By Doug Ward

The beginning of an academic year is a time of renewal. Our courses and our students start fresh, and we have an opportunity to try new approaches and new course material.

The beginning of an academic year is also a time for sharing advice, information, experiences, and insights. Here are some interesting tidbits I think are worth sharing.

Motivating students (part 1)

Aligning course goals with student goals is an important element of motivating students, David Gooblar, a lecturer in rhetoric at the University of Iowa, writes in The Chronicle of Higher Education.

Many students say they are motivated by grades – actually, many seem obsessed with grades – but that type of motivation doesn’t benefit them intellectually in the long term.

Graduate teaching assistants share their thoughts during an exercise at the opening session of the new GTA conference. About 350 GTAs participated in the conference earlier this month.

To help stimulate intrinsic motivation, Gooblar uses a low-stakes writing assignment in which students explain their goals for the course and how they hope the course will benefit them in the long term. Gooblar draws on those goals to adapt his class during the semester. Flexibility is important, he says, because it helps show students that he is willing to respond to their needs. That can be a powerful motivator.

I have also had success with having students write about their goals. I frame that in terms of learning goals, explaining to students that I have goals for the class but that I want them to pursue individual goals, too.

Most students struggle with writing individual learning goals because they have never had to think about learning as something they have control over. That thought makes them uncomfortable. They generally see school as a place where someone tells them what to do. I have found that waiting until the second or third week of class makes the process go more smoothly. By then, students have a good sense of what the class is about and they generally offer more thoughtful goals than they might in the first week.

Returning to those goals later in the class is important. I have students reflect on their learning goals at midterm, revising them if they wish, and again at the end of the class. That helps students assess what they have gained intellectually and what they still need to work on. It gives them a sense of accomplishment and helps them gain confidence in self-guided learning. It also gives me additional assessment information, as I ask students to explain which elements of the class helped them learn the most and which didn’t work as well.

Motivating students (part 2)

Shannon Portillo, associate professor of public affairs and administration, offers additional advice for motivating students.

Writing in Inside Higher Ed, Portillo, who is also the assistant vice chancellor for undergraduate programs at the Edwards Campus, has students help set guidelines for class engagement, using the exercise to help them feel invested in the class from the start.

At the end of the class, she asks students to evaluate their participation. They give her a suggested grade on their participation and provide evidence to back it up. She doesn’t always agree with their assessment, and ultimately determines the grade herself. Men tend to give themselves high marks, she says, while women tend to be more critical of themselves. The evaluation process helps students reflect on their contributions to the class and on their own learning.

Motivation (part 3). Faculty Focus offers additional tips on motivating students, including offering good feedback; helping students understand how learning works; providing engaging course materials and activities and explaining their relevance; and making greater use of cooperative and collaborative work.

Technology can help, but …

In a survey by Campus Technology, 73 percent of faculty members said that technology had made their jobs easier and 87 percent said it had improved their ability to teach. On the other hand, 19 percent said technology had made their job harder or much harder.

The survey did not say how technology had made things more difficult, but a comment on the article blamed it on a lack of training that ties pedagogy to the use of technology. That makes sense, but sometimes instructors fail to take advantage of the many available resources. KU has many resources for learning technology, including desk-side coaching and frequent workshops.

Student writing: No help needed?

Brianna Hyslop, associate director of the KU Writing Center, explains some of the center’s resources during the new GTA conference. Carmen Orth-Alfie (in red) represented KU Libraries.

In a recent survey by the Primary Research Group, only 8 percent of freshmen and sophomores said they thought they needed help with grammar and spelling. Yes, 8 percent.

Just as troubling, 46 percent of all students said they needed no additional writing instruction in their college classes.

Apparently, those 46 percent haven’t read any of the papers they have turned in or the email messages they have sent.

My intent isn’t to bash college students. Rather, it’s to remind instructor that as we help students, we sometimes need to remind them that they need our help and that resources like the KU Writing Center can provide crucial assistance.

The survey was reported by Inside Higher Ed.

