By Doug Ward

Student motivation is one of the most vexing challenges that instructors face. Students can’t learn if they aren’t engaged, and serious classroom material often fails to pique the interest of a generation that has grown up with the constant stimulation of smartphones, social media and video on demand.

Some instructors argue that motivation should be up to students, who are paying to come to college, after all. Most certainly, instructors can’t make students learn. Students have to cultivate that desire on their own. Instructors can take many steps to stoke that desire to learn, though, by drawing students into subject matter and into learning in general.

student sleeping
Photo by Cassandra Hamer, Unsplash

In a pedagogy class I’m teaching this semester, students and I worked through some of the steps we can take to motivate students. This is hardly a comprehensive list, but it touches on concrete steps that any instructor can take to draw students into class material and into learning.

Find links. Helping students make connections among seemingly unrelated topics deepens their thinking and expands their ability to learn. By tying their interests (say, music) to more challenging subject matter (the workings of the brain, for instance, or American history), we can motivate students to further their exploration and broaden their learning. As John Bransford, Ann Brown and Rodney Cocking write in How People Learn, helping students understand the usefulness of a subject can improve learning, as can making sure material is neither too difficult nor too easy and providing opportunities to share with others.

Vary class time. Approaching class in the same way every time lulls students into a routine that can lead to their tuning out or shutting down. Put yourself in students’ shoes: They may have three or four classes in a single day. That alone makes concentration a challenge. Things like breaking a 75-minute class into three or four small topics, playing a short video or audio clip at some point, or even having students stand up for a minute or two can break a routine and refocus attention.

Give students choices. We all need some sense of control over what we do and how we do something. Giving students choices on project topics, readings or quiz questions gives them at least some sense of control and ownership.

Use hands-on activities. Evidence is clear that active learning, in which students engage in discussions, work on problems, or take on questions in groups, is a far better means of instruction than lecture. All instructors need time to explain things to students, but the real learning begins when students engage with material in authentic ways.

Move around the room. Moving about the classroom or encouraging students to move about and talk with classmates can help maintain students’ attention. This also helps instructors get to know students better.

Encourage students. A few words of encouragement can go a long way in keeping students engaged. Remind students that learning takes time and that their peers struggle, as well. Don’t resort to false praise, but point out good elements in students’ work and help them build on those elements.

Make individual connections. Show your humanity and help students understand who you are as a person. That doesn’t mean befriending students, but learning their names, remembering faces, and talking to students about their interests and aspirations helps personalize the learning process and helps draw students into that process.

Use humor. Instructors don’t have to be stand-up comedians, but displaying a sense of humor makes them more relatable, diminishes anxiety and sends a message that learning can be fun.

Use games. The gamification of learning has grown considerably since the turn of the century, but games that help students learn have been part of learning for as long as there have been games. So using a game strategy in a class doesn’t require great technical know-how. For instance, I have created “Jeopardy” games in PowerPoint to help students learn grammar, and crossword puzzles to help them practice research skills. Those strategies require preparation, but I’ve found them very effective.

There are many other approaches to engaging students. Some require prep time and trial and error from instructors, but many others require little more than an open mind. We’d love to hear the strategies that work best for you.


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.

Students try to assemble a Lego creation after instructions were relayed from another room.

By Doug Ward

Here’s some sage advice to start the semester: Don’t be a jerk.

That comes from a student who will be an undergraduate teaching assistant for the first time this spring. Actually, he used a much more colorful term than “jerk,” but you get the idea. He was responding to a question from Ward Lyles, an assistant professor of urban planning, about things that undergrad TAs could do to set the tone in classes they worked in. More about that shortly.

Lyles’s workshop on fostering an inclusive classroom climate was one of half a dozen sessions offered for 94 undergraduate assistants in STEM fields this week.  Other sessions focused on such things as grading; team-building and communication; sexual harassment reporting; and expectations of undergraduate teaching assistants.

