Change, Growth Mindset, Resilience

Defaulting to Kindness

Last Friday, I had the honor of participating in a faculty session regarding our first year classes this fall. A lot of hard work has gone on, from the leadership of our FY director, to the contributions of our instructional designers, librarians, media services, student affairs, and of course all the FY faculty re-writing their materials for the fall. It was a tremendous effort and the people able to participate in our virtual meeting were enthusiastic about the materials shared with them. There was a clear sense of mutual support in this strange new world.

First-year courses everywhere are likely to have undergone these efforts. No matter what combination of online and on-ground teaching a university has selected, one thing is clear: It will not be a normal start. Our entering first-year students are tasked with acclimating to higher education in multiple modalities (online, hybrid, flex, etc.), while also experiencing the socio-emotional growth that typically takes place as they transition from high school to college. They must do all of this with COVID-19 in their minds at all time. That is a lot to ask. We have spent a lot of time working on the safety part of this equation and we will spend the rest of the year, continuously reflecting on and adjusting the teaching and learning part.

At WCSU, the FY team has strengthened first-year courses because students might not get to meet each other, or their faculty, in person anytime soon. To bridge this physical gap, they have included clear instruction about navigating the online learning environment. They developed new strategies for helping peer mentors engage students within our learning management system and there was conversation about group work designed to help students interact with each other, not just for learning, but for making friends. There was also attention to seeking routine feedback from students to try to help them stick with their coursework, and build connections when those connections feel, well, intangible. I am proud of the team of faculty and staff who engaged these questions. They are doing great work.

It is not just FY faculty who are redesigning their courses. All faculty are doing so because they are faced with being prepared for anything. This is sometimes grueling work, but the opportunity to re-imagine courses can also a blessing. When forced to design a course for multiple modalities, there is the opportunity to look at material from multiple perspectives. This gives room for new exercises, clarification of material, and even just de-cluttering. Taking a more focused, developmental path through a course might help students and faculty alike. Indeed, doing less, and being very clear about our expectations, could actually improve our outcomes, even in a world with too many new variables. While not trying to minimize the effort this requires, I do see that there is opportunity for growth in all of this, which could be very rewarding.

It is the same with efforts going on everywhere else at WCSU. We are focusing on essential interactions and learning outcomes and trying to help our community be a community in the fall. As athletics conferences decided on safety, coaches reached out to athletes to build community and find other rewarding ways to interact as teams. Career services is all in on virtual recruitment, training opportunities, and even virtual internships. Turns out, employers like that virtual recruitment option and this is likely to be our new standard after COVID-19. Our performing arts faculty have developed creative experiences for their students to perform and rehearse in virtual, outdoor, and highly spaced indoor environments. As a singer, I know exactly how hard that is, because sound is a tricky thing… the farther apart you are, the less likely to sing together. Nevertheless, good things are happening with and without technology. All over the university, we may be doing less of what we are used to doing, but we are adding new experiences and trying to make sure that those experiences are truly meaningful.

But here is this morning’s clarity: With all of this newness, and the many options that the WCSU community (and all of higher ed) has worked hard to create for our students, it is more than probable that there will be many, many mistakes. From simple errors about which technology people will use for a meeting (Teams, WebEx, Zoom, etc.), to a mistake in the set-up of a course so that the assignment due on Monday, actually doesn’t open up until it is due (it happens), to uncertainty about when and where each type of course is supposed to meet, the room for error is tremendous. And let’s not forget the potential for a random storm to knock out our connections to each other. Yikes! I suspect there will be a few tears for most of us.

Every single one of us is likely to make more than one mistake this fall. That is the nature of mass shifts in organizational structures and high levels of uncertainty. So, I offer this one bit of advice, let’s default to kindness. Forgive your colleagues for missing a meeting or being unable to log in effectively. Forgive your students for being confused about the navigation through their classes, or being unable to log in effectively. Forgive yourself for your gaffes in design, or being unable to log in effectively. And so on. You know what I am talking about. Find that well of patience and draw on it relentlessly. Remember, when you need to explode, you can just log off and have a small tantrum or crying session, some tea or chocolate or a moment of Zen, and then get back in there.

The most productive phrases we will have this fall are simply these: “Oops, I messed up.” and “That’s okay, let’s try again.” We should use these phrases often.  If we do, we can skip the anger and shame part of messing up, and focus on the getting better part that we all really care about.  Indeed, if we default to kindness, we are likely to find the fun (and the funny) in all of this change after all.