Mental health and students

A growing percentage of students say they suffer from depression, anxiety and other mental health issues. That holds true for both undergraduates and graduate students.

At KU, for instance, Counseling and Psychological Services reported year-over-year increases in visits of 1 percent (November) to 73 percent (May) in the 2017-18 academic year.

One of the most important things faculty members can do is to pay attention to students and help them find the resources they need. Make sure that students know about Counseling and Psychological Services. I’ve made several calls to CAPS over the years, helping students schedule appointments with counselors. CAPS has other resources like drop-in hours with peer educators and group therapy sessions.

The Office of Student Affairs is another important resource. Its website provides an extensive list of advice and services for students and faculty members.

The Conversation noted recently that two of the biggest challenges to helping students with psychological issues are reluctance to talk about mental health and a reluctance to reach out for help. Instructors can help break down that stigma by being empathetic and accessible. They shouldn’t try to be psychological counselors. That’s not their role. They can listen to students, though, offer empathy and support, and help them take that first step toward getting help.

A final thought

A quote from Ryan Craig, managing director of University Ventures and author of A New U: Faster + Cheaper Alternatives to College, helps put issues of student mental health, attitude and motivation into context. In an interview with EdSurge, he said:

“We have developed this cult that you’re either going to go to college or if you don’t, maybe you’ll end up on Skid Row. I’m being a little facetious—but not that facetious. It literally has evolved to that point. A bachelor’s degree is the ticket to success and not having a bachelor’s degree is opposite.”


Doug Ward is the associate director of the Center for Teaching Excellence and an associate professor of journalism. You can follow him on Twitter @kuediting.

By Doug Ward

Putting innovative curricular ideas into practice takes time and coordination among instructors, especially when several classes are involved.

To help jump-start that process, CTE has created a Curriculum Innovation Program and selected four teams of faculty members who will transform important components of their curricula over the coming year.

Each of the four teams will receive $10,000 to $12,000 for the project, along with up to $5,000 for team members to visit an institution that has had success in innovating its curriculum. The awards, the largest that CTE has ever made, were made possible by a donation from Bob and Kathie Taylor, KU alumni from Wichita.

SUMMIT EXCHANGE Susan Marshall, right, speaks with Rob Karwath and Yvonnes Chen during the annual Teaching Summit. Marshall, an instructor in psychology, was one of three winners of the inaugural Bob and Kathie Taylor Excellence in Teaching Award.

The four teams were chosen from among 18 submissions from across the university. The winners, from environmental studies, geology, journalism and mass communications, and linguistics, were recognized at KU’s annual Teaching Summit on Thursday.

“We really wanted to see ideas that would have a big impact on student learning in a short amount of time,” said Andrea Greenhoot, director of the Center for Teaching Excellence. “We also wanted the changes to be sustainable. The four programs selected made the strongest cases for that.”

To help with the curricular changes, the teams will meet with each other and CTE faculty leaders throughout the academic year to discuss their progress and challenges. The goal of the program is to nurture changes that improve learning and retention, and provide new ways of preparing students for an ever-changing career landscape. Each team will concentrate on remaking two or more courses within a curriculum.

The winning teams all take different approaches to the innovation challenge. Here are their plans:

Environmental studies

The environmental studies program has undergone considerable change over the past eight years as core faculty members have left and the number of students taking classes in the program has tripled. The program, which draws from such fields as ecology, law, English, geology, and social sciences, will build on the diverse perspectives of its faculty members by creating modules that focus on interdisciplinary problem-solving. The modules will allow instructors to bring multiple perspectives to two 100-level classes, Global Environmental Change I and II, and make it easier for additional instructors to teach those courses. At the capstone level, the modules will allow students to go into more depth in such areas as informatics, systems thinking, technical communication, and project management, while maintaining an emphasis on work that benefits communities. Team members are Ali Brox, David Fowle, Kelly Kindscher, Terry Loecke, Peggy Schultz, and Paul Stock.

