Many students pursue learning strategies that are not aligned with their long-term objectives. In this episode, Erik Simmons joins us to discuss how principles of social and behavioral sciences can be used to help students achieve their objectives. Erik is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at Boston College School of Social Work. He is the author of a chapter in the Picture a Professor project edited by Jessamyn Neuhaus.
- Neuhaus, Jessamyn (forthcoming, 2022). Picture a Professor: Interrupting Biases about Faculty and Increasing Student Learning. West Virginia University Press.
- Research Program on Children and Adversity – Boston College School of Social Work
- Michie, S., Van Stralen, M. M., & West, R. (2011). The behaviour change wheel: a new method for characterising and designing behaviour change interventions. Implementation science, 6(1), 1-12.
- Michie, S., Hyder, N., Walia, A., & West, R. (2011). Development of a taxonomy of behaviour change techniques used in individual behavioural support for smoking cessation. Addictive behaviors, 36(4), 315-319.
- Kahneman, D. (2011). Thinking, fast and slow. Macmillan.
John: Many students pursue learning strategies that are not aligned with their long-term objectives. In this episode, we discuss how principles of social and behavioral sciences can be used to help students achieve their objectives.
John: Thanks for joining us for Tea for Teaching, an informal discussion of innovative and effective practices in teaching and learning.
Rebecca: This podcast series is hosted by John Kane, an economist…
John: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer…
Rebecca: …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 Erik Simmons. Erik is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at Boston College School of Social Work. He is the author of a chapter in the Picture a Professor project edited by Jessamyn Neuhaus. Welcome, Erik!
Erik: Thank you, Rebecca. Thank you, John, for having me.
John: We’re very happy to have you here. Today’s teas are:… Erik, are you drinking tea?
Erik: I am drinking tea. I have a Tower of London house blend. It’s a black tea with a little honey infusion. And it has been keeping me going. So I just finished the full pack today. So this is very timely to be asking what I’m drinking. I’m gonna have to remember this one.
Rebecca: Awesome. Finally, a tea drinker, John. [LAUGHTER] We get a lot of coffee drinkers around here.
Erik: Do people usually slot in their coffee selection?
Rebecca: Sometimes? Yeah, sometimes… or the water. There’s a lot of water.
Erik: Okay, well, it’s good for you.
John: And Diet Coke.
Erik: Diet Coke also can keep you going.
Rebecca: I have a Scottish afternoon tea today.
John: And I have a wild blueberry black tea.
Erik: Oh, wow, that sounds delicious.
John: It really is.
Erik: Quite tasty.
Rebecca: Before we discuss your chapter in the Picture a Professor project, can you tell us a little bit about your dissertation research on behavioral change in low resource coastal communities that rely on marine ecosystems in Indonesia and the Philippines.
Erik: I’d love to talk about that, because it’s a project that’s very near and dear to my heart. And I found it very innovative in that we were taking our lab-based research on psychological and behavioral sciences and taking them to the field to help improve the lives and well being of families and children in Southeast Asia. And really what we had identified was one core facet that undercuts almost every wicked problem that we experience that implicates human behavior. And that’s the need for behavioral sciences. So we saw in these projects that, if we could take evidence-based programs, adapt them to the problem at hand to make sure they’re culturally sensitive, and make sure they’re acceptable by the communities, you can change a whole range of different problems and different behaviors that can help improve wellbeing and, in this case, improve the environmental sustainability of these communities as well, who are very reliant on their aquaculture and on the natural resources around them. What we were seeing in that project especially, was that, hey, if you take a whole bunch of people, and if you can provide them with programs that are meant to engage with their behaviors, their social systems and beyond, you can improve not only their lives, their health and wellbeing, their family functioning, but also things like the environment. So that’s where we were going for. And it was not only an exciting process, it was fun. But it puts us on the front line of working with people, which is something that I’ve always had a passion for.
John: Now, this is a little bit aside from the general focus of the podcast, but what type of behavioral interventions did you work with there?
