328. MicroSkills

Formal education does not always prepare us well for the unwritten rules of the workplace. In this episode, Adaira Landry and Resa Lewiss join us to discuss MicroSkills: Small Actions: Big Impact, their new book, designed to support us in efficiently navigating professional environments.

Adaira is an assistant professor at Harvard Medical School. She is an entrepreneur, keynote speaker, and award winning mentor. She co-founded Writing in Color, a nonprofit that teaches the craft of writing. Resa is a professor of emergency medicine, TEDMED speaker, TimesUp Healthcare founder, designer, entrepreneur, and award-winning educator, mentor, and point-of-care ultrasound specialist. She hosts the Visible Voices Podcast, amplifying content in the healthcare, equity, and current trends spaces.  Adaira and Resa have written many articles together in CNBC, Fast Company, Forbes, Harvard Business Review, Nature, the Philadelphia Inquirer, Science, Slate, STAT News, Teen Vogue, VOGUE, and USA Today. They have been quoted and featured in the Guardian, the HuffPost, The New Yorker, and The New York Times. MicroSkills: Small Actions: Big Impact, is scheduled for release in April 2024 by Harper Collins.

Show Notes


John: Formal education does not always prepare us well for the unwritten rules of the workplace. In this episode, we discuss a new resource to support us in efficiently navigating professional environments.


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 Adaira Landry and Resa Lewiss. Adaira is an assistant professor at Harvard Medical School. She is an entrepreneur, keynote speaker, and award winning mentor. She co-founded Writing in Color, a nonprofit that teaches the craft of writing. Resa is a professor of emergency medicine, TEDMED speaker, TimesUp Healthcare founder, designer, entrepreneur, and award-winning educator, mentor, and point-of-care ultrasound specialist. She hosts the Visible Voices Podcast, amplifying content in the healthcare, equity, and current trends spaces. Adaira and Resa have written many articles together in CNBC, Fast Company, Forbes, Harvard Business Review, Nature, the Philadelphia Inquirer, Science, Slate, STAT News, Teen Vogue, VOGUE, and USA Today. They have been quoted and featured in the Guardian, the HuffPost, The New Yorker, and The New York Times. They are the co-authors of MicroSkills: Small Actions: Big Impact, which is scheduled for release in April 2024 by Harper Collins. Welcome back, Adaira and Resa.

Adaira: Thank you so much for having us. I’m excited to be here.

Resa: Delighted, delighted, delighted.

John: We’re glad to talk to you again. Today’s teas are:… Resa, are you drinking tea?

Resa: I am absolutely drinking tea. I am drinking Celestial Seasonings True Blueberry. And I like not only the smell. I like the taste. I like the name. I like the feeling.

John: And Adaira?

Adaira: I am drinking chamomile. I love chamomile, and I’m trying to actually get more into green tea, which I hear is the healthiest type of tea out there. But I’m starting with just chamomile today.

John: …all those antioxidants.

Adaira: Right. That’s exactly right. It’s purely for health benefits. I’m trying to transition to exclusively green tea.

Rebecca: Both of them sound nice and calming. For sure. I have Harsha, which sounds like the exact opposite of that. [LAUGHTER]

John: Which is a black tea, a very harsh black tea, apparently.,

Rebecca: it is not a harsh black tea.

Adaira: I can’t do black tea. It is really harsh. It is.

Rebecca: …so tasty.

John: And I have a Republic of Tea wild blueberry tea today, which is a black tea.

Adaira: I like that brand.

Rebecca: …popular flavor this afternoon. So we invited you here today to discuss Micro Skills. Could you tell us a little bit about the origin of your book project.

Adaira: I’m happy to start. So Resa and I have been writing together for about three and a half years. We started with articles writing about our everyday struggles in the workplace. And we recognize that the things that we were facing in academia in medicine were widely applicable to a larger audience. Things like how to communicate, how to write a letter of recommendation for yourself, how to deal with workplace toxicity. And so those topics, even though we were encountering them in the healthcare setting, people were encountering them in education and finance, and tech. And so we thought, what would be the next big thing? Like, where do we go from here? And I’ve always wanted to write a book, and I love writing with Resa. So it just seemed like an organic next step to pitch the idea to her, “How about writing a larger project, a book, together that is really focused on the workplace?” And we still have the same philosophy of teaching the strategic how to, and using a voice that really is approachable and full of easy-to-implement tips.

Resa: And what we found, as Adaira said, is that what we experienced and what we see in medicine is actually exactly what our friends are seeing in other industries. And we found that we were able to write about the workplace in ways that spoke to many audiences, many industries. And we’re both ambitious. And when she came to me with the offer and the idea, I said, “I’m in.”

Rebecca: Can you talk a little bit about the intended audience? …you’ve kind of hinted at your connection to the medical field, but also these wider audiences….

Resa: I’m going to make a sports reference, and we’re going to talk about the playbook. And for different reasons, and sometimes overlapping reasons. Adaira and I have felt like, we didn’t get a copy of the playbook. And we certainly have been able to navigate this thing called academic emergency medicine, and we have a lot of accomplishments. But gosh, it definitely could have been easier if we had been told certain things, if we somehow got the inside scoop. And so the motivation was to provide that for everybody: to get there easier, get there sooner, get there in a way that everything…. goals, tasks, habits, navigating the workplace… just doesn’t seem as hard.

Adaira: I was going to add because a lot of people have asked if there is a specific audience we had in mind when we wrote the book, and Resa and I discussed upfront, “So we want to write a book for just women or just physicians?” And we’ve found ourselves wanting to really capture that wider audience. And, yes, we think this book is going to appeal greatly for those who are early in their careers who really know very little about the workplace because they have limited experience. And also, we have found that people who are more senior have benefited from a refresher, reminding themselves of what others expect of them. And we’ve even heard some feedback that people are going to use this as a guide in how they mentor others.

John: And even some of those who are later in careers, I think, can benefit from it. When Rebecca and I were working together in the teaching center, she saw some of the emails I sent out, and her response was, “I don’t know why people even talk to you, sometimes.” [LAUGHTER] I don’t know if you remember that conversation, Rebecca,

Rebecca: I think that’s a direct quote. [LAUGHTER]

John: I think it was a direct quote. It was a few years ago, but having this type of book could be really useful for people in pretty much any career. In the introduction, you note that the characteristics of successful people are often wrongly considered innate traits, rather than larger skills that can be dissected and learned in small pieces. Could you describe the range of topics that you address in this book.

