Wednesday, December 8, 2010

A Pre-Holiday Message

The end of the semester is almost here, when our students head home and we take a break.  For many of us, the holidays are a time of reflection about our lives, our families, and the New Year.  It's natural to reflect on our teaching as well.  Teaching--like other service fields--lends itself to thinking.  We have a multitude of daily interactions for months with our students, so our brains become very busy. 

We can either turn away from these thoughts or embrace the creativity and energy that comes from reflection.  I have a few suggestions for starting points.  One, write down your thoughts and include both negative and positive thoughts (be sure to think of positive aspects of your class, even if it did not go as well as you wanted).  Take a pen or type your thoughts in a quick brainstorm and then file your thoughts away with your teaching materials for that class.  Next time that you get ready to teach this course, those comments will be there and can spark some thinking about new ways to tweak the course and improve it.

Second, consider quotations as a starting point for reflection.  These act as queries which encourage your thinking.  Below are some quotes which you might find helpful as you reflect on your semester. 

Every act of conscious learning requires the willingness to suffer an injury to one's self-esteem.  That is why young children, before they are aware of their own self-importance, learn so easily.
~Thomas Szasz

"Any activity becomes creative when the doer cares about doing it right, or doing it better." ~ John Updike

“The art of teaching is the art of assisting discovery.” 
~ Mark Van Doren

We learn more by looking for the answer to a question and not finding it than we do from learning the answer itself. 
~Lloyd Alexander

Finally, this is a useful reminder when we consider our classrooms as creative learning environments.  It's the conclusion to an article on creativity research (Mary Jane Petrowski, 2000):

"Margaret Wheatley reminds us that scientists have long ago established that life is inherently creative at all molecular levels. It is instructive to reflect on what scientists tell us about creativity before we return to our libraries and students (Wheatley and Kellner-Rogers, 1999, p. 13):

  • ``Everything is in a constant process of discovery and creating.'' In other words, we are hardwired for creativity.
  • ``Life uses messes to get to well-ordered solutions.'' The Ideo ``deep dive'' reminds us that we should ``fail often and early in order to succeed sooner''.
  •  ``Life is intent on finding what works, not what's right.'' Creativity is not about perfectionism and there is no one answer; rather there are many answers that will work.
  • ``Life creates more possibilities as it engages with opportunities.'' Engage at all costs with opportunities for learning. Just as creativity requires isolation and privacy, stimulation, novelty, and new experience also fuel it."
Want to see fun creative ideas on video ?  Check out "the FunTheory."  I like the piano steps and this year's winner, the speed camera lottery!  

Have a safe and enjoyable holiday.  I will be back after January 1st. 

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Just for kicks

It was pointed out to me that I have not talked to you all in awhile.  Perhaps I have the same malaise hitting all of us this time of year, as we try to motivate students to complete the semester while facing their slumped bodies and glazed eyes. I felt the same way after three days of lectures on the brain.  Give me a week and I will post more about that!

So, let me share a few funny videos with you.  
Thank you to the Engaged Learning blog for this suggestion:

It's on cow tipping.

And physics.

This one is courtesy of my 13 year old son.  Perhaps you have teenagers too and have seen these. If not, be warned.  It's goofy.

Hot Kool Aid

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Grading Jail?

Nels Highberg (in a recent Profhacker blog) talks about grading that can sometimes feel like retribution from students--but he argues for some semblance of satisfaction from the process.  Some faculty members that I have talked to see grading as a chore because they "already know" how each student is doing (this is, of course, in classes of 50 and under).  In a recent discussion during a national conference of faculty developers, one prominent researcher in higher education argued that she was campaigning against the strict curve as counterproductive to retaining our best science and math students...and so the conversation about grading goes on.

Is grading a game?  A gateway?  A reward?  A recognition of excellence or mediocrity?  A true assessment of abilities?  An ongoing conversation about learning?  Ask a student and they might tell you that they work to earn their grades, as if time on task necessarily equates with exemplary work. 