Molly McVey, workshop organizer, checks in students at a training session for undergraduate teaching assistants.

The workshop was organized by Molly McVey, a teaching specialist in the School of Engineering. McVey organized the first such workshop a year ago after the number of teaching fellows (the name for undergraduate assistants in engineering) increased from four to 25. The school had no formal training program, so McVey created one.

Other fields, including math, have their own sessions for undergraduate assistants. The program McVey started is unique, though, in that it brings together student assistants and instructors from a variety of disciplines. In addition to engineering, students at this week’s session came from biology, physics, and geography and atmospheric sciences. Department representatives had time to speak with students in their specific disciplines, but the overarching goal was the same for everyone: to help undergraduate assistants in STEM fields better understand their role in the classroom.

McVey added another element this time, based on experiences with the previous two training sessions.

“We realized that we really needed to get the faculty in the room, too,” McVey said. “Some of the things we were communicating to the teaching fellows, faculty needed to hear, as well, so that everyone was on the same page.”     

Students assemble Lego creations at the workshop.

The need for undergraduate TA training has grown as active learning in STEM fields has expanded over the last several years. These TAs perform a variety of duties, but their primary role is to move about large classes and help students with problem-solving, discussions and questions. Instructors choose the TAs from among the students who have taken their classes in previous semesters. That way the TAs know the subject matter, the class format, and the needs of fellow students.

Undergraduate assistants have been instrumental in improving student retention and learning in such fields as engineering, geology and biology. Many other factors have been involved in those improvements, but the assistants provide key support as instructors shift courses from lecture to hands-on class work. They offer additional eyes and ears in large classes, and they provide additional contacts for students who might be reluctant to speak up in large classes.

The training sessions this week helped undergraduate assistants understand some of the challenges they will face. Lorin Maletsky, associate dean for undergraduate studies in engineering, led a workshop in which teams of students assembled Lego contraptions using instructions from teammates who listened to descriptions in a different room and then raced back to explain – or try to explain – the appropriate steps. The scene was occasionally comical as students dashed in and out, gave colleagues blank looks and grimaces, and tried to put together pieces based on sketchy directions.

The exercise was eye-opening for those involved, though, in that it simulated the challenges that students face in trying to understand information that instructors provide in class. Sometimes that information is clearly understood. Most of the time, though, it comes through in patchy and incomplete ways as students struggle to grasp new concepts.

Students consider questions posed by Ward Lyles (in the background)

Maletsky offered another analogy between the Lego exercise and teaching: Good teaching requires instructors and students to bring together many pieces, put them in the right order and create a coherent whole.

“That’s not easy,” he said.

In the diversity workshop that Lyles led, participants grappled with questions of student motivation, preconceived ideas, student perceptions, and class climate. Toward the end, he asked the undergraduate assistants to think about things they could do to help foster an environment that encourages learning.

The student who told his fellow participants not to be jerks said he spoke from experience. An undergrad TA in a class he took in a previous semester was pompous and unapproachable, souring the atmosphere for many students in the class. He vowed to approach his job in a more appropriate way.

Other participants offered these suggestions:

  • Relate your own experiences so that current students better understand how you learned course material.
  • Call students by name.
  • Find something unique about each student to help you remember them.
  • Pay attention to student struggles.
  • Be an ear for instructors and listen for potential problems.
  • Work at leading students to finding answers rather than just giving them answers.
  • Don’t be afraid to say “I don’t know.”

 It was excellent advice not just for undergraduate assistants, but for anyone working with students.


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

If I were to design the perfect learning experience, it would have all the components that Chad Kraus included in a studio architecture class he taught this fall.

Chad Kraus with a prototype of the Haitian center his students designed.
  • Start with a problem that has no single or simple solution.
  • Study the problem, the context and the people involved.
  • Learn the skills that will help solve the problem.
  • Practice the skills with teammates.
  • Get feedback from instructors and peers.
  • Apply the skills in an authentic assignment.
  • Teach others the skills you have learned.
  • Reflect on the work.

