Innovative Pedagogies, Orientation

Simple Steps with Big Potential

I am always on the lookout for some easy strategies to improve student success as they transition from high school to college.  Last week, I read a wonderfully straightforward book by Lisa Nunn called 33 Simple Strategies for Faculty: A Week-by-Week Resource for Teaching First-Year and First-Generation Students. It is exactly as described and I urge anyone teaching first-year courses to give it a read.

Nunn has worked with students from three different types of universities (public, private, and religiously affiliated) to develop this list of strategies. She organizes the text around steps to take each week of the semester and then supports her arguments with comments from students at each of those schools.  Their comments are compelling and the strategies suggested are convincing. Best of all, they do not require a big curricular overhaul, just a little re-thinking of the structure of a course.

While I liked everything Nunn suggested, I will just highlight a few here in the hope that there is still time to weave these into next semester’s courses.

“Give Pedagogic Rationales for Everything You Do; Write Them in Your Syllabus.” 

So many times, I have heard students describe assignments as a waste of time or busy-work.  Some wonder why creativity is counted in a science class or why writing matters in a math class. Then there is the oft-used phrase “I just have to memorize the things the professor thinks is important” (usually uttered by a student taking a class we are sure is teaching critical thinking).  While our reasons may be clear to us, they are not that clear to our students. Perhaps a little communication is in order.

 Although it might seem a little much to have to justify our pedagogies, we might consider that this suggestion is for first year students who have never considered the why of their teacher’s practices. As we ask them to take on a more adult role in their learning, they should be encouraged to consider that there is a strategy and how it might (or might not) work for their own learning processes.  If we start this conversation in the first year, perhaps we will help students align their own expectations and outcomes with our plans. Then, in the second year, we can feel fine about just letting them figure things out.

“Give a Mini-Midterm in Week 2 of the Semester.”

This is a great idea. When students transition from high school to college, they frequently have trouble sorting through which information is important and which is peripheral. Creating a mini-midterm for week 2 (or 3) is a great way to help them see if they are on track.  It can help students figure out how to study and how to take notes.  Given the large amount of research on the importance of many assessments (as opposed to a midterm and final of days past), this fits right in. It is a bit of an effort, but it has the potential to benefit students greatly.

Nunn goes on to advocate for a true review session for this mini-midterm, to help students see how to prepare. For me, that means at least week three, but I love the idea.  Both of these strategies offer students a good preview of how to sort through and prioritize information in their classes.  A little guidance in first-year courses can serve as a fabulous foundation for years 2-4.

“Share a Story in Class of Some College Woe that You Experienced as an Undergraduate Student.”

Or, to put it another way, be human.  Many students, whether first-generation or not, have preconceived notions that faculty were always good at school.  Many of us were not.  Certainly, none of us was good at everything.  Telling a story of a time you struggled communicates a feeling that you have empathy for your students’ struggles. It also communicates that we can succeed despite those struggles.  While I have heard students comment on faculty sharing too much of their personal lives, a little relevant information here and there is an important way to bond.

Most importantly, we want to help students get past those moments of self-doubt and invite them to be open about their own struggles.  Too many do not seek the help we want to offer.  Too many wait to reach out for assistance until too late in the semester.  If we talk about our own struggles, we can then talk about the path out of them.  We can let our students know that needing help is not about being a lesser student.

These are just a few of Nunn’s delightfully easy to follow strategies.  What I love about it is the simplicity of it all. There are no spreadsheets, no new technologies, and no buzzwords. These are just some good teaching strategies that come from listening to students.  Now that is a simple plan I can work with.

 

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.

 

 

Agency, Evaluation, Innovative Pedagogies

Reflection vs. Evaluation

Well, it is December and we are racing toward the end of the semester. As students complete term papers, prepare for final exams or presentations or performances, faculty are making room in the schedule for teaching evaluations.  These evaluations are generally short questionnaires that ask students to give an assessment of the effectiveness of the teaching they just experienced. It is an opportunity to give feedback, which is to the good, but most are constructed in a way suggests expertise where it does not exist (students are not instructional designers, nor will they have depth of knowledge of the discipline), and there is well-documented evidence that they reflect cultural biases throughout.  So, why do them at all?  Good question.