As for myself, I hate grading (I almost said "dislike" but let's be honest), but I love constructing tests.  Quizzes and tests are more about what I can convince them to study, how I can entice them to think.  I like the conversation but putting on the final touches of grade is unpleasant.  Do you know why?  Grading tests and papers, to me, always points out where I failed to teach well.   I know that it also shows me where students failed to pay attention and work to understand.  Yet, I can also see where I did not explain a concept adequately or where I did not give students enough practice or support in their learning.  I want to finish with the grading so I can try again!  As soon as class is done, I am making notes for improvements.  There is always the next class and the chance to teach more students even better.

So I am part of this ongoing conversation about our attitudes towards grading.  Nels steers us towards other opinions and resources:

"Since writing that post [on grading jail], I have encountered more and more talk about grading.  ProfHacker Natalie posted a great roundup of the various pieces of grading advice we have offered since ProfHacker’s inception.  Several people on Twitter and Facebook linked to Dr. B’s thoughts on “The Five Stages of Grading,” which Jeff Rice followed up on in a discussion of “cliches like the burden of grading.”  He followed up on that post with another one extending his thoughts.  Steve Krause offered his own thoughts on effective and ineffective grading practices (his post is a personal favorite of mine, I’ll admit).  Talk about grading is not going away.

"I intended for my original post on grading jail and this one to be part of a more philosophical or theoretical discussion of the attitudes we bring toward the grading process because I think those attitudes shape how we grade, so we should acknowledge them."

I agree.  Grading is necessary and talk about our attitudes is very helpful.  As we told our eighth grader the other day, "your work looks horrible."   Since his poster represents his thinking on the project, it had better look good. That was an honest assessment!

We can be honest with our students.  They need to hear valid assessments.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Plagued by Plagiarism?

Plagiarism bugs all of us--faculty and administrators.  As a former writing instructor who was also a department chair, I dreaded the moment when I would look at a paper and swear that this kid had not written major portions of it.  The programs like SafeAssign (used at UT with Blackboard) are wonderful in terms of tracking down those "cut and paste" paragraphs that do not belong in college work.  As the OWL at Purdue states "There are few intellectual offenses more serious than plagiarism in academic and professional contexts."  Their article on plagiarism is a helpful overview that you can point out to students. 

A recent Chronicle article by Ryan Cordell on Susan Blum's book A Culture of Sharing provides a nice overview of the current conversation on plagiarism.  He covers her argument that many students are unprepared and unaware of finer points of research usage, yet Cordell says that given the rise in plagiarism incidents, this is a 'hard sell."  The comments at the end of the article point out the disagreement.  One respondent is tired of the excuses, while another commenter recounts the complex factors that result in plagiarism--and this person points out a related problem.  Students can learn to cite correctly while still not using enough of their own wording.  This is a writing problem.

I encourage everyone to use SafeAssign or a similar program and to make this program available to students.  The report is color-coded to show where material originates--and can be very helpful to students writing drafts.  Let them look at their reports and see what they are doing well and what they need to change.  With our current culture of "sharing," we need to give students multiple opportunities to learn another way.

When students view a report, they can be instructed to look for the color (blue, in this example) that corresponds to their own words.  Most students are horrified when they see how little is "theirs" when the assignment requires them to analyze and evaluate information and ideas--and when they realize that each paragraph has to have their analysis.

As I watch my son learn to write research papers in middle school, I wonder when this process will "click" for him.  I understand that the process must be broken into steps so that students learn each step.  Yet the hardest aspect to grasp seems to be citation.  Last year, he learned how to find sources (but he was still copying sources into a paper).  This year, he has research, a bibliography, and he is trying to write everything "in his own words."  He is still nowhere close to writing independently with integrated sources.  Will he learn enough in high school to handle college research?  Only if he writes more than one research paper a year will he feel at ease with the process. 

