321. College Students with Disabilities

Sharing student narratives about their experiences can help us to understand how our instructional and policy decisions impact the student experience. In this episode, Amy Fisk joins us discuss to discuss her research project with Rebecca on the perceptions that students with disabilities have of their learning experiences.

Amy is the Assistant Dean for Accessibility at the State University of New York at Geneseo. Amy oversees the Office of Accessibility Services, which coordinates accommodations and support services for students with disabilities. Prior to her role at Geneseo, Amy coordinated a support program for students on the autism spectrum at SUNY Purchase.

Show Notes


John: Sharing student narratives about their experiences can help us to understand how our instructional and policy decisions impact the student experience. In this episode, we discuss the perceptions students with disabilities have of their learning experiences.


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

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

John: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer…

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


John: Our guest today is Amy Fisk. Amy is the Assistant Dean for Accessibility at the State University of New York at Geneseo. Amy oversees the Office of Accessibility Services, which coordinates accommodations and support services for students with disabilities. Prior to her role at Geneseo, Amy coordinated a support program for students on the autism spectrum at SUNY Purchase. Welcome, Amy.

Amy: Thank you. Thank you so much for having me.

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

Amy: I drink tea every morning. So I have Bigelow French Vanilla black tea.

Rebecca: It’s a good way to start the day. How about you, John?

John: In honor of the holiday season, I have Christmas tea today.

Rebecca: I’m drinking Blue Sapphire from my favorite tea shop in Canandaigua.

Amy: Where’s that?

Rebecca: It’s right on Main Street. You should go there.

Amy: I should.

John: We’ve invited you to talk about the article: “Perspectives among college students with disabilities on access and inclusion,” which you co-authored with someone else… Rebecca, I think it was.

Amy: That name sounds familiar.

John: …which was published in College Teaching earlier this year. Before we talk about the article, could you tell us a little bit about your role at SUNY Geneseo.

Amy: So I oversee our Office of Accessibility Services, or OAS. I meet with students to coordinate accommodations and other kinds of support services for our students with disabilities. I monitor policies and procedures within our office. And I often work with faculty and staff on issues related to accessibility and inclusion. So for example, I might do trainings across campus, work with administrators on various committees, and having a voice on issues related to disability, education, awareness, and accessibility.

Rebecca: So prior to this project, Amy, and I didn’t actually know each other. Do you want to share the origin story?

Amy: I started my position here a month before COVID became a thing. So I was kind of thrown into some challenges I did not anticipate. But one of the things I had been thinking about, many of my colleagues were thinking about, was: How are we going to support our students with disabilities? We’re really kind of concerned about their trajectory during this challenging time. We wanted to just get some more information about students’ experiences during COVID. I started talking to Nazely about this, and she says, “You know, I know someone who does research who also might be interested in a potential collaboration.” So that’s how I got connected to Rebecca. And ultimately, we shared an interest in learning more about the impact of COVID on our students within our respective roles on our campuses. We knew that this was a really challenging time for all of us, but especially for our students with disabilities who had already been experiencing barriers pre pandemic. And so we really wanted to hear from our students about their experiences, and what can we learn about access and inclusion moving forward, even when the dust settles and we talk about things post COVID?

John: A lot of the studies that have been done have been quantitative studies. And your study is a qualitative study. Could you talk a little bit about how this qualitative research complements the quantitative research that’s been done?

Amy: Sure. So ultimately, we wanted to gather students’ stories, and many of our findings from our studies are reflective of findings from past studies on challenges and barriers students with disabilities face compared to students without disabilities. But we wanted to identify these specifically within the context of remote learning. And also within the context of navigating this challenging time just in life, we really wanted that student narrative. And we also wanted to assess the positive things that were happening, the practices that were helping our students feel successful, to really help inform tangible takeaways and recommendations to our readers. And we hoped for this information to be relevant, like I said, when the dust settles and regardless of teaching modality. And I think it’s important to highlight that despite the obvious challenges that COVID brought, it has highlighted the importance of accessibility in higher education and really gave us an opportunity to reassess what we’ve been doing, our everyday policies and practices, and we really wanted to highlight that from the student perspective. Beyond that, we also wanted to talk about the needs of our students with disabilities within the context of access and inclusion. So, often disabilities and identities, that tends to be left out of conversations related to diversity, equity, and inclusion. So it wasn’t just about how we need to provide appropriate classroom accommodations, but what are the ways that we can be more inclusive, promote a sense of belonging, proactively provide equal access? So those were the things that we had in mind as we were designing our study.

Rebecca: One of the things that comes up in a lot of conversations, at least more recently in higher ed., is this growing number of students who are registering for accommodations and also the mental health crisis. Can you talk a little bit about that to provide some context for our discussion today?

Amy: Sure. So the mental health needs of college students with disabilities was becoming really apparent before COVID hit, really significant needs related to depression, anxiety, other severe psychiatric impairments. And the studies that had been done around the time of COVID really highlighted those issues of more and more students connecting to their disability services offices, self-identifying as a student with a disability where they have a clinical levels of depression, anxiety, other debilitating mental health needs. And that theme came out in our study as well.

John: Did all the discussions of the challenges of COVID help encourage students to become more willing to declare their mental health challenges or their other needs that perhaps they might have been more reluctant to state prior to this time?

Amy: I think so. I think there is a shift in our culture, and it being okay to talk about mental health and mental illness, for students to say, “I’m having a really hard time, I’m struggling,” because mental health is a spectrum. We all experience a variety of emotions throughout the day, throughout an hour, and throughout our lifetime. And I think it’s becoming slowly de-stigmatized in talking about mental illness and the importance of promoting mental health, especially among our college-age population. A lot of college campuses are really taking seriously the wellness of their students on campus just because of the rise in numbers of students needing that extra support, because colleges across our country are noticing a pretty significant increase. And I do think COVID has propelled that de-stigmatization of talking about mental health.

Rebecca: We’ve talked in the past on this podcast with Kat MacFarlane about some of the barriers that students face in just even approaching and asking for accommodations, having to register with an office of disability services, or whatever the equivalent is on the campus, and having to self identify. And then a lot of students don’t actually choose to do that for a wide variety of reasons, some associated with stigma, but we are seeing increased registrations. So does that mean that there’s increased disability?

Amy: Yes, I think there are a variety of factors and more students connecting with disability services offices. One, I think high schools are better preparing students with disabilities to enter the post-secondary environment. Two, I think our offices are becoming more visible on campus. Again, I think there’s also a de-stigmatization of disability and accessibility services offices, and we’re becoming more visible and relevant on college campuses. And third, I think colleges are starting to talk about disability as an important facet of diversity more and more, I think there’s certainly room for improvement, but I think that conversation is starting to happen. So more students are finding their way into our offices.

Rebecca: So three key themes emerged in our research about the perceptions of students with disabilities, of our institutions, and their experience, and of belonging. And so those three themes are accommodations and accessibility, building relationships, and community, and then course structure and design. Perhaps we can take them one at a time here. Let’s start with accommodations and accessibility. Can you first start with what’s the difference between accommodations and accessibility? Because we know that this is often something that’s confusing to folks.

Amy: Sure. So an a ccommodation, by definition, is designed to remove some sort of barrier that an individual with a disability is experiencing. So an academic accommodation, for example, might be having extra time to take an exam, because timed tests can be a barrier for some students. Maybe it’s a notetaking accommodation because they need assistance accessing that lecture material. Sometimes it’s ensuring that the course materials themselves are accessible, that they can be read through a screen reader. Sometimes the accommodation is related to a course policy such as attendance for a student with a more severe chronic medical condition. So it is an individualized process to assess what an appropriate accommodation would look like. But the purpose of it is to remove some sort of barrier so that this person has equal access to their environment. And so accommodations, though necessary, is something that we’re legally required to provide for the ADA. It’s really a reactive way of ensuring equal access. It’s a floor, it’s a minimum. Accessibility, on the other hand, is about inclusion from the start, so that individual accommodation may not even be needed. And something I like to highlight is that accessibility is not about lowering standards. It’s sending a message that everyone belongs in this space and that inclusion matters.

John: What were some of the most common barriers that students reported facing related to accommodations and accessibility in your study.

Amy: Some of those barriers for students just not receiving their approved accommodations during remote learning, including extended time on tests, for example, or online course materials just not being accessible, or having to continually remind instructors about their accommodations, explain why they needed the accommodation in the first place, negotiating terms of pre-approved accommodations. And this was particularly true among students with what we might call an invisible or non-appearance disabilities such as learning disabilities, ADHD, mental health disabilities, these students are less likely to be believed and questioned about the validity of their disability or their need for accommodation. So those were some pretty significant barriers for students and just not receiving the accommodations that they were approved for.

Rebecca: I think one of the things that was also highlighted as a result of our study taking place, whilst COVID was in full force is how many campus resources students with disabilities and other students depend upon every day. So we had students reporting things like” I didn’t have access to a printer to pull up text when it was more of an image instead of an accessible text that could have been expanded digitally, or having access to a quiet space, like the library.”

Amy: Yeah, that was really significant. And then that is where you also saw some other equity disparities. So there were some students who live down near New York City in very populated areas, there was a lot going down there at the time. COVID, if we recall, some students did not have quiet spaces at home, whereas other students had quiet home offices and their parents may have been at home with them, helping to support them. And then other students who didn’t have a quiet space whatsoever took on more caretaking responsibilities, didn’t have access to WiFi. So those equity disparities continued to widen during COVID beyond the disability barrier, so that was something significant, I think that needed to be highlighted,

Rebecca: What are some of the factors related to accessibility and accommodations that actually resulted in positive perceptions?

Amy: So our students actually reported some very positive interactions with their instructors. So when receiving a student’s letter of accommodation, or like an accommodation notification that would come through our office, some would reach out and ask the student “How can I support you? How can I help provide this accommodation?” One student even noted how they appreciated that the instructor didn’t call them out in class, because that had happened before. So I think just preserving the students’ dignity, reaching out to the student, those were the kinds of things that our students reported as making a significant difference.

John: I know you’re study focused on the status of students during COVID, but in your role addressing these issues now, have the changes in faculty behavior persisted? Have faculty continued to become more sensitive to some of the accessibility and accommodation needs of students as we move back to more classroom instruction?

Amy: So in conversation with colleagues, other disability service providers across SUNY, but also across the country, I think we’ve seen a mix. I think there are some who just wanted to go back to normal, and didn’t we all. I think COVID, again, was a very challenging time and faculty too didn’t have a ton of support, and also really struggled with having that emergency shift to a remote learning modality and some didn’t have the skills or support to really deliver courses in the way that would have facilitated student success. So they were really looking forward to getting back to that in-person modality, back to the pedagogy that we’re used to, and that may have posed some new barriers for students coming back to college campuses. Conversely, we also saw instructors taking some of those learned lessons from the remote learning period and applying them when we did come back to campus. So I do know a number of instructors who, for example, are still utilizing the lecture videos they created during COVID and post them on their learning management system for students who may not have been able to attend class that day, for example, so they can still get the lecture material or recreating their course materials and documents so that they are accessible, creating videos, captioning their videos, modifying some course policies to be a bit more inclusive for students. So I think there has been a change in realizing we can still have students be successful and meet the learning objectives, but in a different and more inclusive way.

Rebecca: I think one of the things that we can highlight that also came out in the student experience, and students reported this in our study, is that some of them actually experienced better access during COVID. Not all but some, in part because some of the technology caught up. And when we first went remote, Zoom didn’t have captions available by default and now it does. And so a lot of these things have become norms that people with disabilities have fought for for a long time and never got.

Amy: And I would say that’s true as well with regard to course policies that may have been amended as well, introducing more self paced work, which is also something that students really appreciated during the remote learning period.

John: I just recently returned from the POD conference where there were many, many discussions of this very issue. And in general, the results there were pretty much the same as what you’ve described, that a lot of the changes that faculty made to better accommodate students needs persisted, but some faculty have moved back to old practices and the results are a little bit mixed. But on average, there seemed to be, in a number of studies, some substantial improvement in faculty responses to student needs.

Rebecca: Based on what students have reported, what recommendations do you have for faculty related to accommodations and accessibility to continue the forward movement as opposed to regressing?

Amy: So, actually I did a talk with faculty of one of our academic departments at the start of the semester, reviewing our office, some of the logistical pieces of implementing accommodations, that sort of thing. But before I started really getting into that, we had a discussion about how accommodations, and the dialogue about accommodations with students are approached, how it’s discussed, how it’s communicated, something as simple as taking time to actually review the portion in your course syllabus related to an accommodation, so maybe an accessibility statement. That tells students that this is important, making sure that your online materials are accessible from the start, that tells students that accessibility and inclusion is important. And students are more likely to engage in a reciprocal dialogue with you about their needs when they feel like they’re heard, when they feel like they’re a valued member of the class, that their accommodations are important and not burdensome. That’s a term we heard a lot in our study, that they’re not a burden, or it’s some sort of requirement that the faculty has to fulfill. And so I think this is probably true for most students, regardless of disability. But students in our study specifically noted how they appreciated when the instructor showed empathy and understanding and flexibility, recognizing that students have significant issues outside of the classroom. We all do, between family, finances, things that are happening in our world today. And I think this is important to acknowledge as well, given that we’re seeing an increase in students from various diverse backgrounds coming into the college environment.

Rebecca: And as we’ve talked about many times on the podcast, flexible doesn’t mean not having standards. [LAUGHTER] And it doesn’t mean a free for all. In fact, a lot of our students benefit from structure, which we’ll talk about, I think, in a few minutes, because that ties to one of our other themes. You talked a little bit about faculty workload related to this, and sometimes the perception that faculty put off is that it’s a burden to provide these accommodations. And the reality is that a lot of our students need very similar things. And so if we think about the common requests for accommodations, or digital accessibility strategies, from the start, we often don’t have a lot of one off things that we do need to accommodate, because we’ve already built it into our courses. That’s not to say that there aren’t accommodations that we need to provide additionally, but it may result in less work, ultimately, to really think about these accessibility principles upfront.

Amy: Right. And I think something as simple as making your course lecture materials available on the learning management system available to students. That can help reduce a lot of barriers for many students who might struggle with keeping up with the pace of the lecture and they end up missing material. A student who may have missed class that one day and just needs that material, other students who need to kind of re-teach themselves the material because, perhaps, they had challenges with staying focused during class. I think there’s a variety of reasons why students would benefit from that, but something as simple as that. Often, when students come to see me, there are maybe students who hadn’t needed accommodations previously, but they encountered a particular course where the policies were such that there were new barriers that arose and if the policy was different, perhaps they wouldn’t need that accommodation. That’s a concrete example of the difference between accommodation and accessibility. Some of our course policies and course design may be inadvertently barriers to students with or without disability. So this might include use of pop quizzes, not making lecture materials available to students, not permitting use of technology, not allowing students to even take breaks in class. And so although the purpose of these policies is probably to make students engaged and have accountability in the course, which these are things, of course, we want… again, we’re not lowering standards… students still need to go to class and do the work. But I think some of these policies actually might be having the opposite effect, and it does for students who request accommodations, rather than focus on learning in the course.

John: I think that many faculty who had only taught in a face-to-face modality before COVID, were able to avoid issues of accessibility by not creating digital content. When they moved to remote teaching, though, they were forced to begin developing digital materials and often received some training in creating accessible digital content. Do you think that that training received during COVID helped encourage more accessible practices by faculty in general?

Amy: I think so again, I think some of these practices have shifted over time, and I think COVID has shed light on the benefits of accessibility, not just for people with disabilities, but for all people. I mean, again, use of captions and subtitles can be beneficial for a lot of folks, whether you’re sitting in a busy Starbucks, whether you have a lot going on in the background, maybe you’re trying to juggle work and family, maybe, again, you’re hard of hearing, and so you need access to those captions. Again, accessibility is for all, not just about or for people with disabilities.

Rebecca: The second theme that kind of emerged in our research was building relationships and community, can you share some insights with faculty about the role that they can play in helping students with disabilities feel connected and included? And you highlighted some of those already: providing accommodations and showing students some dignity and respecting their dignity.

Amy: So again, I think engaging with a student and even something as simple as taking the student aside and asking, “How can I make this course more accessible to you?” speaks volumes to the student, that they are valued, they belong, that their needs aren’t burdensome, and they’re more likely to engage in a reciprocal dialogue with the faculty member when they feel like “Oh, they care about me and my success in this course.” I actually knew about a professor who did an anonymous Google form, asking students “How can I make this course more accessible to you? Are there barriers? In reviewing the syllabus, do you have concerns about something within the course?” One of my students actually told me about this, and said how it really made them feel seen and valued. And they were more likely to reach out to the instructor when they needed help, because some students fail to do so out of shame. They’re in a very vulnerable position to talk about their disability related needs to a faculty member, to an authority figure. And so when you do something as simple as asking a student, “How can I make this accessible to you? Are you experiencing barriers right now?” really opens that line of communication with the student and helps them build a positive relationship with that instructor and for maybe other instructors. It also helps to build a sense of community so that other students know that this is really important, and that inclusion matters. And that’s also sending a message to all their students within the classroom that we appreciate and respect diverse learners here in this classroom. I think that’s a teachable moment for our students as well.

Rebecca: So one of the other things that I think emerged is a desire to be connected with peers, but that faculty can play a really important role in facilitating that connection. So I think oftentimes, we just assume in a classroom that at the beginning of class students are socializing and getting to know other folks and have those contacts, but students really reported that having more structured ways of connecting with peers was really beneficial to them outside of class. And that’s something that I think we might take for granted as instructors in the classroom, that it would just kind of organically happen. But that structure, that scaffolding around that really bubbled up as being pretty important to our students,

Amy: Yeah, that peer-to-peer interaction for an even if it was virtual. One of our students said, “Our instructor had a virtual whiteboard that we could all do group work even when it was asynchronous, which is pretty neat.” So that helps set the stage for positive peer interactions, for peers to ask peers for help and mentorship, which is important. Often, students just feel that going to office hours is the only way that they can receive help. And when you provide opportunities to work together, learn together, that really helps, again, open up a line of communication among peers as well, which is a skill that we’re trying to teach our students.

John: And that was especially severe during COVID. But also, when we returned to the classroom, and students were asked to sit at least six feet away from any other student, it certainly reduced the amount of interaction and it has made it a little more challenging for all students to interact with others. That’s been improving, but I think, perhaps, that experience may remind faculty of the importance of building those types of connections. Because even before COVID, there were always some students who may not have felt as much a part of the class community. But I think we’ve all learned the importance of community during that time.

Rebecca: I think that’s just another example of something that students with disabilities have pointed out as being really important to them. But it’s also important to many other students, too.

John: The third theme that emerged from your research was course structure and design. And most of your findings in that particular category align with many other studies involving inclusive pedagogy and Universal Design for Learning. Can you highlight some of the common barriers that students with disabilities faced in terms of course structure and design.

Amy: So one of our students in the study commonly referred to one of their course LMS pages as a scavenger hunt, where they spent more time trying to find the materials and the information on the course rather than on the assignments themselves. So students in general benefit from an organized LMS and an organized syllabus for deadlines, instructions, policies are very clear and concise, but for students with disabilities, this is particularly important. Many of my students with ADHD, health or chronic medical conditions, or a learning disability, they need to plan ahead, because it might take the students double or triple the time to finish a task. So if students don’t know when their next test is, or if instructions aren’t posted a few days before something is due, we’re really not setting them up for success. And I also talked about some of those other policies and course design that might be inadvertent barriers to our students. And so some of our students reported that they did benefit from self-paced tasks, or on untimed learning assessments, having some autonomy and options for completing assignments in a different format, such as doing a presentation or a podcast, instead of a paper, working in groups or choosing to work individually on a project. Those are some of the specific practices our students highlighted as being really helpful. And again, we’re not lowering standards, they have to meet the same standards and learning objectives, as every other student, just perhaps meeting those same standards in a different way. And that’s what Universal Design for learning is all about.

