Participants in the Best Practices Institute work at the Spahr Engineering Classroom.
Participants in the Best Practices Institute work on a backward design exercise at the Spahr Engineering Classroom.

By Doug Ward

I’m always surprised at the common themes that emerge when faculty members talk about teaching.

Goals and challenges transcend disciplinary boundaries, allowing for robust discussions about learning; class design and preparation; assessment; the struggles of students, and other areas of teaching.

In discussions Tuesday at CTE’s Best Practices Institute, faculty members from a dozen disciplines shared aspirations and strategies for improving their classes. Among the speakers was Meagan Patterson, associate professor of psychology, who explained the key elements of backward design and then asked participants to write down goals they hoped to achieve in their classes.

My table included instructors from pharmacy, philosophy, journalism, and health, sports and exercise science. The overlap among the group was remarkable. As I wrote the goals on a whiteboard, nearly everyone in the group nodded in agreement. They, too, had essentially the same goals. Here’s a distilled list:

  • Learn basic course concepts (as in science or philosophy)
  • Learn basic definitions and moral principles and apply those to specific situations
  • Demonstrate a big picture view of a subject
  • Apply knowledge to real world problems
  • Demonstrate good persuasive writing and an ability to refute opposing positions
  • Make connections to other disciplines and ideas
  • Demonstrate an ability to synthesize and explain discrete specialty topics learned in a course.

Identification of goals is only the first step of creating or remaking a class. The bigger challenge comes when a faculty members starts to envision ways for students to learn material and to demonstrate their learning.

That’s part of what makes teaching so enjoyable, though, no matter the discipline.


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

 

 

By Doug Ward

Bozenna Pasik-Duncan specializes in a branch of probability theory called stochastic systems, which views problems through a lens of randomness.

She teaches courses in that area, as well as in subjects like applied statistics, linear algebra and optimization theory.

When faced with a high dropout and failure rate among students in a large 100-level calculus class, though, Pasik-Duncan found a solution in a distinctively humanistic equation: She created a sense of community.

Her methods offer an excellent example of how cooperation among students and instructors can improve learning – and help everyone make friends along the way.

The calculus class that posed the challenge for Pasik-Duncan was Math 121, a 500-person class with several lab sections. In a typical semester, 30 percent or more of the students who enroll eventually withdraw or receive a D or an F. In university parlance, that’s known as the DFW rate, a statistic that administrators follow closely.

individuals gathered around globe representing community
Colinda, Open Clip Art Library

To address that problem, Pasik-Duncan urged collaboration from the first day of class. Everyone was expected to collaborate: the instructor, the teaching assistants and the students.

Collaboration was just the beginning, though. She promoted the idea of “C to the power of five”: collaboration, community, connection, curiosity, and connectivity.

“Always interpret,” she told students. “Always question. Why, why, why, why do I need to know that?”

About a quarter of the students in the class struggled with concepts like derivatives, domains, integrals and arc lengths. A quarter of the students, many of them from outside the United States, excelled at calculus. So Pasik-Duncan struck a deal. She asked for volunteers to help the struggling students and said she would write letters explaining their role in helping others succeed.

“We’re a community. Let’s help each other,” Pasik-Duncan told students. “At this moment, you need my help. Next semester, I may need your help.”

Students loved it, she said. Not only did they make connections among concepts in the classroom, but they made connections with other students. The DFW rate in her class fell to less than 14 percent, less than half the typical rate.

And not only did the struggling students improve in math, but the international students who struggled with English found that the one-on-one interactions with fellow students helped them improve their language skills.

“I consider this a beautiful thing,” Pasik-Duncan said. “On top of teaching and learning, we also have this community service.”

And the power of community.


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

By Doug Ward

Angelique Kobler offered an uncomfortable question about education last week.

Kobler, assistant superintendent for teaching and learning at the Lawrence school district, met with the KU Task Force on Course Redesign and explained the steady expansion of blended learning in Lawrence public schools.

To illustrate the need for new ways of engaging students, she said, she asks her staff a question that can make even the most experienced teacher squirm: Has teaching occurred if learning hasn’t?

Education is never that cut and dried, of course. Learning depends on a wide range of factors that have nothing to do with an individual teacher. Kobler knows that. She uses the question to spur discussion about the need for change.

blended learning graphic
Wikimedia Commons

Today’s students are different from those a generation ago, as are their needs in an era when laptops and smartphones offer access to nearly unlimited amounts of information.

