288. Mobile-Mindful Teaching and Learning

Faculty generally design courses on their computers, but many students interact with courses through mobile devices. In this episode, Christina Moore joins us to discuss the benefits of being mobile mindful in course design.

Christina is the Associate Director of the Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning at Oakland University in Rochester, Michigan. She is the author of Mobile-Mindful Teaching and Learning: Harnessing the Technology that Students Use Most, which was recently released by Stylus Publishing.

Show Notes


John: Faculty generally design courses on their computers, but many students interact with courses through mobile devices. In this episode, we discuss the benefits of being mobile mindful in course design.


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

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

John: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer…

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


John: Our guest today is Christina Moore. Christina is the Associate Director of the Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning at Oakland University in Rochester, Michigan. She is the author of Mobile-Mindful Teaching and Learning: Harnessing the Technology that Students Use Most, which was recently released by Stylus Publishing. Welcome, Christina.

Christina: Thank you so much. So glad to be here.

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

Christina: I am.

Rebecca: Woohoo,what kind? [LAUGHTER]

Christina: I have to, of course. I am having honey vanilla chamomile tea. Just something refreshing and light.

Rebecca: That sounds perfect for a Friday afternoon. [LAUGHTER]

John: And I have one of my usuals, ginger peach green tea, today.

Rebecca: I just got a new shipment of my blue sapphire tea pack. So I’m back to drinking that. It’s a good spring tea.

John: And it’s all sparkly, isn’t it?

Rebecca: It’s not sparkly, it’s blue sapphire.

Christina: I never heard of sparkly tea, but I’m intrigued.

Rebecca: There is. We need to get our hands on some.

John: It was the same episode where you describe that tea. We’ve invited you here to discuss Mobile-Mindful Teaching and Learning. You note that you started writing this book on your phone? Can you tell us a little bit about the origin of this book project?

Christina: Yes. So probably the very first step is my interest in Universal Design for Learning. I find it to be a really useful framework for thinking as expansively as possible about how students can learn and how we, as instructors, can be involved. So my very first interest into mobile-mindful teaching in earnest was reading Tom Tobin and Kirsten Behling’s Reach Everyone, Teach Everyone: UDL in Higher Ed, and they have a chapter on “Meet the Mobile Learners” that was really this important call to learning with our phones and how, as educators, we’re really missing out if we’re not willing to consider the role that that could play, and I thought the argument was really convincing. So I started to do just a little bit of exploration into the topic. And that was probably in January 2020. And then a couple months later, COVID hit in earnest. It really upended our lives. I’m a mother of two young kids, and they were two and four at the time. So it was sometime in late March or early April, that we had been so cooped up, and we had used the family minivan so seldomly that we decided just to play in the car, that that would be the activity; not moving in the van anywhere, just playing in there. The kids would crawl around, listen to the radio… it was just one of those really comical moments just totally different than life in general. And it was really during those days that I was using my phone for work a lot more than I ever had before, because I just sometimes needed to keep things moving while we didn’t have childcare. I would read articles, I would take notes on how they might apply to something else I needed to write or work on that day, or it would spark an idea. And it was really at that point that I realized, it’s not just 18-, 19-, 20-year olds who want to learn on their phones, it’s really something that all of us, at least the vast majority of us, take advantage of. And during certain periods of our life, we need to lean on them more heavily. So I actually started to realize this while I’m sitting in the van, and I started writing down some notes about this experience. I was connecting back to some of the things I started to read and work on earlier. And then I sent the piece to EDUCAUSE and they were really interested in publishing it. It was a really short piece, but I was really surprised with how many people resonated with that, because mobile learning is still something that tends not to excite most instructors, it just feels like this distraction device, something people don’t want to think about, we’re already frustrated about it. But a lot of people recognize themselves, I think, in the story that I told and in some of the practical places to start. So in many ways that was sort of the seed to what would become this book, because honestly, while my interest has been in educational technology for a while, I would not have guessed, I would have written this book, but really it was the need to address something that I think we’ve been ignoring, or just haven’t been able to find a really accessible entry point to as far as a really good learning opportunity and even a good teaching opportunity for us. I was really inspired in this book to say “Okay, let’s come up with a starting point for at least considering what role mobile learning can play. And let’s start developing our curiosity and see where we go from there.

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

Christina: I really tried to make this book to the person who is excited about teaching, they really care about their students’ learning experience, even if they’re not so excited about the idea of students learning on a mobile device. And I would describe the audience that way, because I think that’s the audience that a lot of the enthusiasm around mobile learning has been missing. And we haven’t had that critical mass of instructors who are finding a good entry point in. So I would say it’s like the learner first, tech second, type of instructor who uses technology, normally, because they see it has a real benefit for students. And they may not always be comfortable with it, but they’re willing to try things as long it isn’t too overwhelming. So with that audience in mind, I really tried to take a beginner approach to tech. I explain how QR codes work, how you can create one, might even explain what the share icon is, because that’s really important for fluid learning and connecting our learning experiences. But I also allow space to dive into more course activities and possibilities that you can do with students, even if you don’t feel completely mobile tech savvy, because I’m somewhat in that boat as well. Of course, I learned a lot through this book, but I hope I did some of the learning and pre work so that faculty readers and other educators can just feel free to try things out, even if they’re not totally sure how they feel about these things.

Rebecca: Can you define what you mean by mobile learning, just to make sure that we’re all on the same page early on the conversation?

Christina: Yeah. So mobile learning, first and foremost, makes us think of learning on a smartphone, which mobile learning can sometimes mean like tablets, and even non-smartphones. But we’re normally talking about smartphones, phones that have the capability to connect to the internet, especially because increasingly, most people, most adults, have mobile phones. But I do think a little bit larger about mobile learning as well, just acknowledging the fact that we learn in motion. I think a lot of us sit in front of a computer for a lot of the work that we do. But what I try to guide us to think about is the fact that we learn and work in multiple places, with our laptop, with our phones, while we’re on a walk, while we’re on a drive. We do not stop learning or stop thinking the second that we are no longer in front of a screen officially working on things. So I also try to tease out that much larger idea of we are learners in motion and that we are learning and responding to our environments.

John: And smartphone ownership by students is close to being ubiquitous, nearly all students have a smartphone. And they normally have them with them all the time. And they use them regularly for learning. Yet there is some faculty resistance to students using smartphones in the classroom. How do you address that when faculty say “I don’t allow smartphone use in my classes?”

Christina: I think I take a balanced approach to this. So first, I acknowledge that and understand. I think even our students don’t really like how distracted they constantly feel by technology. Our institution actually just facilitated a student engagement panel with students talking about creating a collaboration around student engagement and learning with faculty. And even that was expressed by the students themselves. And that was corroborated by the research that I looked into. So, I think, and I have this mantra a lot throughout the book, which is somewhat the mindful aspect of it as “Well it’s okay, let’s acknowledge and notice that we have that skeptical feeling, but sort of suspend it and just be a bit curious.” So my first piece of advice is to talk with students directly about this issue, because our classes look different. They’re small, they’re large, they’re gen ed classes or major classes. So I think it helps to first talk with the students, maybe on the first day, if you’re discussing the course syllabus, “What should tech use look like in the class?” It can either be in class or in an anonymous form where you’re saying: “Some research has found that cell phones can be distracting not only to the person using it, but to the person next to them. How do you feel about this and your learning environment?” Then that can help at least bring them into the discussion, so that with whatever you decide, they feel like they have had some say and input, or at least some understanding of why you do what you do. That being said, I would definitely not support just a total tech ban. And that’s because, and the book does get into some of this research, there’s pretty strong indication that students are using these phones for e-texts, sometimes they are caregivers who really feel anxious if they don’t feel like they’re going to know right away if there’s an issue and they’re the primary contact. So there’s lots of evidence that by banning this technology altogether, we can do real harm to the students who really need it the most, which overwhelmingly are women, or people of color, and people with disabilities. So I wouldn’t encourage a total tech ban, a conversation with students, and really, similar to what James Lang has talked about in his book Distracted, that we don’t have to take an either/or stance, it’s not really reasonable to expect totally undivided attention. I mean, think of any faculty meeting and how many phones are even out during those. So just thinking realistically, but also maybe guiding your students, like, which point in class do you think it’s really important to put away the phones because you’re just talking to one another, and then maybe prompting students to do that. Whereas other active learning situations, you might not worry so much about the technology being used, because the activity itself is so engaging that you don’t really have to worry about that. So overall, I actually encourage us to think more about the mobile learning possibilities outside of a classroom, because I actually think that that’s where its virtues come out a lot more than it’s vices.

Rebecca: I’m really struck by the idea of this fluid learning and learning on the go. [LAUGHTER] And having learning in your pocket and work in your pocket. Your story was reminding me that just the other day, I was enjoying the nice weather, but had a lot of work to do, so I got out my mobile device and I talked through the presentation I needed to give so I could get an outline done while I was on a walk without having to be at a computer. And there’s lots of ways that we can use our devices. We talked a little bit about QR codes, and that might be one obvious way to use a mobile device in a classroom, but what are some of these other ways to use a phone that are in these other spaces that we don’t always expect?

Christina: So I think your example of being on a walk is one that I talk through, because part of the book, a fairly large section of the book is called “Start with Self.” And this is really guiding us through the basics of what it means to be a mobile learner, what are some basic skills that will help you actually become more familiar with what it is to be a mobile learner firsthand, because we’re really not used to thinking of ourselves in that way. And I like the walking to sort of get a break, but you’re still actually being very productive. And maybe you’re being more productive because you’re breaking up your thinking, your body is moving, your muscles are moving, so your brain is likely going to be better and more responsive. But I think, for most of us, we have to sort of walk through the steps of “Okay, but how do I make that happen? How do I use voice to text in order to be able to speak into the phone and have the text written out? Where do I do that? What app do I use?” And along with fluid learning, which is the idea that we design learning activities so that if we do our learning in one place, we can then access it in a useful way, in a different context, a different device, in a different situation. So it gets into that decision of am I taking my notes in a app that I can easily access when I do decide to sit back down at the computer? So I think going through those simple steps of “Okay, what buttons do I have to press? How do I find out how to do that? What tools and processes are going to work best for me?” I think is something that we have to start with, because many of us aren’t used to putting all of those pieces together. But just to use this example, again, the idea of being able to walk and learn in a productive way, is a really good example of something that’s good for our bodies that in a way actually takes us away from screens a little bit because we’re not so focused, even on the screen in front of us, we’re just using it basically as a recording device. And that’s why I do like us to think a little bit broader about mobile learning because yes, it is learning that is made possible because of phones but it is not always just us with our thumbs staring at this teeny tiny screen, but it’s also how it allows us to take pictures of things that we find so that we are actually connecting whatever we’re talking about in class to something that we are seeing in a completely different context. And if we think about the application that we make possible, how much more powerful is that learning that we’re able to take it from our environment, and then find some way to share it with our classmates, such as a shared messaging platform or a shared folder where people can put their pictures, I’ve heard really amazing examples, especially in like biology and STEM fields, where instructors are using, whether it’s something like social media or just a shared photo folder, where both the instructors are sharing photos and asking their students to identify them, sometimes on a daily basis, where also students are actively collecting samples via photos. And then they are working as a class together to label the genus or species of whatever leaf, plant, or whatever that they have identified. So I think that answer was a little bit mobile in and of itself, it might have kept going, but I think it provides some examples.

John: In the title of your book, you use mobile mindful, rather than mobile learning. Why is that distinction important?

Christina: Even stepping back to when I was thinking of mobile learning directly, I was really wanting to use my phone more productively so less mindlessly, because I was noticing I was just going to my phone to pass the time. And I was doing things I wasn’t even interested in or was consciously thinking of. So I began thinking, “Okay, how can I redirect this habit into something that is more intentional?” So that’s one reason for the use of the word mobile mindful is this idea of intention, and using our phones for the things we actually want to do rather than just for this pure distraction. But I also use the word mindful with it as a hopefully less intimidating and less techie sounding approach to it. So when I think of mobile mindful, I think of something that’s mobile aware, or mobile-ish, or it’s an adding a piece to our already existing rich ecology for learning that we create in our classroom. And just adding this as like an extra tool, an extra really powerful way to connect all of these pieces together and help our students learn more often and think about the content more often. So it’s a mindful approach to mobile learning, but also like, let’s start with mobile aware before we like go diving into mobile learning. So I contrast it with mobile first learning, which some people are doing amazing work on, which is putting in the constraint and challenge of let’s try to create a whole learning environment that can take place on a phone. That is not the approach that I take in this book. I think it’s productive for most college and university instructors to first start with, “Well, how can this be one piece and one delightful added element to all of the good work that we’re already doing?”

Rebecca: I’m curious in your role as an instructor and in a teaching center and your interactions with students, what are some of the most interesting ways you’ve seen that students have just adapted to using their phones to help with learning?

Christina: Well, I’ll answer the question, but I’ll also add something to it that I think is important for us to realize, that once we go through the learning process of being a mobile learner ourselves, there may need to be a little bit of prep work that we also do with students. Well, a lot of our students have only known the world that is mobile phone capable, it doesn’t always mean that they are ready to be mobile learners. They have definitely internalized messages that phones are bad for them, phones shouldn’t be in the classroom, even though they bring them in anyway. So there’s very much this vice type of attitude towards it. And therefore they haven’t had always a lot of opportunities to use their phones as these powerful learning devices. So I would add sort of the caveat of “Yes, students are doing amazing things and can do amazing things, but they may need to be guided into it a little bit just as much as we do.” So with that being said, I would say that some of the exciting things that students are doing and going back to QR codes, I really liked the example of audio essays that were taken to specific places. And again, QR codes have become so much easier to both use and create. You can basically create them from any browser. The QR codes in my book are purposely created for free by right clicking on any website and there’s a drop down option that says create a QR code. You can create fancier logo specific ones, but I decided to just use the default one as sort of a demonstration of the fact that they are really easy to create, and that’s how I went about it. So I think even just adding an element to maybe research presentations or things for a specific audience where you say, “Okay, how could you use a QR code to direct people to a different learning element?” And so it might be directing them to a piece of audio where you’re explaining something that is in a very specific environment. So again, thinking about learning being mobile is you are creating learning experiences that take place in very specific locations, or could take them to a form that they fill out or a petition or something like that. So I think it creates a lot of convenience and thinking about your audience and makes it a little bit more creative. And then the one other really interesting use that I cover, and I talk about the ethics of mobile phone use and inviting students to use their mobile phones. That’s actually a really good opportunity to get students to think more critically about the data being collected on them. So some faculty have done really interesting work in places like statistics, or other data analysis type of classes, and students have been invited to download the data that is collected about them on social media or on Pokemon Go, especially those that are mobile dependent, like especially Pokemon Go. It not only teaches the students a really useful content skill and applies it, but it helps them be a little bit more critical about what is actually going on behind the scenes when they don’t actively take a role in limiting data sharing about what they’re doing and where they are. So I think that type of application of getting students to think and actually dig into their own data is a really good example of what I think faculty could start to find as really exciting about mobile-mindful teaching, as they start to see that there is a lot they can have students do that really isn’t as possible in other ways.

John: You mentioned QR codes. When they first came out, they were really useful tools, but you had to dig up a specific application to scan them. Once smartphone manufacturers allowed the cameras to directly read and respond to QR codes, it became such a game changer in terms of their use. I don’t think I’ve given any presentations, either in class or at a conference in the last three or four years, except during the time when all instruction was remote, and then I was more likely to drop URLs in the chat. And it just opened up so many great possibilities for sharing resources with students, with colleagues, and so forth. I’m still amazed at the number of faculty who don’t know how to use QR codes. And I was really glad to see you had a discussion of that in the book in terms of how instructors could use those within their classes. You mentioned a little bit about the use of QR codes, but how might instructors use that in their class?

Christina: Yeah, so and just as a funny note, back to the audience, my mother is reading my book, and I asked if she’s tried any of the QR codes yet. And she said, “What’s a QR code?” [LAUGHTER] And I said, “Oh, maybe you haven’t gotten that far in the book yet.” But then I was explaining it to her. And she’s like, “Oh, it’s what’s been on all of the restaurant menus.” I was like, “Yep, those are the ones.” So I also think of like, you don’t know what a QR code is and you’ve seen it, but you haven’t connected the dots. I’m hoping that this book will connect a lot of the dots. So I will give a couple of really useful examples of an instructor intentionally using QR codes. So, I think in the spirit of Universal Design for Learning, it can be really nice to add QR codes to print handouts, because I think sometimes students do like to have print handouts because it helps them resist some of the distraction that comes with phones. They like having something tactile, but by putting a QR code on them, if they would rather consult something on a phone and take digital notes, they immediately have that option. So I think that’s something that’s fairly easy that can be done if you use print handouts, but want to be conscious of people potentially using mobile phones, or directing people intentionally to other websites by using their phones. My other favorite, which I think is also useful in other contexts, is when you want to get quick feedback from your audience, such as students, displaying a really big QR code on a projector. And then even in a really large class, they can pretty easily scan it and then they can give you some really useful feedback that you have in a digital form that can be automatically analyzed or you can quickly go through it. So I think of some of the really classic active learning strategies that we may be familiar with such as exit tickets, what you want to know from students at the end of class. It might be the muddiest point, where you want to know what students are still confused on, or one-minute papers, where you want a really quick reflection about what they’ve learned in the class. So by displaying that QR code, students can take the form there, and then you quickly have all the data. Inversely, you can also do this at the beginning of a class, if you want to ask students, either three review questions, or you want to ask them three questions that are just going to prime the pump of whatever you’re about to discuss to sort of see what they know before you’ve even covered it. While I didn’t do it with the QR code, this was one of my favorite mobile learning activities that I tried the last time that I teach. Because it was an asynchronous online course, I wanted to get a sense of students feeling like I am responding to what they’re learning and thinking. So I would start the week with a really short form and say, “This will take you five minutes, I just want to know what has your experience been doing primary research? Do you know the difference between primary and secondary research?” And then I could address that feedback directly into my instructional video. So it would create that sense of presence, even though it was an asynchronous course. And by telling them it would take them five minutes, they did it right away. So like, that’s kind of the magic of micro learning, which is, I think, one of the superpowers of mobile-mindful learning is if you can break things down into smaller chunks, students will do it. And that’s kind of the interesting course design pedagogical challenges, to figure out how to get things into smaller pieces.

Rebecca: I think one of the things that we often assume is that the students who are using their phones for learning or to complete work are more traditional aged college students. But from my experience, [LAUGHTER] it’s often adult learners who are using their phones the most, because they’re often double timing as your example in the van [LAUGHTER], or at soccer practice or during swim lessons and trying to complete a module or reading the captions on a video, or [LAUGHTER] any number of other things, getting a start on a paper or trying to edit or providing feedback to peers or something. So they’re taking it with them, and often maybe in an environment where there’s other things going on, but trying to make progress on something in the little snippets of time, those small chunks of time that might be available.

Christina: And that’s what I think is useful about thinking of this fluid learning environment is, of course, we don’t always want to be learning in that context. We want our students to think deeply, we want them to have time to really mull over ideas and work in larger chunks of time. But what I’ve come to realize is that there really is quality learning that can happen in those snippets of time, mostly by frequency. Because I think a lot of times with the way activities and courses are set up is that the students are cramming right before class, the last possible minute, to do everything they were supposed to do over the last week. And we know from experience that this does not produce quality work. And it doesn’t bring into our class, a really curious thinker who’s really been mulling over these ideas. So I think if we reframe this sort of micro learning as “How would your students think differently, if they thought about your course content four times a day, even if it was in really small snippets?” They would probably be a lot more prepared and have more interesting things to say once they do sit down with that hour to work on things. So even if we sort of dread and don’t love the idea of our students doing things while waiting in line for five minutes, or being in a waiting room for 10 minutes, I think reframing it as like this is a piece that will contribute to a longer work period. I think that’s a lot more inspiring.

