333. High Structure STEM Classes

Multiple studies have found that increasing course structure reduces equity gaps and provides benefits to all students. In this episode, Justin Shaffer joins us to discuss several ways to increase structure in STEM classes.

Justin is the Associate Dean for Undergraduate Studies and a Teaching Professor in Chemical and Biological Engineering and in Quantitative Biosciences and Engineering at the Colorado School of Mines. He has taught a variety of both small and large STEM classes in multiple modalities using evidence-based approaches and has won multiple teaching awards as a result of this work. Justin is also an active researcher with 16 peer-reviewed publications and serves as the editor for four STEM education journals. He is the author of a forthcoming book on high-structure course design coming in late 2024 or early 2025 from Macmillan.

Show Notes


John: Multiple studies have found that increasing course structure reduces equity gaps and provides benefits to all students. In this episode, we examine several ways to increase structure in STEM classes.


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 Justin Shaffer. Justin is the Associate Dean for Undergraduate Studies and a Teaching Professor in Chemical and Biological Engineering and in Quantitative Biosciences and Engineering at the Colorado School of Mines. He has taught a variety of both small and large STEM classes in multiple modalities using evidence-based approaches and has won multiple teaching awards as a result of this work. Justin is also an active researcher with 16 peer-reviewed publications and serves as the editor for four STEM education journals. He is the author of a forthcoming book on high-structure course design coming in late 2024 or early 2025 from Macmillan. Welcome, Justin.

Justin: Thanks for having me. I’m really excited to talk to you today.

John: We met at the POD conference back in November, and we talked about doing this but we finally got around to actually scheduling it. So thank you for joining us.

Justin: Thank you, John. Yeah, I saw you sitting there at a table by yourself. I knew your face from LinkedIn and I built up the courage to introduce myself and I’m glad I did.

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

Justin: I am drinking some tea. I got prepared. It’s from a small little coffee/tea shop in West Middlesex, Pennsylvania. I’m from the near that area in western Pennsylvania. We call it the Shenango Valley and it’s called O’Neill’s and they make lovely Western PA coffees and teas and I just have some nice black tea here. It is that time of day for me that I need some.

Rebecca: Today I have a jasmine green tea, John.

John: Very good, and today I have a Prince of Wales tea, and a peppermint tea because I didn’t have very much to drink today, and my throat was getting really dry in my econometrics class. So I wanted to be well hydrated. [LAUGHTER]

Rebecca: Lots of variety, too. So we’ve invited you here today, Justin, to talk about how you’ve implemented high-structure course design. And for listeners who might be new to the concept, can you talk a little bit about what you mean by high-structure course design?

Justin: Yeah, so just like I’ll tell you all like I tell my students, I didn’t come up with this term. I wish I did. But I’m building off the work of other giants in the field. So as far as I know, the term really came out in the mid-2000s, 5-, 6-, 7-ish range from the University of Washington in Seattle. There’s some pioneering folks, Scott Freeman and Mary Pat Wenderoth in biology and they use this term structure to think about, “Well, how do we scaffold student learning before class, during class, after class, and we’re continuously building as we go up through the three levels.” So pre-class involves some kind of content acquisition, that can be reading your textbook, reading journal articles, watching Khan Academy videos, other sources like that. And then some kind of formative assessment before class because we all know students need a little bit of a carrot there to get some of that work done sometimes, which is totally great, because you give them a lot of chances, sometimes even unlimited attempts… again, formative assessment before class, make sure everyone has the same solid foundation, then you come to class, high-structure course design, just like any good class nowadays should be really rooted in active learning. So we got a lot of activities going on: group work, problem solving, case studies, real-world connections, any kind of flavor you want to do there with your active learning as long as students are engaged. And the big thing here though, is that you’re aligned to what happens before a class. We’re building off what happens before a class, I’m not in class just repeating what happens ahead of time. Rather, I’m using the foundational material students acquire before class, we build that up with another level in class, and then we keep going. And then after class, there’s a bucket there, where students are going to be practicing those skill sets they’ve been developing through the before class and in-class buckets, applying their skills to new contexts, solving new problems, doing projects, essays, more authentic assignments, whatever you want it to be. And then there’s typically a frequent assessment piece with a high-structure course design too, whether that’s a multiple midterm model, weekly quizzes, every other weekly quizzes, things like that, in addition to some more authentic assessments, which is something I’ve tried to get more into this past year, by adding more realistic projects and course assignments in my high-structure courses.

John: Could you give us some examples of some of the authentic assessments that you use in your classes?

Justin: Yeah, thanks, John. So this is really new to me still, this past year. I know I’m behind the curve. I know this is a term has been around there for a while. I always like to think I’ve had some authenticity in my classes for a long time. I integrate news stories, I use case studies, I have this new thing I called pod cases where I take podcasts and combine them with case studies and we use those in the classroom. But I thought I could try to be a little bit more authentic, even still… getting that advice from my wife for my personal life. She always says that can be more authentic. So, maybe I can make my courses and my assessments more authentic too. One example I’m doing right now. I’m teaching introduction to biomedical engineering, and I’m having the students write the actual legit National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship proposal. Those of you familiar with that, there’s a personal statement part and there’s a technical kind of research proposal part. So we’re just doing that. It’s a two-page proposal, and we’re working on this in a structured way throughout the entire semester. Last week, students had to turn in the research topic and research question. This week, they’re turning in their hypothesis, in a couple weeks they’re turning in the literature review and experimental plan. We’re gonna have two rounds of a formal peer review of the entire proposal. And then we’re going to conclude with a mock panel discussion, just like you might have in the real NSF or the real NIH where students are going to be reviewing each other’s proposals and basically pitching them to each other and seeing if they should get, quote, unquote, funded or not. I don’t have any funds for them. Maybe we’ll bring candy on the last couple of days. But that’s kind of the idea of having a real thing that students could actually use some day if they’re going to graduate school. But even if they’re not, being able to write technically and persuasively in two pages on a proposal is a really important skill that they should be working on, in my opinion.

Rebecca: Sounds like you’re going to need some chocolate coins for that day.

Justin: That’s a great idea. I will get chocolate coins. [LAUGHTER] I didn’t think of that. [LAUGHTER]

Rebecca: Can you talk a little bit about what motivated you to attempt and move in the direction of high-structured course design.

Justin: I kind of started out this way, I kind of started in the deep end, if you will. So my postdoctoral program was called spire, S-P-I-R-E, and it’s one of these bigger programs called IRACDA through the NIH. They’re postdocs where you still do research. So I was a molecular biologist, biochemist at the time. I have a weird background in chemical engineering, bioengineering, molecular biology, but at the time, I was studying muscle proteins in squid, super fun stuff. And then I also got training, though, on how to teach evidence-based college science and engineering courses. In my postdoc, through great people like Ed Neil, Brian Ray Bozic, Leslie Lauria, and then also Kelly Hogan was someone that took me under her wing at the time, she was able to, along with the rest of the SPIRE team, helped me be introduced to using evidence-based course design practices, which included with high structure. So this was around 2010-11, right when these papers are starting to come out from Scott Freeman and Mary Pat Wenderoth. I started with high structure because the evidence shows it works. And that’s as a trained scientist, as a trained engineer, we like to go with evidence ideally to guide our decisions. And it’s no different with course design and teaching as it would be with thermodynamics or reactor design or anything else. The literature on high structure is really strong, even then it’s been growing over the years, some of my own data and a lot of other papers. The main gist, though, is that by having the scaffolding before class, in class, after class, students are able to really monitor their learning, develop self-regulated learning skills, be more metacognitive. And the data in a lot of papers shows all students are doing better in the class. But it’s not just everyone, using high structure and moving up in structure will start to close or reduce achievement gaps or performance gaps between historically underperforming students and their majority counterparts. So for example, female students and male students in physics, there has traditionally been a gap there, add some more structure to the class, those gaps tend to get smaller. And I’ve been participating in that kind of research here over the last many years with undergraduate students and my research team. And we found some similar results across different STEM disciplines. It’s really the evidence guiding me in these decisions to do it. I also think it’s a lot more fun. Once I have in mind one of my very first faculty interviews, oh a long time ago, now, I had an interviewer say to me, “Well, hey, I’ve looked at all the papers on active learning, and they’re all wrong. [LAUGHTER] All the statistics are wrong. What do you have to say about that?” And I paused for a second I said, “Well, even if that’s true, it’s a heck of a lot more fun to teach actively with active learning than not, I think the high-structure design model is more of a fun way to teach. And again, you’re helping the students with those study skills and metacognitive skills that they can then take forward to their future classes.”

John: There was a recent paper that did argue that many of the studies on active learning were flawed in some way in terms of a very strict methodological approach. However, there are so many of them, and the results are so remarkably consistent. I don’t really buy that argument in terms of the questions about methodology.

