By Doug Ward

After third grade, elementary students spend little time on in-class writing assignments, even though research shows that additional time improves both the quality of writing and the comprehension of written work.

That’s the distressing news from the Hechinger Report, whose recent article explores research in K-12 writing instruction. In English classes, U.S. students write an average of 1.6 pages a week, and most assignments (in English and in other classes) usually require a single page or less. The main reason: Most teachers say they don’t have time to grade frequent assignments.

Research also shows that grammar instruction continues to diminish. Researchers say, though, that traditional grammar instruction – learning grammar rules and diagramming sentences – doesn’t help students in grades three through seven learn grammar and can actually hurt students’ writing ability.

“Grammar instruction has declined in U.S. classrooms over the last 40 years,” Hechinger says. “But that might be because there isn’t much writing instruction going on at all.”

woman typing at computer keyboard
Death to the Stock Photo, Creative Community

Neither of those findings should surprise college instructors who work with student writing. My own school (journalism) is struggling with just that. More and more, we have to teach what would have once been considered remedial writing and grammar. We can no longer assume that students arrive at college knowing how to write clearly or read in depth. Those who can, excel.

Of course, curmudgeonly professors have for decades complained about students’ lack of excellence in writing, so it’s often hard to tell whether things are truly deteriorating or whether those of us who teach writing are just growing jaundiced with age.

One thing is certain, though: Most students need more practice – and instruction – in writing.

So how do we do that at the college level?

CTE offers several resources to help instructors use, evaluate and assess student writing. Nearly 40 faculty portfolios address use of student writing in some way. The annual publication Reflections from the Classroom frequently addresses writing, and CTE’s Essential Guide to Teaching at KU offers advice on such topics as developing and grading assignments, and engaging and mentoring students. I’ve included a few specific resources below.

Building Writing Skills, Critical Thinking and Teamwork through Technology and Revision

Megan Williams of American Studies explains use of reflections over readings, online discussion posts and a group reflection essay to help students explore American identity.

Incorporating Writing Into Mathematics Classes

Myunghyun Oh of math explains use of writing assignments in differential equations classes to help students communicate their understanding of course material.

Constructing Learning in the Online Environment

Kim Glover of libraries writes about her move to smaller, scaffolded assignments to help students progress toward a longer annotated bibliography that served as the final project for an online class.

Scaffolding Writing Assignments to Engage Graduate Students

Judy Postmus of social welfare explains her use of critical reflection of scholarly ideas, layering of concepts, and adaptive assignments to help a wide range of graduate students improve their writing and critical thinking.

Using Creative Writing to Engage Students in a General Education Course

Stephen Johnson of English explains how he used small writing assignments that helped students build up to longer essays in Introduction to Poetry.

On Design and Liberation

Sharon Bass of journalism explains a rethinking of her approach to teaching writing by focusing on high-quality writing assignments and feedback – things that helped students learn the most – rather than volume of assignments and volume of feedback.


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

By Doug Ward

Let’s imagine the university of the future. Actually, let’s write a mission statement for that university.

Our university would be “an international laboratory of creativity” built “on values and deep convictions which rest on a foundation of audacity, creativity, imagination and our people: the backbone of our success.”

It would place “creativity at the core of all its endeavors so as to ensure limitless possibilities” and give faculty, staff and students “the necessary freedom to imagine their most incredible dreams and bring them to life.”

Sort of takes your breath away, doesn’t it?

Unfortunately, we’re unlikely to see a university like that anytime soon – something that should make us ask why – but we could bring that type of thinking into the classroom.

To do that, let’s go to Cirque du Soleil. That’s where the quoted material above comes from. I looked it up after listening to Bernard Petiot’s plenary session last week at the annual conference of the International Society of the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning. Petiot, vice president for casting and performance at Cirque du Soleil, delivered what was easily the most entertaining session at ISSOTL, and perhaps the most useful.

Whiteboard of Cirque du Soleil presentation at ISSOTL 2014
Brianna Smrke’s “graphic recording” of Bernard Petiot’s speech at ISSOTL in Quebec City.