John: One time in a workshop, a faculty member mentioned that they have students do a scavenger hunt in the LMS, to find various course policies, or to find materials. And I cringed at that and I suggested that it might be better to design your course in a way where the students don’t have to struggle to find things so they can focus their cognitive efforts on learning materials, rather than engaging in scavenger hunts, trying to navigate the course. Has that improved recently?

Amy: I think it has, again, in conversations with some of my colleagues who do this work and talking with faculty, I think it’s a mixed bag as it relates to how instructors are approaching course design in their policies. But other faculty are seeing that changing their pedagogy, changing their policies, changing the way they interact and see students and helping to meet those student needs have evolved, because perhaps they themselves have experienced accessibility barriers during COVID as well. And so it’s become more relevant, because they have that lived experience. And they’re seeing that adopting some of these inclusive practices are actually helping to keep their students engaged, that the students, even if they’re struggling, are more likely to tell their faculty member “I’m struggling and I need help, but I want to stay in this course, what kind of flexibility could be provided?”… rather than, we’ll use a college student term, ghosting [LAUGHTER] the class. So I think things are changing in a direction that speaks to some degree of flexibility and helping students meet those same standards, where the focus is more on learning, rather than adherence to an arbitrary policy.

Rebecca: I think the students really underscored maybe without realizing things like the transparency and learning and teaching or TILT, where being really clear and explicit about what the expectation is and how to get there and how you’re going to be assessed really helps and supports students… that structure and those guardrails is what all of us need. How many times have we worked on a paper the second before a deadline? We work on deadlines, and so if we help students with intermediary deadlines, we’re actually helping them and that doesn’t mean that we’re not flexible,and flexibility doesn’t mean not having those.

Amy: It’s about scaffolding. It’s about recognizing that not all students are coming from the same background and experiences and privilege. They’re not on the same playing field, and so providing those scaffolded learning opportunities… that can really help even the playing field, just providing those scaffolded learning opportunities.

Rebecca: And it’s really some of this scaffolded accountability, so it’s not all due at once, It’s helpful to faculty to remind them that there’s feedback throughout a process on a larger assignment, but also it’s helpful for students to hit individual deadlines to evolve their work as well.

John: And that’s something that is found, as you noted earlier, by Mary-Ann Winklemes in her research on Transparency in Learning and Teaching, and also by Viji Sathy and Kelly Hogan in their research on the importance of structure in reducing equity gaps. While transparency and structure benefits all students, it especially benefits the students who have equity gaps of some form, and it sounds as if that’s also true for students with disabilities.

Rebecca: Yeah, I think none of this is really new, but oftentimes students with disabilities aren’t necessarily included in those studies about equity always, it’s not always one of the groups that’s pulled out separately.

Amy: Part of what’s next is also hearing about the experiences of students with disabilities from other diverse backgrounds, including students of color, students from lower SES backgrounds, students in the LGBTQ+ community, that those experiences are different and that intersectionality is really key in understanding students’ experiences in the classroom and how we can be more accessible and inclusive because, again, accessibility is not just related to are we providing a legally required accommodation, but are we creating a sense of belonging in that space, and giving students an equal opportunity to demonstrate their knowledge and be successful, which is ultimately why we’re all here, I would hope.

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

Amy: I think it’s important to not just put a focus on what individual faculty can be doing in their classrooms to support students with disabilities. But how are we promoting access and inclusion at the institutional level, supporting students with disabilities and students from other diverse backgrounds is a whole campus responsibility and faculty needs support in doing that work as well. So I’m hoping what’s next is working with administration, other campus leaders and identifying ways we can really help move that needle in a meaningful way. Making accessibility into larger DEIB (or diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging) campus initiatives, our campus-wide policy, strategic planning, campus-wide faculty and staff training, and other professional development opportunities, hiring diverse faculty and staff on our campus. So not just about talking the talk, but walking the walk when it comes to access and inclusion in higher education.

Rebecca: I think that’s definitely a theme that we’ll see throughout all of higher ed. I hope that we’ll all go home and arm and move in this direction collaboratively.

John: Well, thank you for joining us. It’s been great talking to you and we’re looking forward to hearing more of your future work on this topic.

Amy: Well, thank you so much for having me today. I appreciate it.


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.


319. AI in the Curriculum

In late fall 2022, higher education was disrupted by the arrival of ChatGPT. In this episode, Mohammad Tajvarpour joins us to discuss his strategy for preparing students for an AI-infused future. Mohammad is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Management and Marketing at SUNY Oswego. During the summer of 2023, he developed an MBA course on ChatGPT for business.

Show Notes


John: In late fall 2022, higher education was disrupted by the arrival of ChatGPT. In this episode, we discuss one professor’s strategy for preparing students for an AI-infused future.


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 Mohammad Tajvarpour. Mohammad is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Management and Marketing at SUNY Oswego. During the summer of 2023, he developed an MBA course on ChatGPT for business. Welcome Mohammad.

Mohammad: Hello, and thank you for having me here.

John: Thanks for joining us. Today’s teas are:… Mohammad. Are you drinking tea?

Mohammad: Yes. So I love tea. And from where I’m coming from, originally from Iran, tea is a big thing. So we have a big culture around tea. And it’s very interesting because we go to a coffee shop and we drink tea there. So we call it a coffee shop, but the most we get was tea. So I love brewed tea, and it’s kind of a time-consuming process, and it needs devices, tools that they don’t have here. So for a while, I tried tea bag, but I couldn’t connect well with that, so I decided to switch to coffee. But when we drink tea, we have rock candy. So we try to sweeten it with rock candy instead of sugar, because I love tea, and I’d love to drink my tea with rock candy. Now I drink coffee with rock candy, [LAUGHTER] which is a very funny mix, but it works for me. And time to time when I go to a restaurant that has middle eastern food, I get tea there and I really enjoy it. So that is a luxury for me. So it happens once a month when I get brewed tea, but I also like herbal tea, so I like mint tea and other types of herbal tea. I tried to get them mostly before bed.

Rebecca: Today I have blue sapphire tea, brewed fresh this morning.

John: And I have an English breakfast tea, but after a conversation we had earlier, I have some rock candy with saffron in it as a sweetener. So it is very good. So thank you for that suggestion.

Mohammad: Good. Good. Yeah, I have a big mix of rock candy with different flavors with different taste so I will bring you some, so you can try a different one. Good that you have the saffron one. I will bring a different version to you.

Rebecca: So we invited you here today to discuss the course that you offered last summer on ChatGPT for Business. Can you tell us a little bit about how this course came about?

Mohammad: So this course had a very interesting story. It was spring semester 2023, and ChatGPT was out from, I think, end of 2022, November, December. I was using that, and I really enjoyed how powerful the system is. I was following AI even before ChatGPT, and I was expecting such a thing to happen, but to be honest, I wasn’t expecting it to happen in 2022. I was thinking like 2027, 2030. But it happened, and I was so fascinated by the technology, by the quality of the answers that it provided. I was using it every day, to be honest, and I was trying different things with it, trying to find biases in it, trying to find how it can help me. And then it was the break, we had a week of break, spring semester, because reading break or spring break. And I made the first modules of the course event without discussing it with my department. I was so interested, I said, “Okay, let’s try,” and I said “worst scenario is I’m going to put it online for everyone to enjoy it. If the school doesn’t approve this course, then I will put this on YouTube.” So I’ve made the first module, and then we had a faculty gathering at this Italian restaurant in Liverpool, New York, called Avicolli. We were there and the director of our MBA program was there as well, Irene. So I told Irene, I have this idea of ChatGPT for Business, and I have worked this much on it. And she was so supportive, said: ”That’s a wonderful idea, let’s go for it.” So I sent her a proposal, and everything worked very well. And the school was so open to try new things, which I was very happy about. And then we made the course and submitted the proposal. It was approved, and we offered it in summer. That was the story, actually.

John: Could you tell us a bit more about the course? How many students were enrolled in it? What was the modality?

Mohammad: So, for our MBA program, most of our MBA students are professionals. They have a career already, they’re working full time, and then they’re getting their master’s degree, their MBA, actually, to move forward with their career. Many of them already have master’s degree, they may be doctors, they may be nurse supervisors, so the modality that we use for summer courses is mostly asynchronous online, which means we record the session, we put it online, they take online exams, and we go that way, we communicate online. For this course, I designed it in three modules. In the first module, we discuss the ethics and foundations of AI. We discuss how ChatGPT was trained, what was the data that they use? What are the biases that can happen? How can we use this system ethically because there are so many things that we can do with AI, which are very good things. And there are so many not right things that people can use AI for. So we wanted to make sure about the ethics first. And every course that I want to design on AI, I will start with ethics and foundations, because I think that’s the most important element. So we discussed the biases in AI, for example, gender biases, racial biases that may happen if we solely rely on these systems that are trained on biased data from internet, let’s say. So we discussed that. The second module was on prompt engineering. So as we know, prompt is the query that we sent to the AI, that’s the ChatGPT or Bard. So the quality of question that we ask is directly related to the quality of answer that we get from the system. So we want to make sure we ask questions that give us the best answers. And most of the time it’s not one question or one prompt, it’s a sequence of prompts. So we call it a prompt flow. So, at the first round, you may not get the best answer. But as you improve it, you will get closer and closer to what you want. And that’s what we did in the second module. So we designed an eight-step method for prompt engineering. And there are different stages actually in it. So for example, in one step, you have to anonymize the data to make sure that privacy of your client is considered. You want to set the context for the system, so it understands its role in helping you do the job, etc, etc. So we call it the Kharazmi prompt engineering method, which is named after the person who developed the algorithm, actually. So we made that 8-step method, and it worked very well for my students. In the third module, we went one step further. So as you know, these large language models are very efficient and very effective in writing code in different languages. So one of the things that I tested ChatGPT for in 2022, early 2023, was writing codes with it. So I gave it a task and asked it to write the code for me in R, Python, Stata. And it was so good at writing efficient code in these languages. I even used it to optimize my code. So I intentionally, for example, gave it a for loop in R, to see if it can optimize it. And as you know, in R, we can use sapply(), or lapply() to optimize for those. And it was so good at getting it. So I found that it’s very helpful with coding, with programming. And we made the third module actually on data analytics, which requires a lot of coding. And many of the MBA students, because of their background, they’re coming from degrees, or fields that have nothing to do with programming or coding. They have to use it time to time, they have to read the output, but they may not have written their own code. So in my class, I had a student who said, the last time I wrote the code was 20 years ago, that was like the diversity of my class. And I had the students who had taken economics, and they did a lot of coding. So we made the third module on data analytics and how we can use ChatGPT to write us the code and help us with data analytics. And it was wonderful to see that the students with no background in programming tin either R or Python, were able to write code, they’re able to debug code. So I intentionally gave them codes that had some intentional error. So I removed a part or I removed a small comma there, and they were able to debug it in a couple of seconds. And that was one of the fascinating parts of this course. And interesting, I had a student who told me that our company was moving actually from one software to another. And they used ChatGPT and what they learned in that class to migrate their code from one language to another. So with regards to enrollment, we had a lot of interest. So we had so many people who registered for the course and we had so many who were in the waitlist, but we had to make it small cohorts because we wanted to give very personal attention to each student to make sure that everything goes well. So we limited the enrollment to 12. And we promised the rest that we will offer this course again, and you will have a chance to take it. So we had a cohort of 12 MBA students, and understand the MBA students, as I mentioned, they’re professionals. So in class we had a very high profile journalist, three times Emmy Award winner journalist, we had a neurosurgeon, we had a CFO, we had an activist who was running for office. They had so many different backgrounds that helped actually enrich the learning for everyone. I was learning from how they are using the system for their own specific niche. And that was wonderful, I would say, learning process for everyone.

Rebecca: With the diversity of students that you had in your class, can you talk about some of the kinds of activities that they did individually or together?

Mohammad: As I mentioned, the course was asynchronous, because of the course that we have at SUNY-Oswego, most of our MBAs are professionals. So we intentionally try to make, especially summer courses, asynchronous online. But the level of enthusiasm in this class was so high. So we set up weekly meetings. And most of the time we did it during lunchtime, because everybody was working, that was the best time. In my situation, I think we set the time for 6pm, so 6pm we were on Zoom discussing the module that you have learned that week. So there was a lot of interesting discussions in those sessions. I think one of the best discussions that we had was about ethics of using AI. People from different areas were talking about how these biases can affect, let’s say, patients it has, how these AI tools can be used for fake journalism, making fake news, and what are the dangers of that. And then we discuss the inherent biases in the system. So ChatGPT was trained on data that was on internet, data on internet was created by human beings, human beings are prone to biases, those biases will be transferred to the system. So we discussed that. And we had a very healthy discussion about the need for diversity in data, and diversity on the teams who work on this data to train the models. Because if the team members are diverse and sensitive to different issues that may happen, they will make an effort to fix it. So I think the most interesting part for me was the discussion of ethics, and the wrong and right ways that we can use AI and how we can mitigate those biases or harmful uses of AI.

John: Many people in academia are talking about AI and the need to train students in the use of AI. Could you talk a little bit about some of the ways in which AI tools are already being used in business applications.

Mohammad: I will go from academia point of view and how students are using it day to day. And then some of the uses of AI in industry. So in academia, the very basic things that students use AI for are about, let’s say, summarizing a big text. And that’s what I teach them actually, in any course that I have. I’m teaching marketing research, I’m teaching principles of marketing, any course that they teach, I remind them that, okay, you have this big article, and you want to read that, you don’t have time for it, ask ChatGPT to summarize it for you. It helps us read more and more articles, more and more books. So that’s one of the things that people can use it for. The other thing that I have seen many of our international students actually use AI for, to improve their writing skills. So you’re an international student, you have wonderful idea, but you don’t have the best writing skills, writing experience in English. You can write wonderful articles in your own language, but when it gets to English, your vocabulary is limited, you may make grammar errors. So they use it to improve their writing. And in all my courses, I tell them, I’m more than happy to see you use AI to improve your grammar, to improve the flow of your writing,and to check for any writing errors in your text. So that’s totally fine, If they use it for. And there are many other things that the students use it for, for example, they use it to generate individualized examples. So let’s say you’re a student, you have a small problem with one of your courses, let’s say calculus. There is no good example in the textbook, let’s say. But you can ask AI to generate an example that will help you understand that specific niche research problem that you have. So that’s what I see from different areas, use AI for their coursework. When it comes to industry, it’s an abundance of AI use. So many marketing teams are using AI to generate content, especially a start. Because then you’re a startup and you’re a small business, you don’t have a marketing department. You’re one person, you’re the CEO, you’re the CFO, you’re the HR, you’re the marketing manager, you have to do all those jobs, and these LLMs, these large language models, these AI systems, help entrepreneurs to do the marketing and many other aspects of their business on their own. If you want to create content for your social media, ChatGPT can do that for you. You want to make a job posting, ChatGPT can take care of that for you. And then you can focus on improving and developing your business.

Rebecca: I want to circle back to some of the ethics questions that you were grappling with in class. I’m hoping that you can share some more details about the kinds of conversations that you had with students around ethics? Because this is a topic that I think comes up a lot for faculty, in particular, in thinking about how they might want to encourage or discourage students from using tools like ChatGPT.

Mohammad: Definitely. So what we did at SUNY Oswego was we set up an AI committee, I’m talking about the School of Business, I’m sure other schools are doing the same. So we set up an AI committee to make sure that we have a certain policy or certain plans on how we want our students to be trained and use AI. Because it’s the new computer, it’s the new calculator, it’s the new Wikipedia. We cannot stop people from using it. So we want to train them on the use of AI with integrity, we want to make sure that they are using it in an ethical way. So what we did was, we developed three different policies for courses. For some courses, very fundamental courses, we don’t want the students to use AI, because we want them to learn the tool. For example, in calculus, we want them to learn the mathematics behind doing the calculation. Or let’s say in marketing, we want them to understand the fundamentals of what’s the target market, how we can pick the target market, how we can make a fit between our business offering, and what the target market needs and wants. For those fundamental courses, we either ban use of ChatGPT, or we make it very limited to certain purposes, for example, you can use it to fix the grammar in your writing, you can use it to improve the writing of your assignment. Then we have a second level use of AI. Some courses, we are fine if a students uses it to generate some ideas for them to help them do assignments, create examples for them. And then we have a third layer, which is we ask them to use AI. So we tell them in the syllabus that you’re not only are allowed to use AI, you are expected to use AI, text to text AI, text to image AI, text to voice AI, all of that to improve the quality of assignment that you submit, to improve the quality of the projects that you do for this course. For example, for ChatGPT for Business, in the syllabus, it said that you’re learning text to text AI, but you’re expected to use other types of AI when you do your assignment. And many of my ChatGPT for Business students actually use that and they develop logos and many visuals for the assignments totally generated by AI.

Rebecca: Can you talk a little bit about what came up in those conversations in class about the ethics and how they’re using it in different ways. So if they’re using it for images, or they’re using it to write code, or all these other varieties of uses that you’ve outlined.

Mohammad: So one of the discussions that we had around biases, we discussed how gender bias may be inherent in those AI systems. And when we talked about it, it’s not just ChatGPT, any AI system can be prone to those biases. For example, our facial recognition systems, they’re mostly trade on Western pictures, faces from Western people. So they may not do well when it comes to let’s say, African Americans. And they may cause a lot of bias. We have cases actually of that in the news. So that was one of the things that we discussed. And one of the conclusions that we had in those discussions was that it’s not just about the data to train the model it’s about the team that is working on that. The team needs to be diverse enough. If you have African Americans, if you have different ethnicities, if you have different genders in the team, then we’ll be more sensitive to these biases, and we make sure that these are not happening. The other thing was about gender bias. So let’s say the system was trained on data that we had on the internet, go check the Fortune 500 list, the CEOs of Fortune 500 list, the majority of them are male CEOs. So if you train the system on that type of data, it will assume that males are better at doing those jobs, which is wrong. We had a very healthy discussion about that, or different ethnic backgrounds. So if you check the top 100 US companies, only eight of them have African-American CEOs. So when you train your system on that data, you are making inherent biases in the system. The bias is in the DNA of that system, let’s say. So we want to make sure that we at least have those biases in mind, so we are not solely relying on AI for any purpose that you’re using it for. So AI is now being used and ChatGPT… companies are using that, but sooner or later, governments will start using AI. They will use it for let’s say immigration purposes. Just imagine how those biases can affect people’s lives actually. Health care will start using that. So there are so many dangerous decisions that doctors can make. There’s so many things can go wrong with solely relying or blindly relying on AI. And that was one of the biggest things that we discussed. So we want to use it to be more efficient, and sometimes be more effective. But we want to use it with supervision, somebody should check the output, someone should read the output carefully. That person should be aware that these systems are prone to many errors, many biases. So that was one of the discussions that we had. The main thing, I think, that we discussed regarding biases and errors was gender biases and ethnic biases in AI. And then we discussed the wrong ways of using AI. One of the main things that we discussed was fake news. So somebody can make fake news, make a fake Twitter account, and keep posting with the same language that a certain politician is doing. And, as we know, it’s not just text to text AI, you have text to voice AI. So we can give it a sample of a person’s voice, and it can generate the same voice. So just type the speech for the AI and we’ll read it with the same voice. So there’s so many things that can go wrong, especially when it comes to disinformation and fake news.

Rebecca: it seemed like one of the other ethical areas that you talked about, based on what you had said previously, is about data, the data inputs that train the systems, and also the data that you’re putting into the system that you might be analyzing. So there’s privacy issues, copyright issues, etc. Can you share a little bit about how those conversations unfolded as well.