Justin: You’re right, it was a big deal, I think it was either Beckie Supiano or Beth McMurtrie in the Chronicle had articles on this going around for sure. And that’s the thing though, with us, as DBER folks… I want to introduce a new term, DBER – discipline-based education researchers… which I consider myself to be in. So I’m in the discipline. I’m in chemical engineering, I’m in biology, I’m in Biomedical Engineering, and I do the education research from that lens, but also from that training background. I’ve never been formally trained in education research methods in psychology or social sciences or psychometrics. I am, totally honest, I fake it. I do what I can. I know my boundaries. I know when I need a collaborator in the true social science disciplines that helped me with my studies. And so I think that paper was getting some of that. Sometimes the folks like us that are doing this work, whether we call ourselves DBER people, or Scholarship of Teaching and Learning (SOTL) people, we might not have that true background, and therefore the rigor of the paper, the methodologies, aren’t as advanced as maybe they should be. But like you said, there’s so many studies showing benefits of this, whether it’s simple correlational studies… sometimes they get to the mixed methods, even quasi-experimental studies, but the evidence just keeps mounting and mounting and mounting. And that key paper there was the 2014 one from Scott Freeman that PNAS meta-analysis showing that hundreds of papers, hundreds of studies… again, they have their flaws, don’t get me wrong… but you start to see these themes everywhere and you think, well, there must be an effect, something’s going on.

John: And we will include a link to that paper in the show notes, if anyone would like to follow up. But the fact that there may be these flaws in some of the research methodology suggests that maybe we need to see more people doing work in this area, and that there’s a lot of areas where there’s potential growth.

Justin: Totally agree.

John: And you’ve done quite a bit of research already.

Justin: I’ve tried, as a teaching faculty member now for this is going on year 12-ish, but I’ve always made that a part of my career. Before I was at Mines, I was at University of California, Irvine, where we did have a scholarship expectation or to earn tenure as teaching faculty. The UC system is one of the few in the country where you have actually tenure-stream teaching faculty, which was really cool. So I earned that, but I only had tenure about a month because then I left and came to Colorado, which… no regrets, I love it here at Mines… but I don’t have tenure here. But there’s still some expectations for scholarship, but not as high as it was in the California system. But I continue to make that part of my career, because, again, as a scientist and engineer, I think going based on data, based on evidence to guide your decisions, moving forward is a really important thing to improve what you have, because that’s all it comes down to really whether you call it SOTL or DBER or whatever, we’re trying to improve our courses, we’re trying to improve our students’ experiences. And yeah, so I’ve tried to do what I can over the years. And now I’m at the point where I want to help other people too. So I work with faculty individually, I do workshops via my side business, and even at Mines this semester, starting next week, I have a three-part getting started in DBER series kicking off for about 25 faculty on campus. I’m going to help them get started, get their feet wet in this field, and then we’ll see where it goes. Because I think a lot of folks, like you said, John, want to do this work, they’re interested in it, they might not have the time, they might not know how to, but you kind of give them the start, hold their hand a little bit and then see where it goes, and we’ll get even more evidence to support these claims.

Rebecca: I think a lot of faculty have an inclination to have a reflective practice and continuous improvement. They’re wanting to do SOTL work, but just don’t know how to formalize that practice. And we can certainly lean into helping people move in that direction.

Justin: 100% Rebecca, even when I started, I didn’t know what I was doing. If it wasn’t for Kelly Hogan and a few other folks at Carolina and then moving on from there at UC Irvine folks like Brian Sato, Diane O’Dowd, Adrianne Williams, they really helped me understand the field more. And then you start going to conferences and going to meetings and learning more about the tricks of the trades.

Rebecca: Can you talk a little bit about ways that a high-structure synchronous course might be different from a high-structure asynchronous course?

Justin: So I think the high structure while what I described earlier, you might be thinking of okay, a Monday, Wednesday, Friday class meeting at two o’clock in a lecture hall works great. I think it works even better in online for some cases, because you think about an online situation, whether again, it’s synchronous or asynchronous, your students you’re not really seeing and there’s that human connection of having eyeball to eyeball being able to understand, “Okay, I’m here I’m motivated, I’m ready to learn.” But whether it’s the recording, that’s the worst case scenario, when it’s totally up to you, or if it’s going to be on that live Zoom remote, where you can make your screen black, and who knows what else you’re doing. I’m guilty of that in meetings for sure. But having the structure though, having that scaffolding, having the clear deliverables of what is due when and seeing that step up from pre-class, in-class, after class, whether it’s the in-class is out again, synchronous Zoom session, or the recorded video you do on your own time, there’s that scaffolding helps students stay more connected with material, they understand more of what’s going on, when it’s due, what is due, how I’m being assessed, because that’s the nice thing about with structure. And just to be clear, I’m from the STEM disciplines, but you could do this any field. The research on high structure, as far as I know, is only been published in the STEM fields. I bet it’s being done in art history, I bet it’s being done in the languages, I just don’t know about it. So if anyone listening does this kind of teaching or research, I’d love to hear from you. But you can use that scaffolding again to help students be more transparent with the course. And that’s a word that I think comes through with high structure and is really true in that online environment, especially as transparency. I always tell my students, I want to know what you know, not what you think I want you to know. And by being uber clear with the learning objectives, starting with backwards design, just a clear Canvas website for the online cases can be really helpful for that. One distinction, though, with the async online versus synchronous online, is that kind of active learning piece, because we’re not there together. So one tip I like to share with faculty is that okay, if you’re recording a video for the in class, mimic, because you’re not actually meeting in class. What I always say is “okay, well make the video, but if there’s a point where you’d want them to answer a clicker question… I’m a big clicker guy… or if you want them to do an activity, just say, Okay, everyone, pause the video here. Take a couple minutes, think about this problem, what’s the answer or work on this, whatever it might be. When you’re ready, unpause the video and keep going. That’s a way that you can add the active learning to an online asynchronous class as part of the bigger high-structure model. I find when I have to record an online video, if I have traveling for a conference because I have to miss a day of class. I’ll have a 50 minute in-person class, when I make the video recording it’s only about 20 to 25 minutes, because all the active learning I don’t do in the video recording, but I give that tip… I tell my students, hey, pause the video here, answer this quick clicker question, solve this problem, come back when you’re ready. And so that’s a way to build the active learning into the asynchronous part, which again, is part of the overall high-structure piece.

John: And also, if you want to take it a little bit beyond that, you could use one of the tools where you can embed the questions directly in the video, and have them auto graded. I use PlayPosit for that, and it’s possible in Panopto, and EdPuzzle is another alternative that many people use. PlayPosit works really well. And I’ve been using it for a couple of years.

Justin: I just learned about PlayPosit maybe three weeks ago, I was doing a workshop at CU Boulder on clickers. And I kept hearing PlayPosit, it does seem like a very powerful tool to automate that active learning in the video piece, which I really like. I just haven’t had a chance to play with it.

Rebecca: So you did just mention that you’re a clicker guy, I believe. So do you use a flipped classroom approach in all of your synchronous classes? And how are you using clickers in your classes?

Justin: Yeah, I think that’s the technical term these days, clicker guy. So, I’ll go with that. I’ve been using them for as long as I’ve been teaching in various platforms. You name the platform, I’ve used it. I’ve primarily been using iClicker, just because that was the platform we had at UC Irvine and the platform we have here at Mines as well. Yes, I love using them. I think it’s really important. And you mentioned the flipped classroom design there, too, Rebecca. So when you think of high structure, you might think, “Oh, it sounds like a flipped classroom.” And it kind of is because we’re having students do stuff ahead of time. In class, they’re very active, but there’s still that structure piece even within class. I guess maybe I haven’t seen a truly flipped class because I think flipped classes, I think in class is like purely work time, purely activities, purely worksheets, homework type assignments, whereas I do a series of clicker questions, discussions before or after numerical problem solving, if it’s more of my engineering classes that I teach in thermodynamics, or material and energy balances, more conceptual sometimes if it’s biology or anatomy and physiology, but I’m breaking up a lot of activities and any talking with clickers. And so the clickers… I love all the modern bells and whistles that they have as that’s the another technical term I use, moving beyond multiple choice. And when I do workshops for faculty with clickers, that’s what I triy to get them to do. Okay, yes, you know, you can do A B C D E, but can you do multiple answers? Can you do target questions or hotspot where you touch the screen? Can you do ranking or ordering? numerical answers? …and I’m trying to get this traction on my own campus too. So even this semester, my first five questions of the semester, which I didn’t do intentionally, but after I wrote them, I realized, oh, I should do this every class now… my first five questions in my introduction to biomedical engineering class, each one was a different question type. So we did multiple choice, we did multiple answers, we did short answer, text entry, we did numerical, and we did target or touch the screen. And when I was done, I asked my students, “Hey, who’s ever used those other question types before?” And maybe four hands went up, I said, “Cool. What class did you do them in?” and they said, “Oh, your class last semester.” I seem to be the one and only that I know of on my campus that’s trying out these other tools, although like I said, I’m trying to change that. So yeah, if you’re using any kind of device like this, any type of ed tech, for that matter, make sure you justify it, justify the cost, and you make use of those bells and whistles in class. Or if it’s out of class, courseware, whatever it might be, just make good use of the tool, and you’ll find your students that are going to be able to buy into it and use it more effectively, and hopefully learn more from it.

John: And one option that we have here is a campus license, which actually is much less costly per student. And that reduces that barrier of students having to pay for it, which has led to a pretty rapid expansion in the use of it on campus.

Rebecca: One of the things that I really like about your example of the five questions is that extra level of scaffolding, of introducing all of the question types right away, and giving everybody an opportunity to practice those question types that you’re going to be using all semester. And so I just wanted to make explicit that other layer of scaffolding that you have built in there.