Be well everyone.

Growth Mindset, Innovative Pedagogies

After

Having made it through the launch of our virtual/online campus, with some hard work, moments of frustration, and a few tears, I can report that week one wasn’t so bad.  Every member of the Western Connecticut State University community has pitched in, and we are launched.  Week two for students and faculty will be about refining their approaches to online education, as everyone gets more comfortable with the technology.  I’m hearing lots of fun stories and I think most are approaching this experience with a problem solving mindset.

Now is the moment that I want to address a persistent rumor about this whole move – I do not want WCSU to become a majority online university.  We have all moved online to solve a problem, but it is not the ideal state for most of the students we serve, nor is it the ideal state for several of our disciplines.  Just because we can do something online (after half a semester of face-to-face work) doesn’t mean this should be the new normal.

Here is what I do hope for…

I hope that re-imagining our courses for the online environment will lead to some great insights into our face-to-face teaching. For example:

Online teaching taught me to be aware of how a small change in word choice impacted my students’ understanding of a concept.  The words were synonymous, but not all students knew that.  When I switched words from my unit summaries (lecture notes) to the weekly discussion boards, I saw the pile up.  Now this is easy to fix in the face-to-face environment, because you’ll see the confusion on students faces.  But not always. I became more thoughtful about word choices after that.

Online teaching taught me how to scaffold learning more effectively.  I think this was just because it is hard to figure out when to stop interacting online.  There is a tendency to respond way too often, which leaves everyone exhausted.  I started gave my usual number of assignments, but with the added discussion boards and clarification email messages, it was too much for all of us.  So, I went through my assignments and asked myself what the goal of each was and how it built to the final project.  This question allowed me to cut assignments in half, provide effective and timely feedback, and help my students see how they were building to the overall goals for learning in the course.  Duh! We were so much happier and, the approach greatly improved my face-to-face teaching.

Online teaching taught me the value of structuring pre-class work more effectively.  Before “flipped classrooms” was a phrase, I figured out that giving students my opening discussion question for the weekly readings, before they did the reading, helped them a great deal. They were able to read the work with a greater sense of what might be important.  Many people probably already do this in their traditional classes by giving students guiding questions with their readings, but some of us did not for important reasons.  I had a stubborn commitment to discovery (read a Socratic approach).  Unfortunately, that discovery was eluding my students. After teaching online, I started to include weekly prompts for readings in my online course shell to enhance the conversations in my on-ground courses.  It proved very effective.

I hope that teaching online helps bring into sharp focus the value of the on ground classroom. For example:

Two of my chemistry faculty reported their experiences moving to online last week. They have been inventive, but they wanted me to know that lab sciences need hands on learning.  I could not agree more.  The thing is, I do not think that is unique to the sciences. My dream is that we imagine many more of our classes with that hands-on experience.  Who knows, maybe we’ll end up with a lab model for introductory courses in every discipline!  That could be a real game changer for our students and faculty.

I know that the biggest distinction between online and online teaching lies in the difference in immediacy.  In the classroom, we can respond to questions as they arise, and we can attend to facial expressions to see where we might be losing people. Online, even when done in real-time, instead of asynchronously, there is a delay.  Sometimes that delay is beneficial.  It can give a student time to process an idea and then ask a question.  Sometimes it is not, because a question is not answered or clarified before the student tries to work with it in an assignment.  Then, it is a disaster. But here’s the thing, not everyone is really cultivating that back-and-forth conversation in the face-to-face environment.  As we work to build dialogue online, can we bring those strategies back to the classroom?

Finally, I hope that we learn that in education, one-size does not fit all.

This week, I heard from students who are still working during this crisis (often in emergency services), who really need asynchronous learning. Others were grateful for the normalcy of their online class being aligned with the original on campus time slot.  Our challenge is that they are all in the same classes. This has always been true. Part of our strategic plan asks us to get better at meeting the needs of all students — now’s our chance to figure out what that means.

We already know that for many graduate students, online is a better fit.  For some programs, hybrid is a good option, but most people pursuing graduate education are working and they need the flexibility of the online environment. So, perhaps it is time to be more thoughtful about serving our graduate students.