For a thorough statement on issues and best practices, read the page produced by the Council of Writing Administrators.  Best practices include:

  • Discuss plagiarism in class and providing examples of plagiarism as well as examples of successful papers
  • Design original tasks, that ask students their opinions and require new approaches to material
  • Sequence assignments so that they build into a final paper.  Make the research paper very visible by staging the assignment and guiding students through the process
  • Focus on having students read (and report on) their research
  • Ask students for documentation.  For instance, require a research log, with links to their online research and copies of any book pages cited.

For information specific to UT, visit the UT Writing Center.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Fun with the Periodic Table

The periodic table is the theme of the week.  If you teach Chemistry, you might be interested in the new variation on an ancient game, Mahjong.  Students play online or on Facebook (look up Mahjong chemistry). According to the press release, "Games on the website include: matching elemental names to symbols, assigning oxidation numbers, learning acids and bases, learning electronic configurations, and learning metric prefixes critical in chemistry" (Stetson U).

This news led me to the internet to check out periodic tables, a rich theme.  I found a beautifully illustrated periodic table as well as a table of illustrations: the visual periodic table from  The VPT will be featured at our visual media workshop in a few weeks (November 2).

Of course, Chemistry Mahjong is not just a visually appealing activity but a learning exercise.  Game-based learning has a dedicated following (see the International conference at  Games are an excellent way to engage students.  There are downloadable templates for several types of games, which you can adapt to your curriculum.  Just search online!

UT's Professor Ernest Cadotte has created a marketing strategy game, Marketplace, which offers gaming scenarios in international business.

Have you created a game for your students?  What is your experience with game-based learning?

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Team Teach

I told a colleague yesterday that I found team teaching to be an intriguing idea, one that fits with our center's emphasis on student responsibility for learning.  I just team taught for the first time and had a wonderful experience.  In the first year studies course, peer mentors (upper-class students) assist in the classroom; it was up to the two of us to figure out what that would look like.  My peer mentor participated in class, joining students as they worked, but we also added some activities that others might not consider typical.  His experiential expertise is in scheduling and planning, so I asked him to talk to students about how to plan for and schedule their courses.  We spent two days listening to and talking with him about how to manage different resources at UT.   He asked a few students to join him up front to try out the planning resources, particularly the online degree audit report system. His time on this topic was one of the highest rated experiences in the course.  Second, he met students after class in groups, where the conversation was much more informal.  This helped me too, since I did not have time to meet with all of the students.  Again, they rated this experience very highly.

In research and trials by Gray and Halbert (1998) and Gray and Harrison (2003), professors and students reported multiple benefits.  Student comments were positive, including appreciation for hearing a student's perspective.  Student comments (see Tomorrow's Professor) included:
 “The student teacher stops the professor and asks questions that are helpful to make the topic clearer. She’s good at telling [the teacher] when he has lost us.”

"It’s like a tag team where one is always there to back the other up. If one teacher does not understand a question [from a student] or how to relate it to the class, the other can easily step in.”  

“The team-teaching is a good approach, I think because this way we don’t feel intimidated by a big professor teaching the class and we get the insight of an undergrad.”

In general, research suggests that professor-student teaching teams offer several benefits to students, student teachers, and professors. Students reported enhanced learning because the method gave a student perspective and improved the availability of teachers; student teachers felt they learned a lot about teaching and the subject matter; and professors felt it gave them an ally in their teaching, excellent substitute teachers and a valuable source of feedback for teaching improvement (Gray & Harrison 2003). 

Have you tried team teaching?  Tell us about your experience!

Monday, October 4, 2010

What the Best Teachers Do

Do you ever wonder, as you leave class, what you could have done better?  If that question crosses your mind at any point, take steps to get an answer, for better teaching and for peace of mind.  First, read and talk about good teaching.  Most teachers talk about class sessions that worked best for them, so conversation with other teachers usually offers excellent ideas.