Mohammad: So, for example, one of the ways that people are using it, especially many doctors are actually using ChatGPT to ask it questions. For example, what are the side effects of this new medicine that I’m using. So sometimes you’re inserting private information to the system. So in the prompt engineering session that we had, one of the steps was anonymize, we write the prompt for the system, then we check it for any private information. It can be a name, it can be an address, it can be even a vehicle plate number. All of those should be removed from your prompt, before you submit it to the AI, because you never know what happens to that data. So one of the things that we did was to make sure that no personal or private data is being inserted into the system, at least for the systems that we have right now. In future, we may have private GPTs. So your organization may have an institutional GPT, that makes sure that all the data is private, it may change then. But the systems that are general purpose right now, Bard, ChatGPT, any other system, we want to make sure that the data that we insert into the system is totally anonymized, no private information is being sent to the system, even an email address. We use placeholders for that in our course, to make sure that even emails are not being fed to the system. The other important question that you raised was about copyright. So there are two things with corporate. First, the systems were trained on content that was generated by a person. So what if I asked AI to generate content similar to that? So write me a Harry Potter story, for example, exactly use the same language that JK Rowling was using? What happens then? That’s a big question. The other concern is who owns the copyright for the output that we get from Ai? For example, in my courses, I’m redesigning all my PowerPoints. And I’m removing all the images that I was using before with images that AI has generated. So when AI generates those images for me, who owns the copyright? Is it ChatGPT? Is it is Dall-E? Is it Midjourney? Or is it the person who directed the system to make those content? So at least for ChatGPT, based on what they wrote on their website, they don’t assume any copyright for themselves. The person who’s generating or giving the prompts will own the content. So at least we know that’s the answer to that question for one system, but what happens in future? There should be lots and lots of discussions on copyright, who owns the copyright of the output? And if the system was trained on somebody else’s writing, somebody else’s art, who owns the output? If I prompted it to write a JK Rowling Harry Potter for me, do I own the copyright or do the original writer usually will get the copyright of something that I’ve prompted to ChatGPT? So I think one of the biggest questions that we have had is regulations. How do we want the regulations to evolve in a way that accommodates all these questions that we have today? I think the pace of change is very fast. So policy makers, those who are setting the rules, should be very fast in responding. The technology’s not waiting for anyone, they have to be as fast as these changes in the system are, otherwise there will be chaos, there will be a lot of unanswered questions, and it will go in any direction that we cannot expect. So one of the big things that should happen, I would say, is regulation. We need to regulate the system in a way that fosters improvement, but at the same time, protects people.

John: In addition to all discussions of regulations that are going on globally, there’s also quite a few lawsuits going on in terms of potential copyright violations, which could have some really devastating implications on the development of AI. So a lot of this, I think, we’ll have to just wait and see, because it’s going to be challenging.

Rebecca: A number of interesting cases too of folks trying to register things with the copyright office that were generated by AI that have been denied. So lots of interesting things to be watching for sure.

Mohammad: Definitely.

John: Another area of a lot of concern, and a lot of research that’s beginning to take place is to what extent AI tools will enhance the productivity of workers, and to what extent it may end up replacing workers. And there are some studies now that are finding both of those. Were your students very concerned about the possibility that some of their potential jobs might disappear, or substantially alter, as a result of AI tools.

Mohammad: So I think the best saying with regards to jobs is that nobody will take your job, let me say it in different words.The CEOs who can use AI will take place of CEOs who cannot use AI. So it’s not, “you’re going to lose your job to AI,” it’s mostly about those who are not equipped, those who don’t know how to use AI, will be replaced by the ones who know how to use AI. In short term, there may be some changes in the job market, some of the jobs may be automated, but new jobs will be created. For example, now we have a lot of companies looking for prompt engineers, something that wasn’t there before, like a year ago we didn’t have such a need in the market. So the other thing that will happen is that we need to train people to use AI. But at the same time, the pace of change is so fast. So we train people for a year to take AI jobs. And by the time they finish their education, the system has changed. Now you have to retrain them. So that’s one of the things that is happening and educational institutions should find a way. They should keep updating and updating their curriculum, I would say every day, to keep up with the changes in technology. The other thing that I personally expect and hope to happen in the long run is that we will work less. In the Industrial Revolution, our working hours were reduced, we could do the same amount of productivity with less work. Same thing may happen 10 years from now, five years from now. Instead of working nine hours, we may two hours, three hours, a day, and then be even more productive than what we are right now. Because this system can make us be more efficient. There is a good metaphor that people use for AI, they call it human algorithm centaurs. So in Greek mythology centaurs are half human, half horses. They can be as fast as a horse and they can have the human intelligence and human capabilities. Now we have half human, half algorithm, we can do so many things much faster, much more effectively than before, and will increase the productivity manyfold. So I’m expecting a better life actually for human beings, morat the same time being more productive than before.

Rebecca: It’s interesting, some of the kinds of conversations I’ve had with my students who are design students about AI, have really been about is it going to replace a designer? Well, maybe in some contexts, people are going to use AI to create designs or visual elements, it’s not going to have the same thought [LAUGHTER] and strategy necessarily behind them that a designer might use. But what they’re mostly discovering is that AI is really helpful in making the process faster. So generating more ideas, finding out what they don’t want to design [LAUGHTER] and getting just a place to start and moving forward and developing their work more rapidly. And so that really gets to that efficient idea that you were just talking about.

Mohammad: That’s very true. And I agree with you, sometimes you are just thinking and you cannot start. AI can give you an idea to start with. And then you come up with ideas that you wanted. So regarding the design jobs or any job. I have students who will come to me and say, “Should I change my field to AI?” I said, “No, do what, whatever you’re interested in, if you’re doing design, keep doing design; if you’re into, let’s say, marketing, keep doing marketing; if you’re in finance, keep doing finance; but use AI in your field. If you’re doing design, see how you can use AI to design better. If you are doing marketing, see how you can use AI to make better content, to make better decisions.” So I think it’s not AI replacing people, it’s AI enhancing people. So in any field, we have to equip ourselves with the skills of using AI to do our jobs better.

Rebecca: From an experience I’ve had with my students, we’ve definitely discovered that if you don’t have the right language around the thing that you’re trying to make, it doesn’t do a good job. [LAUGHTER] So you need some disciplinary background or some basic knowledge of the thing that you’re trying to do for it to come out successful.

Mohammad: That’s very true. So one of the limitations of AI that we discussed in our classes was about different languages. So most of the content that was used to train ChatGPT was written in English. So think of other languages that didn’t have that much content on the internet. AI is not as capable in those languages. So that’s one of the things that we need to think of. So this is a system that is super capable in English language, but when it comes to languages that don’t have that many speakers, then it falls behind. So I tried it and I learned that sometimes the system tries to think in English and then translate it in the other language, and it makes so many mistakes in that process. So that was one of the things that came to my mind of what you mentioned..

John: We’re recording this in the middle of November. And in just the last few weeks, we’ve seen a lot of new AI tools come out, we’ve seen ChatGPT expand the size of the input that it’s allowed, and we now see this market they’re offering for GPTs, as they’re calling them. And the pace of change here is more rapid than in pretty much any area that I’ve seen, at least since I’ve been working in various tech fields. It would seem that this would be a challenging course to teach in that the thing you’re studying is constantly changing. Will you be offering this again? And if so, how will the course be different in your next iteration of the course?

Mohammad: That was a very good question, actually. So yes, the course is being offered in January 2024. And as you mentioned, one of the biggest challenges with this course, I would say the biggest challenge with teaching AI, is to keep the content current. So that’s not just what happened today. When I was teaching this course in summer, I made the second module, and then open AI announced the plugins. Now I had to redo the content to make sure that I can use those plugins because they were so powerful. The plugins that ChatGPT introduced were so powerful, and there are so many companies who were making different plugins. So I remember, for the second module, I had to start and re-record my content. I updated my content. I recorded everything 1am, 2am before the session in the morning, because everything was changed. So I had to incorporate that into my class. Same thing is happening with new developments. So what I learned is that every day I have to update my content, I have to update my course. So ChatGPT API was one of the things that I was thinking of as the fourth module and was working on that. Now. I think GPTs is one of the modules that needs to be there. That’s like the app store of Open AI. So, that’s a big game changer. As you mentioned, it has a larger memory right now we can provide it larger context. So that’s another capability that AI has, and it changes the way that we prompt it the way that we ask it questions. So keeping the curricular updated, I think is the biggest challenge. And this is something that we should have in mind. Every week, every day I see something new. I update my slides, update my content to make sure that everything is correct. Because if you don’t do that, let’s say two months, three months, if you don’t update your content, then you have to redo it, you h ave to start over. So that’s definitely one of the things that I do and GPTs is one of the things that I will definitely incorporate into my course for January 2024.

Rebecca: Iterative change definitely seems like a good way to go to manage that, for sure.

Mohammad: We don’t know what will be announced in December. [LAUGHTER] So, I always count on a big change.

Rebecca: But yeah, buckle up and be ready, right?

Mohammad: Yeah.

John: And we welcome our new AI overlords…

Rebecca: Yeah.

John: ///n case, by the time this is released that they have taken over.

Rebecca: Can you talk a little bit about how your colleagues in the School of Business have responded and whether or not more faculty in the School of Business are incorporating AI.

Mohammad: I see that many of my colleagues are super interested in this new technology. So what I like most about SUNY Oswego in general is that everyone is so open to accept new technology, accept new things, accept innovation, and everybody’s trying to absorb the new innovation that we have seen and incorporated one way or another into their work or into their courses. So as I mentioned, we have the AI committee, and in our meetings we have very good discussions about how we should update our curricula. I know that some of my colleagues are already doing that, are already using AI to generate let’s say, visuals for their content, or teaching or talking with the students about the ethical users of AI. So I think at least the ecosystem that they see at SUNY Oswego is very open to accepting innovation, and is very fast to incorporate it into their curricula and educate the students, or at least have discussions with the students about how to use that and how to equip themselves with the skills that they need for future.

John: Just a few weeks ago, your department scheduled a symposium on AI, could you talk a little bit about that?

Mohammad: So we wanted to take a lead in AI education at SUNY-Oswego. So we’re very focused on teaching the students and equipping them with the skills that they need to take future jobs. And we are making a big move toward AI. So we wanted to make sure that our students are exposed to the new developments in this field and understand the importance of this area. So we set up an AI symposium, Bridging Bytes and Business to show them how technology, how AI, how computer, is changing the way that we do business. So we set up a hybrid conference or symposium. They had two panels. The first part was online with scientist discussing the new technology, discussing how AI is evolving. What are the biases, what are the errors that we have in this AI? And they were discussing what is the next big thing that will happen in AI? So in the first round, we had Suroush Saghafian from Harvard. He has a lab that works on developing AI, we had Diane, Diane is a three times Emmy Award journalist, and she was one of our MBA students, actually. And she talked about how AI is used in journalism, what are the challenges of, let’s say, disinformation generated by AI, how journalists need to address those concerns. And we had Saeideh who is a computer scientist. Saeideh worked for Yahoo, Meta, and Google. And she gave us her knowledge, her experience with what these big companies are working on for the next big thing that is happening. So we had a very healthy discussion about the science part of AI. And then we had the business leaders from upstate. We had Michael Backus from Oswego Health, we had John Griffith from insurance, and we had Mohamed Khan from Constellation Energy. So they were discussing how their companies, how their industry is using AI, and what they expect students to know about AI before they go to the job market. What are the skills that they need to have? So we had this very successful symposium, and since it was a hybrid symposium, we’re broadcasting it online. It was kind of a webinar. So we had many attendees from all over the country. So we had attendees from all over U.S. I think we had California, we had Texas, we had Arkansas, New York, obviously, we had people from Canada joining us, Ireland, United Kingdom, France, Germany, and interestingly, we had attendees from Australia. It was 2 am there, I think, but they joined us, and they stated very last minute of the symposium. And that made us very happy and very proud of SUNY Oswego on taking the lead in providing this type of discussions actually around AI. And we’ll keep doing that. We’ll keep having more and more symposiums and panel discussions to keep our students current and to encourage our students to learn more and educate themselves more about AI.

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

Mohammad: So we have big plans. One of the things that we’re doing is ChatGPT for Business, it will be offered again in January 2024, and hopefully summer, but aside from that, we are going one step further. We are designing a new course, more advanced than ChatGPT for Business. That course is Prompt Engineering for Artificial Intelligence. So in that course, we’ll focus on different ways that students can use prompt engineering for different purposes: for HR, or marketing, for finance, for different fields. So that course will be an advanced level to ChatGPT for business. And we are going to offer degree in our MBA program on strategic analytics and artificial intelligence. So we are incorporating AI into actually all courses that we offer in that program. And then we will have a micro credential on prompt engineering, because that’s what industry is looking for. They want somebody who is good at asking the right questions from ChatGPT, Bard, and any other AI that you’re using. So they need somebody who is good at writing good prompts for them. So that’s what we are focusing on right now, to equip our students with those skills, with the knowledge that they need to be effective and efficient prompt engineers. And I believe we will be among the very first institutions in North America to offer those courses and those degrees, actually.

Rebecca: Well, thank you so much for joining us and sharing the work that you’ve been doing.

John: We’re always curious about where this is going, and I’m sure we’ll be back in touch with you again in the future. So thank you.

Mohammad: Thank you very much. I really appreciate the wonderful podcast that you have. I time to time listen to your podcast, and I actually bought a book on ChatGPT, based off of one of your podcasts, one of the guests that you had, they wrote a book on ChatGPT, 80 Ways that ChatGPT can help you with your courses, I think. And I’m still reading that book and I’m enjoying that. So thank you for the wonderful podcast that you have.

John: And we’ll include a link to that book by Stan Skrabut, and we’ll also include a link to the recording of that symposium as well in the show notes for this episode.

Mohammad: Thanks so much.


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

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

Ganesh: Editing assistance by Ganesh.


318. Reducing Equity Gaps

Gender and racial equity gaps exist in economics and other STEM fields. In this episode, Tisha Emerson joins us to discuss research on strategies to reduce these inequities. Tisha is the chair of the economics department and the James E. and Constance Paul Distinguished Professor at East Carolina University and is the incoming Chair of the American Economic Association’s Committee on Economic Education.

Show Notes


John: Gender and racial equity gaps exist in economics and other STEM fields. In this episode, we discuss research on strategies to reduce these inequities.


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 Tisha Emerson. Tisha is the chair of the economics department and the James E. and Constance Paul Distinguished Professor at East Carolina University and is the incoming Chair of the American Economic Association’s Committee on Economic Education. Welcome, Tisha.

Tisha: Thanks for having me. I’m so glad to be here.

John: I’m very happy to be talking to you. And our teas today are:… Tisha, are you drinking any tea?

Tisha: Yes, my favorite tea, I found a couple years ago, it’s a Golden Moon brand of Tippy Earl Grey.

Rebecca: That sounds nice.

Tisha: It’s delicious.

Rebecca:I have Harvest Memories today.

John: I don’t remember that one.

Rebecca: Well, it is from my little favorite tea shop in Canandaigua, New York, and it’s autumn flavors.

John: Autumn flavor?

Rebecca: Autumn flavors.

John: Do they have leaves dumped in there?

Rebecca: I mean, it almost looks like that. [LAUGHTER]

John: Ok. [LAUGHTER] Well, that’s one way of getting rid of all the leaves that have been falling. And I have English breakfast tea today. So we’ve invited you here today to talk about some of the research you’ve done, and also your new role and your past role with the AEA’s Committee on Economic Education. One of the things that we’ve observed is that there’s some significant equity gaps in economics and in STEM disciplines in general in terms of race and gender. And in one of the studies that you’ve done with this, in a 2023 paper in the Southern Economic Journal, you and KimMarie McGoldrick examined retake behavior for students who are not successful in their initial attempt at completing an introductory microeconomics class. Could you give us just a general overview of this study?

Tisha: First, let me say that this started a long time ago. And we got access to this great data, the MIDFIELD dataset, that was actually originally funded by the NSF to study the gap in engineering education, but it’s student transcript data. So we said, well, you could use that for economics too. And we have. And so this particular study looked at almost 180,000 students who take Principles of Microeconomics for the first time. And what we ultimately wanted to do is to think about the likelihood of success, and actually more so, failure, because a lot of papers already look at success and they stop there, because you have too small of a sample, fortunately, of the failures to continue on to look at them. But when you start with 180,000, you have enough to continue. So we find, as many others do, that, of course, aptitude matters, but that, unfortunately, females tend to be much more likely to be unsuccessful in their Principles of Microeconomics class, as are underrepresented minorities, or URM. And then we follow those students and we say, okay, so if you were, in fact, unsuccessful, and we define that as a grade of a D or an F, so grades that wouldn’t really let you continue in your study of economics, or you withdraw. And we say, if you’re in that category, what do students tend to do?… or first of all, for those students that are unsuccessful, what helps predict that? So given that you are in the unsuccessful category, what is more likely to cause that? And we saw that students who were carrying more concurrent credit hours were more likely to withdraw. Which makes sense, because if you have constraints that lead you to want to be full time, if you start with 12 hours, and the course is not going well… any of them… and you were to drop, then you would not be full time anymore. And so it gives them sort of this flexibility, they have more concurrent credit hours. But we found that students who got D or Fs, given that they were unsuccessful, they tended to have taken more related courses. So things like accounting (financial accounting in particular), calculus, and macro principles. And so we didn’t actually see a lot of gender or racial differences there. But then those students who were unsuccessful (D, F, or W), on retake decisions, we found that women were much less likely to retake if they were unsuccessful. But we did find that women who were of higher aptitude, who were unsuccessful initially, they were more likely to retake. So that was a positive. And we did find that underrepresented minorities were more likely to retake the course, but then more likely to be unsuccessful again, on their second attempt. So there’s some good news, but also, a lot of not so good news.

John: So you were able to follow students over time, how long a time period was there in the data set that you were analyzing?

Tisha: We had over 20 year period of data, but that doesn’t mean we followed any particular student for that length of time. Once we saw that they were unsuccessful, we made sure that they had at least one more semester at the institution so they did in fact have a chance to choose to retake the course or not and then we gave them three years post their initial unsuccessful attempt. And if they didn’t retake it in that period, then we said they chose not to retake.

Rebecca: In a 2019 study in the Journal of Economic Education, you and KimMarie McGoldrick use the same dataset to examine the decision to switch into an out of the economic major. In this study, you find that very few students selected economics as a major when entering college and that 83% of economics majors actually selected the major after taking their first economics course. What did you find in terms of the gender and racial composition of those that selected the economic major?

Tisha: So what we found was that, for the few students who started out as economics majors, so going into their principles class they already had said they were majoring in economics, we found that females were as likely to persist or not. That’s good. And we found something similar for underrepresented minorities, that is the females and URM students who went into the principles class planning to major in economics, they were as likely to persist as not.

John: What happened to those students who were not majoring in economics.

Tisha: Well, unfortunately, females were not as likely to persist and decide to major in economics. There was a larger proportion of females who opted to remain in their original major. So, they come into the principles class, they have some major other than economics, they were much more likely to stay in their other major and not switch to economics. Men were considerably more likely to switch, on average, than females were. But on a more positive note, we did find that students from traditionally underrepresented racial and ethnic minorities and Asian students were more likely to switch to economics.

John: And one thing we should note, and you mentioned this in your study, is that because this datset was focused on engineering, the schools in this sample have relatively large engineering programs and some students switched to economics because economics was perceived as being easier than their original major. So some of this may not apply as broadly to liberal arts institutions that do not have engineering programs.

Tisha: That’s possibly true. And in fact, business majors were even more likely to switch to econ. So it was about 10% of those switching in were switching from engineering and 27% were switching from business. So at the liberal arts schools, to the extent that they don’t have business or engineering, there wouldn’t be that source of majors coming in.

Rebecca: Both of these studies are really interesting. But, how do we think about some strategies to create a more inclusive environment in economics and STEM classes? So what did these studies tell us? What should we be doing?

Tisha: Well, I don’t know that they tell us what we should be doing. They tell us that what we’re doing is not really working.

Rebecca: Fair.

