By Doug Ward

Matthew Ohland talks confidently about the best ways to form student teams.

In a gregarious baritone punctuated by frequent, genuine laughs, he freely shares the wisdom he has gained from leading development of a team creation tool called CATME and from studying the dynamics of teams for more than two decades.

Ohland, a professor of engineering education at Purdue, visited KU recently and spoke with faculty members about the challenges of creating student teams and about the benefits of CATME, which has many devotees at KU. The tool, which launched in 2005, is used at more than 1,300 schools worldwide and has led to a long string of research papers for Ohland and others who have worked on the CATME project.

Matt Ohland, in a blue shirt, kneels at a table as he explains his work
Matt Ohland explains some of the thinking behind the team creation tool CATME

I asked Ohland the question that faculty members often ask me: What are the most important characteristics of a good team? Without hesitation, he offered something that surprised me but that made perfect sense:

“Of all the things you can choose about team formation, schedule is by far the most important,” he said.

That is, if you want students to work together outside class, their schedules must be similar enough that they can find time to meet. If they do all the work in class, the schedule component loses its importance, though.

Before he delves deeper into group characteristics, he offers another nugget of wisdom:

“What you start with in terms of formation is much less important than how you manage the teams once they are formed.”

That is, instructors must monitor a team’s interpersonal dynamics as well as the quality of its work. Is someone feeling excluded or undervalued? Is one person trying to dominate? Are personalities clashing? Are a couple of people doing the bulk of the work? Is a lazy team member irritating others or creating barriers to getting work done?

Whatever the problem, Ohland said, an instructor must act quickly. Sometimes that means pulling a problem team member aside and providing a blunt assessment. Sometimes it means having a conversation with the full team about the best ways to work together.

“Anything – anything – that is going wrong with a team dynamically, the only way to really fix it is face-to-face interaction,” he said.

Delving into team characteristics

In faculty workshops, Ohland delved deeper into the nuances of team formation, asking participants to provide characteristics to consider when creating teams. Among them were these:

  • Demographics
  • Traditional vs. nontraditional student
  • Academic level
  • Gender
  • Ethnicity
  • High performer vs. low performer
  • Interest in the class or the subject
  • Confidence
  • Work styles (work ahead vs. work at last minute)

All of those things can influence team dynamics, he said, and the most consequential are those that lead to a feeling of “otherness.” For instance, putting one woman on a team of men generally makes it difficult for the woman to have her voice heard. Putting a black student on a team in which everyone else is white can have the same effect, as can putting an international student on a team of American students.

“If students have a way of knowing that someone is different, it allows them a way to push them away,” Ohland said. “It’s their otherness that excludes them from certain kinds of team interaction. It’s their otherness that lets people interrupt them.”

Ohland also shared an illustration of an iceberg to represent visible and invisible characteristics of identity. It’s an illustration he uses to help students understand the diverse characteristics of team membership. Gender, race, age, physical attributes and language are among those most noticeable to others. Below the surface are things like thought processes, sexual orientation, life experience, beliefs and perspectives. Awareness of those characteristics helps team members recognize the many facets of diversity and the complexity of individual and team interaction.

Pushback from students

Jennifer Roberts, a professor of geology, uses CATME to form teams in her classes. She said that some students had begun to push back against providing race and gender in the CATME surveys they complete for team formation.

“They went so far as to say that this disenfranchises me because I don’t fit in these categories,” Roberts said.

Ohland said that he understood but that “ignoring race and gender in groups has real consequences.” He suggested explaining the approach to female students this way:

“What I tell my students is that I’m not putting you on a team with another woman so that you will be more successful,” he said. “I am putting on a team with another woman because it changes the way that men behave.”

He cited research that shows that putting more than one woman or more than one person of color on a team improves the performance of everyone by cutting down on feelings of isolation and allowing more views to be heard.

“Men stop interrupting them,” he said. “They start paying attention to their ideas.”

At Purdue, Ohland said, he goes as far as keeping freshmen together on teams in first-year engineering classes, separating them from transfer students who are sophomores or juniors.

