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.

By Caroline Bennett

So, I’ve decided to flip a class.  [File this blog post under ‘Confessions’.]  Specifically, I’m going to flip a course this Spring semester, titled “Design of Steel Structures.”  It’s a fourth-year design class taken by civil and architectural engineers.

This is an undertaking that I’m both excited and nervous to tackle.  The part that I’m really looking forward to the most is really, really focusing in on “what should students be able to do” when they’re done with the course.  This is also the part that I am the most nervous about.

When I’ve taught this course in the past (seven or eight times), I have tried to keep this end-game in focus.  However, I have found that it is far too easy to let “what do I need to cover” take front stage under the pressures of any given semester.  I am expecting that flipping this class will pretty much make that recurring ‘slide’ impossible.  Which is great, and a 100% worthy goal.  And also a little terrifying.

I’m starting to think about how I am going to restructure the course for this spring.  The class is three credit hours, and meets for “lecture” sessions twice a week for 75 minutes and once a week for a two and a half hour “lab” sessions.  In the past, I’ve used the lecture sessions for presenting the theory and concepts behind designing steel structures.  I don’t think these lecture sessions have been particularly bad; in fact, I am proud of many of them.  We spend a lot of time in class working through examples — many of them I lead, and many of them students work through in small groups.

I am planning to move approximately 75% of this content outside of the class time.  Instead of working through this material in-class, I am going to create a series of online videos that students will be asked to view before class periods.  This is going to free up a lot of in-class time.  This newly-freed class time presents a great opportunity to focus deeply on higher-order learning objectives.  The question that this begs is “what is the best way to meet those objectives?”  The answer to this question should drive how we spend our in-class time.

This is my first foray into flipping, and I promise to keep you posted on my progress — my thought exercises and implementation.  I’m going to be wrestling with a host of new questions and challenges, and I would appreciate engaging in discussion with you on this forum!

Caroline Bennett is an associate professor of civil engineering and a fellow at the Center for Teaching Excellence. 

By Doug Ward

Learning is a partnership, I tell students. As an instructor, I do my best to provide interesting and relevant material, use class time wisely, and grade student work fairly. I also make time in and out of class to help students better understand material they struggle with.

I can do only so much, though, I explain, and I certainly can’t make students learn. Learning takes place only when students engage themselves in their education, complete their work meaningfully, come to class prepared, and participate in discussions and projects.

It sounds simple, but it’s not, as a new study on undergraduate engagement makes abundantly clear.

The study, A Fresh Look at Student Engagement, surveyed freshmen and seniors on such things as higher-order learning, collaborative learning, student-faculty interaction and the supportiveness of their campus. In the foreword to the report, Paul E. Lingenfelter, former president of the State Higher Education Executive Officers Association, sums up the challenges well: “An authentic postsecondary education is more than simply acquiring knowledge; it must produce a sophisticated ability to use knowledge creatively to solve problems and add value.” (5)Pages from NSSE_2013_Annual_Results

That ability starts with engagement, and the report shows that those of us in higher education have lots of work to do on that front. Here are a few of the findings:

Collaborative learning

Only about a third of students reported engaging in collaborative learning, which was defined as working with other students on projects and assignments, explaining course material to others, or preparing for exams together. Those in engineering and biology reported the highest levels of collaborative learning; those in the arts, humanities, social sciences and social services reported the lowest levels.

Study time

Freshmen reported spending an average of 14 hours a week preparing for classes; seniors, 15 hours. Students taking all their courses online reported spending about an hour more studying each week. Seniors in engineering spent the most time studying (19 hours); those in communications, media and public relations, the least (12 hours).

Time spent reading

Students in online courses spent more time reading (eight hours a week for both freshmen and seniors) than students in traditional courses (six hours for freshmen, seven hours for seniors). A third of students reported doing no reading for class.

Amount of writing

Students in online courses did far more writing (59 pages a semester for freshmen, 107 for seniors) than students in traditional classes (45 pages for freshmen, 75 pages for seniors). Not surprisingly, the more reading and writing a course required, the more students perceived that they increased their ability to think in complex and critical ways.