As currently constructed at my university (and at all of the universities where I have taught), there is little value in this exercise.  We have made the whole process about evaluation instead of about learning.  We have also cast our students as consumers, who then provide ratings (stars?) of our work, without really helping them reflect on their learning. What if we reimagined teaching evaluations as course reflections? Instead of using them to tally the effectiveness of a faculty member, they could become a mechanism for collaborative course construction. Instead of seeking an ill-informed critique, we could invite our students to share what they’ve learned from us and give us suggestions for future iterations of the course.

Here’s what it might look like.

Dear Students,

At the end of each semester, I gather information about your experiences in my classes so that I can get a better understanding of what is working well and what new ideas I should explore. Please take a few minutes to reflect on what you have learned in this class and then answer the questions below thoughtfully and honestly.

  1. What was the most interesting or most important thing you learned in this class?  

Why?

    • It provided a foundation for this or another class that I will take.
    • It connected to important topics beyond this course.
    • It helped me see things from a perspective other than my own.
    • Other (please explain).
  1. What was the least interesting or least important thing you learned in this class?

Why?

    • It was too foundational/I’ve encountered it in several other classes.
    • It seemed like a tangent that was not relevant to the class.
    • Other (please explain).
  1. Considering the course overall, were there ideas or assignments that you think will help you succeed in other classes at the university? Please explain your answer.
  2. Considering all opportunities for feedback on your understanding of the material (tests, quizzes, presentations, papers, group work, etc.), which did you find most helpful? Please explain your answer.
  3. Is there an opportunity for feedback on your work that you would like to see added to this course?
  4. Considering things like grading criteria, timing of assignments, or overall organization, do you have any suggestions that you think might improve this course?
  5. Do you have any additional comments that I should consider?

Thank you for your feedback and good luck in your studies.

What I like about this structure is that it invites students to participate in the evolution of the course, instead of asking for some kind of score for performance. By using the first person in the opening paragraph, the faculty are given agency, suggesting that they are fully committed to this dialogue with their students.  It also suggests that students are speaking directly to that faculty member, not some unknown administrator who will then evaluate the professor. 

Moving in this direction, faculty can use the information to learn how students are experiencing their teaching and respond as they deem appropriate.  For example, maybe the thing that students identified as unimportant, was in fact very important.  Perhaps some reframing needs to take place.  Or, maybe several students felt the need for a presentation to be included in the course.  Digging into why would be a good next step.  No doubt some students will ask for extra credit. If the answer is no, then being clear about why not might be a good thing to discuss in the next class.

I also like that this is a disaster for quantitative summaries.  While the current scales from 1 to 5 may be helpful for creating graphs and charts, and they do provide some sense of the instruction in terms of extremes (outside of university norms), in reality they do next to nothing for teaching.  Mostly, they inspire defensiveness. I’m not worried about losing those statistical summaries, because the extremes are easily captured in the syllabi, sample assignments, and peer observations. I’d rather cultivate the reflective practice that this qualitative approach implies.

As one of the people who reads faculty portfolios in their applications for tenure, I am most interested in seeing how faculty respond to student feedback. The most compelling thing that can be included in any tenure packet is a narrative about how one’s teaching has evolved and why.  Evidence of change over time should include sample complaints and sample praise found in these course reflections. If the examples are followed by explanations of how things changed as a result, then I feel confident that I will know enough to fairly review the candidate. I will also know that I have a professor devoted to good teaching.

Let’s drop the ratings model and focus on learning about our teaching. Let’s try to foster an environment where we take student voices to heart, without ceding our expertise.  Let’s listen carefully to concerns and ideas, and work to grow in our profession. Let’s be reflective educators.

 

 

 

Higher Education, Innovative Pedagogies

Starting with Learning

The drumbeat of mergers and closures of small colleges appears to be speeding up.  Chancellors and Presidents of public systems of higher education are examining mergers, shared leadership, and stripped down administrative structures to try to preserve the range of opportunities available in their states.  In New England (and Alaska), shrinking demographics are driving these conversations forward at a sometimes alarming pace.

At the same time, we have seen other developments such as SNHU’s competency-based degrees, Stevens Point’s proposed cuts of several majors (now reconsidered and reconfigured as mergers), Hamilton’s promotion of an open curriculum (less focus on majors, more on developing an area of interest), and this morning, Wichita State’s shrinking of their general education requirements from 42 credits to 33.   And in the background is the constant credential refrain, with short certificates gaining more and more traction.