Second, ask your students by conducting a CAT (classroom assessment technique).
This basic task--asking someone if they understand--can reveal a lot of data for you about your teaching techniques and the learning situation you have created.  (Click here for our materials on CATs)

 Third, videotape yourself.  It makes me wince to see myself on tape, but what I find out is to my benefit.  I usually see that my weaknesses are ones I already know about but need to work on, and I learn more about my strengths and can better utilize. 

As far as reading about teaching, two current books provide an interesting contrast--and both employ data collection, years of observations, and interviews with great teachers.  You may have already heard of Ken Bain's What the Best College Teachers Do; you may not have heard of Doug Lemov's Teach Like a Champion (unless you are in the field of education, because his audience is K-12).  His book has reportedly hovered near best-selling (top 100) status on Amazon.

Ken Bains offers an ideal of college education where students and faculty are engaged in explorations of interesting problems in their  fields.  Although I have seen some light criticism of Bains for focusing on professors at privileged institutions, I am not sure this criticism is completely valid.  His advice in "How Do They Conduct Class" is drawn from faculty who lecture as well as faculty who conduct seminar-style classes, and he draws the same conclusions for each.  He explains how faculty can create a natural critical learning environment by:

1. asking an intriguing question or introducing a problem
2. helping students understand the significance of the question
3. engaging students in higher order thinking, asking them to explain their own thinking, and challenging them to defend their explanations (in a caring way, Bains points out, not in a cross-examination!)

Even in a lecture, he explains, faculty follow this process.  Instead of emphasizing the answer, they ask questions, build connections, make an argument, and end with more questions!   "In all...students encounter safe yet challenging conditions in which they can try, fail, receive feedback, and try again" before facing a test or other summative evaluation.  Students learn by doing.

Doug Lemov's book has inspired teachers in public schools but in a different manner.  Just like many of the "tips for college teaching" books, he identifies the 49 techniques that help students be successful and prepare for college.  His success, though, is based on a systematic study and implementation on the tips that are most crucial, most central to good teaching.  Many of these (with some adjustment) apply to higher education as well. 

I use the "cold call" as a staple (technique #22).  Ask a question, pause, and then call a student by name (randomly).  Progress from simple to more difficult questions.  If there are students in your room who are struggling, ask them questions that help build confidence.  Follow one answer with a question to another student, for further elaboration.  In a large room, keep names in front of you and call out for answers.  If a student isn't answering after some 'wait time', instruct that student to confer with peers and then answer.  By keeping track of who is called, even students in the back row will realize that they are expected to answer.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Co-Creating Value in Education

As I watched one of my students nearly fall asleep in my morning class, I thought about how, sometimes, we are working with students who just refuse to work with us, no matter what we do.  This week, Tenn TLC director Dave Schumann spoke to his department about the co-creation of value in education.  We have been discussing this at the center, about how to increase students' sense of responsibility, how to get them engaged in learning, and thus to deepen their learning experiences.   I can be engaging until the cows come home--arranging for group work, asking students to reflect on course material, calling students up to the board to work on problems--but students have to want to be engaged, at least enough for us to pull them in. 

I had a lesson in business this week, about the "co-creation of value" and how consumers are involved in products and production.  Dave defines co-creation of value in education as "
Students and their instructor(s) working together as a learning community with shared responsibility to create and complete the learning experiences necessary to achieve the desired outcomes of the course."   The idea of sharing responsibility is particularly interesting but also puzzling.  I asked myself, don't I already do this in my class?  Aren't students responsible for reading, learning the material, participating in class, and taking tests? Have I created shared responsibility with this scenario?  