“We’ve got to get them by themselves,” Ohland said. “They are at a different phase in life. They’re at a different place academically.”

Preparing students for teams

Ohland said it was important to help prepare students to work effectively in teams. His students go through several steps to do that, including watching a series of videos, engaging in class discussions about how good teams work, reviewing guidelines that team members need to follow, and learning about ways to overcome problems. They also agree to follow a Code of Cooperation, which stresses communication, cooperation, responsibility, efficiency and creativity.

He also explains to students how a student-centered class works, how that approach helps them learn, and what they need to do to make it successful. In a student-centered class, an instructor guides rather than leads the learning process, and students help guide learning, apply concepts rather than just hear about them, reflect on their work and provide feedback to peers.

Students must also understand the system they will use to rate peers, Ohland says, and he spends time going over that system in class. It includes measures on how students are contributing to a team, how they are interacting with teammates, how each member works to keep the team on track, how to evaluate the work quality of teammates, and how to evaluate teammates’ knowledge, skills and abilities.

The ins and outs of teams

It would be impossible to detail all of the advice Ohland offered. I would suggest visiting the CATME informational page, where you will find additional information and research about forming and evaluating groups, and keeping them on track. A few other things from Ohland are worth mentioning, though, largely because they come up in many discussions about using teams in classes.

Don’t force differentiation in evaluations. I have been guilty of this, trying to push students to create more nuance in their evaluations of teammates. Ohland said this creates false differentiations that frustrate students and lead to less-useful evaluations.

Learn what ratings mean. For instance, if team members give one another perfect scores, it could mean they are working well together and want the instructor to leave them alone. It could mean that students didn’t take the time to fill out the evaluations properly or it could mean that students felt uncomfortable ranking their peers. In that last scenario, Ohland sits down with a team and explains why it is important to provide meaningful feedback. If they don’t, individuals and the team as a whole lack opportunities to improve.

“That seems to help get them think about the value of the exercise,” Ohland said. “It gets that discussion going about why are we doing this and why it’s important not to just say everybody’s perfect.”

Keep the same teams (usually). Changing teams during a semester can create problems, he said, because high-functioning teams don’t want to disband and teams that are making progress need more time to work through kinks. Only the dysfunctional teams want to change, he said. The best approach is to find those dysfunctional teams and help them get on track.

The one exception to that guideline, he said, is when learning to form teams effectively is part of a class’s goals. In that case, an instructor should form teams more than once so that students get practice.

Evaluate teams frequently. Ohland recommends having peer evaluations every two weeks. Research shows that evaluations should coincide with a “major deliverable,” he said. That makes students accountable and increases the stakes of evaluations so that students take them seriously.

Create the right team size. In some cases, that may mean three or four. In others, six, eight, 10 or even more.

“Team size depends on what you are asking students to do,” Ohland said. “The critical thing about team size is that you need enough people on a team to get the work done that you are asking them to do – the quantity of work. You also need enough people on a team to have all the skills necessary to do the work represented.”

It also depends on the layout of a room. For instance, a team of three in a lecture hall is ideal because students can have easy conversations. A group of four in the same setting will leave one member of the team excluded from conversations.

A final thought

Research by Ohland and others has helped us better understand many aspects of effective student teams. I asked Ohland whether those components mesh with what students look for in teammates.

Making that connection, he said, “is the holy grail of teamwork research.”

“It’s so difficult to get an absolute measure of performance,” he said. “If our goal is learning, that’s a different goal than a competitive, objectively measured outcome in a project.”

Some data point to a connection between learning and team performance, but proving that is a work in progress.

“We’re getting there,” Ohland said.


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

Here’s a secret about creating a top-notch assessment plan:

Make sure that it involves cooperation among faculty members, that it integrates assignments into a broader framework of learning, and that it creates avenues for evaluating results and using them to make changes to courses and curricula.

Lorie Vanchena, Nina Vyatkina and Ari Linden of the department of Germanic languages and literatures accepted the Degree-Level Assessment Award from Stuart Day, interim vice provost for academic affairs.