Tisha: …which is unfortunate, because that’s what we’ve been doing for a really long time and we’ve been really unsuccessful at attracting women and underrepresented minorities. So there’s a new sort of strain in the literature that’s really trying to address some of this. And there’s a study, for example, by Porter and Serra, and that was published in 2020. They did a randomized control trial at Southern Methodist University, where they, just by happenstance, picked a couple of very charismatic female alums and they randomly selected which principles classes they would speak to. And this was just like a 15- or 20-minute exposure, where they talked about majoring in economics, and how that helped them in their career. And they found that this significantly increased the number of women from those courses who decided to major in economics and additionally, not necessarily just major, but take more economics courses. And I thought it was really fascinating that there was no effect on men in those treated classes, it was just the women. So that suggests possibly that there’s some room for role models. Other work that looks at role models from other directions, like some of my own work with KimMarie and John Siegfried, didn’t find any evidence that supports the idea of role models. So I think, still mixed, and the exact sort of interaction that students may or may not have with these people I think is going to be important.

John: You’ve done a number of studies on these types of issues, and one of them was looking at the effect of classroom experiments. Could you talk a little bit about what types of classroom experiments have you looked at and what’s the impact of those on students?

Tisha: Sure, I talk about that a lot, because I really love the classroom experiments. I think that they’re a great pedagogical technique. And so since your audience is more general, maybe I’ll explain just what we mean by classroom experiments. And that’s basically the idea that we’re going, in some cases, simulate markets or other decision environments for the students that will mirror the types of environments that we’re talking about in class. So for example, if we’re talking about a market, then we will have students participate in an experiment where some are buyers and some are sellers and they negotiate and trade. In my classes, we always do the experiment first, I don’t talk about any of the concepts. And then we collect the data as we’re going through the experiment on the decisions that they’re making: prices, quantities that are traded, then I’m able to talk to the students about “Well, look, this is what actually happened, this is your actual data that you generated, and now let’s talk about the theory.” And this is what the theory would predict the outcome to be. And they can see how well they match up. And they are able to discuss in class, this is why I chose to behave in this way. And they see how it fits in to the economic theory. And I did a study back in 2001, which was published in ‘04 in the Southern Economic Journal, where we were looking just at the effect of experiments and we looked to see if there was a differential gender effect. And in fact, there was. So you often see that women underperform men in these principles classes. But what the experiment did is it closed that gender performance gap. So it raised sort of everybody’s performance, but it raised the females disproportionately, so that they were closer to the same outcome as the men if they were in a classroom with experiments. So I do think that there is definitely room through pedagogy to improve women’s outcomes, and make them more attracted to economics, but also make economics more attractive to them. There’s a large literature that suggests that women are much more grade sensitive than are men, various people have gone about showing this in different ways. And if you can bring up their performance so that it’s on par with men. And it’s not really even that comparison, but you’re bringing up the females’ performance, then they’re getting better grades, and they’re going to be less likely to want to leave the study of economics.

John: And we’ll throw in a reference to an earlier podcast we did with Peter Arcidiacono, who had looked at that very impact in STEM fields in terms of the decisions of people to move from one major to another. And in particular, in that study, they found that women did better on many of the tests but still left because the grades were relatively lower than in other classes. So one issue I think might be worth addressing is the issue of grade differentials, that if we’re going to continue to assign grades that are lower than most other departments, there’s a good chance we’re going to lose majors in general, but disproportionately more female majors, based on what the research literature tells us.

Tisha: There’s this really cool study, McEwan, Rogers, and Weerapana, 2021. They’re at Wellesley, and so it’s all females, but they were trying to address grade inflation. And what that meant was, of course, there are some disciplines that have higher grades, they had to bring their average grades down, and economics is treated in the opposite direction, and that it actually drew more students into these harder grading disciplines, like economics and the other STEM fields. And so yeah, that’s certainly an issue. I don’t think we’re gonna across the board be trying to treat grade inflation. I don’t think this is published yet. But I was reading another study out of Wellesley, where they were allowing students… I think it was maybe for their gen ed classes… to take them all pass fail. And again, you saw students flowing into these harder grading disciplines.

John: I know a number of schools during a pandemic made all of their first-year classes pass fail, which is a good way of letting students get into a discipline without worrying so much about the grades so they can explore things without worrying about the impact on their GPAs. That might be another useful strategy.

Tisha: Yes, I agree, and then this is really anecdotal, but I’ve heard other people observe the same thing, that women, they’ll be in your principles class, and they’re doing well, but maybe they’re going to get a B plus. And they say, “Oh, either I’m not gonna take another economics class,” or I’ve even had students withdraw at that point, and I’m like, “but you’re getting a B plus, I don’t understand,” but they’re so sensitive to grades. And then there will be male students who are getting a C, barely, and they’ll say, “I’m going to major in economics.” and I say, “Okay, are you sure?” It’s hard to understand sometimes.

Rebecca: It’s interesting to think about withdrawal policies that have really kind of loosened up due to COVID. So our institution changed the policy more recently so that students can withdraw through the last day of classes without documentation. And so students who are doing really poorly might take that option, but as you’re discussing students with higher grades withdrawing, that sounds really concerning that policies like that could be kind of counterintuitive, or really have some other negative impacts. Classes all cost money, [LAUGHTER] and there’s financial impacts to withdrawing.

Tisha: It’s hard to really predict how this is all going to play out. And I have to say, I’ve never heard of such a generous withdrawal policy. At my previous institution, I think they could withdraw up to sort of two weeks out and not even have a W necessarily on their transcript. So this all seems like a lot. There’s a lot of moving parts. But on the positive side, so let me just say, first of all, part of me feels like it’s a little bit too generous. But part of me also thinks back to the work that KimMarie and I did. And if you don’t have that D or F, that you have to overcome, it’s a lot easier to persist, not just in your major, but towards graduation, whether you switch majors or stay. And part of me feels like that’s helpful to the student. So in some ways, I like a generous withdrawal policy, I definitely want students to know what the withdrawal policy is, what the deadlines are, so that they can make a good decision.

John: Yeah, the only concern I have with the policy is that it can lead to students making slow progress towards a degree and they could run out of funding before they complete their degrees. But on the other hand, it does provide a bit of a safety net for students who are adjusting. And as our student body has become more diverse, and we have more first-gen students, and we have more students coming from schools that did not prepare people particularly well for a college environment, it provides a safety net, which has allowed students to take some chances early on and not be harmed. And I’ve seen some students struggle in their first year or so, drop classes, and come back and be very successful, when before they might have been deterred from further study in the discipline.

Tisha: I agree, I can see that.

Rebecca: So, definitely one of the things that I’m always thinking about when students are talking about withdrawing is making sure that they know all of the ramifications. So what does it do to your GPA? What does it look like on a transcript? What are the financial implications? …so they can make a well informed decision. And depending on who they’re talking to, they are not necessarily always getting all of the information, and that can be problematic, too.

Tisha: Yes. So I think that points us to the issue of how important advising is, so that there are well informed advisors and that students have access to them, not just at the end when it’s time to register for next semester, but they have a relationship with their advisor, and feel that they can go in and ask those questions, because as John said, a lot of those students can’t go to their parents, they’re first gen, their parents don’t have advice for them. And even if your parents went to college, they don’t necessarily know all of the rules and regulations of the institution that you’re at. It’s really hard, I think, for students to have all the information that’s necessary.

John: I’ve had trouble keeping up to all the changing information [LAUGHTER] over the last few years. In terms of those requirements. You’ve done some work with cooperative learning. Could you talk a little bit about that?

Tisha: Sure. So that really came out of the fact that I had done a lot of efficacy work around classroom experiments. And KimMarie and I are really good friends. She is a cooperative learning expert. So I should say that she is the expert on CL. And she wanted to do an efficacy study, so we decided to team up and do that. So what we did is unlike a lot of some of the other work in efficacy, is that a lot of the work is comparing lecture. So you don’t do anything to this active learning technique. And with cooperative learning, the students are working on exercises. And when we talked about it, we said you know, it’s really not fair, and not even interesting to compare a student who is in a lecture-based class where they don’t get to see any of these problems to students in a cooperative learning class that are working on these problems in class in teams. So we thought a lot about the collaborative learning approach. And we’re trying to isolate what we thought could be the mechanism that might be driving different outcomes. And what we decided was we were going to compare the active team-based learning to individual learning, working on problems. So in our control, the students were exposed to the same problems, they had the same amount of time in class to work the problems as in the treatment, which was the collaborative learning. It’s just that in the treatment, they were working in teams in this think-pair-share share framework, and we didn’t find a significant difference. So at the end, we said that the cooperative component didn’t seem to be driving any difference. Although there are other people who’ve done work comparing collaborative learning to lecture based and they did find significant positive effects from cooperative learning.

John: One type of thing that I’ve done that seems to have been fairly successful is using clicker questions. Following the methodology of Eric Mazur, students are given a challenging question where typically half or so them will get it right the first time when they’re asked individually. But then they get to talk it over with the people around them, preferably someone with a different answer, they get to debate and argue it and I normally see between a 10 and 20 percentage point increase in the correct answer. And the really absurd answers tend to disappear down to about nothing. So that’s not a very formal study, but that second stage of that process where students are engaged in some peer instruction seems to have had a pretty significant impact. And I point that out to students, that when they talk to each other about it and explain it to each other, they do much better than when they’re working on their own. And I encourage them to try doing that outside of class, to work with other students, because there are a variety of studies… I haven’t seen too many in economics, but there are quite a few studies that find that that type of peer instruction, either in the classroom or outside, can be fairly effective.

Tisha: Yeah, so I’ve observed that too. I haven’t used clicker questions, but just going in and observing my colleagues when they teach, and they are using clicker questions. And I have to say, I’m stunned, because I don’t know how the right answer bubbles up as opposed to the person who had the wrong answer convincing the other of the wrong answer. I don’t know how that doesn’t happen. It’s like magic to me, almost. So part of me wants to think a bit more about what is the mechanism and how is that working? That’d be really cool to do a study on that.

Rebecca: One of the things that’s always curious to me about that particular dynamic is sometimes students discover, as they try to explain something to someone else, [LAUGHTER] that they really don’t know what they’re talking about. [LAUGHTER] They realize, huh, I can’t actually explain this concept, so maybe I’m the one that’s not correct. [LAUGHTER]

Tisha: Maybe that is what’s happening. Because everyone always says, “You have to really know your stuff to teach it,” and so if you are trying to explain it to your partner, you do have to know the material.

John: And when they’re raising objections and you don’t have a counter argument, that can help break down your misconceptions, because getting rid of those incorrect perceptions can be as important as trying to build new ones.

Tisha: Yeah, I could see that and maybe the people who are initially giving the wrong answe are just guessing. So maybe they’re not trying to explain and convince their partner of their answer, I guess. I don’t know. So maybe it’s not magic.

Rebecca: [LAUGHTER] Feels like magic.

John: It does. And it works.

Tisha: When I see it happen, it does seem like magic. In general, I think that active learning is helpful, because I think that women are going to be more interested when you show them the applications, and that when you have active learning, there’s some community building that happens. So you’re illustrating relevance, you’re building this community, giving them a sense of belonging in the classroom, which is a lot of what I think actually happens with the experiments. And then actually also with the experiments, they’re kind of discovering some of the theory for themselves, which is a growth mindset. And there is research that shows that if you can show relevance, belonging, and growth mindset, and develop these in your classroom, that students are going to do better, but that it also is more appealing to females and underrepresented minorities.

Rebecca: There’s lots of things for all of us to think about, even if we’re not necessarily in economics classrooms. Definitely good food for thought. Switching gears a little bit. Can you tell us a little bit about your work on the Committee on Economic Education?

Tisha: So I’m not officially on it at the moment, I’m the incoming chair. But I have served on it in the past. And I’ve been shadowing KimMarie McGoldrick, who is the current chair for the last year. So the committee is doing a lot of really great work. I think. When I first served on the committee, we basically just organized sessions for the American Economic Association meetings. And when I say “just” I don’t mean “just…” Compared to now, it’s just but we have, I think, seven sessions that we organize for the meetings every January. But while I was first on the committee, then chair Mike Watts, who was at Purdue, he said,”I have an idea. We should have a conference, so an all economic education conference,” and we started it while he was chair, and it’s CTREE, so the Conference on Teaching and Research in Economic Education. So the committee is in charge of that. It’s every end of May, beginning of June, depending how the calendar falls. So our next CTREE will be in Atlanta, not that far. It’s on the East Coast, maybe you can join us. And it will be May 29 through the 31st of 2024. We have many other things that we also are overseeing: an educate program, which is professional development for college faculty, and that includes two-year college faculty, in course design, different active learning pedagogies, and we talk about how to bring diversity and inclusion into the classroom. KimMarie actually started this this year, we have a newsletter called EconEdNews. And that features different pedagogies, it features the winner of the AEA Distinguished Economic Educator Award, which the committee also oversees, and some centers that we have for Econ Ed across the country… just a lot of information that’s in there, we have two issues a year. So we’ve had our first two, and our next one will come out in March of ‘24. So just a lot of great work, I think, that the committee is doing and I think really thanks to Mike who started us with our own conference. And then Sam Allgood succeeded Mike and added and then KimMarie is an overachiever. And she added a lot more in her six years as the chair.

John: And going back earlier, early surveys of economic instruction suggested that economists were using much more chalk and talk than many other disciplines were using. So these efforts have been fairly important in shifting people away from that. It’s a somewhat overdue change, but it’s nice to see that happening. And I would love to go to CTREE. But there’s two barriers that I’ve run into one is we run a series of workshops here, right around the same time, and the other is I teach at Duke in the summers. So I either am doing workshops here, or I am in North Carolina teaching econometrics now down there, so I haven’t been able to get there. I would love to go to a CTREE meeting.

Rebecca: I think I would have no clue what’s going on if I went. [LAUGHTER]

John: Oh I think you would.

Tisha: I think you would, I think you’d have a nice time. Everyone there is just so lovely and very engaged in teaching, and just really cares about the enterprise.

Rebecca: It’s nice to see education groups out of these professional organizations to really formulate communities of practice around teaching.

Tisha: Yes, I agree. I think economics, unfortunately, was late to the game. But we’re increasingly appreciating the importance and the importance not just of focusing on four-year colleges, but two-year colleges. So going back to the point of diversity, and the lack thereof in the discipline, the students in four-year colleges that I’ve worked with have predominantly still been very much what economists already looked like. And if we really want to improve the diversity in economics, I think we need to reach down to the high schools to the two-year colleges, and make economics more interesting and accessible.

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

Tisha: There’s lots of things. I guess, with regard to the committee, I’m hoping to just kind of not start anything new in my first term, and keep everything running as well as KimMarie has it now. But then for my own research, I am really interested now in looking at comparing pedagogies. So it’s been a lot of efficacy work looking at a particular pedagogy compared to sort of the standard chalk and talk. But now, how do they compare to each other? Is there a better pedagogy for students? And my first study, and I have the data, so I just have to start working on it will compare experiments to cooperative learning. And I told KimMarie, if experiments lose, then she won’t hear any more about this. I won’t write it up. I won’t talk about it. Because I don’t want to say that experiments lose, but no, I mean, seriously, that’s the next thing that’s first on the agenda. But also, I have a deep interest in diversity questions. KimMarie and I with Scott Simkins have a paper looking at HBCUs compared to PWIs and the study of economics there. And that was inspired by some work that showed that HBCUs contributed disproportionately to the STEM pipeline. And since economics is part of STEM, we thought, “Well, that should be true for economics as well.” So we did some work in that area. And we show that there are some positive contributions from HBCUs to the economic pipeline. But I think there’s a lot more to do there. So I would like to dig down in that. I’ve heard a lot of people at HBCUs talk about secret sauce, and I want to learn what that is. And not just at HBCUs but look at MSIs as well, more generally. And I do want to look at some questions at two-year colleges, so that’s for the next five to 10 years…

Rebecca: You’re going to be busy. [LAUGHTER]

John: For those who aren’t familiar with the terms PWI are predominantly white institutions and MSI are minority serving institutions.

Tisha: That’s correct.

John: Those terms are becoming more and more common, but just to make sure all of our listeners are familiar. Okay, well, thank you. It’s great talking to you, and it’s nice meeting you. And we will keep trying to get KimMarie McGoldrick on the podcast. I’ve been asking her for about four years. She’s been a little resistant, but we’ll see if we can get her here in the future. Well, thank you.

Tisha: Thank you so much. I hope you have a good afternoon.


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

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

Ganesh: Editing assistance by Ganesh.


317. Beware the Myth

One of the most persistent neuromyths is the belief that students learn more when instruction is tailored to their specific learning style. In this episode, Shaylene Nancekivell and Xin Sun join us to discuss their research on possible negative consequences of the learning styles myth.

Shaylene is an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Manitoba. Xin is a postdoctoral fellow in the Department of Psychology at the University of British Columbia. Shaylene and Xin are co-authors of a study entitled “Beware the myth: learning styles affect parents’, children’s, and teachers’ thinking about children’s academic potential,” published in the NPJ Science of Learning journal this fall.

Show Notes


John: One of the most persistent neuromyths is the belief that students learn more when instruction is tailored to their specific learning style. In this episode, we examine possible negative consequences of the learning styles myth.


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 Shaylene Nancekivell and Xin Sun. Shaylene is an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Manitoba. Xin is a postdoctoral fellow in the Department of Psychology at the University of British Columbia. Shaylene and Xin are co-authors of a study entitled “Beware the myth: learning styles affect parents’, children’s, and teachers’ thinking about children’s academic potential,” published in the NPJ Science of Learning journal this fall. Welcome Shaylene and Xin.

Shaylene: Thanks for having us.

Xin: Thank you.

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

Shaylene: I am drinking a latte actually [LAUGHTER], the Chestnut Praline Latte from Starbucks, I needed coffee. When I do drink tea, it’s usually chai tea.

Rebecca: Alright, sounds good. You’re recovering here [LAUGHTER]. How about you Xin?

Xin: Coffee is my go to.

Rebecca: It’s a very popular flavor of tea on this podcast…

John: It is.

Rebecca: …for sure [LAUGHTER]

Xin: If it’s tea, it’s bubble tea for me [LAUGHTER].

John: I have a Lady Grey tea today.

Rebecca: And I’m back to some blue sapphire tea. I went to the tea store this weekend and I’ve stocked up, so we’ll have some variety soon, John.

John: Okay. [LAUGHTER] We’ve invited you here to discuss your paper that examined the effect of identifying students’ learning styles on perceptions of children’s academic potential. Before we discuss this, though, we should probably just remind everyone about the myth of learning styles. It’s something which has been remarkably persistent, but what does research tell us about the relationship between identified learning styles and how people actually learn?

Shaylene: Yeah, so I’ll field this question. I think the first thing that people should realize is that the learning style myth is really hard to get a handle on Coffield and their colleagues identified about 81 different versions of the myth that kind of float around both academic and non-academic spaces. So when people hear the term learning styles, I think the first thing we should all point out is that everyone sort of means a different thing. That could be true in everyday conversations, that could be true like school to school. And so yeah, what learning styles are is actually really hard to pin down. The element that’s most common to most learning style myths is something called the meshing hypothesis. So this idea that if we figure out the right modality that people can learn in and we match instruction, somehow, to this magical modality, that people will learn better. And this is the thing that’s like, most common across all myths. And the modalities that people talk the most about are things like visual, auditory, and kinesthetic. So learning with your hands, your eyes, or your ears, that’s kind of the version that’s most common. We don’t really know where exactly the learning style myth came from. There was like old books by Dunn and colleagues, talking about how to set up ideal learning environments for children that mentioned this term learning styles, but this whole matching to like visual auditory, kinesthetic version of the myth where researchers aren’t too sure how everyone came to some sort of agreement that this was the version of learning styles that should stick around and we don’t really know where it came from. Regardless, researchers have tried to disprove it. So they’ve done studies where they have given people learning style surveys or tried to identify people’s learning style in some way, and then matched instruction to it and they don’t find any effects on learning. Overall, the best thing to do is to match the instructional style to the kind of content you’re teaching. And that’s kind of the best thing to do instruction wise, and then in terms of studying for students, the best thing to do is try to take in information in as many different ways as possible, and just deploy best practices in studying, so things like spaced practice, and paraphrasing, putting things into your own words, those kinds of things that we know are really good for studying.

Rebecca: So although we have no idea where it came from, why oh why is it so persistent?