Rebecca: You know, from my own experience, I get more reading done, because sometimes I have my device read to me and I can do that in the car or in other places… maybe not good for research kind of reading but good if I’m trying to get background knowledge on something or keep up with something that’s current.

Christina: Rebecca, you’re narrating and describing exactly the types of things that I want readers to notice about themselves, about how they learn, because I think we normally don’t notice these things. We just sort of do them because we’re trying to just do what we can. And what we want to get students to notice about their own learning emotion as well.

Rebecca: I mean, I’m a designer who designs for mobile devices, so I’m already sold. [LAUGHTER] But I think it’s important that we recognize how often people are using their devices already, and all the ways that we could use them that we don’t always know that we can. My students are often really surprised when I show them some of the features that are available to them on their phone that make their lives easier.

Christina: Yes. Exactly. And that’s why we have to take students along with us and pointing things out like, “Oh, do you know how to do this? Do you know that the learning management system has an app? Do you know that it will give you push notifications when I message you, so you don’t have to worry about catching up on my emails as much?” I think those little nudges like, “Oh, did you know or how do you keep notes on a phone?” I think those types of nudges and getting them in the right direction will help in your class and throughout their whole lives.

John: And you mentioned that you got started on this through a UDL approach. And smartphones enable a lot of assignments that can be done in multiple modes. Could you talk to us a little bit about how instructors might use that to give students multiple ways of demonstrating their learning?

Christina: Yeah, this reminds me of a course activity that I propose in the book. And it’s called “untethering the research presentation,” because I predominantly teach writing and rhetoric to first-year students, they’re required courses. So I think students are really used to doing slide presentations for their classes. And I think they do that because we’re comfortable with them and so it just becomes this routine thing that doesn’t have a lot of love and spirit behind them. So I think this idea of untethering the research presentation is like, let’s think of this in a little bit of a different way. If we’re not using slides, what else can you do? Is it a really engaging discussion without technology? Is it a video? Is it coming up with a social media campaign. And what I like about that idea is not only is it a more creative and authentic way to put whatever they’ve been researching into action with a real audience, but it gets them to think in a different way about how that information lives. So I think mobile learning can be a really important part of this, especially if students are thinking about who their audience is. They may determine that their audience is going to best be reached on a mobile device. So if they’re doing a video, and they determine that their audience is most likely going to look at this on a phone, how are they going to design that video accordingly? If it’s on social media, then doing something in portrait might be the best because it scrolls through better that way. So I think prompting our students to also be, depending on their field, be prepared to be mobile practitioners and how they can reach a mobile audience. Another example I use is if you are a math educator, we hear about the new math and reaching out to parents about how to guide them through that. How many of your parents are likely going to maybe be smartphone dependent, meaning that the only reliable internet they have at home is on a phone? So how are they going to use that sitting next to their child helping them with math? So I think by posing those types of ways of presenting information for a specific audience, is a good example of both inviting students to express their learning in a way that they are comfortable with and excited about and speaks to their strengths, but also getting them to think about the audience for the work that they’re doing too, and how to demonstrate that learning to an audience in a way that is relatable and accessible to them.

Rebecca: So one of the things that got me really curious about how students are using mobile devices is actually, how they might even engage in the learning management system. So we talked a little bit about having an app, but also sometimes there’s a web version that’s made responsively, and also exists on the mobile device. And what I’ve discovered often is that those are sometimes different, or the way you even get to information material is different. So that’s always something that I start talking to my students about is like, “Okay, if you’re using the app, you can do this one thing, if you use the website, you can use this other thing.” I’m mentioning this, in part, because the way that students are engaging with their materials sometimes is really different if they’re in the app of a learning management system versus the website version of it. We might have micro lessons or small activities that we’re doing on our devices, like videos and things and those experiences might be really different. I’m curious about the ways that we can help faculty become more aware of the different ways our students are using their learning management systems, even on our mobile devices.

Christina: Yeah, so that’s great. And I’m glad we’re bringing it up. I highly encourage us to regularly take mobile test drives through our materials. I think it’s a really good place to start. So pull up your syllabus on a phone, what does it look like? How easy is it to navigate how when you open up links that are there? How many clicks does it take or how many taps if we’re thinking mobile mindful? How many taps does it take for them to get to the content that they want to get to? So I think actually going through the tactile experience of going through your course materials on a phone is really insightful, because I actually hope that you’ll find things work a lot better than you expect, because I think mobile accessibility has gotten a lot better. And I think sometimes we might still be thinking in like a 2004, even 2012, realm of like, where everything just looked terrible on the phone. I think we might be surprised when we actually go through that things scale, and are more responsive than we expect. So I think that that’s a great place to start. If you use the learning management system at your institution, and you’ve never looked into whether they have an app, you can do that. Download it. You might discover things, like I mentioned sort of offhand earlier, that there are push notifications whenever you use the announcements forum, or whatever it’s called in your learning management system. So students get that right away, rather than hoping that they get into their email. So you may discover that there are certain surveys that work okay, but if you maybe used a slightly different tool, or you broke up the question in a different way, it might be even more responsive. And that might make you think, “Okay, if I actually just break this one 30-question quiz into three 10-question quizzes and open up that access so that they can take it as many times as they want, and then I tell them in class, I want you to do these, you can do them on your phone, it’ll probably only take you 10 minutes a day, I mean, then you start to think of how much they’re practicing and reviewing the material so that they don’t even have to think about it anymore, they can get right into the more complex thinking. I think even that test drive mentality of like, “Okay, let’s see how it looks,” then I can sort of guide students on what I think works well on a mobile phone and what I think doesn’t work well on a mobile phone. And then even, and this is what I was doing throughout the book, is taking screenshots that I wanted to save and show in class, okay, this is how it looks. It really helps reinforce that for students, and then going through your course texts, trying to identify what works well, on a mobile device, tell students to do that. You might also feel free to say: “This one text, it really doesn’t respond on mobile well, that’s something I would say to do on your computer, to do offline.” I think talking students through those options really gives them a lot more agency, because I think a lot of our impulse is to say, “Don’t use your phone for the course, it’s not designed that way.” But they are, for different reasons. Sometimes, they’re just going to do it that way. So if instead we can say, “Well, the discussion forums work well if you do a video post, but otherwise, if you need to cite things it might not.” So by giving them an action and plan, rather than just saying, “Don’t do it,” I think that’s gonna get us a lot farther. And I know that in doing this test drive and thinking about how we can leverage those five and ten minutes, it actually got me really excited to think about quiz design, how I get feedback from students, and even how I design my instructional videos. In the UDL mindset, I started to record my videos the same, but I would just pass them on to YouTube as well, instead of just in the learning management system, and then I would have a link that says access on YouTube. And then I would make that into a playlist. It’s not really any extra work, it’s just organizing them into one list. And then it gives students the opportunity to just keep playing through, which we probably know, as mobile consumers ourselves, is that it’s easy to get us to buy in, if it’s only a three-minute video. But then we’re like, “Okay, let’s just do one more three-minute video. And then we’ve been watching videos for a half hour very easily. So if we can use that capability for good, [LAUGHTER] I think that can be something exciting for us.

Rebecca: Christina, did you just suggest designing a learning rabbit hole? [LAUGHTER]

Christina: I sure did.[LAUGHTER]

John: We gave a workshop recently where we encouraged people if they were using videos in their class to do the embed, rather than sending students to YouTube, because that rabbit hole could often take them in directions away from the course. But if you’re directing them to a playlist with a whole series of videos, then having that rabbit hole could be very useful.

Rebecca: That’s downright sneaky.

Christina: Yeah, but let’s use the sneakiness for good. But, doing the test drive, we can also recognize where things are distracting if we tried to take them to a mobile device. And we might just be transparent about that, and for that reason, suggest that they don’t go in that direction. So it’s why it’s this mindful approach. It’s just being aware of what works well and what doesn’t, and giving our students some direction accordingly.

Rebecca: Sometimes that test drive can reveal even little details like should this open in the same window or a different window?

Christina: Mm hmm.

Rebecca: Because some tools are fine on a desktop, but as soon as you try to do it on the mobile device inside of the learning management system, it’s a nightmare.

Christina: I think that’s actually a really good example of how I think going through this thought process will reduce friction, and overall just improve the teaching design in general, because we found that with online teaching, too, is that when people began teaching online overall…I mean, as long as they did it, right, of course, and took a good approach… it actually often increased the quality of their in-person or on-ground learning as well, because it was just a different way of thinking about it. And it helped you see where there were barriers that you could take away. So I think that’s a good example of, it just helps you pay attention to the learning experience in a different way that could give you really good insight overall.

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

Christina: Well, first is, a little bit of a break. [LAUGHTER] I definitely want to talk about the book, and I will be, but I’m taking just a little bit of a pause. But during this pause, I’m actually putting together content for a blog to kind of be the “what’s next” of the book, because the book is an invitation and it’s a framework for us to get started with mobile learning. But from there, I know that there are people doing brilliant things with mobile learning, or they’re going to have lots of light bulbs that go off because of this book. So I want to continue the conversation. I didn’t want it to end with the book. So I plan on contributing content myself, but also inviting people to share their mobile learning strategies, victories, challenges, stories. So I may provide my email address so that people can feel free to contact me if they would like to contribute something. I’m gathering up goodies so that I can start to share them out into the world. And then I also want to work with faculty to research how the application of these strategies are going, because I’d like to see the evidence and put them out in more formalized ways so that we can really build and make this a practice that is more common, more accepted and really is convincing that it is what students need and provide guidance on how to do it well.

Rebecca: Well, thank you so much for the book and really thinking about introductory audience.

Christina: Thanks a lot. This was great.

John: I really enjoyed reading the book and I’m really happy we can share this with our listeners.


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

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


284. Learning That Matters

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

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

Show Notes

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


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


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

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

John: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer…

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


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

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

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

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

John: Julia?

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

Rebecca: …there’s always one ,Julia.

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

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

John: I haven’t seen that one.

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

John: And Caralyn?

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

John: Wonderful.

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

John: And I have Darjeeling tea today.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cynthia: Absolutely.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rebecca: Those are all really good points.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rebecca: It would be a lot easier.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Caralyn: Thank you.

JULIA: Thank you.

Karynne: Thank you


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

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


283. Neurodiverse Hiring Initiative

Neurodiverse students often struggle to get co-ops, internships, and their first job because they face significant social barriers during the process of securing such opportunities. In this episode, Kendra Evans joins us to discuss a program at the Rochester Institute of Technology that helps this population of students build the skills needed to navigate the hidden rules of interviewing and supports them through their internship experiences.

Kendra is the Coordinator of the Neurodiverse Hiring Initiative (or NHI) at the Rochester Institute of Technology [RIT]. NHI facilitates myriad programs that build the confidence and job readiness skills of autistic job seekers, provides guidance and support to employers, and creates unique opportunities connecting hiring managers with RIT’s highly-skilled neurodiverse applicant pool. Kendra is pursuing her MBA to better make the business case for neurodiverse affirming workplaces.

Show Notes


John: Neurodiverse students often struggle to get co-ops, internships, and their first job because they face significant social barriers during the process of securing such opportunities. In this episode, we discuss a program that helps this population of students build the skills needed to navigate the hidden rules of interviewing and supports them through their internship experiences.


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

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

John: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer…

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


John: Our guest today is Kendra Evans. Kendra is the Coordinator of the Neurodiverse Hiring Initiative (or NHI) at the Rochester Institute of Technology [RIT]. NHI facilitates myriad programs that build the confidence and job readiness skills of autistic job seekers, provides guidance and support to employers, and creates unique opportunities connecting hiring managers with RIT’s highly-skilled neurodiverse applicant pool. Kendra is pursuing her MBA to better make the business case for neurodiverse affirming workplaces. Outside of RIT, Kendra is a community organizer and serves on various boards. She has three teenage children and a springer doodle puppy, loves her Peloton and logic puzzles, and her last meal would be a soft pretzel and an IPA at a ballpark, preferably Wrigley Field. Welcome Kendra.

Kendra: Thank you for having me.

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

Kendra: I am drinking some tea. I was going to Ted Lasso you and saying I’m really more of a coffee gal. But for the occasion, I’m having a little Earl Grey here in the afternoon.

John: Many of our guests do drink coffee or Diet Coke or water.

Rebecca: I did have a silent share. I don’t know if you saw but I was cheering for the tea. I’m so excited that you had tea. [LAUGHTER]

John: And I have Prince of Wales tea today.

Rebecca: And John and I are on the same page because… this is very unusual… but I have the same tea as John.

Kendra: Well…

John: I think that’s the first time in over 280 podcasts.

Rebecca: We chose them independently, and then realized we had chosen the same.

John: We’ve invited you here today to discuss the Neurodiverse Hiring initiative at RIT. First, though, could you tell us a little bit about yourself and your path to becoming a coordinator of this program?

Kendra: Sure. I actually started my career as an elementary school teacher and started off very early, realizing that my training, my master’s degree in education, didn’t actually prepare me for the students in my classroom. And so I went on to get a number of different certifications for the teaching of reading to dyslexic students, for a Lindamood-Bell training for processing disorders. And the more I broadened my skill set for working with learning differences, the more and more I kept coming in contact, and was being referred to work with students on the autism spectrum, mostly because of my passion for executive functioning, and how to basically improve those skills in everyone. And so I started as an elementary school teacher, I did that for a few years, became a learning specialist. Then when we relocated to Rochester, I opened my own small business. And while I was working in my brick and mortar social learning environment, RIT found me, my supervisor, Laurie Ackles, and the rest is history. So that’s where I came from. And then of course, I can tell you about the program itself. But that’s my trajectory was basically I’ve taught students pre-K now through higher ed.

Rebecca: You’ve hinted a little bit at your passion towards this work. Can you tell us a little bit about the origin of the initiative?

Kendra: Sure, well RIT started helping students transition from high school to college back in 2008. And one of the reasons that many students choose the Rochester Institute of Technology is because of the career and cooperative placement, we have a very robust, it’s like an apprenticeship program. In order to get your degree and most of our majors, it’s required that you have onsite experiential learning. And after my team had really moved forward in helping students with their social and their self advocacy and executive functioning, and all of the things needed to succeed for the academics in college, we realized that many of our students, even though they had come to RIT for this job experience, were unable to get their foot in the door. And therefore, when you can’t get your co-op that’s required, even though you’ve successfully completed all of the other content area requirements, they weren’t graduating. So this became the next barrier to employment and purpose and belonging in that meaningful adult life that we’re hoping all of our students succeed at. And so, thankfully, we have a gift funded initiative, thanks to the many parents that are very supportive of the work that we’ve done over the years. And so in 2018, we received this gift and pretty much were given carte blanche in order to do the work as we saw what our students needed and what employers were looking for. And in 2018, we started getting our students those first co-ops by partnering with employers and working on job training, and it’s gone from there.

Rebecca: Can you talk a little bit about some of the barriers that you indicated that the students were having or facing trying to get their foot in the door for those co-op experiences?

Kendra: Sure. Well, interviewing is still a dominantly social process, right? We have to pick up on cues. We have to modulate our voice, we have to code switch, we have to dress appropriately. There’s all kinds of unspoken rules that our students are not prepared for. Even though they have the same hard skill set from RIT that their peers have, the social barriers were just really great. And so that’s one of the main difficulties with our students. Also, job descriptions can be a barrier for my students as well, because if employers are not distinguishing between “must-have” skills and “nice-to-have” skills, my students will often not apply to something if their exact major isn’t listed, if they’re like, “Oh, I’ve only had one course in C++, I haven’t had two, maybe that’s not enough.” Those were things that were keeping my students from even applying. There’s also things on the employer side that in addition to the way we’re looking to interview, when we’re looking for a best fit, that concept of best fit in the social aspect of the interviewer can inadvertently exclude this highly skilled talent pool simply because they don’t necessarily give you a warm and fuzzy, let’s say, or they don’t answer a question in an expected way. And so I often make the business case for: “Are you looking for expected? Aren’t you looking to get a job done and bring innovation, let’s talk about what is unique about my students, what they’re bringing that you already want, and what’s going to be different, that’s going to set your company apart.” And so those are some of the barriers in how I work with employers and with students to make that match and just make sure that we’re all speaking the same language,

John: what are some of the skills that the students you’re working with have that would be useful that are not generally recognized in an interview,

Kendra: There are so many. My students are passionate intellectual problem solvers. And I’m not saying that the rest of the RIT students aren’t. But that is definitely something that I will put forward. These are individuals who strive to do their best, they look at problems differently, and they’re going to stick with it. There’s a problem to solve, they’re going to follow it from beginning to end. I often say, and this is very general, but I’m neurotypical, I’m an extrovert, I’m going to spend time at work doing things not always just my work. Whereas I will tell you that my students can hyper focus on that task at hand, and they’re going to work very efficiently to get it done. So there’s just a multitude of things I could talk about, but their problem-solving skills, their stick-to-itiveness. And just their different way of approaching a problem. We don’t all want to be the same. It inhibits the creative process. And if you want to be innovative, we all know that you have to have creativity and a bunch of minds coming together.

Rebecca:So it sounds to me, based on what you’re describing is that you’re helping facilitate matching students to opportunities. Is that the role that the initiative is taking? How are the students getting the placements?

Kendra: So my role, when I describe it, it’s really three main goals. The first is to work with our students, to talk about those unspoken rules, to make them more job ready. The National Association of Colleges and Employers have identified 16 skills. So I work to let them know, “Hey, you’re actually being judged on these things. Let’s talk about them. Let’s practice and let’s teach you how to talk about your experience,” because oftentimes, they don’t realize that they have that. So I work with the job seeker. I work with the employer to implement universal design, so they’re not excluding anyone. And so actually, universal design helps all employees, not just autistic employees. And then yes, I’m the matchmaker, the bridge, the pipeline between the students and the employer. And we come up with creative ways to do that, including reverse job fairs, we partner with our career services office, we have information sessions that are low sensory and low stress, that’s a lot of what we do, is just to make sure that this is an environment that models best practice and how my student is going to be the best performer for your company. So those are the three main aspects of NHI.

John: You mentioned reverse job fairs. Could you explain what that is for people who have not heard of those before?

Kendra: So at RIT, we call it an affinity reception. And if you can picture a job fair, think back to our first jobs where you go into this large auditorium, you have 250 employers, and all the job seekers are dressed in their blazers like I happen to be today. And they go up to their 30 seconds of fame where they’ve got to give an elevator pitch, they got to wait in line, your recruiters are tired and cranky, and the sound is cacophony. It’s a lot. What we do is we bring our students and they sit at the table, we have fewer employers that are coming around which the students get to know who they are ahead of time. We prep for all of that. But then the employers circulate around the tables to our students as opposed to the reverse. And I’m also there as a facilitator to reach out to the employer: “Who are you? What is your name?” It makes the introduction. So I am frequently the matchmaker in all of these situations. And it really lowers the sensory overload, it reduces the stress factor, especially if you know who you’re going to see, you can prep for it. And you also don’t have to navigate, moving around, bumping into people, the crowds, the noise and we, even in that space, have a breakout room as well, so that students can take a break from the table, go refresh, have some water, regulate ourselves, and then come back out and do it again. So that’s kind of the theory as opposed to students coming to you, you’re coming to the job seeker.

Rebecca: We often talk about universal design for learning in a classroom setting but you were also talking about universal design in this interview setting. Can you talk a little bit about what that looks like?