Geology

The department has transformed five introductory courses since 2013 by integrating such practices as group problem-solving, two-stage exams, and an end-of-semester event to showcase student work. Those and other approaches have improved learning for all students but have been especially effective for women and underrepresented minority students. For example, women used to fail or withdraw from Geology 101 at a much higher rate than men. Those disparities have been eliminated over the past few years as the class has shifted from lecture to active learning. The department plans to apply those techniques to two upper-level courses that prepare students for a capstone course. It will shift some material for those courses online, reduce the amount of in-class lecturing, add writing and data-synthesis assignments, and reorganize course components so that students learn in incremental ways, an approach known as scaffolding. Team members are Diane Kamola, Andreas Moeller, Noah McLean, and Alison Olcott.

Journalism and mass communications

The many fields of journalism have undergone enormous changes over the past two decades as digital communication has upended the media landscape. Four instructors in the School of Journalism’s strategic communication track plan to help students better keep up with those changes by creating a data hub for social media, shifting more elements of learning online, and providing more opportunities for experiential learning. Strategic communication, which accounts for more than two-thirds of the school’s enrollment, prepares students for careers in such areas as public relations, marketing, and advertising. The journalism team will concentrate on four courses at the 400- and 600-levels, including a capstone course, better integrating elements of social media into the curriculum. Creation of a social media hub will allow students to gain more hands-on experiences with social media, and the work students do with the hub will create additional resources for future students and courses. Faculty members involved are Hyejin Bang, Yvonnes Chen, Joseph Erba, and Hyunjin Seo.

Linguistics

The Department of Linguistics has been a university leader in evaluating student learning and in making curricular adjustments based on learning data it gathers. The department plans to build on that work by modifying, expanding and restructuring three courses that have proved especially challenging for students. Instructors plan to add interactive assignments and group case studies to Introductory Linguistics to help students learn theoretical concepts of language structure. They also plan to create an online version of that course so that it can be offered more often. For a mid-level course in syntax, instructors will create online materials for students to work through on their own, freeing up class time for group problem-solving and application. For an upper-level course in neurolinguistics, the department plans to add lab work that will give students practice in such areas as experimental design and data analysis for brain imaging. Faculty members involved in the project are Kate Coughlin, Phil Duncan, Robert Fiorentino, Alison Gabriele, John Gluckman, Andrew McKenzie, Joan Sereno, Anie Tremblay, and Jie Zhang.

SHARING IDEAS Anne Patterson, left, and Cheryl Wright speak during the Teaching Summit. Patterson, a lecturer in architecture and design, was one of three winners of the inaugural Bob and Kathie Taylor Excellence in Teaching Award.

Doug Ward is the associate director of the Center for Teaching Excellence and an associate professor of journalism. You can follow him on Twitter @kuediting.

By Doug Ward

Robin Wright has a clear vision of the future of education.

Understanding that future requires a look 6,000 years into the past, though. It requires an assessment of the technological wonders that have promised revolution over the years. It requires an understanding of literacy rates, which have reached 90 percent worldwide. It requires a look into the chemistry of the brain, which reacts to emotion and stress but also to action and interaction. It requires a look outward at the students in our classes. And perhaps most important, it requires a look inward at who we are and who we aspire to be.

Robin Wright spoke about the human side of teaching and learning in her keynote address at Thursday’s Teaching Summit.

Wright made it clear that if we can do that, we, too, will have a clear vision of education’s future. (More about that shortly.)

Wright, a professor of biological sciences at the University of Minnesota, was the keynote speaker at KU’s annual Teaching Summit on Thursday. She shared with the summit’s 400 participants some of her research into active learning and student development, along with personal experiences in teaching undergraduate biology courses. Some of those experiences involved her own challenges as a teacher, including times when students simply weren’t understanding what she was teaching.

“This is where I made a big mistake,” Wright said. “If my students weren’t performing well, I just worked harder. That wasn’t a problem for them; they weren’t working harder. I wasn’t putting the burden on them.”

That is, she wasn’t following the key principles of learning. Here’s how she described those:

  • Every brain is different.
  • The person who does the work does the learning.
  • You can only make memories by connecting them to older memories.
  • People almost always learn better when they work together.
  • Making memories requires repetition, feedback, elaboration and sleep.