Shaylene: I have two other research papers where I’ve tried to dive into that. The one that’s most relevant is actually a paper that Xin also co-authored with me that I did during my postdoc at Michigan. And what we did was we walked participants through an actual research study. We said, like, “Okay, this is the data they’re going to collect, these are their hypotheses, do you agree if they find data against or for the hypotheses that it’s testing the learning styles, and we found that participants agreed it was a good test of learning styles. And then we told them at the end of the study that it turns out, this is a real study or version of it, at least, that researchers have done, and they found no effects on learning outcomes. And there were a proportion of people that were very willing to revise their beliefs upon thinking through this exercise, they’re really kind of open to like, “Okay. I told you that this would prove or disprove it, I’m on board, maybe I’m wrong.” But there was also a pretty big proportion of participants that even after walking through this exercising and agreeing that that was a test of learning styles, did not want to revise their beliefs. And what we found is It seems to be entrenched in their identity somehow. They provide these really personal anecdotes of ways learning styles had helped them or family members. So that actually is kind of what led us to this paper we ended up doing, which is that there seems to be some sort of link between our academic self-construal and our learning styles. And that kind of creates almost backlash against wanting to revise their beliefs, because then you’re not just revising a belief about learning styles, you have to revise a whole host of beliefs about maybe why a family member succeeded or failed at school, or why you yourself succeeded or failed at school. And that’s a little bit harder to do for any person, and not just research participants.

John: We should probably mention an earlier podcast that we had with Kristin Betts and Michelle Miller, who had conducted an international survey of neuromyths. And my recollection was that the learning styles myth was the most widely held myth of any of the neuromyths that they were examining. So it is out there. I know a lot of our faculty on our campus still teach it, despite all the evidence, and despite some of us encouraging them to please stop that. But it’s something that just won’t go away, and most students come into college believing it. So in your study, though, you’re looking at some of the possible harmful consequences of a belief in learning styles. Could you provide an overview of your study?

Xin: So in our paper, we conducted three studies. And the first study, we included a child sample and a parents sample. So the children they were around 6 to 12 years old, so elementary school age. And in the second and third study, for each study, we included a parent sample and a teacher sample. So for all of these five adult samples, they’re all around 100 participants each. So what we did was for study one and for across the studies, we first sort of describe the participants to hypothesize students. So the first one, we wouldl describe them as all the students learns the best with their hands. And the second or the other students would be described as all the student learners the best with your eyes. So basically corresponding to a hands-on learner and a visual learner. And in study one, we asked participants to rate how smart do you think these students are? So one on one, are they very smart, like just smart, a little bit smart, or not so smart. And so parents and children, they went through the same kind of protocol. And what we found in study one is, on average, both parents and children, they believe that the visual learner is smarter than the hands-on learner in terms of their smartness rating. And in study two, instead of asking participants to rate individual learners, we ask them to compare directly, so which learner do you think is smarter? And a lot more participants believe that the visual learner described as like learning best with their eyes, is smarter than the other hands-on learner. This is true across the teacher and the parents sample. And then in study three we wanted to ask “Well, so what do you mean by being smarter? So does that mean that this visual learner would do better in some of the school subjects?” So we then, in study three, asked parents and teachers to predict grades of these two described hands-on and visual learner across like some common school subjects, including math, science, language, social studies, as well as some of the, what we call non-core subjects, like arts and music. So what we found is, on average, both the parent sample and the teacher sample rated grades as being higher in the visual learner compared to hands-on learner in many of the subjects including math, language arts, social studies, and they also rated the hands-on learner as having higher grades in some of the other subjects, like arts and music. This is generally what we found. Shay, do you want to add on to it?

Shaylene: Yeah, sure. And I think kind of the big take home is like a lot of the work that’s tried to argue against learning styles has made like a wasted resources argument, which I think is completely valid. We should be spending instructional time, especially in teachers college pre-service classrooms like teaching teachers best practices, same thing with our students and study practices. But I don’t think that argument has persuaded people. So one big motivation for us to do this paper was I think the learning settlement actually can create more damage than just a wasted time or wasted training session for teachers. When we provide these labels, and we label children this way, it’s providing unintended messages likely to the parents, or if you apply these labels, like teacher to teacher, or even label a child in a classroom of their peers, people are hearing other things than just this kid is a hands-on or a visual learner. They’re making judgments about maybe what that child is going to be good at or not good at, or when or how they’re going to succeed in the classroom. And that, to me, is highly problematic. We want to meet kids where they actually are, not where they are based on construall that’s resultant of a myth.

John: The efficiency argument never troubled me that much in that when instructors believe in the learning styles myth, they tend to use multimodal instruction, which is helpful for everyone. My concern with it had more been the impact on students’ perceptions of themselves in a somewhat different way. I’ve often had students say, “Well, I can’t learn by reading this textbook, because I’m a visual learner” …and encouraging them to use their eyes to read didn’t seem to make much of an impact. Normally, I referred them to some of the studies on learning styles. But it’s something that students really deeply believe… that they can only learn in certain ways, which may deter them from trying new ways of learning and that’s what’s always concerned me. The effect on perceptions is something I hadn’t really thought about until I saw your paper. I’m really pleased to see this avenue of research because it provides a really strong argument against the persistence of the learning styles myth. Ultimately, studies like this might help persuade people to stop doing this.

Rebecca: So given your results, what are some of the implications we need to think about in terms of pre-service teachers, but also, the students that we have in our college classrooms who may have had this kind of impact on them throughout their education so far.

Xin: I feel Shay kind of touched on that point, which is, on the one hand, that what people generally feel that the learning style myth, the consequences are that it’s a waste of time, it’s a waste of energy. But it’s fine to just have it there because I wouldn’t do any other harm apart from that, but in reality from our study, you can really see that it not only like we add these things, it’s just an add on, but also it creates, I would say, biased, thinking about students, like what they can do, what they in the future might become, is sort of ingrained, for example, in parents’ or teachers’ thoughts. So I think this is not a good sign to like students’ development. And I feel you’rr right, John, that there are studies also, like qualitative evidence showing that students like from elementary school, some of the students would say, “I don’t want to do this kind of math, for example, because you showed me in a certain way, like, I’m a visual learner, you should show me in another way or something.” So I feel like the learning style method, if you believe in it, it might set limits for yourself. So I cannot do such and such because I am a certain person. I think this is also an important future direction for us to study, which is what’s you think about yourself in terms of learning self myth and what you can do.

John: What you’re showing is that it’s not just the students’ self-perception, it’s also their teachers and the parents who may be affected by this. And all those things, I think, could have some impact on student major choice, the decision to go to college. Is that one of the things you’re thinking about following up in terms of this study?

Shaylene: Yeah, I think a really important future direction for this work and something that actively writing grants… so fund us… to look [LAUGHTER] more into, are things like how does labeling someone with a certain learning style affect program recommendations, how I even write recommendation letters? When I get those boxes, and it’s described the students strengths and weaknesses, am I actually describing their real strengths and weaknesses or am I describing strengths and weaknesses based on essentially what the… I use this word a little bit loosely… but stereotype almost and, I think we’re also very interested in a group about how these might intersect with other aspects of people’s identity. So what does it look like if you label someone identifying as a woman or a man with a certain learning style or different racial identities? So, yeah, again, how does that intersect with, because we know there’s a whole host of academic beliefs that can come to the surface, when you find out that someone maybe is a young woman. They might get a double hit, if they’re perceived to be a young woman and a hands-on learner… they’re never destined to be good at math, for example. So we’re also just interested in exploring more about identity because identity, of course, is intersectional, and has more than just this learning style element. We’ve kind of studied it to the best of our ability in a vacuum in this paper, but it doesn’t actually exist in a vacuum in the real world. And the other thing we are looking into right now, planning some projects, looking at more implicit beliefs. So to kind of put another step forward to kind of prove that this is akin to like a stereotype. So there’s certain research paradigms you can do to look at more implicit beliefs, and to look at more people snap judgments, as opposed to like these more reflexive explicit beliefs that we have in our survey. So yeah, those are all promising and I think, really important, future directions to flesh out in the future.

Rebecca: I know that one thing that I was thinking about, while I was reading your paper, is how guidance counselors and others who help students make choices about what they might do, college, or even before that, if they want to do a technical program or something, and how that might inform the decisions or the advice they give. I know that as a student, I excelled in places like math and science, but I also deeply loved art. And if I showed a preference towards wanting to do that more kinesthetic work in art, I was discouraged. It’s like “Oh, you’re book smart.” So it’s almost like those same stereotypes that you’re talking about, or kind of found, I think, sometimes, perhaps lead to odd advice, or don’t necessarily encourage a student to pursue something that might be a worthwhile endeavor for them, because it’s deemed not worthwhile.

Shaylene: Yeah, for sure. I think that’s the fear. And, I think, at least anecdotally, when I talk to people, I get stories very similar to yours. In our one paper, in Cognitive Science, we coded them, but we read like, at least a few dozen online participants. People didn’t have to write that much. It was just like, “explain your thinking.” People wrote us essays about learning styles and how they had affected their life or their child’s life, like completely spontaneously and these are like online workers that were paid a whole dollar for our survey. So I think, at least anecdotally, we kind of have evidence to suggest this is likely happening. And so it will be a very important feature direction. But I also think, as academics, we need to be careful, because I think educators are overburdened, and they’re doing their best. And so I think a real take home for this is that we shouldn’t criticize them for holding beliefs that literally 90% of the population have, and that we should do more to support our educators. And yeah, I don’t want the takeaway here to be [LAUGHTER], teachers are doing bad or evil work or anything like that. They are so overburdened, they have no time for professional development. And so it makes sense that they would hold beliefs similar to their peers that aren’t educators, but we can do more to give them evidence-based ways to support their students. So not just telling them don’t do this, but giving them a replacement. And that’s something I try to do a lot too when I talk to my students about learning styles is, I think, sometimes, especially when you’re busy, it’s easy to say, “Oh, just don’t study in that way.” But like, what are they replacing it with? Because it’s filling a hole that they have. So making sure that we give them something else to put in that spot. So they’re gonna be career counselors, that’s like part of their job, how can they do that in an evidence-based way? So something else I’m very interested in, just in general in the neuromyth literature is, what are the different ways we can communicate neuromyths effectively? That’s something I would love to do more research on as well. Because the message “Don’t do this,” I don’t think is the right one.

Rebecca: No, we know this… just interacting with small children…[LAUGHTER] …you tell them not to do something, that’s the exact thing they want to do. We all do that [LAUGHTER].

Shaylene: Yeah, like try this instead.

Rebecca: Yeah. [LAUGHTER] Redirection.

Shaylene: I have a list of places that learning styles permeate the educational system. It permeates teacher education, it permeates university learning centers is a big one. So like where post secondary students go to get study advice. It’s like a very common part of post-secondary learning centers. It obviously permeates the classroom. It has global endorsements, so you see it across Latin America, Greece, obviously Canada, the United States, large parts of Europe. And then the other place you see it is, unfortunately, in the academic literature, almost like the education adjacent literature. So it might be someone that isn’t an education scholar, but maybe they’ve published a paper on teaching in their field, because they’ve developed a new teaching technique or something for teaching medical students. And you see learning styles permeate those papers. And we do cite a lot of those, which makes it extra hard for an educator, because if you do a literature search on learning styles, and you don’t know the subtle differences between these fields and these journals, you will find tons of papers supporting learning styles… academic papers, that’s the other place it permeates and you see these field- specific beliefs. And Xin pulled out a great quote for our intro that was like talking about these people thought they discovered this unique learning style of medical students that was a combination of two different learning styles or something, I think. It permeates this education-adjacent academic literature as well.

Xin: Yeah, yesterday, I saw this learning styles quiz on Canada’s government website. They have a job bank, where they help people to do career planning. And then there’s a bunch of career quizzes saying, like “discover your learning styles.” So they officially fill this as a tool for people to find their job, or at least which industry they would ideally work in. So that’s shocking to me. [LAUGHTER]

Rebecca: Step one do no harm [LAUGHTER].

John: Now, in terms of follow up studies, are there any large data sets out there that would have identified learning styles in it to facilitate a study of the impact on major choice or decisions to go to college and so forth?

Shaylene: Not to my knowledge, a lot of the learning style literature kind of falls into a few broad buckets. So the first bucket is this really wonderful rich neuromyth literature that has been around for a long time. And there learning styles is usually just one or two survey items in a broader survey to assess educational literacy like educational sciences literacy, or neuro literacy or that kind of thing. So you’ll see learning myths listed with things like right and left brain learners, and drinking a lot of water can increase your brain size. So just general, like neuro literacy things. And then those are actually are pretty big datasets. And there is some stuff where they’ve correlated that with academic success, or teachers’ prior knowledge of neuroscience and then like willingness to endorse the myths, but it’s more of like a catch all type surveys. And then there is this other literature I’ve talked about that kind of takes learning styles to be real, and looks at how it’s related to major selection and that kind of thing. So they’ve kind of studied this, but kind of the wrong lens. Why do people pick chemistry? …because they have this perception of themselves. So it’s related, but it’s not quite right. And then other literature is actually really small. And that’s kind of where I’d place our paper is kind of diving deeper into the learning style myth itself. And there’s other great researchers doing this work. Newton just had a paper come out this year looking at the endorsement of learning style myths in higher ed. He’s published a bunch of papers, they’re really great. Couple papers by our research group, looking at learning style myth in particular, but that literature is really small, there’s not a lot of people doing that work.

John: I was just thinking, if, there was information on it in the Baccalaureate and Beyond or one of the NCES data sets, for example, that would be a nice way to examine the effect of student perceptions of their learning style on decisions to go to college or majors and so on.

Shaylene: Maybe we should look. It’d be worth looking.

John: I’ve worked with those data sets a lot, but I never specifically looked for that variable, but I might this afternoon. [LAUGHTER] But yeah, it would be nice to be able to examine that.

Shaylene: Yeah. For sure, I mean, even at the institutional level, it would be worth doing something like we have the undergraduate research pools that at least would be a bigger sample then that’s even in our paper included questions like on mass screening or something. But it’s kind of hard, because unless you get into one of these nationally representative surveys, it’s hard, still looking at people that chose a psychology course, or whatever, so your sample is still going to be a little skewed. And the government for the most part thinks they’re real. So I don’t know what they would include if they included it.

John: So, obviously it would be best if we could just get rid of the myth, but we still have whole generations of people who grew up with that. What might be some ways of breaking people from this belief? I think you had a prior study that looked at strategies for trying to encourage students to move away from this myth. Could you talk a little bit about that?

Shaylene: So I guess the prior paper that we did suggests that, for some people, providing them with evidence and walking them through the evidence and helping them think about it is enough, and they will revise their beliefs upon being presented with that evidence. And that kind of fits with other work I’ve done earlier, suggesting there’s a ton of variability in how people think about and construe learning styles. So I think getting the evidence out there and really helping people think about the evidence critically and what it means. Like, “What was the study? What was the hypotheses? How did they test it? Was it a good test? This is what they found…” That went pretty far. Our sample was all online workers that did that study, and they had a variety of educational backgrounds, too. They weren’t all familiar with research or that kind of thing. But there was a huge proportion of people that this belief is like really entrenched in how they perceive the world, how they perceive their academic journey or other people’s academic journey. And so one thing that we actually are really interested in is how maybe stories of personal anecdotes that we could provide people that maybe help them think through the potential harm of the myth. So, “Oh, well, it might have benefited someone in this case, but it could actually create harm in this case, because maybe this person really imagined themselves as being an electrician or being a plumber and those are really great jobs. But now they feel like that’s something they won’t be good at because they’re not the kind of learner, they haven’t been told that they learn in the right way, they should go to more math or science university instead, because that’s what they’ve been pushed to do.” That would be really not great for that person’s life outcomes, because that’s maybe not their interest or passion. So just helping people maybe think through how these stereotypes might unfold and the potential consequences of them, I think, is maybe a promising future direction. Because we know based on that prior work that just giving people this is what the literature has found isn’t going to revise everyone’s beliefs. So maybe like challenging their anecdotes with a thinking exercise almost might be an interesting direction to go.

John: And your study could be a nice basis for that type of thing, because it does describe harm that can take place as a result of a belief in this, which was not something that people generally considered before.

Shaylene: Yeah, it was hidden, I think, but maybe if it becomes more visible, people would be more willing to revise their beliefs. And you see it in like dialogue. I see it even when I get reviews back from my papers on this subject, reviewers will say like, “Well, it’s a preference. And we know that matching instruction to students preferences can benefit them because they feel more motivated. So is it really harmful?” I’ve had reviewers push back and write that kind of thing. And so this is maybe a thing we can point to, that even a preference, it might seem benign, but applying that kind of label is not benign, it’s not neutral.

John: It might be hard to get past reviewer 2. [LAUGHTER]

Shaylene: Yeah, I mean, the consequence of this permeating academia is that permeates our reviewers sometimes. But, I will say we had a really great experience at NPJ. So this is not about [LAUGHTER] that journal. Just to be clear, we had a lovely experience there. The reviewers were great. They definitely made the paper better. Everything good to say about that journal.

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

Shaylene: What’s next for us is fleshing out the stereotypes more. So we’ve already talked about some directions, you guys brought some up and we did, looking at how it might affect actual daily practices. So how someone writes a recommendation letter or the kinds of programs children get recommended to. The kinds of careers people think others would excel at. I have learning style surveys where most people that believe in the myth think that learning styles can predict career outcomes, but diving deeper into like exactly what that means, because it was just like a one item on our broader survey. And then also looking at things like we talked about earlier, like how learning styles intersect with people’s identities, because most people aren’t just black shadows.And that’s what we did in our study, we just like provided little black silhouettes. So I think kind of moving our findings into like, a little bit more of an ecologically valid realm, I think, is the next step.

Xin: And building on that is also what we’ve discussed. We could also switch gear from the career guidance to parent or teachers’ perspective on what the recommendations they have on learners, but also towards learners themselves. What do they think? “Oh, I have these kinds of learning styles. What does that mean to me? Am I gonna go for certain jobs, but not the others?” Yeah, if we ask children these kind of questions on “What is your learning style? And, what’s going on, going off of it?” That will be very interesting.

Shaylene: Xin and I have another paper looking at beliefs about… it’s Xin’s work, really, I helped… She has a wonderful paper looking at people’s beliefs about language and language acquisition and policy endorsement. And I actually think that’s also another promising future direction. So I wonder if the degree to which we believe in learning styles, how that affects beliefs in streaming of children from a really young age, which we know isn’t always beneficial, especially if you stream children too young into more academic streams and less academic streams? That does happen in some countries. And so that’s, although less common in Canada, very common in other places. Xin, you talked about like the Chinese education system has different…

Xin: Oh, that’s from high school, though…

Shaylene: Yeah. So even that, the degree to which you might endorse, it’s more extreme streaming of students like different schools even. So that’s probably another important direction is, how does this affect things you would vote for or endorse as a citizen?

Rebecca: Thank you for your really important work and helping us all think about the kind of harm that some of these beliefs can actually cause.

John: Yeah, students face enough barriers that having learning styles serve as a barrier to their learning is something that could be pretty easily avoided. Great work and I’m looking forward to seeing more of your future work on this and other topics.

Shaylene: Great, thank you so much for having us. It’s been a really fun conversation.

Xin: Thank you.

John: 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.

Ganesh: Editing assistance by Ganesh.


316. Help-Seeking Behavior

Continuing-generation college students are often better prepared by their family and peer networks for academic success than first-gen students with more limited support networks. In this episode, Elizabeth Canning and Makita White join us to discuss their research on differences in academic and non-academic help-seeking behaviors between first-gen and continuing generation students.

Makita is a graduate student in Washington State University’s Experimental Psychology Program. Elizabeth Canning is an Assistant Professor in the Psychology Department at WSU.

Show Notes


John: Continuing-generation college students are often better prepared by their family and peer networks for academic success than first-gen students with more limited support networks. In this episode, we discuss differences in academic and non-academic help-seeking behaviors between first-gen and continuing generation students.


