. I guess what you’d call more scholarly resources, like a path that… I use that word with air quotes around it, but you need to learn more and so you go off and you look and reread more. And I remember, we were having a meeting and I was like, “Why? It’s a literacy narrative.” And you’re freaking out, because your students are doing a literacy narrative. And the high school students just got sent home, and their teachers aren’t making them turn their cameras on and they’re not talking to them. And then in the college version of the class, your students are able to do the types of work in the field that you would normally have them do, because we’ve got a pretty crazy experiential component to our first-year writing courses. And I was like, “Dude, they live with their families, just have them do interviews. Stop trying to reinvent the wheel and just own the space that you’re around.” And I remember somebody else saying, “Yeah, it’s like, when my students don’t want to turn their cameras, I say, well describe the perfect space, it’s at least a reason to get you to be creative and think outside of the box,” or whatever. And so students started drawing their own ideal spaces for their Zoom things when they left their cameras off. So there, I think there was a lot of shifting and deconstructing of the boundaries between what you see as your life and what you see as the real world and what you see as school. Not everybody’s comfortable with that stuff, either. But I think people had to find their own outlet or their own break to a certain extent. I give my students my cell phone, and then I labeled them by the course and the semester so I can remember them. But I had tons of students texting me in the middle of doing things in class because things weren’t working, or somebody didn’t show up, or whatever, or they needed me to come into a group. When I told people I was doing that, the people that were having trouble managing people in multiple rooms that were kind of privatized, they’re like, “Oh, my God, that makes so much sense. I’ll just have them go on R emind and tell me when things go crazy, or tell me when it hits the fan or whatever.” And so all these people that think they know technology and how to communicate really well, they didn’t really know how to communicate really well in the new classroom environment. So I think they had to find a way to do that. So your personal chats with your teacher, those went crazy for a while, I think mine are still too crazy. People having jam bands, you know, after class, or I think we had a few departmental after hours cocktail parties or something. We had all kinds of weird ways of socializing with some of the groups. Not a ton, though. I think, from what at least the writing program teachers told me was what they really missed the most were the unexpected, spontaneous conversations they have with students and faculty, which you can’t replicate by having Zoom meetings where everybody learns the song and plays together. Like you can’t force the hallway conversation, which is why I always go in and like Zoom bomb Jonikka whenever she’s in an important meeting. She’s right across the hallway, and those people don’t laugh enough. But I’m the only guy at the university doing that, [LAUGHTER] like stand up comedy to try to break the fourth wall with people, because there’s so much investment in just getting through meeting after meeting after meeting after meeting. So I’m sure there’s more clowns at our university than just me. But there’s a small cohort of clowns and Jonikka knows all of them.

John: You mentioned some of the problems with engagement or with students making connections with other students. What techniques have people tried or will be trying this spring to help improve the development of more community in either asynchronous or remote synchronous instruction?

Colin: I think there’s a move in our program to have a version of teamwork or the idea that students develop an ability to do teamwork, or work together to finish a project and have different responsibilities. It’s a complicated definition. But I think people are moving away from longer collaborative projects, and they’re moving towards more, do the work in class in a small group, get something accomplished, present on it, and then rotate out. And then having students form their own communities for projects outside of it as support groups. So there’s more small team work in class that actually has a product attached to it. So I’ll give you an example. There’s a difference between having students get into a group to deconstruct a reading and then piece together an interpretation of a reading, made from five different groups working with different passages from the text. That’s a very different exercise in a face-to-face class than what they’re doing when they have students create a message from scratch, using some kind of social media outlet, using a pandemic context and trying to create a flyer that would get people’s attention to do some activity. And then to have that whole thing go from prototyping and ideation all the way to design and testing. That’s not something that I think the teachers knew how to do, or wanted to do to start with. So engagement wise, it probably would make a lot of teachers that I know mad to say it, but they really do need to feel like they’re entertained, because they’re enjoying what they’re doing. Not necessarily entertainment just for fun sake, it’s that there’s a felt sense that they need to enjoy what they’re doing, if that’s you being a clown, and they actually will engage with you and learn something, and they just use you as the magnet, that’s cool. But if it’s doing small projects that have a finish line to them and during the class, then that’s fine too. Or if it’s having your students teach the class, which is what I was doing, having different groups teach every week, so that it’s not just me that’s responsible for distributing knowledge, it’s more people doing knowledge. Jonikka too, would tell me this probably isn’t as widespread as I feel like it should be. But there’s a need, I think, for students to be the knowledge makers. And I think that there’s more evidence from what I’m seeing in my department that people let students talk through their ideas as they were developing and that that made students more engaged. It’s completely counterintuitive to a lot of our faculty, because they think that what they really want to see is what happens when the students finally get it. And I keep telling them over and over again, “No, you want to see the process, you want to be with them while they get it, you don’t really care that they get it because at that point, you have to move on to a new idea.” But I think they’re having to flip their own ideas about those “aha” moments, because the moments don’t really work anymore. The moments are just like, “Oh, I got it,” but then that person’s muted, and they’re off on their own direction. And so I think there’s a lot of us working with students to set them up in pairs or small groups, and then kind of coaching them on how to be with one another. That sounded really weird, but coaching them how to be with one another and work together. So that when they’re off on their own, they will have that as a habit to come back to when they don’t have you. And I’m sure that’s what we do in face-to-face classes as well. But it’s really, really different in an online, especially in a Zoom, environment. But in an asynchronous environment, I always said that being online was two and a half times as much work. But the amount of matchmaking of ideas that I had to do online through discussion lists that basically quote one person and pull them over and have them engage with another person in a conversation. That was my entire life at teaching for that last semester. It was just trying to manage a conversation and create a community of people who were basically posting and responding and then leaving… this, “here’s what I think. I’m out of here.” So I don’t think we’ve figured out the perfect strategies for any of that other than you have to listen to your students. And when they’re engaged, you have to immediately ask them, even if it’s very uncomfortable in class, “Why did you say that?” or “Why did you feel like that was really cool?” Like, “How did you come up with that?” like, there was a whole lot of asking students to expose how they came up with ideas and why they connected things that I did, that I always do a couple of times in a class in a meeting, but not as much as I needed to do it here. So it was really more like “That’s a great response”or whatever. “Talk us through how you came up with that.” So a whole lot more of asking students to teach the rest of everybody what they just did, which I guess is kind of engaging by example. It’s a kind of having the students be models instead of always expecting texts or pieces of writing or reading to be the models for the students when they leave your classroom. It’s a hell of a lot more work. I’m pretty sure that this is the way Jonnika and I always taught because I’m very comfortable with it. But teaching people to do it when you’ve been doing it for so long, is incredibly hard. And then telling them that it involves a whole lot of trust on your part for students, and then finding out that that’s not actually something that people have a lot of… that’s kind of hard too to cope with. There’s not as much trust as there needed to be or assumed trust that you can ask students to pick up the baton, or whatever the metaphor is, and take the lead on explaining an idea, I thought that was a whole lot more prevalent than it was. And so there’s a whole lot more of that that has to happen. A whole lot more of trusting of students, a lot more work in the first-year experience to try to get people to help students become leaders before they’re sophomores. I think there’s a lot of work to be done there, that can be really fun. Why are you smiling, J?,