How can those of us in higher education leadership respond to this tidal wave of change in sane and thoughtful ways?  Well, I don’t really know where to begin, but here are a few thoughts.

Credit hours may be an archaic idea, but the idea that it takes time and interaction with other people to develop the habits of mind we associate with a college education is not.

I am happy to consider online or blended learning, shorter and longer times on material, and even the opportunity to test into higher levels of courses to reflect learning prior to higher education.  These considerations are driven by focus on what and how our students will best learn with us. This does not mean, however, that I am willing to consider the notion that higher education should be construed as a series of tests of existing skills in exchange for a credential.

While the complexity of non-standard times, differing learning modalities, and the evaluation of prior learning are much more difficult to manage well than the simple admissions tests of our existing structures, I embrace them because they are responding to genuine changes in the world of potential students. Information is everywhere and it is clear that people can learn to do many, many things from a YouTube video (play an instrument, develop a computer app, pass algebra, build a shed).  We must not ignore this, or the fact that some of the things we want our students to be able to do are well supported by these short tutorial formats.

Nevertheless, the more complicated abilities that are described as critical thinking, lifelong learning, cultural competency, and communication take sustained interactions with others and with the support of a professor.  The opportunity for (slower) sustained interactions is the opportunity for students to develop comfort with ambiguity, stumble on their assumptions with the chance to revise them, and learn that all knowledge is developed through insight and error. If we move to new time constructs, we must not lose this part of education.

Interdisciplinary connections matter, but they do not replace disciplinary expertise. 

I love the imaginative things that are happening with majors.  Hamilton’s open curriculum mirrors what many elite schools have done for years.  They allow students to discover connections between subjects to build a major or a portfolio of capabilities that will help them pursue advanced study or careers.  At my university, we do this through Contract Majors or the Interdisciplinary Studies degrees.  We have lots of traditional majors, but we also make room for those new or yet undiscovered connections. Making  more room for those authentic connections might be a good idea, because disciplines are evolving and sometimes students see the change before we do.

Nevertheless, a biologist is still a biologist.  A literature scholar still offers depth of understanding of genres and structures of the novel, poem, etc.  A mathematician is still the expert on differential equations.  Combining disciplinary perspectives should be the heart of a college education, but that combination should be made by experiencing learning with people who have advanced knowledge in each topic.  Without that advanced expertise, students will not discover the nuances of a topic or the complications that arise from ambiguity. Instead, they will end up with a simplified overview of a topic. That is not college, that is YouTube.  So, let’s support the pursuit of connections with new strategies, but let’s not lose the value of the expert.

Focusing on higher order learning outcomes is a good idea: making everything the same is not.

AAC&U has long supported the Essential Learning Outcomes and as we see an increased emphasis on what employers want, it turns out that they frequently list the very same things.  Everyone wants college graduates who are skilled in critical & creative thinking, oral and written communication, quantitative reasoning, information literacy, problem solving, inquiry & analysis, the ability to collaborate, and some understanding of the world around us (history, culture, ethics, etc.).  These essential learning outcomes (codified in the VALUE Rubrics) prevent the narrowness of focus found in course finals or major field tests and frame the outcomes of a college degree as habits of mind and skills that prepare graduates to engage with all kinds of questions for the rest of their lives.  In short, graduates should know how to evaluate information, make decisions, and ask more questions.

As a communication scholar, it is easy for me to see that at a high level of abstraction everything we do in college is about inquiry and analysis. The behaviors and skills that represent competence in inquiry and analysis can be summarized in a way that allows every discipline to demonstrate some level of mastery in these abilities.  But this does not mean that every discipline is the same. Comfort in inquiry and analysis will reflect the specific skills most emphasized in the major.  For it to reflect the whole of an undergraduate degree, it must include some comfort in the areas that are not well situated in the major. That was the point of the liberal arts degree.

So where does this leave me and my quest for thoughtful consideration of the many changes facing higher education?  It leaves me with a clear focus on learning.  We can support learning in any number of formats, time frames, and disciplinary innovation, but we must remember that to support it well means to resist the temptation to overgeneralize (make everything the same) or to reduce everything to very narrow skills (badges).  It is the fluid motion between the abstract and the specific that will help students grow, develop, and take control of their own learning.  That is the environment that I’d like to nurture.

 

 

 

 

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.