Resa: So we have 10 chapters. And we actually did a lot of beta testing, beta reading, brainstorming sessions, the two of us, and then we opened it up to some people from all different ages, stages industries to see what resonated, and I’ll just name those 10 chapters. And that sort of will speak to the audience, in that they’ll understand really how comprehensive of a book this is. So we have micro skills for self care, micro skills to manage a task list, micro skills for polished communication, micro skills to build and maintain your reputation, micro skills for becoming a subject matter expert, micro skills to learn your workplace culture, micro skills to be a team player, micro skills to grow your network, micro skills for navigating conflict, and finally, micro skills to actively find new opportunities.

Rebecca: …such a great list of categories of micro skills. Can you give an example of what some of those specific micro skills might be?

Adaira: Yeah, I want to open with chapter one, micro skills for self care. And we purposefully put that at the front of the book, because we think, for anyone who wants to be better at work, they have to do this check in or audit as far as who they are, how they take care of themselves, how much compassion they give to themselves, and just making sure that they feel like they’re in a good spot, as a person, as an individual, before they start moving into work, and the team, and all of those things. And so we really love that this chapter is at the beginning, and we open with nine micro skills for self care. The first is to nourish relationships with people you trust, to really invest in those people to recognize the value of gratitude and demonstrate appreciation of others. The third is to make yourself an award-winning sleeper. As physicians, we of course, have a high emphasis on sleep and rest. Protect your ability to deliberately rest, and we talk about what deliberate rest means. Manage your personal finances. And we have a lot to say about that. Monitor your personal hygiene and physical health. And that was actually quite an interesting one to put in there, because there’s a lot about how someone appears that is very personal and sensitive, and it’s a very controversial topic. So that was a really interesting one to dive into. Number seven is offload routine tasks that bring you no joy or purpose. Number eight is place and organize everything on a calendar. And then number nine is to set limits on time spent in meetings.

Rebecca: I’d like to emphasize and underscore that one.

Adaira: Almost all of these were born out of our own personal struggles, or what has been told to us by other people directly, or our observations of how we have seen other people thrive or struggle within the workplace. But it’s not like any of it’s just coming out of thin air. Like what if this were a problem, it’s all grounded in some form of reality that we have witnessed.

Resa: And our approach is unique because there are many business self-help books out there. And when submitting a proposal and working with an editor, we had to give what we call comp titles. So there are plenty of books out there that talk about these things. What we know is different about this book is we break it down into these small steps, micro skills, and we tell people how. And I’ll just take the example of developing subject matter expertise, that seems like huge and people are like, “I don’t even know how to do that. How do you do that?” And we break it down. And one example about which we wrote recently is collaboration, and how collaborating with others can be a piece of building your own subject matter expertise. So we go into examples, and we break each one down with providing critical actions that are actionable, they’re discrete, they’re specific, and they build upon each other.

Rebecca: The other thing that’s really important to underscore is that these are all presented as skills, things that are learnable. And not just somehow, something we’re more or just supposed to somehow know. But it’s something we can take steps to get better at, and not just snap here today, we have this particular skill.

Adaira: That’s exactly right.

John: And early in your book, in terms of differentiating your book from other self-help, or self-care books, you note that a lot of other books come from a perspective of privilege, and may not work with a broader audience. Could you give us some examples of how you’ve tried to make your book relevant to a broad range of readers?

Resa: John, I love that question. And no one has asked us that question yet. They’ve noted what you just noted. But they didn’t ask how or maybe why. And so I think this comes from a place, and I’ll speak personally, of having had the experience of not feeling like I belong, feeling like I’m the only, and I’m not denying the plenty of privilege that I bring to the table. But being super aware that all of these environments are not built for inclusivity and belonging and for everybody. And so one assumption that is made often in these books is that people have access to resources, and the specific resource I’m speaking about is money and wealth. And it’s not said, but it’s definitely assumed by the way these books are written, or the way they talk about, “well just go do this.” It assumes that you have access to a savings and checking account, that you have access to caretakers like parents who can give you money, or who can support you, or that you’ve somehow inherited financial knowledge that maybe you didn’t inherit, and you didn’t have that kind of opportunity in the household in which you grew up. So financial is one assumption that we tried not to make. And that goes back to the why we told people how, because a lot of the books just assume, we’ll just go out and get a financial advisor. Many people don’t even know where to start. And the assumption is, that must cost a lot of money. And the reality is, it does not necessarily need to cost a lot of money, it may not cost any money. But again, we tried to really come from our own experience, or the experience of people that we love that are in our life, or quite honestly, we’re in the emergency department, we see the full breadth of society, and people come at the worst days of their life. People sometimes come with like, literally minor paper cuts, the range. And so I think it keeps, I certainly know it keeps me sober. And I say that a lot. And people are like, “oh,” and it’s a figurative aspect to staying sober about not everybody comes from the same place or has the same access.

Adaira: And the other thing that we wanted to do was really reveal our vulnerability and our own lessons learned. We don’t write from a place of “we know everything, because we have never made a mistake.” Well, that would be very untrue. I’m speaking personally for myself. I have made plenty of mistakes. And I would say that the book is really born out of the examples of how we have learned to be better communicators. And some of that is because we’ve made a mistake in the past. And we’re like, we should never make that mistake again. And we should also teach other people not to do the same thing. And so I think that level of vulnerability, that level of humility, is woven throughout the book because I tell a story about how I gave a patient the wrong medication dose. And so that’s like revealing a part of me that maybe someone else might want to hide. But I think showing that allows the reader to really understand that “Yes, here are these two physicians trained at Harvard who are successful.” Resa has a very successful podcast, I have a nonprofit. We have succeeded in various ways. And we have done that through making mistakes and learning lessons from it.

Rebecca: I really love the transparency component in underscoring that piece of it, and that making sure that you’re not making some of those assumptions, incredibly valuable and can’t be underscored enough. You’ve hinted a little bit at some of the content of individual structures, but they all follow a common structure. Do you want to share a little bit about how each chapter is structured? Kind of on this thread of transparency.