Jonikka: I was just about to say, I’m going to be the Debbie Downer here. I don’t think we do this really well. I just think across the board, we’re not doing a good job at creating community, and making those connections for students. And like I said before, I really think it’s not new to the online environment so much, I don’t know that we were necessarily really great before. And I do think more people were able to do it in person than are able to do it online. And I do think that the technology is causing us some trouble. So down here in the valley, certainly not all students have access to Wi Fi, many of them are driving up to the Burger King parking lot, or driving up to our parking lot, or whatever. So even when faculty are making the choice to be in a synchronous environment, they’re not necessarily doing anything engaging in that environment. Actually, our son was in some synchronous classes last semester, and he would talk about how the teacher would call on the students to respond to something or answer a question or something. And then the student would have to unmute themselves and say, hold on a second, I’m with the customer, or whatever, because they were at work. And they were just listening to class. And so they at least did unmute and respond. But it’s very hard to imagine how you create a community out of that when you’re not able to take advantage of the moments when you’re in real time with one another. And lots of feedback from our survey about the black screens in Zoom, and how awful it felt to everybody and a lot of empathy on the students’ part for the faculty member. Like I cannot imagine what it must be like to try to teach to a screen full of black screens. So it was uncomfortable for them, uncomfortable for the faculty member. And so I think we need to do a lot better job of lifting up those faculty who have found those strategies that are working for them and to recognize when it’s people like Colin or some of the people who… really a lot of that engagement comes from charisma on the part of the faculty, you can’t replicate that with everyone. So what are those strategies that people are using? I’ve heard some people, it’s a different app that they’re using, or something like that. But the kind of things are available to everybody that are in Blackboard and things like that, you saw all these people move to using discussion boards, and now everybody hates discussion boards. Because it’s the same rote practice, write a couple, read a couple. respond to them, there are memes about it now. So students are making fun of it, and rightfully so. It can be difficult, and then you put the faculty member in the position of “Okay, now I either have to read them and treat them with the respect that they deserve or I just take it as you put in your time and you did your task and we’re done.” I don’t have any particular examples that I can share with you, which is terrible, and more probably a sign of me just not talking with enough faculty members. But I just worry that it’s not enough yet. And even as we move into post pandemic, there’s going to be more of a mix of online and different modalities. And so it’s not like the conversation stops now. I think it’s just maybe we’ll have a little more peace of mind to have those conversations as we move forward. But that engagement piece is absolutely critical. And I’m certain it’s why a lot of our persistence rates, fall to spring, are down and things like that. I don’t know how long students will have patience for it, I guess is what I’m saying.

Colin: I have one practical strategy that I remember. See, you were a Debbie Downer…

Jonikka: There you go.

Colin: …but I remember the positives, so…

Jonikka: OK..

Colin: That’s why we’re married. I think teachers need to see the time in class, they need to completely redesign how they imagine that… I think ours is an hour and 15 minutes for a normal class… and never unimagine the potential for when they go back to different modalities. And it’s not just synchronous meetings, or asynchronous meetings, or asynchronous work with occasional voluntary meetings and that kind of thing is that the work that happens in class should probably be social and it should be structured and designed around community instead of being designed around: “This is a list of outcomes that have to be done before the end of this class.” More like these are lists of prompts of things that we’re going to try to address. Because the thing that I think made a lot of difference with some of our faculties… I coached them on how to do a green room… and maybe everybody was doing this and I just was too busy to notice that it was a trend or something… but not to have time before class and not to worry about seeing people in the hallways because they weren’t there. They weren’t any hallways and not to join your class early. But to literally have 10 minutes of a green room time at the beginning of a class meeting where everybody is mingling and talking and checking in with each other. And then to have 10 minutes at the end of class where you basically do the same thing, and people head off or they don’t head off. And what you saw when you started doing that in your classes, or what we saw, was that the students were showing up because of that time, and they needed that time, and they needed a different kind of entry into the class. And we had to coach them, it wasn’t an easy thing, it wasn’t a normal thing, because it’s not like being on your friend’s chat room or something. It’s still weird and awkward, and someone who forces everybody to do icebreakers and games, unless that’s just their thing, that’s going to be also awkward, but to have the time to talk to each other as human beings, and it not be like creepy, was incredibly important, I think, to have built into the class, as a normal part of being in the class because there were no breaks. Students were just going from class to class work to work. I had students get pulled over in cars, while they were in my class, doing presentations, like all kinds of crazy stuff happened. But in my classes, at least, they knew each other’s names, and they knew how to contact each other within the first few days, because we were doing those meetings. Now, they all told their friends that Colin’s classes are easy, because he doesn’t teach the whole time. But yeah, I was teaching, it was an experiment in social engagement, or whatever. But it, of course, changed what I could do during class time. But I think it was important for me to build that in. And I don’t think I will ever remove it again from my other delivery and modalities. The discussion boards are a joke, unless they’re an extension of an actual discussion. So if you’re not teaching your students how to have the actual discussion, then discussion boards are just going to be habitual writing behavior, and nothing new is going to come out of them. And so I think you have to learn how to be with your students that way. It’s probably not something a lot of people would be comfortable with, but I think it’s an actual practical strategy. You have to bookend your classes with at least the opportunity for engagement, where it’s low risk, but high impact talking with your students. Not in a conference, just talking with people.

Rebecca: I think that’s one of the key things that’s missing in online learning for students is just their general social community. So maybe we weren’t doing that in a physical classroom previously, but they had their actual social circles happening, they were able to connect with other students, and that existed for them. But when everyone’s in online classes, that part of the college experience is very difficult to facilitate. So that then became an academic part of college as opposed to just the social piece, I had the same kind of experience in my class, when there was that social time or whatever, they bonded a lot, and it helped a lot.

Colin: Yeah, I remember one student telling me, are we ever gonna stop changing group? And I was like, “Dude, all you have to do is say it. We’ll stop changing groups… keep the same group for two weeks. Two class meetings later, “Could you please get me out of this group, I cannot stay working with these people anymore.” [LAUGHTER] And I was like, “So I don’t know. What is the silver bullet?” They’re like, “Just go back to what you were doing before. I thought I wanted the same people. But my God, I do not want the same people.” But that whole class had a conversation about that and had a big joke about it, like who’s not going to be put in which group and they’re just like, “He’s gonna have to randomize everything, because if we start talking about who we like, and don’t like, [LAUGHTER] it’s gonna get really awkward really quick.” But you can have that conversation when the group has developed that sense of community. If it’s just me assigning names to stuff, then you’re not really having a conversation about why you’re doing it.

Rebecca: And each group is a bit different. I had students that asked for two different persistent groups that they just rotated between.

Colin: Yeah, now, that’s metacognition.

Rebecca: Ok. We can do that. I’m not sure how that’s gonna work. [LAUGHTER] But we can try that. And by the end, I think they thought, “Well, okay, that was an interesting experiment. Maybe we don’t want to do that again in the future, but you know…”

Colin: That’s great. I’ve got my aAclub, and I’ve got my B club, but I really can’t handle you guys today, so I’ll go with the B club.

Rebecca: Well, they had the project team, and then they had a different circle or whatever.

Colin: That’s great.

Rebecca: I could make it happen, so I did.

John: How have students on your campus responded to all the changes they’ve seen in instruction resulting from COVID.