The project in Kraus’s class, ARCH 600, even goes beyond that, though, by adding a study abroad component. In a little over a week, Krauss and another professor, Lance Rake, and six students will board a plane for Miami and then fly to Haiti, where they will spend two weeks helping build a community center the class designed.

Kraus’s class, called Global Studio, has been creating, prototyping and revising plans for the community center all semester. The class has 12 students, though only six will travel to Haiti. Kraus, an associate professor of architecture, is the lead instructor for the class. He has been joined by Kent Spreckelmeyer, a professor of architecture who directs the school’s health and wellness program; and Rake, a professor of design. Cécile Accilien, associate professor of African and African-American studies and associate director of the Center for Latin American and Caribbean Studies, taught an accompanying one-hour class that helped students learn about Haiti and its culture.

That’s only a small portion of a cast of instructors, students, consultants, fundraisers, planners, engineers and organizations that has been involved. The School of Architecture and Design raised more than $12,000 through a crowdfunding campaign to help defray student travel costs. Students and faculty at the American University of the Caribbean, and Haiti Tec, a trade school in Port-au-Prince, will join the KU team at the building site. Frank Zilm, who leads the Institute of Health+Wellness Design at the School of Architecture and Design, has been involved, as well. All of those involved have been working with the Global Birthing Home Foundation, a nonprofit organization based in Leawood that is financing the construction.

If that sounds like a challenge to plan and coordinate, it is. And yet Kraus approaches the project with a quiet equanimity that leaves little doubt that all the pieces will fit together.

“It takes a village to do something like this,” Kraus said. “Part of that is we’re trying to string together different expertise. This whole project is a labor of love for everyone involved.”

Chad Kraus critiques final plans for the building project. With him are Kenneth Wilson (in windowsill) Melissa Watson (in red) and Sarah Wages.

How the project evolved

The new center will be built in Torbeck, a rural area near Les Cayes on the southwestern peninsula of Haiti. In 2016, Hurricane Matthew roared through the area with 140-mph winds and torrential rains. The area had few shelters, and 150 people took refuge in a birthing center in Torbeck. The center’s staff continued to offer all of its services – delivering babies, offering prenatal and postnatal care – even as they worked around the unexpected guests.

“It was really difficult for them, and it sort of catalyzed in their mind the absolute necessity of building a community center,” Kraus said.

The birthing center, Maison de Naissance, was established by the Global Birthing Home Foundation. The foundation shares oversight of the center with a Haitian organization, provides operating money, and handles all the center’s programs and operations. The foundation reached out to the School of Architecture and Design for assistance, and that’s when Kraus became involved. He and the foundation’s executive director traveled to Haiti during the summer to begin the planning process.

“They were looking for a way to build a strong, stable, long-lasting, secure building,” Kraus said.

To do that, Kraus and the students settled on rammed-earth walls and a bamboo roof. Rammed earth, which has been used for centuries, is just what it sounds like, Kraus said. A wooden form is constructed for the walls, and then soil mixed with a little water is added and tamped down with wooden dowels or specialized tools with steel butts.

“Basically you ram layer by layer and you build up the wall,” Kraus said. “And then you strip the forms and you have this wall that in some cases can be made entirely out of earth.”

Kraus learned about compressed earth while working for the Pritzker-prize-winning architect firm Shigeru Ban, who is known for his unconventional designs. He taught a studio focusing on rammed earth after he came to KU and found that students were especially interested in the techniques. He doesn’t want to teach the same studio every year, he said, but students continually ask to learn about rammed earth. That approach fit well into the designs for the community center in Haiti.

A prototype of a rammed earth wall that students created.