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

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

John: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer…

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


Rebecca: Our guests today are Elizabeth Canning and Makita White. Makita is a graduate student in Washington State University’s Experimental Psychology Program. Elizabeth Canning is an Assistant Professor in the Psychology Department at WSU. Welcome, Makita and welcome back, Elizabeth.

Elizabeth: Thanks for having us.

Makita: Hello.

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

Elizabeth: I am drinking coffee this morning. It’s morning over here in the Pacific coast.

Rebecca: How about you Makita?

Makita: I have a hibiscus berry tea. I don’t usually drink tea, but I got some just for you guys.

Rebecca: Awesome. [LAUGHTER]

Rebecca: Sounds like a nice treat. I have some chai today. John?

John: And I have an English breakfast tea today, because I got a long band practice tonight. [LAUGHTER] So, a little more caffeine will help.

Rebecca: [LAUGHTER] So we invited you here today to discuss your recent study entitled “Examining Active Help-Seeking Behavior in First-Generation College Students,” which was published in Social Psychology of Education. Can you tell us a little bit about how this study came about?

Makita: Well, for me, this was actually my master’s thesis. When I became a researcher, part of my dream is to change the world, make a difference, and I’m really passionate about people getting access to the things that they need. So when I was in undergrad, and I was exposed to a lot of first-generation college students, and when I was hearing my parents talk about their experiences as first-generation college students, I started to notice that things were a little different when you didn’t have people around you who could tell you about what college was supposed to be like. And then when I started reading the literature on first-generation college students, and I saw how, in my opinion, excessively large, the gap was between first-generation and continuing-generation college students. That really captured my attention. So then, when I went to a school, where they have a really high population of first-generation college students, it felt really appropriate to look at first-generation college students. And also I’m honestly really interested in help-seeking behaviors. You probably have experienced yourselves where you see one person who is very persistent and active in getting someone’s attention, basically, very annoying, consistently waving their hand… [LAUGHTER] …trying to come up and get someone to basically give them whatever they need or they want, versus another person who maybe is a lot more quiet and sitting there hoping that someone will help them. And I wanted to know why. What makes one person act so differently from another? So I was really interested in first gens and help seeking. And then, at the same time, Elizabeth had recently been to a conference where they talked about first-gen forward initiatives, which is where colleges encourage faculty and instructors to self identify if they themselves were first-generation college students, to encourage other first-generation college students at the university to feel more comfortable, maybe talking to them or going to office hours, things like that. And we combined those two things together into this study, where we could look at help seeking in first-generation college students and a shared identity to try to see if that would change how help seeking looked.

John: And you mentioned some of the gaps that are observed. Could you talk a little bit about some of the equity gaps between first-generation students and continuing-generation students in terms of their academic performance and success?

Makita: Yeah, so for first-generation college students, we tend to see that on average, they earn lower grades, and they’re more likely to drop out of college. And they’re also less likely to engage in academic success behaviors, like going to office hours, or trying to talk to their instructors after class, things like that. And there are a lot of different reasons for that. They quite honestly don’t have someone at home who can teach them those implicit unspoken rules about college, about what’s expected of you and how you should behave. So they have to learn that on their own and that can take a little extra time, which is pretty valuable when you’re in college, that time. And then, a lot of the time, when you’re a first gen, you’re also coming from a lower income family, which may require you to work while you’re also going to taking classes and it means that you’re a little less likely to live on campus, which can influence you in all kinds of fun ways. But, we were, as I said before, really interested in whether or not there was a difference in the type of help-seeking strategies that students were using and how frequently they were help seeking. We wanted to see if that was maybe part of the reason for this gap.

Elizabeth: Yeah, I’ll just jump in too, that one of the big inspirations I think, for this work came from a sociologist, actually. Her name is Jessica Calarco. I think she’s at the University of Wisconsi- Madison now, but she wrote a fantastic book, it’s called Negotiating Opportunities. And she did a lot of field work with children, looking at at how children from lower- or upper-middle class families act differently in the classroom and how children approach their teachers or how they seek out resources and things. And she found that more low-income students are much more passive in their health seeking behaviors than upper-middle-class students. And so we had kind of read this work and thought it was really interesting and wanted to see if the same was true at the college level, and how that might look with those types of behaviors in a college setting. So we wanted to see if that gap that they found with children was the same for higher ed.

Rebecca: Can you talk a little bit about the methods of your study?

Makita: Yes, so this was a little complicated. But I’ll try to go through it in the most straightforward way I can.

Elizabeth: I will say for a first-year Master’s student, this was about the most difficult kind of laboratory experiment to design for, like right off the bat. But Makita did such a great job. And I think it turned out so well. But the complexities of it actually make it super interesting. So hopefully, we can explain it in a way that is easy to understand.

Makita: So we designed this study when COVID was in full swing, and we were in lockdown and, as a result, the entire study is set up to be conducted through Zoom. So the way it would work was a participant would join a Zoom room, where they would interact with one of our many undergraduate research assistants. And the research assistant would introduce themselves as a lead experimenter, and they would give the participant a phone number and an email, maybe like, “in case we’re disconnected or something goes wrong, you can reach out to me.” And then they’d give this participant 10 questions GRE style math test, and they would have 10 minutes to take it. And immediately after they finish taking this math test, the research assistant would have a short, partially scripted conversation with the participant, they would say things like, “Oh, don’t worry if you didn’t do that well. I didn’t do that well, the first time I took a GRE test, I didn’t even know I was supposed to take it until like right before I took it, I did really bad. But I did way better the second time I took it.” And then in the middle of that partially scripted blurb, they would, in one condition, say “I’m the first in my family to go to college, so nobody at home knew anything about graduate school.” And that was our main intervention. So for half of the students, they heard the research assistant was the first in their family to go to college, and for the other half, they didn’t. So immediately after that, they’re given another survey. And in that survey, they are told, “Hey, you’re going to take another math test after this one. And if you can improve your score by about 20%, or by about two questions, then you will be entered into a raffle to win a $20 gift card.” So we’re incentivizing them to want to do better. And then the survey says, “Do you want to go over your answers from exam one?” If you say yes, then the survey instructs the participant to reach out to their experimenter or this research assistant so they can do so; if the participant says no, then the survey instructs them to reach out to the research assistant to get the link to test number two. So in both cases, this participant has been instructed to reach out to the research assistant to get their attention so that they can move on to the next step. But in one case, they are getting academic help, they are going over their questions from exam one. And in the other case, they are just getting the link to exam two. The thing that makes this study fun is that the experimenter isn’t going to answer, the experimenter is going to leave their Zoom camera black, ostensibly off, while they are potentially off doing something else, or distracted, or maybe something’s gone wrong, and they are disconnected, who knows? And they’re going to ignore any attempt to get their attention for about eight minutes. And during that time, what they did was they recorded any attempt to get their attention. We were looking specifically for any additional behavior outside of the Zoom room, something active and persistent added on to that, like calling us or emailing us or texting us, using that information that was provided to them at the very beginning of the session. So after that eight minutes had past, the researcher would come back and say “Oh my gosh, I’m so sorry, something went wrong with my computer,” and then they would either help the student go over some answers or give them the link to the next test. And then the student eventually took the final survey with some demographics and final questions in it.

Elizabeth: So it’s a pretty lengthy paradigm. I think our research assistants had so much fun doing this study.

Makita: They really did.

Elizabeth: They had a lot of acting training to make it believable. But in terms of designing it, in a laboratory experiment, you have to kind of make some trade offs with making everything standardized, but also making it at least somewhat realistic to what might happen in the real world. So we were kind of playing off the idea of being an instructor and having a syllabus where you have lots of information about how to contact the instructor. And we have exams all the time, as instructors in our courses. And so it might be the case that they would need to go over the questions that they missed for the first exam before the second exam. And so we were trying to kind of mimic that type of setting in this one-hour laboratory study. But again, this is a sort of a different experience, where you’re not really getting graded, and it’s not going to affect your GPA. So we had to add a little bit in there around incentivizing them to want to do well in this sort of hypothetical situation. But again, I think our research assistants had a great time collecting these data.

John: What did you find in terms of the differences in help-seeking behavior between first-gen and continuing-generation students?

Makita: So we had a couple of different measures of help seeking in this study. The first measure was whether or not the student wanted to go over their answers. And we found that regardless of condition, so regardless of whether or not the experimenter self-identified as a first-generation college student, first gens overall sought less help than continuing-generation college students, which lined up with what we saw in previous studies. Things got a little more interesting when we started looking at the active help seeking behavior. So students who said, “Yes, I want to go over my answers,” we categorized as academic help seekers and students who said, “No, I don’t want to go over my answers,” we categorized as non-academic help seekers. Then, if students used some kind of additional method of help seeking during that eight-minute waiting period when the experimenter wasn’t responding, they were categorized as active help seekers. So we had active academic help seekers and active non-academic help seekers. And what we found was that students, our academic help seekers, weren’t really impacted by the identity of the experimenter, but our non-academic help seekers were. So in our control condition, when first-gen students were seeking non-academic help, about 13% of them used active help seeking, but in our intervention condition, it was more like 43%. So that was a really big jump, and it was really cool to see that. In other words, when first-generation college students had a help provider available, who was also a first-generation college student, they were more likely to reach out to them in this active persistent way on top of sending a message in the Zoom chat, they were also emailing or texting or calling. When the research assistant identified themselves as a first-generation college student that made our first-generation participants feel more comfortable with reaching out to them in this non-academic realm.

Rebecca: So when we think about this study, what are the implications as we talk to educators or higher ed leaders and actions we might take or ways that we might think about it?

Makita: It’s always difficult to try to generalize from a laboratory study to the field or to real life. In this case, because the person who was performing the role of the help provider was a peer, most things that we can generalize this too would also involve peers. So for instance, if we have a upperclassman teaching assistant for a really difficult math class, maybe if that person self-identifies as being first generation that might make first-generation college students in that class feel more comfortable with asking for help in regards to, say working Canvas or Blackboard or accessing their homework or figuring out how to get the right textbook, things like that. Based on these results, we wouldn’t expect it to necessarily help with their academic performance. But overall, engaging in this type of help over time, might.

Elizabeth: Yeah, I would just add that it kind of highlights two nuances of help seeking that we’ve kind of overlooked in the literature so far. There is a lot of evidence that suggests that first-generation college students seek help less often than continuing-generation students. But not a whole lot of people are talking about the types of help seeking. So, there’s passive type of help seeking versus active type of help seeking. So, differentiating that might be really helpful and understanding where we might need to intervene and help these students. And then what we’re seeing in this study is that we also might need to break it down into the type of assistance that the students are seeking. I think a lot of times, we’re just assuming that they’re seeking help for academic reasons, like I don’t understand this content, explain it in a different way, or related to the content of a class. And what we’re seeing here is that we might actually need to break this down into what’s related to the course content and what’s related to more of this sort of navigational type of awareness that first-generation students might not have the background knowledge to address. And so this non-academic help-seeking behavior might really benefit first-generation college students. And there’s a number of different scenarios in which that might be helpful. So applying for scholarships and financial aid, navigating course seeking and course maps, and figuring out the requirements for different degree programs, applying to graduate school, applying to different research opportunities. All of those things are academic-adjacent, but they’re not academic in the sense of the course material that they’re learning in that course. So it might be the case that all of these other types of help-seeking behaviors, it might be important to intervene in those areas to help first-generation college students.

Makita: And something really interesting about this study is that if we hadn’t separated help seeking into academic and non-academic, we wouldn’t see the difference that we found, if we had just examined it as basic help seeking without separating it, then the nuance of this situation would be lost. And as Elizabeth said, in many of the studies that we read, and that we looked at, they look at help seeking as this just basic block, they’re not separating it out into active or passive or academic or non-academic. And it seems like that actually might be really important because how well an intervention is working for a different type of help seeking might be something that we actually didn’t notice in some of these previous studies.

John: And there’s been a lot of studies recently indicating the importance of providing students with more structure, particularly first-gen students, which might help students get past that barrier. But there’s also been a lot of studies that have investigated the effect of a sense of belonging and comfort in the institution. And having that peer connection to someone else with a similar identity as a first-gen student can help break down some of those barriers and help them overcome that, so that they’ll be more comfortable seeking help in the future, I would suspect.

Elizabeth: Yeah, absolutely. I think anytime an instructor can talk about their personal experiences, overcoming challenges that they have gone through, I think first-generation identity is something that is not as visible as other types of identities. And so that might be something that we need to provide to students if we feel comfortable doing so and talking about that in a way that might relate to students and that belonging, right, making them feel like you can have the same types of success, the same types of career plans, the same types of goals in college, as other students, no matter what your background is.

Rebecca: I think it’s interesting for instructors to just think about taking the time to be explicit about that. It’s an identity that you might take for granted or not think about exposing, but it might be worth planning to expose that really early on in the semester to see how that might benefit students.

Elizabeth: Absolutely.

John: One thing we did on our campus last year was we had a committee that was looking at challenges for first-gen students. And one of the things they did was they created some images that could be used in your signature line indicating that you were a first-gen student. And they distributed that pretty widely. And a lot of faculty and staff members have included that to help form those types of connections. It sounds like, based on your research, can be fairly important.

Elizabeth: Yeah, I think it’s a great initiative. I think here on our campus, we have some stickers and some like door hangers that you can put on your office door and things like that. But I like the email signatures a lot, because that kind of gets blasted to everyone. But yeah, I don’t think it can hurt. I mean, it’s a pretty simple type of thing that you can do. There’s not any evidence that it would be negative for anyone, at least at this point. So it’s sort of like a no-cost way of helping potentially a few students along the way. So yeah, I think it’s a great practice.

Rebecca: Are there follow up studies that this is making you kind of itch to do?

Makita: Oh, yes, definitely. For me, the ideal next step would be to try it in a real classroom, have either an instructor, or a TA for a lab, self identify as first gen to half of the class and not self ID the other and then see if help seeking changes. It would be really, really cool if we could do another behavioral measure of help seeking instead of just self report, but it gets a little complicated when you try to figure out how to track whether or not someone is emailing the TA or the instructor without accidentally infringing on someone’s privacy. So we still have a lot to go when it comes to actually figuring out how to run a study like that. But that would be my ideal.

Elizabeth: Yeah, I think one of the things that we really need is a really good measure of help seeking, whether it’s self report, or whether it’s a way to assess that in some kind of behavioral data. Right now, there’s several different help-seeking skills out there where students respond to them. But they’re not as nuanced as what we’re seeing here around this academic versus not, this passive versus active. So a measure where we could really look at that nuance, I think, would help the field in general in terms of looking at whether interventions are increasing help seeking in various ways. And then of course, the behavioral measure is really, really interesting to us in terms of what students are actually doing. And we’re still kind of figuring out what that might look like, is that something that we can pull from, like their website data. So how often students are looking in the LMS for certain material, how often they’re clicking on things, whether or not they’re going to tutoring centers and office hours and things like that. So we’re still trying to figure out how to measure the behavioral side. But at the very least, we definitely need a really strong self-report measure of help seeking to move this research along.

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

Makita: What’s next is I’m going to go back on campus and teach an introductory psychology class.

Elizabeth: Great. Next for me is I have meetings all day. [LAUGHTER], but I’m looking forward to the weekend. Actually, something that’s exciting for me is next week I’m going to a conference in Indiana that’s bringing together a bunch of educators looking to build up infrastructure for conducting research in education. So we’re going to be talking about barriers to doing types of different research in education and how we might solve those in the future. So I’m excited for that. I think it will be a great brainstorming opportunity to figure out how to make this type of research easier to conduct in different educational settings.

Rebecca: That sounds awesome. I hope that you’ll share back what you’ve learned and decided. [LAUGHTER]

Elizabeth: Yes, that’s the plan.

John: Well, thank you. It’s always great talking to you, Elizabeth, and it’s really nice meeting you Makita, and I hope we’ll be able to talk to both of you in the future.

Elizabeth: Great. Thank you so much for having us.

Makita: 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.

Ganesh: Editing assistance by Ganesh.


315. Unessays

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

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

Show Notes

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


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


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

Maggie: Hello.

Jessamyn: Hi. Thanks for having me.

Maggie: Good to be here.

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

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

Maggie: Oooh.

Rebecca: Sounds nice.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rebecca: About you, Maggie?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Maggie: Nice.

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

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

Rebecca: Unessays always sound like so much fun?

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

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

Maggie: Right. [LAUGHTER]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Maggie: Thank you so much.

Jessamyn: Thank you.

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


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.


314. Handbook of Online Higher Ed

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

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

Show Notes


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


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

Safary: Thank you.

Leni: Thank you.

Kelvin: Good to be here.

Safary: A pleasure to be here.

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

Safary: I’m having water this morning.

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

Rebecca: How about you, Leni?

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

Rebecca: Nice. How about you, Kelvin?

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

Rebecca: [LAUGHTER] Popular globally.

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

Safary: Wow.

John: …thank you, Myriam.

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

John: …which is also a green tea.

Rebecca: Yeah.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kelvin: Thanks for having us, Rebecca and John.

Leni: Thank you very much.


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

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

Ganesh: Editing assistance by Ganesh.


313. Supporting Neurodiverse Students and Faculty

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

Show Notes


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


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

Liz: Thank you. I’m happy to be here.

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

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

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

Liz: Yes, sure.

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

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

Liz: That feels fair.

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

Rebecca: I know. [LAUGHTER]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Liz: Exactly. {LAUGHTER]

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rebecca: That sounds like a lot of fun.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Liz: Yes.

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

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

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

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

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

Liz: …performative hardassery…

John: That was the technical term…

Rebecca: [LAUGHING]

John: …but it was…

Liz: Yes

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

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

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

Rebecca: It was great talking to you. Thank you


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

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

Ganesh: Editing assistance by Ganesh.


312. Alice: Finding Wonderland

Many of our disciplines are unfamiliar to students until their first encounter in an introductory course. In this episode, Rameen Mohammadi joins us to discuss his first-year course that introduces students to computer science using an approachable hands-on experience.

Show Notes


John: Many of our disciplines are unfamiliar to students until their first encounter in an introductory course. In this episode, we look at a first-year course that introduces students to computer science using an approachable hands-on 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.


Rebecca: Our guest today is Rameen Mohammadi. Rameen is the Associate Provost at SUNY Oswego and an Associate Professor of Computer Science. Welcome, Rameen.

Rameen: Thank you. Thank you both.

John: It’s good to have you here. Today, for the first time ever, we’re all drinking the same tea, which is Chimps tea, a black tea with honey flavor, fig, and thyme. And this is a gift from one of our listeners. Miriam in France. Thank you, Myriam.

Rebecca: Yeah, so far. It’s really tasty.

Rameen: Yeah, really excellent tea. We love it.

Rebecca: So we invited you here today, Rameen, to discuss your First-Year Seminar course that combines animation and storytelling using the Alice 3 programming environment. Before we discuss that, though, could you provide an overview of the goal of first-year seminar courses at Oswego?

Rameen: This is not a standard first-year seminar. First-year seminar courses are designed to extend orientation, familiarize students with resources, and things like that. Our perspective about this type of course, which we call signature courses at SUNY Oswego, is that you are welcoming students to the intellectual community that we have. So as first-year students we desire a number of outcomes to be met by these courses, one of them is critical thinking, they have to have a significant critical thinking component. Also, these courses need to have both writing and oral communication embedded in them. And one of my favorites is that they have to enhance the cultural competency of our students, we’re a very diverse student body, there’s quite a bit of opportunity to make sure students experience other perspectives. And I think courses of this type really need to address that. Our provost, Scott Furlong, brought the idea to us even during his interview at SUNY Oswego, about what they had called, at his previous institution, passion courses. Now, as I said, we call them signature courses here. But those of us who love our discipline certainly can understand when somebody uses the term passion. So what makes you excited about your discipline? That’s what the course should help students experience.

John: So, you’re using the Alice 3 programming environment. Could you talk a little bit about the types of things that students are going to be doing in the class?