Resa: Love to. So as Adaira spoke, we put ourselves into this book. So every micro-skill and every chapter starts with a story, a vignette. And we switch back and forth who’s speaking, whose story, and its a real story. Some identifying features are changed, but they’re based on real circumstances and we wrote them so you can tell it’s our authentic voice. The goal of the story is to illustrate the micro-skill. And after the vignette, there’s an aspect where we talk about why is this skill important? …and some may be self evident. But sometimes these things are not evident. And that’s why people need to read this book. So we talk about why it’s important, how it can help you at work. This goes back to the humility and the transparency. We say, “Hey, listen, we get it. This is hard. And this is why it’s hard and why you may not want to do this, been able to do this, all the above.” And then we break it down into critical action steps, concrete steps, that the reader can take.

John: Can you give us some additional examples of some of the micro skills that you talked about in your book?

Adaira: Yeah, I will start with one that I think is relevant to me in my most recent days. And that is “learn what your supervisors expect of you.” And actually, in the book, I tell a story about how I went to a lecture many years ago, where it was a male speaker, and he was telling a story about how he was tasked to organize social, like mixers or journal club-type things during the day. And his co-fellow, a woman, was also tasked to do the same thing. And he spent like two minutes on this assignment, like he just sent out a quick email, and it was done, he didn’t really even order food. And she made a beautiful invitation and got this like artisanal food and had music and everyone was personally invited. And in the end, he ultimately got hired, he sort of summarizes this story, because they’re both fellows, but he was the one of the two who was hired because he didn’t really spend time doing the tasks his supervisor didn’t care about, instead of doing all the organizational stuff, what we call non-promotable tasks in the book, he spent time doing the research, giving the talks, networking with people doing other things that his supervisor valued. And so I think that’s something that’s like a favorite of mine right now. Because as an advisor for our medical school, I’m sort of teaching students to understand what is expected of you. And it becomes quite relevant. If you are someone who doesn’t really understand that there’s a difference between the work that is tasked to you and what you personally find valuable. And we talk about this other concept of non-promotable tasks. And there’s a huge gendered component to that, where perhaps the woman in that scenario was told or assumed that she needed to put this energy into something else that she shouldn’t have been doing. So that to me is a really interesting concept.

Resa: My favorite skills, favorite stories, change day-to-day and conversation-to-conversation. One that I’ll highlight is under the micro skills for self-care chapter, and this is specifically: recognize the value of gratitude and demonstrate appreciation of others. And in this micro-skill, I start by telling a story of working in the emergency department with an attending and I was a resident doctor, and this woman came in and she was clearly dying of metastatic cancer. And it was very recognizable to us how terminal she was, how sick she was. And the family that came in with her definitely did not recognize how end stage and far along she was. And no one had had a conversation with her, with them. There was no consensus decision about what to do and what measures to take in terms of her wishes as she was dying. So we went into the family room and had a conversation with the family, this attending and I, and I watched him very skillfully hold this conversation and, with the family, bring them to a decision where I visibly saw them feel better and feel relief, I should say. And it was remarkable. I’d never seen this type of conversation. So fast forward. I was finished with my training, and I was the faculty member working in the community. No resident doctors, just me, a patient came in, had metastatic cancer, but wasn’t that sick, and he and his partner, very friendly, very nice, very appreciative. He did get admitted to the hospital. And that was it. Three weeks later, he came to the emergency department again, I didn’t recognize him. His cancer had progressed. His partner was like, “Hi, do you remember us?” She recognized me and I had to do a double take. There’s a lot that we keep inside, we don’t say outside, and keep this sort of demeanor. But it was very clear this time, he was very sick. And so the same situation of the partner didn’t really have that recognition and insight. She’s like, “Well, I’m gonna go, do you think he’s going to be admitted?” And I realized I had to have that similar conversation. So I took her into a room, sat down, explained to her how serious it was and gave her specific directives and what to do to sort of prepare and that he was definitely going to be admitted, etc. I was not working the next day, however, she came down to the emergency department to look for me and she passed on a thank you through the nursing staff and they told me. I wrote a note to that attending who had taught me how to have that skillful conversation from back in my training. And he’s told me that he’s kept that note, and he pulls it out every once in a while to read it. And this concept of gratitude and thanking… yeah, it can be a thank you note. And I joke that growing up, I was always told I was supposed to send a thank you note. And I was like, eyeroll, thank you note. But now, there’s real value in authentic note writing, but just acknowledging, thanking, and realizing that none of us are doing this alone, everything we do is team. And acknowledging that those assists, and that those people that helped you along the way, is really important.

Rebecca: And those notes don’t take a long time to write often, but are incredibly meaningful and impactful.

John: And they’re also really effective for the mental health of the people who write those notes. There’s a lot of research suggesting that expressions of gratitude help improve the quality of life for the people who engaged in that.

Resa: That’s exactly why it’s in the self-care chapter. Bingo..

John: In self care, you mentioned earlier, though, a couple of things that I might have some challenges with, for example, you mentioned to give up those things that don’t bring you joy, that sounds like a good deal of my day today. [LAUGHTER] For those people who are in a position where their job requires them to do tasks that may not always bring them joy, do you have any suggestions on how they can find more joy in the work that they’re doing?

Rebecca: This isn’t a request for any personal advice or anything, is it, John? [LAUGHTER]

Adaira: There’s a part of work that we all have to do that is menial, and feels less enthusiastic or inspired by and I think, in the book, we make a caveat, like you can’t give up everything, because you have to again, go back to what your supervisor expects of you. What we really are talking about is when there’s room for optional stepping down, or stepping up, and there’s room for you to sort of voice your opinion or your objection. So if someone comes to me and like I have collaborators and peers who come to me and say, “Hey, would you like to join in on this project,” and I don’t find myself having joy in that type of work, I feel empowered to say no, and focus on the things that really do bring me joy. But if my supervisor were to tell me, “Hey, I need you to be at work tomorrow at 9 am,” I really couldn’t look at that person and say, “No, I don’t want to do that,” because then I might lose my job. But it is a good question to ask yourself, because that might mean to you that this job really isn’t where you should be. If the most basic expectation of you you don’t want to do it’s a nice thing to sort of stop and pause.