Jonikka: I think one of the really interesting things that came out of our survey, which I’m curious to hear if any of you heard anything on your campuses, is that students consistently said they had more work to do in the fall than they had ever had to do before. And so every time I get a chance, I try to engage somebody in a conversation about this, because I think there are so many different complex things going on. I think, in many cases, students literally were doing more things than they did before. And part of that was a consequence of the online environment. So rather than having a discussion in class, they were having to write responses to the same kinds of questions that faculty might ask in class or something like that. So I think there’s actually more of that going on. And I think that faculty, through a lot of professional development things that we did were introduced to all these gadgets and tools and things, and then they started using them. And so they weren’t necessarily doing similar kinds of things in the face-to-face environment. Students when they’re going to class face to face… I think there was a lot of activity and a lot of work that was going on in class that they didn’t classify as work. It didn’t feel like work. But now because they’re having to do it while they’re at home or someplace else, now it’s homework or whatever. I read a little tidbit in The Chronicle at one point in the fall, it was kind of a national phenomenon that other people were reporting the same kind of thing. But I’m just really curious if we ended up having any deeper conversations about this, because I think it’s really easy for faculty to say, “Well, no I’m not” and for faculty to say, “Well, yes, you are.” but to have the conversations about what that lived experience really is like, and to be able to negotiate. Some of those faculty here did who said, “Yeah, I really did go too far. So now I have to rethink what is the most important things,” and maybe I’m hoping it leads to some like projects that are scaffolded, rather than 1000 little things that they asked students do, that are disconnected.

Colin: …or they’ll be a revolutionary cry for passive learning again, from students?

Jonikka: Well, we did hear a lot of that, we did hear some of that, like, just give me a few tests. And that’s it. I was like, “Oh, no, that’s not good, either.” [LAUGHTER]

John: We’ve been hearing a lot of the same thing. And I think the surveys done in the SUNY system are affirming that as well, that students do feel like they’re doing more work. And partly, I think it’s because in the past, when there was a lot more passive learning, faculty would give students readings to do and then assume that they had read them. And now as more people have moved to a flipped learning environment, they’re giving them what they used to give as a lecture, except now they’re adding some questions and some quizzes to it. Where now students are graded on having done it. So now they actually have to do the readings…

Jonikka: Right.

John: …in ways that might not always have happened in the past. I think some of it is faculty, were often assuming that students were doing all this work, because that’s what the faculty had done when they were students, forgetting that they were not a random sample of the student population. So I think there’s a little bit of recalibration, perhaps, that needs to take place. {LAUGHTER]

Rebecca: Yeah, I think too the class time that you’re mentioning too Jonikka was definitely something that I experienced, I teach in a studio program. So our class time, if we’re in synchronous time, we’re in class for six hours a week. And then students are used to having homework. So workload in general, these students are used to work, they’re used to doing a lot, but I didn’t have so much complaints about too much work. But I think it’s too much independent work, because I was teaching, partly synchronous and partly asynchronous. And I am in the spring teaching synchronously and setting a time in class to do the same kinds of exercises and things that I would have done if we were face to face because I just needed scheduled time to do the activities and some of that guidance. And they were really asking for that. We started off with meeting only once a week at the beginning of the week, which they liked. And then they kept asking for a little more and a little more and a little more. And next thing, you know, I was pretty much teaching synchronously. [LAUGHTER] You know, not completely, but it got pretty close by the end of the semester, because it was helping them to have some structured time because they weren’t managing their own time. Although I would say this is going to take this amount of time, you’re used to being in class for six hours, we’re only in class for two, you have that four hours, that’s still class time, that’s not even homework time. So it feels like it’s a lot, especially if they’re not used to it.

Colin: There’s probably a whole book to be written about timely motivation too, because listening to what you were saying, part of the issue I noticed was that students who are usually coming to face-to-face classes, they will plan to freak out because they haven’t done what they needed to do. And they will come to you either at the beginning of class or during group time, or at the end of class. That doesn’t work in Zoom. I remember having conversations during the end of the semester about when you go next semester, talk to your teachers the minute you think there might be something wrong, so that you can figure out how you’re going to talk to them. Because I think you all need to learn how to talk to people more quickly. Because you’re waiting, and thinking there’s going to be a moment and then you look up and there’s nobody around you. Nobody in your family understands what you’re going through with those classes, your friends are freaking out and don’t want to show weakness, or they’re already messed up or upset or passed you. And so there’s no timely motivation. It’s just it happens to happen. But it doesn’t happen to happen online learning, at least it doesn’t in my experience. And so I don’t know that we can build those things in. But I think you could make a whole career out of trying to figure out how to recognize when you need to be timely and motivated for a student and not be really creepy about it. Like “Oh, tell me what’s going on.”

Rebecca: And we all know that those moments aren’t happening because we would have those moments with colleagues and they don’t happen in meetings now either.

Colin: Yeah. Okay, everybody take a beat. We need to talk about what’s going on with Jonikka. [LAUGHTER] That’s only gonna happen in my meetings.

John: And there’s a lot of stressors caused by the pandemic and I think that’s a part of it. People are feeling overwhelmed. It’s harder to stay focused. There’s so many things going on in the world that are very distracting and concerning to everybody.

Jonikka: Yes.

Colin: I’m distracted by the distractions.

Rebecca: We always end by asking what’s next? …which always seems really big as we’ve had these episodes during the pandemic, but what’s next?

Colin: I need season nine of the British baking show to come out very very soon…

Jonikka: That’s true.

Colin: …for my own wellness and sanity. [LAUGHTER]

Jonikka: I think for us, one of the big things that’s next is that we’re taking advantage of some of the CARES dollars and things like that, that are coming in to support faculty professional development on a scale that I have never seen before. So we’re trying to do something, this kind of series that is going to be focused on faculty teaching first-year students. And so really taking a different approach than we’ve ever taken before. And really focusing, I think, in some ways more on the affective pieces, like, “Who are these students? What has their experience been?” Well, honestly, that’s just good faculty development, but we’ve not really done it in those kinds of ways necessarily before. What are their experiences? How do they learn? And bringing students into that conversation too like, “What did it feel like to be part of classes that operated in these kinds of ways?” And so really getting to the heart of where we started this really just about the teaching and learning piece, and what does it mean? And what shared values and shared understandings of what it means for students to be actively learning in a class. And what does that look like different? Why is it so special and important for first-year students. So that’s what we spent at least the last 24 hours, feverishly,trting to figure out what we can do for that, and how we can build those student observers and feedback givers into that process as well. And try to get at least 60% of the faculty who teach the majority of their workload with freshmen to do that. So again, that’s something that Colln and I probably have wanted to do for 20 years. We could have done it any of those years. But it means something different in this context now, where we’ve got our next freshmen class is going to have had an entire year and a half of their four years of high school be almost nothing. I mean, we’ve got one 21 year old and one almost 16 year old. And so we’re kind of seeing it firsthand what’s going on with these students and what it means for them to learn and be in school. And so we’re gonna have to reckon with that as faculty. And so I think now’s a good time to have those kind of real fundamental conversations.