Erik: What we tend to do in my work and the work of the many seminal, prestigious, esteemed professors I’ve worked with in the past is we take these blended complex interventions that target a couple of different pillars within your life. So we’ll have a little bit from an intervention that focus specifically on your parenting capabilities, per se. We’ll have a little bit on the ability or psychosocial capabilities or capacities for you to self regulate and to goal set. We’ll have a little bit on your emotional regulation. We’ll have a little bit on your social behaviors to help recalibrate social norms within your communities, there’s social dynamics, and we throw all those together, we workshop them with the communities, it’s always a co-building process in the work that I do. And what you end up with is something that can target internal factors, external factors, social norms, and social dynamics within their communities. And of course, as we were working there, certain environmental modifications around behaviors such as recycling, engagement with fishing behaviors. So we take these homunculus type of behavioral interventions that all have evidence bases, but we cut them up, we chop them a little bit, we combine them with each other to get a fit for purpose intervention, because we never go with a one size fits all.
John: You’re currently working as a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the Research Program on Children and Adversity. Could you tell us a little bit about that program?
Erik: Yes, absolutely. It’s another global project, as you guys will get a sense for here, I really like going about helping communities all around the world. And what we’re currently working on is a home visiting intervention. And all that means is you essentially have an active coach who’s an interventionist, they’re a lay worker within the community, currently, I’m working in Rwanda, and they will go to a home and help a family with young children. And now these are the families, John and Rebecca, here that are the most vulnerable in Rwanda, families that really need a lot of assistance. And they have someone who will flexibly schedule with them, come to their home, help them with the initial years, I believe it’s zero to 36 months, or the first three years, assessing similarly once again, parenting capabilities, family dynamics, and then interactions with your child in those first three years, because what we know is that the lifespan development trajectory has a wide range of potential, but as we grow the range of this trajectory slowly, slowly shrinks. So starting early is really important to making sure that individuals have the highest promising potential for their lifespan development. And that’s what we’re really aiming for. So we have active coaches coming into homes to help families with the early years for their children. And we focus on everything from, once again, parenting capabilities to anthropometrics like child growth, to make sure their children are getting a lot of cognitive development, physical stimulation to help them grow appropriately, language interaction, and a lot of play. Plays a big part of the intervention. So that’s currently what we’re working on in Rwanda. We also work in Sierra Leone, we’re currently trying to work with Afghan families who are seeking refuge in America right now.
Rebecca: You’ve talked a little bit about wanting to work directly with people and, of course, teaching is always [LAUGHTER] working directly with people.
Rebecca: So your chapter in Picture a Professor is entitled: “Black Man in a Strange Land: Using Principles of Psychology and Behavior Science to Thrive in the Classroom.” Can you tell us a little bit about how you’re using principles of psychology and behavior science to thrive in the classroom?
Erik: Yeah, I sure can. I’d love to open this up for a conversation as well. And you guys can kind of tell me how crazy I am here. When I saw this call for proposals, I thought this was perfect, because to my knowledge, at least to my social and collegial circles, I had never met anyone who was a young black American man teaching in an Australian classroom. And I thought immediately, I have to share my experience because it was just so unique, at least to me, and I don’t know, maybe there are others out there. And if they are, you know, please feel free to reach out to me, I’m sure we can have some great conversations about being in a different country looking different than a traditional… or let’s not say traditional I don’t think that’s quite the right phrasing here… but maybe just what might be considered stereotypical or typical is a common sense of an educator, and trying to connect with students. And the one thing that was really helping carry me through a lot of my experiences, and helping me connect with my students, was my expertise in social and behavioral sciences. Because I knew if we could take some of the principles of evidence-based behavior change techniques, social norms, social identity, and social dynamics, as well as being able to build an empathetic space where we were using humanistic psychology frames or frameworks to understand each other, we could get a lot done together. And the big premise, or the big proposition of the chapter, I’m not going to remove all the intrigue for me to say is that if we treat people like people, and if we take a very humanistic, very compassionate, and very understanding approach to connecting with our students, our pedagogy is going to improve, student outcomes are going to improve all across the board. So the main proposition, the main premise, of what I’m trying to say is, despite maybe not having a lot of similar ground, or similar background, historical context with your students, if you can find certain areas to connect on a psychological or behavioral basis to them, you can improve the experience not only for the students, but also for yourself as an educator.
John: What are some specific techniques that you’ve implemented that rely on behavioral science.