Fifteen years ago, Luc E. Weber, a professor of public economics at the University of Geneva, made an observation that has grown only more apparent today: “Teachers will have to accept that their role is changing,” Weber wrote in Challenges Facing Higher Education at the Millennium. “They will be decreasingly information providers and increasingly animators and commentators in charge of giving context and in-depth understanding of an area.” (p. 10)

Blended classrooms force teachers to heed that call for change. Many teachers are responding. Lawrence public schools started with a pilot program of eight blended classrooms in Spring 2013. By fall of this year, the district plans to expand that number to 150.

Kobler defines blended as “somewhere between traditional and virtual.” Students in blended classes can use whatever means help them learn: Some choose textbooks. Others work through assignments online. Sometimes students work alone. Other times, they reach out to peers to help them understand a topic or a concept.

In all those scenarios, the teacher keeps tabs on students and meets with them individually or in groups to keep them on track.

This approach isn’t easy to pull off. Teachers have to be willing to experiment, to make mistakes in front of students, and to talk with students about those mistake, Kobler said. Blended classrooms can seem chaotic as students go in several different directions at once, something that doesn’t also sit well with teachers who demand order.

Parents, on the other hand, have been enthusiastic about the blended approach, sometimes asking that their children continue in a blended classroom because the approach works well for them.

On the other hand, high-achieving students sometimes struggle in a blended environment, something I’ve found in my own classes. High achievers often thrive within a tightly structured, traditional model of “tell me what I need to know and I’ll tell it back to you on a test.” A blended, flipped or hybrid environment strips away this neat order and pushes students to find their own structure and to pace their own learning. That’s a far more difficult task, but it’s also far more meaningful in the long run.

Let me put a twist on Kobler’s earlier question: Can education survive if educators don’t adapt to the needs of students?

That question may make us squirm as well, though it’s also a bit easier to answer.

“If we don’t keep up, we will become irrelevant,” Kobler said.

 


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

By Doug Ward

Thoughts from two speakers I’ve listened to in the last week have been bouncing around my brain.

At Journalism Interactive last week, Richard Hernandez of the University of California, Berkeley, pressed conference participants to experiment with technology that allows new forms of expression. To illustrate his point, he held up a smartphone and said: “You have more information in your pocket than Ronald Reagan had as president.”

Last night in a speech in Lawrence, the columnist Leonard Pitts Jr. used his smartphone as a prop, as well, after an audience member asked him about effecting change. His response went something like this:

In the 1950s, the civil rights movement started among concerned people who used rotary dial phones and mimeograph machines to mobilize citizens and end American apartheid. Today, he said, with smartphones that give us access to infinite amounts of information and an ability to communicate with nearly anyone, anywhere, anytime, why can’t we seem to steer society in an inclusive direction?

Thom Weerd, Unsplash
Thom Weerd, Unsplash

The take-away is that technology alone can’t solve problems. Simply having access to infinite amounts of information does us no good unless we know how to find the information we need. Having the information we need means nothing if we don’t know how to interpret it, to synthesize it, and to present it in meaningful ways. And even if we do that, new information is meaningless unless others have the context and the means to learn from it, use it, and act upon it.

I’m a big fan of technology, and I’ve written more about Journalism Interactive on one of my websites, JournalismTech.com.

Listening to Hernandez and Pitts speak, though, reminded me how important the human element of technology is. I continually push my students to experiment with new digital tools and new techniques of storytelling. Technology can give us superpowers, of sorts, abilities to make sense of things we once could only dream about. It can make us look smart (or dumb), and can shrink the world to the size of a smartphone screen.

Technology means nothing, though, unless we apply it to meaningful questions and problems at a human level.

I hope you’ll let that idea bounce around in your head this weekend.


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

By Doug Ward

Evidence is growing about the need to change the design of classrooms.

In a previous post, I wrote about my experiences with room design, student behavior and learning. I found that students were far more engaged when I moved class to a collaborative space, and that they reverted to passive behavior when class returned to the traditional space we were assigned.

The March issue of New Directions for Teaching and Learning takes on that very issue in a series of essays that looks at the research on active learning spaces and instructors’ experiences with those types of classrooms. All of the contributors to the issue are from universities or organizations that have led the way in redesigning classrooms, including North Carolina State, Minnesota and Indiana, as well as the nonprofit association Educause.

desks and chairs in The Commons at Spooner Hall
The Commons at Spooner Hall set up for an active learning class.

In their introduction to the issue, the editors, D. Christopher Brooks, J.D. Walker and Paul Baepler, summarize the dominant theories about learning spaces. Those theories include the idea that “a space does not determine behavior, but influences how we act and relate within it in ways that may not be readily observable.” This applies to both students and instructors.