Colin: Even though I ramble a lot and talk all the time and, as Jonikka told me today in another conversation, for somebody who loves to talk about all the intricacies of things, there are things in my life that I absolutely refuse to talk about. I’m not the most comfortable social person in the world, especially when it comes to difficult conversations that affect things like equity and diversity and how people’s identity are tied to the teaching. And I can make a joke, and I can point out something insightful, and then kind of run away while everybody’s laughing. But I think this last year has taught me, kind of along the lines of Jonikka with the affective stuff and thinking about students that way, is that I’m going to have to be a actual active sponsor of difficult conversations, and try to get other people to do that with me, because a lot of the things that have been happening in different groups I belong to, it really is all about sponsorship, it really is like all of the conversations are about listening to people and trying to have a conversation when people need to have it instead of figuring out how to put it off until a time when you can deal with it. And at least this last year has taught me that you can’t put any of those things off, because in 24 hours, somebody could lose it, or somebody could solve the problem and move on to the next bit. And so I literally was thinking I better remember to tell you guys to have a good weekend when we’re done. And then and then Rebecca was talking, I was like, dude, I think it’s Tuesday. It’s Tuesday talk time Colin, it’s not Friday yet. [LAUGHTER] So I don’t have any sense of time anymore. But I think that might be a good thing. I wasn’t joking about the timeliness thing. I think Jonikka and me and other people that are in positions where we’re responsible for trainings, I think we have to make sure that part of those trainings, deals with people’s need to have conversations they really don’t want to have. So if there’s a conversation about merit, and how we’re going to figure out merit one year, maybe we should have a conversation about why you deserve a raise, and what’s good teaching, instead of worrying about counting things. And if we’re going to talk about shoving something to do with equity into a training session, why aren’t we talking about having it as part of every session? And what would that change? And who needs to deliver it? And so I think there’s a lot of challenging conversations about student perspective, about equity and diversity, and about what good teaching is, or not even that, I think it’s about what do we really want to see happen in a classroom that is successful? And what does that mean for the teacher and it’s okay for it to be something different for the teacher than for the student. That’s actually why it’s interesting, because they’re both getting different things out of it. But I don’t think we have the language for learning from each other. I don’t think we’re that advanced in having a language about how that happens between teachers and students. I know that there are experts that have affective terminological screens and they understand how to deal with the way the brain works. I don’t think people that are good at teaching and people that are good at psychoanalyzing have really figured out how to mesh the thing so that it works for everybody in a way that you can have that conversation. So when I say we need to train our students how to talk to their teachers, I actually mean that. I don’t mean we need to train them how to write an email that doesn’t offend their teachers, because it’s grammatically correct. I mean, literally, I wish I would have figured this out five years ago and taught Ian, our 21 year old, how to start a conversation with one of his college teachers, and how to think about how to start it differently with one than the other. Somebody should have taught him that in a writing class, probably one of my teachers, but I should have taught him that too. As soon as I realized that he needed to have that conversation with somebody else instead of with me. So I think there’s a whole lot of react to the student in front of you and just fix it right there. And not as much training in the listening part and the having the difficult conversation. And having a moment where you can trust each other, I think we’ve got a whole hell of a lot of work to do in that area. So that’ll be fun for the next 15 years of our life… be an affective czar of an institution. There’s not enough going on, right?

John: And the pandemic and the shift online has exposed so much inequities that our students are dealing with. And that’s particularly true for first-generation students. And that’s something I think that all colleges are now being forced to face in a way that they had chosen to ignore for a very long time.

Rebecca: So yes, many difficult conversations in the future [LAUGHTER]. Good call. Colin. Well, thank you so much for joining us today. This was really interesting, and I think has a lot of important things to think about, not just into the spring, but into the fall and many future semesters.

Jonikka: Thank you.

Colin: Thank you guys for talking with us and listening to us.

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

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

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174. HyFlex in Practice

 Many campuses saw the HyFlex modality as a panacea that could resolve the many challenges presented by the COVID-19 pandemic. In this episode, Kevin Gannon joins us to discuss his campus’ experiments with HyFlex during the Fall 2020 semester.

Show Notes

  • Gannon, K. M. (2020). Radical hope: A teaching manifesto. Journal of Public Relations Education, 6(2), 193-199.
  • Beatty, B. (2014). Hybrid courses with flexible participation: The HyFlex course design. In Practical applications and experiences in K-20 blended learning environments (pp. 153-177). IGI Global.
  • Beatty, B. J. (2010). Hybrid courses with flexible participation-the hyflex design. Unpublished manuscript. Retrieved from http://itec. sfsu. edu/hyflex/hyflex_course_design_theory_2, 2.
  • Gannon, Kevin, (2020). “Our Hyflex Experiment: What’s Worked and What Hasn’t.” The Chronicle of Higher Education. October 26.

Transcript

John: Many campuses saw the HyFlex modality as a panacea that could resolve the many challenges presented by the COVID-19 pandemic. In this episode, we discuss one campus’ experiments with HyFlex during the Fall 2020 semester.

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

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

John: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer.

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

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Rebecca: Our guest today is Kevin Gannon. Kevin is the Director of the Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning and Professor of History at Grandview University. He is also the author of Radical Hope: a Teaching Manifesto, which is available from West Virginia University Press. Welcome back, Kevin.

Kevin: Thanks. It’s great to be here again with y’all.

John: It’s good to talk to you again. Our teas today are:

Kevin: I am actually just drinking water today, I am on a goal to stay a little more hydrated. I was sick over the break, so I’ve just got a big old cup of water.

Rebecca: I had a nice pot of golden monkey prepared, but I drank it all. So now I’m drinking [LAUGHTER] Scottish breakfast tea.

John: I’m drinking ginger peach green tea. I had four or five different types of tea today, and I’ve moved to a lower caffeine green tea so I can maybe sleep tonight. We’ve invited you here to follow up with our discussion earlier about the plans for the fall. You were planning to use the hyflex modality there, and we wanted to just check back and see how things went, what worked and what perhaps didn’t work as well as everyone had hoped. I think most people know what a hyflex course is now, but maybe just a quick statement of what hyflex is might be helpful.

Kevin: Sure. So hyflex stands for hybrid flexible. And as it was developed as a modality by Brian Beatty and some of his colleagues at San Francisco State University in graduate ed tech program, they envision classes where students would basically have three pathways to attend, defined broadly: one could attend in person, one could attend the class synchronously but via a video conferencing service online, or one could attend that is engaged with the class asynchronously and online. And the flex part of it is that students have the choice of which of these three modalities that they will use and the expectation and reality is that they will shift back and forth between those three, maybe landing on one that they adopt consistently or maybe staying in a sort of state of variation or flux throughout the term.

John: Why was this so popular with so many campuses this fall?

Kevin: I think for a few reasons. One, we all knew that, in-person traditional college experience was not going to be a thing. Despite the best efforts of a few institutions to put in place a magical thinking strategy [LAUGHTER] and assume that it was. But we also had varying degrees of what in-person might look like in mind. The California State Systems said we’re going to be fully online, period, and they made that decision very early. Other institutions like mine knew, as in our case as a small liberal arts college, that a lot of our students really wanted and needed that in-person experience. But we also knew we couldn’t do that normally and still be safe. Hyflex offered a way to sort of do both, and in our case, have students attend in person, but at a reduced number in socially distant classrooms, for example. But, I think the other big reason that it was so appealing was the flexibility it had for both students, and then faculty and staff. So for students who could not travel back to campus, for example, they might be in several time zones away. So is there a way for them to attend online asynchronously? And then also for us. What if we had to go fully online again. Hyflex, as you build classes that have an online modality already, and I think the thinking was that what we did in March was more emergency remote teaching than it was actual online teaching and learning. We were probably not going to be able to get away with that again, and our students will hold us to a higher standard. And so I think what hyflex offered a lot of institutions… I know this is true for Grandview, my institution… was that it would have us preparing for that eventuality well ahead of time, so if we did need to go full remote, it wouldn’t be the sort of abrupt lurching around off of some cyber cliff that it would be a much smoother transition.