Kendra: Absolutely. Just like we would translate an accommodation plan from college to career, the concept of universal design is universal, really. And so in this particular case, things that are very helpful for my autistic jobseekers, which I’ll be honest, very helpful for me, things like, “Could I please have the questions in advance so that I can prepare my best answer?” I’m not going to be surprised and therefore anxious and shut down when we’re going to have our conversation. Things like being able to disclose if I need to have a fidget under the table, and why I’m doing that, being able to talk about the lighting in the room, or like, “Where am I going to go? What can I expect? Who’s going to be there? How long is the day going to be?” …just various things like that. Those are some very small modifications to the process that universally help any job applicant feel comfortable, and therefore bring their most authentic and best self to the interview.

Rebecca: Sounds a lot better to me.

Kendra: Indeed. Ideally, we want an interview to be where we’re learning about each other, we’re learning about the job to be done, and we’re both assessing if we think this is going to be something that we want to engage in together. And the balance of power is always off in those interviews anyway, and especially for the first job out of college, or even co-ops, or before that, right? I’ve only been in college for a year and a half. And my students are already interviewing, right? They’re 20 years old, they’ve never had a job before. And now they’re going into this big data analyst co-op position. That’s a lot of stress for anyone. So anything we can do to minimize the stress and maximize the ability to share the skills that I have. And that’s another thing that companies are doing as well, is changing the interview process, so that instead of all of the questions, it’s “Alright, we’re going to bring you to campus, we’re going to give you a problem, we’re going to have you work on it with some of our other applicants in a team. And we’re going to see how you solve a problem, as opposed to how you talk about how you solve a problem.” So it really is much more skills based. Another thing that if you’re going to have not only getting the questions in advance, but breaking those questions down and making them single step, so that I don’t get lost in some huge, rambling answer is very helpful and making sure that they are less open ended and more, “What is the skill I’m trying to assess with these questions?” That’s another Universal Design tactic that helps a lot. And then one last thing that I’m seeing more and more companies use is, are platforms like HireVue, where they can record their answers. The virtual world, this way nobody has to fly to the new Microsoft campus anymore, we can do it from the comfort of our home offices and have as many recordings as we want. Again, all of us misspeak sometimes, it’s nice to have that do-over because I really am trying to showcase what I can bring to your company and my students bring a lot.

John: So it sounds as if employers are starting to recognize this and learn new skills. What role do you play in helping them learn alternative ways of interviewing?

Kendra: It really depends on the company. And we work with big anchor companies. I’ve talked about Microsoft, I’ve taught SAS, Southwest Airlines, they’re now big players in the field that are realizing that diversity, equity, and inclusion isn’t diverse enough if it doesn’t include neurodiversity. So there are some big dogs in the field that are bringing their HR programs, and they’re really working to make sure that they’re doing best practice. Companies like that will often come to me and say, “Hey, we’re doing this, who do you have for me in these fields?” And I am, in that case, mostly just a matchmaker, I help shepherd my jobseekers through the program. I check in with the recruiter: “How’s it going? Where are they in the process? Do you have any questions?” And I’m a matchmaker to make sure that that pipeline is direct, and they’re getting who they need. There are other companies, and these could be startups, these could be other big companies, but they come saying, “Hi, I’m an HR manager, I’m a data analyst, I’m someone right,” it could be anywhere in the company, that they have someone in their family in their network who’s autistic. And they realize, hey, this is something that would benefit my workplace. This is something that would benefit my person, what can we do? And so if you’re at the very beginning phase, I do a lot of nurturing with those companies talking about where can you get more information? Who are the models that you can look at. I’m here for a consult, do you want to interview some of my students, because a lot of what I do at that stage too, is destigmatizing. Autism, it is a spectrum, and so some people come in thinking that, “Oh, I’m going to do some charity work.” And that’s not at all what we’re doing. In fact, at this point, I’m doing you a favor. This is a talent pool in worker shortage. Trust me, companies really get it at this point in time.

Rebecca: You’ve match made, they’ve joined an organization for their co-op for their experience, how have you worked with companies to help that onboarding process and to make sure that they have a good experience once they’ve gotten the experience?

Kendra: One of the wonderful platforms that we partner with is an organization called Uptimize, and they do online trainings for employees, employers, and they have online training modules. I always give the disclaimer, we don’t know each other well, but I’m a highly critical person, and I hate to waste people’s time. So I don’t often send out professional development if I don’t truly believe in it. And I’ll tell you that I did these modules that were shared with us by Uptimize, and I learned things. And so one of the things that we have with them, because they have a whole suite of trainings, but we have Neurodiversity 101, and a basic module for hiring managers, for HR professionals, as well as supervisors. And so when a company is ready to take our students, I can give them unlimited licenses to share with the team, to share with the executives to share with everyone to try to build awareness, because the truth is, with the increase in diagnosis of autism, we’re all working in neurodiverse teams already, we just don’t always know it. So again, universal design is helping who you already have, and also opening up this talent pool that you’re not accessing currently. So there’s widespread benefits, and I’m giving it to you for free. If you want more, you can then go partner with Uptimize, and they’ll do all kinds of accessory training. But here’s a great introduction that we can give to our hiring managers. I often talk to them ahead of time before they take one of my students. The two main barriers once I have the job with you, would be housing, and transportation, learning how to navigate a new city, being comfortable navigating it, figuring out where you’re going to live for these 10 weeks. I remember doing that as a neurotypical, A-Type 20 year old. And so that’s hard for anyone, it’s exceptionally hard for my students. So that needs to be considered. companies aren’t really providing housing or transportation now, but if you’re going to boast about your neurodiversity hiring initiative, you at least need to have answers for me on how you’re going to direct them to these housing sites, here’s what we’re going to do, how is that going to work. And then I also just help make sure that my students are following through on all the onboarding paperwork and things from my end. And then if you’re an employer that we have a partnership with, I’m available to you. I’ll tell you that most of them don’t reach out to me during the co-ops, but I’m here. So if we need to troubleshoot, if something’s going better or worse than you expected, let me know, let’s take it to the next level. It’s about being the best supervisor you can, regardless, and I’m just an extra tool when you work with my students.

John: It’s wonderful that you have this program at RIT. But is this very common in the rest of academia?

Kendra: Well, there are about 75 to 80 programs across the country that are working in various ways at various levels, some are brand new, some have been around almost as long as we have, in order to help support students through this academic process of college. The goal of college is education, of course, and meaningful employment would be my objective at the end of college. So not all of them are handling it in the same way or have the same programming that we do. But that’s in total, there’s about 75 to 80 across the country at this moment in time, that support through the transition from high school to college. And just as I said, we started with that as well. And now we are helping transition into the workplace.

Rebecca: You mentioned early on about feeling not prepared to support the students you had when you were an elementary school teacher. And I have heard this many times, a faculty member at a college or university saying the same thing, maybe not prepared to teach [LAUGHTER] and then also not too prepared to support this particular group of students or many sets of students that are very different from one another. Can you talk a little bit about strategies that faculty might want to be aware of that could help support students like yours more effectively?

Kendra: Oh, absolutely. The more partnerships we can have with our professors and across campus, that’s one of the things when we talk about where this program is going, that’s something that is critically important, both to the academic success, and then, of course, into the workplace. So my students do very well with written communication, typically, and since most of us are using some kind of my Mycourses or online shell for information, please go ahead and upload those PowerPoint slides, please go ahead and put your notes online. Those are not crutches, if you will, those are actual accommodations that are just best practice. I let you all know that I’ve already got a master’s degree. I’m working on my business degree now. And I’m a graduate student in business. And I get that, as a neurotypical, like that’s just best practice so that I can go further than these notes. Doing those kinds of things, super important. Setting up a culture in your classroom where you can take a break if you need to, and just saying that out loud, so that it’s kind of a culture of the classroom, being aware of what could be overstimulating in your environment. In our lecture halls, it’s not as if we have a whole lot of control, but if you’re in a smaller setting, to just go ahead and look at those things. And sometimes some of us talk more than others. I talk a whole lot, we can have a neurotypical person that’s going to suck up the air in the room. That’s something that we’re used to. Giving students strategies ahead of time or if you notice that, pulling them aside, because they want to be their best selves. I’m constantly raising my hand because I love your topic. I’m very excited to please and I want to engage and if you say something, “I notice how excited you are Kendra, if you could pick just two times that you’re going to share out loud during class, and then write down everything else and email it to me, you can give it to me after class.” It’s just basic classroom management kinds of things. And it’s training our students not just to be good students, but to be good citizens, and to be good employees. And it’s how do we do that give and take that maybe some of us take for granted that we learned turn taking, and we were really good at it, and sometimes people need to be encouraged to take more turns, that would be the other end of the spectrum is that when I’m teaching my career ready bootcamp, the reason that I’m here, I usually have those two different groups. And that’s true among neurotypical people as well. So if I’m going to suck up the air, give me some strategies, so that I’m not alienating my classmates and I’m still engaging. And if I’m too afraid to talk, tell me how you want to hear from me, I can email you before class. Give strategies that show that you want them there and that teach them how to be part of the mix, regardless of whether you’re an introvert or an extrovert, or a neurotypical or neurodivergent. Those are some of the really best practices that I can say: share all of that written material, [LAUGHTER] and make sure that you’ve created a culture that just meets people where they are. And like I said, this is universal design. It doesn’t matter if you’re autistic or not. These are just best practices that help everyone. This is something I’m passionate about, and it traces back to my earliest days as a first-grade teacher. As I told you, I went through Orton-Gillingham training to teach dyslexic students because I came out with a master’s degree, and then had no idea how to teach reading. I had no idea what I was doing. That’s whole language, it’s all the stuff. And when I would come back from this very intense training that is specifically for dyslexic students, and I wanted to teach it in my private, high-end, elementary school, I had to justify why I was doing that. Well, why does my student need this particular program, and I was able to say, “Orton-Gillingham breaks language down into pieces. And if I teach this way, it’s the way that this particular subgroup requires in order to learn how to read, we’re keeping reading from them, if I don’t teach it in this one way, but for everybody else that gets it broken down, this is helping them with all of that language that you’re going to hit later on… the words that are not first-grade words, they’re going to be able to decode it, because that’s how their brain works, and I’m just giving them new pieces of the puzzle.” And so when I talk about how I’m teaching reading to first graders, or how I’m teaching job readiness to 22 year olds, it’s the same idea. It’s just: how do we help everyone? …and tailoring our design to be more inclusive, it’s just what we should all be doing.

John: Right now we’re running a reading group that focuses on Inclusive Teaching by Viji Sathy. And Kelly Hogan, and much of what you’re describing seems like the type of structure that they encourage people to use, and small group discussions and providing ways for all students to be comfortable. And we’re seeing that a lot, that there’s so many things converging in terms of things that are effective in helping people learn show up in many different approaches in terms of studies of how we learn, studies of effective teaching methods, studies of creating an inclusive environment. And pretty much all these methods benefit all students, but they particularly benefit those students who don’t do as well without the support provided. And it sounds like this is another form of inclusive teaching.

Kendra: It is. I couldn’t agree with you more. Regardless of the age, we all need to feel safe in the environment. And I’m not going to feel safe if someone’s interrupting me or talking over me. I’m not going to feel safe if I don’t feel like the teacher wants to hear what I have to say. I’m not going to feel safe. If I don’t understand the information or I have sensory overload. It doesn’t matter, we all need to feel safe first. Second, the next buzz would be belonging in higher education, and how am I connecting to my peers and connecting one on one to either my teacher or my professor? How is that working? And then you have the content that comes after all of that. So we really do have to work on our classroom management, we really do have to work on that personal relationship with our students. And then it’s the same in the workplace, we need a safe workplace where I don’t have to mask but I can be my authentic self and therefore I can bring my whole brain capacity to the job, I’m not worried about if somebody’s going to notice something about me or I’m going to feel uncomfortable or they’re going to feel uncomfortable. It translates across the lifespan of a learner.

Rebecca: And most of these things are not difficult.

Kendra: You’d asked about my relationship with either professors or with employers. And I’ll go back to the employer piece because the concept of ADA and IDEA can be scary and intimidating to human resource managers. And so when I talk about what is a reasonable accommodation for my students, most of the time, it’s me asking for a supervisor to just be a very direct and explicit supervisor. It’s things like: can they wear their noise-cancelling headphones while they’re working to kind of drown out some of this din? Are they able to work at home? Are there hybrid options that are available? Is it okay if they take their shoes off under the desk? These aren’t even things that cost the employer any money. These are just sensory regulatory issues, and then it goes into things like: Can you please set a regular weekly meeting with your employee so that my student knows when to come to you. And it goes back to that Which type of person am I? Do I ask way too many questions all the time? Or do I never ask a question and then it’s a barrier for me accomplishing the task. So if I know that I’m going to meet with Kendra every Monday, and I have to bring my list of questions that helps both sets. It also, as the employer, gives me the ability to check in on where you are and advance, because that’s the goal. Even if you’re not considered a teacher or professor anymore, that’s what a supervisor is. Our goal is to elevate our employees and help them reach the next level, at least, that’s my definition of what a supervisor does. So. I like to share that, yeah, and these things are not big cost. They’re big returns on your bottom line, is what it is. So if I can be myself at work, I’m going to work while I’m there. And that’s really what it is.

Rebecca: You talked a lot about at the beginning that the Institute started with the transition from high school to college. Can you talk about some of the things that are important to support neurodiverse students in that transition?

Kendra: Oh, definitely. So there are five pillars to the program. And the one that we’ve talked about would be career and co-op. So we’ll go ahead and move that to the side. Social is a really big piece, that sense of belonging, self advocacy, how do I ask my professor? What are the deadlines? Can I leave the room? Self advocacy and all of those areas. Wellness and health is a really big deal. And the fifth one is executive functioning, where I’ve done all of my studying. That’s what we do, is a lot of executive functioning. So those are the five pillars of the program to help them transition. And we do a lot of work. Also, just like we onboard for a job, we do special onboarding for our students as they come in and their parents. And I think that’s a really important shout out is that oftentimes the support system for all of us gets overlooked… it’s our partners in life, it’s our children, it’s our parents, it’s all of those people. And for students on the spectrum, these are parents that have had to be varsity parents for a really long time to navigate the 504s and the IEPs and all of the social learning that has to happen in K through 12. And so onboarding the parents that this is a young adult, they’ve gotten into RIT, you did this. They’re here, they got this, and we’ve got them. So to do that transition on: “here’s what to expect.” And it’s all the same things. It’s like, “Where are you going to go? Who’s your point person? How are you going to do this when a problem arises… because it’s going to… where do you go?” …and I don’t say that, because you’re autistic, I say that because I can look at both of you and say, something’s going to happen that we have to navigate. And we have to stay emotionally regulated, and we have to problem solve, and we need to know who to ask for help. These are life skills for any person. Again, it’s back to universal design. But that’s part of what SSP, our spectrum support program does, specifically for our parents and students, is a lot of that onboarding and letting them know that we’re here and you earned this, you did this, you’re going to be okay, you’re going to survive, you’re going to thrive, this is going to be great for you.

Rebecca: Can you talk a little bit more about the executive function part of the program?

Kendra: Well, I always like to talk about executive functioning. So the first thing I’m going to do is tell you my favorite executive functioning 101. I want you to picture a stop sign, S T O P, and when we’re talking about executive functioning, we’re talking about space, time, objects, and people. So if I need to function in any environment, I need to stop and think about those things. Think about an elevator, what’s the space like? How long am I going to be there? Am I supposed to talk to the person? You go through space, time objects, people, and when you transition into college, it’s a big difference, because in K through 12, a lot of that’s managed for you. And then you get sent off to college. Oh my gosh, the schedule changes, the classrooms are different. I have to get from my room to all of this. And I have to factor in travel time. How long do these long papers take? How do I chunk those assignments? So everything we do is space, time, objects, people, and I’ve been using that since I was a first-grade teacher and all the way up because you can chew on that, everybody can understand this is what I’m thinking about in this environment. And so we do a lot of visual scheduling so that you can see your “must dues.” Where are your blocks? How do you plug in the things that you need to accomplish? We do planning on here are all the assignments that are coming up. How long do you think this will take? Time management is often a hiccup for my students. Again, think about the people in your lives. Some of us are really good at some pieces of executive functioning, and some of us are not. I can tell the time down to the second most places, people think I’m a savant, but I can’t organize to save my life. I have 22 tabs open right now on my computer. I struggle with that, and I’m neurotypical and high achieving and mid career and all of those things that you’re supposed to check the boxes off. So when we’re helping our students transition from high school to college, how do you navigate those four things? And some of them you’re going to be stronger at than others. Everybody is. So what are the tools so that you can be independent and accomplish your goals here? And that’s a lot of what we do. And of course, as I told you, there are those five pillars, so when it comes to career and co-op, I have a whole other set of how we’re talking about space, time objects, people. We also talk a lot, as I said, about social and about well being. I remember being horribly homesick. I didn’t like my roommate. There’s all of those things that all of us have to navigate. And so when you don’t like your roommate, because you didn’t get that single, what do you do? How do you navigate this? When you’re lonely, what does that feel like? What are the alternatives? And then of course, if something does happen, we always plug the students into those campus resources. So how are you doing? What do you think? Let’s walk down to counseling. Let’s just walk down together right now. They know they can advocate for themselves, but they also have somebody that’s going to walk on this journey with them, and that’s really important. And it brings, I think, peace of mind, both to the student and, of course, to their families that they’re sending out of the nest for the first time.

Rebecca: I think the things that you’re talking about in terms of executive function should be an all first-year classes, [LAUGHTER] it should be built into the curriculum.

Kendra: I think every professor would thank me, if it was, [LAUGHTER] and I say that about my career ready bootcamp. I would have been so much better off, if I’d have this kind of training going into my first job. It’s universal design. If we were doing this kind of prep for everyone, I think every employer would be happier. But my students specifically need the explicit instruction on “This is what they’re looking for. When you do this behavior, this is how they feel, and this is the outcome when that happens.” You need those behavior maps in order to teach the lesson that is not coming in through osmosis. And to be fair, one of the reasons there’s such an employment divide is, autistic students and adults, they’re not getting jobs, they don’t have any work experience at all. So if you’ve never been in a work environment, how are you supposed to know how to behave in one. I remember, again, as a learning specialist in elementary school, we would go over social situations like a birthday party, any birthday party, I don’t care who it is or what age, there are certain components that you can expect so you can stay self regulated. You can know how much time it’s going to take, you’re going to know you have to bring a gift of some sort, again, space, time, objects, people and here are the classic things. It translates into adulthood and the workplace. Like you need to know how do you code switch? What does that even mean in this new environment? And you can show how you’ve mastered it through your lifespan and here’s just the next frontier. We spend a lot of time doing this, and I will just say, in terms of our program, I’m excited that we have this funding, I’m excited to be able to do this at RIT and for that kind of buy in. In this last year, we used to offer career ready bootcamp, just once per year. I was able, being full time and with the buy in now, we offer it three times, which means if the average incoming population that works with SSP is about 30 students and I was able to get 24 students through the career ready boot camp in this first year. So that’s something that they’re all going to get to take. And so now that we’ve got this model that’s working really well and is self sustainable and that we hope we can take to other colleges to do this. We’re working on different ways to support the student across their learning journey at RIT. And so we’re doing some alternative, like a spring break trip, I’m actually taking a cohort of eight students to New York City in March so that we can go visit four different employer sites. And we’re gonna go over beforehand the T chart of what do you see? And what do you hear? And in these specific categories. Is it an open space, is everybody in a cubicle? Are they talking to one another? Or are they working by themselves in headphones? What is the culture that you observe? How are people talking with a list of, like, what are you looking for? Be a social detective, so that we can then come back and debrief and I’m intentionally going to very different environments, so that they probably haven’t been in a work environment before. And we’re going to some really big ones, and to be able to say for themselves, “Oh, I can do this.” I know what to expect. And not only can I do this, I know what I prefer, and I know why I prefer it. So again, it helps that self advocacy, it helps to be your authentic self. And these are employers that all have neurodiverse programs and want my students. And I have to tell you that that is the most rewarding part of teaching career ready boot camp is when I have SAS come to talk or Southwest Airlines and I get to set the stage with students of “You are wanted. I know you’ve spent your lives feeling other. No, no, they’re here early for you. It is August, they have not posted these jobs yet. They are here to get a front-row seat to my RIT talent.” And you can just see them, they just sit up so much straighter. And in all of the post career ready boot camp survey, that’s what they say… it was just I never thought that people were going to want me… never thought… or it felt so good to have someone come here. And they do, I mean these employers give a 45-minute presentation of how we are thinking about you and your needs and here’s how it’s really great. Oh, and here’s somebody that did it. Like Southwest Airlines started their program last summer and had one of my RIT students and brought her back to career ready boot camp… and to hear her share her experience and what it was like and the students were able to ask like, “What’s your one piece of advice? What do you think you did the best in the interview? What do you think you did the worst?” And this is my best piece of advice that I really want everybody to hear going into this interview. They want to know how you solve a problem. Just like in life. I just want to know that you’re listening to me and that you’re going to try,. I want to know your initiative and your problem solving and so the student comes back. And she says, “I got this question and I didn’t know the answer, and I started to panic. What I did is I took a deep breath and I looked down at my notepad, because we always say, have reasons, have ways to distract yourself. I looked down, and I composed myself, and I looked back up, and I said, ‘I honestly don’t know. But I’ve solved other problems. Here’s how I would approach that.’” And she went into what she would do next. She’s like, “I think that’s what got me the job.” Because again, it’s how do I solve some them? Am I going to give up? Am I going to whine? Am I going to complain? Or am I just going to get to work, because again, these are co-op positions. And then I talk about what a co-op is: “Think of it as a class. This is like the lab to your bio class. This is you getting out and putting those skills to work.”