His speech had nothing to do with college teaching, and at the same time it had everything to do with college teaching. That’s because he talked about managing creative people. Cirque du Soleil prides itself on putting creative minds together and reimagining the possible. It expects tension, failures and lots of uncertainty. By learning from failures, though, using the tension as inspiration and pushing through the uncertainty, the organization’s performers and managers create something truly spectacular.

That’s what all teachers wish of their students – perhaps not immediately, but eventually.

A circus performance, like education, doesn’t come easily. Petiot offered these gems of wisdom about the process.

 

  • Creativity is not linear. It can sometimes be chaotic.
  • Creative results sometimes face periods of ambiguity and dissenting ideas.
  • If ideas are killed too soon you may miss an opportunity to really create.
  • A creation generates change. It defies established paradigms
  • Creativity generates tension by necessity. That tension allows new thinking and new solutions, so embrace the insecurity.
  • Creativity requires courage.

As Petiot spoke last week, Brianna Smrke stood at the back of the room, sketching the speech in what she called “graphic recording.”

Smrke never knows in advance what a speaker will say, she said. Indeed, that’s part of the artistic challenge: zeroing in on the key aspects, turning them into comprehensible material, pacing the drawing so as not to fill up the board too quickly or too slowly, and ultimately creating a lively narrative that reflects a speech but becomes a piece of art in itself.

Essentially, Smrke lived Petiot’s words as he spoke them, managing her own tension and embracing the uncertainty.

So look at the bullet points from Petiot’s speech again and substitute “innovative teaching” for “creativity.” That sounds like a university of the future to me.


 

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

Recent news, research, trends and thoughts about education. Compiled by Doug Ward.

Using technology to help students take risks

Rather than use technology to make education more efficient, why not use it to help students take more risks in learning? That’s the question that Greg Toppo poses in an article for The Hechinger Report. “Good teaching is not about playing it safe,” Toppo writes. “It’s about getting kids to ask questions, argue a point, confront failure and try again.” He’s exactly right. By helping students push boundaries, we help them learn to think more critically, understand themselves more fully, and solve problems more effectively. Technology can indeed help with that. I’ve found that demonstrating and having students try new types of hardware or software often opens up thinking and sparks surprising creativity. My advice: Subvert away.

A good message about learning and doing, eventually

Wired magazine jumped on the sky-is-falling bandwagon last week, declaring, “American Schools Are Training Kids for a World That Doesn’t Exist.” Amid the alarmist words and some self-promotion, though, the article, by David Edwards of Harvard, makes some good points. Edwards argues that students need more opportunities to work in loosely structured environments like innovation labs and culture labs, which give them hands-on experience in using their own ideas to tackle big problems. “Learning and doing have become inseparable in the face of conditions that invite us to discover,” Edwards writes.

statue of child reading a book
Statue at Bibliothèque Saint-Jean-Baptistein, Quebec City, Doug Ward

When new ways of teaching aren’t so new
Buzzwords permeate education as much as any other profession. Often those buzzwords are just repackaged versions of tried-and-true techniques. Katrina Schwartz reminds us of that in an article for MindShift, writing about how school administrators and non-profits push “new” approaches onto teachers even though the teachers have used those same approaches for years. That can be especially disheartening when teachers adopt new techniques, only to have impatient administrators pull back financing. “To avoid that kind of disillusionment many teachers have decided the best policy is to keep their heads down and continue to do what works — using trial and error to figure out how to reach kids, sticking to the textbook, and focusing on building strong relationships with students,” Schwartz writes.

Briefly …

In the Tomorrow’s Professor eNewsletter, Roben Torosyan writes about a book so useful to his teaching that it took him 10 years to finish. … Diverse: Issues in Higher Education writes about the trend of requiring undergraduates to take 15 credit hours a semester to help them graduate in a reasonable time. … The Chronicle of Higher Education writes about a professor’s idea to have researchers explain their work in the style of BuzzFeed.

Tech tools

The message scheduling service Buffer offers a list of useful tools for creating images for social media.DesignSkilz offers a substantial list of sites for downloading free photos.

Recent news, research, trends and thoughts about education. Compiled by Doug Ward.

Council gives generally poor grades for core university requirements

In a scathing report on core liberal arts requirements, the American Council of Trustees and Alumni gives more than 60 percent of colleges and universities a grade of C or lower. “By and large, higher education has abandoned a coherent content-rich general education curriculum,” the council says in its report, “What Will They Learn?”