Rebecca: Can you talk a little bit about how it worked at Grandview University and whether or not this modality ended up actually being helpful to both faculty and students?

Kevin: Yeah, so I think it worked well-ish. [LAUGHTER] And what I mean by that is it did give us the flexibility we needed. And that did a lot to help for folks. We did not have a large outbreak of COVID on my campus, which I feel very fortunate to say. Our dorms were occupied, for example, but the students who did have to go to quarantine were able to still maintain their presence in classes in ways that they would not have been able to without hyflex. We also had some students who did choose to do all remote learning this semester… that they, because of a prior condition or something else, did not want to come to campus. And that included both international students but also students here in the Des Moines area who attended either synchronously or asynchronously online. So it did give us that flexibility. It did give us that online component. We learned a lot of things. We knew, I think, intellectually going into the session. That’s when it was gonna take a lot of kind of bandwidth and energy to be able to manage everything that goes into, actually run a hyflex class session. Having students on Zoom at the same time as students in a classroom, how are you going to foster and sustain a discussion? What happens when the tech doesn’t work? Or the screenshare doesn’t work? What about the asynchronous people? Are they just somewhere out there? So all of those things we knew, they would be hard, but actually experiencing it was really, really hard. And I know just from my own… I taught two courses, one of them fully online, asynchronous that was born that way, but a new student seminar in the hyflex model. And I’m good with technology, I think, and it was really hard for me to do. It took a lot of focus and energy. And my colleagues would always say, “You know, we were just exhausted after class sessions.” We also learned that the same was true for students, in many ways, [LAUGHTER] that it did require a lot more for them to attend class. But, on the other side of that coin, there were also students who elected to do the online asynchronous option, who in retrospect, that might not have been the choice they were best served by. Now, the reasons they did it were absolutely compelling and understandable. We had student athletes living on campus, for example, but remaining in isolation, so they could play their sport without testing positive. So they attended all their classes either synchronously or asynchronously online. What we found out was that without more guardrails around that, and without more learning how to be an online learner… stuff that we should have put in front of students… we did some but we didn’t do enough… the students who made that decision were the ones who struggled the most. And then we also learned that there are some classes in which this mode of teaching and learning is very well suited, and then there are some classes where it didn’t work very well at all. And in this, I’m thinking of mostly the classic upper-level humanities type seminars that are almost completely reliant on student discussion where instructors and students both really had trouble doing a seminar type thing where everybody’s sort of collectively in and immersed in the same text and conversation with people in these different spaces, and tried to move back and forth between. It was just, for lack of a better term, it was just weird, and clunky. And so we had faculty who moved into doing them all synchronously online, because at least people were in the same figurative space, so to speak. And that actually worked a lot better for some of those classes that were running into roadblocks. So we did have to shift on the fly a little bit. So I would say that successful for what we needed it to be over the fall. But there were some definite roadblocks that folks ran into, there were technology hiccups, as well, of course, and we were really tired after it was done. But we learned a lot to inform our spring practice. And in conversations I’ve had with peers and colleagues, I think the way it went for us didn’t vary too much from the way that it went in a lot of places.

John: That’s very similar to our experience here. We encouraged preparation for hyflex. I was pretty careful to try to not call it hyflex, because we knew that wouldn’t really be that much flexibility. But preparing for any eventuality gave faculty a little bit of comfort in knowing that no matter what happened, they’re going to be able to provide their classes in whatever formats happened to be possible. I chose synchronous online for my courses, and Rebecca chose the same. One of the reasons I did it was just because I didn’t think I could effectively manage a classroom with students in it at the same time, especially a classroom of masked and distanced students while I was wearing a mask and trying to also engage with students online. The way I saw it is, hyflex works really well, when you have classrooms that are set up for it with good sound systems, when people are mobile, when it’s easier to have communications going back and forth. And our classrooms here just are not generally set up for that. And the challenges of doing that in the current environment just seemed a little bit much to me. I probably wouldn’t have done it anyway, because of my age and other health concerns. But what were some of the specific challenges you faced while trying to engage with students face to face while also maintaining engagement with the online students?

Kevin: I think you bring up a lot of really important points. We committed to this hyflex thing with the intent of putting the flex in hyflex, so to speak. We really wanted students to have the choice of flexibility, even though we do that would be a lot more on the back end. For us. That made a big difference in terms of faculty workload and bandwidth. It’s really hard to build a hyflex course in a couple of months over the summer, because you’re basically doing three different courses that you’re braiding together. And yes, there’s overlap, but as anybody who’s taught online before knows, it’s a different animal trying to build an online course. So not only did we learn the added layers of complexity, building a hyflex course, but again, trying to experience that bandwidth of managing all of these other things that I wrote in one point that I felt like what are those circus performers who spins the plates and the cups and all of the saucers with all this sticks, and I let so many of them drop. I think the hardest part for me and for my students… students say they wanted that in person college experience. Well, what they wanted was to be in the dorms, to be in college, so to speak. Once they figured out that in person meant you’re having a small seminar class, but it’s held in a lecture hall that seats 110, and your all sitting way away from one another you’re masked up and yelling at each other, and half of y’all are coming in on Zoom. That’s not the face-to-face experience. That’s just weird, and kind of sucky. And so what we discovered, what I discovered and most of my colleagues is that our in-person attendance dropped off precipitously by about the end of the second week. And I would go past classrooms… my teaching Center is located at our main classroom building in a high traffic area. And I felt so bad for some of my colleagues, because we wanted to have as many of our first-year classes be fully in person, to have students have that… So there would be these classes scheduled in these large rooms, and so I was right across the hall from one of these large rooms, and one of my colleagues is in there teaching introductory algebra. And every time I walked by, it just felt like there were fewer and fewer students in there. And then one day, about three weeks into the semester, I walked in and there was nobody but him in a room that had been outfitted to seat fifty. So, I don’t know if you’ve ever seen the movie, Real Genius, where there’s the lecture hall, and there the professor’s lecturing on the board, and students are in there taking notes, and it’s this montage of scenes. And every so often, there’s fewer students and more tape recorders on the desk and then there’s a scene where it’s just the professor and all the desks have tape recorders on them. to have the final cue is there’s a reel-to-reel tape recorder playing the professor’s voice. With things that are like that, I felt like that’s where we were by about the middle of October. So students very quickly readjusted what they thought they wanted to do. And that made it even harder for us as instructors to sort of recalibrate there. So, again, there’s something different about experiencing something, even if you know it’s coming intellectually. And I think that was the thing that I struggled with most personally, but my colleagues did too, is we pride ourselves on being a small high-touch institution and the things that we do that we think make us good, we were really hampered in doing those. And so it’s frustrating. You know what you need to be doing? You know you can’t do it. You certainly know you aren’t doing it. And it’s just a tough situation, and I think our frustration was evident to students too on some cases. And then of course, they get frustrated by the same sorts of things. So there were no great options, just the least-worst option. And that’s still better than the worst-worst option. But that’s kind of where we were by the end of the fall, I think.

John: That sounded very much like the experience that faculty here were reporting, that people who were teaching face-to-face or some type of a hybrid environment or a hyflex-like environment kept seeing the number of students in the classroom dwindle until they’d often be the only one in this big lecture hall by the end of the term. You mentioned that some classes such as upper-level humanities classes weren’t really very well suited for this type of instruction, what classes worked relatively better.