Actually, that’s not really a secret – really, it’s just good assessment practice – but it was the secret to winning a university assessment award this year. Judges for both the Degree-Level Assessment Award and the Christopher H. Haufler KU Core Innovation Award cited the winners’ ability to cooperate, integrate and follow up on their findings as elements that set them apart from other nominees.

The Department of Germanic Languages and Literatures won this year’s degree-level assessment award, and the Department of Curriculum and Teaching won this year’s Haufler award. The awards were announced at last week’s annual Student Learning Symposium. Each comes with $5,000.

The German department focused its plan on two 300-level courses that serve as a gateway to the major, and on its capstone course. Stuart Day, the acting vice provost for academic affairs, said the University Academic Assessment Committee, which oversees the award, found the plan thorough, manageable and meaningful. It is one of the strongest assessment plans in place at the university, he said. It emphasizes substantive learning outcomes, uses a variety of methods for assessment, and includes a plan for making ongoing improvements.

Reva Friedman accepted the Haufler KU Core Innovation Award from DeAngela Burns-Wallace, vice provost for undergraduate studies.

DeAngela Burns-Wallace, vice provost for undergraduate studies, said the plan created by curriculum and teaching had similar characteristics, using a rich approach that integrates active learning, problem solving and critical thinking. The department created a “strong and intentional feedback loop for course improvement,” she said, and created a clear means for sharing results throughout the department.

So there again is that secret that isn’t really a secret: A strong assessment plan needs to include cooperation among colleagues, integration of assignments and pedagogy, and follow-ups that lead to improvements in the curriculum.

That sounds simple, but it’s not. Reva Friedman, associate professor of curriculum and teaching, and Lorie Vanchena, associate professor of Germanic languages and literatures, both spoke about the deep intellectual work that went into crafting their plans. That work involved many discussions among colleagues and some failed attempts that eventually led to strong, substantive plans.

“Everything we’re doing informs everything else we’re doing,” Friedman said.

She also offered a piece of advice that we all need to hear.

“All of us have our little castles with moats around them, and we love what we do,” she said. “But we need to partner in a different way.”

A new resource for teaching media literacy

In a world of “alternative facts,” we all must work harder to help students learn to find reliable information, challenge questionable information, and move beyond their own biases. To help with that, KU Libraries recently added a media literacy resource page to its website. Instructors and students will find a wealth of useful materials, including definitions, evaluation tools, articles and websites.


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

SAN DIEGO, Calif. – Here’s a harsh question to ask about the classrooms on our campuses: What are they good for?

Yes, there’s more than a tinge of sarcasm in that question – answering “not much” comes immediately to mind – but it gets to the heart of a problem in learning and, more broadly, in the success of our students.

Oregon State drew from several models as it created new classrooms, including a learning studio, an emporium style (below) and the set of a television talk show (bottom).

Tim Reynolds of the architecture firm TreanorHL and PK Imbrie from the University of Cincinnati asked a variation on that question this week at the Next Generation Learning Spaces conference in San Diego. At table after table in a workshop, participants said that college classrooms were designed for sitting, listening and taking notes. That is, for skills that will do our students little good in a world that requires problem solving, teamwork, strong communication skills, technical know-how, analytical ability, leadership, initiative and a strong work ethic.

“Many buildings I walk into have been rendered obsolete by new teaching styles and learning styles,” Reynolds said. “We can’t afford to be obsolete.”

Buildings alone don’t make an education, and the growth of online courses has led to many questions about the future of a traditional on-campus education. University buildings are expensive to create. They sit mostly empty for four months a year. They rarely receive the routine maintenance they need to ensure the best use, and in many cases they go neglected until they simply fall into irrelevance.

New buildings also won’t change the outdated pedagogy of recalcitrant faculty members. Nor will they solve higher education’s biggest challenge: a promotion and tenure system that rewards research almost exclusively, leaving teaching as a pesky aside.

And yet buildings are crucial to the success of students in residential education. If we plan to continue on that path in the coming decades – and most universities certainly do – then we must continue to create and re-create effective learning spaces.