The organization generally favors tradition over innovation in course offerings, and encourages a more active role by regents, trustees and alumni. The core curriculum by which it judged colleges and universities consists of writing that focuses on grammar, clarity and argument; a survey of literature; intermediate competency in a foreign language; U.S. government or history; basic economics; college-level algebra, logic, computer science or linguistics; and natural science courses that emphasize experimentation and observation. The council was especially dismayed by a dearth of requirements for a basic course in U.S. government and history, and for basic economics.

In Kansas, the only university to receive better than a C was Wichita State, which received a B. KU received a C. Some other Big 12 schools fared better. Baylor received an A; Oklahoma State, Oklahoma, Texas Tech and the University of Texas-Austin received B’s; Kansas State, Iowa State and Texas Christian received C’s, and West Virginia received a D.

Like all such report cards, this one measures only what the creators want it to measure and tends to oversimplify complex issues. The report raises many good points, though, whether you agree with the criticism or not.

Making a case for blended learning

In the second part of an article on blended learning, the Tomorrow’s Professor eNewsletter argues that blended learning needs to be “positioned as an institutional strategy that can result in organizational learning.” The article is based on a chapter in Kim VanDerLinden’s book Connecting Learning Across the Institution. Not surprisingly, it says that faculty members who have never taught an online course are more skeptical of online learning that those who have. The same applies to blended learning. It ends with excellent questions about employing blended learning.

Part 1 of the article provides a good overview of blended learning, including definitions. It argues: “The pressures on higher education in 2014 are perhaps greater than in any other time period.  The strategic adoption of blended learning is interconnected to all the issues that are front of mind for decision makers such as accessibility, affordability, limited resources, and competition, not to mention perhaps the greatest interconnected concern – student learning.”



Thumbs up for software that allows creation of animated whiteboard videos

I mentioned a new tool called VideoScribe in a previous post. I downloaded a trial and gave it a spin. (See above.) It’s definitely worth a look for anyone interested in creating animated whiteboard videos. The interface is mostly intuitive and I was generally happy with the video I produced for a session on threshold concepts. I did run into a few glitches that are worth noting:

First, the timeline is a bit clunky, especially as you build up a lot of images. All the images are placed on one continuous timeline at the bottom of the screen, and I struggled moving a few of them to the right place. They sometimes ended up in random spots. Ungrouping them (or the equivalent) before I moved them helped.

I liked the ability to import SVG files I pulled from Open Clip Art, but those imported images didn’t always render as well as I would have liked. The final image was fine, but the drawing of them on screen sometimes looked clunky. That said, I ended up buying access to VideoScribe for a year. After my trial ended, the company offered a 33 percent discount.

By Doug Ward

Assessment often elicits groans from faculty members.

It doesn’t have to if it’s done right. And by right, I mean using it to measure learning that faculty members see as important, and then using those results to revise courses and curricula to improve student learning.

In a white paper for the organization Jobs for the Future, David T. Conley, a professor at the University of Oregon, points out many flaws that have cast suspicion on the value of assessment. He provides a short but fascinating historical review of assessment methods, followed by an excellent argument for a drastic change in the ways students are assessed in K-12. He also raises important issues for higher education. The report is titled A New Era for Educational Assessment.

Conley says that the United States has long favored consistency in measuring something in education over the ability to measure the right things. Schools, he says, “have treated literacy and numeracy as a collection of distinct, discrete pieces to be mastered, with little attention to students’ ability to put those pieces together or to apply them to other subject areas or real-world problems.”cover of a new era for educational assessment

One reason standardized testing has recently come under scrutiny, he says, is that new research on the brain has challenged assumptions about fixed intelligence. Rather, he says, researchers have come to an “understanding that intellectual capacities are varied and multi-dimensional and can be developed over time, if the brain is stimulated to do so.” Relatedly, they have found that attitudes toward learning are as important as aptitude.