The class chose bamboo for the roof because bamboo is lightweight, flexible, and resilient in high winds. Lighter material reduces the danger of heavy objects flying through the air during a hurricane or falling during an earthquake. Bamboo is also a renewable resource. It grows quickly and its roots spread, providing cover for erosion-prone areas where forests once stood. Half of Haiti’s forests have been destroyed since the early 1900s through logging, clearing of trees for coffee and sugarcane fields, hurricane damage, and demand for land as the country’s population has grown. President Rene Préval introduced bamboo into the country in the late 1990s and early 2000s as a means of land cover and industry.

“But it’s still something that most Haitians have no familiarity with and it hasn’t caught on as a construction material,” Kraus said. “So we want to push that potential of bamboo.”

The project that Kraus’s students have designed uses renewable materials and has the potential of providing jobs for the surrounding community during the construction process. They also want to demonstrate how the same process can be used to build resilient homes with low-cost materials.

“We wanted the local community to be involved so that they felt some kind of investment in the whole thing,” Kraus said. “But we also didn’t want to get them started and say, ‘We’re done. It’s all up to you now.’ We wanted to support them as they’re going through the majority of the project and help with questions that they have or additional design work that needs to be done.”

An expansive team and lots of questions

The students in Kraus’s class have worked in teams throughout the semester.  A management team oversaw the broad aspects of the project, working with a design team, a research team, a budget team and a video team, which is creating instructional videos to demonstrate the building techniques for Haitian workers.

The teams researched similar projects for details that might improve the center’s design or offer clues about how the materials they are using will stand up in Haiti’s climate. Each new aspect raised new challenges or led to questions the students had to research, Kraus said.

  • How does the rammed earth meet the foundation?
  • How do we size the foundation?
  • How much rebar do we put in?
  • How we design the bamboo to be flexible but also stiff?
  • How do we apply cross bracing between the bamboo trusses?
  • How do we anchor the rammed earth?
  • How we design the roof so that it doesn’t blow away?
  • How do we build a latrine that can be maintained over time?
  • What colors and materials will fit best into Haitian culture?

The students have checked in frequently with the Global Birthing Home Foundation, as well as contractors and engineers in Haiti. They have drawn on experts in Lawrence to help answer questions about designs, and costs and availability of materials. For instance, Ron Barrett-Gonzalez, a professor of aerospace engineering, helped the students understand how to design a roof that will stand up to high winds. An engineer in Ireland who has extensive experience with bamboo construction has spoken with the students remotely.

“The students do all that work,” Kraus said. “I would say they are heavily supported by the faculty members, but they are expected to do the work.”

Sarah Wages, a fourth-year student from Lake of the Ozarks, Mo., said those demands could be overwhelming at times.

“You have to make sure what you’re doing is possible, to the extreme,” she said. “You have to bring it down to a level you know we can do. Especially in the design phase, we were pulling out these case studies of crazy roofs and crazy building forms and having to kind of tame ourselves back to understanding what is needed and what is actually possible. If we don’t know how to do it, how are we going to teach others how to do it?”

Students in ARCH 600 discuss building plans during their final meeting before the trip to Haiti.

Final plans for construction and travel

During the last week of fall classes, the project team gathered in room 206C in Marvin Hall and ran through the final details.

David Vertseeg points out some problems in the building plans.

The room was warm and stuffy. The overhead lights were turned off, and a gray light from a cloudy December afternoon filtered in through three north windows. Students, many in sweaters, sweatshirts and stocking caps, huddled around a conference table. One sat on a window ledge, another on the floor. Some had laptops open. Others had building plans spread out in front of them.

Students projected their plans onto a large monitor at the end of the room, and Kraus and David Vertseeg, a post-professional student who is working with Kraus in a special problems course, asked questions and offered suggestions.

Remove an extraneous line from one drawing. Reduce the amount of ground showing on another so the notations can be seen. Adjust the hatch size of the background fill so that it conforms to the plans. What are those black lines in that section of the pony wall? Where does that downspout go? Do the drawings indicate rebar in the walls? Make sure the plans have consistent numbering for the contractor.