Over and over at this week’s conference, participants grappled with the idea of creating spaces that will meet the needs of students and faculty today but that will accommodate the inevitable changes that education will face in the coming decades. That is, how do we better design buildings and classrooms to keep them relevant longer?

There’s no easy answer to that question. My answer – and that of most of the conference participants – is to focus on flexibility. For instance, creating a lecture hall with tiered concrete will make it nearly impossible to use that room for any other purpose in the future. It will simply be too expensive to change, something that universities face in many, many buildings on their campuses today. Creating flatter rooms will allow for easier reconfiguration as needs and technology change. That approach is part of a broader shift in thinking that universities must make.

“This is not changing a classroom; this is changing a culture,” Reynolds said. “It is changing what we think about as education.”

Other themes from the conference:

  • Look beyond universities for ideas. In planning a new classroom building, Oregon State considered many non-traditional models for large classrooms, including parliament-style seating, club seating used at concerts, and in-the-round seating used in the Phil Donahue show, the iconic daytime talk show from the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s. That in-the-round seating has proved especially popular among faculty, representatives from the university said, largely because even in a 600-person room, students are never more than eight rows away from the professor.
  • Different spaces can inspire new approaches to teaching and learning. A new building at Oregon State contains 13 different styles of classrooms, and Jon Dorbolo, associate director of Technology Across the Curriculum, said instructors were more willing to take more chances in the way they engage students in those classrooms. (Several others at the conference made similar observations.) The variety of room styles had also helped students become more adaptable, Dorbolo said, as they learn how to learn in different settings.
  • Maker spaces are hot. Universities around the country have been opening maker spaces where students have access to tools for creating with everything from robotics to sewing machines to 3D printers to engravers to digital media. Kyle Bowen of Penn State describes his university’s philosophy as “making as fluency.” Penn State has also been creating rooms where faculty and students can save whiteboards and other materials – “learning residue,” he called it – so they don’t have to start from scratch in the next class.
  • Immersive experiences are growing. Virtual and augmented reality drew a lot of attention at the conference, not only with live demonstrations but with discussions about how to set up rooms to allow students to immerse themselves in alternate realities that essentially leave them blind in their physical space. Colleges are using virtual and augmented reality for such things as offering campus tours, training students in anatomy and medicine, helping students understand chemical structures, and helping them understand ancient cultures.
  • Create more general purpose classroom buildings. For instance, if you label a room a genetics lab, it will go unused much of the time, Reynolds said. If you call it a classroom, many other disciplines will use it, as well. That approach also leads to a better focus on teaching and learning (rather than faculty office space) in creation of new buildings, Reynolds said.

One of my favorite descriptions from the conference came from Bowen, who spoke of two types of faculty members: FIVEs and FAVEs. FIVE, he said, stands for faculty into virtually everything. FAVE, on the other hand, refers to faculty against virtually everything. Most faculty members fall somewhere in between, but technologists and classroom schedulers must be able to accommodate the extremes, a process Bowen called the “Tetrus management” of matching classrooms to faculty needs.


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

Students engaged in active learning tend to be gloriously noisy. They share ideas and insights with each other. They write on whiteboards. They debate contentious topics. They work problems. They negotiate group projects.

In Genelle Belmas’s Gamification class, though, active learning took the form of silence – at least for a day.

That’s right. Silence — in a room with more than 100 students. A seat creaked now and then. Someone coughed. A notebook rustled. Otherwise, nothing. If you don’t believe me, listen to the video in the multimedia file below. Just don’t expect to hear much.

The silent approach in the classroom was part of an experiment in helping students reach a “flow state,” which Belmas, an associate professor of journalism, described as a state of mind “where everything is awesome.”

“Time melts away,” she said. “Ego melts away. You’re productive and you’re happy. That’s what I want these kids to get to.”

The idea of a flow state, Belmas said, comes from the psychologist Mihaly Csíkszentmihalyi, who argues that you must balance your skills against your challenges. Flow comes about when both skills and challenges are high.

“This fits into the gaming because research has demonstrated that people are happiest when they’re in a flow state,” Belmas said. “We want to keep people in a flow state in the game so that they accomplish the cool stuff that can be accomplished.”