Erik: So, one of my favorites immediately is having a sense of, and it’s a strange word here, but it comes from social identity theory and social identity leadership, that’s called we-ness. And it’s WE hyphenated to N-E-S-S. And it’s the idea of using social identity theory to immediately set group norms and social dynamics that reflect you as being a member of the group and you being able to associate yourself in some way with your students. I think oftentimes, in educational spaces, we almost feel, as educators, we need to separate ourselves, we need to be different, we need to be in charge, we need to be the leaders who can take a distinct role in that classroom, whereas social identity theory says no, you should go in their first day, and you should say, “Well look at all the ways that we’re more alike than different.” And that’s a strong way, not only to make connections with your students, but to open up the floor for your students to be more comfortable coming to you and your students being more comfortable with expressing their needs. And as I mentioned, in my initial work, having that conversation of co-design space, and then being able to identify you as not only a competent leader, but also someone who is going to defend their process and their progress. So that’s absolutely one of my favorite techniques to use right off the bat when you’re starting a semester to say, “Hey, we’re all more alike, we’re all in the same classroom together, we’re all going to be probably very similar in at least our interests. So there’s more things here that connect us than separate us.” I think it’s a powerful lesson for education as a whole.
Rebecca: Do you usually apply this concept as an activity? as a conversation? What does it actually look like in the classroom?
Erik: So there’s a few ways that you can do it and depending on size, I think those massive lecture halls… this can be a little bit difficult, but I think in the small capstone classrooms where you have 20 to 30 students, absolutely, going around and just having a conversation or putting up slides or having an activity where you’re drawing certain topics out of a hat and you have themes of saying “Okay, we’re gonna go talk to three of your classmates for a little while, and educator included, about your family for a little bit or maybe about a certain activity you like and you can use this to start to develop and design a little hierarchy or infrastructure. You’re going to come up with similar themes in almost every classroom, I’d be surprised if these few topics didn’t come up. People have passions and activities outside of the classroom, people have friends and family that they like talking about. And sometimes just having a couple of prompt questions that you can talk about together with your class, if time allows it and if classrooms are small enough to help you have those discussions. It’s just an extremely powerful tool, asking the questions and opening up for your students to share, whether that be slides, whether that be a list of things that you might want to talk about, whether it be asking students what they’d like to learn about and seeing, you know, where you guys kind of connect on that front are things I do first semester. I always give all of myself in that first little lecture of saying, here’s who I am as a person, now, who are you? I like to know who you are too, and whatever students are comfortable with sharing, that’s what you go with. I do those activities as a start always before I get into any topic matter, a sharing not only what I do, but who I am. And then we go from there as developing that sense of we-ness and shared culture right away.
John: Do you encourage students to use commitment devices to help meet their learning objectives for the course?
Erik: Absolutely. So the work of Susan Michie has been very seminal on me. One thing she developed a little while ago, she does a lot of work with trying to codify, categorize, and help us define the different types of behavior change that we can use to help people reach their goals, to help people change their behavior. One thing she developed is called the behavior change technique taxonomy. And I love this thing, because it’s just a list of 83 different devices that you can use to help people develop versions of themselves. And that’s what I’d start with is saying everything I try to do, I try to encourage students to… if they’re not self defining it, at least it has to be halfway have them bring their commitment to the table, because one thing we know about the difference between early childhood development and early child learning and adult learning is the self-directed nature of it and if you’re not taking that self-directed approach, then you’re bound to purge whatever changes or information you’ve just acquired throughout a semester across coursework. So things like social commitment devices and social commitment tools are incredibly useful in helping students help reach their goals. Now, I would provide a caveat here in who they’re making the social commitment to makes a huge difference. And we call this referent groups in social psychology here. And it’s important to know for social identity, it’s important to know for different social norms, if we can talk about a little bit as well, and it’s important to know for social commitment, is who are you making a referent group to, and who you’re making that commitment to? So making the commitment to me, making the commitment to the person you’ve just met, might not actually be the best way to go about it. But saying, hey, for your first assignment, why don’t you go make the social commitment to your best friend, close family member, your partner, and then trying your best to stick to that, is really important. And there are lots of tools you can use with other people externally, to help students reach their goals. And I think the social commitment is a big one. And there’s lots that we can look at into the science of goal setting to help students achieve things and keep themselves on track. Because temporally, it’s really hard. We’re captivated by so many things, currently, especially students, from technology, social media, the race for attention has never been as breakneck as it is now. So thinking about how you can use commitment devices, goal-setting devices, and different types of activities along that front help students stay on track with their goals is crucial to the process of helping students achieve and get to where they want to be. Because at the end of the day, it’s what it’s all about. It’s not about what we need them to get out of lesson plans, it’s about them being able to attain what they’re looking at getting out of their education.