Zilm, of the Institute of Health+Design, reported by speaker phone on results of a test of the Haitian soil. It has about 14 percent clay, on the low end of what is needed, but it should be enough to provide stability for the walls, he said.

Considerable time was spent going over travel details questions.

Can we take batteries? What is the weight limit on luggage? What tools do we need to take? Would the birthing center know the cheapest way to ship tools we can’t get in our bags?

Instisar Tyne listens to Kraus as Melissa Watson (foreground) takes notes.

Spreckelmeyer asks whether all the students have a contact card for the Study Abroad office. Kraus tells them that wifi in the area is spotty, so phone use will be limited. Don’t take selfies with people or treat them like objects of art, he says. Make sure to bring a water bottle. Take nonperishable protein. Get a good sun hat and powerful bug spray. Take a small amount of cash but not so much that you become a target for thieves.

By the end of class, the sun has nearly set and the room has grown dim. Questions gradually fade. The monitor on the wall glows. Kraus reminds students to keep checking Slack, a communications program the class uses for sharing information. The students gather their drawings, close their computers, hoist their backpacks and hold the door open for one another as they leave the room

Wages is the last to leave. I ask her what she has taken away from the class. She talks about the technical elements (repeatedly revising designs, testing the rammed earth techniques, deciding on the best way to create shutters) but also the cultural elements (adding red pigment and other colors to the walls to accommodate Haitian tastes, making sure the project will help people in the long term).

“You can’t just plop a building down and assume it’s going to do its job in the best way possible,” she said. “There are so many factors you have to think about to make a building really work, and integrate it into the community in the best way possible. I’m really excited to go and see the actual site, see where it is in relation to where the people are. There’s just so much you get to see when you actually integrate a building into a real place.”

Continuing the learning through the spring semester

Kraus, along with Spreckelmeyer, will lead another class in the spring related to the Haiti project. Students will continue to work with the partners in Haiti, troubleshooting problems and offering advice on components of the community center. They will also develop prototype housing designs based on the plans they created for the center. The emphasis will again be on rammed earth and bamboo. Some of the students from the fall class and the intersession will continue, but additional students asked to join after they heard about the project. Some of the students will eventually earn 13 hours of credit for the Haiti project: three from the fall architecture studio, one from the class on Haitian culture, six for the Haiti trip, and three in the spring class.

Schuyler Clogston and Sekou Hayes work during the final class session.

Architecture classes regularly have a hands-on component, with students designing and building structures or additions, or renovating existing buildings. And all architecture students, who go through a five-year program and earn a master’s degree, are required to study abroad at some point. This class is different, though, because it combines the elements of a design studio with a study abroad.

“This is the first opportunity that’s been created to design something and then go and build it overseas,” Wages said. “We have a lot of study abroad programs that are really great. We have tons of connections overseas, and we can do internships, but this is something I really want to get into – helping people, experiencing different cultures and bringing from here to there.”

I told Kraus that I was impressed with the format of the class. It provides an amazing number of learning experiences for students, helping them turn the conceptual into the tangible and then see their work put to use for a good cause.

“I agree,” he said. “That’s probably the single biggest reason why I wanted to come back to academia. I knew it was a powerful way to learn. I see this time and time again. When you get students together and encourage them to share knowledge, then what this student knew and taught to this student becomes reinforced and expanded upon. The student actually becomes a better future architect having taught other students what they know. And you’re right. That is a really powerful way to embed new knowledge.”


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

Authentic assignments can be messy.

That’s not a bad thing. In fact, the messiness helps students deepen their critical thinking, improve their decision-making, learn about themselves, and even take more control over their learning.

That messiness can be challenging for both students and faculty members, though. For students accustomed to a lecture-and-test format, it means grappling with ambiguity and working through failures. For instructors, it means ceding considerable control to students and devoting time to individual and group problem-solving.

stylized photo of students working together at tables and whiteboards
My approach to authentic assignments involves considerable group work.