“In large measure, how we configure our new brick and mortar classrooms will set the agenda for how face-to-face teaching continues to change and transform student learning,” the editors write.

Robert J. Beichner, a professor at North Carolina State, offers a brief history of classroom design and pedagogy, from lectures to labs to studios to large classrooms that use an approach called Scale-Up, or student-centered activities for large enrollment undergraduate programs, which Beichner pioneered.

In the introduction to his essay, Beichner addresses an important question about classrooms: Why do we need to change them? His answer: An information-rich, technology-rich society has changed the way students live and think, making it harder for them “to learn from the kind of patient, orderly presentation that their teachers prefer.”

In other words, if today’s instructors expect to connect with students, they have to move beyond the passivity of lecture. A different style of classroom is one way to help with that.

In a concluding essay, Aimee Whiteside of the University of Tampa, mentions the challenges of transforming classrooms and other learning spaces, citing cost and resistance to change, among other elements. She suggests a “read and lead” approach for those of us interested in changing learning environments: researching, sharing ideas, and keeping administrators apprised of the “immense educational value of active learning spaces.”

I’ll write more soon about my experiences with a new style of classroom and about the university’s efforts to make more active learning classrooms available. Meantime, I’d recommend the essays from New Directions for Teaching and Learning, as well as some other recent articles about classrooms and learning.

Among the essays in New Directions for Teaching and Learning 137 (Spring 2014) are these:

  • “History and Evolution of Active Learning Spaces,” 9-16, by Robert J. Beichner.
  • “Coffeehouse as Classroom: Examination of a New Style of Active Learning Environment,” 41-51, by Anastasia S. Morrone, et. al.
  • “Strategies to Address Challenges When Teaching in an Active Learning Classroom,” 63-70, by Christina I. Petersen and Kristen S. Gorman.
  • “Conclusion: Advancing Active Learning Spaces,” 95-98, by Aimee L. Whiteside.

Other recent research on classrooms:


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

By Doug Ward

Saundra McGuire urges faculty members not to judge students’ abilities too quickly or too harshly.

She speaks from experience. As a chemistry professor at Cornell and Louisiana State universities, she used to make snap judgments about her students, separating them into achievers and non-achievers.

Then she realized that those students who skipped class and didn’t study but then acted surprised at bad grades were “just being good scientists.”

Really. (More about that shortly.)

TP1 - Study Cycle 2010 (2)
A strategy for studying from the Center for Academic Success at Louisiana State University. Click to link to a PDF from the center.

McGuire, director emerita of the Center for Academic Success at Louisiana State, led workshops for faculty and staff members at KU on Monday, sharing strategies for helping students learn through a technique called metacognition.

She described metacognition as thinking about one’s own learning. Students who employ metacognitive strategies recognize themselves as problem solvers. They are proactive rather than reactive.

“You take steps to answer your own questions,” McGuire said.

That doesn’t come naturally to students, though, McGuire said. In high school, many teachers offer reviews before tests and simply give students the answers. Students learn that they don’t have to put in much effort. As long as they show up for the review sessions, they can usually get a B.

So as good scientists, having learned that they don’t need to exert themselves to get good grades, they show up at college overconfident and underprepared. When they get bad grades, often for the first time, many begin a downward spiral. They withdraw psychologically from classes, doubting their abilities, developing a negative self-perception and showing little interest in trying.

Faculty and staff members need to pay attention to that, she said. Recognize that an early failure may be the result of poor learning strategies, she said, and help students learn the strategies they need to succeed. She offered these suggestions:

Explain to students what we want them to do

Too often, McGuire said, we tell students we want them to move to a higher level of thinking and learning but never explain what we mean. Take reading, for example.

“Students think reading means looking at words while doing something else,” she said.

If we want them to read critically, take notes and prepare to discuss the material, we need to tell them that explicitly, she said.

Make sure students understand terms

She gave an example of a student who struggled with the concept of volume in geometrical figures because to the student, volume meant making the music louder or softer. Another student couldn’t grasp the concept of gases and liquids, saying that by definition gas is a liquid because if it weren’t you couldn’t put it in the tank of your car.

Providing the proper context for students can make all the difference, she said.

Help students develop solid reading strategies

She recommends that students read a paragraph of an article or a book, think about what they remember and put that down in their own words. That may sound as if it will take more time, she said, but it actually takes less time because students don’t have to reread.

“After you do this for a few paragraphs, you start to train your brain to learn,” McGuire said.

Make sure students do the example problems

Students in math and sciences often skip example problems when they complete readings, she said. When they see similar problems on a test, they don’t know how to work through them. So instructors should remind students to work through those problems, looking at the answers only after they have done the work themselves.