Justin: Yes, teaching students how to use the tools is very important. Thanks, Rebecca, for mentioning that, because whether it’s the app now on your phone for these clicker devices, or if it was the old physical device, there’s a learning curve with them. And same thing, even if it’s computational tool, or like Desmos, or something for a calc class. Yeah, you got to be able to teach students how to use the technology properly first, before you expect them to use it well. I will say though, with the learning curve of the clickers, when I was at Irvine, the app wasn’t really there yet. So everyone had the physical iClicker remote, and this was the iClicker w, so you could do text entry, and you could do number entry, but you had these up and down arrows, which you had to click to go through the alphabet. So I do the type of clicker question where I like to give four statements on the screen, and I say, “Okay, well tell me if they’re true or false, and you have to click in all four.” So you would click in a string of T’s and F, so it’s like TTFT, or FFFT, whatever it might be. And so when I would do this in intro bio there with 440 students, it sounds like a swarm of locusts, all the clicking to get to the T’s and then someone says, oh, you should change it. Just make A be true and B be false? I said “Great idea, I’ll do that.” But now with the app, we lose the sound effects and iyou can just type in T’s and F’s and it’s a little bit easier to use.

John: One thing I haven’t tried with iClicker, and I do plan to do it this semester is allowing students to rate their confidence in their answers. Have you tried that yet?

Justin: I did just last week. So I just found out that was available this semester, and I gave it a shot. And it was kind of fun. Like the first day I turned it on, they’re like, Oh, look at this, this question was 80% confident, and now it’s down to 40% confident and it kinda reflected the percent answers that were correct. So like the one that was 80% confident it was a single multiple choice answer. And it was pretty much most people got it right. The one that was lower confidence, like 40%, was a multiple select answer. So they had five options, but two or three could have been correct. And so the confidence goes way down through a different question types even. So, I think it was really fun for a day or two, and then kind of the novelty wore off, unfortunately. [LAUGHTER] So I’m going to try to revisit it maybe more in targeted times and targeted questions rather than doing it for every single one. But it was fun to try it. I’d encourage you to do it, too.

John: One of the reasons I was considering it is that it might help students improve their metacognition a little bit by reflecting on how well they thought they knew something and then getting fairly immediate feedback on whether their expectations about how well they knew it actually matched the response, [LAUGHTER] or the feedback to the response.

Justin: Absolutely.

Rebecca: When you’re using clickers, are you also using strategies like think-pair-share as part of your implementation?

Justin: Yeah, absolutely. And there’s that sweet spot of clicker responses that lead to that. So the best practices, I’d say, and a lot of this work came from Carl Wieman Science Education Institute, which I believe is still housed through Vancouver, British Columbia, but he’s at Stanford now. But there’s this great flyer they made like this trifold flyer that kind of walks you through how to use clickers properly, or best practices suggested, and then what are the possible outcomes? Typically, you’d start off with that silence. Okay, click in on your own at first, I tell them I want to hear crickets, just click in by yourself, and then I’m able to see on the app the distribution and so at that point, there’s typically kind of three outcomes. So one is maybe 80-90% have the correct answer. At that point I’ll say “Okay, let’s move on.” But I make sure to take time to have students respond and say, “Okay, well, why is it C?” or to have a little discussion about why it’s not the other answers. Because even though you get 90% correct, there’s still 10% of students who got it wrong. So we want to make sure that everyone’s on the same board. The next option is usually that kind of random distribution. Let’s say if it’s a multiple choice question, you get ABCD each are in the 20 to 30% range. At that point, I call that Hmmm, what’s going on? Was it a really hard question? Did I goof the question? Is there a chemistry exam this evening, so there’s some reason why maybe it didn’t click? And then what I call the Goldilocks case is when you get the kind of 50-50. So maybe you’re split between two answers. And I love actually, when it’s exactly 50-50, I’ll show that on the screen. But sometimes I don’t, and I’ll say “Okay, at this point, now, you’ve all had a chance to try on your own, now talk to each other.” So that’s kind of the think-pair-share that’s built into the clicker there. So this is peer instruction at its best. This was pioneered by Eric Mazur at Harvard, people like Jenny Knight at CU Boulder have studied this. And she actually has a Science paper with Carl and a few others that showed when students are doing this… So you give them some quick information on their own. Don’t show them the answer, have them talk to each other. They put a bunch of microphones around the lecture halls at CU Boulder, and they listened into their conversations. And they actually found students are legitimately teaching each other and debriefing the topic, discussing it, tearing it apart. It’s not just the one student says, “Oh, it’s A ,everyone else, click A.” They’re actually debating it and talking about it, so that you get that true peer teaching and peer instruction going on. And then typically, you see everyone moving more towards the positive correct response that you’re looking for, at which point you can say, “Hey, look, you don’t need me as your instructor, you’re teaching each other. You’re doing great. Kudos, keep up the good work.” Yeah, there’s so many ways to riff on clickers and use them in different respects. Whether it’s the more traditional question types, or now the more advanced question types, and no matter how you do it, you’re getting students more engaged, they’re having more fun with it. And fun actually is a word they use with clickers. I have a paper a few years ago from the HABS educator where I looked at clickers vs. Kahoot!s, and students rated Kahoot! and clickers both equally fun, where Kahoot! being the more gamified version with trophies and a podium and music and sound and stuff like that.

John: And both Eric Mazur and Carl Wieman and some co-authors had done some experiments on the use of clickers with that methodology with answering it individually and then discussing it and voting again. And they found some really substantial learning gains in both of those studies. And we’ll include links to those in the show notes. In all areas, we’ve been seeing some significant equity gaps, but I think since COVID, we’ve been seeing much worse equity gaps in terms of students because learning losses were pretty pronounced everywhere. And that’s especially in math and in the STEM fields, but they were especially large in lower-income communities where schools were not as well funded and where students did not have the equipment and so forth, needed to thrive as effectively in remote instruction. One of the things that some institutions have been using increasingly is co-requisites in place of prerequisites to help students who want to pursue a major in a STEM field, but who would otherwise fall way behind or take many years just to get up to the basic level of math needed for the entry level courses in the discipline. In 2021, though, you had done a study that did a comparison between the effects of prerequisites and co-requisites. Could you talk a little bit about that study and what you found?

Justin: Yeah, absolutely. We saw the same thing probably everyone else did with students struggling, returning from online instruction in high school and having online instruction here. I taught remote synchronous for three full semesters, even though at Mines we stayed open for business pretty much the whole time with in-person classes, just lower capacity. I had prior online instructional experience in my career, so I volunteered to do those online sections for our department. But with the co-rec/prereq issue, I think that’s really important to consider for a lot of reasons. And this work really started when I was at Irvine with Brian Sato and Pavan Kadandale and a few others, looking more in the biological sciences and “do prereqs matter?” It was kind of our big research question. And then I carried that over to Mines and applied that to chemical engineering too. The short answer is: it depends. So first of all, and kind of why do we even have prereqs or co-reqs? A lot of it seems to be more of a management thing. So if we want to control class sizes, moving from first year to second year, and so on, and so forth. But there’s definitely an idea of well conceptual understanding and carry forward for if you have Bio I, well, those skills you develop could be used and count for something when you get to Bio II or same thing with the calc series or whatever it might be. However, we don’t know. It’s unfortunate that I think programs don’t sometimes look at those connections, that vertical alignment, if you will, between courses in terms of prereq to the following class, or with the co-req issues. At Mines, what I did with the paper you’re referencing, John, in chemical engineering, we have these two courses. One is called material and energy balances, MEB, I’ll call it for short. And that’s kind of like our intro bio version for chemical engineering. It’s kind of like a survey course that covers a lot of different topics, gives you some foundational skills that you’re going to need as a chemical engineer. We also have introductory thermodynamics, and an intro thermo, it’s related to MEB, covers some same conceptual understanding and problem-solving skill development, but it’s more on the nature of energy, and that transformation understanding. So typically in chemical engineering curricula, and I’m getting in the weeds here, so apologies for anyone who’s tuning out cuz you’re not a chemie, but MEB comes first, that’s typically either the fall of sophomore or spring of sophomore, you take that. First, it’s kind of like your gateway class, and then that’s a prereq to intro thermo and everything else you take. At Mines though, we do a little bit different. Mines, we do intro thermo first, fall of sophomore year, and then in the spring of sophomore year, you take MEB and coming from that background myself as a student at Penn State, I wish I would have had that way because intro thermo is the more… I use the word gentle… it’s a gentler introduction to chemical engineering than material energy balances is. But the idea here is that you can take thermo as a prereq in the fall or as a co-req in the spring with MEB. So the natural question came up… it’s a nicely well organic experiment to test is, well, if you have the thermo as the prereq do you do better than if you take thermo as a co-req with MEB. And this has implications for advising and its implications for progression through our major through repeating classes, all sorts of things. So it’s a really worthy study and my student, Jordan Lopez, at the time, he was an undergraduate student in mechanical engineering, and I love working with undergraduates on these SOTL and DBER projects. Jordan came along with me for this we did a quantitative assessment to figure out okay, well if students in MEB, did you have thermo as a prereq or co-req? How’d you do in MEB? And then we also asked the students qualitatively “Okay, well, do you think having thermo as a prereq or co-req matters? And if so, what do you think? And what we found was there was actually a big deal. Students who took thermo as the prereq did significantly better in their overall course performance in MEB than if they took thermo as a co-req, and that’s using linear regression models controlling for incoming GPA and things like that. Students also felt the same way. They felt that if you have thermo as a prereq, you would do better than having thermo as the co-req with MEB, and again, the quantitative data bore that out. The reasons they gave for that was because they get some opportunity to get more familiar with the discipline, with how we approach chemical engineering, how we do problem-solving skills, and having that foundation in the prior class allows them to do better in the follow up MEB course. In this case, it mattered, prereq vs. co-req. However, in our studies at Irvine, with Brian and Pavan and others, we found it didn’t really matter so much whether you took for example, microbiology lecture before after microbiology lab, you would think those two would be highly correlated one as a prereq to the other, it didn’t really matter in the result. Same thing with anatomy and physiology sequences, it didn’t seem to matter too much, in other papers in which we cite in these studies looking at organic chemistry sequences, economic sequences, it’s kind of hit or miss with whether prereqs matter or not. Long-winded segment here, but I think we as programs should be taking careful look at our prereq sequences and core sequences in general to see what, if anything, our students carrying over from one course to the other, and maybe we should loosen that up a little bit, because if they don’t matter, that can help students be a little bit more flexible with their degree planning, and time to graduation and things like that.