Let me give you an example from a journalism class called Infomania, which focuses on research skills and critical thinking. To promote those skills, I challenge students, mostly freshmen and sophomores, to solve a problem or answer a question using information and digital tools. They work in groups to identify elements of the problem, conduct research, and create a prototype of a solution.

The results have been impressive, but the process is messy. Students must identify problems and focus questions; identify sources; brainstorm solutions; distribute work among groups; set deadlines, and ultimately give shape to their ideas. I set aside one class period each week for group work, moving among the groups, challenging their thinking, pushing for context, and guiding them toward appropriate resources. I also bring in librarians, who provide important perspectives on finding information.

The approach I take in the class combines elements of team-based learning and problem-based learning, combined with a dose of entrepreneurial thinking. If you plan to try something similar, keep a few things in mind:

Embrace the messiness. It takes a while for students to come to grips with the idea of controlling their own learning. I provide material at the beginning of the semester on how to do that, but students take vastly different paths. Those who have mastered test-taking often struggle the most, but all students need reassurance and guidance. I give one piece of advice so much that it is almost a class mantra: “Try it.”

Provide choices. Choice motivates students. I rarely so no to ideas, but I spend a lot of time helping students hone their questions, think through what they really want to discover, and why they think that is significant.

Trust students. All too often, instructors set low expectations and assume that students need to be told what to do at every step. That teaches students to be passive consumers of information and of education. I’ve found that students respond well to challenges and high expectations. Consider that for years, students have told the National Survey of Student Engagement that they expected college to require more work than it really does. If we give students meaningful work, they will respond to the challenge.

Give students time. I devote a least one of two classes each week to group work. Many groups still meet outside class, especially later in the semester, but time in class is crucial. None only does it create a regular schedule for group meetings, but it provides a regular time for me to meet with the groups. As I rotate among the groups, I can answer questions, offer advice and head off potential problems. When I encounter questions that other groups need to know about, I can then provide a mini-lecture or simply provide answers that the entire class needs to know.

Don’t expect miracles. My approach to Infomania has led to such projects as a digital survival guide for freshmen, an e-book on KU traditions, an interactive guide for finding study spaces on and off campus, a prototype of an app for basketball camping, and a guide for matching volunteers and organizations. I’ve also had many shallow projects. Even with those, though, students learned to research and think through problems more effectively.

Nearly all students struggle with this process. That’s important because it forces them out of passivity and empowers them to take control over their own learning. Here’s how one student described the process in an end-of-semester self-evaluation:

“In other courses I have taken at various levels of schooling, it was essentially me pleasing the teacher and nodding my head. In this class, I was forced to take the lead and complete my work on my own.  This required focus and organization that had never been required before.  Although at the beginning of the class I despised it, I have come to realize that this is how the workplace will be. There is nobody providing you with the guides to succeed. You have to take it on yourself. This class has taught me that.”

Other students haven’t been as positive. Nearly all recognize the importance of authenticity, though.

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More on authentic learning: The latest issue of Teaching Matters includes many examples of how faculty members at KU have approached authentic learning.


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

Mannequins have been a part of health care training for decades. As Matt Lineberry of the Zamierowski Institute for Experiential Learning demonstrated recently, though, those mannequins have become decidedly smarter.

Lineberry, director of simulation research, assessment and outcomes at the Zamierowski Institute, spoke with faculty members and graduate students in the educational psychology department in Lawrence, explaining how health care simulation has evolved into highly sophisticated mechanism for gathering data about students’ performance in a variety of medical settings.

The Zamierowski Institute, part of the University of Kansas Medical Center campus, expanded immensely with the opening of the new Health Education Building this fall. It now has spaces where students practice emergency room care, intensive care, operations and other aspects of medicine in realistic settings.