Rameen: So Alice 3 is a VR programming environment. So what you do is you build a scene, you can bring avatars of various types, could be people, could be aliens, could be dogs, into a scene, and you have props, trees, mountains, buildings, that you could bring into a scene, and then you learn to program something. So they can talk to each other, they can move from point A to point B. And it actually turns out, they’re able to, and they will be, writing reactive programming, which typically is what we do when we design games. So the user acts in some way, and then you program the reaction in the VR world in that context, or things run into each other. And obviously, when you’re designing games cars, or other things may run into each other, and you have the ability to detect that and actually act on that. But at this point, they are already running about a month ahead of where I thought they could be in just about a month of the semester. So I’m really hoping we can get that far.

Rebecca: Can you talk a little bit about why you chose the Alice platform, and what you were really hoping to foster with students.

Rameen: So, just a bit of background about Alice, Alice is supported by researchers in Carnegie Mellon. I think Randy Paudsch, when he was at University of Virginia, is really the person that began the innovation with Alice. And he thern moved to Carnegie Mellon. Many people in computer science would know who he is because of his work in VR, but what he should universally be known for is The Last Lecture, which is a pretty amazing hour plus lecture he gave before he died from cancer. But that group has been working on Alice for a very, very long time, and of course, has had new actors along the way. Don Slater is one of the people that has been part of that group for a long time, and he’s very much involved and was at the time when I met him very much involved in advanced placement. And that’s something I’ve been involved in for a long time, advanced placement for computer science. So one of the things we do in AP readings, we have people do professional development activities, and he gave a talk about Alice and this is a long time ago. But when I first listened to him talk about it, and he showed the features of the system, I really didn’t have a place for it in anything I taught at the time. So it has been brewing in the back of my head as a thing to build a course around for a long time, but really couldn’t have done it until the opportunity came along to build a signature course.

John: For those students who do go on to computer science. It seems like a really nice way of introducing the concept of object oriented programming. Does it work in that way?

Rameen: So the thing to understand about object orientation is that most of us who are software engineers by discipline, database types, we are very comfortable thinking of a student information being an object and the fact that we have a container of student objects and so on. But it turns out that’s not necessarily as comfortable for students as it is for those of us who do this for a living. But when you say, here’s an avatar, and you put this on the screen, and you could tell it to go from point A to point B, that seems like a very natural idea to students, and the fact that this particular avatar, so suppose it’s a bird, has wings, and opposed to a person who has legs, you don’t have to explain that. It’s a concept as inherent in being a human being and 18,19 years old. So some aspects of object orientation that often is difficult for students that are really obvious in this context. So any object like an avatar of a person, dog, cat, whatever, they can all be moved from point A to point B. So they share a set of expectations and attributes. They have a location in a 3D world, and you can move them from A to B, piece of cake, they understand. But then you say, “Well, this one is a bird, it has wings.” So the fact that you can spread the wings or fold the wings would be a characteristic that exists only because of it’s a bird. So inheritance, which is a concept that we like to teach in computer science is just built into the way the system behaves. And no student will say, “Well, what do you mean, a bird can spread this way or fold its wing.” People just naturally know what it all means. And believe me, it’s not always natural, in some of the other things we try to do with students to teach these topics. So it does lend itself extremely well, in understanding that objects have attributes, they have functionality, and it’s all there on the screen, and they can see it.

Rebecca: I think Alice is really nice, because it is so visual. And so you get those immediate, “I can see the thing I did,” whereas I remember when I started learning some code, I was building a database for car parts, and it was completely abstract. And I cared nothing about car parts.

Rameen: Yeah.

Rebecca: So it didn’t make it that accessible to me.

Rameen: It’s not, exactly, then the other aspect of it that I think we need to think about, about the platform, is that you don’t write a single line of code, you generate 1000s and 1000s of lines of code, but you don’t write any. So if you have a particular avatar as the object that you’re processing at the time, in building your code on the screen, you could just drag and drop functionality it has into your code. If you need to loop and repeat steps, you drop a loop into your code and then put the steps you want to repeat inside that loop. So all the typical barriers a student had with syntax or various languages, whether it was Java, Python, C++ kind of wash away, because you don’t really have to know syntax at all you, need to know “what are you trying to do?” and what will enable you to do it, and then you can execute that. So far, clearly, that’s not a problem for them. Here is the screen, this part of it is dedicated to X, that part of it is dedicated to Y and they’ve been able to handle it probably from week one. So all the standard things that tend to take a long time, don’t take any time. And besides doing 3D graphics, if you are a computer science person, in my mind, is super senior level type of activity. You got to teach them an awful lot about data structures and other event handling elements that they must learn because that is what we all had to learn. But guess what, you can learn it with Alice in short order. And this is the course is proving that you can.

John: Now one of the challenges that I could imagine you might have as that students come in with different levels of prior knowledge or interest or engagement with computer science. Some students may have not written a single line of code in any language, while others may also be taking other CS courses at the same time, or have some prior programming experience. How do you address the differences in background?

Rameen: So my sample case here is small, I only have 17 students, but this is not a computer science required course. So this is one that has art students in it, it has biology students, and and it does have a few computer science students and then maybe this one with an AP computer science background from high school, and none of them are doing any better than these other kids. So I guess the point is, it levels the playing field in a pretty significant way. If you can think a thought you can probably write code in Alice. And I’m finding it quite interesting, since I’m not preparing them for another course… not only this course doesn’t have a prerequisite, it’s not a prerequisite for anything else. So the way I designed the course going into it, I went into it with thinking, okay, so if storytelling and writing a really cool story within groups is the best I can get out of them, great. If I can get them to a point where they can write new functionality for objects, and I can help them write reactive programming so they react to the mouse click or collisions of objects and so on, maybe I’m dreaming, but that would be fantastic. At this point, I’m pretty certain I can get him there without other stuff. But that was kind of the key coming into the course, I walked in with a mindset of being flexible, that if they are struggling, I’m not going to keep pushing it like I would typically do in a CS course, which is partly why you would also lose students, but at least in my experience with these kids, and I can’t say until I teach it again (and hopefully I can) whether it will be the way it works is that you show them how to do something, and then they go to work, and they start doing it and then they make mistakes, and we all do, and then you give them a little bit of a hint about potentially maybe a different technique they could have used to accomplish the same task. I’m just going to give you an example. So you want the bird to go from point A to point B, so it’s on the ground, needs to go up on top of the tree. So Alice lets you put a marker where you want it to go on the tree, because you can’t go to the tree, you’re going on a branch of a tree. So you need to know how to put a marker there. So you put a marker there. And then it just goes from point A to point B, it goes from the ground to the top of the tree, then you say “Wait a minute, that’s really not the way birds fly.” So now you got to figure out, well, how am I going to flap his wings to go from point A to point B, to go from the ground to the branch on that tree? So it turns out and I’ve come up with a solution to this myself, obviously, you can’t really teach these things if you haven’t thought about how you could possibly solve them. And one of my students, after like three weeks of instruction, she figured out how to do what we call in Alice a “do together.” So as it’s moving from point A to point B, the step that is happening at the same time is the flapping event of spreading and folding the bird’s wing and she made it very clear that the bird was flying [LAUGHTER] from the ground to the tree with no interruption. Then we need to talk about well, do they really need their legs hanging out as they’re flying? I don’t know much about birds, but I think they fold their legs back. So now we have to learn how to address some kind of a functionality that is about a part of the body of the bird. So this is the way the learning is happening in the course, kind of naturally, you’re trying to make a realistic action on the screen in the animation. Well, how are we going to do that? Well, we have to now address the joints like the hip joint or the knee joint or the ankle joint to make that much more natural in the way it works. And there’s no persuasion here, the student is trying to make an interesting thing. And then I’m there to help them figure out how do you make that much more realistic.

Rebecca: What I really love about these courses, and in what you’re describing with Alice, as someone who’s also taught code to students, particularly ones that are not in computer science, is that they’re thinking like a computer scientist, and you’re really getting them completely within the discipline, you’re hooking them right in because they’re leading with their curiosity. They’re not satisfied with the way something looks, so they’re digging in and digging in and digging in. And unlike our traditional way of structuring curriculum, where we think this is the foundational information, and this is the next thing we build on, it almost turns it totally on its head [LAUGHTER], and does it like backwards from what we traditionally do. And it’s really fun.

Rameen: Well, I think the students are at the center of that type of a decision, that for years, you see human beings that probably could do this kind of work, but shortly after they try and they get errors after errors after errors, they say, “Hey, listen, this is great that there are geeks like you would like to do this kind of thing. It’s not for me,” and they walk away from the discipline, even though they could have had great contributions in computer science. So for me if some of these concepts are introduced this way, where syntax and semantics, which is typically what slows people down when they first begin, even the systems we use… like how do you type your program? And how do you run your program? …there’s a whole bunch of instruction around how do you do anything. You just go to alice.org, you download Alice 3, but once you do, it’s here you go, you click here, and then you set up your scene; you click here, you begin writing code. Well, how you write code? Well, the object is on the left side, you drag the command from the left to the right, how far do you want it to go? Well, you gotta choose a certain distance that it needs to travel… really, really easy for students to take to right away. And I just had no idea what I should expect. You watch a lot of YouTube videos. I mean, I certainly do when I was preparing this course, of all these different people, young and old, building things and being proud of what they had built. And I thought, if I could bring that to a course for our first-year students, that would be really, really awesome. And I think that’s what has happened.

John: You mentioned that the students are able to interact. Are they all in one virtual shared space for the class? Or do they have to invite the other students into the spaces that they’ve developed?

Rameen: So this is a really good question, John. So when I imagined how the course was going to work, I had to think of a number of things. One, I asked our technology people to install Alice on all lab computers because I can’t assume or assert that every single student that will take a course like this will necessarily have the equipment that could enable them to run it. Even the Mac kids who had trouble at first installing the thing, and I needed people to help them to get it installed, even they could continue to work because we had the software on our machines. The type of collaboration that I advocate for in class is a little untraditional. At least I think you could argue that it may be. So like the other day, I gave them a 10-question quiz. So they answer the 10-question quiz. And then I said, “Find a couple of other people and persuade them why your answers are correct and their answer is wrong.” So now the whole room starts talking about the quiz. I don’t know if they’ve ever had an experience where somebody says, “This is not cheating, what I’m asking you to do.” Who gives a quiz that says, talk to everybody else to see what they answered for the quiz.


Rameen: And that’s not surprising, but in my mind, is it about the learning process? Or is it about assessing or giving a grade? This is a very low-stake experience. So why exactly would I care if you talk to someone else about it? So why not persuade someone else that your answer is right? That’s a very different tactic than to say, “Do you know the answer? And are you right or wrong?” Persuading someone requires talking to them, requires thinking for yourself, first of all. Well, why is this answer right? And then opposite of that, you hear the explanation. Are you persuaded that what they said is accurate? Or do you think they’re wrong? In which case now you’re giving them back a different perspective, and then they change their answer. And of course, you could change your answer for the wrong reason. That’s just one example. I really want them to collaborate and work with each other. And every time somebody does something interesting, like the young woman who built the code that I had not been able to myself, having the birds fly from point A to point B, looking very natural. I had her come to the front of the room, plug in with a connector that is in the room and show everybody how she wrote her code. And we’ve done that at least a dozen times so far, where people just come up, plug their computer and show everybody their code. So we often are worried about students cheating and using other people’s work. And if it is about collaborative learning, then you really have to cultivate the idea that, you know, that was a really good idea, maybe I can do that. And I think hopefully, the course will continue to behave that way where I’m confident everybody’s learning from it. That’s the concern that I’m the only one who knows something, whoever I am as a student, and everybody’s just copying me or whatever. That is not my experience so far in this course. They’re just trying to do it better, and if you have a better idea, maybe I can take that and move with it. Then maybe I’ll make it a better idea. And you see that also with students. One of them figures out how to make somebody walk more naturally, and then the other one even enhances that, even makes it even more realistic in the way you would walk. And that’s kind of what I like to see happen and is actually happening.

Rebecca: So how are students responding? Are you cultivating a whole new crop of computer scientists?

Rameen: So, this is an interesting question. I am wondering, those who are not computer science students, whether or not they decide that this may be something for them. But I’m also… with Rebecca here, is good to bring this up… they might become interested in interaction design as a discipline to pursue and become passionate about. Those of us who do this kind of work for a living and have done it for 40 years or whatever, the engagement aspect is the critical aspect. If they are really invested in the learning process, they can overcome an awful lot of barriers, that frankly, I cannot persuade you to put the time in, if you’re persuaded that you could do something a little bit better, then I’m done. As a teacher, I’ve set up the environment in the way it should be where you are driving the learning process yourself as a student, and they look like that’s what you’re doing at this point. And we’re only within a month into the course and they are behaving that way. Now whether or not they will continue to take more computer science courses, and get a degree in computer science. I’m not really sure, but, hopefully, if they do interaction design, there’ll be better interaction design students, because some of the structures that they have to learn here would definitely benefit them in that curriculum too.

Rebecca: Yeah. When can I come recruit?

Rameen: Anytime. I’ve already had Office of Learning Services. That was one of the things I wanted to point out, that I’ve had Office of Learning Services, they came and they talked about the learning process. And besides what they have done for me and talking about the learning process, and it’s all research-based discussions, which is really critical for students to hear things that actually do work, and we can prove they can work. I talk about the learning process on a regular basis with them. And I’m very interested in them understanding why we’re doing anything that we’re doing. I mean, they may be used to somebody standing in front of them talking for an hour and I just don’t do that. I may talk for 10 minutes and then have them work on stuff and then as we see gaps in what they understand then I talk for 10 more minutes, maybe. I try not to talk a whole lot. I want them to be working. So the time I’ve spent is on building what they are supposed to do to learn, not so much talking to them on a regular basis during the 55 minutes that the class goes on. Unfortunately, I’m not quite sure that that’s the experience they’ll have in other courses that they take, because to me, there is a freedom embedded in the way the course is designed that is hard to replicate if you have to cover from A to Z of some topic. You get to “H” and people are having trouble, well, you just keep going. Well, I don’t if everybody has the luxury to say, well, maybe we need to pause longer because we can’t get past this point. I mean, what’s the point? We get past this point, you’ll never catch up to where the end is. So I am hoping some of them will decide to be CS majors as a result, but I’m more interested in seeing how they will do if they take more CS courses. I mean, if they take a CS 1 course, are they going to do better than a typical person taking a CS 1 course if they move on and take data structures and other courses we require? Will it come to them easier? I think it’s a really interesting question. And I think there’s a lot of research that advocates for the fact that they will do better, but I like to see it firsthand.

John: One of the things I believe was mentioned in the title of the course was storytelling, what types of storytelling takes place in the class? Is it the design of the scenes or is there some other type of communication going on?

Rameen: So the way you do animation, in general… and I probably should back up and say I spent about an ungodly amount of hours trying to learn how to do this, but I went about it backwards because I went after event-driven programming and interesting things that I knew Alice could do to write games. But then you step back from it and say, well, students can’t start there. I mean, that’s just not a good place. So then you look at the alice.org website, which gives you tremendous amount of resources and say, “Oh, designing scenes happens to be the first thing they teach you to do. Oh, maybe I should learn how to design a scene.” So you put the pieces that you want in your story on the screen, and if you don’t want them to appear, you could make them invisible. But the way Alice works, you have to put all the components in on the front end. It’s a little different than the way we do object-oriented programming. When we do object-oriented programming, you create things when you need them, you don’t think about setting up the scene on the front end. So that took a little getting used to, but that’s what you do. And then the characters you put on the screen can move, they can talk, they can fly, they can do whatever you need them to do. And my biggest interest was storytelling, when I was conceiving of the course was that I really want students, especially those from other cultures, other backgrounds, to tell their story, find a way to tell their story. And this is probably going to be starting as a group project for my students in a few weeks. And we’ll see how that actually goes. And obviously it has to have a beginning and middle and an end for it to be an actual story. But I’m just excited to see what they will actually decide to do and how they actually do it. Along the way, though, they’re going to need some tools. And that’s kind of what my contribution will be in making sure that they can tell the story the way they want.

John: It sounds as if developing this course required you to learn quite a few new things that were outside your normal teaching experiences. Do you have any advice for faculty who are working on the development of similar courses?

Rameen: So for those out there who teach for a living, the opportunity to build something from the ground up, especially something that frankly, when I first thought of it, I thought it’d be a lot easier than it turned out, because there was so much that I didn’t know how to do, but when you don’t know something you don’t necessarily know that you don’t know something. People who were doing it and I was watching them do it made it look very easy to me. But once I began to do it, I discovered how much work there was to come to a point that actually orchestrates a course, I mean something that is meaningful, and has a clear direction to it. So if you have that opportunity, even after 40 years of teaching, to start over in some ways and build something that you feel not particularly comfortable about, I really highly recommend people do that. Because that is what your students are experiencing every single day when they are trying to learn this stuff that you know so well. So having a little bit of a taste of what it takes to learn something you know very little about, I think is critical. So my message to the faculty who are listening, is that if that opportunity arises, by all means, take it.,

Rebecca: You certainly get a lot more empathy for what it feels like to not be an expert, when you’re learning something brand new again.

Rameen: Well, that’s the thing about most of the things we do. I’ve been programming for 50 years. So it’s one of those things where you’re completely in tune with the idea of: understand the problem, solve the problem, whatever. But where should the camera be in a 3D world in order for it to point at the person talking just the right way? I had to figure that out. It didn’t come naturally to me. The first bunch of programs I wrote the camera was always in the same spot and then I began learning that “Oh I have control over where this camera goes. [LAUGHTER] So maybe it needs to be somewhere else when this person is talking versus this other one.” That’s been a lot of fun to get a sensibility back into the system here that this stuff is not as obvious as it may seem.

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

Rameen: So I certainly would like to teach the course more, and I also want to do some presentations with the faculty in computer science, and if there is interest in graphic design faculty to do some for them, too, because I think the platform is extremely powerful. It doesn’t cost anything, the resources that exist have been getting developed for a very long time and they’re pretty mature. And again, back to no cost. We all know how much books cost. You really don’t need one, you just use the exercises that they give you at the Carnegie Mellon site for Alice and go with it. So I really want to advocate for faculty to consider using it beyond just this first-year signature course.

John: Well, thank you. This sounds like a really interesting project that can really engage students.

Rebecca: Yeah, it sounds like a lot of fun. I can’t wait to come visit.

Rameen: Yeah. Thank you both. Really, this was fun. Thanks for the tea also.

John: Well, we have Myriam to thank for that.


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

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

Ganesh: Editing assistance by Ganesh.


311. Upskilling in AI

With so many demands on faculty time, it can be difficult to prioritize professional development in the area of AI. In this episode, Marc Watkins joins is to discuss a program that incentivizes faculty development in the AI space. Marc is an Academic Innovation Fellow at the University of Mississippi, where he helped found and currently directs the AI Institute for Teachers.

Show Notes


John: With so many demands on faculty time, it can be difficult to prioritize professional development in the area of AI. In this episode, we examine a program that incentivizes faculty development in the AI space.


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 Marc Watkins. Marc is an Academic Innovation Fellow at the University of Mississippi, where he helped found and currently directs the AI Institute for Teachers. Welcome back, Marc.

Marc: Thank you, John. Thank you, Rebecca. It’s great to be back.

Rebecca: We’re glad to have you. Today’s teas are:… Marc, are you drinking tea?

Marc: I am. I have a Cold Brew Hibiscus, which is really great. It’s still very warm down here in Mississippi. So it’s nice to have something that’s a little bit cool. That’d be refreshing.

Rebecca: That sounds yummy. How about you, John?

John: I am drinking a peppermint spearmint tarragon blend today. And it’s not so warm here. In fact, my furnace came on for the first time yesterday.

Rebecca: Yeah, transitions. And, I have English tea time today.

Marc: Well, that’s great.

John: So we have invited you here to discuss your ongoing work related to ChatGPT and other AI tools. Could you first describe what the AI Institute for Teachers is and its origins?