Kevin: So, from what I understand, some of my colleagues in the STEM fields actually were able to really build and conduct really effective hyflex classes. Our intro to bio courses, our intro to chemistry and organic chemistry. And these were departments where faculty were already doing a lot of really interesting things and innovative things pedagogically, anyway. So they really, I think, kind of took up the challenge and jury rigged the tech when they needed it. My colleagues in her genetics class was recording using a lecture capture tool. She was trying to find a digital whiteboard to use for all the diagrams and nomenclature because it’s easier just to draw it by hand, and none of the, were really working or picking up right when you were trying to do it through Zoom. So she just tilted her webcam on her office desk down to show a piece of paper where she was writing, and did a split screen. So sometimes those are the solutions that we find. And I think the faculty who approached it as this really interesting set of problems to solve, sometimes creatively, and building upon things that they were already doing had, I think, an easier time making hyflex work. And I think the course material and the course objectives and pedagogical style also fit into that where you had some parts of the class where it was exposition, but then we can do think-pair-share… that’s a little more easy to do, even if you’ve got students in person and on Zoom. So things like that. You know, we have people who are really successful with that. I have colleagues in athletic training, and in particular, they have a graduate program that’s almost fully online anyway. So they adapted some hyflex elements into that and actually thought improved the student experience in what had previously been seen as an exclusively online program. So I think there were faculty out there who really found it, at least most of hyflex, were able to adopt it into ways that work organically with how they approach their courses anyway. And that’s not to say you can’t do it in a humanities seminar course, I absolutely think you can. But I also think experience and time are vital parts of that equation. And those are two things that we just didn’t have available to us.

Rebecca: And given all those challenges that you faced, and hindsight’s 20-20, what does the spring look like for you? You mentioned earlier that you’re already in classes now. So how was the approach different for the spring and how’s it looking so far?

Kevin: Well, the main change that we made institutionally for the spring was with the online asynchronous option. ‘Cause we sort of knew right away in the fall that that was going to be a problem. We do early alerts. We’re pretty high touch when it comes, especially tor first-year student success. And so the third week of the semester, we do early alerts. And my wife is our Registrar in Institutional Research Associates, so I get to hear some of the numbers, and the number of low early-alert grades and the number of low midterm grades reported in week six was something like 270% of our previous semester high. And we also had a significant amount of students who were getting multiple low grades, not just in one class or the other, but that it was endemic across their schedule. And that really correlated pretty strongly to students, especially first-year or new transfer students who had chosen the online asynchronous options of attendance. So this semester, that has a lot more guardrails around it. Students could attend class all semester, asynchronously online, but they have to come to an understanding with their instructor. They have to talk to their instructor, the instructor has to talk to them talk, about how that’s going to look, what they’re going to commit to doing it, what the things are going to need to really be. And it’s not just going to be a student who’s like, “I don’t want to come from the dorm.” So the online asynchronous is really being kind of de-emphasized except for cases. Now for a student who has a temporary absence, who travels with an athletic team, or who does have to go into quarantine because of contact tracing, that option is available to them on a temporary basis. But in terms of doing the class that way, we are trying to steer students away from that option and it nvolve much more. It’s basically an instructor approval mechanism, is what it comes down to. But what it does is it really gets students into the conversation about what are the most effective choices about how I could learn and how I might be most successful, not how I want to learn, but how I’m better at learning. The other thing that we learned is that we didn’t think enough about if online learning is different for students too. And being a successful online learner requires some skills and some competencies that students might not necessarily have had the chance to build, especially in high school coming straight into college. The first year is hard enough without all that layered on top. I wish we had done more. We did some… about here are some things you can do to be a successful online learner, here’s what hyflex looks like, here are the resources we can out in front of you, here are some tutorials, but we needed to do more. And I don’t even think we do knew much more we needed to do until we realized that, especially for many of our first-year students, when high schools what remote in March, for a lot of them, that was it, they just stopped. So these are students who we said “Oh, well, they’ll have some experience online learning from what happened in the spring.” [LAUGHTER] And for about 95% of them that was not the case. So we really were reckoning with completely novice online learners. So the decision- making process about what they’re going to do and how they’re going to attend and what’s going to work, that didn’t go so well for a lot of our students.

John: Under normal circumstances, when students select online courses, when they have many more options to drop, fail, and withdrawal rate is much higher, especially for, as you said, first-year students and students who are not as well established in the college environment. But in these circumstances where people had less choice about whether they were online or not, the problem becomes a little bit more severe. Were all students equally affected, or were some groups of students more adversely affected by some of the challenges they faced this fall.

Kevin: Oh, I think clearly the results of hyflex mirror the larger inequities that we all sort of intellectually knew were there. But again, experiencing that in such an, I think ,visceral way… My own institution, we serve a lot of students from groups that have not been traditionally well served by higher education in the United States. Access to internet and technology was a significant issue even more so at my institution than I would have expected, and I’ve been here 18 years or so. You don’t know what’s happening in some of these students lives. But, of course, with people losing their jobs and all these other things, it becomes even more tenuous. We have an emergency grant program, we had CARES Act money, we invested a lot in technology, not just for faculty in classrooms, but for students as well. But even then, again, that’s half the story, because now I have something to access, but if I don’t have the high-speed internet bandwidth with which to access it, then there’s a problem as well. And then layered on top and all around that is, of course, which students have had in school districts or school buildings that were resourced enough to provide that sort of familiarity and ease with the technology or to get students thinking about metacognitively how they are learners, think about what it means to learn. Basically, what hyflex showed us, and I think what the pivot to online has showed us in higher education is that we could no longer ignore the inequities, the very profound inequities that exist. And a lot of us say that, right? Like we’ve been saying this for a while, but basically what that pivot to online learning did in March and what hyflex is continuing to exacerbate in many ways is we are basically rewarding the students who already have cultural capital, and real capital, but cultural capital in particular, who are able to manage that transition to: A) college learning but, B) college learning at a time of COVID much better than students who have not been in places that have equipped them to do that. And that is through no fault of the students or their ability. It is the structural problems that we face. And what COVID has done has laid those completely bare, and we continue to ignore them at our peril.

John: One nice thing, though, is that I think more faculty are aware of that, because it was pretty easy to ignore those things when all the students have some type of a computing device, (or nearly all) on campus, they certainly have computer labs, high-speed Wi Fi, they have meal plans, and so forth that provide support, but all those things disappeared for those students who were attending remotely and any faculty member who taught any number of students would have seen students encountering some really significant challenges during the past 10 months or so.

Kevin: Yeah, absolutely. And access does not mean the same thing as ready availability, and that was a lesson that we learned as well, because as you point out, so many of our students, their high speed internet access is in a computer lab that also closed down in mid March, or in the library, or a public library, which here in Des Moines, all those closed as well. We had students sitting in the parking lot of McDonald’s using the WiFi on their smartphone or tablet in a car uploading work to Blackboard, for example. So yeah, this is not going away. We may be seeing it more evident than we have before. But, if we’re going to have any sort of conversation at higher ed about what hyflex does and what this online learning is going to do to shape the way we do teaching and learning going forward, which is a conversation we absolutely should be having… But if this isn’t part of it, that we’re not having the right conversation.