Mannequins are a key part of the learning process. The most sophisticated models, which cost about $100,000, simulate lung sounds, heart sounds, cardiac arrest and a variety of ailments. Students can use ultrasound, feed in catheters, deliver electric shock for cardiac arrest, and administer medication. Software that works with the mannequins gathers dozens of types of data and can even measure the type and dose of medication injected into the simulated patients.

Joseph Chapes, an e-learning support specialist at the Center for Online and Distance Learning, uses ultrasound on a smart mannequin as Vanessa Schott of the School of Nursing feeds in a catheter.

Students also work with actors who take on the roles of “standardized patients” for practicing interpersonal skills. Actors also play family members and colleagues to help doctors and nurses gain experience with interaction. In some cases, the actors wear gear that simulates injuries.

As students work, cameras capture video from many angles. That allows students and instructors to review students’ responses and interactions.

Lineberry said the training had helped cut down on response times in emergencies. He gave an example of a highly trained team of student doctors and nurses who went through a cardiac arrest simulation at the center. For defibrillation to be effective, he said, it must be administered within two minutes of a heart stopping. The team took about seven minutes to administer defibrillation, though. That was eye-opening, Lineberry said, but it demonstrated the value of having hands-on training in a setting where patients aren’t at risk.

The center’s approach has become common not only in health care but in other fields that have adopted augmented and virtual reality. For instance, Case Western Reserve’s use of Microsoft’s Hololens has transformed its teaching of anatomy. Augmented reality has provided architects and engineers new ways of creating and testing prototypes. A digital rendering of Pompeii by researchers at the University of Arkansas has provided new insights into ancient culture. And K-12 schools have found that virtual reality field trips improve students’ retention of information.

Those are just a few of the ways that educators have been using technology to enhance learning and understanding. As with the mannequins, that technology will only grow smarter.

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New studio opens in Budig Hall

Information Technology and the Center for Online and Distance Learning opened a new studio in Budig Hall this semester. The studio provides expanded space for creating instructional videos. It includes a green screen for recording video and a lightboard, which allows instructors to write on a pane of glass as they work through problems or provide demonstrations for students.

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

When Mark Mort began remaking a 100-level biology course a few years ago, he asked instructors who had taught the class what they thought students needed.

“Not surprisingly, the answers were very much content, content, content,” said Mort, an associate professor of ecology and evolutionary biology.

Then he went to colleagues who taught classes later in the curriculum, courses for which his course, Biology 152, was a prerequisite. He asked what they expected students to know after taking Biology 152, or Principles of Organismal Biology.

Their response?

Nothing.

That’s right. Nothing. They told Mort: “We don’t think they have any content retention.”

The response was both sobering and liberating, reminding Mort of the course’s weaknesses but helping justify a major remake.

Biology 152 is the first of a two-course sequence that most biology majors take. It had long been taught as a lecture to 400 or more students, with instructors using PowerPoint slides to “plow through as much material and content as possible,” Mort said.

Mort knew the course had problems.

“We were losing a lot of students because we were trying cover a lot of material in a very rapid fashion,” he said.

So he set out to change the course in several ways:

  • Creating “high-reward, low-risk” activities, both in class and out of class, to help students learn material along the way rather than forcing them to cram for exams
  • Lecturing less and integrating more discussion, case studies, problem-solving and application of material, even in a class that often had more than 400 students
  • Helping students improve their study skills
  • Focusing on activities that help students think like a scientist, including improving their understanding of scientific method, their ability to read scientific papers, and their ability to interpret charts and graphs

    Mark Mort works with students in Biology 152

All too often, Mort said, faculty members get lost in the content and forget about the things that fascinated and inspired them early in their careers.

“And I think if we don’t step back and say, ‘This is why I’m a biologist’ or ‘This is why I’m a psychologist,’ we don’t get the excitement in the next generation of students,” Mort said.