We already know that our returning adult learners generally need the same flexibility as our graduate students. They, too, have jobs and families to juggle.  Perhaps, we need to do something special for this group – and yes, that might mean an online lab science!

We also know that some of our students needed last minute help acquiring technology and internet access to complete their education with us this spring.  Maybe it is time for us to assess that when students enter the university, so they are not at a disadvantage from the start.

So no, I absolutely do not want to become a majority online campus.  I do want to become a better version of who we are, using this as a wonderful learning opportunity.  It is time.

 

 

 

Growth Mindset, Innovative Pedagogies

Grades?

Last week I offered a perspective on student evaluations of teaching.  To summarize, I was advocating for a much more collaborative and developmental approach than the usual bubble forms support.  This week, I would like to suggest that a similar re-thinking of our goals should take place around the topic of grading.  Let me be transparent from the start: I would like to see us give up the letter grades that have been designed for ranking students and replace them with a much more developmental approach.

Years ago, my husband and I sent our children to a high school with no grades.  After having attended a traditional (and small) public school from kindergarten through eighth grade, they moved to a small private high school full of progressive learning strategies.  For my eldest, this was an easy switch.  Alex moved from a student who earned As and Bs, to a student who asked lots of questions, argued perspectives, struggled to be a better writer, and thirsted for understanding.  The small seminars were perfect for this kind of learner and Alex thrived.

For my second child, the adjustment was more complicated. Michael was not a student who thrived in the traditional structure and the same was true in the new structure.  However, the narrative evaluations that took the place of the summaries of the A, B, C grading system, helped to identify some patterns of learning that were covered up with simple grades.  For this, the switch was a benefit, even if Michael did not love the learning the way Alex did.

At the time that this was going on, I asked my students about the idea of abandoning grades in favor of narratives.  Their response: “How will you know who is best?”  Well, there it was, as clear as could be, grades are about ranking not learning. I assured them that it was very easy to determine who was best at working with the material we were discussing, but I was not sure what the value of that knowledge was to supporting learning.  I’m still not.

So, as my faculty are reading papers, administering final exams, and trying to sum up their students’ work in simple letter grades that are effective for ranking but not necessarily for learning, I am suggesting we just stop it.  Here is what I propose instead:

  1. This student has demonstrated sufficient understanding of the content of this course to warrant the awarding of credit and proceeding to a related topic at a more advanced level.
  2. This student has demonstrated sufficient understanding of the content of this course to warrant the awarding of credit and proceeding to a related topic at the same level.
  3. This student has not yet demonstrated sufficient understanding of the content of this course to warrant the awarding of credit.

Instead of ranking students, these categories will simply facilitate progress through the undergraduate experience. We will not lose any of the rigor we currently expect; indeed, it might encourage greater integrity in the evaluation. Instead of suggesting that a D represents learning of any kind, (I’m pretty sure it just means the student attended class), the focus is on the future.  Faculty will determine a student’s capacity to participate fully and successfully in subsequent courses.

Arriving at these non-grades still involves lots of evaluation of students.  Just like in the current system, it would be best if there were many assessments on which to base this decision.  Regular feedback is an important part of nurturing learning, and that work never gets easier. However, with this system, students are incentivized to keep trying, even when they are struggling.  With grades, a few early missteps and low scores can drive a student to withdraw, or worse, give up trying.  They see the low scores as holes they cannot dig themselves out of, and they are right.  Even if they do well later, those scores will be part of their final grades. Their ranks (GPAs) will reflect the struggle more than the learning.

In the system I have proposed, the process of learning does not penalize students for struggling. In other words, if students arrive at aha moments mid-semester and start to thrive, they will not be bogged down by earlier scores.  Indeed, the changes in understanding may actually reflect the capacity to learn in ways that are more predictive of success than the “good” grades ever were. It is a truly developmental approach to assessment.

Of course, this opens the door to all sorts of next questions about time, progress to degree completion, the notion of credits, and so on.  In addition, our culture is so devoted to ranking that this will probably never fly.  Still, for just a minute, I would love for all of us to think about learning instead.  Wouldn’t that be more fun?  I’m pretty sure it would be more productive for students and faculty alike.

 

 

Engagement, Growth Mindset, Innovative Pedagogies

Being Vulnerable

This afternoon I am going to go and have some fun with the WCSU music department.  Part of their program includes convocations twice a week, in which various student, faculty, and guest artist performances take place.  I am going to perform with a group of talented students, answer some interview questions by the host, and take my chances on testing my very rusty sight reading skills.  The chances of making at least one mistake are very high.