Resa: I do think that we have more agency and control at work than sometimes we think we do. And part of that is the self care. If you’re rested, if you have the Board of Directors, I love having my own Board of Directors, your go-to people that you can say, “Listen, I need to bounce this scenario by you. Are there any ways that you see that I can offload some of this?” And people you trust, people that understand your situation, sometimes they come up with stuff you’re like, “Amazing. That’s a great idea.” So I think realizing that, like I said, when we don’t feel we have agency, when we feel out of control, there’s actually usually more in our, I guess they call it the sphere of influence. And actually, a skill in the micro skills for self-help chapter is about setting limits on time spent in meetings, and time expands to fill that allotted. And so we definitely think that 60-minute meetings can often be 30-minute meetings, 30-minute meetings can often be 15- to 20-minute meetings, 15- to 20-minute meetings can often be an email or a phone call. And so there is a lot of play, and none of us can really, at the end of the day, we know and acknowledge, ignore our roles and responsibilities.

Rebecca: So your book is super comprehensive. There’s many micro skills in there. And for some, sitting down and reading from cover to cover might be a good strategy, [LAUGHTER] but it might also be really overwhelming having so many micro skills. Do you have some advice for how to engage with your book?

Resa: This is a fantastic question. And it’s almost as if you queued up… I’ll start. I have one of my besties from college. She’s also in academic medicine. She’s a dermatologist and she recently stepped into a leadership position and she has been one of the beta readers. She was bowled over… she’s kind of mid- to late-career… with its applicability and accessibility. And she said, and Adair and I specifically designed the table of contents, so, sure, you can read it cover to cover, but you can dip in and go to a chapter or a skill. My friend had to run a meeting, so she went directly to the micro skills on how to run a meeting. And she actually, as a part of this new leadership position, has had to have some quote difficult conversations. We talk about difficult conversations and conflicts. So my N of one is that you can actually piecemeal and go directly to topics that are relevant to your needs. We call it just-in-time learning.

John: So, it doesn’t have to be read from beginning to end in a continuous linear fashion…

Rebecca: …but it should be at an arm’s length away. I think one thing that stood out to me that I know a lot of our graduate students are constantly struggling with is growing your network and how to do that. I think it’s always very mysterious to people it seems daunting, it seems scary. It might be a skill set that feels like, if you’re not outgoing, somehow, you can’t build a network. So I think that component is something that I know that my graduate students would really benefit from dipping into.

Resa:In that micro-skill, when we talk about growing your network, we start from this premise that everybody has a network, everybody has a network, and people may think they don’t, but they do, whether it’s friends from elementary school, kids you attended clubs with when you’re growing up in high school, your high school friends, your college friends, in our case, our med school friends, our residency friends, our fellowship friends, our faculty friends, and then if there’s been any national experience or international experience, it just goes on and on and on and on. And one approach for people that still don’t buy it, that they have a network, is you can do something simple, like setting up one meeting a week, one outreach, and one meeting a week with the goal of building upon that. And eventually, over time you grow your network. And when you connect with someone organically and nicely and well, or it can even be a mentor, you can ask them, “Is there anybody that you think I should meet? Can you introduce me? Or can I reach out cc: you?” or say that you told me. So once you do it or know how to do it, it’s like not a big deal. And also I have 100% been there where I’m like, “I don’t have a network, I don’t know anybody.” And then I was like, wait a minute, oh my gosh, okay. And this goes back to the sort of thinking back and reflecting and actually feeling rested enough to have that reflection time.

Adaira: And I’ll just quickly add that for many people, myself included, I assumed my network would be built by people coming to me and like offering to just coach me or to be my mentor. And so for many years, I didn’t have a network. I would say from like, 21 to like 25, for sure. So really early in my career when I was in medical school, early residency, I didn’t really have like a network or a team of people who I could turn to. And it wasn’t until really someone showed me how they network and how they reach out to other people and normalized for me that like I’m in charge, and I really need to build this myself.

Rebecca: I think there were a couple others that stood out to me in particular, as well, like designing meetings to have a clear purpose. That’s a skill I’d like to share with others [LAUGHTER] as well as myself.

Adaira: There are some things in this book that I think we all struggle to tell other people directly. And so someone when I told them about the self-care chapter that has something about literally body odor, someone said that they felt like really relieved that we gave them guidance on how to check in with other people who might be struggling in this realm. We include uncomfortable truths that can hopefully be helpful for the reader like “this is how I can deal with this for someone else, for myself.” And yes, that meeting the agenda part is one too, like, if you’re in meetings all the time that have no agenda, just like how to ask someone, “Hey, do you mind sending out an agenda so we can understand what the goals will be for this meeting.”

John: One other thing that I remember, and this also relates back to our earlier conversation on an article you had posted, was using email efficiently and encouraging other people to use email more efficiently so that you’re not spending all of your time on email. Could you talk a little bit about some of your suggestions for using email for communication.

Resa: This is one we get asked a lot. To your point, we’ve written two articles about email. One is fuel-efficient mentoring, and another on compassionate email culture. And in the book, we talk about the role of the cc: line and the bcc: line, and 100% email and email inbox can get out of control. And so we try to teach how people can feel in control of their email inbox and how to email in a way that is effective, communicative, and generous not just to themselves, but to other people who are on the receiving end. So if we speak specifically about the bcc:, the blind carbon copy, most people think of it as a punitive measure, and it’s used against people or it’s used to create a paper trail. We flip that and we think actually, it can be a very generous tool to use and we think if used in that way, it can be very effective, and people will embrace it. So I’ll use an example. Recently, one of my friends wanted me to meet and mentor one of her younger faculty. And so she introduced us, meaning by email, she electronically introduced us. And I wrote back and I said, “Dear so and so let’s meet next week, here are some of my specific days and times, looking forward to it, Resa.” And then right underneath my name, I wrote my friend’s name in ncc:. And what that meant was, he knew she’s seen this, even though I can’t see her, she sees that I’m closing the loop and I’m responding to your young faculty. And her inbox does not get loaded with more emails when he responds to me. And again, closed loop communication.

John: Yeah, that reply all can get really messy. And bcc: can really reduce that to a much more manageable level.

Rebecca: There’s so many things we could talk about, because there’s so many good things in the book. I was looking at a lot of them in the micro skills to build and maintain your reputation. You might have some initial thoughts about what might be in that chapter, but there’s some really great micro skills around complaining carefully and sharing your failures to normalize humanness. So there’s such a good spectrum of things. And I wish we could talk about all of them, because I really would love to talk about them all. [LAUGHTER] But we always wrap up by asking: “what’s next?”