The students in Gamification are working in teams to create games that Belmas calls “purpose driven.” Those games include one that will help children learn math, one that will focus on recycling, one that will help journalism students learn Associated Press style, and one that will help young adults learn money management.

Ideally, the games will push users into a flow state, just as the students pushed themselves into a flow state. Silence will be optional, though.


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

A new grant-funded initiative at the University of Kansas will promote the use of data to improve teaching, student learning and retention in science, engineering, technology and math programs.

KU is one of 12 universities to receive a $20,000 grant from the Association of American Universities as part of a major AAU project to improve STEM education. The grant will be used to promote faculty-led course and curricular changes that enhance student learning among undergraduates, and to help eliminate long-standing achievement gaps for students from underserved groups.AAU logo

The KU initiative will be led by an interdisciplinary team that includes Andrea Greenhoot, a professor of psychology and the director of the Center for Teaching Excellence; Caroline Bennett, an associate professor of engineering; Mark Mort, an associate professor of ecology and evolutionary biology; DeAngela Burns, vice provost for undergraduate studies; and Doug Ward, associate professor of journalism and associate director of the Center for Teaching Excellence.

“We see this as an important evolution in teaching and learning at KU,” said Greenhoot, who also leads a multi-university course-improvement program called TRESTLE, which is funded with a $2.5 million grant from the National Science Foundation. “Many KU faculty have been actively working to integrate evidence-based practices into their classes. Institutional data will help us gauge whether these efforts are helping students be more successful in later courses, and in completing their degrees.”

The new initiative will build on another project that CTE began last year. That project, part of a multi-university partnership known as the Bay View Alliance, is intended to help faculty members and departments use data to better understand student learning and student success, and to align with university goals of increasing retention and graduation rates.

Both initiatives aim to answer such questions as these:

  • How well are entry-level courses preparing students for later courses in a program sequence?
  • Are redesigns of such courses leading to better preparation and higher rates of success in later courses?
  • Are there inequities in student achievement and success for students from underserved or other groups? How effective are our efforts to reduce such gaps?

The AAU initiative at KU will begin later this semester with a goal of including 10 STEM departments in discussions about how to use institutional data to inform course and curricular improvements that can foster better student learning and improved degree completion. Administrators and deans already have access to this type of data, Burns-Wallace said, but many universities are extending access to faculty as they work to improve student success.

“This is a great opportunity to incorporate faculty into a wider conversation,” Burns-Wallace said. “Student success is a shared responsibility, and this grant will help STEM faculty understand how their course and curricular transformations have an even broader impact on overall student progress at KU.”


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.

 

Wayne Regan won the Hat Day contest with a paper hat that says “I ♥ ACCT 200.” His instructor, Rachel Green, held her hands up over each finalist when it was time for students to signal their favorite hat.

By Doug Ward

A young woman with a flower headdress caught my attention as I walked through Budig Hall earlier this week. I stopped and asked her what the occasion was.

“It’s Hat Day in Accounting 200,” she said.

I wanted to know more, and Paul Mason, who teaches the 8 a.m. section of the class, and Rachel Green, who teaches the 9:30 section, graciously invited me in.

Hat Day, they said, is a tradition that goes back 20 years. It takes place one day toward the beginning of each semester and works like this: Students get a bonus point if they wear a hat to class. Teaching assistants choose what they consider the best hats from their sections of the class. Those students (who get another extra point) come to the front of the room, and a winner is chosen based on student applause. The winner gets one more extra point, for a total of three.

Hat Day serves two purposes, Mason said. Accounting 200 is the introductory course for the business school, and Hat Day helps instructors make the point that accountants wear many hats on the job and that students can do many things with an accounting degree.

Just as important, he said, it allows students to see the lighter side of business.

“It’s our way of letting them know that accounting isn’t just numbers,” Mason said.

It serves one more purpose: creating a sense of camaraderie among the students. Each section of the class has upward of 500 students, and the clapping and cheering on Hat Day loosens things up a bit.