As I thought about this, and the many other things I have done just this week that had a high risk of error, it made me think about the idea of vulnerability in the classroom. Every single time a faculty member enters a classroom there is a high likelihood that some error will take place. It could be small – like messing up a due date – or larger – like getting lost in an equation we are trying to explain.  These moments have the potential to shake our confidence, and worse, convince us to be risk-aversive in the classroom.

In the past several years, there has been a lot of discussion around the notion of “mindset” in education. There are a couple of important observations in mindset theory. The first is that people with a fixed mindset tend to see learning in terms of talent and innate ability. From this point of view effort matters to a point, but there is not a lot of room for change in our capabilities.  We are either good at something or not. For growth mindset people, learning is indeed a function of effort and our talents can change and grow over time.  (See Carol Dweck’s work for a more thorough explanation.)

Things that follow from these two perspectives are related to risk-taking.  Students with a fixed mindset tend to be looking for right answers and are uncomfortable with getting wrong ones. When they do make a mistake, they are likely to see that as a function of their natural ability (or lack thereof) and simply dismiss their ability to find a right answer. Growth mindset is the opposite.  Getting things wrong is the path to learning, growing, and improving.

It seems like the growth mindset is the better perspective for education.  But, do we really cultivate environments where failing or making a mistake is ok?  I’m not sure.

Some faculty are great about building enough assignments into their courses so that no single score is the measure of a student’s ability.  This approach gives students the opportunity to drop lowest grades, or get a few low scores on assignments that are building blocks to larger things, with those larger things weighing more in the grade formula. Others offer opportunities to revise things, which certainly can encourage a student to get started on a project, even if confused, and then have the chance to do better with feedback.  These are all good practices that encourage a student to try, even if they might make a mistake.

But there’s more to cultivating an environment in which we are comfortable taking risks or being wrong.  We have to be role models for failures.

I think back to how frightened I was as a student, not wanting to raise my hand lest I be way off base in my response.  My heart used to pound as I finally took the chance and there were even cold sweats involved.  I was afraid I would look stupid.  Eventually, I developed comfort in taking a chance on a response, but it wasn’t easy.  I think some successes (right answers) and some helpful follow up questions from supportive faculty (for my wrong answers) built courage. Their probes helped me see errors as part of learning, not a condemnation of my skills. I went through this process of developing courage as an undergraduate, graduate student, and even at academic conferences as I ventured to comment on a presentation.  I was truly terrified, but eventually pushed through and developed a habit of trying out my ideas.

In the classroom, I also battled the risk-aversive behaviors brought on by fear. In the early years, I prepared so many notes to be sure I did not make a mistake. Like most junior faculty, I was worried that I just didn’t know enough yet, and that I would be easily tripped up.  Over time, though, I freed myself from the need to be perfect and, though still devoted to strong preparation, I frequently tossed out ideas that just did not work. This allowed me to laugh at myself with my students watching and, I hope, encouraged my students to be brave.

Now, as an administrator, I follow the same practice. I do research, develop proposals through lots of conversations with colleagues, and then send things out to our whole community for review. Some things are revised and adopted through that review; some are dismissed as bad ideas.  I could avoid the risk of the dismissal and not have to steel my nerves for the negative comments, but I do not think it is good for our organization to wait for ideas to be perfect.  Like the mindset we are hoping to cultivate in the classroom, I am hoping for all of us to become comfortable exploring ideas, building our ability to develop proposals, and have to courage to have them edited or rejected later.  It is my best effort to cultivate an organization with a growth mindset.

Teaching, scholarship, and policy-making are inherently about vulnerability.  Those of us who have made careers in education are always risking errors and making mistakes in very public ways.  We are not able to edit everything out in a document in the safety of our offices.  We have to perform and remember things in real time.  Even our documents are open for edits and critique. It can be scary, but perhaps that is the point. If we want to support a growth mindset in our students, we have to believe in it for ourselves.  We must embrace our fumbles and errors and our capacity to learn more, and we need to do it in front of our students. Then they might come to trust us enough to try out difficult ideas and learn from their mistakes.

So, here’s to embracing vulnerability.  It is the fastest path to strength that I have found.