Rebecca: As a design faculty member, we have a lot of students that need software, expensive software…

Kevin: Yeah.

Rebecca: …often and expensive computers to run said software. We had a lot of really hard conversations about “What software do we really need to use? Do we need to use software? How are we going to get students computers? Because having just the internet access wasn’t even the beginning of our problem. [LAUGHTER].

Kevin: Right.

Rebecca: …to even enter into the field. What can you do? So one of the things that I’ve been thinking about… I’m teaching a new class in this spring, that’s an introductory class on theories of motion and interaction. But I’m actually working on a lot of things that don’t require any software so that the students can be included, because I am teaching online synchronously, and we were trying to figure out what classes could we teach in that modality and which ones really need to have access to our labs, so they have access to equipment, so that students can attend at least some of our classes in the modality that they need to. So the inequities just became so, so, so, prevalent, and so obvious to all of us that we had really hard discussions, and knowing that I’m teaching this class, and I know that there are some students that just can’t take it.

Kevin: Yeah, your breaking out software is so essential. Our students in communications and new media, our students in our graphic design program, students who are using Minitab or SPSS… Our IT department… I want them all canonized into sainthood, because what they did was they set up what they called a virtual software lab, so students could telnet into machines, which is obviously not the ideal solution, but it was a solution. That was one of those things, again, we’ll be talking about like we knew that might be a thing, but then experiencing it being a thing at the scale and scope with which we experienced that, really stretched us and we weren’t able to beat those needs. So again, yeah, as you talk about, even if we’re talking about using OER, or low-cost stuff that normally we say, “Oh, this is very accessible.” Well, if you could get in the door, but if you don’t have a door, that’s a problem. And so here we are. I think that’s one of the most important things we need to be working on.

John: One of the things you mentioned is how faculty are in general, exhausted. Faculty workload has gone up quite a bit since March of last year. Are there any things that faculty can do to help keep that workload under control so that we’re not all as exhausted at the end of the spring semester as we were at the end of the fall semester?

Kevin: Well, I don’t know. [LAUGHTER] It’s just we are being asked to do so much more, abd there’s no two ways about it. Not to get oversharing or anything, but over Christmas break before the Christmas holiday, I had to go to the emergency room with an attack of colitis. Certainly stress and being burnt out didn’t help anything. There’s now 15 pounds less of me than there was before,and I wanted to lose weight, but that was certainly not the way I want to do it. I think the end-of-the-semester crash was a really big part of that. And there are things that we could do, but we can’t do them alone. So when I see faculty who are navigating this at least modestly successfully, are faculty who have found their people and are able to have these networks where they could collaborate with one another, share ideas and help each other with the kind of tips and tricks stuff. I also think that we as faculty, this is a really good opportunity for us to be very intentional about focusing in on what it is we do in terms of assessments and is much time the best way for us to do those kind of assessments and is that time the best way we could be spending it. The other thing I think that we could also be doing is we don’t have to learn every new tool. I know the temptation, and I am the worst at this. I am such a dork when it comes to technology, I want all the devices, I want to learn all the things. I want all the cool tricks and toys and apps. But that’s so much bandwidth that I could be using on something else. You don’t need a whole suite of digital tools to teach online or hybrid effectively. You could use two or three Google Docs and a learning management system and your cell phone, then you could do a really great dynamic hyflex course. So being very mindful about how we’re allocating our energy and also being okay with the fact that sometimes we’re not okay, there’s still a global pandemic going on. The republic teeters, and I wish I was being hyperbolic when I say that, but I’m a historian who’s traced race and racism in US history. I’m writing a chapter right now for a project on the election of 1860 and the secession crisis. It’s been a weird week, you know? And I got to be okay with that. I have not been able to do the things that I wanted to do. Last week’s plan went up in smoke, but I can’t kill myself about that. And so just communicating effectively with students, being present with students and one another in an honest, authentic way, and realizing that we’re all trying to navigate this together. I know, that sounds very hippie and Kumbaya-ish, but if we’re not honest and authentic about this, we’re gonna kill ourselves. And it’s like a cliche says, “You can’t pour from an empty cup.” Our students deserve better, we deserve better, there are ways to be better, but we have to be willing to be very intentionally reflective, and adaptive about where we are.

John: One thing we should note is that we’re recording this in mid January, right after an insurrection tried to take over the government a few days ago. We’ll be releasing this a little bit later. And who knows what might have happened between now and then. We’re hoping that the world has returned to something closer to the instability that we’ve been observing in recent years, and we don’t see a further acceleration of crises. But it’s been challenging. I know, when the attack on the capital took place, I was trying to do some preparation for some workshops, and for some classes, and I spent the whole time doomscrolling, going through and watching CNN, reading news reports, checking the Times, the Washington Post, and it’s been a scary time.

Kevin: It has been.

Rebecca: it really makes me want to ask the question about radical hope.

Kevin: Yeah.

Rebecca: But I don’t know if I should. [LAUGHTER]

Kevin: Well, so I was doing a workshop for another university that morning and again the next day. So it’s like, “Okay, hey, you know, we’re teetering on the brink of total civil and political collapse, but let’s take three hours and talk about hyflex learning…” like it just felt like this out of body experience. And so I centered that right in front, I put a picture up of it, and I said, “Look, here’s where we’re at, and we’re in the space and we’re doing faculty development stuff, but we’re gonna have to be doing this in the ways that work for us right now.” And so, engage with this, however, works best for you, though I can tell you, I’m not bringing my full self to this right now. Because this is just kind of where we are. And so I think part of acting from a place of hope is to be unflinchingly honest about where you are in the present. And so one of the things that perversely I draw hope from is you have to work harder than you would have ever had to work before to hide from the realities that we now have to confront. And have we finally lanced the boil? …to use a really gross metaphor. Have we finally gotten to a place where we’ve done that. I think there are signs that that may be the case. So that gives me hope, because the fewer places you have to hide from the work that needs to be done, the better and more sustained that work will end up being. So if we’re at that kind of place, it may seem perverse, and maybe even Pollyannaish, but I do think that that is occasion for hope. And I do think that being in places like higher education, this affirms are important and what we need to fight for, because higher education has failed in many ways and that’s why we are where we are in a lot of ways. We have work to do at our own communities. So we can’t hide from that anymore. Or if you could, I guess, but it would evolve way more mental contortions that I think is humanly possible. So is that a hinge moment? Is it that kind of inflection point? I think it might be. And so that adds urgency to what we’re doing. It affirms the work that some of us have been doing. It opens up opportunities to break more into that work. It also reminds us to communicate the larger importance of that work to external audiences. And those are all things that ultimately make the work go better and go further. So that’s kind of where I think we are, at this point, at least, when we’re not doomscrolling eternally. [LAUGHTER] But there’s places for that, again, unflinching honesty. And it’s okay to kind of sit with that for a little bit, but we can’t sit there forever in despair. So when folks are ready, you know, Rebecca Solnit says “hope is the axe with which you break down the door in an emergency.” If you can’t pick up the axe right now, that’s okay. Other people have got it. They’ll hold it for you. And when you’re ready, come and help us with it. And then we’ll break down that door and move into a better future. And that’s where I hope we are as a community.

Rebecca: The emphasis on that brutal honesty about no matter where we’re at in the moment, I think, for me actually, brought a lot of hope in the fall because it helped me connect really well with all my students, despite being apart, I didn’t actually feel like I had any less connection to my students than I would in person. And it almost seems blasphemous to say that out loud.