Rebecca: Can you share an example of how you’ve helped students goal set and meet their goals using some of these devices?
Erik: Absolutely. So I think even setting aside time, whether it be assignment time or in-class time, and some of these things seems so simple, but they’re so powerful. I’m sure you’ve heard of things like the SMART goals, or the different types of things. And listen, there’s a whole lot of goal setting typologies and frameworks out there, they all have very similar underlying principles, they’ve just been designed by different people at different stages. And that is their attainable, they’re measurable, they have some degree of specificity intheir time constraints to that regard. The SMART one is the one I tend to use. Now I use two different types of advices. You guys gonna have to bear with me here because it’s actually very powerful in the goal setting space. Now, lots of times we think when we’re setting a goal is visualize, visualize where you want to be in a year and a couple of months and 10 years, what have you. And what the research kind of tells us is those big nebulous goals or the goals that are really far off, they’re really, really great at starting us down a path. So they might be really helpful in helping us choose a major or choose a direction. But one thing they’re not great at is motivating us in the interim, so day to day. So one thing I tend to do with students and I never pushed them on this problem for goal setting, especially… especially across the semester, is actually visualizing what it looks like if we don’t do the day-to-day activity to reach our goal is way more powerful than saying “Okay, well what do I need to do to get to that goal?” And I’ll give you an example here. So sometimes when my students come in I’ll say, “Let’s take five minutes, I’m just gonna give you a quick reflection activity.” Sometimes it’s writing, sometimes it’s just, “I want you to think about it.” And I’ll say, “Let’s think for a little bit what it looks like, if I don’t do what I need to do today to reach my goal, what does my life look like if I don’t take the steps to attain where I want to go?” And I say, “You don’t need to think of absolute doom and gloom or tragedy if you don’t reach here, but using almost a kernel of ‘Oh, no, I really do want that, I do want to do this today because I do want to achieve my goals…’” is a powerful, short term motivator than saying, “Just think of where you want to be in a couple of years, and do you want to do this thing today?” and I was a coach for a long time. I still am, I guess it’s a part of my personality, my identity. And one thing that was always really hard for me is going to practice. And that was kind of like going to class, kind of like showing up to class. And one thing I noticed was when I thought of, “Oh well, you know, if I don’t go to the gym, today, my coach will be disappointed, I’ll miss out on seeing my friends, I might not do as well, later on in my career as an athlete or whatever,” was a lot more motivating for me to go to class every day, or to go and get in that extra workout than me saying, “Oh, I want to be the best in the world at some stage in my life.” So beyond the initial setting of the goals, using any given SMART framework or a couple of step, couple thread framework, having students do very short term, small reflections on things that might help them keep going or maintain without absolutely inducing a sense of dread in them, I find to be really helpful for students. And I haven’t had anyone completely lose it on me yet and say, “You gave me anxiety this semester, having to think about all these things so frequently.” So that’s been helpful.
John: What are some other specific techniques that you’ve used in your classes that are based on behavioral science?