Rebecca: Speaking of prerequisites, faculty are often complaining that students don’t necessarily recall [LAUGHTER] information from prerequisites as they go into a sequence like we might expect. In 2018, you conducted a study that investigated the effect of physiology prerequisites on the future anatomy and physiology courses. Can you talk a little bit about that study and what you found there?

Justin: Yeah, so that was what I was alluding to there, Rebecca, with some of the work I did with Brian and Pavan. And in those cases, there wasn’t too strong of an effect, if anything, with the sequencing and the ordering that students took these classes. At Irvine, we did have human physiology as a prereq to human anatomy. I know that sounds a little funny to those of you in the A&P space. But the reason we did that was because of kind of a controlling the size of things. Our physiology course there was a lecture-based course, it would have 3-4 hundred students in it every quarter… talking about over 1000 students a year taking this class, versus the anatomy class, which had a lab, we can only handle about 144 per quarter, so availability of seats in the human anatomy was much, much lower than physiology, and also not as many students wanted to take anatomy versus physiology. So that’s kind of why that ordering existed. And so we tested that, though, looking at with what Brian and Pavan and I came up with, we call it a familiarity scale. How do you do on questions that are based on how familiar you are with the content based on the prereq? What we did was we had the prereq instructors look at the follow up course exam questions and write them as very familiar or not familiar based on basically whether it was covered or not. And then we looked at student performance on those questions based on having the prereq or not, and we didn’t see much of a difference based on the very familiar versus not familiar questions. The way we designed those studies, we didn’t come up with any strong conclusions, again, on the biological sciences side saying that, yeah, these prereq sequences matter. But on the chemical engineering side, which I just described, that seemed to totally make a difference, the ordering of the classes.

Rebecca: It seems like it’s really important to think about why we’re structuring the curriculum in the way that we are. And is it just traffic control? Or is there actually a legitimate reason why we’re hoping that they are scaffolded in the discipline?

Justin: Yeah, I think it’s reality, a little bit of both that happens, which makes sense, kind of have that traffic control, but also making sure that that alignment occurs through our new programs or existing programs, and just taking the time as a program or department every so often to say, hey, let’s look back at this and see, why are we doing it this way? Things need to change in this modern day.

John: One thing I wonder a little bit, though, when instructors are complaining about how little students remember from the prerequisite courses that they’ve taken earlier, is how much of that may be due to the incentives provided to students. The way many courses are structured, not in the sense of the structure you were talking about, encourages students to do a lot of cramming before the high-stakes exams. And we know that that results in very little long-term recall. Might some of these issues be resolved if we could encourage students to adopt better learning strategies, and if we could design some of our courses at the lower level, perhaps, to build that in, using the type of structure that you’ve been talking about? Because at least from what I’ve seen, that’s not so common? You picked up this stuff fairly early, but I don’t think that’s part of the training of most of the faculty in STEM fields or in most disciplines.

Justin: Yeah, I agree with that. And there was even in 2018, I believe, in Science, a paper, I think they call it “The Anatomy of STEM Education in North America,” it was something along those lines, where they looked at a big survey a big swath of courses and trying to see who’s using Active Learning who’s not, they use the COPUS protocol, the observation tool to characterize what’s happening in the classroom, and they broke it down in these seven different buckets. And even at that time, a very small percentage of the courses surveyed in STEM were taught using these student-centered strategies, not necessarily high structure, but the active learning, student-centered ideas. But I completely agree with you, John, if we can get more faculty on board with using these types of evidence-based practices, which yes, it takes some time, takes some energy, takes some foresight to develop these courses. But you do the same thing with your research, it takes your time and energy and careful thought to put in your research experiments. We should put the same energy into our classes too. And if we can do that at the early stage, which again, there’s such a huge issue with loss of learning. Not only that, but also lots of students from the early stage. There’s a paper after paper for these bigger courses, taking them as quote unquote gateway classes, we get a lot of attrition at these levels especially of students who might not be as well represented in STEM. We can add high structure. We know that works. We know that helps students do better and succeed. It might not work the first time, don’t get frustrated everyone. There’s a great paper from Anne Casper and Scott Freeman about having True Grit with being able to try and try again. So in her case, she tried adopting high structure at a smaller school in Michigan, it took her about three tries to get the right formula for it to work for her students to see success. And that paper documents that trial and error over a few semesters. But if we can use these types of methods in our classes, ideally, our students are going to be better prepared then for future classes. I do these things called Reading guides, which again, another shout out to Kelly, I got a lot of inspiration from her at Carolina for these, these are just Word documents that I make. And I have a bunch of these on my professional website. If anyone’s interested to download them for free, go for it. They’re just Word documents that help students read the textbook and again be more transparent with what I want them to know. So it has them define terms, fill out tables, make little drawings, they answer checkpoint questions in the text, summarizing things in their own words. And with the reading guides, we’re able to help students again acquire that content and then use it in the class as needed. I’ve had students in follow-up classes say to their instructor, “Well, where the reading guides at?” And they’ll come to me like, “Hey, what are these things? What are they talking about?” So the point being with that story, though, is that I tell students that “Hey, even if you go to a follow-up class, where it’s not highly structured, you’ve developed so many great metacognitive skills, you’ve developed so many great self-regulated learning skills through this class that you can then apply it and add your own structure to follow-up classes, if needed. And these are the kinds of tips that I love working with faculty about to try to help them transform their classes when I visit a campus and do a workshop or work with faculty one on one or on Zoom or whatever, trying to take these practices, which again, are rooted in the evidence, they’re rooted in the literature, but we have to tweak them to your own personal situation, your own student body, your own courses and demographics and everything. You all know your students way better than I do. What I try to do is combine what I know from the literature and the evidence. And that says a lot of this is in the book I’m writing on high structure, it’s going to guide you through the course-design process, a lot of practical outcomes and deliverables. But you got to tweak it and match it with again, your unique circumstances to achieve those positive outcomes.

Rebecca: I think one of the nice things about introducing students to some strategies for high-structured learning and retaining information is that if you have things like your reading guide, and they show it to another instructor, now they might request that of their instructor and the other instructor might decide, “Hey, this is a good idea. This is a strategy I want to adopt too.” And that’s some of the best ways to get some of these techniques to spread.

Justin: It really is. It’s that camaraderie building through seeing each other’s practices, seeing what’s going on. I’ve been part of a project here at Mines since I got here almost six years ago now where we’ve been working on kind of revising how we evaluate, and what we consider effective instruction to be. So we’re trying to take a more holistic review of how we take into account the best practices of teaching and student learning. And one of the big pieces there is peer observation. So we’re actually rolling that out, as of this week and last week with doing departmental trainings and helping faculty see how we can do peer observation to learn from each other. I learned so much from going into another person’s classroom or looking at their Canvas site, or their syllabi or their materials. And I really got this from Malcolm Campbell, who was at Davidson College in North Carolina, when I was a postdoc, this is going back 14 years or so. And Malcolm told me once on the phone, he said, “Find someone who you consider to be a master teacher, and go watch him teach.” But he said “don’t go just once, go a lot. Once a week, if you can for several weeks, and you’ll get to see them handle different situations, you get to see the ups and downs of the semester, you get to see what it’s like on the day where the midterm gets passed back. Or you get to see what it’s like when they’re getting to a really difficult topic or there’s some kind of disruption that class and how they handle it.” That’s the one great thing about peer observation is that if I go to your classes, sure, I’ll be able to give you some comments or feedback on what I saw, but I’m going to learn probably more from seeing you two teach than whatever I could give you and then I’m able to incorporate that into some of my lessons and my teaching style. If we can just change that culture, make it a little bit more okay sometimes to talk about teaching, share teaching strategies, see each other teach and have fun with it really and learn from each other, I think that can go a long ways towards, again, improving student outcomes and helping them do better in all aspects of college and life.