Learning strategies

Students who used such learning strategies as identifying key elements of reading assignments, reviewing notes after class and summarizing what they had learned from a course generally reported higher grades than those who didn’t.

Effective teaching

Only about 40 percent of students at research universities reported that their instructors used effective teaching practices. The study defined those practices as having clear goals and organization, using clear examples to explain difficult concepts, and giving prompt and detailed feedback on assignments. Those in liberal arts reported the highest percentages of effective teaching; those in engineering, science and technology the lowest.

Interaction with faculty

Only about 20 percent of freshmen and seniors at large universities (those with more than 10,000 students) reported having meaningful interactions with faculty members. This included activities such as talking about career plans, meeting with faculty members outside class, and discussing academic performance.

Supportive environment

Older students, veterans and transfer students were less likely to find the campus environment supportive than other students were. Students who lived off-campus were less likely to describe campus as supportive than students who lived on campus were.

Online engagement

Students in online-only courses reported a higher level of interaction with instructors, advisers, student services staff members and administrators than students in traditional classes did. At the same time, they reported low levels of collaborative learning and were less likely to find the class environment supportive than those in face-to-face classes.

Use of technology

Students said courses that used technology for learning and that helped them understand the use of technology improved engagement and higher-order learning.

Adjustments to teaching

Assistant professors and lecturers were far more likely than associate and full professors to use course evaluations to improve their courses and their teaching.

Highimpact practices

This was the umbrella term the survey used to describe such things as learning communities, study abroad, internships, service learning and research with faculty members. Eighty-four percent of seniors reported engaging in at least one of these activities and 60 percent reported two or more. Fifty-eight percent of freshmen reported engaging in at least one, and 12 percent said they had done two. For seniors at research universities, the most common activity was an internship (53 percent), followed by service learning (52 percent). For freshmen, the most common activity was service learning (46 percent).

Student jobs and activities

Seniors at research universities averaged 14 hours a week working for pay, 12 hours relaxing and socializing, 5 hours participating in extracurricular activities, 5 hours commuting (including walking and driving to campus), 4 hours caring for dependents, and 3 hours doing community service.

The study was conducted by the National Survey of Student Engagement, an organization that focuses on undergraduate learning. Dan Bernstein, director of the Center for Teaching Excellence at KU, serves on the organization’s advisory board.

This year’s survey involved more than 1.6 million students at more than 600 colleges and universities. Unfortunately, KU was not among them.

I’d highly recommend looking more closely at the report, which provides a rich snapshot of student and faculty perceptions of higher education. Most certainly, the survey highlights many encouraging aspects of student engagement. As I said, though, we all have a ways to go.


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

Connecting with students in online courses challenges even the best instructors.

I was reminded of that recently when I spoke with Tracy Russo, an associate professor of communication studies, at the C21 Course Redesign Consortium.

C21 brings together about 60 instructors from many disciplines at KU who are interested in making learning more active and more meaningful by changing the ways they approach their classes. The discussions teem with energy as faculty members, post-docs and graduate students share ideas and consider the provocative questions from the C21 organizer, Andrea Greenhoot, an associate professor of psychology and associate director of the Center for Teaching Excellence.

At the last C21 session, Russo and I talked about our experiences with online courses. She created and taught her first online course in 2000 and this year coordinates five sections of COMS 310, an introductory course in organizational communication that has three online and two face-to-face sections of about 25 students each. The face-to-face sections employ a flipped model, using modules from the online course to help prepare students for in-class discussions.

Images via Clker, Stock.xchng
Images via Clker, Stock.xchng

The combination of formats has allowed Russo to look more closely at how students learn.

“We’re trying to find out what works,” she said.

She isn’t ready to draw any conclusions about the class formats yet, but she has been frustrated with her online section. Discussion boards have been thin and her email inbox has overflowed with messages from students asking for clarification on assignments. She plans to add more explicit instructions and to alter some assignments to make them more meaningful. She still yearns for the face-to-face contact that traditional classes offer, though.