Erik: Oh, there’s a wealth of women, I can go on and on. But some of my favorites have to do with metacognition, and thinking about the higher-order cognitive processes necessary for students to find the justifications they need for motivation. So motivation has always been a really big part of my research, and motivation comes from a lot of different things. So when we’re thinking about reward systems within your brain, I don’t want to say we all know, because I’m sure we’re talking to a very diverse audience. There’s specific reward systems in your brain that offer you certain neural correlates or hormonal biomarkers that are going to reward certain things and start to… we’re not going to say punished for that, I think it’s a weird word. I don’t know why psychology use that… but diminish the activity of other activities. And by reward, it just means it’s reinforcing that behavior so you’re going to do it a little bit more. And so one thing I always like doing is helping students use a metacognitive infrastructure to help self regulate, which sits within the goal setting literature as well, to say, “Well, what do we need to help reward you further in your progression?” For some students, it is strictly grades. But I find that to be a very poor long-term motivator, and you end up the students just kind of being very anxious and very set on just scoring well, which to me never set right as the purpose of learning, of the purpose of turning up to the classroom. So thinking about what positive reinforcement will be necessary for a student to continue going, and you’re never going to be able to define that for a student. But one thing I like to tell everyone who is unfamiliar with the psychological and behavioral sciences is that the carrot is always a way more powerful tool than the stick. The stick is just always more readily available, it’s the easiest to get to, but the carrot is easily the best. If you can find it, it’s a lot more powerful than going to that stick. So I think putting the work in initially is saying, hey, if let’s take the most simple of example of… this probably hasn’t worked on anyone since year two, or year three, but saying, if it takes a pizza party for you guys to really want to be here, if that’s the extrinsic reinforcement I can provide you, I’ll absolutely do it. And for students as they grow older, it usually isn’t that, it has to be something necessarily useful. But finding whatever metacognitive unlocking we need to do for students to think about their own thinking and say, “Why am I here? What is it that I actually want out of this?” And then we can retrofit that and create a little engineering process for each student in or at least small groups of students to say, “Okay, well, maybe it’s not scores this semester, maybe we’ll judge you based on your progress on this particular metric and evaluation,” which I think shifts as well to more… and this is this private bias speaking here…, but psychometrically informed evaluation of students progress than just saying retention of information, knowledge, or learning.
John: How do you encourage students to engage in this metacognitive reflection?
Erik: So there’s an ample amount of literature here from cognitive behavioral techniques and what started as cognitive behavioral therapy not too long ago, but I especially like give a shout out to my former advisor, Professor Matthew Sanders, who said, “Why are we only using cognitive behavioral therapy or CBT for neuroses or things that are going wrong in us? Why can’t we use this to make our lives better and enhance positive outcomes just as much.” So there’s lots of different things we can use, such as reframing of cognition that can help us to unlock or take that next step into the metacognitive space. So let me give you an example that I think will resonate for all of us here, is lots of times people get really nervous about presenting. Presenting is a big one for cognitive restructuring that a lot of people have, because they have a lot of apprehensions or anxieties about presenting. Being able to think about presenting on two fronts here can drastically improve not only your experience with presenting, but your own ability to reflect and improve on how you approach presenting and that’s saying, the anxiety you feel before presentation is the same energy, it’s the same physiological system of excitement for an activity you might have doing something else. So when you can get students to take different perspectives, cognitively, of how they approach things, how they feel when they do certain things, and then have slight cognitive reframes, you are bound or you’re at least on the first step of the path to also behavioral reframing and behavioral restructuring. So perspective shifting, having activities that allow students… it’s something that you gain very early on in your life… but to habit or perspective shift. Allow them to start to play with these cognitive different realms and to start to interrogate their own cognitive biases, their own cognitive perspectives, some of which have been held for, I’m sure, all years of their lives, their whole existence, but being able to exercise that cognitive muscle and perspective taking, cognitive reframing, cognitive restructuring, is the first step to the metacognitive level, where you’re always stopping and saying, “Wait a second, I need to introspect on this a little bit. Am I here because my parents want me to be here, am I here because I want to be here? How does this align with my identity, values.” And in my particular space, we try not to get too reductionistic as to, we don’t need to get specifically to certain brain areas. But being able to have that introspective process of self and how it interacts with the social ecology around you and your historical past is, in my first step you need for metacognitive capability.
John: So specifically, though, do you have them do blogging? Do you have them write journals, or something similar to engage in that? Because left to themselves, students may not always engage in that metacognitive reflection.