Rebecca: This sounds like a really great program. We always wrap up our sessions by asking: “What’s next?”

Kendra: I love “what’s next?” I don’t know if you’re West Wing fans, but “what’s next?” is what’s asked by the President every time he’s ready to push the agenda forward. And so that is actually how I kind of live my life is “What’s next?” As I told you, we’ve expanded career ready bootcamp, we’re now doing alternative spring travel. And we’ll do winter term travel with our students to give these opportunities. What I’m most excited about, we’re always looking to increase the impact on our students, we’re always looking to increase the reach to the community, and how do we train the trainer. So that’s a big goal is to be able to take this career ready bootcamp to other universities and show them how they can make it their own and help their students. I’m also working with a lot of partnerships on campus, because that’s where creativity happens, because we were talking, it’s all cross disciplinary. And so we have a program called RIT certified that works with online options. And so this will reach not only within RIT, but wider. And so we’re going to have modules for managers. So if you’re taking an HR class, if you’re taking this managerial certificate, you’re going to get best practices and universal design, so that we can do the reach further. I’m also going to work with our business school to be able to have internship programs, leadership certificates, things like that. So that it’s not just helping the autistic student or the already employed, but we’re planting the seeds so that as each of these people go out into their various networks, it’s a wider spread awareness and knowledge. And so I think those are the main ways that we’re looking to take care of impact is cross collaboration and expanding the model.

John: You’re doing some wonderful work. And I hope we’ll see more campuses and more programs like this, because individuals who are autistic often have trouble finding those first jobs where they’re successful. And we’re wasting a lot of resources that can bring some real strengths to organizations and to businesses out there.

Kendra: That’s true. But as I said before, these are business solutions. This is an untapped talent pool that really the sky’s the limit here. In all spaces, we need to make a bigger table. We need to make room for everyone and make sure we all have a place. So that’s what we’re doing.

Rebecca: Well, I know that we’ll look forward to getting some updates maybe from you in the future about this program and the next things that you have planned.

Kendra: I would love that and maybe you can recommend some tea alternatives for me. [LAUGHTER]


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

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


281. The New Science of Learning

Students who enter college without a preparation in effective learning strategies often do not persist to degree completion. In this episode, Todd Zakrajsek joins us to discuss what incoming students should know to successfully navigate the college experience.

Todd is an Associate Research Professor and Associate Director of a Faculty Development Fellowship at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He is also the Director of 4 Lilly Conferences On Evidence-Based Teaching and Learning. Todd is the author of many superb books. His most recent book is the 3rd edition of The New Science of Learning: How to Learn in Harmony With Your Brain.

Show Notes


John: Students who enter college without a preparation in effective learning strategies often do not persist to degree completion. In this episode, we discuss what incoming students should know to successfully navigate the college experience.


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

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

John: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer…

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


John: Our guest today is Todd Zakrajsek. Todd is an Associate Research Professor and Associate Director of a Faculty Development Fellowship at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He is also the Director of 4 Lilly Conferences On Evidence-Based Teaching and Learning. Todd is the author of many superb books. His most recent book is the 3rd edition of The New Science of Learning: How to Learn in Harmony With Your Brain. Welcome back, Todd.

Todd: Well, thank you so much. I’m looking forward to our conversation today.

Rebecca: Today’s teas are:… Todd, I hear you have a surprise for us.

Todd: Yeah, actually, I’ve got a bag of mystery tea. There’s just a whole bunch of different teas in here and they’re little packets. So live in an air we shall open up one of the packets.

Rebecca: So, would you like a drumroll? [LAUGHTER]

Todd: There we go. And now I am going to be having crystal clarity oolong tea to find a peaceful state of mind. Nice.

Rebecca: Sounds like a good state of mind to be in.

John: So it’s a fermented tea.

Todd: Apparently it is.

John: Where’s that from?

Todd: This is from Portland, Oregon.

John: Excellent. And I have a blueberry green tea from the Republic of Tea.

Rebecca: And John, just because you were asking about it last time we recorded, I have my last cup of Hunan jig, just for you.

John: Very good.

Rebecca: I do not know why it’s called Hunan jig. [LAUGHTER] It’s tasty.

John: We’ve invited you here today to discuss the third edition of The New Science of Learning.

Rebecca: Can you give us a little overview of the book?

Todd: So the book is essentially a guide to help faculty and students to understand the learning process, but also just the whole college experience. Now, this is not a book that’s like tips on how to study, specifically, it’s more of a global looking at teaching and learning. It does have tips in there too, and actually each chapter has a couple, but that’s not the foundation of what I’m really after. For instance, the first chapter is about learning from multiple perspectives. And it talks about the dangers of dichotomous thinking. Too much in our society, it’s either I like it, I don’t like it, that’s a good person, bad person, and gets away from that. And from there, there’s sections in there on setting goals and self regulation, monitoring how we interact with others in our work and self efficacy, the extent to which we believe we can succeed at something. There are whole sections on helping to understand how people learn, finding patterns, and what that does in our society, in our classes, and in our content. If we can find the patterns, we can learn a lot more easily… Bloom’s taxonomy, and it has a chapter in there on sleeping, the effects of not sleeping or how much it can help you when you do sleep and exercise. And it even has a chapter in there about how to work well in a group. So it’s essentially kind of an overall book that helps students with the learning process or the college experience.

John: The book is clearly a good resource for first-year students, that said books often have more than one audience. Did you write this book for a broader audience or was it focused primarily on first-year students?

Todd: It’s always tricky writing a book, in my mind, at least you have to have your audience in mind the whole time you’re writing, that’s the only way I can do it, and write at a level that I think connects with the audience. So certainly, first-year students and more specifically, like a first-generation college student, or a student from a marginalized group that doesn’t have a lot of experience in their family with colleges. Because if you do, it’s a very different experience than if you don’t. So this is a resource for people who don’t know the ins and outs. At the same time, there’s a lot of material in here that faculty just don’t know. And so some of the learning theories that are in here, some of the pattern recognition, some of the sleep research, the faculty don’t know. So I tried to write it so that faculty would also find it interesting. And I tried to straddle that line, but I also tried to pull in what a senior in high school might find valuable. So a junior or senior in high school could read this and get a better sense of what they were going to experience in college. So I tried to do that, and then a general resource for anybody else in terms of people in student affairs or in a student success center. So I was looking at multiple audiences started primarily with the student. But when I used examples and the level of writing, I tried to drift in and out so that I could get these other groups in such a way that they would find it valuable as well.

Rebecca: I really enjoy the personalized conversational tone, which obviously is great for students. It hooks you right in and then goes into the introduction. And so I really enjoyed that style. Can you talk a little bit more about why you chose that style and how that might help students?

Todd: For me, I just think conversation storytelling is one of the most effective ways of learning and so I like to do that. I also like to bury things just a very little bit at the beginning. So you start to read and then you realize as its unfolding… So, for instance, in the first chapter, we’re talking about the danger of dichotomous thinking. The example in the book was: it’s easy to tell night from day. If it’s noon, we know it’s day and if it’s midnight, we know it’s night. But what happens just as the sun sets? There is a moment when the day stops and the night starts and it’s the edges like that where all the richness is. And then I think there’s a line in the book that says, once we’re going through that, like the day and the night and what’s really at the edge, and it’s like, we’re not really talking about day and night here, are we? We’re talking about people. And so that kind of concept that I really like in terms of keeping it conversational, keeping it tied to things that people know. But my whole goal, and what I’m shooting for is to help people who can read science, but do it in a way that they enjoy it.

John: Much of your book focuses on how we learn. Students come in with some serious misperceptions about how we learn. When students are asked how they study, they tend to read things repeatedly, where the evidence suggests that’s not very effective. They tend to highlight quite a bit, which is also not very effective in increasing long term-recall, or transfer ability. Why aren’t students learning how to learn before they’re, say 18 or 19 years old or older? Shouldn’t some of this instruction be taking place in earlier years of education? And why isn’t this happening earlier?

Rebecca: John, did you bring your soapbox with you today? [LAUGHTER]

Todd: It’s an issue. I mean, it’s a huge issue. We spend our whole time in our educational system teaching people stuff, how to do things and what things are. But it’s crazy, we don’t teach students how to learn. We treat it as if it’s an implicit assumption that everybody just can learn and to an extent we can. When we’re young, we learn how to walk and we learn how to use utensils, and we teach kids how to tie shoes, and children learn how to ride a bike. And so I think in the general framework, there’s all this learning going on and teaching going on. And as a result, we have the implicit assumption that everybody can teach and everybody can learn. But teaching is a profession. And learning is really, really nuanced in a lot of different ways. And so what we have are a lot of implicit assumptions and trials and errors. If you think about for yourself, where did you actually learn how to learn? And for most individuals, it’s around second or third grade, because that’s when we start testing. Which by the way, if you ask young, young children: “Do you like to learn and do you like school?” they say yes to both of those, until suddenly, they start to say that they like to learn and they don’t like school. And it’s almost universally in the country around third grade. So right around third grade, we’re starting to test, but we don’t teach them how to learn at that moment. So the parents are making up flashcards and quizzing the kids and the kids are reading aloud in class. And we’re going through these actions without knowing what we’re doing. And it turns out, as you’ve already pointed out, John, very well is that a lot of these things that we have implicit assumptions about, we’re wrong, we’re just wrong. And the trouble is, we don’t have a baseline. So if we start highlighting, if I highlight the chapter in the book and I get a good grade, then obviously highlighting must work. And if I’m underlining things, and I get a decent grade, underlining must work. But how much could you have learned if you realized how to do that? Now I’ve got students who will use five different colors to highlight. When I ask them why the different colors, they’ll say, the blue is if it’s an application, and the green is for vocabulary, and the pink is something that’s like really important, and I always love to tell them when they do that. You should use black for the stuff that’s not important at all. Good times. But the idea is they’re doing that the students sometimes are doing their flashcards but the question becomes… like flashcards, when you’re going through a deck of flashcards, when you get it right, do you set it off to the side? Or do you put it back in the deck? How do you do that when you’re learning something like chemistry? How do you learn those terms? When you’re learning a periodic chart, how do you do that? And so I just firmly believe if we started teaching children how to learn at around second or third grade and just spent 1% of the time teaching the learning part and the rest of it all about content, by the time that they were done with school, they would be lifelong effective learners. And instead, we have people who believe that they have a given learning style, which we could do on a whole different show. People do have different ways in which they learn, but the concept of teaching to a given learning style has no data behind it. And highlighting, there’s studies out there that says highlighting doesn’t work and it doesn’t work primarily, however, there are ways to highlight that are effective. Re-reading is not effective, unless you reread for a specific purpose or reread in a special way. And so this stuff is going on, and, again, we’re not teaching students how to learn. So we should do that. I’ve given presentations about how to learn to everyone from high school students up through professional schools, in nursing programs, pharmacy programs, and medical schools. And the number of times that someone in a medical school… a second-year medical student… will come up and say I wish somebody had taught me this sooner. The case you’d think of is like the prototype of a student would be a med student who memorizes and learns stuff so fast. But those students who can pick up things quickly will say I wish somebody had showed me how to pick it up even faster. And so I think we should do that. Same with writing. We should teach students how to write instead of just having them write. There’s a soapbox for you. [LAUGHTER]

Rebecca: I mean, I’m on it, too. [LAUGHTER] It’s interesting that when I was thinking about your question and about like, when would I say that I started learning was actually when I started struggling.

Todd: Oh, interesting.

Rebecca: …because when it wasn’t hard, you could just skate by, but there was a moment, and it was in sixth grade, I remember, social studies, and I had a really hard time reading and reading comprehension. And then I had someone who actually had to read more effectively. And it worked immensely. But it was only because I had that intervention or that help. Because it wasn’t part of the curriculum, it wasn’t taught. that I actually overcame that. But I think a lot of our students come to learning these strategies once they’re struggling significantly to the point where they have to ask for help, rather than us being proactive about it.

Todd: Exactly. And I tell you, and it’s in the book here, too, is it’s exactly what you said was my experience. I pick stuff up very, very quickly, I could skim a book and go in and take a test and do well. And I did that through high school. When I got to college, I had five classes. My first class that I got a grade back in was like a D minus in the introduction to criminal justice class. And then I had a physics class and my first grade and that was an F. And I thought, well, what’s not going well. And then in my math class, I got an F minus. And I remember thinking, well, it can’t get any worse than this, until I got my chemistry grade and that was an F minus minus, I even went to the teacher and said “F minus minus? I don’t understand this.” And he said something like, “Given you received an F minus minus, it doesn’t surprise me you failed to comprehend it.” So, a kind of mean person too. And the concept here, and the reason I mentioned is what you just said, Rebecca, I hadn’t learned how to learn. And so at the point where I needed to know how to learn, I was in a jam. And I actually went to the registrar to get a drop slip. And she said, “Get your signatures and bring it back. I’ll take care of it.” It was a long time ago, and four of my five faculty members signed the slip. This was a very small school, this isn’t some big school where you get lost. This school only had like 200 faculty members and about 3500 students and the psych prof said, “I don’t understand what you’re doing. Why would you drop out?” This was like two months after I started. And I said, “I just can’t do it. I don’t know how to do it.” He said: “You need to learn how to learn.” I said “like you can learn how to learn.” I didn’t even know the concept existed. And so he pointed out some strategies and pointed toward a book and I learned how to learn but I was one signature away from not finishing, I wouldn’t have met you, I wouldn’t have done any of the books I’ve done all of that would have not happened for one signature, because nobody taught me how to learn.

John: And a lot of our students get those last signatures and disappear. We’re losing a lot of students once they hit that barrier, which is why it’s important we have books such as yours, and we spend more time working on teaching students how to learn.

Rebecca: And reading the book as part of our system.

Todd: That’s what we should do. If I’m doing a faculty workshop at a campus, and I say “How many of you in here came within a whisper of flunking out of school?” most faculty raise their hands. And that’s just amazing to me, those are the folks that you would think got through easy. So it’s what you just said, John, how many fabulous, wonderful people, they’re probably doing things that are fine, but they’re not doing what they wanted to do and it’s because of that.

Rebecca: Yeah, we just need to design our systems to be proactive, rather than reactive. And oftentimes, it’s not even reactive, we just miss the boat entirely.

Todd: That’s a good point. Instead of being reactive, we should be either proactive, or at least not inactive.

Rebecca: Let’s start with not inactive, yeah. [LAUGHTER]

Todd: That’s a place to start.

John: Part of the issue is that we ultimately figured it out on our own. And we assume that everyone can and we’re not a random group of the population, a very large share of faculty members were not first-generation students. A disproportionately large number of faculty members come from families where there were people with higher ed is part of their background. And it’s easy to forget what sort of struggles students may face. Even if someone may have come close at one point, they figure it was an aberration, and they forget that those aberrations can be critical points for many people.

Rebecca: And that these struggles happen across the spectrum. It’s not just our undergraduate students. As you mentioned, our graduate students have some of the same struggles. I was just having a conversation with graduate students last week about even just basic time management skills or how to troubleshoot or problem solve, because they don’t have those skills, and they need to build those skills.

Todd: Yeah. And it’s still also not equitable across different groups, individuals from marginalized groups tend to fail more frequently, because they don’t have the resources and they don’t have that support system so that when they are struggling, somebody can help them.

Rebecca: So the first edition of this book was released in 2013. How does this third edition differ from these earlier editions?

Todd: Actually, in a lot of ways. When we wrote the book in 2013, first of all, the research has changed considerably. But the book ended up also being just a hair over 100 pages. And this new version is about 250-260 pages. So it has grown substantially. There’s sections of the book that were not in the original book, or not even in the second edition. So there was a whole section on how to learn in groups. There’s a section in there on pitfalls, the places where students tend to have problems. Hidden curriculum kind of issues: what are things that they’re not specifically stated and so they’re implied in a way that if you know that they exist or you had family members who went to college you can figure it out. But if you’ve never gone to college, you didn’t know, I didn’t know when I went to college that if you failed a class, you could retake the course later. And so I thought when I failed my chemistry class that I was literally done, because if you can’t pass, then I can’t get into Chem II. If I can’t get into Chem II, I can’t go… And when I talked to my advisor, the advisor says: “Well, just take a trailer course.” And I said, “What is this thing you call a trailer course?” So those types of things are in this edition of the book. So I picked up a lot more nuances than we had before. And of course, I mentioned a little bit earlier, too, but the research has changed significantly in the last 10 years. We know a lot more now about how we learned than we did 10 years ago. And for things as subtle as what’s happening while you sleep. And so it’s getting more and more that we know actually, what kinds of learning is being solidified at different stages of sleep. So there’s always changing research, and I’m just happy to be able to get that updated research in there.

Rebecca: I love that you just slipped in something about sleep, because I was just going to ask about sleep, I was just having a conversation with a colleague today about being able to process new information when you’re tired. And that we might typically think of processing being associated with a learning disability or something. But actually, lack of sleep can cause the same kinds of symptoms, essentially. And so I can imagine that actually talking about sleep as an easy sell for students, because it’s something that everyone can easily think about, but many of them don’t get. Can you share a little bit of insight into sleep and learning?

Todd: Certainly, and this is one of those areas that we all know that it’s harder when you’re exhausted to do something than when you’re rested. But back to the dichotomous thinking, we think oftentimes in terms of I’m exhausted and I’m rested. But what about all those nuances in between. What if you normally like to get seven and a half, eight hours of sleep, and you get six and a half hours. You feel okay, but what we know now from the way people learn is that you’re still going to be learning at a less effective level. And if you’re exhausted, you get to a point very easily where you can’t learn at all. And so we know that in terms of encoding the information, you need to be able to process the information in your environment, which happens when you get sleep. So that’s important. And we know that nobody wakes up after a terrible night of sleep and says, “Whew, I feel great, I look great, and I’m learning like crazy.” We know it’s going to be a rough day. And so that fatigue makes it hard to learn. And then what we also know about sleep, which is fascinating to me is while you sleep, a lot of consolidation happens, it’s called consolidation. And if it doesn’t happen, the information is gone, typically in about 24 or 48 hours. And so what we have are students who, for instance, will study all night and they can go in and take the test. They do okay on the test, so they think this is an okay way to learn. And then they don’t realize that the material is pretty well gone in two days… three max. And then later when they need the material, if let’s just say for the comprehensive final, the instructor says “Oh, everybody, I hope you’re studying because this final is going to be tough.” Now I go to learn for the final… I flunk the final, most students don’t say “Oh, I’ll bet that’s because when I learned I didn’t get stage four sleep, which consolidated the information and therefore made it available for me to relearn it at a faster pace for the final.”No, they come back with a “Wow, that was a really hard final.” So it’s going on all the time. But sleep is probably right up there at the top of one of the things you can do to learn more effectively is to sleep well.