Kevin: Yeah, I think so, and there’s that weird feeling like, wait a minute, we’re actually more authentic in this weird hybrid online space that maybe we would have been if things were “normal.” And I’d also say this, so I had substance in the past, and I’ve been in recovery for well over a decade. But this is one of those moments where you reach that point of clarity like, okay, things could get worse from here. But you don’t want them to get worse from where we’re at right now. So what are you going to do. And so, having experienced that in my own personal journey, and recovered and walked away from that, if we could do that, as a society, island say, “We could continue this, there’s no bottom to a hole, you can keep digging.” But when you decide to stop digging, and do something else, and maybe that takes a shock, maybe that takes what the therapists call hitting your bottom. So your bottom is where you decide it is. There’s always a lower bottom. But as a society, we could go lower. But if we collectively decide that that’s as low as we want to go, and we want to climb back out, we could do that. And some of the things I’m seeing just within higher ed, but also in the broader public are making me think and hope and I think, not in a Pollyanna way that we are starting to climb out. Even if it seems counterintuitive to think that way so few days after what’s happened.

John: Yeah, I see a lot of signs of that with people who had been supporting much of what we had been seeing that was so traumatic, backing away and saying, “No, this is just one step too far. We’re cutting off any funding to your party or anyone who encouraged any of these activities.” And that’s a sign of progress.

Kevin: Yeah, if you’d have told me some of these companies would stop donating to Republicans, 10 days ago, I would have looked at you like you had three heads. Sometimes historical change happens when we don’t realize it’s happening until a year later, we look back and say, “Wow, point B where we’re at now is so radically different than point A.” And I wonder if that will be our experience, that we will look to the before times here, and then a year down the road, when we look back at where we are now and realize that the tectonic plates did indeed shift. And they shifted the way that we might not have felt every shift every day. But we’re at a much different place for the long run than we were before. And I think that there’s a pretty realistic shot of us having that kind of realization, a little bit down the road. And that keeps me hopeful. And that keeps me energized to do the work that we’re trying to do in times like this, and to have our students in community with us in times like this, while we’re trying to do this work, it takes a lot from everybody. So is it worth it? And I would say absolutely, yes, and our students, they’re doing this because they want to learn, because they want to succeed. And that takes a lot of effort, and a lot of bandwidth and resources from them. And we should honor that choice as well.

Rebecca: Every time I think about that idea, though, there’s always the few that couldn’t make that choice. I feel like just in the way that we’re having this conversation honoring those who couldn’t make that choice because they wanted to but can’t. I think it’s also important to because there’s definitely a number of potential students that are having to wait.

Kevin: Yes, I like the saying goes, when we’re sitting at the table, it’s important not just to look at who’s at the table with us, but who couldn’t be at the table with us. And I think as we talk about coming out of COVID, what is the future of higher education? What is the future of student learning? What is the future of teaching and learning? What is the future of hyflex? We have to be very mindful, of who hasn’t been in those conversations, because they couldn’t be, because we need to be paying attention to that too. Otherwise, our work is incomplete. Absolutely.

John: While we’re thinking about the future more optimistically, what are some of the gains that we might take away from what we’ve learned since March of 2020, in terms of how we offer our courses, and we deliver education, perhaps more effectively,

Kevin: I do think the flex part of hylex is an important thing to take with us. This openness to thinking about how students attend class, and I’m using the word attend in a very sort of elastic way. Because you could say, look, the traditional way we do face-to-face instruction hasn’t changed for the better part of a century, in terms of the physical setting and the constraints and the affordances that it has. So maybe we’re at a point where we don’t so much talk about attendance, as we talked about engagement. How are students engaging and being in community with us in this class. Maybe a lot of it is synchronous, but maybe some of it isn’t. That maybe some of it is face to face, but maybe some of it is online. And so I think these are conversations that are: A) worth having, B) that are ongoing, and C) gonna be with us, and I think changed the way that we do this teaching and learning thing, not wholesale, but in places. I think there are programs who are going to say. you know what? …hyflex works really well for us, or for these particular classes that are classes where we need to offer more seats or more access, hyflex is a way for us to scale out these offerings, even if we can’t hire 40 faculty members. What I’m afraid of is that hyflex becomes another way that faculty labor gets devalued in efficiency death. And so that’s where we need to be vigilant in these conversations. But I do think when we think about how our students engaging in learning? What does that really look like? Do they need to be physically present with us in the same room for that to occur? More and more of us have had to really ask that question. So now let’s take the answers that we’ve gotten and do some work with that and reimagine, or rethink or modify, or maybe even just subtly tweak some of our course offerings. I can see myself and the history department that we have at my institution, our survey classes, maybe we have some traditional face-to-face sessions, which is what most of our students would want, I think, and that we have a fully online section or two to to serve our adult and evening programs that are fully online, but maybe we offer a section that’s hyflex, as well. And our student athletes, who at my institution represent a large percentage of our student population, have a way that they could take courses and still travel and not “miss class.” So that’s one of the ways that I think we’re going to be thinking about what this all means. And I think the other thing that’s really salutary here, and I say this as a humanities guy working in a liberal arts college, I think we’ve realized technology isn’t the answer to everything?.So this technofabulism this. “Yeah, we could just put it online. How hard could it be like this teaching is nothing but content delivery, of course online makes everything more efficient?” Well, we have ample evidence that that is not the case. So we need to really be keeping that centered as well. And teaching matters, learning matters, and it’s not something you just throw on the LMS and expect to have happen. And so this sort of techno-utopianism, this “there’s an app for that” kind of thing. Technology is a tool. It’s not the only tool, and it’s not the best tool. And I think we have more than enough evidence that we’ve taken from our experience this academic year, to focus conversations that way. And I think that that’s really important.

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

Kevin: What’s next for me, is,again, talking about where do we go with hyflex. Or at least the sort of ethos or the ethic that informs hyflex. The rethinking of what learning looks like on the collegiate level, on the higher ed level, and where one needs to be located both figuratively and literally for learning to happen. What’s next for me is that conversation, but I think that conversation is also gonna have a very powerful element of there’s a lot to be said, for the traditional face-to-face method of instruction. And that not everything is an efficiency or a scale up and that in fact, there are things that work worse when we do that. So what’s next for me is what is learning look like? It’s going to be different. But that doesn’t mean completely exclusive from what we would believe learning looks like now. And I think that those conversations are going to be a lot more student-centered as well, because the student experience with hyflex is really important. It mirrors a lot of what the faculty experience has been. And I think listening to student voice with this is not only important for the hyflex conversation, but now brings us back into a place where we realize that’s the most important voice when we’re talking about teaching and learning in general. And so if institutions have these conversations and do the strategic planning and think about the role of technology in terms of the work that they’re doing with their students, I think the incentive to have students involved in those conversations in a really meaningful way has never been more apparent. And so for me, what I see as being next is student voice becoming an even more powerful part of the equation, which I think is essential.

Rebecca: Well, thank you so much for joining us today and sparking a little bit of hope in what feels like a dark time.

John: It’s great talking to you again, and we’re hoping that everything goes well on all of our campuses this spring.

Kevin: Yes. Thanks for having me and always glad to join you and we are in hopeful times and the work we do matters. And if we don’t like what we see now, we have the luck and the fortune to be involved in creating something different, and that should energize us.

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

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

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