Rebecca: I found one of the most fun opportunities for observations is doing observations outside of your own discipline. It’s really informative to see how people in wildly different disciplines approach teaching and the way that they operate their classroom. I remember visiting a dance instruction classroom when I was at Marymount, at my prior institution, and it was really interesting, it was fascinating to me about how specific and transparent every little move was and how to correct things and the anatomy that was being discussed and just the level of depth that you might not realize how something transpires in a classroom unless you’ve actually had the opportunity to observe it.

Justin: I’m going to play that some for my faculty Rebecca. I thank you, because that’s what we’re trying to do at Mines is not intra-departmental, but rather inter-departmental observation. So getting across the disciplines for sure. Because yeah, you learn so many different things. And even if you’re just going from mechanical to electrical engineering, there’s still a lot of differences between those types of courses, you might see what’s going on. And I’ve learned that myself, I’ve watched some economics instructors teach at Mines, no idea. I feel like I maybe should know this stuff to be a better financially literate person myself, but I learned so many cool ways about how they’re teaching, but I also learned some cool concepts.

John: We do have an open classroom project here on our campus, we keep hoping more people will open their classes and more people will attend. But the people who have participated have found it universally to be valuable. So we’re going to keep doing it, and we just hope to see it become more a part of the culture.

Rebecca: Sometimes just indicating to a faculty member that you’re interested in their content, and you just want to sit in because you’re curious is a great way to learn new content, and maybe get an opportunity to observe someone teaching. [LAUGHTER]

Justin: And yeah, I definitely pitch it that way. Like I want to learn from you. And you get some new ideas. And I feel like in that case, faculty are more than willing to have you in. Well, yeah, Best of luck with that open classroom project. I’ve seen those types of programs in the country kind of sometimes hit sometimes miss. But best of luck with that.

John: One of the things you’ve done is just some research or some experiments involving two-stage exams. Could you talk a little bit about how you implement them, and what you found in general? And how did students react to the two-stage exams?

Justin: Yes, so I’ll try to be brief on these because I could spend probably 45 minutes on these myself. But yeah, two-stage collaborative exams, or more affectionately called group quizzes or group exams for short. There’s been a ton of literature on this Jim Cook, UC San Diego, he really helped me get started in this about five years or so now. But it’s all disciplines. You look it up, and the one paper I have, you mentioned in the intro, there’s a lot of references to different STEM disciplines that use them and some non-STEM too. The idea, though, is that we push active learning, we push group work, we push collaboration, but then we assess you by yourself with a pencil and paper and a calculator on a piece of paper, so why not change the dynamic there a little bit. And the two-stage idea is that first you have students take an individual quiz or individual exam, and I personally have gone to a weekly quiz model with my high-structure courses. I don’t do midterms anymore, I don’t do finals sometimes even. I know that’s taboo sometimes, but it depends on the class and I might not even do that. My colleague in Irvine Adrienne Williams says with high structure by going to the weekly quiz model, instead of having these giant peaks of anxiety with the two or three midterms, we just have a smooth level of anxiety the entire semester, and spread it out a little bit. But, for me, group quizzes then, what they look like is students take the individual quiz, turn it in, then they get in a group, this is a predetermined group, they know who their group is going to be. And then I give them a group quiz. That group quiz in the paper that you referenced was an identical one. So they took the identical two problems. And this was a MEB material energy balance class. So it was just two numerical problems, problem solving. They did that again as a group. However, my other courses now I do a different quiz. It’s either an isomorphic question, so slightly similar, but a little bit different, maybe in intro thermo or if it’s biology or anatomy and physiology, completely different set of questions. Then they do it as a group. The reason we do this, again, was trying to get this collaborative piece in the group setting. But also, when do you find students are most excited to talk about a quiz or an exam? It’s as soon as it’s over, they go walk out, the hallways abuzz, everyone’s all excited, good or bad excited, but they’re talking. So let’s capture that energy and do it in the classroom through that group assignment. Now, the group quiz is usually a fraction of the weight. In the literature, you’ll see, it’s usually let’s say you call the whole experience 100%, the individual quiz, maybe 80%, the group quiz is 20%. But that can vary from 75 up to 95, however you want to do it. And again, they’re covering the same kind of concepts just in that group dynamic. And so when I did this the first time, I got some consultations from my co-instructors, Rachel Morrish, Dave Marr at Mines, and I was a little bit nervous to see how it would go. But it was a hit. It was an absolute blast. The energy in the room is one thing I cannot describe it strongly enough here through audio, it’s just you got to see it. The students are energized, they’re talking, they’re debating. They’re working through the problems together. They’re trying to figure out, I will use the F word here. It is fun. It is a very fun experience to see. I’ve had students tell me that after the quiz is over, like that was a lot of fun. Talking about spreading things on campus. This is one thing that has spread a little bit at least within my department of chemical engineering, a few other classes have been using them now. And I collected some data on this, which I published, showing that… which makes sense, there was no shock… but the group quiz score is higher than the individual score because you’re tackling this together right away. And then also though, students strongly preferred it. The affect, the positive attitude response was through the roof. Both of those results, these are replicated from other disciplines, they see the same kind of things. I think it’s a really nice way to promote that community in the class, show that you’re working together, add that active part to the assessment. However, I’ll end with saying there can be some resistance to this, especially from students who might feel like “hey, I can do it all on my own, I’m fine.” And then they have to work together with maybe some students, they don’t know as well. You might get some resistance from students saying that I don’t want to work with someone else, I wanted this on my own. So be prepared for that. Also, accommodations with testing, if you have students who get extra time, that can be difficult to manage. I will say though, from doing this now about five years and four different classes at Mines, I’ve never had a single issue with students and extra time. What I typically do is I’ll have students get the extra time for the individual part, then they come join us for the group part and have the normal amount of time because in that group setting the students with extra time, they’ve always told me and I always ask them, I say, “are you okay with this?” And they’re like, “Yeah, it’s fine to have the normal time because I’m in a group.” So just some things to be aware of, if you’re going to try them out. And again, I could go on and on with these, so if anyone wants to learn more, hit me up. I’m happy to chat with ya.

Rebecca: Sounds like a good day to visit a classroom, huh?

Justin: It’s an energetic day for sure. Although you might not see much teaching going on if it’s just the assessment part. But it’s fun to drop in and see what’s happening.

John: There is a lot of teaching going on in their second stage, though.

Justin: Absolutely.

John: In fact, when I first did it, I was so excited about it, I made a short video recording and sent it to Rebecca, so she could see the dynamics of that interaction.

Rebecca: And hear it.

John: It was just really, really different than going over a quiz, where some of them would be really happy, but not that focused. And the students who did poorly were generally pretty disengaged when we went over a quiz ift they didn’t do so well. But when they were explaining it to each other, it was so much more positive.

Justin: Yeah. And you’re right, the teaching is happening. It’s coming from the students to each other. Not for me necessarily, but it’s coming from them. And it’s so powerful to see… absolutely to hear that live.

Rebecca: But you’ve set up the structure to facilitate it. So therefore, you’ve done the teaching.

Justin: [LAUGHTER] Thank you. Yeah.

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

Justin: Yeah. So for me, what’s next? You mentioned at the top, John, I have this new position, I’m Associate Dean of Undergraduate Studies. And I mentioned in passing, I have a side business I called Recombinant Education. I do workshops for faculty. I’m writing a book. For me, I don’t know what happened, but last year, I had a birthday the ends in zero. Things have been a little wonky in my brain lately. And I listened to Taylor Swift now, sometimes. I never used to, but I think a lot of people do that. So it’s not just me turning that age. But the point being is that I’ve been doing this enough time now that I feel like I have things to share. And I’m trying to do more of that. So I’m trying to, and I’m still nervous to do things like this kind of stick my neck out and even talk to folks like yourselves, but I want to share best practices with teaching and learning, specifically with STEM education, because I still hear from students and I still see it from time to time, students are just not getting the best classroom experience they should be getting. College keeps getting more and more expensive. Students don’t deserve to have less than excellent experiences, in my opinion. I’m doing what I can on my own to share these best practices. Someone called me a one man teaching and learning center, it’s probably a fair way to say it. One of my students said, “Oh, you’re teaching teachers how to teach,” and that’s, I guess, another fair way to say it. But again, I got the energy for it now. I kinda have this midlife crisis going on too where I want to make some bigger impacts on the world outside of my own bubble, whether it’s at the administrative level at Mines now or across the country, or even the world. So I love working with other faculty on all these different areas. And that’s what I’m trying to make a big part of my day-to-day life now. But I’m still in the trenches. I’m still teaching classes every semester, because that really keeps me rooted, lets me try some new things out, still doing the DBER work and the SOTL work, working with students and just trying to have a blast and do what I can here in the time I have left.

John: Well, thank you for joining us. And we’re really looking forward to that book. And I hope you’ll come back and talk to us again when the book is close to coming out. Or sooner.

Justin: I would be honored to come back anytime John and Rebecca and if both of you are ever in the Denver golden area, please let me know. I’d be happy to show you around out here.

Rebecca: Well, thank you so much for joining us. It was fun to talk to you and to hear about the fun happening in your class.

John: More F words.

Rebecca: Yeah, [LAUGHTER] a lot of F words.

Justin: Yes. [LAUGHTER] Thank you both. I appreciate it. It was fun.