Rebecca: Yet, so many of our students don’t sleep. And we inevitably are probably teaching a class full of students who haven’t had a lot of sleep.[LAUGHTER]

Todd: Yeah, and it’s for the public service announcement, we got to put it out there because the sleep is important in terms of learning. But there are so many things that are tied to lack of sleep, it’s just incredible: diabetes, even cancer, weight gain, high blood pressure, all these things. There’s just tons of stuff. Your skin actually looks worse. There’s so many things that are tied to a good night of sleep. It’s when all the restorative stuff happens. So I’m going to tell you listeners, the folks who say, “Yeah, I know, I’m exhausted, I can’t get my sleep.” It’s damaging to a person to not get sleep. And when somebody says “Well, yeah, but I got so much to do,” just keep in mind that it will take a toll. And oftentimes, and this is an important one, if you get a rest or get some extra sleep, you’ll do other things so much more effectively, that you come out ahead and don’t have the health issues.

John: And this is really important to convey to students. And I do share this information with students in my classes. I don’t always practice it myself, unfortunately. But I do share the information. And when they see results on how much more they recall when they’re well rested, at least a claim it will have a bit of an effect on them in the future. But one of the things… this is more on the faculty side rather than the student side… but so many of our classes are designed in such a way so that faculty are using high-stakes exams. Students have a lot of incentive to cram the night before a test and it does have that immediate payoff of increasing their short-term recall. And then, since they’re worried about the grade, they don’t necessarily care about how much they recall until they get to their next high-stakes activity. And then they have to go through the whole process again. And maybe this is something that faculty should work on too in terms of reducing the number of high stakes activities, reducing the incentives for students to cram and to cut back on their sleep.

Todd: Yeah, I think that’s a really good point. In fact, there’s several things that we can do to impact the student’s sleep. When I mention the importance of sleep to faculty at times, they’ll say, “Well, I can’t make them sleep.” And oftentimes, my response is “No, but you can keep them up.” If you have a high-stakes exam, and it’s like a midterm and a final, it’s human behavior, people are going to wait toward the end to do it. I know, there’s some faculty out there listening who say “I do everything early.” And that’s great. But I can tell you, I’ve been on a lot of committees with my colleagues, where we turned reports in at the very last minute or somebody handed me their portion at the last minute. So it is going to happen, if we know students are going to wait toward the last minute to do it. It’s what you just said John, it’s a good point, if it’s a huge exam, it means they’re going to be up, maybe even for multiple nights. If it’s a big paper, they’re probably going to spend the night all night writing it, maybe two days and it might get a little bit of sleep, but they’re going to be tired. If you have the paper due on like Monday at noon, they’ve now got exhausted from Sunday night, they’re gonna be tired all week. If you could make your paper due on Friday afternoon at like 2:00, if they stay up all Thursday night, now they’re exhausted, but they’re exhausted going into a weekend. So a lot of little things we can do. I have a friend Howard Aldrich at UNC, he had a nine o’clock class, 9 am. He had the papers due at class time in the morning, then he and I were chatting and with Sakai, you can see what times papers are turned in. So we were looking and the students were turning in the papers, two o’clock, three o’clock in the morning, even eight o’clock in the morning. And he knew that they stayed up to do it. So he changed his deadline to 9pm with a 12-hour extension, if you asked for it. So if you can get a 12 hour extension from 9pm to 9am. What he found was 86% of his students turned in the work by 9pm. So when that happens, we can’t say they were awake. But we know that they weren’t up doing his paper in the middle of the night. And so those are the kinds of things that we can do as faculty members. And I agree in terms of the high-stakes tests, we can think through what are we doing that’s actually going to be conducive to learning versus is going to make a hindrance. And if we say “Well, it’s their own fault. They shouldn’t wait till the last minute.” Why put them in that position?

John: To be fair, though, to those faculty who do give high-stakes exams, they often spend a lot of the time just lecturing in a monotone, which can facilitate sleep on the part of students, at least during their class time, which is a large share of the time that they’re interacting with students.

Todd: That’s great. Yeah, I suppose they could… get a little nap in during class. that could work.

Rebecca: It’s all about balance. [LAUGHTER]

Todd: It is balance, isn’t it? That’s a work-sleep balance right there.

Rebecca: I had an interesting conversation with students this week about perfectionism and procrastination, which also, I think leads to sleep deprivation because of all the procrastination. And what I found in the conversation… students were being really authentic and open with me… was that they were so worried about their performance on things, even low-stakes things, like these weren’t big-stakes kinds of things, but just so worried about their performance on something that they would wait to do it. But they’d spend all this energy and time worrying about it. And so we talked about how to actually take an assignment and then plan it and break it into smaller pieces. But I talked to the students about how to break it into smaller pieces so that there were times to get help, because they were so worried about not doing it well that they could build in time to get assistance and help. So I’ll be interested to find out at the end of this week, if they were going to try this strategy this week to see if it helped them. But it had never occurred to them to break it into these smaller pieces.

Todd: Yeah, and what you just said, I think, is vital for anybody who’s listening. It’s all the stuff that never occurs to somebody. This is why individuals who go to therapists can gain so much is when a therapist had some an individual says “I never thought of it like that.” For students, let’s look at your sleep. Just jot it down on a scale of one to 10 in the morning, how did you feel about how much sleep you got? To what extent did you get a good night’s sleep, and then at the end of the day, jot down on a scale of one to 10, how’d things go. And when they start to see that bad night’s of sleep result in days that are not all that productive or work well, it’s like, “Oh, I didn’t know it was that related.” Breaking things into tasks, I think is fabulous. That’s what this book is about, too, is the concept of just showing them things and then having them be able to look at and say, “Oh, I had never thought of that.” And that’s what’s valuable. So I like what you’re doing.

John: For those who procrastinate on coming up with the set of tasks to do, again, course design could resolve that a little bit by scaffolding the project so that students never have a huge chunk of work to do all at once.

Todd: Yeah, I think that’s good. And then the other one is a whole different program is ungrading. And if we can just remove some of the grading on some of these things, and there’s faculty out there and myself included years ago who would say well, “If I don’t grade it, if there’s no grade, why would the students do it?” And it turns out, sometimes, from what you just said, if the students are so stressed about it, they spend all this extra time, you remove some of the high-stakes aspects of it, and they don’t stress about it so much. But that is a problem. And I will tell you, it’s not just the students, I was writing a blog, and I have a person I turn a blog over to McKenzie. She’s phenomenal. And she edits at the end. And I wanted to prove to her I was working on this one blog, because I told her I was going to get it and and I kept getting busy with other things. And I submitted it to her. But I planned on spending another three or four hours on it. She emailed me back, and she said, “This is so close to being done. Let me just edit it. And then you can take another look at it.” Had she not said that I would have worked another probably four hours on this thing, half a day. And I think students are doing that at times too. I think they finish an assignment. It’s good. And then they think, “but I want it to be better.” And so, just clarity and helping to understand and building some structure into the course so they’re not guessing. Take away the stuff that’s just not necessary and let them focus their energy on the things that are necessary.

Rebecca: Sometimes it means even pointing out something that’s low stakes is actually low stakes.

Todd: Yeah, I think that’s really good. Signposting. So there’s a terminology for you. Signposting is basically telling somebody what they’re doing, or what you’re doing. So if I’m giving you feedback, I could just give you feedback. And we’ve had programs where at the end of the program, the students will say, “I’m not getting enough feedback.” And so we all as faculty say, all right, anytime we give feedback, we’re going to say, “Would you mind if I give you some feedback right now? Hey, would it be alright, if I give you just a little bit of feedback? Do you have some time tomorrow for some feedback?” …and at the end of the semester, the response was too much feedback. We hadn’t changed. But it’s what you just said, just let people know what’s going on.

John: One of the nice things about your book is that it’s grounded in learning science, but it’s really easy to read. One of the things we had trouble with in coming up with questions is there’s so many things that we could discuss in this book that we thought we’d shift it back to you, what are two or three pieces of advice that you would recommend to students that might have the biggest impact on their learning?

Todd: First of all, I appreciate the fact that you found it easy to read. And I have gotten that feedback from others too. It’s called “The Science of Learning.” And I think that scares some people at times. This is not a dry book, I tried to make it conversational, and folks say it’s fairly easy to get through. And that’s good. The couple things… we’ve already talked about sleep quite a bit. Sleep is just huge if we can help talk to students to sleep. The other one you had mentioned already is the cramming. The tricky spot with cramming is not necessarily that the students want to do it, they are reinforced for it. I consider this to be one of the biggest traps in higher education. Because the research suggests that if I cram all night long, don’t sleep, study all night long, and if you sleep for six or seven hours, I may very well outscore you by two or three percentage points, just enough that I do fine, and it looks like that’s okay. And you’ve already mentioned that a couple of days later, and the information is gone. The students don’t realize… sometimes they know it’s gone later. But they don’t generally know that it’s going to go away at the extent that it does. What they know is they’ve studied, they did well on the test, and therefore they’re doing okay in the class. So, a couple things in the book, if we could help them understand how much damage comes with cramming, it would be huge. In fact, it’s in the book like five times, to the point where the editor said, “Do you know you’ve already talked about this like four times?” And I said, “Yep, with any luck, we’ll only do it once more. [LAUGHTER] But it’s that important.” So that’s a big one. The other thing that I think is really huge is if we could help students with understanding metacognition, the concept here is knowing when you know or understanding your learning process, and it’s something that we don’t monitor, but we could. When you sit down to study, jot down how long you think it’s going to take you to read the chapter, when you’re done reading the chapter, jot down how you felt it went, jot down a couple of notes of what you learned. As you’re reading, stop every couple of paragraphs and just look away from the book and think, “What am I reading right now?” Because your mind will start to wander and you not realize it. Everybody that I know has read a chapter or read an article and either the next morning didn’t remember if they had read it or not or even when they finish they thought to themselves well, I don’t remember anything about that. I was thinking about bacon the entire time. And so that concept of just knowing when you’re processing… so metacognition is big, the sleeping stuff and cramming is big, and the last thing I’d say… there are lots of things in there… but just understanding Bloom’s Taxonomy, understanding at what level you know something. I like to use this as a quick example, I’m from Michigan, you could teach your students that there are five Great Lakes. Imagine they know only this, there are five Great Lakes: Huron, Ontario, Michigan, Erie, Superior… HOMES, right? And we could say Superior is the deepest. I can come back with a quiz two days later and say which of these lakes is the biggest Ontario, Michigan Erie, or Superior? And the students could say Superior. At this moment, I don’t know for sure if the students know what a lake is. I asked them these are five things called lakes. This one’s the deepest. Later I say of these things called lakes, which is the deepest?t They’ve memorized it. If students know at that moment, they’re just functioning at the recall level, ot helps them and it’s because when they take tests they start to understand I’m doing well on recall and understanding, I’m not doing well on application. So knowing Bloom’s, knowing metacognition, understanding the sleep thing, and then exercise is huge. There’s all kinds of research out there that says, if you’re actually getting your heart rate up 15-20 minutes a day, it does all kinds of cool things for your brain and actually makes learning easier. So that’s just a couple of them.

Rebecca: So in the description of your book indicate that there’s an instructor’s manual that accompanies the text. And often this is not the case. [LAUGHTER] So can you talk a little bit about what’s included in the manual?

Todd: Yeah, so when I was writing the book, the first and second editions didn’t have this. And other books of this ilk don’t tend to have it… the first-year common reads, and the first-year experience books… but I wrote an instructor’s manual when I was early career faculty member and I wrote it for an introductory psychology book. All textbooks have instructor’s manuals now, so I thought, why should this book not be just as good as those. So when I was done, I kept right on writing. And I’ve written an instructor’s manual, which, ironically, is about as long as the first edition of this book. So what I did is for each chapter, I understand that if you’re going to use this book in your classes, you may not have time to read things very, very carefully, you might have to skim a chapter at times. So each chapter has a summary. So in the instructor’s manual, that summarizes the major concepts in the chapter, every chapter has discussion questions at the end. So I put down these are the types of things that students may very well say in the discussion questions. So that if you started discussion, you’re not stuck with a situation of asking the students to discuss, you show up in class and you think, Ummm,I’m not sure what I would say about this. So I’ve given you a couple things. There’s also teaching tips in every chapter. And for each one of the teaching tips, I’ve got a short thing of these are the kinds of things that students should experience. And on top of that, every chapter also has active learning exercises. I’m big on the active learning, So it will say in the sleep chapter, here’s like four different things you can do. And it sets it all up, it explains: here’s what you tell students to do, here’s what you have them do, here’s how you report out. And so it’s kind of a guide for active learning keyed to the book. And you can find this, if you go to the Stylus Publishing website… you’re actually not going to see it unfortunately, if you go to Amazon, because that’s not where it’s listed… you have to get to the Stylus publishing site, and then you can find it and there is no charge for it, you just let them know that you’re teaching a course and they’ll send it to you. And if you can’t find it, I’m the only Todd Zakrajsek in the world. So if you send me an email at ToddZakrajsek@gmail.com, then I will make sure that I’ll get you connected to the person with the instructor’s manual because we didn’t make it real easy to find, because we didn’t necessarily think that the students should have the instructor’s manual. [LAUGHTER] So it’s kind of buried in there a bit.

John: And we’ll include a link to your email in the show notes.

Todd: Perfect.

Rebecca: So can you share one of the examples of an active learning activity that you might do in relationship to the book?

Todd: Oh, sure. The chapter on sleep, there’s one activity that’s kind of explained there for keeping a sleep activity log for a week. And it shows how to have students block off their time and then indicate whether or not things went well, or it didn’t go well for them. And it helps them to find their ideal time. So I did this when I was an undergraduate. And it was fascinating, because I found out that between 2 and 4pm, I’m practically worthless, but early early in the morning, like it’s 6 to 8am, if I do have to get up and do something, I was just really, really good. And I don’t care for getting up early in the morning, so it was unfortunate, but that’s what I found out. Another activity, and there it’s called a snowball technique. And this particular one in the chapter on sleep was students are asked to think about things that help and hinder a good night of sleep for them. And then the snowball aspect of it is they talk to other students, and then they learn one thing that helps and one thing that hinders sleep, and after you learn from five different people, you go back and sit down, you get into a small group, and then you discuss those, and then you report out kind of overall, what are the general themes that you saw. So there are things like that in the instructor’s manual, they’re described in like a half a page. So it doesn’t take you very long to read through it and get a sense of what it looks like. And so it’s there just to help you get you rolling.

Rebecca: Sounds like it really reduces some cognitive load for faculty teaching these things.

Todd: One of the issues that is tricky that we do have to be careful of is faculty are really, really busy. And I taught one time on a quarter system, so you had three quarters, and I was on a 5-5-5 load with a total of nine new preps. So there were times that I was really struggling in running into class last minute, and then I had multiple sections and everything. And it would have been really helpful to have a 750 word that I could read in five minutes summary of the chapter, so then I could talk to the students. Because I knew the content. I just had to make sure I knew what was in there. And then for an activity sometimes drawing up an activity is not easy. If I could glance at one and get a sense of it, then I can do it. Same with the discussion questions. And so yeah, busy folks, and it’s just to help them out when they get in a bit of a jam.

John: That can be extremely helpful especially with those sorts of teaching loads, which I’ve only experienced once or twice, but it’s really challenging.

Todd: You do what you do.

Rebecca: …sounds terrifying. [LAUGHTER]

Todd: It is not easy. It’s not.

John: In the last section of the book, “A Message from Dr. Z,” you note several struggles you had in pursuing your own education. Why finish the book this way?

Todd: Well, I’m really glad you asked that. Because the last section, students oftentimes won’t read the things that are way at the end, I think the faculty are the same. And I probably have been the same too. But at the beginning of the book, I talked a little bit about some of the struggles that I had when I went to college, to almost flunking out and the fact that if one faculty member had decided to sign the form, I wouldn’t have been writing this book. And so that’s where it started. But I saved the message for the end, so there wasn’t the end of the story. And so when you go back to the “Message from Dr. Z,” that section starts with “Welcome to the end of the book,” And it’s essentially, “Let me tell you the rest of the story.” And what I did from this, there’s a great quote by E. McClellan basically says… it’s attributed to him, as there’s a lot of variations. But it boils down to everyone’s fighting a battle we know nothing about, everyone’s fighting a hard battle, it’s worded different ways. But that’s been really impactful for me, because I think if everybody knew that everybody else was fighting a battle at any given moment, then we could have a little bit more patience with individuals. But we also could say, you know, they’re getting through it, maybe I can get through it, too. So I finished the book with just a real strong narrative, in a sense that when I went through school as a first-generation college student, I almost flunked out that first semester. If you almost flunk out the first semester, just keep moving forward. And I had to work a lot of jobs, I was exhausted, but I had no money. And so I was working all the time. And so if you’re working all the time, you’re going to be tired, just keep moving forward. And I had a daughter when I was a graduate student and graduate school is already hard enough until you have a child and I almost quit graduate school because it was so hard to have a child and work in graduate school. So if that happens to you, keep going forward. And I almost ran out of money multiple times. And I would have dropped out. One time, I probably stayed in school because of $100. But I do actually know a couple of programs now, there are a couple of institutions that will give up to $500 to a student. You just show up and say, “Look, I really need $200.” And they find the students don’t abuse the system, but you don’t want someone to flunk out for $200. But in my case, at the end of this book it’s like if you’re struggling with some money, just keep that in mind. And so I just want to tell you real quickly, I don’t like to usually read these things, but just to give you the tone for the end. So I put this in there, “I leave you with the following to consider in the months ahead. Be mindful of your past, but look to the future. Listen carefully to the voices of others and find respectful ways for your own voice to be heard. Find ways to get what you worked so hard for without taking anything away from anyone else. Most importantly, always strive for more so that you have more to share. Ever forward. So that’s the tone I want to leave the students with. We’re all struggling at times and it’s not going to be easy, but if you just keep moving forward, we can make it.”

Rebecca: Speaking of moving forward. You’ve been doing a lot of writing, five books in the last five years. Are there more books coming? Are you going to take a break, like what is going on?

Todd: So I have ADHD, which means I have spent my entire life with too many things just kind of banging around in my head. So it turns out that once I started really writing, I got on a roll. I didn’t write much in my career, and it’s funny, I haven’t. And when I got rolling with some of the things, I’ve had so much fun. And so yeah, the five books in the last five years, I have another book that probably will be done in the next couple of months. And that one’s on helping new faculty to get rolling. And then I have another book that’s already signed. And that’s dealing with more with a kind of a longitudinal, how we learn and kind of walking through the learning process in a different way, which is cool. And I’ve gotta tell you, I’ve known y’all for a while there. But I’m really thinking that I need to write a book that I’m so excited about. It’s basically Dr. Z’s crazy stories, [LAUGHTER] stuff that I have kind of gone through in my life, and it’s what I’ve learned from it. So I had a student who had a grand mal seizure in my class one time, I have had all kinds of issues, lots of things have happened. And I think that there’s some stories in there that I could kind of tell because I do love telling stories. And it would help faculty, if I say, here’s how I handled this thing, and here’s what I faced. My goal would be almost the same as the end for the letters to Dr. Z for students, it’d be for faculty members of some crazy crazy stuff is gonna happen to you. And there’s ways of getting through that

Rebecca: Dr. Z’s case studies.