The Common Core has also put pressure on states to find alternatives to the typical standardized test. The Core’s standards for college readiness include such elements as the ability to research and synthesize information, to develop and evaluate claims, and to explain, justify and critique mathematical reasoning – complex abilities that defy measurement with multiple-choice questions. Schools have been experimenting with other means to better measure sophisticated reasoning include, Conley writes. They include these:

  • Performance tasks that require students to parse texts of varying lengths and that may last from 20 minutes to two weeks. (KU’s Center for Education Testing & Evaluation has been working on one such test.)
  • Project-centered assessment, which gives students complex, open-ended problems to solve.
  • Portfolios, which collect a wide range of student work to demonstrate proficiency in a wide range of subjects.
  • Collaborative problem-solving, which sometimes involves students working through a series of online challenges with a digital avatar.
  • Metacognitive learning strategies, which Conley describes as ways “learners demonstrate awareness of their own thinking, then monitor and analyze their thinking and decision-making processes” and make adjustments when they are having trouble. Measuring these strategies often relies on self-reporting, something that has opened them to criticism.

Conley sees opportunities for states to combine several forms of assessment to provide a deeper, more nuanced portrait of learning. He calls this a “profile approach” and says it could be used not only by teachers and administrators but also colleges and potential employers. He asks, though, whether colleges and universities are ready to deal with these more complex measurements. Higher education has long relied on GPAs and test scores for deciding admissions, and more nuanced assessments would require more time to evaluate and compare. He says, though, that “the more innovative campuses and systems are already gearing up to make decisions more strategically and to learn how to use something more like a profile of readiness rather than just a cut score for eligibility.”

Conley raises another important issue for higher education. Over the past decade, high schools have focused on making students “college and career ready,” although definitions of those descriptions have been murky. Because of that, educators have “focused on students’ eligibility for college and not their readiness to succeed there.” Conley and others have identified key elements of college readiness, he says. Those include such things as hypothesizing and strategizing, analyzing and evaluating, linking ideas, organizing concepts, setting goals for learning, motivating oneself to learn, and managing time.

The takeaway? Assessment is moving in a more meaningful direction. That’s good news for both students and wary faculty members.


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

Recent news, research, trends and thoughts about education. Compiled by Doug Ward.

How can we grade participation more effectively?

Maryellen Weimer argues that the way we usually grade participation in our classes doesn’t work. That is, many students still don’t join the conversations for fear of looking dumb. The typical grading approach also rewards quantity over quality. In an article in Faculty Focus, she writes about a colleague’s solution to this: using “extra-credit engagement tickets” students earn by completing assignments on time, joining online discussions, and submitting questions electronically. I agree with the logic, but the solution seems more complicated than I’m willing to attempt. This is definitely something that deserves more attention from most faculty members, though.

Chart for definitions of rigor
This pyramid shows one of several ways that the authors of “Developing a Student Conception of Academic Rigor” describe students’ perception of rigor.

What does ‘rigor’ in a course mean?

Students tend to equate a course’s rigor with workload rather than higher-order thinking, according to a study in the latest issue of Innovative Higher Education. That is, if a course required students to read or write more than they were used to, they generally considered it rigorous. The same held true if a student thought the professor’s grading standards were higher or if the student had little or no previous experience with the course content. This differs from faculty members’ idea of rigor, which the authors described as “learning meaningful content with higher-order thinking at the appropriate level of expectation within a given context.” The authors say that students and faculty need to understand these divergent views so that colleges and universities can better address the importance of academic standards. The study is called “Developing a Student Conception of Academic Rigor.”

 

Study questions value of degrees from for-profit online institutions

Research by the National Bureau of Economic Research strongly suggests that employers value degrees from public institutions over those from for-profit online institutions. The authors of a white paper posted on the bureau’s website found that candidates with bachelor’s degrees from for-profit online institutions were 20 percent less likely to receive a request for an interview or for additional information from employers than those with degrees from public institutions. (A 2012 employer survey conducted by The Chronicle of Higher Education found similar perceptions.) They say that given the high costs, degrees from those for-profit institutions “do not appear to be a sound investment.”

Briefly …

Meris Stansbury of eCampus News writes about the steps involved in a competency-based education program, and about the fluid definition of those types of programs. … An anonymous graduate student, writing in The Guardian, argues that colleges and universities need to more transparent about the time commitments of graduate teaching assistants. “Teaching is often regarded as something of an afterthought to doctoral completion, something fobbed off on those considered just competent enough,” the writer says.