I know that all too well. I struggled the last time I taught an online course, and not surprisingly other instructors raise the same concerns that Russo and I have.

“As a teacher, I find it phenomenally frustrating because I don’t know the students personally,” Russo said.

A recent study by the Community College Research Center at Columbia University does an excellent job of explaining those frustrations, which students feel, as well. I highly recommend that anyone planning to teach an online course read the study. It is filled with excellent advice and provides welcome insights into students’ perceptions of online learning.

Among findings from the study:

  • Direction. Students want instructors to better explain the important aspects of readings, essentially emulating the points instructors might highlight in a classroom. They also want clear rubrics and written guidance on assignments so they won’t have to wait for instructors to respond to email so they can complete their work.
  • Feedback. Students expect feedback on all assignments, including discussion posts, often in far more detail than instructors provide. They find the lack of feedback discouraging, with one student saying, “It’s almost like you are talking to a wall.” (p. 19)
  • Motivation. Instructors say that students need to take responsibility to learn independently in online courses, but students say they need more help from instructors in understanding expectations and in devising strategies for learning.
  • Communication. Students cite communication with instructors as among their biggest problems in online courses. They expect instructors to respond via email far more quickly than instructors usually do (24 vs. 48 hours). Not surprisingly, in most of those messages students seek guidance on assignments.
  • Lack of visual cues. Students and instructors both find the lack of visual cues frustrating, and say that students need to reach out when they have problems because instructors have no way to know whether they understand material. That, of course, generally means more email and hence more frustration.
  • Course materials. Students prefer instructor-created video or audio presentations over nearly anything else, saying that those types of materials personalize courses and help them feel more connected to courses. Instructors often find those expectations unrealistic.

I plan to take the findings of the study to heart as I prepare for an online course in January and another in the summer.

One of the things those of us who teach online have to remember, though, is that most of us have had far more practice at teaching in person than we have online. That’s what makes the study from the Community College Research Center and Russo’s experiments with class format so important. They help us learn about and reflect on our own practices as we work to connect with students.


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

If you want to find a quick answer to a question, where do you go?

Google, most likely.

If you want to help students from half a dozen disciplines understand how the elements of linear algebra apply to them, where do you go?

Again, Google. But this time, think outside the search box.

That’s one of the tricks Erik Van Vleck, a professor of math at KU, uses to help students learn linear algebra. Students in all disciplines use Google to search for information. Van Vleck pushes them to look at the search engine in mathematical terms, though, asking: “What does Google do when you put in search terms?”

Eigenvectors
The matrix transforms its eigenvectors (represented by the blue and violet arrows) to vectors pointing in the same direction. “Eigen” translates to “characteristic.” Interestingly, for a while after WWII, the use of “eigen” was replaced by “characteristic” in the British scientific literature. (Image via Wikimedia Commons.)

This semester, Van Vleck coordinates two dozen sections of Calculus I and teaches a freshman seminar in the computer age and computational mathematics. Students in the classes come from majors like biology, physics, engineering, computer science and, of course, mathematics. Each of those disciplines applies math to its own types of problems, but students need the same basic understanding of concepts like derivatives, matrices and eigenvectors.

To help students grasp those abstract concepts, Van Vleck looks for problems and examples that apply across disciplines.

“I’m trying to give them examples that everybody knows,” Van Vleck said.

That’s where Google comes in.

He gives students an article that explains how Google’s bots troll the web, gathering information about pages and determining how they are connected to one another. From there, Google’s computers construct matrices and eigenvectors that ultimately determine what shows up on the results page of a search.

Only Google’s engineers and computer scientists know all the elements of the company’s search algorithm. But by relating those abstractions to everyday life, Van Vleck not only engages students in problem solving but helps them learn better, as well.

“Part of my belief is that if people are comfortable with context, it’s easier to understand things,” Van Vleck said. “Abstraction is great, but often we map back to context we’re comfortable with or familiar with.”

Van Vleck learned this firsthand when he was a new faculty member. He and other recent mathematics Ph.D.s attended a seminar where they received equivalent mathematical problems. One of the problems was phrased abstractly, the other in terms of drinking beer.