Todd: Yeah, that would be fun, wouldn’t it?

John: You might want to make that unreadable, though, by grad students until they’ve already started their careers, because otherwise some people might decide to back away.

Todd: No, no, no, John, they’re gonna find out that we get through with these things. And there’s also some really fun stuff that happens too, so that’s all good. You know… Alright. Maybe we don’t show it to grad students. That’s a good point. I’ve tried to defend a position. I was trying to defend an indefensible.

John: Grad students are already struggling often, so it may be best to wait until they’ve at least started.

Todd: Yeah, that’s a good point.

Rebecca: New title: Dr. Z’s survival tales. [LAUGHTER]

Todd: Oh, I’ve got to cite you on that one. [LAUGHTER] That’s good. That’s probably a better way to go with that.

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

Todd: The book I just mentioned… what’s next. And I’m actually looking forward to getting back on the road. So kind of the what’s next is because of COVID and everything I hadn’t gone and done many workshops at campuses. And I’d love to do that. I’ve been on like 300 campuses. So it’s just fun visiting places. So I do have a couple places that I’m heading to. I was just at Anchorage, Alaska and that was really fun. And you find yourself in Anchorage, Alaska, and a couple days later, you’re in Florida. So it’s kind of an interesting thing. But I love looking at different places and traveling. So it’s been great. So the next is, I’m getting a chance to travel again.

Rebecca: So you’re getting close on your 50 states?

Todd: So, we have talked about this in the past. I’m gonna come back with my pleading of the listeners once again. I have been stuck at 49 states for about eight years. I hit my 49th state, I think it was seven or eight years ago, which I believe was Vermont… it was Vermont or New Hampshire, the order was really close. But North Dakota, it continues to be elusive.

John: North Dakota and Montana were the last two states in which an episode of our podcast were downloaded six or seven years ago when we first got started.

Todd: It’s interesting.

John: I don’t think there’s too many colleges there.

Todd: No, they’re not many colleges there. But I’m glad you did ask that. Rebecca, this is crazy. Because again, if Tim Sawyer had signed that form, I never let that go… is because anyone listening right now you never know when you’re the person who could say, “You know what, I’m going to choose something different than just letting you go.” It’s a big responsibility. But there’s times when a single sentence will change a student’s life. And so I can’t believe it when he said that, but I have now been invited to and presented in 49 states, 12 countries and four continents. Just amazing. And I would feel better if North Dakota would just call me, that would be so nice.

John: The last continent might be tough.

Todd: Yeah, there’s one continent that’s really tricky to get a gig in.

Rebecca: It could happen.

Todd: It’d be helpful if there are people who live there. [LAUGHTER]

John: The penguins are not that impressed.

Rebecca: You could just invite yourself. [LAUGHTER]

Todd: See that was the rule, by the way.

Rebecca: Oh, that’s right. That’s right.

Todd: Yeah, the rule was you had to be invited, so you can’t just show up someplace and start talking.

Rebecca: Well, we look forward to keeping tabs on your 49 states. Next time we talk to you. It’s always a pleasure, Todd.

Todd: Thank you… appreciate the opportunity to come in and I’llI get the 50th state,I will give you a call and maybe we can do a show about my 50th state. [LAUGHTER]

John: And I think sometime before that might be nice as well.

Todd: Wow. There’s a little pessimism for you.

Rebecca: Geez. [LAUGHTER]

John: Well, that may take a year or two.

Todd: Gosh John… Rebecca. Wooh. That’s tough. That’s brutal. Alright.

Rebecca: I was thinking that was gonna come soon, Todd. Sorry.

Todd: This is a mic drop time. Why don’t you go ahead and do the outro at this point. [LAUGHTER]


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

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


279. First-Year Blues

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

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

Show Notes


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


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

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

John: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer…

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


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

Tim: Great to be here.

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

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

Rebecca: I’m drinking chai today, John.

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

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

John: And I have ginger peach black tea today.

Rebecca: Back to an old favorite, John.

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

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

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

Tim: Yes.

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

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

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

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

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

Tim: I’m a sneak.

Rebecca: You’re so dangerous.

Tim: I know, it’s horrible.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tim: Oh, yes.

John: How did the students react to that?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tim: Well, that’s fantastic.

John: … the old location and the new one.

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

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

Tim: Who was also really good.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rebecca: Well, thanks so much, Tim.

Tim: You’re very welcome.

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

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

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

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


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

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



276. Teaching at its Best

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

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


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


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


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

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

John: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer…

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


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

Linda: Thank you very much.

Todd: Really appreciate the opportunity to be here.

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

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

Rebecca: It’s very pure.

Linda: Yes, very pure. Very pure.

Rebecca: How about you Todd?

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

John: Especially at Family Medicine.

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

John: I am drinking pineapple green tea.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Linda: Yeah, oh yeah.

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

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

Linda: Yeah, Yeah.

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

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

John: And it’s been a great resource.

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

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

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

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

Rebecca: So you snuck an extra 3 words in.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Linda: Yes. Yes. Yes. Yes.

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

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

Todd: That is good.

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

Rebecca: I don’t know any of them.

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

Linda: I apologize.

Todd: Sorry about that.

Linda: I apologize.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rebecca: Did you say 33,000 pieces?

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

Rebecca: Oh, ok.

Todd: …was difficult. [LAUGHTER]

Rebecca: Yeah.

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

Linda: Nothing to it. [LAUGHTER]

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

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

Todd: That’s great.

Rebecca: That’s something to aspire to.

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

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

Todd: Oh, you haven’t.

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

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

Linda: Yeah.

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

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

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

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

Todd: It was so much fun. Thank you


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

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


275. Improving Learning and Mental Health

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

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



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


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

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

John: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer…

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


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

Robert: Good to be here.

Bonnie: Thank you.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bonnie: Oh, that sounds delicious, too.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Robert: And what degree are you pursuing, Bonnie?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Robert: Yeah, the Iron Man.

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

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

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

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

Rebecca: … me too.

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

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

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

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

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

Robert: Always given you a nod when I can.

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

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

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

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

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

Robert: Thank you.

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

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

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

Robert: It probably gets your antennae up too.

Rebecca: Yeah.

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

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

Robert: Yes.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bonnie: Thank you.

Rebecca: Thank you


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

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


272. Mind Over Monsters

During the last few years, college students have been reporting mental health concerns at unprecedented levels, straining the resources provided by college and university counseling centers. In this episode, Sarah Rose Cavanagh joins us to discuss the role that faculty can play in addressing these concerns.

Sarah is a psychologist, professor and Senior Associate Director for Teaching and Learning at Simmons University. She is the author of The Spark of Learning: Energizing the College Classroom with the Science of Emotion and Hivemind: Thinking Alike in a Divided World as well as numerous academic articles and essays in The Chronicle of Higher Education, Lit Hub, Inside Higher Ed, and Vice. Her most recent book, Mind Over Monsters: Supporting Youth Mental Health with Compassionate Challenge will be released in spring 2023.

Show Notes

  • Cavanagh, S. R. (2016). The Spark of Learning: Energizing the college classroom with the science of emotion. West Virginia University Press.
  • Cavanagh, S. R. (2019). Hivemind: The new science of tribalism in our divided world. Grand Central Publishing.
  • Cavanagh, S. R. (forthcoming, 2023). Mind Over Monsters: Supporting Youth Mental Health with Compassionate Challenge. Beacon Press.
  • Elizabeth Romero
  • Ryan Glode
  • Reacting to the Past
  • Jasmin Veerapen
  • Gary Senecal
  • Miller, L. (2020). Why Fish Don’t Exist: a story of loss, love, and the hidden order of life. Simon & Schuster.
  • Robert Sapolsky’s Publications
  • Auel, J. M. (2002). The Clan of the Cave Bear. Bantam.
  • Kelly Leonard
  • Felten, P., & Lambert, L. M. (2020). Relationship-Rich Education: How human connections drive success in college. JHU Press.
  • Viji Sathy and Kelly Hogan
  • Michele Lemons
  • James Lang


John: During the last few years, college students have been reporting mental health concerns at unprecedented levels, straining the resources provided by college and university counseling centers. In this episode, we discuss the role that faculty can play in addressing these concerns.


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

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

John: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer…

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


Rebecca: Our guest today is Sarah Rose Cavanagh. Sarah is a psychologist, professor and Senior Associate Director for Teaching and Learning at Simmons University. She is the author of The Spark of Learning: Energizing the College Classroom with the Science of Emotion and Hivemind: Thinking Alike in a Divided World as well as numerous academic articles and essays in The Chronicle of Higher Education, Lit Hub, Inside Higher Ed, and Vice. Her most recent book, Mind Over Monsters: Supporting Youth Mental Health with Compassionate Challenge will be released in spring 2023.

Welcome back, Sarah.

Sarah: Thank you. I’m delighted to be here.

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

Sarah: No, I always disappoint you. I am yet again drinking coffee.

Rebecca: Yet again, such a stable person in our lives with your coffee. [LAUGHTER] I have blue sapphire tea.

Sarah: That’s a pretty name.

Rebecca: Yeah, it’s tasty. And my new favorite.

John: And I am drinking spring cherry green tea here in the midst of winter in upstate New York. We’ve invited you here today to discuss Mind over Monsters. Could you talk a little bit about the origin of this project?

Sarah: For me, I think writing is more organic than it is planned, and so it felt a little bit like the book decided it needed to be written, rather than I decided to write the book. There was just such a groundswell of interest around young adult’s mental health, people talking about it, podcasts, books. And I am a college professor, I’m a psychologist, I am an educational developer. I’m the mom of an adolescent, and so I couldn’t help but be concerned and interested in this topic. And I also felt that, as someone who has struggled with anxiety my entire life, panic disorder in particular, that I had some small bits of wisdom from my lived experiences to share. And so it just all came together.

John: How prevalent are mental health issues among youth today?

Sarah: They’re pretty prevalent, unfortunately. Some people have even labeled it an epidemic. For instance, in 2021, three of the major American organizations dedicated to youth and adolescent mental health joined together and declared a national state of emergency, which was an unprecedented move. And they cited in particular the effects of the pandemic and the fact that already marginalized groups along lines of race and ethnicity, gender, and sexuality and income were bearing the brunt of the psychological effects of the pandemic. But also there’s a lot of complexities surrounding figuring out whether rates have truly changed or whether there’s also changes in stigma surrounding mental health, which are laudatory changes, we want people not to feel stigma, and to come out and reach out for treatment. There’s also changes in the thresholds of the diagnoses themselves, they shift every several years. And there’s also changes in people’s willingness to seek treatment, and also their decisions about the level at which they might need treatment. And so there’s some evidence that a lot of these complexities may be making epidemics seem worse than it is. But what is clear is that more young adults and especially college students are expressing more distress and asking for help with that distress. Counseling centers on campus are absolutely overwhelmed and students are expressing a lot of frustration with not receiving the level and the timing of care that they need in those settings, and so clearly, we need changes.

Rebecca: In a lot of public conversations, we’re hearing debates about needing to show compassion to adolescents who are struggling, but then also others who argue that youth is too coddled. Can you talk a little bit about what you would advocate for?

Sarah: And that’s a delightfully easy setup for me, [LAUGHTER] because in the subtitle of the book is “compassionate challenge and why we need to support youth mental health with compassionate challenge.” And I argue that this debate and tension between compassion and challenge is one of these false dichotomies that we human beings seem to adore. [LAUGHTER] Students clearly need compassion, and I think compassion has to come first. For me, what that looks like is establishing classroom communities and learning environments on campus that are characterized by safety and by a feeling of belongingness. You need to feel safe enough to take risks. And you need to feel that you’re supported not just by your instructor, but also your fellow students and the Student Success Office and all of the people on campus. But once we’ve established that grounding and that safe setting, then I think to truly learn and grow, we do need to take risks, we do need to step outside our comfort zones, and we need to be challenged. And I think that challenge can be very positive. I spend one of the last chapters of the book really digging into the science of play, and how play is all about being vulnerable and taking risks and play can be scary. And you can only play in settings where you, again, feel safe. And I think, finally, what I call compassionate challenge isn’t just important for teaching and learning. As I draw out in two interviews with clinical psychologists Ryan Glode and Elly Romero, compassionate challenge is also really key to addressing anxiety and symptoms of mental health. And I don’t think we’re going to be doing any therapy in the classroom, but learning environments marked by compassionate challenge are ones that are consistent with principles that help address and resolve anxiety, which again, involves facing your fears, and environments where you’re technically safe and there’s a facilitator there to help you manage those risks.

Rebecca: John and I were talking earlier about some of the things that I had observed in my own classroom in the last year with an increase in desire for perfection, like kind of perfectionism or anxiety around not being perfect and not being right and working with students in class and trying to find ways to help students work through that so that they could take risks or could show things in progress to get feedback so that they could continue to improve. Can you talk a little bit more about what that might look like in a classroom?

Sarah: Well, I think that a lot of that brings up assessment and grading. And I think why we see that perfectionism in the classroom is that students are very concerned about their grades, because they believe, to some extent rightly, that their grades are going to translate into future security, and to getting into the right graduate school or getting the right job. And we do this to students. In high school, we train them to be so focused on the grades in order to get into the correct college and I have a high schooler and her grades are constantly just streaming, coming in in real time to her phone. And then we’re surprised when students get to college and they’re too focused on their grades. [LAUGHTER] And so I think that helping students with that need for perfection is probably reforming our grading systems so that there isn’t that need, that that focus on perfectionism isn’t necessarily rewarded in the same way. And instead, we’re rewarding taking risks and doing something creative, and maybe failing and having multiple iterations of something and seeing that work can grow over time, which, I think, amplifies creativity

Rebecca: There’s a lot more focus on process than on the product, then.

Sarah: Yes.

John: You mentioned using play in classrooms, what would be an example of the use of play in the classroom?

Sarah: Well, I think you can directly play through using improv, and especially in the early parts of the semester when you’re all getting to know each other, a lot of icebreakers are very playful. And community building can be very playful. I think there are ways like the whole reacting to the past role playing approach in history. You can easily roleplay in literature classes. So I think you can directly play. I think that what play can also be is almost like a philosophy or a stance that you take, that what we’re doing in the classroom is not dire. And, related to the grading that we were just talking about, there aren’t large stakes, that what we’re doing here is this is kind of a sandbox, where we’re playing with intellectual ideas, we’re testing things out, we’re experimenting. And there’s a sense in which it’s lighthearted, even when the topics are not light hearted, I think that we can take this lighthearted stance with our students. And I think also mixing things up and not getting too into routines, can also be playful. And I feel like I have a lot of tricks in my teaching bag, different discussion techniques and ways of getting us up and moving and things like that. But there’s always a point, kind of through the three-quarter mark of the semester, where they’ve seen it all. And so I try to save one or two things for that point in the semester and kind of throw everything out the window and do something entirely different. And I think that that can be playful as well. And so I don’t think that play in the classroom is all about things that we think of as play proper, like improv and roleplay; it can also be all of these other techniques.

Rebecca: One of the things that I’ve studied in the past is play. And one of the things that’s interesting about play is that there’s rules and there’s structure. And so a lot of times we think that play is just chaos, but actually play almost always has rules. They might not be formal rules, they might be informal rules. But that’s a way that people can feel safe and able to play is that they understand what the structure is and what the rules are.

Sarah: Those are great points.

Rebecca: You think that it’s hard to facilitate because it might seem so foreign, but actually we’re all very familiar with play. And it is actually incredibly structured. We know that structured things can be really inclusive. And so you might be hesitant to try something that seems like it might be unstructured, but I think, lo and behold, play is actually structured.

Sarah: Yeah, and a lot of those classic improv activities have strict rules in fact and one of the rules is that there’s a kindness.So, even when animals play… you know, I watch dogs play a lot at dog parks, and it can get quite vicious looking, but the animals are safe, you don’t harm each other and that is a strict rule of play as well.

John: Some of this book is drawn from research you conducted as part of the Student Voices project. Could you tell us a little bit about that project?

Sarah: Absolutely. So this was a project that grew out of my last grant from the Davis Educational Foundation. I had done a quantitative study that I talked with you all about in the past. And we had some funds left. And I had an honor student, Jasmin Veerapen, who’s now at Columbia, getting her social work degree, and she needed an honors thesis project. And so we collaborated together and ran a qualitative follow up and interviewed students from 35 different very diverse types of institutions across the country. And it was not a project focused explicitly on mental health, but on emotions and learning. So for instance, the first two questions we asked of all of our participants was: What was the best learning experience you have had in college, and tell us all about it?” And the second was, “What was one of the worst learning experiences you had in college?” ..and their insights are all so rich, and I share a number of their wonderful stories in the book. It’s a great pleasure.

John: Would that be something that you’d encourage faculty to do in their own classes?

Sarah: Yes, it was very illustrative, a lot came out of that. And we actually had worked with a consultant, Gary Senecal, because this was my first qualitative research study, and so I didn’t really know what I was doing. And he’s done a lot of qualitative research, and so he was our consultant. And he helped us shape the questions. And I think he had a large role in shaping those first two questions, because they’re just open ended enough that students share very different things, but then they all coalesce, and so it was very informative. And I think many professors could learn a lot asking their students those questions.

Rebecca: You included many narratives throughout your book, some of your own personal stories and some of the stories of student voices from this project. Can you talk about why you decided to include narrative as a part of the book?

Sarah: Yes, when I think about the books that I most like to read, the nonfiction books that I most like to read, they have a really strong narrative component. So I recently read Why Fish Don’t Exist, which was one of my favorite reads out of the last few years. And I love Robert Sapolsky’s books, and I’m a story person. And I mostly read fiction. And so I really enjoy nonfiction that has a strong narrative component. So that was one of my motivations, that I wanted to write a book that was like the books that I like to read. I think that story, though, also is really compelling. I think that there are insights that are embedded in stories that things like quantitative data can’t always tap into in the same way. And I think in particular, for topics like this, and for emotions and for students’ perceptions of their own learning, I think that we need story.

John: In addition to narrative, which is really compelling in your book, you also bring in a number of other disciplinary studies. Could you talk a little bit about some of the other disciplines and some of the other research your book relies on

Sarah: That’s a little, maybe, too far into humanities, I’m a little worried. I am a social scientist by training. And I’m very aware of the fact that there is disciplinary expertise. But I do bring in a lot of humanity’s work, in particular monster theory. So I read quite a bit of monster theory, which wasn’t even something that I knew existed before then, but that’s in there. I do something that I get from my mother. I used to make fun of my mother for always citing literature and stories as evidence for things. I would take an anthropology class and come home from college, and we would talk about it. And she would shake her head at me and say, “Well, that’s not how it happened, in Clan of the Cave Bear. [LAUGHTER] But I do a little bit about that. So I bring in some stories from novels and short stories that I think illustrate the points that I’m trying to make as well. And then I think, most compellingly, I bring in actual experts from their disciplines. So I interview a sociologist about her research on trigger warnings. I interview a Latin American Studies scholar about his work on vocation, which I found so fascinating. And I also interviewed a couple of clinicians, as I said, and Kelly Leonard who is a Second City improv person, and so I bring in those other disciplines through the lens of the people I’m interviewing.

Rebecca: Sometimes it’s really helpful to have these illustrations because statistics can go only so far in helping us understand what that actually looks like and feels like in our classrooms or in the experience that students are having because we can feel really far removed… or I’m feeling farther and farther removed [LAUGHTER] from students and it helps to hear things in their own voices. And we don’t always ask them enough. I wish we asked more.

John: …which is something really troubling to those of us who focus mostly on statistical analyses, and so forth. [LAUGHTER] But it’s true, a compelling story can be much more effective in convincing people of some concept than any number of studies that you might present to them.