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

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

GANESH: Editing assistance by Ganesh.


312. Alice: Finding Wonderland

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

Show Notes


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


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

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

John: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer…

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


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

Rameen: Thank you. Thank you both.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rameen: Yeah.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

Rebecca: Yeah. When can I come recruit?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

Ganesh: Editing assistance by Ganesh.


302. Flipped Team-Based Learning

Flipped classrooms allow for class time to be used to put content into action. In this episode, Tina Abbate joins us to discuss the team-based approach that she uses in her classes to help develop the real-world skills important in her field.

Tina is a Clinical Assistant Professor at Stony Brook University’s School of Nursing. She holds a collection of credentials including a PhD, MPA, an MS, and is a registered nurse (RN). She teaches in-person and online undergraduate nursing classes at Stony Brook and conducts research on active learning strategies and the retention of information. She works as a nursing supervisor at two local hospitals.  She is the recipient of the 2023 SUNY FACT2 Award for Excellence in Instruction and was a recipient of the Stony Brook University Award for Excellence in Teaching an In-Person Course.

Show Notes


John: Flipped classrooms allow for class time to be used to put content into action. In this episode, we look at one instructor’s team-based approach that emphasizes real-world skills important to the field.


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 Tina Abbate. Tina is a Clinical Assistant Professor at Stony Brook University’s School of Nursing. She holds a collection of credentials including a PhD, MPA, an MS, and is a registered nurse (RN). She teaches in-person and online undergraduate nursing classes at Stony Brook and conducts research on active learning strategies and the retention of information. She works as a nursing supervisor at two local hospitals. She is the recipient of the 2023 SUNY FACT2 Award for Excellence in Instruction and was a recipient of the Stony Brook University Award for Excellence in Teaching an In-Person Course. Welcome, Tina.

Tina: Thank you. Thank you so much for having me here today.

John: We’re very happy to see you again. We saw you at the SUNY Conference on Instruction and Technology (or CIT) about a month or so ago. And our teas today are:…. Tina, are you drinking tea?

Tina: I am. I am drinking a chai tea. Very good.

Rebecca: That sounds nice and warming.

Tina: Yup.

Rebecca: It’s a little chilly here, although it’s summer and it was hot yesterday. It is not hot today. [LAUGHTER]

Tina: Yes, for sure the weather has been very odd.

Rebecca: So I have my tea for teaching mug today. And in it, I think actually a mix of a couple of different black teas because I switched when I had a half a cup left. [LAUGHTER] I’m not sure what we call this today, but it’s a mix of black teas.

Tina: That sounds delicious.

John: Well, it sounds like a great tea to have while discussing blended learning.

Rebecca: A high quality blend. [LAUGHTER]

John: And we’re having a real cold spell here in Durham, North Carolina. The temperature has dropped down to 87 today, and I am drinking a tea forte black currant tea.

Rebecca: That’s a nice summer tea.

John: It is.

Rebecca: So we’ve invited you here today to discuss your use of active learning tools. But before we jump into that, we were curious about your wide range of degrees, credentials, and certifications. We didn’t even list them all. Can you share a little bit about your pathway into your current position at Stony Brook?

Tina: Sure. Well, when I went back to grad school, I certainly didn’t intend to get three graduate degrees. I had gotten into Binghamton and gotten into their BS to PhD program because I wanted to do research and my ultimate goal was to do executive leadership position at a hospital because I really enjoyed the leadership role of nursing. So just to backtrack, I graduated Binghamton University in the year 2000 and started right in the NICU (neonatal ICU) at Stony Brook and I worked as a NICU nurse for six years. And in that time, I knew that I wanted to go back to school. And like I said, I got into the BS to Ph. D. program at Binghamton. They awarded me a fellowship program. So I moved from Long Island. My daughter was one at the time. And I started my education there at Binghamton, continued it for the graduate program. And about a year into my doctoral studies they had asked if I wanted to teach clinical and I’ve taught in other capacities. I used to teach violin and piano when I was younger and I never really thought of teaching as a career goal for me. However, I was a poor graduate student, and I said, “Sure, I’ll do it.” And I had about six students in the NICU. I was teaching clinical, and, I don’t know, something came over me. I found my professional soulmate, something clicked so hard for me in that clinical that I wanted more. So I continued asking for teaching assignments. And it’s hard to articulate the feeling that you have, but I felt like I found my niche. And so I did clinical instructoring for about six years and then I moved into the classroom setting. So at that time, I still worked as a nursing supervisor, so I enjoyed the leadership role. And Binghamton started a dual master’s degree program, where you get your master’s in nursing with a concentration in whatever you wanted, I chose education. And the other part of the dual degree was a Master of Public Administration. So I was the first cohort to move through that program. So I graduated first with my Masters of Science in Nursing and my functional role was educator. Then two years later, I completed the Master of Public Administration, and then eventually the PhD. And it all just aligned so perfectly in my current career, because obviously I’m an academic at heart through and through. So those degrees have assisted me in that role. I still work in administration. I teach research, I teach leadership and management. So all of the degrees I’ve utilized and I still utilize actively every day. So this pathway was kind of carved out for me, I think, and I just feel very fortunate that I’m able to apply all of the degrees that I’ve gone for.

John: At the SUNY Conference on Instruction and Technology, you gave a presentation on how you structure your courses. And you mentioned that you were using a flipped team-based learning class structure. Can you tell us a little bit about how your classes are structured, and what a typical class day would look like in one of your classes?

Tina: Sure. So any class that I’m involved in or coordinate, the structure that I utilize is a flipped team-based learning approach. And this essentially requires students to prepare prior to coming to class. It has some benefits there, there’s flexibility, students can learn at their own pace, it really amps up the student responsibility for learning, as we know, and then it also gives us the opportunity for higher level learning because they’re interacting with the concepts outside prior to class. And the team-based part of it I like is because that increases that collaboration amongst students. We know that nursing healthcare is a team sport, so I like to engage the students in teamwork so that they can collaborate and work on their team dynamics, and their own personal team skills. So how my classes operate is, prior to each class, students complete a set of videos, and they’re interactive videos, they’re accessible videos for all types of learners, and it carries weight in their grade. So basically, in these pre-class videos, students get a little voiceover content from me about a concept, and then they get tested on it using a variety of types of questions: matching, true-false, multiple choice, hotspots, you name it. As they move through the videos, they are taking notes on a note-taking guide. So all the concepts are there for them to just follow along, take notes. So they’re seeing, hearing, they’re doing something as they move through the videos. And that note-taking guide eventually acts as a study guide for them, because they have to take a quiz every single class. So they complete these videos before class. And then I start each class with a micro-lecture review using Kahoot!, which is just a game-based learning platform. And in this micro-lecture review, I’m really drilling down to the concepts and helping these students reconcile any last residual confusion that they may have about these concepts. And then after the Kahoot!, they take a quiz. Now, since they’ve interacted with the concepts so many times prior to taking this quiz, I push the level of the questions in these quizzes. There are 15 questions and I try to push the level as high as I can. And the students are able to rise to the occasion because they are not hearing the information for the first time when they walk into class. They have a vague sense of the concepts, we nail it down, and then they take the quiz. After the quiz, the rest of class is comprised of team-based activities. And that’s how every class looks like for me.

Rebecca: Can you talk a little bit more about the embedded questions that you have in the videos and how students have responded to that aspect of a flipped classroom?

Tina: Absolutely, I use a program called Articulate 360. Articulate 360 has many different types of functions in it. But I focus more on the storyline aspect of this product, where I’m able to set up these video clips. So if you already have voice overs, you can basically chop up that voice over into different bits, put it into a story, the type of file that they reference there. And then in between each clip, you can embed any type of quiz question that you could possibly imagine. And you can set up different parameters. So for example, I like to elevate the stakes a little bit, so the students, for these pre-class videos, the grade that counts is their first pass. So it’s not like they can retake the video for a higher grade. It’s whatever they get at the end of that first pass of the video is the grade that counts. And they have two opportunities to answer each quiz question correctly. And I also embed a lot of feedback, so if they get the answer wrong, they’ll see a pop up with some review, and then if they still got it wrong, or they got it right, then there’s an explanation that pops up for the right answer. So I do survey my students in the middle of the semester using a Google form. And then at the end using the university platform, and the feedback about the videos has been very positive, they really do appreciate even though it means extra work, I’m still not giving them 20 chapters to read. I’m giving them something that passes along a bit more quickly and has a better chance of sticking in their memories. And they also appreciate the note-taking guide because it also becomes a study guide, not just for the quiz, but for the final exam at the end.

Rebecca: Like I’ve counted four or five layers of countability on that same content. [LAUGHTER]

Tina: Exactly.

Rebecca: We’ve got the note taking guide. We’ve got the embedded questions, and we’ve got the Kahoot!, and then we’ve got the quiz, and then the exam at the end.

Tina: Yeah, so it’s all about building on these concepts, having the knowledge and then being able to apply it in the classroom

John: In your presentation, you mentioned that you were de-identifying the names of students taking the Kahoot!, but maintaining a leaderboard in the classroom. Could you tell us a little bit about how that works.