Adaira: Well, I think for us, next is like tomorrow and the next day, we’re like on a day-to-day level right now, because we are trying to spread the good message of the book and get people’s feedback and see how we can continue to amplify the book through lecturing, workshops, writing articles, and those sorts of things.

Resa: Yeah, we’re in a really exciting period. For listeners, we’re recording before the release of the book. And so we’re in full on marketing and publicity mode. We are doing exactly what Adaira just shared. And we’re just really hopeful that the content resonates with audiences and readers so that, yeah, they buy the book, but also they want to buy the book to get the book and sort of there’s that self-perpetuating aspect to its content being timeless and resonating with many, many, many people.

John: I think you’ve been quite successful in writing a book that should resonate with pretty much everybody. We really enjoyed it.

Adaira: We’re happy to hear that. Thank you.

Rebecca: Definitely something for everybody, no matter their stage of their career, or really what field they’re in. So, thank you for your work in putting this together. It’s important work.

Resa: Thank you.

John: It’s amazing that you do this along with all the other things that you’re doing, [LAUGHTER] which suggests perhaps that some of those tips can lead to more efficiency in terms of how you’re using your time.

Adaira: That’s correct. And that’s the goal. Well, thank you so much for having us.

John: Thank you. It’s great talking to you, and we’re looking forward to your future work.


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.


295. Equity-Minded Teaching

As our student body diversifies, higher ed needs to respond and adapt. In this episode, Bryan Dewsbury and Mays Imad join us to discuss equity-minded strategies we can use to redesign or incrementally improve our courses. Bryan is an Associate Professor of Biological Sciences and the principal investigator of the Science Education and Society research program at Florida International University. Mays is an Associate Professor of Biology and Equity Pedagogy at Connecticut College and is a AAC&U Senior Fellow. Bryan and Mays are co-authors, with Flower Darby and Isis Artze-Vega, of The Norton Guide to Equity-Minded Teaching.

Show Notes


John: As our student body diversifies, higher ed needs to respond and adapt. In this episode, we discuss equity-minded strategies we can use to redesign or incrementally improve our 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 Bryan Dewsbury and Mays Imad. Bryan is an Associate Professor of Biological Sciences and the principal investigator of the Science Education and Society research program at Florida International University. Mays is an Associate Professor of Biology and Equity Pedagogy at Connecticut College and is a AAC&U Senior Fellow. Bryan and Mays are co-authors (with Flower Darby and Isis Artze-Vega), of The Norton Guide to Equity-Minded Teaching. Welcome Bryan and Mays.

Mays: Thank you. Thank you for having us.

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

Mays: I am.

Bryan: I am not.

John: Mays, what tea are you drinking?

Mays: I am drinking chai masala, that I prepare the night before, and I wake up and it’s the first thing on my mind.

Rebecca: Oh, that sounds amazing. I have an awake tea this morning, John.

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

Bryan: So I’m it odd one out with a cup of black coffee.

John: That’s not uncommon. [LAUGHTER]

Rebecca: One of the most common teas we have.

John: We’ve invited you here today to discuss the Norton Guide to Equity-Minded Teaching. Before we discuss the book itself, could you tell us a little bit about your own pathway to this project?

Bryan: Mays, you want to go first?

Mays: Sure. So my career started at the community college. And in fact, I was a postdoctoral fellow when I started, a postdoctoral fellow studying the cellular mechanisms of learning, which is vast and complex. And as a graduate student, as a postdoctoral fellow, I had this growing understanding that learning can happen, and it can happen spectacularly well, provided the right environment is there. So when I began to teach at Pima Community College, I began to see how so many of my first-generation working students, coming, showing up, doing all what is expected of them, and having a really hard time academically. And I began to understand the notion of the system and the complexity of learning. So really, for me, it started as a recognition that I, as a teacher, as a fellow human being, have a moral imperative to address what is going on. The inequities that I was seeing are not an inherent self-evident part of the system. It’s by virtue of the human-made system, that I had a choice and a chance and an obligation to start to shift and address and interrogate and even transform. So that’s how I began and fast forward to a few years ago, when Isis reached out to me, it was something that very much spoke to my heart and I said, “Yes.”

Bryan: yeah, a little bit of a similar story, I guess. I mean, without maybe recounting my whole academic career, all of the authors on this guide are people with whom that I’ve worked with in different contexts. And there’s a sense in which projects like these tend to be a combination of conversations that you’ve been having for years. And obviously, there’s a plan, there was a strategy, we carved this out and really tried to think carefully about what would be the most impactful. We also recognize and appreciate all the other books and publications out there addressing inclusive teaching. So it’s not to replace any of those, it’s really to just kind of add to the conversation nationally. We are an interesting mix in that, in terms of our individual careers, and that Isis is a provost. I’m a research faculty, but also do a lot of faculty development. Mays will probably describe herself the same way and Flower Darby is nationally known a lot of times in the online space, but really her work expands to everything. So I bring that up to say that you probably will see a lot of that complexity come to bear in the way the book is written and the kind of things we try to think about, that our faculty would need to think about, when they’re designing an equity-minded classroom.

Rebecca: So it is nice to hear all your different backgrounds and thinking about the authorship of the book, because it does help us think about, as you mentioned, the complexities of how it was written and also just the complexities of the things that we need to be thinking about when we’re teaching in this space. Your book is divided into three sections. The first section addresses class design, the second addresses the day to day operations of the class, and the final section focuses on critical reflection at the end of the course. During course design, what are some of the most important factors that faculty should consider when trying to design an inclusive course?

