Thursday, January 27, 2011

The Teaching Research Nexus:

Student working on a project
What does it mean to teach at a research institution?   The question was asked of me again a few days ago; the cold reality of promotion and tenure often drives the initial conversation.  However, universities are starting to change the culture.  We know from years of study that adopting new pedagogies that actively involve students in their courses will increase engagement and thus retention.  Yet as a faculty member with a hefty research agenda, how does one do this? 

The University of Michigan just released a study of faculty work-life.  Compared with an earlier study, there was a nearly 40% increase in the number of faculty who valued or highly valued teaching.  As one of the leading institutions in teaching innovation, it is interesting to watch their culture change.  Last year, President Mary Sue Coleman recognized the multiple demands on faculty, pointing to their “record levels of research and discovery,” as well as their “innovative teaching” and “the force of creativity.”  Her phrasing shows how the university has adopted Boyer's model of scholarship.  

How will other research universities answer the call for innovation?  One model is becoming popular: SOTL or the scholarship of teaching and learning.   Researching and then writing about one's class has a certain appeal for faculty, yet it is not a model that works comfortably in all disciplines.  Faculty can also bring research into the classroom, but only if the gap between class content and the research is not too great.  A third option, teaching about the research process, has a lot of positive factors. 

Engineering faculty Prince, Felder and Brent (2007) suggest teaching students about the process itself, using our personal experiences about how we do research:

"What researchers do routinely is confront open-ended and imperfectly defined problems, figure out what they need to know and how to find it out: search out sources of missing information; hypothesize and test possible solutions; arrive at final results; and defend them.  The traditional lecture-based teaching model, in which instructors present perfectly organized derivations and examples on the board or in PowerPoint(tm) slides, and then ask students to reproduce and/or apply the information in assignments and tests, bears little resemblance to the research process.  An instructional strategy that comes much closer to emulating research is inductive teaching."

Inductive teaching is a term that encompasses several strategies: problem-based learning, inquiry-based learning, project-based learning.  Students are given a challenge and asked to solve it; the learning takes place through their attempts to meet the challenge.  We can find examples of this approach across campus--you can visit the PBL (problem-based learning) rooms in the Pendergrass library or BESS 123, and talk to faculty like Tenn TLC Ambassador India Lane (Veterinary Teaching Hospital), and to our Creative Teaching Grantees Elizabeth Cooper (Psychology), Carl Wagner and Nikolay Brodskiy(Mathematics), Cary Staples (Graphic Design) and many others.

For more on problem-based learning: see the PBL Initiative

Or view:

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Balancing Flexibility and Fairness Through Course Design

Thank you to Mark Potter at MSCD Center for Faculty Development for this post!

       “Prof. Smith, I won’t be able to make it to class tonight because unfortunately my flight back from vacation has been delayed by an hour and now I won't make it back to Denver in time for class.  Is there supposed to be a quiz today and if so is there any way I can make it up?”
       “Hey Professor, I am terribly sorry, but I am unable to attend class this evening due to family issues. I am writing to see what precisely we went over tonight, and what I need to review in order to not fall behind.”
       “I will not be able to make it to class today due to a conflict with work but I have attached my re-write of the last paper and will get the notes from someone who was in class. Please let me know if there are any important announcements I will miss.”

We have probably all seen emails from students like the ones above, and in fact these are probably fairly mild examples; I have received far more outrageous student emails than these.  It is understandable if we react viscerally to them.  We may want to reply with a snarky email, or, more to the point, penalize the student for missing class or assignment deadlines.  Students should just follow the rules and then “problem solved,” right?

Well, sort of.

Perhaps there is a place for empathy and compassion toward the student whose work schedule changes abruptly, who has (even an unspecified) family emergency, or whose family travel plans become derailed in the middle of the semester.  Like it or not, student demographics are changing as are students’ priorities and work habits (Higher Education Research Institute, 2010).  More students work to cover costs while in college, more students attend college with specific job-skills development in mind, and the range of aptitudes, study skills, and college preparedness continues to widen. 

Maryellen Weimer (2006) encourages instructors to put themselves in their students’ shoes by taking a college course outside their field of expertise every few years in order to experience all the aspects of learning, including balancing course deadlines with work deadlines.  Still, while compassion and empathy may be warranted, we want to avoid granting special treatment to individual students, and it is important for the sake of our own workload and our own time management to hold students to reasonable standards, or “lines in the sand” (Robertson, 2003).

Learner-centered course design can help us to balance these competing demands between compassion and fairness.  Learner-centeredness shifts responsibility for learning to students while granting them more opportunities, control, and options over how they demonstrate their learning (Weimer, 2002).  We can use course design both to hold students responsible and to provide allowances for when life “interrupts” their studies, all while preserving our lines in the sand and our sanity.

Some course design ideas that accomplish this include:

   Carrots.   Incentivize on-time submission of assignments.  I accept late papers (up to three days late) from my students, but only those students who submit their work on time have the option to rewrite their papers and to incorporate my feedback for an improved grade.