Erik: You cannot, [LAUGHTER] absolutely, just leave students, not only students, educators, all of us to our own devices, a big area of my study is on executive functions, which kind of allow us to interact with these metacognitive skills here. And one thing we know about executive functions is it’s the tasks, skills and activities you do in the day to day that really improve them, rather than just saying,” if you think really hard every day, it’ll eventually get there, you’ll break through that ceiling and you’ll be at the highest level of really interacting with your thoughts as you possibly can.” So there’s multiple ways you can do that. One thing I think has been missing… of course, as we know, in the classroom, we do a lot of reading and writing… but even just very simple, and I mean, simple in that, I mean engaging, engaging in fun problem solving within the classroom of coming in and saying, “Hey, this is a difficult thing going on in the world right now or maybe this is a simple thing going on in the world right now… here’s a problem, how would you go about solving it and being able to exercise sub skills of executive functioning, your planning, your monitoring ability, your cognitive temperance, or your ability to restrain or engage based on your own desires and your own will, having activities that help you practice this is really the way to develop your metacognitive ability.” So I think you’re right there, John, in that having students blog regularly, writing is such a powerful tool, and having students just have the conversations, having students trying to inhabit a different experience, it’s kind of seems almost like a mediated pathway to get to higher metacognitive skill. But it’s the only pathway, because there is no direct “Hey, if you just do this task a lot. It’s not quite like coding or like anything else that has a very technical basis, where if you just do the practicing, you’ll get there.” And these are what we call developing expertise by the work of Daniel Kahneman. And so these are softer or a little bit harsher learning environments rather than the very strict ones where if you just go and practice you will eventually improve. So yes, you need a range of different activities that may seem a bit creatively informed to get you to your main goal or your main outcome. But yeah, this is what you can definitely do with students to improve their metacognition. And the metacognition as well as the executive functions tend to be generalizable to other things they’ll do in their lives. So it’s not just what they’re going to be learning in your class, but it will be learning in other classes and then beyond.
Rebecca: One of the things that we talk a lot about on Tea for Teaching is how many faculty aren’t actually prepared in their programs to become teachers. They might not have training as teachers, and then they’re teaching. So if you were to think about this population who maybe doesn’t have a background in behavioral science, in addition to what you’ve already talked about, what are the couple of things that you think all faculty should know about so that they can better support their students and thrive in the classroom.
Erik: This is something that once again really inspired me when I saw this call for proposals is, I completely agree, and I know there’s a lot of demand on us as faculty. There’s so many responsibilities from these days to project management to admin to well beyond just your teaching, but it hurts my soul a little bit here that we end up in these spaces where we’re throwing first-time teachers into the deep end with very minimal assistance of knowing how students learn, how certain underlying principles might be the things that are really driving the retention of knowledge or the acquisition of skills. And what do we know? One of the biggest things I’ve always relied back on when I’ve talked to people about developing skills, especially in the space of teaching and pedagogy is that you’re likely just to role model whatever you imagine initially as being an adequate or maybe above average teacher. So it’s the same thing we see with parents and children, it’s the same thing we see in our social networks, is that we model after the things that we like, that we desire. So I think having a lot of exposure is the first thing we need to know as faculty, to different pedagogical practices and teaching styles because that’s going to give us the most to pick and choose from, and to be able to develop the most evidence-based practices in teaching. Now, the second thing I think I say here always is understanding of fundamental attribution error for your students is a must have across everything. And the fundamental attribution error… sorry, for anyone who is unfamiliar, is your insight, or your cognitive process to look at someone external to you and say, “they are that way, because a personal quality or the way they are, a character disposition,” and say “You’re behaving in a certain way and it might be due to your environmental factors.” And the best way this is described in many literature is, is anyone who’s driving in a car has had that moment where someone cuts them off, or someone does something that looks a little bit silly, and they say: “That person is a terrible driver, I can’t believe they’re doing that.”….where we have no idea where that person was going, we have no idea what state that person might be in, but it’s always a terrible driver. But if we’re to make the same mistake, it’s “I didn’t get enough coffee this morning, I’m just a little bit tired. It was my mistake. But this isn’t reflective of me.” And the same goes for students. When we look at our cohort of students every year, I think this is importantly true in the pandemic, is being able to say there is always a confluence of multiple factors that are cascading and colliding at one time to give you that student in a classroom every day. And you need to take that student as they are rather than expect things that are unrealistic, or are going to be unreliable in the long run, because we demand a lot of our students. So understanding our students where they are and where they’re at on any given day is an important thing we can take from psychological and behavioral sciences. It’s going to improve our experiences and improve our students, rather than demanding or expecting a perfect student out there. And noting that our students operate many different roles, they are pluralities of many different things. So knowing that about our students, I think, is really important in your expectations with how you design your coursework, you go about your class, I think that fundamental attribution error is really important. And then I close out with a third thing here that I think is absolutely crucial. And I think that is shared charter, shared mission, and shared values, which kind of ties us back to our social identity theory here a little bit in saying initially, it’s really important to start a shared charter, shared mission with your students and saying, once again, co-designing and participatory approaches of what do we need out of this? Not what do I need, not what do you need, but having that dialogue with your students is an important part of behavioral design that can help us improve the way we go about our teaching pedagogy. And it’s a really helpful way too if we feel like we don’t have a good understanding of human learning, a good understanding of human behavior. It’s asking students what they want, it’s a great place to start, maybe they don’t know either, but at least we’re getting that feedback from them. And then there’s that investment into the shared mission together. So I think it’s important for a lot of faculty to know who just feel as if they’ve been thrown into open water, and you have this group of people look back at you and relying on you, but you’re not quite sure what’s going to be best for them for the retention of their knowledge and the progression of their careers in education.