“When they’re in a big class and they start laughing, it makes the class smaller,” Mason said.

A new way to provide online instruction

John Rinnert of Information Technology explains the lightboard to a group of faculty members.

A new device created by staff members from Information Technology and the Center for Online and Distance Learning will allow faculty members to record instructional videos through an illuminated pane of glass they write on like a whiteboard.

Development of the device, known as a lightboard, was led by John Rinnert of IT. A faculty member created the first video on the lightboard last week, and after a demonstration of the board this week, Rinnert expects more people to sign up to use it.

The board is a large pane made from the same type of glass as shower doors, Rinnert said. The glass rests in a metal frame, and LED track lighting gives markings on the board a neon glow as users write and draw. Another track of LEDs faces out, illuminating speakers as they write.

Instructors will soon have the ability to superimpose graphics on an area of the glass, much like a television weathercast. Instructors who do that will have to watch a monitor as they write so they can see where the graphics are placed.

Rinnert, Julie Loats from CODL, Anne Madden Johnson from IT, and I started talking about obtaining a lightboard a few years ago as a way to draw more faculty members from math and sciences into creating flipped and hybrid courses. Any faculty member is welcome to use the board, but those in STEM fields who do a a lot of on-board problem-solving should find it a familiar environment in which to work.

I wrote about a similar device that students in Engineering Physics 601 created last year. That lightboard is still awaiting a permanent home in Malott Hall.

At a session we did this week, Loats pointed out how important it is for students to hear instructors explain their thought processes as they work through problems. Many instructors do that effectively in the classroom and in videos they create without being on camera. The lightboard offers another tool for them in preparing material for online and hybrid courses.

Those interested in using the board can contact either CODL or IT.


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

The annual conference of the Association of American Colleges and Universities offered many thought-provoking sessions, teaching tips and discussions about the future of higher education. I wrote earlier about some of the themes. Here’s a sampling of some of the other ideas that stood out.

The importance of engaged learning

A session on engaged learning offered some of the most insightful observations of the conference. Engaged learning encompasses a variety of practices that help students learn beyond the classroom, including community service, study abroad, research projects and other opportunities that allow students to work outside the traditional classroom and reflect on what they have done.

James Holloway of the University of Michigan said engaged learning provided important opportunities to demonstrate how classroom learning translates into making society better. Universities bring together “huge bodies of enthusiastic, engaged people,” he said, and serve as a launching pad for new kinds of learning.

“This unscripted learning is how we help students translate what they learn in the classroom into bigger problems,” Holloway said, and helps demonstrate the value of residential education.

Randy Bass of Georgetown was even more forceful about the importance of engaged learning.

He pointed to the growth of online education and the proliferation of digital information.

“In a couple of decades, we won’t need colleges and universities to teach people stuff,” Bass said.

As a result, higher education needs to mentor students in learning and to help them handle “unscripted situations.” It must also demonstrate that it is more than a collection of learning experiences, that it helps students move “from a sense of self to a sense of the world to a power to act within that world,” he said.

Quick hits

  • “Students are thirsting for a new kind of education,” one that involves team-based, interdisciplinary, student-driven, hands-on problem solving, said Jacqueline Schulz, a student at Tennessee Tech and a member of Stanford’s University Innovation Fellows program.
  • Universities should use the results of course redesign to make the case to administrators and legislators to provide more money for faculty development and teaching resources.
  • We need to change the culture around shared courses to provide more consistency. That doesn’t mean ordering faculty members teach a certain way; rather, it means focusing on shared goals.
  • Many Ph.D. graduates have no opportunities to learn about pedagogy or instruction while completing their graduate work, which focuses almost exclusively on research. One conference participant asked: “How are we investing in the next generation of faculty members?” The answer: not very well.
  • Far too many faculty members see teaching as something they have to do “to pay the bills.” They see teaching as a skill, something that has less value than research, which provides their identity.
  • We talk a lot about empowerment on our campuses but rarely explain what we mean.
  • Curriculum typically develops by accretion, not by design.
  • Faculty members need to do a better job of sharing what they are doing in their classes so that administrators know what is happening and can explain the types of things faculty members are doing and the types of successes they are having.