To share implies the act of giving from one to another and perhaps a mutual use of something.  To share learning implies that we are engaged together in the course.  Students need to hear their responsibilities outlined in the context of this dual role.  Define the responsibility for the student and tell the student what your responsibilities are.  Let the students hold you accountable.  One of our roles is to provide students with "time and opportunities to take responsibility at all levels of learning."   So, ask yourself:
  • How do I use time in the classroom?
  • Am I reaching all levels of learning (from memorization to analysis to evaluation and creation of knowledge)?
  • What opportunities do my students have to learn?
  • Do I ask students about their learning and listen to their answers?
  • When I work with students, are we innovative?  
  • Is my classroom student-centered?
These questions parallel questions asked in business contexts about production (to sample that conversation, take a look at this blog entry on involving customers in the creation of value using the internet).  

When I read John Bean's Engaging Ideas, I realized that hey, I don't have to give tests.  I could assign a project instead.  And who says a quiz is the best way to test reading comprehension? I could post a problem that requires using the textbook.  My inventiveness can lead to more student opportunities to think at higher levels.  That's a good way to improve my teaching.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Service Learning as Pedagogy

In honor of the Campus Compact state conference at the Baker Center today, I want to pass along information about service learning.  Visit the link to last semester's Tenn TLC workshop for suggestions and resources.  Also, keep in mind that we (at the Tenn TLC) will repeat our workshop on service learning this spring! Thank you again to the Baker Center for sponsoring these workshops.

The title "Service Learning in Higher Education: Faculty Roles and Rewards" leads me to recall the many rewards that I have received from incorporating service learning into disciplinary classes and also teaching service learning curricular courses.

First, let me be honest about the rewards to self.  I am very busy (isn't that part of every professor's job description?), so doing service alongside my students gives me a chance to get involved with the community. If not for class, would I have spent time outside the classroom in creative work? Nope. Because of service learning projects, I've helped finish a home for Habitat, tutored in East Tennessee rural school systems, helped local churches with their outreach, hiked students through the Cherokee Mountains (to "map" a trail for a regional forest advocacy group), created garden space at Rural Resources, recorded the stories of elderly residents as they recalled their town's history, and  helped a social services organization with their web page.  Yes, I got to do all this because I decided to do service learning in my classes (with the help of Tusculum College's Center for Civic Advancement).  I also got to develop wonderful working relationships with colleagues and community members.  Since coming to UT, I have developed wonderful relationships with faculty and administrators who are passionate about service learning, like Bob Kronick and Sherry Cable, our former and our current Faculty Fellows at the center. 

The second reward is student engagement and student benefits.  I can really speak best about my own experiences, but I know that as enthusiastic as I am about all the projects, I had students who were equally enthusiastic and more so.  Their enthusiasm and sense of accomplishment translated into the classroom and onto our subject matter.  My students were much more willing to delve into the social ramifications of poverty, address professional writing in online environments, examine the healthy functioning of a community, talk about the value of narrative voice, write professional policy papers, and give well-designed presentations to outside audiences (their service recipients).

Given these rewards, why aren't more of us giving students a service learning experience?

To find out about service learning at UT, read a recent update posted on the Volunteer Tennessee site. Read more about the nuts and bolts of doing service learning at Learn and Serve America and on our TENN TLC  workshop page.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Students Take Notes

Do you know if your students take good notes in your class?  How can you facilitate better note-taking? Talk with your students and give them a full rationale for making note-taking part of their learning routine and provide some innovative ideas.

Our students know that note-taking is important, and some of them rely on their notes when they study for tests.  Do they know that they should employ at least two channels for learning (the major ones are auditory, kinetic, and visual)?  IF they listen to you AND take notes, then they have employed two pathways.

Change in Education blogger Dan Hess experimented with showing students the value of notes, by asking them to write down almost everything during one lecture.  Then as a group, he helped them compile information into the Cornell system.  Since class was over, he let them take cell phone photos of the result. 
Students "taking notes" by phone
He not only taught students better note-taking methods, he showed them the value of collaborative note-taking.

Another creative option is to use "visual note-taking" including doodling on the page.  Purposeful drawings help students engage visual (leading to better memory).  Check out these links on doodling and visual notetaking, by Sunni Brown:
and  (this one is only 5 minutes!)