Tina: So Kahoot is based on answering the questions correctly or incorrectly. And part of the score is how quickly you answer the question. So ideally, you want to answer quickly and answer the questions correctly. So at the end of the Kahoot!, they get a score. And just again, to raise the stakes, students have to hit a certain benchmark of points to receive full credit. And I try to push that benchmark a little bit, not to make it impossible, but just to make it a little bit challenging for them to give them something to work towards. So for example, in one semester, they have to reach 70,000 points to get the full credit, and then it’s prorated from there. So every time I have a class, I load the data into this program that was built by our Center for Excellence in Learning and Teaching on campus. One of the computer scientist was able to put this leaderboard, showed me how to upload the files, which are basically just CSV files. And what it does is this leaderboard shows their rank in the class, their total score, and the score for that week, so that they can monitor their progress. And everybody else is de-identified and random words, but they can see their name, and they could see their rank in the class.

John: And one of the advantages, I think, of using Kahoot! is it does provide some practice in developing automaticity. So that students can practice retrieving information quickly, which I would think would be especially important in health-care situations.

Tina: Absolutely. And I’ll have some students that come to me and they just absolutely despise Kahoot! because of the stress. And if you’ve ever taken a Kahoot!, and I have, it is stressful, you have to really think on your feet very quickly, especially since your score is based on how fast you answer the question. So what I tell them from the beginning is if you really are struggling with Kahoot!, and you don’t like Kahoot!, Kahoot is really for you, it’s meant for you, because I want you to think of a situation in a hospital setting. If a patient is deteriorating, we call something called a rapid response. And a team of people flow to the room to address whatever issue it is, perhaps the patient’s having difficulty breathing, whatever, chest pain, this now has become a very emergent situation. And in that situation, you have to be, as the primary nurse or a nurse assisting someone else, you have to have laser focus, and someone may ask you to just go get a piece of gauze. And if you’re new in the role you may be so flustered, just by getting that piece of gauze. So, this is really like a precursor to that. So I tell the students to use Kahoot! as a mechanism to help with your laser focus in situations where the outcome is dependent on what you’re doing.

Rebecca: Another thing that seems really relevant to a healthcare setting is the team-based learning aspect of your course. Can you talk a little bit about how you arrange the team-based activities and also how you set your students up for success on teams.

Tina: So with team-based learning, as we know, it’s simply a collaborative learning strategy and how the team activities look depends on the course. So I can talk to you about my research course. That happens every fall semester, and I have 160 students, this is the graduating class. These are the seniors, they’re in the last two semesters of the program. And what we do in that course is the team-based activity portion of class is working on a project. So I’ll tell you a little bit about the project which is experiential in nature. Stony Brook University is attached to Stony Brook University Hospital. So every year, I pick a unit, I meet with the manager, and they give us a clinical problem to solve. So for example, this fall the students and I will be working with the surgical ICU and the clinical topic is nurse wellbeing. So, as we know, we’re in this post-pandemic world and wellbeing has really moved to the forefront. Things like burnout, compassion fatigue is very prevalent in the healthcare environment and just globally as humans. I think we’re just a little tired of living in this fight or flight for so long. And now we’re trying to come back from this. So this fall semester, the students will be working in teams to find a solution for the surgical ICU for nurse wellbeing. So what we do is we search for articles together, and that’s how they get to their solution. We use a framework we use Melnyk’s seven steps for evidence-based practice. So in undergrad nursing, even though it’s called the nursing research course, the students are expected to utilize the research that has been done on a topic to make changes to their practice. Our expectation is not for them to actually conduct research. That’s a PhD level thing, but according to our essentials in baccalaureate nursing, that our accrediting body tells us what curriculum to teach to the students, the expectation is that they know how to read the research, how to critique it, how to appraise it, how to synthesize it, and how to use the research to develop solutions. So from there, they work in teams of eight throughout the semester, they develop their solution, they put it into a video project, the six-minute video project, and I choose the top two projects. Those top two projects then move on to the implementation phase. So then the unit will implement and evaluate the solution. And in addition to that, we put in for posters at conferences. For example, last year, we had two posters at ENRS. I was assigned the course of research, I was like, “Oh, boy, how am I going to make this interesting?” …because we know that research content can be a bit dry. So I ran the course for a couple years, and I knew that I had to do something with it. And that’s where I started moving towards this more experiential learning opportunity for the students. And so far, it’s been going really well.

Rebecca: So I heard you say something about teams of eight, and I almost maybe had a heart attack, [LAUGHTER] just thinking about how big that team is, and how to manage that. Can you talk a little bit about some of the structures you have in place to help a group that size, which is relatively large, be successful?

Tina: Sure. So teams of eight… that means I have 20 teams in total. And we’re all reviewing the same articles. So then I know the answers to all the questions. And basically, Google Drive is my answer. Every team has their own folder, within that folder are subfolders, I have them buddy up and be assigned to a certain number of articles. As a team, they have like individual and buddy responsibilities, which is clearly articulated in a contract that they review and fill out at the beginning of the semester. So they have individual responsibilities, buddy responsibilities, and they have team responsibilities. And every single class looks the same. So by the second class, they’re already into the mode. I don’t throw them any curveballs, every class structure is exactly the same, so they know what to expect. And they have appraisal forms to fill out. They have tables to fill out as a team to keep all of their literature organized. And the structure that I have in place seems to be working because there’s very little confusion now that I’ve kind of worked out all of the kinks. And I also always keep instructions projected just to make sure that they are apprised of the flow of class.

John: You mentioned Melnyk’s, seven steps of evidence-based practice. Could you give us a brief overview of that framework?

Tina: Absolutely. So there’s many evidence-based practice models out there. Stony Brook goes with Melnyk, and there are seven steps and actually I begin with step zero, step zero is igniting that spirit of inquiry. And that’s one of my main end goals of the course is for them to stay curious about how they can improve practice as a nurse for their patients. So that’s step zero. And then basically, what we do is we take the clinical problem, and then we frame it in the form of a question, a PICO question. And that helps us to find our articles. So once we find our articles, we go through the articles, we decide what we’re going to keep, what we won’t want to keep, then we start to critically appraise these articles, review them, read them, understand them, the students put that information into a literature review table, which is just the main elements of each article. After we’ve appraised all of the articles, the next step is to synthesize all of the articles. So what is the bigger picture? For that synthesis class students do complete synthesis tables. And when they create these synthesis tables, now the beginnings of their proposed solution begin to emerge. So then students put their solution together based on the synthesis table. And then the next step in this process is to implement the solution and then evaluate the solution. And of course, dissemination is always the last step.

John: You also mentioned that you use collaborative testing on exams. I’ve done this with a two-stage exam process where people take the exam individually first and then submit that but then take it again as a group. It also appears to have been and that’s been tremendously successful. It’s also appeared to have been really beneficial in terms of student learning, and it’s just so much more fun to watch the students work in groups on exams, than it is to go over the exam the next day with the whole class. That collaborative exam format has been so much much better than I ever expected it to be. Could you tell us a little bit about how you do collaborative testing on your exams?

Tina: I absolutely adore collaborative testing. If you have to assess students using exams, this is really maximizing the use of exams. So in my courses, students take collaborative exams in teams of three. And as we know, the research says that collaborative testing may decrease test-taking anxiety, the students have to take a large licensing exam at the end of the program. So it may help some of these students with that, like you said, immediate feedback on test performance, it really scales back the number of questions, I don’t even do exam reviews anymore, because the immediate feedback that they get, they’ve reconciled any confusion on the exam, that an exam review is no longer required. It increases student engagement and collaboration. I love how they, like you said, they debate, they discuss, that peer instruction. There are some people out there who can read a book and retain 100%. But generally speaking, you’ll have a better chance of retaining more information if you’re teaching someone else versus reading a book. Of course, that just varies learner to learner. So that could be really something to hone in on when it comes to collaborative testing. So, yes, the traditional way is to take the test individually, and then they take it again, in a team. And in our program, the clinical courses like medical surgical nursing, pediatrics, all of those, I would always recommend to do individual than collaborative because you really want to assess that individual on their performance and understanding of the concepts. And so I teach research, and I teach leadership and management, these are non-clinical courses, I skip the individual part, and take them right to a collaborative exam. So for example, for my research course, the students don’t know who they are paired up with, or in a team with, until about an hour before the exam. They get two articles, a quantitative article and a qualitative one. And then they have a set of questions to answer. Essentially, we’ve been preparing for this type of exam throughout the semester. So they end up doing really well. In my transitions to professional practice, where I’m teaching leadership and management, that is a traditional final exam, multiple choice, select all that apply, type of questions. And again, I actually do it on Zoom, they go into breakout rooms, they share their screen, and they take the exam, there’s a scribe who enters the answers. And also when it comes to accommodations, kind of as a side note, I’ve been able to set up strategies for individuals that do have accommodation so that they can maximize their experience as well.

John: When I first tried this, I was so excited about how the students were reacting with the collaborative exam that I took a short video clip while they were doing it and sent it to Rebecca. She was working with me in the teaching center at the time. It was just a remarkably positive experience.

Tina: Do you notice a difference like I would say an estimate of 10 points between the individual and the collaborative mean.

John: Generally, yeah. And the group one is virtually always higher than each individual score, except in one case in my class, where one student had a higher score than his group, and that’s because during the group discussions the student gave in to peer pressure within the group. I encouraged him to be more assertive when he’s confident about his answer. But that only happened with one student on one exam.