The transformation is working. Students are more engaged. The number of those who drop or fail has declined. Instructors are enjoying the teaching of the class more. And Mort is able to have new conversations with his colleagues.

“It’s allowing me to go to my colleagues downstream and say, ‘The students in Biology 152 were held accountable for this information at this level of knowledge, and you don’t have to feel compelled to go back to the very basics because they have some of this content already.’ The price is we don’t cover 15 chapters on human anatomy and physiology or mammalian physiology. I don’t think we need to. I don’t think we ever should have tried to do that.”

In other words, it’s no longer all about the content.


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

KANSAS CITY, Mo. – The humanities have gone through much soul-searching over the past few years. So asking instructors in the humanities to take on hard questions about the way they teach seems like a natural step.

For instance, what do they value in their teaching? Is that truly reflected in their teaching and assignments? Why do they teach the humanities? What is humanities teaching and learning good for?

Those are some of the questions that arose in opening sessions this week at the (Re)imagining Humanities Teaching conference in Kansas City. The conference is the final event of the Collaborative Humanities Redesign Project, a three-year program involving faculty at KU, Park, Rockhurst and Elon universities. Dan Bernstein, the former director of the Center for Teaching Excellence at KU, has led the project, which was financed by a grant from the Teagle Foundation.

Glenn Lester of Park University

In one of the opening workshops, Glenn Lester, an assistant professor of English at Park University, asked participants to explore what they, as instructors, valued in writing. That’s important, he said, because instructors usually focus on the skills they want students to acquire but rarely engage in a deep reading of the feedback they give to students.

Lester did just that with a semester’s worth of papers, categorizing his feedback and creating a rubric that articulated what he was really looking for in student writing. He found that students’ writing seemed too generic and that he needed to adjust his teaching of the class. He used the evaluation of comments as a guide.

He found two important things, he said. First, he hadn’t been emphasizing the need for students to explain the relevance of their work, the “so what?” question. He also realized he valued the curiosity that students displayed in their writing, and wanted them to reveal more of their metacognitive processes.

He used the rubric he created from those comments not for students but for himself. It became a tool to self-assess the elements of writing he needed to make more explicit to students in his teaching. In a portfolio he created about the changes he made in the class, he offered this:

“But most of all, I want my students to care. I want them to care about what they write about. I want them to recognize that their words, their ideas and their experiences have value. I want them to use writing and research as tools to explore their own interests, curiosities, and communities.

In the opening plenary, Peter Felten, assistant vice provost for teaching and learning at Elon University, asked conference participants to reflect on the purposes of humanities teaching. They offered many ideas:

  • making connections
  • explaining what it means to be human
  • learning about subjectivity
  • understanding the self through the other
  • cultivating empathy
  • appreciating ambiguity
  • exploring the world through multiple perspectives, memories and histories
  • learning the importance of text and context, as well as narrative, perspective and representation

Felton then asked participants whether those larger goals were the ones they talked about on their last day of classes. That is, do they follow through on those aspirational goals. If not, why? 

LaKresha Graham of Rockhurst University answers a question from Pat Hutchings, center, during a lunch session at the conference. At left are Charlie Blaich and Kathy Wise of Wabash College.

He then offered a synthesis of the goals that participants in the Collaborative Humanities Redesign Project had expressed in portfolios they created on their course redesign work. The recurring themes, he said, were to set meaningful goals; practice, practice, practice; and then give feedback on student work.

Digging a bit deeper, he offered a reading of how CHRP participants approach reflective teaching, saying that three themes emerged:

  • Treat student work as the core text.
  • Expect messiness and failures.
  • Learn with colleagues.

He offered a final thought for conference participants to consider: What if we looked into not just student skills, but their habits of mind. What would we see in our students’ work?

It was a rhetorical question, but one that spoke to the goals and aspirations of the many excellent teachers in the crowd, and to the continued soul-searching that instructors in the humanities must keep doing.


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

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.