Sarah: But we do have lots of citations for people like you, John. But I tried to bring both sources to the table,

Rebecca: …which is good, because you got both of us here.

Sarah: Mm hmm.

Rebecca: So can you talk a little bit about the intended audience of your book?

Sarah: Absolutely. My primary audience, I think, is people who are doing the work of higher education, so college instructors, staff like me who work in teaching centers, and student success offices, administrators, and so it does have a strong higher ed thread throughout. That said, I don’t think there’s a super bright line between especially late high school and early college in some of these concerns. And I think it could be useful for high school educators, especially those who might be advising students about the college selection process. I think that there is some insight and some sections, maybe, that could be of interest to college students themselves, and possibly their parents. But I would want them to know that it’s not a parenting book. I don’t want anyone to pick it up thinking it’s a parenting book. There’s long sections, again, on trigger warnings and institutions needing to actually carry out their DE&I statements. And someone picking it up thinking they’re going to get some pithy advice about parenting is not going to be satisfied.

John: Would this be a good focus for faculty reading groups or book clubs?

Sarah: I think so. [LAUGHTER]

Rebecca: We think so too. [LAUGHTER] Yeah, it looks like, yeah, it looks like some really wonderful topics that you’re exploring to think about all of higher ed in a lot of ways, and perhaps some reimagining that needs to happen.

Sarah: Oh, thank you.

Rebecca: Can you talk a little bit about what we, as educators or people working in higher ed, can do to create a more compassionate and challenging environment for our students? What are some actions we can take?

Sarah: Well, I think you have to do the compassion piece first. And I think that colleges really need to be examining, and I think they are examining, there’s lots of other people sharing this message of compassion and relationship, rich education, thinking of Peter Felton and Leo Lambert’s book. And I think that we need to embed compassion in the atmosphere in the classroom and the dorms. I think that we need to pay a lot of attention to community. I think that we need to shore up resources in counseling centers. I’ve been attending, as part of the research for this book, lots of webinars with people who are looking at this topic from a lot of different frameworks. And there’s a lot of interesting work being done on peer support, which I’m both interested in and also wary of. I think that peers are our natural first source of support. And that peer support could be really life changing for a lot of college students. But just like we shouldn’t be doing therapy in the classroom, I don’t think it’s the responsibility of college students to do counseling for their fellow peers. And they’re trained to spot warning signs and to do the kind of heavy lifting that a lot of counseling involves. And so I think that we’re going to need to dedicate more resources to trained clinicians in our counseling centers. In my interview with Ryan Glode in the book, who is, again, a clinical counseling psychologist, he really feels that counseling centers provide just sort of venting sorts of therapy, and that he’s a strong advocate of cognitive behavioral therapy and exposure therapy, and that students need much more individualized treatment and approaches. And so I think that that’s an interesting thing to explore. And the last thing I would say is, I always say this, but faculty need more support and time, because there’s been a lot of great essays coming out, the last couple of weeks even I’ve seen, about the fact that student success is really faculty success, and faculty are where students get more of their support than anywhere else. And we can try to reach out to them in many different ways, but they land in our classrooms, we know that we’ll see them in their classrooms, even if they’re not leaving their dorm much, they usually come to class. And so it’s an entry point. Mentoring is such a strong part of the college experience and so wonderful for growth and mental health. And so I think that for faculty to really apply all of this and have really close student relationships and really rich classrooms and all of these things, they need more time and more support. And so I think that the two places I would put my support is in the counseling center and then in supporting faculty, giving them the kinds of time and the kinds of support that will allow them to be the teachers that they can be when they have the time to do so.

Rebecca: Are there specific places where you found compassion to be lacking that surprised you in your research? We know that there’s a [LAUGHTER] strain on counseling centers, but were there some other places that really rose to really needing some attention,

Sarah: None of the students we talked to had trouble coming up with either a best or worst learning experience. And the good ones are really, really good. And the poor ones were pretty poor. And so there’s a lot of unevenness, I think, and I think that that, when I talk as I just did about, if you just give faculty more time, then they’ll blossom, and then the students will blossom, and sometimes when I have conversations with administrators about that, or see policies being enacted on different campuses, I can tell that there’s a wariness that if you give faculty time, they’ll just either do more research, or they will check out and that there’s a danger there and we need to work faculty harder. And I do see in talking to the students about their best and worst learning experiences, that the people teaching those worst learning experiences really need to step up their game a little bit. And so I think that there are those pockets out there that still don’t apply themselves to their teaching or look at it as an onerous responsibility. But the good teachers are really fantastic. And so maybe leveling that out a little bit, bringing the worst learning experiences up to the best learning experiences might be somewhere I recommend some attention.

John: One of the areas where people often see a dichotomy between compassion and challenge is in terms of deadlines in courses where material later in the course build on material earlier in the course, it’s really easy for students who are struggling to get further and further behind when they don’t have at least some sort of a deadline. Do you have any strategies for addressing that, besides focusing on the learning rather than on grades? What can we do to help ensure that students make regular progress while still maintaining compassion?

Sarah: Um hmm. I think this is the question of the moment. [LAUGHTER] And I can tell you, I just had a conversation with a reporter at The Chronicle who was writing a whole big piece on just this issue. And we at Simmons just met with our advisory council, who are a group of about 12 faculty who we check in with about what faculty needs are. And this was their number one answer, like clearly. So we’re going to do a panel in the spring at Simmons, where we have some faculty with very different perspectives. We’re hoping to draw out some of these tensions and have this discussion. And so I do think it’s an excellent question. And I think that a deadline is a good example of where compassionate challenge needs to be. I think that all of us need the structure of deadlines. I myself benefit [LAUGHTER] greatly from the structure of deadlines and schedules. And I think especially for college students in the early years, if they’re so-called traditionally aged students, some of the process of those first year or two of college is learning time management and in scaffolding them into good time management. And so I think that structure is very important. As Rebecca was saying earlier, it’s also an inclusive teaching strategy, Viji Sathy and Kelly Hogan have written extensively about that. But I think without compassion, deadlines are going to worsen student anxiety, and also it doesn’t make a lot of sense for contemporary life. And so some techniques that I’ve seen are things like using frequent tokens instead of just no deadlines or 100% flexibility with deadlines and things kind of pile up toward the end. You can have tokens where students can have a set number of missed assignments, or dropped assignments, or I need an extra week or two. I think that it’s important in whatever you do, if you are going to be flexible to be transparent with all of the students about it, because I think that some students will ask for flexibility and the other students won’t know that they can ask for flexibility. And a lot of that falls out along the lines where everything falls out and creates inequities. So I think that having some structure, but with some flexibility built in is probably the best way to go. I was interviewing a biology instructor for a different project. And she was telling me what she did is she had pretty close to unlimited flexibility within modules. So she had her whole semester set up in modules, but then you had to submit things within that module, because as you say, especially some fields, the information builds, and if you miss part, you’re going to be in trouble. And so I thought that was another interesting approach. But I agree that in particular when we’re thinking about mental health, that structure is better. And the last thing I’ll say is that at my previous campus, we had a panel of the Dean of first-year students, it was the head of our accessibility office, the head of our counseling center, and then a clinical counseling psychologist from our psychology department about issues surrounding student mental health. And one of the instructors asked about deadlines, and they were all unanimous, they said, deadlines are necessary. The worst thing you can do for a student high in anxiety is allow no deadlines or submissions whenever they like, because that will quickly get them into a negative place, and that they need that structure. So I think it’s a great example of the need for both compassion and challenge.

Rebecca: One of the things that I think about when I hear structure or certain kinds of support is routine. And you talked a little earlier about having some routine, but then disruptions to that routine. Can you talk about why some of the disruptions to the routine might be important, or why not having a routine all the time could be helpful for students?

Sarah: Well, I think the positives of routine are that they’re reassuring, for one thing. I think we all as human beings, it’s relaxing to settle into a routine, and it’s also lower in cognitive load. If you just know, okay, every Thursday, I have a homework assignment, every Tuesday I have a quiz, you don’t have to constantly be scrambling and figuring things out every week. And so I think that routines can be reassuring, and they can also be more transparent and easier to follow along. I think where the disruption is great is it re-energizes. So it’s great to be reassured and calm things down. But then that can get boring and kind of stultifying after a little while. And so once you have established the routine to mix things up once in a while, I think, can be re-energizing. And so I think that’s where a blend of the two can be really powerful.

Rebecca: You mentioned that you do this in your own classes. Can you share an example of one of the ways you mix things up in your own class,

Sarah: it’s not terribly exciting. But the one that I do this most clearly is in my motivation and emotion class. And in that class, we’re covering different topics and we’re reading research articles and doing presentations. And again, I try to mix things up, but I have a set number of things that I mix things up. And then usually right after Thanksgiving, I throw everything out the window and we just spend a week doing something different. And so we used to watch a movie together. And then we would write an essay about the motivation and emotion aspects and the themes that we’ve talked about all semester long, how it played out in those characters lives. And I was showing Lars and the Real Girl, I don’t know if it’s kind of an older movie now and stopped doing that for a while for a number of reasons. But then more recently, in this activity called “making the world a better place.” And I had a selection of psychological science articles, each one that tackled a societal problem, like climate change, or misinformation, and how we could use principles from recent psychological science research and to help improve this societal conundrum. And then we did small group work with snacks. And they would work on little group presentations all together that were very low stakes, and then present them to each other. And we would have a grant competition among them. But it was just this week where the routine was very different.

Rebecca: It sounds like almost a culminating point of the semester, instead of ramping up stress with a big project, it’s ramping down the stress with something that’s applied, but in a more low key way.

John: …but also valuable and fun.

Rebecca: Yeah, definitely. To me, it sounds like: “[LOUD EXHALE]”

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

Sarah: Well, I have a new grant. Well, a semi-new grant. And it’s a National Science Foundation Incubator Grant with my co-PI, Michele Lemons of Assumption University. And it is examining assessment, feedback, and grading in undergraduate bio education in particular. And so we had a qualitative portion, we had a survey portion, and we had student interviews, and we’ve just wrapped data collection, So I have a lot of writing and meaning-making and analysis, and then a full proposal grant [LAUGHTER] to write. So on the research side, that’s what’s going on. And on the writing side, I don’t know yet. I have a few possible ideas. I’m in a writers group with Jim Lang, who I know you both know, and his new book, which is going to be fantastic… and you have to have him on the show… is all about how academics can successfully write trade books for a wider audience. And I’ve been enjoying the chapters as he’s been writing them. And I was reading his chapter on where to get your book idea, and I realized that I’ve written a couple of books now from my expertise, but I don’t have to stick with my expertise. I could do something super fun. And so I don’t know.

John: Not that your expertise isn’t fun or interesting. [LAUGHTER]

Sarah: Well, thank you. And anything I write will obviously have a strong psychology component, it’s just like in my bones at this point. But yeah, so stay tuned. We’ll see.

Rebecca: Sounds like some exciting things down the pike for sure.

John: We look forward to hearing more about that when you’re ready to share that.

Sarah: Oh, thanks.

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

Sarah: Thank you. Always a pleasure.

Rebecca: Yeah, I always learn stuff from our conversations, so I’m looking forward to having you on again in the future.

Sarah: Oh, thanks. Same.


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

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


270. Fall 2022 Reflection

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

Show Notes


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


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

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

John: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer…

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

John: It does sound a bit challenging…

Rebecca: Yeah.

John: …especially on your side.

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

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

Rebecca: Yeah.

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

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

John: What topics were the archives related to?

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

John: And what did they do with those?

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

John: Very nice.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rebecca: Yeah.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

John: It’s a reinvigorating experience.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

John: Definitely.


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

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


268. Advancing Inclusivity while Mitigating Burnout

This episode is a live recording of a panel session at the Online Learning Consortium’s Accelerate Conference in Orlando on November 17, 2022. The panelists were Michelle Miller, Liz Norell, and Kelvin Thompson.

Michelle is a professor of psychological sciences and a President’s Distinguished Teaching Fellow at Northern Arizona University. She is the author of Minds Online: Teaching Effectively with Technology and also more recently, Remembering and Forgetting in the Age of Technology: Teaching and Learning and the Science of Memory in a Wired World, which was recently released by West Virginia University Press. Liz is a political scientist, and an associate professor at Chattanooga State Community College. She is also an experienced registered yoga teacher with over 500 hours of training completed. She is currently working on a book on Why Presence Matters in High Quality Learner-Centered Equitable Learning Spaces. Kelvin is the Executive Director of the University of Central Florida’s Center for Distributed Learning, and graduate faculty scholar in UCF’s College of Education and Human Performance. He developed the open courseware BlendKit course that many of us have taken, and cohosts TOPcast, the Teaching Online Podcast.

Show Notes

  • Panelists:
  • Miller, M. D. (2014). Minds Online: Teaching Effectively with Technology. Harvard University Press.
  • Miller, M. D. (2022). Remembering and Forgetting in the Age of Technology: Teaching, Learning, and the Science of Memory in a Wired World.
  • Norell, Liz (forthcoming). Why Presence Matters in High Quality Learner-Centered Equitable Learning Spaces. West Virginia University Press.
  • BlendKit
  • TOPcast
  • Brandon Bayne’s twitter post on the adjusted syllabus.
  • Nick Sousanis’ syllabi
  • Behling, K. T., & Tobin, T. J. (2018). Reach Everyone, Teach Everyone: Universal Design for Learning in Higher Education. West Virginia University Press.
  • Teaching Online Pedagogical Repository (TOPR)
  • Joosten, T., Harness, L., Poulin, R., Davis, V., & Baker, M. (2021). Research Review: Educational Technologies and Their Impact on Student Success for Racial and Ethnic Groups of Interest. WICHE Cooperative for Educational Technologies (WCET).
  • Hammond, Z. (2014). Culturally responsive teaching and the brain: Promoting authentic engagement and rigor among culturally and linguistically diverse students. Corwin Press.
  • Eaton, Robert; Steven V. Hunsaker, and Bonnie Moon (forthcoming, 2023) Improving Learning and Mental Health in the College Classroom. West Virginia University Press.
  • Enneagram test


John: This is a recording of a live panel session that took place during the Online Learning Consortium’s Accelerate Conference in Orlando on November 17, 2022. We hope that you enjoy it as much as we did.


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

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

John: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer…

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


John: Welcome to “Advancing Inclusivity while Mitigating Burnout.” I’m John Kane, an economist and the Director of the Center for Excellence in Learning and Teaching at the State University of New York at Oswego.

Rebecca: I’m Rebecca Mushtare, a designer and an Associate Dean of Graduate Studies at SUNY Oswego. We’re the hosts of the Tea for Teaching podcast and the moderators for today’s session. We’d like to let everyone know that we’re recording this session in order to release it in an upcoming episode of Tea for Teaching. And today’s session will include 30 minutes of moderated discussion, followed by 10 minutes of questions from all of you, and I’ll turn it over to John to introduce our panel.

John: Our panelists are Michelle Miller. Michelle is a professor of psychological sciences and a President’s Distinguished Teaching Fellow at Northern Arizona University. Michelle is the author of Minds Online: Teaching Effectively with Technology and also more recently, Remembering and Forgetting in the Age of Technology: Teaching and Learning and the Science of Memory, which was recently released by West Virginia University Press. We also have Liz Norell. Liz is a political scientist, and an associate professor at Chattanooga State Community College. She is also an experienced registered yoga teacher with over 500 hours of training completed. She is currently working on a book on Why Presence Matters in High Quality Learner-Centered Equitable Learning Spaces. We also have Kelvin Thompson. Kelvin is the Executive Director of the University of Central Florida’s Center for Distributed Learning, and graduate faculty scholar in UCF’s College of Education and Human Performance. He developed the open courseware BlendKit course that many of us have taken, and cohosts TOPcast, the teaching online podcast.

Rebecca: This wouldn’t be a complete episode of tea for teaching if we didn’t ask about tea. So Kelvin, our coffee drinker, are you drinking tea today?

Kelvin: I am drinking tea today, Rebecca, this is a mint tea from Tazo. I have to admit, I went looking for my favorite conference tea, which is that orange Tazo tea that I looked everywhere and they didn’t have any.

Rebecca: Ah, a little bummer. Michelle?

Michelle: Well, true to form, I’m drinking coffee and I’m going to admit that I also mixed it with Swiss Miss hot chocolate, [LAUGHTER] a very guilty pleasure on many levels.

Liz: I don’t drink anything hot. So I’m drinking diet coke.

Rebecca: Woo!

Liz: Thank you.

Rebecca: As many guests before you have as well.

Liz: Yeah. [LAUGHTER]

Rebecca: John?

John: And I am drinking an English breakfast tea today.

Rebecca: And I have some very strong Awake tea, so that we’re really awake for this episode.

John: The pandemic spurred a rapid transition of instructional methods and an increased focus on inclusive teaching, and we want to talk a bit about that in today’s session. We’d like to ask the panelists: What were some of the improvements in inclusivity and building a sense of belonging, that you’ve observed during the pandemic? …with particular emphasis on remote and asynchronous courses. And Liz is going to start.

Liz: What I found, particularly in asynchronous online courses, is that I have noticed this has much broadened the ability of neurodivergent students and students who have some kind of disability, especially an invisible disability. And the way that it’s done that is by really forcing us to accept multiple kinds of student engagement. So what I noticed in March of 2020, is that students who had been almost invisible in my face-to-face class, when we came back to Zoom after spring break, I didn’t see their faces, but I heard their voices, if not vocally than in the chat. And I have so thoroughly appreciated that. I also learned from my students that you can change the way you show up in Zoom by getting one of those little lens things over your camera and changing your virtual background. So oftentimes, they would come into a Zoom room, and this would be in a synchronous class, and they would have a different cartoon character of the day. And this is a wonderful way to get to know more about them and their personalities. What I’ve also found is that when we are meeting synchronously, recording the classes is really helpful for a lot of learners. And so, since I’ve gone back to face-to-face teaching, I always open a Zoom room and record it and sometimes students will join by Zoom because they can’t come to campus that day. My partner who teaches math has also started doing this because they found that it’s really helpful for the students to be able to review what they did in class when they’re trying to apply it in their homework or preparing for an exam. The last thing I want to mention is that I teach political science, we always do a unit on civil liberties. And one of the things that I did in person was bring in a prop box and have them do skits where they acted out the precipitating events to major Supreme Court civil liberties cases, and I thought there’s no way we can do this over zoom, right? Yes. And it’s just getting really creative with Zoom backgrounds, with props that they have in their houses. It makes it so much more campy that it’s much more fun, because in person they always like “Oooh, I’m nervous.” In Zoom, it’s going to be a train wreck, okay, we’re just gonna embrace that, and that really creates a really fun dynamic in the classroom.

Kelvin: I would agree with the broad brushstrokes of what Liz said, I would like to broaden it further though, and say that throughout the last couple of years, what I’ve seen in a way that I’ve never seen before is an emphasis on empathy, and what we might call a human first orientation. I was really heartened to see that in a lot of ways in the early days of the lockdown era of remote instruction, and I still see ripples of it now. Two things that come to mind from the early days that are worth a review, if you haven’t looked at him in a while. One that got kind of viral, the so-called adjusted syllabus of Brandon Bayne from UNC, where he got really kind of real and transparent with students and released it out all over for adaptation. And then Nick Sousanis from San Francisco State University more recently had what he called notes on now as a syllabus section that just kind of, in a more encapsulated way, he sort of said that he wants to keep anchoring down to that human-first element, and just keep that a present part of every course’s syllabus.

Rebecca: Thank you, both Liz and Kelvin for giving us some insights into what we’ve already been experiencing and reminding us about some of the strong improvements that we’ve had. Many campuses are moving back to onsite instruction, while also considering how much of their portfolio should be including online options. And while each campus continues to adapt and adjust, how can we maintain the momentum around inclusive practices and avoid slipping back into our old habits? Michelle, will you start us off?