Faculty need to keep learning

Mary Deane Sorcinelli of Mount Holyoke College and a colleague I work with frequently at the Bay View Alliance, was, as always, a great source of information and inspiration. A couple of things she said stood out:

  • Research done in the 1980s asked faculty members what they read to learn about new practices in teaching and learning. The response: nothing. Rather, they rely on conversations with colleagues. Sorcinelli said that still seemed to be the case today.
  • We need to make faculty development a component of a “four-legged stool”: teaching, research, service and professional development. “I think it’s that important,” she said.

Teaching insights from José Bowen

José Bowen’s book Teaching Naked offered excellent advice about using technology outside the classroom. Drawing on a new book he wrote with C. Edward Watson, Teaching Naked Techniques, he offered some interesting insights about teaching:

  • Students need an entry point into course material. To do that, start with what matters to students and then connect that with what matters to you. He said music was one way to do that. Nearly all students listen to music, so use that knowledge and affinity for music as a connection to class material.
  • Classes that students perceive as difficult or scary will activate their fight-or-flight reflex, making learning all but impossible. We have to recognize that and find ways to help students get over their fears. “We’re all too tied to our content,” Bowen said. That makes it hard to understand what scares or motivates students.
  • The five most important factors for learning have nothing to do with pedagogy: sleep, water, exercise, food and time.
  • Never put a grade on a paper. If you do, students will look at the grade and never read the feedback. Instead, provide the feedback without a grade and tell students to look for the grade on the learning management system a few hours after class.
  • “Pedagogy is a design problem.”

What research tells us about students

Authors of a new volume of How College Affects Students offered insights about their latest research. These are some takeaways from Andrea Greenhoot, CTE’s director, who attended that session:

  • Channeling resources toward teaching rather than administration is associated with better student outcomes.
  • Living on campus is no longer associated with better student achievement. It had been in the past.
  • First-generation and low-income students benefit the most from first-year seminars.
  • Colleges and universities that have larger percentages of full-time faculty have higher graduation rates. Underserved students are hurt most by overuse of adjunct faculty.
  • Where students go to college doesn’t matter that much. What matters is what they do once they are at college.
  • Students are more stressed today than they were 10 years ago.

Notable quotes

“Our entire institutions are set up around maintaining prestige. That doesn’t align with the idea of student-centeredness we are trying to achieve.” — Andrea Beach, Western Michigan University

“We often don’t practice coming up with good ideas.” Rather, we generally stop with the first. “It’s when you get beyond the first one that things get interesting.” — Leticia Britos Cavagnaro, University Fellows Program at Stanford

“Universities have the unique ability to run off in all directions and stay in the same place.” — Randy Bass, Georgetown


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

SAN FRANCISCO – A sense of urgency pervades this year’s meeting of the Association of American Colleges and Universities.

The tenets of a broad, liberal education have been under assault at the state and national level, many Americans have grown skeptical of the cost – and debt – that college brings, and the terms “evidence” and “value” seem mandatory in any conversation about higher education.

The sessions at the AAC&U’s annual meeting this week have been filled with discussions about telling the story of liberal education, effecting change across departments and campuses, scaling effective practices to improve learning and retention, and creating an inclusive, equitable and global-facing educational environment amid a political climate of anxiety, suspicion and nativism.

No one at this year’s gathering has all the answers we are all seeking. And yet, even among the concern and urgency over the future of higher education, there is clearly a sense of hope. After all, those of us at the convention believe in the mission of liberal education and see ourselves as problem-solvers. No one is cowering or retreating.

The atrium of the Hyatt Regency in San Francisco provided an expansive visual setting for the AAC&U conference. Like higher education, it mixed the abstract with the practical, the expansive with the creative. A big question, though: Are the elevators of higher education going up or down?

An early panel discussion did an excellent job of framing the problem that colleges and universities face – one that they helped create – but also of illuminating potential pathways forward. That panel, titled “Always on the Fringe,” emphasized the shift over the last two decades away from college as a public good.