Until students do the hard work that learning requires, it doesn’t matter how many times instructors go over course material or how much effort they put into making classes active and engaging, Wright said. Mastery requires time and effort.

Don’t get the wrong idea from that. What instructors do has an enormous impact. Teaching and learning require concerted efforts by both students and instructors. That effort works best with human interaction, though. That was the message that Wright delivered again and again: that in a technology-fueled world, the human elements of education are more important than ever.

“The most important way we can be human is to teach,” Wright said.

Wright’s keynote address and workshops she led later in the morning tied into the summit’s theme, Teaching the Whole Student. That theme evolved from recent research suggesting that a holistic approach to education helps students succeed. We can’t just teach content. Nor can we throw students into that content and expect them to learn on their own. Rather, instructors and universities must engage students in education and help them gain a sense of belonging; support them in their educational endeavors and help them overcome barriers; and provide mentoring from staff members, faculty members and students’ peers.

Wright takes a question from Candan Tamerler, professor of mechanical engineering.

After the summit, Wright said that her message would not have been well received just a few years ago. Even now, critics berate universities for coddling students and encouraging hypersensitivity rather than pushing them to harden themselves for an unforgiving world. Wright steered clear of the political hyperbole, grounding her arguments in science, history, and the scholarship of teaching and learning. Even so, she acknowledged her role as provocateur as she made a case for what education is and what it could be.

Naysayers have tried to displace in-person education for centuries, she said. The first known correspondence course – one for shorthand – was offered in 1728. In 1906, a correspondence degree program in Pennsylvania attracted a million people but had a graduation rate of 2.6 percent, about the same as today’s massive open online courses. Thomas Edison promoted the phonograph as a great educational tool. Broadcasters did the same with radio and then television. MOOC creators promised a revolution – one that fizzled before it barely started.

Despite all these other opportunities and all the new technological tools that have emerged, we still have in-person education. Furthermore, Wright said, 90 percent of the world’s population can read and write. More and more of that population has access to the Internet and its vast universe of information, meaning that people can learn just about anything and anywhere on their own. And yet year after year, students and instructors still gather in classrooms to learn.

Why? she asked, quickly providing her own answer: Because the way we learn hasn’t changed since the days when people gathered around campfires, shared stories, and helped each other understand the world.

“Our brains are still the same as they were 6,000 years ago,” Wright said. “We still learn in the same way, the same basic way. That has not changed at all.”

Teaching to hundreds of brains

Wright explained the importance of brain chemistry and the role that stress, emotion, and sleep play in our ability to learn. She touched on social theory as a means of explaining learning, and the way that such factors as pedagogy, classroom climate, focus, motivation and metacognition influence individual performance. Our growing understanding of those factors continues to improve teaching.

“The challenge, though,” she said, “is how do you teach a whole class about mitosis when you have 400 different brains you have to interact with?”

That is, the same strategy doesn’t work for everyone.

“People look at things in different ways because their brains are different,” Wright said.

That’s where the human aspects of teaching must take over.

“We have to consider the whole person as a living, breathing, complicated, annoying, wonderful human being,” Wright said.

To emphasize that, Wright told of a high school teacher who once told her she was a good writer. Decades later, Wright still remembers that praise fondly, and she urged attendees to make the most of human interaction with their students.

“If you can do one thing to improve the effectiveness of your teaching and your learning, it’s to give people a chance to interact,” Wright said.

Adding a human touch to education also helps shape the future, she said.

“Being able to put your arm around a student and say, ‘You are really, really good at biology. I think you could have a career in it.’  That has enormous, enormous impact,” Wright said.

That doesn’t mean we should shy away from technology. Not at all. We should use it to its full potential to personalize teaching and learning, she said. In the end, though, the future of education lies in its humanity.

“There’s power in you as a living human being interacting with other human beings,” Wright said.

That power has kept education alive for millennia. And if Wright’s vision is correct, it will propel higher education into the future.


Doug Ward is the associate director of the Center for Teaching Excellence and an associate professor of journalism. You can follow him on Twitter @kuediting.