Explain Bloom’s Taxonomy to students

It doesn’t matter whether you use the original taxonomy (knowledge, comprehension, application, analysis, synthesis, evaluation) or the updated one (remember, understand, apply, analyze, evaluate, create), she said. The important thing is to help students recognize the different levels of learning and understanding.

Students understand the difference between studying and learning, she said. They’ll tell you that studying is memorizing and that learning is understanding. Studying is dull and tedious; learning is fun. Studying is short term; learning is long term.

Students get it, she said, but we need to have conversations about learning to help them learn.

We just have to remember not to judge them by a single bad grade.

——–

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

CTE is hosting a series of lunchtime workshops for experienced GTAs who want to discuss facets of teaching in higher education. The workshops will take place from noon to 1 p.m. on the final Friday of every month, through April, in 135 Budig Hall.

To participate in a session, register at cte@ku.edu at least two days before the event. A light lunch will be provided. Please note that space is limited. If you have any questions or need accommodations, contact Judy Eddy at jeddy@ku.edu.

January 31: Using Film in the Classroom
Have you always wanted to use film in your classes but you’re not sure how to do it? Have you wondered what assignments work best when using film? In this workshop, we will talk about mindfully choosing films (both short clips and whole films) to complement lectures and/or as a component to an assignment so as to actively engage students. Time will be allotted to brainstorming film ideas for your own class. With two of CTE’s graduate student staff members, Ann Martinez, English, and Mary Beth Woodson, Film Studies.

February 28: Best Practices in STEM Teaching & LearningCTE sign

During this session, participants will engage and reflect on several evidence-based strategies for increasing student learning in STEM disciplines. This includes multiple levels of inquiry-based approaches, use of technology, and use of appropriate assessment tools. With KU teaching post-docs Kelsey Bitting, Geology, and Anna Hiatt, EEB.

March 28: Managing the Paper Load

Are you faced with stacks of assignments to grade? In this workshop, we’ll talk about how to respond to student writing in ways that support learning goals and help you grade strategically and efficiently. GTAs are encouraged to bring sample assignments to discuss with peers. With Terese Thonus, Director of the KU Writing Center.

April 25: What I Wish I Knew Last Fall

This is a special session for graduate students who are graduating this spring or summer and are preparing for faculty positions. Bring your questions for two faculty members, Ward Lyles, Urban Planning, and Eileen Nutting, Philosophy, who started teaching at KU last fall.

By Doug Ward

My trips to the office of Paul Jess often seemed liked counseling sessions.

I was a master’s student at KU in 1990, and I’d go to Jess’s office with a stream of problems: My students weren’t responding as well as I’d hoped, and some even seemed hostile toward me in the classroom. My thesis wasn’t going as well as I’d expected, and I didn’t know where to begin a search for doctoral programs.

It all seemed so grave then (and seems so innocuous now).

Jess would lean back in his office chair, fold his hands over his bulging stomach, and listen intently. Then he’d smile and nod and explain what I could to do.Teaching Matters Nov. 13 2013

He could be surly, even crotchety, but he had nothing but patience and sound advice when I visited his office. He had a magic filing cabinet that seemed to contain solutions for every possible problem I had in class, and he was ever generous in sharing anything and everything. The folders from that filing cabinet, accompanied by his sage advice, always calmed my nerves and saved me from embarrassment with my students.

Jess never understood why I wanted to be a professor. In nearly every conversation we had, he’d try to dissuade me by explaining all the problems he saw in academia: the long hours, the stacks of grading, the troublesome students, the even more troublesome colleagues, the endless committee meetings, the out-of-whack research expectations, and an academic culture that gave lip service but little reward to high-quality teaching.

When I insisted that I knew what I was getting into, he would shake his head and sigh. Then, like the mentor he was, he’d point me in a direction where I could find my own answers, experience my own failures, and achieve my own successes.

I thought of Jess when I read this month’s issue of Teaching Matters, which focuses on the challenges of graduate education and on the importance of mentoring.

Here’s what you’ll find:

Judy Eddy writes about a paradox that often exists in graduate education.

Dan Bernstein writes about tailoring graduate programs to meet the expectations and aspirations of students and the needs of the university. This includes opportunities for students to develop their teaching in addition to their research.

Ann Martinez speaks with Angela Lumpkin, Susan Lunte and Charles Eldredge and some of their former students about the importance of mentoring.

Lumpkin, a professor of health, sport, and exercise sciences, explains in an interview with Martinez that a mentor must treat each graduate student uniquely, “setting high standards, but then working with them to achieve those standards.”

Reading her words makes me realize how much good mentors have in common.


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