Jeff Selingo, a professor at Arizona State, said that most colleges now emphasized their personal benefits. And Sara Goldrick-Rab, a professor at Temple, said that approach had turned a college degree into a commodity. Illustrating that, one audience member said that at many colleges, students now enroll by putting classes into an electronic “shopping cart.”

Goldrick-Rab said that as colleges shifted their focus to education as a commodity, the financial system shifted from grants to loans to pay for college. That has led to a “high tuition, high aid model,” she said, convincing colleges that they could charge increasing amounts because degrees have value, while offering scholarships and other financial aid to discount the price.

That approach, she said, hasn’t worked, largely because it fails to take into account the rising cost of housing, books and other learning materials. Students are being priced out, and middle-class students are struggling with the cost of housing and food. Thirteen percent of community college students are homeless, she said.

“One reason people don’t have trust in the system is that we’ve told them these things and they know they aren’t true,” Goldrick-Rab said. “They’ve learned over and over that when we tell them there will be money, that just isn’t true.”

Beverly Daniel Tatum, former president of Spelman College, said Spelman had avoided that “high cost, high aid” model but that the financial pain families endure is very real, especially when students fail to graduate.

“The worst possible outcome is debt but no degree,” Tatum said. “That is the betrayal.”

Michael Roth, president of Wesleyan University, spoke about the challenge of regaining the public’s trust. If universities depend solely on the private sector, he said, they will be told to produce more welders and fewer anthropologists.

“So how do we lobby for more funding without sacrificing our autonomy?” he asked.

Selingo said higher education needed to stop clinging to the past and start thinking about what the college model, mission and experience in the 21st century should be.

“We keep going back to the model of public education from the 1960s rather than looking forward,” he said.

One way to start that process, he said, is to rethink how we talk about higher education. Our emphasis on the broad components of liberal education doesn’t register with most people, he said. People want opportunities and jobs but don’t know how to get there, and colleges and universities need to learn how to speak in those terms.

Policymakers in Washington haven’t been much help, he said. They tend to come from elite institutions that continue to grow more elite.

“They have never met the students who have struggled,” Selingo said, but they set policy for everyone.

All the panelists spoke of a need to help students connect classroom learning to careers. That is, we need to better explain how the skills students gain in philosophy, chemistry and other disciplines translate into skills they can use on the job. That is especially important, they said, because the number of freelance and temporary jobs has been growing faster than traditional jobs. Many students may never work as a traditional employee, they said, and must learn how to thrive in that freelance world.

Roth said, somewhat facetiously, that “critical thinking is vastly overrated.” For most students, criticism comes easily, he said. They find it much harder to build on ideas, develop opportunities and work creatively – all things that we need to improve in our classes.

“If everyone is critical, ideas die quickly,” he said.

True critical thinking is as important as ever, though, Tatum said, given the political turmoil and our tendency to surround ourselves with people who look and think like us, even as the world grows more diverse. Those are components of what she called the “stuckness” of society.

Among the solutions that came up in that panel discussion and at other sessions this week reflect the determination among educators.

  • Build on skills students already have. Too often, we focus on what students are lacking rather than on what they bring to the classroom.
  • Bring students into the conversation. If we hope to change higher education and the culture that envelops it, we must enlist the help of students. One workshop leader recounted something a student told her: “Don’t have a conversation about us without us.”
  • Broaden the conversation. We usually think of education in terms of teaching, but everyone a student comes into contact with can have an impact. In fact, one workshop leader said, food service workers and maintenance staff often know students better than faculty and administrators do. We need to bring those members of the university community into our conversations.
  • Improve listening skills. This goes for students, faculty and administrators. We need to help students listen to one another but also need to improve our own ability to listen to opposing views and understand the underlying thinking. We all need to break out of our parochialism, Roth said.

Throughout the conference, there was agreement that higher education needed to do a better job of explaining what it does, why it matters and why it deserves public support.

“I don’t think we can go back to a time when we think that higher education is a public good,” Selingo said. “We have to shift the narrative as a result.”

And we need to do that quickly.


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.