John: Would you suggest doing that right at the beginning of the term, and perhaps even jointly shaping the syllabus for the course if that’s possible in your institution?
Erik: It’s a lot of work. That’s a lot of work. But yes, absolutely. And not only that, but I think the monitoring reflection, it’s an important part of all behavioral and psychological sciences, and especially behavioral change is having at least whatever the increment might be. Sometimes it might be pre- to post- to the semester, sometimes it might be every week, but having instances where you touch back in and say, “Hey, is this still working for us?” …and if it’s not, having the ability to make amendments, and being able to encourage new strategies that students can use to help them reorient or re-navigate towards the new goal, because one thing we know we do really, really poorly is make projections about what we want, what we need, in our personal space. So one of my favorite psychological exercises, we ask people, “How different are you going to be in 10 years?” And they go, “Oh, well, I won’t be that different. How much can I change? I know who I am.” But then you ask them, “Are you the same person you were 10 years ago?” and they say, “Oh, no I’m an entirely different person”. And somehow those two things never seem to align. So in that sense, it’s really important that we at least have little markers or flagpoles there that we can stop at and say, “Hey, is this still what we want? I know, we said this in the beginning, but it’s always alright, to make a change, it’s only too late to make a change once the semester is over.” So having the small incremental things, good, but having the baseline start and doing that initially, that’s where the bulk of the legwork should do. And if you can co-create a syllabus, please co-create a syllabus,
Rebecca: I think co-creation is such a wonderful way of existing, but also our institutions are often set up in a way that does not encourage such behavior by requesting syllabi ahead of time, sharing it out, because we want students to know what to expect. There’s all these things that are in place, also with students in mind, but often deters the behavior of co-creation. And some folks may not be at the liberty or feel like they have the ability to do that co-creation work. But I think there’s sometimes ways that we can do this in smaller ways than just a syllabus.
Erik: Smaller ways, absolutely. But Rebecca, you bring up an incredibly crucial point. And I really would like to touch on this because it does underpin and drive it. It’s almost the engine to all the work that I do. We’ve been talking a lot about individual change strategies and things we can encourage students to do. And I have a list of those that is nearly inexhaustible. But the one thing that I think comes to be missing in a lot of this is our focus on systems and the institutional things that sit around us, the foundations that sit around us, that sometimes provide barriers to us as you were saying, Rebecca, being able to make these changes in the way we like to approach our classes. And that’s one thing that in a lot of my work now and in the future I’d like to bring into this space of making changes is: lots of times when it comes to systems change, it’s really about removing obstacles for educators and for students rather than providing new solutions, or “Hey, add this to your syllabus or add that in and it will make your life easier.” Sometimes it’s just about removing the obstacles that make things really difficult for you to make specific changes. And that goes for students and educators alike, when you’re looking at co-creating a syllabi, or being able to engage your students more in the process. I think a lot of times the institutional perspective, or the institutional opinion, is that students, they’re not ready for that, they’re not able to do that. And you’re right, Rebecca, you know, they need to know what to expect. And I think students are way more capable and adept at these things than we think they are, as are faculty, and just saying, “Hey, let’s think about how we can look at the institutional rules that govern and reinforce or impede on certain behaviors, and how might we change these…” because that’s always going to be the best way you can catalyze change, is making changes to your institutional rules, your systems that exists at the higher level or higher order that might be, than actually looking at individuals within that system. Because sometimes you can say, “Hey, we really want this, we really want that.” But if your institutional rules are going to, once again, provide obstacles there, you’re not going to see a lot of changes. And I’ve seen this in everything from my environmental work to helping families out is, without the actual adjustment to the system as you’re trying to make adjustments to households, the classrooms, you’re just not going to see it happen. So these things have to be done in tandem. And I’m so happy you brought up that point.