Recent news, research, trends and thoughts about education. Compiled by Doug Ward.

Why a phone book isn’t a good learning tool

Daniel J. Klionsky of the Life Sciences Institute at the University of Michigan asks why so many instructors or programs continue to teach facts that students don’t need to know. In an article in Faculty Focus, he uses the telephone book as an example. No one needs to memorize all the numbers in a phone book. The idea is absurd. And yet, many instructors in science courses insist that students memorize facts they can easily look up, just as they would with a phone book. To help weed out the essential from the nonessential, he says that instructors should approach their courses with these questions:

  • How much of the information in our courses do the students really need to know?
  • How much time do we devote to making sure students know when they need a fact and how to look it up?
  • Do our students know what to do with the facts once they find them?

Dropout rates hit record lows

Pew Research reports that the high school dropout rates have reached a record low, 7 percent, continuing a decline that started in the mid-1990s. The dropout rate among Hispanics has declined by more than half since 1993, and the rate among blacks has been cut in half. Even with the declines, though, the number of high school dropouts is more than 2.2 million.

Those gaps that speak volumes

Matthew E. May writes about the creative power of empty space in attracting attention and intriguing audiences. His piece in the Harvard Business Review is aimed at marketers, but it applies equally as well to educators.

Digital technology for education 

Jane Hart has released her annual list of the top 100 tools for learning. The top of the list offers no surprises – Twitter, Google Drive, YouTube, PowerPoint – but the latter part is a good place to look for new tools you might try. It includes some that I’ve found useful, including Explain Everything and Powtoon.

The Chronicle of Higher Education reports on an app under development at Dartmouth that helps measure students’ mental health.

Recent news, research, trends and thoughts about education. Compiled by Doug Ward.

A focus on efficiency, for learning’s sake

The Evolllution began a series on operational efficiency at colleges and universities with an interview with Cathy Sandeen, vice president for educational attainment and efficiency at the American Council on Education. Sandeen lays out the right goals for cost efficiency, saying the process should aim at ways to help students learn and earn their degrees. “We need to work together to figure out how we can change and do things differently,” Sandeen says. “It’s not saying we’re doing things wrong in the past; it’s just how we can do things better in the future.”

During October, the Evolllution plans to tackle these questions:

  • What impact does operational efficiency have on institutional growth and competitiveness?
  • How can postsecondary leaders effectively communicate the value of efficiency-related changes to institution-wide stakeholders?
  • Do students notice when institutions are efficient?
  • How can institutions leverage technology tools to become more efficient?

Job skills vs. liberal education

Emmanuel Felton of The Hechinger Report writes about how City Colleges of Chicago remade themselves by aligning courses with the skills that were most in demand in the region. The change has helped City Colleges, a system of seven community colleges, improve abysmal graduation rates, at least somewhat. Felton interviewed several business leaders who espoused the benefits of tying education to skills that industry needs. One executive said higher education needed to take the same approach. That might serve some students and it would certainly serve industry in the short term. In the long term, though, we need a wide range of people who possess the critical-thinking and adaptive skills provided by a liberal education.small boy and adult sitting next to each other at desks

Keep an eye out for student mental health issues

Claire Shaw at The Guardian urges instructors to pay attention to students’ mental and physical state. She provides a list of warning signs that may indicate that students need assistance. She also offers several suggestions for instructors to help prepare themselves for struggling students.

A worldwide shortage of teachers

A new UNESCO report says that 93 countries face a chronic shortage of teachers and that many of them are recruiting people who lack any training in education.

An adaptive system that helps personalize learning

Stephen Downes of the National Research Council of Canada writes about beta testing of an adaptive learning system that combines customized materials from dozens of sources with data from learning, social environments and work environments. He calls this a “learning and performance support system.” Despite the stuffy name, it sounds fascinating.

Way cool: A tool for creating animated whiteboard videos

I’ve always been fascinated by animated whiteboard videos that show drawings being created in fast motion right before my eyes. I just came across a tool called VideoScribe that will help create those videos – for a price, of course. The software costs $198 a year. There’s a seven-day free trial, though. I’m going to have to give it a try. I’ll share my results.