Mays: I’ll share some of them and Bryan, please feel free to jump in and add. So one of the things that are critical is that we approach this work with intentionality and explicit intentionality that right from the get go, even from before the students get there that we design the course to have equity in mind. And one of the factors, when it comes to course design and curriculum, is that the course has to be relevant for the students. And what the research that we found is many students find that the materials are not relevant. Now, when I think about how the brain works and how we have limited energy, oftentimes, when I see my students struggling, and I try to dig deeper and try to see how I can engage them, I usually find things like they say things like, ‘I don’t know how this is going to make me a better person,’ or ‘I don’t know how this is relevant.’ And so the brain is going to disconnect, it’s going to focus on something that is more urgent, more relevant. So we talk about relevance being very important… to explicitly make connections between students’ lives and what is in the course. The second one is transparency, why we’re doing what we’re doing. And there is a lot of research about transparency and how there is more buy-in from the students when we articulate for them how things connect, and that it’s not just busy work. And then a third factor that we say it’s really important to consider when you’re designing your course, is rigor. And we talked about the research behind rigor, and we problematize rigor, and what is the definition of rigor, and so on. And here we’re talking about academic challenge. We owe it to our students to challenge them academically, so they could succeed in their next courses, and we understand that this is multifactorial, and that we have to also find the resources so they could succeed when we challenge them academically. And so those are some of the factors that we talk about to take into consideration before you even meet your students: who are the students? what matters to them? and why it is important to cultivate the space where, when we challenge them academically, they can succeed.

Bryan: The only thing I will add because you know, we both wrote the book. So [LAUGHTER] refer pages 25 to 50, for your question kind of thing. But the only thing I will add, because this phrase wasn’t used in the book. But this phrase comes from another wonderful book called Radical Equations by Robert Moses, a civil rights leader from the 60s. And there’s a phrase they use during that time, which is then applied, he then came to apply to the Algebra Project, which he founded, which is “Cast your bucket where you are.” And that really speaks to what Mays just mentioned about getting to know your students and your context, especially at an entry level, it almost sounds like provocative, radical advice. But a lot of these things that are really important for good course design have nothing to do with the content of the class. This is not us saying that the content doesn’t matter and they should just all be signing Kumbaya for 15 weeks. What this means is that teaching is a skill and a skill that involves the psychology of the individual, the social context, both in real time but also what they brought before they showed up to that classroom. And this whole conversation is taking place because of the years we’ve been ignoring that. So I really want to kind of center that. Because I think a lot of times when people ask that question, the first thing they hear is, “Well, how do I make respiration more exciting?” Well, yeah, we’ll get to that, but this is a human being that you’re trying to build a relationship and a connection with. And that needs to take front and center before you get to inspiring them with the really beautiful content.

John: The second part of your book deals with maintaining the class, with the ongoing running of the class. And one of the things you emphasize throughout is the importance of creating a sense of belonging. Could you each talk about some strategies that could be used to help create that sense of belonging within the classroom.

Bryan: I don’t want to run the risk of listing your audience to death here. So I want to offer what I’m about to say as maybe the thing that bubbles up to the surface to me as an instructor. There’s certainly a lot of things one can do to help students feel a sense of belonging. And the approach chosen might differ depending on the class that’s been taught in the institution. One of the classes that I teach most often is intro bio and it’s a really special class for me, because it’s it’s a privilege to teach that class. I’m grateful to have the chance to welcome students into a wonderful discipline and a way of seeing the world that’s relatively unique to that space. I also like the challenge of showing a lot of students who before may not feel like this is a place they belong or see themselves doing this 10, 15, 20 years in the future. I like the challenge of showing them that this is the real thing. You can be as much a biologist as anybody else, anybody in the book, anybody you’ve seen on TV, etc. But it is a very technical space. And any technical space kind of requires a slowly evolving comfort level [LAUGHTER] as you navigate through the technicalities of it. And I think that tends to be a place where some students and faculty get stuck into how you keep that door open and welcoming while navigating this environment that really requires a lot of time and attention on the cognitive challenge. So one thing, and it might sound simple, but how feedback is given really, really matters. Without saying my age here, but I certainly went to school at a time when it was your tool, just try harder, right? …just study harder. And any grade you got you there was this sort of assumption that any grade you got was just 100% due to whether you did try well or didn’t try well enough or knew this stuff or didn’t know it. There was no discussion of the way the teaching happened. There was no discussion of your actual approaches to studying. There was no discussion about what motivates you to even do this class in the first place. And now we know and we probably knew it then too, but we know how much all of that matters. So when a student sits in front of me and they have a C, it’s not just that “Well Mays, you need to do better than this.” It’s: “Tell me how you prepare for this moment. Tell me what is motivating you to be pre-med or to want to go to grad school.” And all of those things come to be in a conversation, the goal of which is for me to see you shine in the way that I know you can. How does it build a sense of belonging? It shows the student that I am not questioning if you can become a biologist, I’m actually assuming that. What I’m working on are things that are fixable. I’m working on strategy. I’m working on things that you can do something different and see a result. And so once you know I kind of have your back in that way, your effort then becomes different because it’s just a matter of specific things we can work on.

Mays: Yes, so thank you for that. Bryan. If I were to add to your beautiful answer, I would say take the time to find out what belonging means for your students, I think we often make assumptions about inclusion and belonging and what they want and what they don’t want. Of course, I start with the understanding that wanting to belong is a human need. We’re social beings, we want to connect and we want to belong, but on a day-to-day basis in my classes within my context, what does that mean and what it would look like that’s going to be different. And while I’m going to apply what I learned, and what the research says, I also want to take the time to ask students do you want to belong? And what makes you want to belong to an academic setting or a social group? And what are some of the things that make you want to belong? And what does that word mean for you? So I think starting with that is really important. It can be really informative to our practices.

Rebecca: I really related to what you were saying, Bryan, I teach in a really technical field as well. And that technical challenge can really discourage students if we don’t make those assumptions that they can indeed be in the field that they are studying. So thanks for sharing that as your top. I feel like that’s one of my top ideas, too. And I love, Mays, about thinking about our audience, and including our audience in the design. As a designer, I really gravitate towards those kinds of ideas. One of the things that you already kind of mentioned is this idea of connections and relevance. So what are some ways that faculty can help students connect course content to their lived experiences?

Mays: I think one of the things I asked them is I talk about how learning is very relational. We are relational, learning is relational, knowledge, when we co-create it, is very much relational. So one of the things I ask them is, “Why should you care about this lesson, this topic, this context? How does it relate to your life? How does it connect to your family? How does it impact the people you care about?” And throughout the semester this is a recurring set of questions that I ask. And in the beginning of the semester, I pause, and I model the answers. I care about this, because this is how it connects to the community, the people I care about, this is how it connects to something I feel passionate about. And then it becomes an exercise that they do regularly. We do this exercise at the beginning of the class of “What is your why? And what is your ‘why?’ beyond taking this class? Why is this important? And so we connect those many exercises or “Why should you care about the acid-based physiology” to that initial “why?” exercise?