Tina: that’s pretty rare. I just love just watching them engage like that. So I’ll pop into like the breakout sessions, and they’re collaborating and negotiating and it’s just fantastic.

Rebecca: You mentioned earlier about your research class having a project coming up about well being. And I think that’s a topic that we’ve been talking a lot about in higher ed in a lot of situations. Can you talk a little bit more about that project and some of the research that’s going into it and some of the outcomes of it?

Tina: Absolutely. I mean, wellbeing is such a hot topic right now in probably every type of job you could think of. And it’s interesting wellbeing is kind of always been in the background. And I think the pandemic really shoved it into the forefront where it really should have been. That really needs to be, in my opinion, the top priority of any workplace because if your employees are well, it has a positive trickle down effect. So it has gotten to the point now where our accrediting body who tells us the essentials that we need to teach to our students, they have added a wellness component, and we’re adopting these new essentials in the next year. These are new essentials for us to follow. So it made it into the essentials, which is very telling. And now faculty are charged with teaching students, monitoring students, about their wellness and wellbeing. So this was pretty timely, because of the pandemic, the clinical topic that we’ve been doing for this EBP project has been things like compassion fatigue, burnout. And now this year, we’re doing wellbeing. Last fall, we worked with the cardiothoracic ICU. And the EBP project topic was compassion fatigue. And we wove in a lot of wellbeing into the solution, which is actually kicking off on July 1. So this year, instead of doing compassion fatigue, which has a bit of a negative connotation, let’s flip it to the positive. And like I said, we’re working with the surgical ICU, and we want to customize a wellness solution for that unit. So in the meantime, by proxy, I can teach the students about their own wellbeing and their own wellness. So I have a lot of content in there, so that they’re learning about this clinical topic to help develop a solution, but they’re also learning about it for themselves. And I do a few things with them, and definitely evolving this as we move along. And I’m lucky enough that I have the graduating class in the fall and the spring. So I move it through from the fall to the spring semester. So in addition and educating them on the different ways to promote your own wellness, we start each class with a mindfulness activity. I have a sound bowl that actually a student gifted to me, we do meditation, mindful breathing, every class is something different. This year, I’m inviting students to lead some of these sessions. So I want it to grow so that other students can participate and lead us and it’s literally three to five minutes at the beginning of every class, all lights down, devices off, phones flipped down, and we just take the time to be as present as possible. And I also help them keep an eye on their level of burnout. And I give them the professional quality of life survey at the start of every class. And halfway through, I’ll do a comparison of statistics between the different cohorts. Because I have the traditional cohort and I have the accelerated one, we look to see how our scores are doing over time, just to have that educational component to it. And then also the Insight Timer app, that’s an app that you don’t have, I would highly recommend that you download it. It has so many mindfulness type of activities that you can do. There’s a journal, you can track your progress. They have classes, and even the paid version, which is I think, maybe $60 for the year, they offer so many different bells and whistles, it’s really just a phenomenal app to use if you’re looking to promote your own wellness. So the other thing I wanted, I attended that CIT conferences, is I would love to use ChatGPT to develop a wellness assignment. So I’m still thinking about the inner machinations of how that would work. But hey, you know, if AI is here, might as well see if we can use it to promote wellbeing.

John: And it’s nice to have that focus of using ChatGPT positively because this is something that’s going to be part of students’ lives going forward, maybe not this specific tool, but AI tools are not going to disappear and using them for good would be a nice alternative for the concerns that many faculty have about the use of these tools. During your presentation at the CIT conference, you also mentioned using a variety of edtech tools. What are some of the tools that you use in your classes?

Tina: Sure. So I’ve trialed some apps here and there, I’ve used Plotagon. I used Go Animate for Schools, which is now VYOND, just for them to create case scenarios in their leadership and management class. And based on feedback, the one that they really liked is now a bit pricey. So I tried a free version of an app, and it really didn’t go well based on feedback. And that’s how it works in education. You try something out and you survey the students and if the experience over time is really not positive, you need to move on to something else. But things that really have stuck is I told you about Kahoot! and Articulate 360. How I communicate with the students. I use GroupMe. I prefer to communicate with them using that application over Brightspace or traditional email. They join via QR code and I have them all in one group chat and I can post quickly. They could send me direct messages, they could post questions in our group chat. And it just seems to really streamline communication because we’re all competing for their cerebral real estate, they have a lot going on, a lot of deadlines, so I find that this GroupMe app is really helpful. And I also try not to spam them with too many messages, thoug. It really seems to work. And then again, Google Drive, I can’t even begin Google Drive for everything, whether I want to survey them or whatever it is, Google Drive has it for us.

Rebecca: So speaking of Google, [LAUGHTER] you mentioned earlier using a Google form for a mid-semester evaluation. Can you talk a little bit more about that, and how you’ve used that to make adjustments in your class for the latter half of the semester?

Tina: Sure. So a Google Form is a pretty nice way to just give a quick survey to your students, I do that in the middle of the semester. And I have to tell you, that’s where I get my best data, because they are in the throes of it. And my response rate is typically over 90%, as compared to at the end, where they’re kind of just fizzling out, tired, maybe a bit over it, generally speaking. So I don’t get the response rate in the final that I do in the mid semester, when I analyze it, very short, a couple Likert questions: What do you like? What don’t you like? …and if there’s enough of a theme in the qualitative questions, or in the Likert scales, I’m able to make changes prior to them departing from me, instead of waiting for the next cohort to come in. For example, some things that came up was: “It can be a bit loud in the classroom.” So I’ve done something to control the volume in there, because it’s a very active classroom, or we feel like we’re sitting around too long during the TBL activities. So now I have a mechanism for them to let me know when they’re done with their activities, so that they’re not sitting around waiting. So those types of things. If they say, “let’s skip the final exam,” then that’s not anything that I can honor. But I’ve gotten some really good raw feedback that’s helped me evolve my classes. I’m just always so grateful for the student experience, because they inform me where this needs to go. Another way that I use a Google Form is with team-based learning. Michelson says that you should have the team members evaluate each other on their team performance. And typically, this is done at the end. But I like to do it in the middle of the semester, where they’re evaluating each other so that they have an opportunity to remediate, and then by the end, hopefully, their team’s performance scores have gone up. The challenge, though, with a Google Form is it’s very hard for me to share the feedback back to the students, it requires a lot of copying and pasting. And there’s a lot of room there for error, human error. So currently, I do bring in the students that are rated poorly just to give them some one-on-one guidance on how to improve their team performance. But in the meantime, to work around that I did trial a product called Kritik that offers that ability where the students will get their feedback back. But I reached out to our Center for Excellence in Learning and Teaching. And right now what we’re doing, we have a sandbox, and we’re working on trying to do a Kritik-like type of peer evaluation in Brightspace, using PeerMark. And we’re getting very close to ironing out some of the finer details. So I’m going to finally have an evaluation where every student can see their feedback from their team members based on their performance, so they know what they’re doing well and where they need to improve.

John: You teach both face to face and also online. Do you use many of the same techniques in your online classes that you use in your face-to-face classes? How do you modify your class for online delivery?

Tina: So I do everything the same, except that it’s in an asynchronous format. So students really have to be self disciplined in an asynchronous online type of environment. The online classes that I teach are post-licensure undergrads, so they have their two-year Registered Nurse license, and they’re looking to get their four-year degree. So some of the assignments, we tailor a little bit differently just because they have nursing experience, whereas my pre-licensure students do not. So maybe the assignments vary a little bit, but the structure is the same, using Articulate. I don’t use Kahoot! with them, only because I don’t have them in front of me, but they do have the quiz. And they have the TBL activities and things of that nature. So it’s the same, but it’s just in an asynchronous format.

Rebecca: I know that we mentioned in the intro that you do some research on some of your teaching practices. Can you tell us a little bit about some of that work?

Tina: Sure. So a colleague and myself got IRB approval, and we’re just starting to do some research on this evidence-based practice project that the students do in my class. And we’re just starting off with a cross-sectional study. We have a valid tool that’s been out in the literature that measures their perceived knowledge, skills and attitudes regarding evidence-based practice. So, I’m not building logistic regression models or anything yet, but starting off with a cross-sectional study to understand pre and post, the beginning of class and at the end of their research class, if there’s any impact or change in their knowledge, skills, and attitudes regarding evidence-based practice. So that’s where I’m starting. And I’d like to move on from there eventually.

John: And speaking of moving on, our last question is: what’s next?

Tina: So, I just would like to continue publishing and presenting. And continuing my research. Like I mentioned earlier, I’d like to introduce an AI tool for wellbeing, and Stony Brook just purchased several VR headsets. And because my courses include a lot of content about compassion, wellness, well being, I would love to develop a simulation about empathy. I think that would be a fantastic use of VR, apart from like, typical clinical scenarios. And that’s really my plan for now.

John: Well, thank you for joining us. And when you do have some results from your research, we’d love to have you come back and talk about it.

Tina: Thank you. Definitely. I really appreciate you inviting me. This is a wonderful opportunity for me. Thank you.

Rebecca: Yeah, thank you for letting us use your class as a little case study for folks to think about ways that they could change, improve, and reconsider their own classes. Thank you.


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