You can guess where this is going.

“All the math Ph.D.s did better in the beer example because we could see how to solve the problem even though it was the same as the abstract problem,” Van Vleck said.

Van Vleck uses other techniques to help students learn, including a flipped approach in which he gives students pre-class assignments, builds on those assignments in class, and then has students follow up with related assignments out of class.

He has also boiled down a 400-page textbook to 20 pages of notes with hyperlinks to additional information for students who want to go beyond the essentials.

“If students can master those 20 pages,” he said, “they can pass the class.”

All of Van Vleck’s strategies are part of a pedagogical approach known as “just-in-time teaching,” which aims to make the most of classroom time by focusing on what students need most.

Here’s a link with more information about the just-in-time strategy.

You can also search Google, as long as you’ve done your math homework first.


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

Here’s my challenge for the week: Rearrange the furniture in your classroom.

Go ahead. Have students help you. Some may look at you quizzically, but they will soon understand.

If the room has tables, push them together and create collaborative clusters or arrange them in a U shape. If it has individual seats, get rid of the rows. Make it easier for students to see one another and to talk to one another. Make it easy for you to sit among them. Break down the hierarchies. Break down the barriers.

Classroom, no credit needed, sxc.hu
Photo via sxc.hu. Illustration by Doug Ward.

Are you with me? If not, ask yourself why. Yes, I know that some classrooms – especially the large ones – have fixed seats. I can’t help you there. But for everyone else, changing the layout of a room to promote learning should be part of the routine.

I’m not suggesting that everyone teach in the same way. I am asking whether you are teaching in a way that gives students the best opportunity to learn. I’m also asking whether you are letting the room determine how you teach. If so, how much is room design getting in your way? And why aren’t you doing something about it?

Surprises from a classroom

I’ve always been quick to rearrange the furniture in classrooms, sometimes to the annoyance of colleagues. Last semester, though, I found out just how big a difference room design can make.

I taught two sections of a 300-level lass called Infomania. For one section, I was lucky enough to teach in The Commons, a fabulous space in Spooner Hall with high ceilings, lots of windows, hardwood floors, and tables and chairs on wheels. Emily Ryan, coordinator of The Commons, helped create clusters of tables. Students brought their laptops and tablets, and they had lots of room to spread out and create their own learning spaces.

The other section of the class was in the Dole Human Development Center. It was a traditional classroom with rows of individual desks. It was crowded, stuffy and oppressive. Most of the students came into the room to sit and endure, not to learn. I had the students move their desks together, but that didn’t help much. The small room allowed little maneuverability, and the individual seats created a sense of isolation.

So I tried something. I talked with Emily and arranged for the class to meet three times in Spooner Hall. The change in student behavior was almost instantaneous. Those who had sat passively became engaged. Collaboration thrived. Conversations flowed. Ideas spilled out.

The dramatic change the room brought about surprised me, but it seemed to surprise the students even more. We talked about how a room configuration can lead to passivity, and how students have been trained to come to class, find a seat as far back as possible, and wait for someone at the front of the room to start talking to them – or at them.

Rethinking teaching as well as room design

The room isn’t the only guilty party in this pervasive passivity. Pedagogy plays a huge role. For far too long, instruction has focused on a one-way transmission of information. Teachers speak. Students listen and take notes. Change classes. Repeat. And yet room construction is an accomplice in all this, one that sets the scene and often sets the tone of a class.

Once my students realized this last semester, they repeatedly asked to move from the crowded classroom in Dole. I wasn’t able to find a substitute room at midsemester, so I began meeting with groups of students in Watson, Anschutz and Spencer libraries, in the Union and at the Underground instead. We still met occasionally for full-class discussion in the assigned classroom, but no more than we had to. The students and I recognized that the classroom was impeding their learning. It was best to stay away.

So back to my challenge: Rearrange the furniture in your classroom this week. It may not transform your class, but it will change the atmosphere. If that doesn’t work, try meeting somewhere else. Break the routine and eliminate the built-in passivity of traditional rows. It can make an enormous difference in learning.


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