Bryan: You don’t imply this in your question, Rebecca, but it does come up a lot about relevance and how it works. And I think one danger that I want to ask faculty members to avoid is the notion here is not that every aspect of the content has to tie back to something. You may fall into that trap if everything is not connected to something, but, you know, sometimes a cell is a cell is a cell kind of thing. But there are several things that do. For me, it’s actually less a case of connecting it to their lives, per se and more a case of communicating that human beings do science, human beings do the discipline. That, in and of itself, by definition, means that there’s a social component to how it’s practiced. It introduces the cultural context within which science is done and it introduces the bias that occurs with some scientific decisions, good, bad, in-between. It brings up a different conversation once you recognize that none of these things are really apolitical, values free. The second point is, to connect something to students’ lives, you have to first know student’s life so that this way you understand, it doesn’t feel patronizing or facetious. There has to be some authenticity there about Mays’ story about getting to know the students, I don’t think she just meant know them individually, but just also their broader context. When I taught in Rhode Island, it was important to know the local and the very ancient, but also more recent history of the state, of the city, of the neighborhoods the students came from. I knew the high schools that were big feeders. Those things made the relationship a lot more authentic, because the knowledge was there first. So I think once that all those precursors are present, honestly, the connection part is not that hard, it almost comes naturally. Because you just naturally want to teach in a way that builds a history of these beautiful people. And you kind of… I don’t want to say just is automatic because you are intentional… but it is so much, so much easier, and you have this desire to do it. I’ll just add one last thing, a lot of times with teaching, and I’m speaking now, as a faculty developer, here. I get good course design, I get you want to have learning outcomes, they’re going to be measurable, etc. But sometimes, even conversations like this can get stuck within the structure of what higher ed is, which is you get 120 credits and 15 weeks at a time you take a suite of classes, and those classes give you a grade and those grades average into a number, and then you become a 3.1. Student or a 4.0 student. We get it. We get how all of that stuff works. But I know Mays well enough to know that we have much more radical visions for what education is and what it can be. We come from the Freireian school of critical consciousness and preparing students to be civically engaged to have agency and power and to see themselves as agentic parts of a democratic experiment. So what’s driving all of this is who I want you to be, not necessarily getting your good grades in 15 weeks. So from that perspective, even simple things like group work, for example, it really is actually practicing deliberative democracy. Even things like how we talk about experimental design, they bring up other questions like whose voices are not at the table when you think about these questions, like whose perspectives are you not considering? Or who are you. So if you think about this a little bit more broadly, beyond like, I just want people to do well, in this really nice subject I have a PhD in, that you tap into the more socio-political aspect of education, which is a beautiful thing, I think, but it makes the connection to social life and just broader life in general easier to do.

John: One of the things that’s especially challenging is that we’ve always had students come in with very diverse prior backgrounds in terms of their training and what they know coming into our classes, but the experience of remote teaching during COVID resulted in much greater variations in their preparation. We want to create courses that are challenging for everyone. How can we do that in a way where we’re challenging the students with really strong preparation without losing the students who don’t have as much background? What types of support can we provide to make sure that all of our students are challenged, but also have the resources to be successful in our courses?

Bryan: We could just give everybody a trophy right? Now, that’s what they say this generation is. When I put on the intro bio hat again, and that’s a place where the differential readiness is really, really apart, I would have students who last science class you take, not bio, science class, was their first year of high school next to students who were in AP, went to private school or things like that. And that’s fine. It’s fine in the sense that I’m able to design for that. And I would say there’s kind of two things I’ll say to this point. Number one, you have to be able, as an instructor, to have things in place to accurately detect whose readiness might be further behind. And specifically, what areas of readiness that need addressing, and then have the tools in place to quickly respond to that. So a lot of times just my own history, it’s hard to study. A lot of times it’s confidence. Honestly, it’s fixed mindsets around who gets to do science and what counts as doing well in science and things like that. So the first month of that class is almost like a battle, that I generally win, I think, in convincing them that this is a place for them if we consider these specific things I’m trying to show you. So a lot of times, yeah, there’s class or whatever. But there’s a lot of times spent in office hours, which we actually call student hours, because it uses a smaller group. There’s a lot of time sneaking in conversations about: Have you tried this? Have you tried that? Emails that are sent to direct people, etc. Your students will come in and I’ll just say for now, maybe kind of fly in from the get go. There are other things that they can do to grow. So those are the students I might say: Have you thought about joining our research lab? I know it’s your first semester, but it’s a good time to get to know a professor more personally and see how science is done a professional way. A lot of times those students will come to student hours. And what I would do is I put them to work. I will say, “Mays, can you make sure this group of four understands glycolysis as well as you do,” and those students will typically go on to become my learning assistants in a future semester. So my point here is that everybody has a space to grow and has a direction and an amount that they can transform. The pedagogy is you being able to figure that out? And figuring out how to respond to what growth that is needed for that individual.

Mays: Thanks, Brian, I have a couple things to add. So number one, obviously, as I hear you, John ask the question, I think it’s complex. So yes, there are students that are going to come in that may not have the academic background, perhaps they come into my pathophysiology class not really knowing the cardiac output and the cardiovascular system as they should in their previous class. And then there are students that come in ready to be challenged. At the same time, there are students that are going to come in that are going to have perhaps subtle and not so visible skills that other students who maybe have the academic background are going to have. So it’s not just that I want to bring everyone up to speed academically, I want to also bring them up to speed when it comes to issues that really matters for citizens, their empathy, their non-academic problem solving, their collegiality, and so on. So there are a couple of things I do, I want to get to know who knows what. And I tell them that I’m very transparent why I do what I do. And I tell them that this is a way to give me feedback, so I could know how to maneuver forward. I also bring the tutors and the preceptors myself from my previous classes. And I rarely bring the ones who got A’s, I bring the students who came into the class, not quote, unquote, having the background. And then they picked up the background. And they succeeded. And they ended up with a solid B, and sometimes even a C, and I bring those students and we meet on a weekly basis. And so the culture of my class is very much we’re going to work together with the tutors. And then the third thing is I tell the students, we come from different backgrounds. And I use my story that when I started graduate school, my background was in philosophy, and all of a sudden, I am studying neuropharmacology. And many of my peers in graduate school were steps ahead of me. And I was trying to figure out just basic things in cellular neurophysiology, or cellular neuroscience. And so I talk about the notion of some of us have this background and not the other background as a way to celebrate the diversity. And I say the way I’m going to approach this is I am going to start slow, because I want to review for some of you and I want to bring up to speed others, those of you who are going to feel like this is slow, I want you to stick with me. And I want you to think about what’s coming ahead. And then sometimes I’m going to speed up and some of you are going to feel like this is so fast, I also want you to stick with me, I’m going to slow down. So it’s very much relational. I’m telling them what’s going on, I’m working with the tutors, they come and talk with me. At the beginning of the class, I do a lot of exercises where students answer on a form, it’s a one-item form: should I slow down or speed up. So I’m getting this real live feedback, slow down or speed up. I’m not learning anything new, this is overwhelming. And it gives me the opportunity to change and accommodate. No class or no session is going to be the same as the previous one. So those are some of my approaches. Again, be transparent with the student, get to know what they know. focus on not just what they perhaps don’t have academically, but what other assets they bring that perhaps the students that have the academic background don’t bring and celebrate those. Those are also important and constantly seek feedback from your audience.