   Bounded flexibility.  A colleague at Metropolitan State College gives his students a “syllabus quiz” in the first week of the semester.  Every student who passes earns 5 credits toward turning in work late (1 credit = 1 day).  Students can cash in all of their credits at once with one assignment, or they can split them across assignments at different times in the semester
   Cooperative/collaborative learning.  If students have to miss a class session in a course that incorporates group learning, they have a resource--their fellow students--on whom to rely to try to catch up, rather than coming right away to the instructor to find out what they “missed.”

   Technology.  Web-based tools, such as Blackboard, wikis (on Blackboard or public sites like PBWiki), and Google Docs can reinforce cooperative learning and the sense of community within a course.  If students unexpectedly miss a class meeting, they can turn to these online resources where they might find threaded discussions designed to supplement in-class learning or examples of student work/reflections completed in class and posted to a Wiki.  Students may also be able to use the online tool to contact their “group” for help. 

Of course, students need to know that the interactions and engagement that occur in class are not replicable and that missing class means missing out on an opportunity to learn.  Still, the premise of this essay is that life sometimes gets in the way of the best of intentions, and providing some opportunity for students to learn--an opportunity that does not rely on the instructor delivering instruction twice over--is preferable to penalizing the student by doing nothing.

Additional Resources:

Higher Education Research Institute at UCLA. “A Snapshot of the First Year Experience.  Accessed on July 15, 2010 at

Robertson, D. (2003). Making Time, Making Change: Avoiding Overload in College Teaching. Stillwater, OK: New Forums Press. 

Weimer, M. (2002). Learner-Centered Teaching: Five Key Changes to Practice. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass. 

Weimer, M. (2006). Enhancing Scholarly Work on Teaching and Learning: Professional Literature That Makes a Difference. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass. 

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Preparing for a new semester

Microcosms.  Ruth Davidson Abrams (1912-1986)
Welcome back!  The start of each semester is a time of optimism and vision, and for those of us who are consummate planners, the beginning of a class is an important start for our vision.  We know that building relationships is important for student learning--students want two things: to connect with their teacher and to connect with their peers. We want our students to learn, and we have a mental image of how this will happen.  I suggest cultivating a second, connected vision, one that extends our image of student learning.  Can you envision what you want your students to be able to do at the end of class? This is an important shift in our thinking process.  After all, learning can be very private, very individualized.  When we talk about what we want students to be able to do, we often use phrases like, I want students to think critically, to analyze situations, to problem solve, to apply solutions, to gather new information and use it.  We want students to use what they learn.  And to learn best, students are essentially creating their own understandings of the information that we give them in ways that are workable for them. 

On the first day, we can make stronger connections with our class if we think through how people connect.  Although the default for the first day is to "go over" the syllabus, this is not the best way to start.  Save the syllabus for the second half of class or later.
  1. First, get them involved immediately by having them do a short activity that gets them thinking and talking with their neighbor.  This can be an opportunity to find out about their previous knowledge of your subject.

  2.  Introduce yourself  in a way that not only establishes your credentials, but also makes you human to our students.  Tell them something about yourself and explain your philosophy of teaching and your goals for the class.

  3. Let the students introduce themselves, with a focus on why they are in your class and what they hope to learn.  Give each student an index card to write out their basic information and list of their goals.  You can use the card to help you remember names and to recall students from previous semesters. Since they can also fill out this information on Blackboard, you could ask them speculative questions about your subject matter and have them introduce themselves as they answer a question.

  4. Since there are barriers to our vision of student learning, of course, it helps to be realistic and confront these barriers with your students from the first day.  On their card or online, have them list their other obligations.  This keeps us from making assumptions about their work loads and helps us identify those students who truly have a lot on their plate, such as those students with families.

  5. A lot of us have read our syllabus out loud to students.  An alternative is to give them five minutes or so to read it silently, telling them that you will ask them to explain sections to their peers in their own words. Let them know that this is not a way of wasting time but it is a check on their interpretation of the syllabus.  You want everyone to be on the same page.  For instance, you can ask them to identify the most important section for their peers--and then tell them what you identify as the most important section.  Usually, my students will talk about the assignments or the grading system.  I point out that the course objectives or my statement on class participation are the most important for me.

  6. By soliciting feedback from students on the first day, you set them up to expect this kind of interaction.  Regularly asking them for feedback on the class and their understanding of the subject matter lets you know how class is going and it gets students into the habit of thinking seriously about the class and their learning.  Then they are more prepared to fill out end-of-semester evaluations thoughtfully.
Want to read further about the first day?  Dee Fink has a good list of ideas for starting class, developed from faculty input.  

James Rhem, The National Teaching and Learning Forum editor, talks about friendliness in class and how that impacts the quality of a class.  It's a good article, provocative reading, and towards the end, he describes a study on students' feelings about faculty at Miami University in Ohio.  This study lists items that are "most likely to enhance or detract from the student-professor relationship versus those that were not as likely to enhance or detract. In the group that mattered a lot were such items as:
  • Shows patience in explaining points to students
  • Treats students as equals
  • Smiles and displays a friendly demeanor
  • Speaks politely to students
  • Is accessible to students outside of office hours
  • Conveys the desire to have each student learn and do well"
Rhem continues, "You begin to see the pattern here. I have drawn on the concept of friendship to inform our understanding of what authentic friendliness might mean, might look like, and it is precisely that which most students are looking for."

Enjoy your first day back in class.