Marc: Sure, I think that when I was last a guest here in January of this year on your show. And it seems like 1000 years ago [LAUGHTER], but during that spring semester, I really took a much deeper dive than the original pilot with a lot of the generative AI tools in the fall. And we started noticing that the pace that big tech was deploying these tools and integrating these with existing software from Microsoft and Google was only accelerating. So in about April or May, I went to my chair, Stephen Monroe, and said, “I think we need to start training some people to get them prepared for the fall,” because we kind of thought that fall was going to be what it is right now, which is a chaotic just sort of mash up of sort of everything you can imagine that some people dive in deeply, some people tried to ban it, some people are trying to do some critical approaches with it too. So we actually worked with the Institute of Data Science here at the University of Mississippi, and we got some money. And we were able to pay 23 faculty members $1,000 apiece to train them for a day and a half about everything we knew about Generative AI, about AI literacy, ethics, what tools were working in the classroom, which wasn’t. And their whole goal was to go back to their home departments over the summer and serve as ambassadors and help prepare them for the fall semester. And we started that, we’ve had funding for one Institute, and now we’re doing workshops, and searching, as we all will, for more funding for doing,

Rebecca: How did faculty respond to (A) the incentive, but (B) also [LAUGHTER] the training that went with it?

Marc: Well, not surprisingly, they responded really well to the incentives, where you can pay people for their time, they generally do show up and do so as well. We had quite a few people wanting to take the training both internally from the University of Mississippi and then people started finding out about it, because I was posting it out on Twitter, and writing about it on my substack. So when we had interest from graduate students in Rome, interest from other SEC schools wanting to attend, and even interest from a community college in Hawaii. Definitely seen a lot of interest within our community, both locally and more broadly, nationally.

Rebecca: Did you find that faculty were already somewhat familiar with AI tools? I had an interesting conversation with some first-year students just the other day, and we were talking about AI and copyright. And I was just asking, “Hey, how many of you have used AI?” And I and another faculty member indicated that we had used AI to make it safe to indicate. And many of them really kind of shook their heads like “No, they hadn’t,” and they were unsure. And then I started pointing to places where we see snippets of it, in email and in texting and other places where there’s auto-finishing of sentences and that kind of thing. And then they’re like, “Oh, yeah, I have seen that. I have engaged with that. I have used that.” What did you find faculty’s knowledge?

Marc: Extremely limited. They thought of AI as ChatGPT. And one of the things we did with the session was basically frame it out as “Look, this was not just going to remain as a single interface anymore.” One of the things that actually happened during the institute that was completely wild to me was the last day, I woke up that morning. And I’d signed up through Google Labs, and you can do it as well, to turn on the features within the Google suite of tools, including in search and Google Docs, and Sheets and everything else. And they gave me access that last day, right before we began. And so I literally just plugged in my laptop and said, “This is what it’s going to look like in Google docs when you have generative AI activate in Google Docs. it pops up and immediately greets you with a wand with a phrase “Help me write.” And what I tried to explain to them and explained to faculty ever since then, is that it makes having a policy against AI very difficult when it shows up at an existing application with no indication whatsoever that this is in fact Generative AI. It’s just another feature that’s in the application that you have grown up with, from many of our students’ perspectives their entire lives. So yeah, we need to really work on training faculty, not just in the actual systems itself, but also getting them outside of that mindset that AI that we’re talking about is just ChatGPT. It’s a lot more than that.

John: Yeah, in general, when we’ve done workshops, we haven’t had a lot of faculty attendance partly because we haven’t paid people to participate [LAUGHTER], but what’s been surprising to me is how few faculty have actually explored the use of AI. My experience with first-year students was a little different than Rebecca, about half of the students in my large intro class had said that they had explored ChatGPT, or some other AI tool. And they seem pretty comfortable with it. But faculty, at least in our local experience, have generally been a bit avoidant of the whole issue. I think they’ve taken the approach that this is something we don’t want to know about, because it may disrupt how we teach in the future. How do you address that issue, and getting faculty to recognize that this is going to be a disruptive technology in terms of how we assess student learning and in terms of how students are going to be demonstrating their learning, and also using these tools for the rest of their lives in some way?

Marc: That’s a great question. We trained 23 people, I’ve also been holding workshops for faculty too, and again, the enthusiasm was a little bit different in those contexts, too. And I agree that faculty, I feel like they feel overwhelmed and maybe some of them want to ignore this and don’t actually want to deal with it, but it is here and it is being integrated at phenomenal rates in everything around us too. But if faculty don’t come to terms with us, and start thinking about engagement with their technology, both for themselves and for their students, then it is going to create incredible disruption that’s going to be lasting, it’s not going to go away. We’re also not going to have things like AI detection, like it is with plagiarism detection to come in and save the day for them too. And those are all things we’ve been trying to very carefully explain to faculty and get them on board. Some of them though, just aren’t there yet, I understand that. I empathize, too. This is a huge amount of time that you spend on these things to think about and talk about as well. And we’re just coming out of the pandemic, people are exhausted, they don’t want to deal with another, quote unquote, crisis, which is another thing that we’re seeing too. So there’s a lot of factors that are at play here that make faculty engagement, less than what I’d like to see.

Rebecca: We had a chairs’ workshop over the summer, and I was somewhat surprised based on our experience with other interactions with faculty, how many chairs had used AI. The number was actually a significant number. And most of them were familiar. And that to me was encouraging [LAUGHTER], it was like, “Okay, good, the leaders of the ship are aware. That’s good, that’s exciting.” But it’s also interesting to me that there are so many folks who are not that familiar, who haven’t experimented, but seem to have really strong policies around AI use or this idea of banning it or wanting to use detectors, and not really being familiar with what they can and cannot do.

Marc: Yeah, that’s very much what we’re seeing across the board too, is that the first detectors that I’m aware of that really came online, I think, for everyone was basically GPTZero, there are a few others that existed beforehand to IBM had one called the Giant Language Testing Lab. But those were all based on GPT-2, you’re going back in time to 2019. I know how ridiculous is it to go back four years in technology terms and think about this… that was a long time ago. And we really started adopting that through education or seem to be adopted in education based off of that panic. The problem is in incidents of education putting a system like that in place, it’s not necessarily very reliable. TurnItIn also adopted their own AI detector as well too. A lot of different universities began to explore and play around with it, I believe, and I don’t want to be misquoted here or misrepresent TurnItIn. I think what they initially came out with it, they were saying there was only 1% false positive rate for detecting AI. They’ve since raised that to 5%. And that has some really deep implications for teaching and learning. Most recently, Vanderbilt Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning made the decision to not turn on the AI detection feature in TurnItIn. Their reasoning was that they had, I think, in 2022 some 75,000 student papers submitted. If they had the detector on during then that would give them a false positive grade about 3000 papers. And they just can’t deal with that sort of situation through a university level..No one can. You’d have to go through it investigating each one. You would also have to get students a hearing because that is part of the due process. It’s just too much. And that’s one of the main concerns that I have about the tools that it’s just not reliable in education.

John: And it’s not reliable both in terms of false positives and false negatives. So some of us are kind of troubled that we have allowed the Turnitin tool to be active and have urged that our campus shut it down for those very reasons, and I think a number of campuses, Vanderbilt was one of the biggest ones, I think to do that, but I think quite a few campuses are moving in that direction.

Marc: Yes, the University of Pittsburgh also made the decision to turn it off. I think several others did as well, too.

Rebecca: It’s interesting, if we don’t have a tool to measure, a tool to catch if you will, then you can’t really have a strong policy saying you can’t use it at all. [LAUGHTER] There’s no way to follow up on that or take action on that.

Marc: Where we’re at, I think, that for education, that’s a sort of conundrum. We’re trying to explain this to faculty. I think much more broadly, in society, though, if you can’t have a tool that works when you’re talking about Twitter, I’m sorry, X now, and understanding if the material is actually real or fake, that becomes a societal problem, too, and that’s what they’re trying to work on with watermarking. And I believe the big tech companies have agreed to watermark audio outputs, video outputs, and image outputs, but they’ve not agreed to do text outputs, because text is a little bit too fungible, you can go in and you can copy it, you can kind of change it around a little bit too much. So, definitely it’s gonna be a problem, too when state governments start to look at this, and they start wondering that the police officer taking your police report is writing this with their own words, the tax official using this as well, too. So it’s gonna be a problem well outside of education.

Rebecca: And if we’re not really preparing our students for that world in which they will likely be using AI in their professional fields, then we’re not necessarily doing our jobs and education and preparing our society for the future.

Marc: Yeah, I think training is the best way to go forward too and again, going back to the idea of intentional engagement with the technology and giving the students these situations where they can use it and where you, hopefully if you’re a faculty member, you actually have the knowledge and the actual resources to begin to integrate these tools and talk about the ethical use case, understanding what the limitations are and the fact that it is going to hallucinate and make things up, and to think about what sort of parameters you want to put on your own usage too.

John: One of the things that came out within the last week or so, I believe,… we’re recording this in late September… was the introduction of AI tools into Blackboard Ultra. Could you talk a little bit about that?

Marc: Oh boy, yes indeed, they announced last week that the tools were available to us in Blackboard Ultra. They turned it on for us here at the University of Mississippi, and I’ve been playing around with it, and it is a little bit problematic, because for right now, what you can do is with a single click, it will scan your existing materials in your Ultra course and it will create learning modules. It will create quiz questions based off that material, it will create rubrics, and will also generate images. Now compared to what we’ve been dealing with ChatGPT and all these other capabilities, this is almost a little milquetoast by comparison. But it’s also an inflection event for us in education, because it’s now here, it’s directly in our learning management system, it’s going to be something we’re going to have to contend with every single time we open up to create an assignment, or to do an assessment. And I’ve played around with it. It’s an older version of GPT. The image version I think is based on Dall-E, so you would ask for a picture of college students and you get some people with 14 fingers and weird artifacts all over their face, which may not be the one that would actually be helpful for your students. And while the other learning modules there are not my thinking necessarily, it’s just what the algorithm is predicting based off the content that exists in my course. We have that discussion with our faculty, we have them cross that Rubicon on and saying, “Okay, I’m worried about my students using this, what happens to me and my teaching, my labor, if I start adopting these tools. There could be some help, definitely, this could really streamline the process, of course creation and actually making it aligned with the learning outcomes my department wants for this particular class.” But it also gets us in a situation where automation is now part of our teaching. And we really haven’t thought about that. We haven’t really gotten to that sort of conversation yet.

Rebecca: It does certainly raise questions about, obviously, many ethical questions and really about disclosing to students what has been produced by us as instructors and what has been produced by AI and authorship of what’s there. Especially if we’re expecting students to [LAUGHTER] do the same thing.

Marc: It is mind boggling, the cognitive dissonance, with having a policy and saying “No AI in my class,” then all of a sudden, it’s there in my Blackboard course, and I could click on something. And, at least at this integration of Blackboard, they may very well change this, but once you do this, there’s no way to natively indicate that this was generated by AI. You have to manually go in there and say this was created. And I value my relationship with my students, it’s based off of mutual trust. I think almost everyone in education does. If we want our students to act ethically, and use this technology openly, we should expect ourselves to do the same. And if we get into a situation where I’m generating content for my students and then telling [LAUGHTER] them that they can’t do the same with their own essays, it is just going to be kind of a big mess.

John: So given the existence of AI tools, what should we do in terms of assessing student learning? How can we assess the work reasonably given the tools that are available to them?

Rebecca: Do you mean we can just use that auto-generated rubric right, that we just learned about? [LAUGHTER]

Marc: You could, you can use the auto-generated rubric separately from Blackboard. One of the tools I’m piloting right now is the feedback assistant, it was developed by Eric Kean and Anna Mills. I consulted with them on this, too. She’s very big on the AI space for composition. It’s called MyEssayFeedback. And I’ve been piloting this with my students. They know it’s an AI, they understand this. I did get IRB approval to do so. But I’ve just got the second round of generated feedback, and it’s thorough, it’s quick, it’s to the point. And it’s literally making me say, “How am I going to compete with that?” And maybe the way is that maybe I shouldn’t be competing with that, maybe it’s I’m not going to be providing that feedback. But then maybe then I should be providing my time in different ways. Maybe I should be meeting with them one on one to talk about their experiences, maybe that way. But I think you raise an interesting question. I don’t want to be alarmist, I want to be as level-headed as I can. But from my perspective, all the pieces are now there to automate learning to some degree. They haven’t been all hooked up yet and put together a cohesive package. But they’re all there in different areas. And we need to be paying attention to this.Our hackles need to be raised just slightly at this point to see what this can do. Because I think that is where we are headed with integrating these tools into our daily practice.

Rebecca: AI generally has raised questions about intellectual property rights. And if our learning management systems are using our content in ways that we aren’t expecting, how is that violating our rights or the rights that the institution has over the content that’s already there.

Marc: A lot of perspectives of the people that I speak with too, their course content, their syllabi, from their perspective is their own intellectual property in some ways. We get debates about that, about the actual university owns some of the material. But we have had instances where lectures were copyrighted before in the past. And if you’re allowing the system to scan your lecture, you are exposing that to Generative AI. And that gets at one aspect of this. The other aspect, which I think Rebecca is referring to is the issue with training this material for these large language models itself could indicate that it was stolen or not properly sourced from internet and you’re using it and then you’re trying to teach your students [LAUGHTER] to cite material correctly too, so it’s just a gigantic conundrum of just legal and ethical challenges. The one silver lining in all this, and this has been across the board with everyone in my department. This has been wonderful material to talk about with your students, they are actually actively engaged with it, they want to know about this, they want to talk about it. They are shocked and surprised about all the depths that have gone into the training of these models, and the different ethical situations with data and all of it too. And so if you want to just engage your students by talking to them about AI too, that’s a great first step in developing their AI literacy. And it doesn’t matter what you’re teaching, it could be a history course, it could be a course in biology, this tool will have an impact in some way shape or form in your students’ lives they want to talk about, I think maybe something to talk about is there are a lot of tools outside of ChatGPT, and a lot of different interfaces as well, too. I don’t know if I talked about this before in the spring, the one tool that’s really been effective for a lot of students were the reading assistant tools, one that we’ve been employing is called ExplainPaper. They upload a PDF to it, it calls upon generative AI to scan the paper and you can actually select it to whatever reading level you want, then translate that into your reading level. The one problem is that students don’t realize that they might be giving up some close reading, critical reading skills to it as well too, just like we do with any sort of relationship with generative AI. There is kind of that handoff and offloading of that thinking, but for the most part, they have loved that and that’s helped them engage with some really critical art texts that normally would not be at their reading level that I would usually not assign to certain students. So those are helpful. There are plenty of new tools coming out too. One of them is called Claude 2 to be precise by Anthropic. That just came out, I think, in July for public release, it is as powerful as GPT-4. It is free right now, if you want to sign up for it as well too. The reason why I mentioned Claude is that the context window, what you can actually upload to it is so much bigger than ChatGPTs. I believe their context window is 75,000 words. So you can actually upload four or five documents at a time, synthesize those documents. One of the things I was using it for as a use case was that I collected tons of reflections for my students this past year about the use of AI. It’s all in a messy Word document. It’s 51 pages single spaced. It’s all anonymized so there’s new data that identifies them. But it’s so much of a time suck on my time, just go through to code those reflections. And I’ve just been uploading to Claude and having it use a sentiment analysis to point out what reflections are positive from these students, in what way, and it does it within a few seconds. It’s amazing.

John: One other nice thing about Claude is that has a training database that ends in early 2023. So it has much more current information, which actually, in some ways is a little concerning for those faculty who were trying to ask more recent questions, particularly in online asynchronous courses, so that ChatGPT could not address those. But with Claude’s expanded training database, that’s no longer quite the case.

Marc: That’s absolutely correct. And to add to this rather early discussion about AI detection, none of the AI detectors that I’m aware of had time to actually train on Claude, so if you generated essay… and you guys are free to do this on your own, your listeners are too… if you generated and essay with Claude, and you try to upload that to one of the AI detectors, very likely you’re going to get zero detection or a very low detection rate for it too, because it’s again, a different system. It’s new, the existing AI detectors have not had time. So the way to translate this is don’t tell your students about it right now, or in this case, be very careful about how you introduce this technology to your students, which we should do anyway. But this is one of those tools that is massively popular, a lot of people just haven’t known about it because, again, ChatGPT just takes up all the oxygen in the room when we talk about Generative AI

John: What are some activities where we can have students productively use AI to assist their learning or as part of their educational process?

Marc: That’s a great question. We actually started developing very specific activities for them to look at different pain points for writing classes. One of them was getting them to actually integrate the technology that way. So we built a very careful assignment, which called on very specific moves for them to make both in terms of their writing, and their integration of the technology for that. We also looked at bringing some research question, building assignments that way. We have assignments from my Digital Media Studies students right now about how they can use it to create infographics. Using the paid for version of ChatGPT Plus, they can have access to plugins, and those plugins then give them access to Canva and Wikipedia. So they can actually use Canva to create full on presentations based off of their own natural language and use actual real sources by using those two plugins in conjunction with each other. I just make them then go through it, edit it with their own words, their own language too, and reflect on what this has done to their process. So lots of different examples, too, I mean, it really is limited only to your imagination in this time, which is exciting, but it’s also kind of the problem that we’re dealing with, there’s so much to think about.

Rebecca: From your experience in training faculty, what are some getting started moves that faculty can take to get familiar enough to take this step of integrating AI by the spring?

Marc: Well, I think the one thing that they could do is, there are a few really fast courses. I think it’s Ethan Mollick from even from the Wharton School of Business put out a very effective training course that was all through YouTube, I think it’s like four or five videos, very simple to take, to get used to understanding how ChatGPT works, how Microsoft’s Bing works as well too, and what sort of activities students can use it for, what sort of activities faculty could. Microsoft has also put out a very fast course, I think takes 53 minutes to complete about using generative AI technologies in education. And those are all very fast ways of basically coming up to speed with the actual technology.

John: And Coursera has a MOOC through Vanderbilt University, on Prompt Engineering for ChatGPT, which can also help familiarize faculty with the capabilities of at least ChatGPT. We’ll include links to these in the show notes.

Marc: I really, really hope Microsoft, Google and the rest of them calm down, because this has gotten a little bit out of control. And integration of these tools are often without use cases, they’re often waiting to see how we’re going to come up and use them too. And that is concerning. Google has announced that they are committed to releasing their own model that’s going to be in competition with GPT4, I think it’s called Gemini by late November. So it looks like they’re just going to keep on heating up this arms race and you get bigger models, more capable and I think we do need to ask ourselves more broadly what our capacity is just to keep up with this. My capacity is about negative zero at this point… going down further.

John: Yeah, we’re seeing new AI tools coming out almost every week or so now in one form or another. And it is getting difficult to keep up with. I believe Apple is also planning to release an AI product.

Marc: They are. They also have a car they’re planning to release, which is the weirdest thing in the world to me, that there could be your iPhone charged in your Apple Car.

John: GM has announced that they are not going to be supporting either Android or Apple CarPlay for their electric vehicles. So perhaps this is Apple’s way of getting back at them for that. And we always end with the question, what [LAUGHTER] is next, which is perhaps a little redundant, but we do always end with that.

Marc: Yeah, I think what’s next is trying to critically engage the technology and explore it not out of fear, but out of a sense of wonder. I hope we can continue to do that. I do think we are seeing a lot of people starting to dig in. And they’re digging in real deep. So I’m trying to be as empathetic as I can be for those that don’t want to deal with the technology. But it is here and you are going to have to sit down and spend some time with it for sure.

John: One thing I’ve noticed that in working with faculty, they’re very concerned about the impact of AI tools on their students and student work. But they’re really excited about all the possibilities that opens up for them in terms of simplifying their workflows. So that, I think, is a positive sign.

Rebecca: They could channel that to help understand how to work with students.

Marc: I hope they find that out, there’s a positive pathway forward with that too.

John: Well, thank you. It’s great talking to you and you’ve given us lots more to think about.

Marc: Thank you guys so much.


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

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

Ganesh: Editing assistance by Ganesh.