John: And it sounds like using peers in the classroom to provide feedback and using group projects would be another way of leveraging the strength of all the students so that those who do have better strength in a topic can assist those who are still at an earlier stage of development, which benefits both types of individuals because by explaining it to other students, they’re going to reinforce their own learning and the students who have things explained to them by their peers are going to be able to connect to that in a way they don’t often if we were explaining it to them.

Rebecca: You just kind of talked a lot about some feedback loops that are necessary in learning. And one of the things that you advocate in your book is a process of critical reflection at the end of the term that relies on self examination and engagement with course data. Can you talk a little bit about that process and what data faculty might use to assist in this kind of reflection?

Bryan: I guess for me, I really would like the conversation about how we look at semesters that we teach, to move away from a hyper focus on whether we grade or not grade, or just assess learning. And I’m not saying that assessing learning is not important. But I would like to move away from that and broaden it to evaluating an experience. And that language matters. Because in the latter, by definition, when you’re doing any kind of forensic analysis of an experience, you naturally have to think about all the factors that contribute to whether that experience was successful, however its success is defined for that situation. And the factors include ourselves, the factors includes things we did well or didn’t do well. The factors include the physical environment of the classroom or the virtual environment. The factors include the support structures that were available for both the instructor and student to be their best selves. And so once the conversation broadens in that way, it just by definition necessitates some critical reflection. It really presents the class with that question wrong. It’s probably not them, it might be me. So just things like that. It gets us away from what I think is a little bit of a false dichotomy on that kind of issue. Should you put a ladder or should you not put a ladder, that is what it is, but this is what our section is really asking us to respect. If it’s a humanist process, then every human involved will have some questions to answer about how well it went or didn’t go.

Mays: So teaching, as I mentioned earlier, is very relational. And it’s a work in progress, as learning is. And so the feedback that we see from our students is critical to help us look at what we’re missing, look at assumptions we made, assumptions we didn’t make. It really helps us move forward in a kind, equitable, and liberatory way. So, first of all, we advocate for feedback throughout the semester. Talk with your students, listen to your students. It’s a co-creative process. And then the feedback that we seek at the end, we of course, problematize student evaluation. And we say that, on the one hand, there are so many biases and so many problems with how instructors are not evaluated equitably, especially instructors from racialized backgrounds and women instructors. And at the same time, the feedback is so important, because it is right now, it’s arguably the only source of information we get about students’ experience, not so much about their learning, but about their experience. And that’s really important. We do talk about ways to enhance the reflection, too. So we could get more in-depth information about students’ experiences. And we talk about this idea of reflection, why it is so important. Parker Palmer talks about how we teach who we are, and how our inner being is so critical in the teaching process. And when we reflect on even the most harsh evaluation, what we’re doing is trying to find the truth, find a truth within that, with the intention that this truth can help us grow as teachers, as instructors, as facilitators, as human beings. So it could help our future students. So those are some of the things we talked about that the reflection is so critical, and it’s been written about in bell hooks’ work and Paulo Freire’s work, and certainly Stephen Brookfield and Parker Palmer and Laura Rendon. And those are really important. I hope when I finish a class, that it’s not just my students who are changed, that I change as well, that it is a process where as bell hooks calls it, liberating mutuality, where the classroom, whether it’s online or in person becomes a space where both the instructor and the students are transformed by the end of that experience. So those are just some of the things we underscore in that section of the book.

John: We always end by asking, what’s next?

Bryan: I will say what’s next, for my program in general, is we’ve been keeping our ears to the ground on the political landscape in the US, particularly around the kinds of things that we’ve been writing about over the past several years. And I think one thing the field needs more is we need to continue to have scholarship around these ideas and think critically about how to have education systems that allow everybody to thrive. But I think there also needs to be really well designed communication projects that message this and perhaps ways other than how academia typically messages this, which is through the research process. This is not trying to throw that process out of the water, but I think getting into more storytelling type projects, podcasting, narrative, op ed. So the short answer to you “what next” question is there’ll be more projects like that are coming down the pipeline, because we think that there’s a gap and a real need for that.

Mays: For me, it’s really bringing the wellbeing and mental health to the equity conversations. I think for so long we’ve done equity and inclusive work, kind of like in a vacuum without taking a holistic approach and that exclusion can have a profound impact on our sense of wellbeing or even mental health. I mean research shows just how systematic exclusion and microaggression can impact our cortisol level, for example. In my own work, I’ve been just saying how they intersect mental health and equity and inclusion and justice. And I want to be more intentional to, I guess, bring that to national conversations. What are you doing about mental health? I know you have this and that initiative for equity-minded education. Where does mental health fit in within that?

John: Well, thank you. Your book is a tremendous resource that can be really valuable in helping people build a more equitable classroom environment.

Mays: Thank you for having us.

Rebecca: We appreciate you joining us today.


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

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


290. Transparency in Learning and Teaching

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


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


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

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

John:…and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer…

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


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

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

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

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

Rebecca: Nice. I have English breakfast today.

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

Rebecca: Hmmm.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mary-Ann: I have not.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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