John: One of our guests on a past podcast, and I’m not sure which one… I can think of three or four who might have said this… [LAUGHTER] is that they do have the official syllabus which is shared with the department, administration, and so forth. But then there’s the actual syllabus which is shared with the students and updated as they go. And that might be a good compromise, where there’s a core of content or a core of learning objectives and so forth that are in the official syllabus. But then you may have something that’s a bit more flexible and adaptable to the students that are actually in your class.
Rebecca: I mean, I submitted a syllabus that reflects a moment in time, it’s got a date on it, and then it’s a Google doc, a living document. Things change. Disasters happen. We get confused about something we need more time on it.
Erik: Sure. And I think having that space to make those changes and saying it doesn’t have to be a perfect syllabus is ideal. And one thing I talk a lot about in my work is behavioral inertia, where we’re going is kind of how the ball continues to roll. And it’s always really hard to knock us off of that behavioral inertia of what we’re currently doing. And we have stuff like this in our life. Maybe we have a certain policy or a plan or something and we see a better policy and a better plan, but we’ve had this policy and plan for 10 years. How much work would it be to actually change it? How much will it actually save me? And the same goes for our syllabi or our students in that we can get stuck in our ways. But as you’re both saying here, having the small compromises and just making incremental change, you don’t have to go scorched earth every time and say, let’s throw out every syllabus and just start from scratch every semester. But hey, this has been working okay. And having that living document you can make small adjustments to, this works for a semester three years ago, but it’s not working now. So let’s make a change to this particular section, for this particular activity and changes stuff. So just having those little things where our goals feel attainable, and we’re taking them in small enough… it’s called goal slicing… small enough slices that we can actually achieve them rather than trying to make it feel like a monumental have to move the heavens to get this done. I think it’s really, really important. So I’m glad you both brought that up, kind of looking for the solutions here that I think are really important and incredibly vital for us slowly making progress toward where we want to go.
Rebecca: We always wrap up by asking what’s next?
Erik: Yeah, what’s next? I think this is a great question, I see a field where I say there’s so much to be done. I have always been absolutely engrossed by an understanding of pedagogy. I’ve always really desired to know how I can improve performance as an educator. And the one thing I think that’s really important right now is looking at how we can infuse different practices for mentorship and coaching sciences into our ability for faculty and teaching professionals here. And so that’s where I see us going next. I always like having focus on students because students are why we do what we do. But I think to improve the students, once again, we’re going to talk about a little bit of a mediated pathway here, is going from a focus on what do the students need to do to what do we need to do as teaching professionals and faculty to make sure we’re adequately and sufficiently prepared to enter that classroom. So what I’d really like to improve on is use the same mechanisms of social psychological behavioral sciences to help improve your pedagogical ability, teaching professionals, and this is kind of what I’ve said in a lot of the parenting work I’ve worked on in the past is if we want better outcomes for the kids, we probably shouldn’t be going to the kids directly, because they don’t have a lot of control over what’s happening, especially when they’re really little. We really need to be going to the parents and improving the parents. And same thing goes here, as we can use evidence-based behavior change principles, techniques, and tactics, complex interventions, to help improve our ability as faculty members and teaching professionals. So we’re not just throwing educators off the deep end and say, “Hey, you’ve never taught before, but here you go.” So that’s what I see as being the next step in evolution to improving pedagogy as us in education as a whole.
Rebecca: Well, thanks so much for joining us, Erik, and sharing some science with us today, as well as some nice teases for your chapter in Picture a Professor.
Erik: Thank you both. That was a lot of fun.
John: Thank you.
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Rebecca: You can find show notes, transcripts and other materials on teaforteaching.com. Music by Michael Gary Brewer.