Michelle: And I love the framing here as momentum, because I think that many campuses have generated a lot of great energy around the why of inclusion, the why of equity, the why of justice, and why this is so important. The trick is going to be to follow that energy on with more on the what and how… how do we put that into practice. And I really struggle when I think about it, because our students, they need practice when there’s a new skill, a new way of responding. They need practice in lots of new contexts. And I talk a lot about transfer. And we may remember a skill or develop a skill in one context and we just don’t remember to activate it and carry it through in a new context. And we’re going to need that. We’re going to need to have certain techniques and teaching moves that do become second nature to us and be able to recognize, hey, this is one of those opportunities to put those into practice. So I was just doing a session this morning by a group from the University of Wisconsin. And they talked about, for example, the need to provide lots of concrete examples to faculty like what does this look like? Maybe even in your discipline? So, for example, increased course structure, we know this is proven to be an inclusive teaching practice. So I need to say, “Oh, yeah, this is the place to do this.” The frequent low-stakes assessments, we know that that reduces disparities in opportunity and disparities in achievement across many student groups. And so offering those concrete paths, making sure we know how to set them up, and then showing faculty that we see it when they’re making the effort and rewarding that. We don’t always need that little extrinsic reward, but institutions have to really keep that up if they’re going to see that this carries through, because that’s going to be the difference between institutions that really have that momentum moving forward and the ones that fall behind.

Liz: I agree… [LAUGHTER] with what she said. I come at this from a little bit of a different perspective, because I am in the classroom, or at least in a virtual classroom. But I think the word that comes to mind for me when I think about momentum is intentionality. And I think if we can remember to teach through our values, especially those values that became so crystallized during COVID, that’s a really good first step. And I’m fond of saying that what’s good for students is good for us. So I want us to think about the ways that we prioritized care, humanity, grace with our students, and also make sure we’re doing that for one another and for ourselves. And I mentioned this before, but COVID really revealed a lot of inequities that had been there for a long time. And now that we know that they’re there, we have to be very intentional about ensuring that they don’t just kind of go back to being invisible again now that we’re not all on Zoom together. So those are the things that I’m thinking about. It’s really leaning into our values, not forgetting what we learned, being intentional and doing for ourselves what we have seen we need to do for our students.

Rebecca: That’s a great reminder to think about not just the students, but the whole community, faculty, staff, etc.

John: During the early stages of the pandemic, we saw a lot of experimentation. And we saw the rapid growth of remote synchronous instruction and HyFlex instruction. And one of the things I think many of us are wondering is what roles they will play as we move forward into the future. Helvin?

Kelvin: Well, my crystal ball never was working. [LAUGHTER] It’s not even broken. But here’s kind of what I think is happening and what may continue to happen. I think synchronous online options will continue to be a factor in our digital teaching and learning in a way that it was not before the pandemic. And it is certainly possible that what I refer to as true HyFlex may still have a place as well. It’s just, gosh, it’s hard to pull real true HyFlex off, right? It’s such a design-intensive approach. What I contrastingly refer to as pseudo HyFlex… dual mode, simulcasting, webcasting of classroom experience… that has challenges. It has a place, perhaps, in individual instructor preference. But I’m going to tell you, firsthand from faculty colleagues I talked to as well as data I’ve seen, it’s exhausting. And it’s challenging for students, the what is sometimes touted as student flexibility ends up just becoming sort of a lowering of expectations and come and go as you wish and the intentionality and momentum seems to dissipate. I’m a big fan of intentional design and modalities of choice, and so forth,,,that way, instead. So, I think synchronous is around and I think our mutated modalities are around. And true. HyFlex has a place. But I’d love to see a diminishing of pseudo HyFlex.

Michelle: This is sparking so many of my own thoughts that I’m really feeling in a way validated here. And I’ll echo a lot of this as well. I think that again, in true HyFlex, where I am fully engaging the folks who are all spread out, I’m fully engaging whoever’s in my classroom, and we’re achieving all of our objectives. That really is a lot. And it’s not the technology. It’s the cognitive capacity. And as a cognitive psychologist, I say, “Well, when you practice remembering to read the chat and read the room at the same time, those demands get a little bit less, but they don’t go away. It’s just too complex.” So I think that we are going to have, yeah, the true bonafide HyFlex courses going forward, they need to be designated, they need to be supported in a particular way. So they may not be unicorns exactly, but I kind of see that coming forward. What I feel like I’ve kind of settled into a more HyFlex light, HyFlex infused is, for example, if you’re home and you’re remote, you need to be remote today, I don’t have an elaborate Google doc with a structured discussion maybe for you. But you can follow along, you can send in a participation card, I do give a lot of credit for participation, and so we’re kind of moving to that. I do think that we still have a sense of possibility. I mean, we have definitely gotten those skills, and we will find new ways to use them. But even just the basics, like “Hey, you can record your class meetings.” And I offer that too as an option for catching up sometimes where needed. I really thought that was going to be a disaster for a lot of different reasons going on. I said that’s not going to work. And I will eat those words now. So we have a few of these tools in our toolkit that we can use in this lower key way, I think.

Rebecca: So Kelvin, you mentioned the ability of changing modalities and offering some flexibility here. And the ability for students to choose the modality that they take the course in is just one of the ways that we’ve seen increased flexibility. But we’ve also seen increased flexibility around attendance, assessments, and many other aspects of teaching. How can we continue to support increased flexibility for students without overburdening faculty. I’m really hoping you all have some magic that you can help with.

Michelle: Yeah, so increased flexibility without the overburdening of faculty… When I reflect on this, I think we can borrow from the plus one strategy that you might be familiar with from Universal Design for Learning. Tom Tobin and his colleagues who write about this… the idea being that, yeah, we’re working towards perhaps a very rich environment with many different ways to demonstrate what you know, to take a test, to participate in in a learning activity, but you don’t do it all at once. And I also think, too, that I know that I’ve gotten, I think, pretty adept at finding those opportunities for flexibility that don’t necessarily add more for me to do and I think an example of this would be the way I give exams these days. So during the pandemic, I said, there’s always going to be an option instead of sitting for a traditional test. So I have an option that’s an essay paper with length and scope parameters and so on. But students can structure this. I suggest they often structure it as an email home to your family about what you’ve learned during this portion of the course. I’ve had a few students who have run with it as a science fiction writing exercise, which works great in psychology. So people will report home to their alien commander or home base about what they’ve learned about humans on Planet Terra. And those are, if anything, just a change of pace for me to read. I’m reading the exams anyway. So I’m always about the efficiency and so that’s something that I’ve tried to capture as well. But here too, we have to remember there are risks when we offer these and faculty who do go out on that limb and try it the first semester or two… maybe it doesn’t work perfectly… they’ve got to be affirmed, and they’ve got to be protected especially untenured. Folks,

Kelvin: I feel like I want to report to my alien commander now. [LAUGHTER] “Mork calling Orson, Mork calling Orson,” that’s a deep cut call back, you have to be of a certain age to appreciate that. I agree with a lot of that. I don’t think I disagree with any of that. But I will broaden out a little bit and maybe anchor back, Rebecca, to your prompt a little bit. I personally think we should lean into intentional course design in intentionally designed and created modalities for which student flexibility is the intent. Asynchronous online is probably the most flexible thing we offer outside of maybe true adaptive learning, which is… don’t get me started… that’s another whole tough banana to peel. I need a better metaphor… bananas aren’t that tough to peel… [LAUGHTER] a tough onion to peel, there’s lots of tears. I don’t know… something. And then I think we need to reiterate to ourselves and to our faculty colleagues that there are codified effective practices in each of these course modality domains, like… a shameless plug… at UCF, we host the teaching online pedagogical repository (TOPR), an online compendium of online and blended teaching and design practices. So there’s stuff that we know that are research based, time honored, that work well and benefit students, things like the broad category of learner choice, which I think just echoes a little bit of what Michelle was saying. We don’t have to reinvent the wheel if we lean into those things. And there’s real student benefit for doing that.

John: The disruptions we experienced in education during the pandemic when people were learning remotely affected all students, but disproportionately affected students who are first-gen, students from low income households and minoritized students. How does higher education need to adjust to meet the diverse needs of all of our students, some of which were not as affected by the pandemic if they were in well-resourced school districts and others that were left behind a bit when they didn’t have access to the technology or the resources that better funded school districts had?

Kelvin: Yeah, we could do better. Even here at the conference in which we’re participating here as we record this, we saw even today, student voice represented on stage and I think we can do better with that. There’s knowing who our students are, there are data that we are collecting and could collect that tell us something. But there’s also just attending to students’ personal stories, keeping a human face on the student experience, being grounded in our work there. But broadening further, again, I’m a big advocate of research-based and time-honored teaching practices. And in our digital teaching and learning domain, many of those have been shown to benefit minoritized and disadvantaged student sub-populations. I would do a shout out here to Tonya Joosten’s research review that has its long title. It’s got educational technologies and student success and racial and ethnic groups of interest all in the title. It can be Googled, it’s free, it’s available, but she does a nice job of reviewing and synthesizing the extant literature and making some recommendations from that. And so there are ways in which our online and blended in particular design and teaching practices benefit everybody but in particular, benefit first-gen, minoritized students, and so forth. And here’s a little free factoid… in a little fascinating recommendation. She says, you know, there’s some evidence to suggest that reduced seat time blended courses at the lower-division level particularly benefit disadvantaged students subpopulations and then going into online courses at the upper division in the major kind of courses. Those two things together. You know, it’s stunning, that’s not whiz bang, whirly gig shiny, right? …but it’s just doing the work but as we align that it really has benefits that evidence would bear out.

Liz: I just want to start by echoing something that Kelvin mentioned, which is that if we’re going to serve the students we have and the students that we will have, we have to know who they are. And there are studies of generations and qualities, but I don’t think anything replaces asking the people in your classroom about themselves in a way that is safe and non-threatening, but comes from an authentic place of curiosity. So I do this with my students. At the start of every semester, I ask them questions, none of them are required, but I ask them questions about things like, what kinds of technology do you have? And how many hours a week are you working? And which of this very long list of challenges do you think you might face during the semester? What kinds of things can I do to help you? …just so that I have a sense of who’s in the room, and what might be going on with them. So just yesterday, I was teaching my Zoom class from upstairs in my hotel room, which I was very grateful for, because I’m an introvert, and this conference is overwhelming. So I was happy to have an excuse to get away for three hours to teach. But we spent 20 minutes just asking, “How are you? No, no, how are you?” Not, I’m fine. I’m okay, but what’s going on? And one of my students said, I’ve always struggled with depression, and I thought I had it under control. But the last week has taught me that I don’t. And it’s only because we’re in week six of a seven week class that that student felt like he could say that, and the whole class could say, “Me too.” And those moments, I think that is so critical. And it’s just the humanization that we’ve already talked about, and meeting people where they are, I want to put in a plug for Zaretta Hammond’s book about, I don’t remember the full title, but it’s the brain and culturally relevant responsive teaching. It’s got a lot of really good buzzwords in it. But it talks about how, when the brain is in a state of trauma, or stress, you can’t learn. And so we can talk about all of these things that we can do. But if our students are not in a place to hear it, nothing that we do is going to make a difference. And I think if we’re talking about how to teach the students we have, we have to be aware of that before we can move forward.

Rebecca: So you’ve nicely connected to our next topic. [LAUGHTER]

Liz: …almost like I meant to.

Rebecca: lI know, it’s almost like you knew it was coming. Campuses are seeing a rise in mental health needs in their student bodies, both prior to the pandemic and it obviously continues to increase. And shifting to more inclusive practices is shifting the relationship that students are having with the faculty, just like you mentioned, being able to be more open about some of these things. In my own experience, I’ve seen an increase in disclosure of mental health challenges and distress and the need to refer and actively engage in suicide prevention. These are things that I didn’t need to do five years ago, [LAUGHTER] or maybe I didn’t need to do but didn’t see, but definitely see now. So how can faculty and institutions more effectively respond to mental health challenges facing our learning communities? And obviously, Liz, you kind of started us off on some ideas here. Michelle?

Michelle: Yeah, I’d like to put another book on the radar actually, as well. And full disclosure, I was an editor on this book, but I really believe in it. It’s coming out next year, actually, it’s called Learning and Student Mental Health in the College Classroom, lead authors, Robert Eaton. And it is in this space of friendly, actionable strategies when we do have increased disclosure. I mean, I found too, that Zoom itself is a sort of a dis-inhibiting space, like many online spaces are and going in I should have known that. it’s like on paper, I’ve read it, but then it became very, very real. So what do we do with that? Because the thing for faculty is, we mean this well, but our minds immediately go to: “How do I fix it? Oh, my gosh, do I have to kind of do amateur therapy that I’m not qualified to do?” And no, that is absolutely not what we need to do next. It’s a good thing to be concerned about not crossing boundaries at that same time as we are responding to what students are disclosing for us. So the strategies that I like are those that say, well, let’s start by not accentuating the crises and the stresses that are there. And a few other kind of concrete things… For me, not asking for doctor’s notes. Boy, when I started teaching a long time ago, I was all about the documentation and “show me exactly what happened at the emergency room,” and that type of thing. So now I offer flexibility and many paths to catch up that much like universal design for learning are built in for everyone from day one of the course. So if there’s something that prevented you from coming to class or making that deadline, okay, we can talk about it if you want, but we don’t have to. And you can simply take those paths that I’ve already laid out for you. I think taking the time to empathize, many of us did practice those skills and we can continue to do so. When I get to talk to people who are just starting out as teachers, I say, “You have this big loud microphone, this megaphone to a student’s ear. Your words land very, very powerfully. So you really need to think about those.” I find that my students seem to come to me expecting very harsh treatment and very harsh reactions, when they tell me about what they’re going through. And so I remind myself to simply start with warmth and compassion and human empathy, and a way forward. So that’s something that we can do. And when all else may fail, I say “How would I want my own child, in the same situation, a crisis, which is hopefully temporary and passing… how would I want them to be spoken to? How would I want that email to be phrased? What kind of pass forward would I want for them?” So that’s how I take it.

John: We’re a little behind schedule. So we’re going to ask anyone in the audience to come up to the microphone. One of the issues we haven’t quite gotten to is the issue of preventing burnout. Maybe if Liz could address that briefly while people come up.

Liz: So I want to talk about burnout in a very particular way. Because I think we often think of burnout as a me problem. And I think of burnout as an every one problem. It is a system that is creating it. And so I want to tell every one of you listening, that you are not the problem, and you haven’t done anything wrong. But in order to mitigate burnout, we have to be aware of what our boundaries are. And that often requires getting really quiet, and listening to ourselves. Because we’ve been steeped in this culture that tells us that hustling and productivity is the only way you’re valuable. And that is not true. But you’re not going to be able to figure out what your boundaries are if you’re listening to those voices. So you got to step out of that for a minute, and figure out what really matters to you. And here’s a good way to do it. Think about yourself 20 years from now. What are the things that are going to have mattered about what you’re doing right now? And what are the things that you won’t really care about? Choose to spend your time on the things that will matter to you 20 years from now, and all of these other kind of petty political debates in your institution… because we all have them… that’s not what you’re going to be remembering when you look back on your career. Focus your energy and your care on the things that you’re going to care about over a career and make choices accordingly. I think that’s the advice I would give.

JELISA: My name is Jelisa Dallas, I’m representing the University of Phoenix. My role is as a recognized student organization manager, a program manager. And so my question was, “How do we effectively work with students in a way that’s going to help streamline their purpose as it pertains to connecting with them in the classroom? So a lot of students have a lot of things going on, and how do we streamline that to get them to stay focused and prioritize when so much is going on and around?”

Liz: Thank you for the question. I mean, I think it’s making sure that what we are doing, we’re transparent about why it matters to them. And it’s creating relevance to whatever their goals are. And of course, you can’t do that if you don’t know what they are. So again, you need to know your students, but designing the work for your class, so that it feels intrinsically valuable, I think, is the best advice I can give.

ALI: Hi, I’m Ali Kirwen, I am a course operations specialist with the University of Michigan, we are an all online program, or I work for an online master’s program. It’s asynchronous, we have students everywhere in all different time zones. And we have faculty that care a whole, whole lot about our students. So I’m wondering, as a designer, how can I help encourage my faculty to set boundaries with their students in a way that honors their joy of teaching and interacting with their students, but is working towards preserving them and not burning them out as well? [LAUGHTER]

Michelle: Well, I think that even subtle things like wording choice. So are there things that say over and above, do we give awards for the person who did the most? Or do we give awards for people who did the best? So I think that faculty, especially when they’re new, are really looking for those cues. And so those can be powerful.

Kelvin: What Michelle said… [LAUGHTER] No, what Michelle said but just maybe that underscore and amplify that for a second, I’ve thought about doing this myself, and I just haven’t. But I love the colleagues and maybe some of you are them who have those little statements in the bottom of your email, right? Like, “if you’re getting this email, when you’re not working, don’t feel some sort of obligation to respond right now. I sent it at a time that I was working, that might not be the time that you’re working. And, in a collegial sort of way, we can have that same kind of a vibe, I think, in our course interactions between faculty and students. And then again, wording… I got a note just last night on a book project I’m working on from a colleague who’s gonna peer review. And he said, “I show my respect by being direct and blatantly honest.” And so I think framing is everything. Word choice is everything. And making explicit where you’re coming from without just sort of caving to the implicit pressures and cultural expectations. That’s hard. But it’s important.

Liz: Yes. And women in the academy, we do a lot of emotional labor. And that comes very naturally to me, if you know anything about the Enneagram, I’m a 2, like, I want to fix all your problems, okay. But the way that I do this, because students tell me everything. I think they tell me everything, because they know that I will listen. But what I have learned for myself, and this has been the difference between moving towards burnout and not, is that I am here to listen to you deeply. I am not here to fix your problems. And I will refer you to people who can help you. But if you just need to be heard, I will listen. And sometimes that does get heavy. But I also recognize that if I fix all the problems for all the students, I’m going to be exhausted. And that doesn’t really serve them in the long run. Because they don’t need someone to fix their problems. They just need someone to tell them that they’re okay and that I believe in you, and I care about you. And so I would say that, but deep listening is one of the greatest gifts you can give someone else. And that’s just listening to understand what they’re saying, not to respond. So that’s what I would say. And please never send pictures from the ER, never. [LAUGHTER] You know, students tell them, no ER photos,

John: We always end by asking: “What’s next?” …and we’ll start with Kelvin.

Kelvin: Crystal ball, still not working. [LAUGHTER] But here’s, I guess, my read on the situation, there are more options for people to learn and work than there ever have been before. So I think that we can either meet the needs of our colleagues and our learners, or someone else will when they go elsewhere.

Michelle: What’s next for me, I want to keep doing the absolute best I can teaching my actual classes. I’m just reconnecting so much with that. And I think that’s a good thing for now. And I’m eagerly looking at, hopefully, deeper changes in the academy, also looking for rebuilding online presence. Twitter used to be a big part of my online life and I quit that in May, and saying what kind of connections was this yielding with other faculty, even with students and the big ideas in my field. And maybe I can take more charge and have more agency in that going forward?

Liz: I’m working on a book. So you should all buy it when it comes out. Michelle is the editor, so it’s going to be really good. [LAUGHTER] It’s tentatively called The Present Professor. And we mentioned it in the introduction. But really, I’m just looking for ways where we can create more student centered,e students supportive and faculty well being centered places of learning. That is my passion. And I’d love to talk to any of you who are interested in that.

John: Thank you all for coming. And on your tables, there’s little packets that Rebecca designed with some tea in them, so please take them with you so she doesn’t have to bring them back to Oswego.

Rebecca: Yeah. Thank you all for joining us. And thanks for those that asked questions. And thank you to all of our panelists and we finished on time. [APPLAUSE]

Liz: It is exactly 12:30.


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.