By Doug Ward

Here’s a thought to start the semester with:

Education offers only a blueprint. Learning takes place in the application.

If that sounds familiar, it should. It lies at the heart of active learning, an amalgam of practices that that moves education beyond the mere delivery of information. It’s an approach that improves student learning, especially among underserved students, and helps make teaching more engaging for instructors and students.

GTAs at the graduate conference in lawrence
Students work through a group problem at the GTA conference in Lawrence

In short, it’s an approach we should use in all our classes.

I’ve found that a university’s newest instructors – graduate teaching assistants – understand that. They are, after all, successful students in their own right, having been both participants in learning and observers of teaching for many years.

I’ve also found that most new GTAs have a good sense of how to approach teaching. They lack experience, of course. They need guidance, of course. They also need reassurance, support, and training. They want to succeed as teachers, though, and they are willing to put in the time and effort to help the students they work with succeed.

Evidence of that attitude can be seen in the distillation of active learning at the beginning of this post. It came from a recent session with new GTAs. In that session, I shared some thoughts about teaching before breaking students into groups. Within those groups, the participants – most of whom had yet to teach their first class – considered these questions:

  • What is a teacher?
  • How do we create an environment that encourages learning?
  • As instructors, how to we help our students learn how to learn?
  • What are the biggest challenges we face in accomplishing that?

In those discussions, the teaching assistants talked about the importance of displaying interest and enthusiasm in the course material, encouraging students, providing concrete examples, personalizing assignments, creating a safe environment for sharing ideas, removing obstacles to learning, promoting interaction in groups, and modeling vulnerability. One group also brought up the importance of the teacher as learner, as someone who aspires toward constant improvement.

There was no way to work through those questions – or the responses – thoroughly in an hour-long session, but I wanted the new GTAs to contemplate the important role they were taking on.

GTAs will return for similar follow-up sessions in the coming weeks. Those sessions will again offer time for reflection, support, advice and assistance in teaching. Participants will also get an opportunity to add detail their own blueprint of education.

They need much more than that, though. Good teaching doesn’t come from a handful of sessions on pedagogy and strategy and philosophy. It builds slowly from planning and reflection, listening and evaluation, adjustment and assessment, and then more planning and reflection.

Some GTAs come from departments that will help them gain those skills. Others, unfortunately, work in departments that see little value in high-quality teaching and provide little support for instructors. Some of those GTAs who receive support and encouragement will go on to become great teachers. Others will be swallowed by a culture hostile to change and hostile to the reality that learning requires more than the mere memorization of facts.

And so every academic year begins with grand hopes for renewal, with encouraging signs that higher education will indeed embrace the idea of application. It also comes with a sobering reality that we need to do so much more.

A fascinating map of student migration

The New York Times offers a fascinating look at the geographic shift of students who attend public universities. A series of maps shows the number of students who have left each state and those who have moved to a different state to attend a public college or university.

That number is substantial. Over the last 30 years, The Times reports, the number of out-of-state freshmen at public universities has nearly doubled. That shifting geography is a result of budget cuts that have made in-state tuition more expensive, and financial aid packages that public universities have offered to bring in more out-of-state students.   

Kansas showed a net gain of 1,290 students to its public universities. Other states didn’t fare so well, with California, Minnesota, Texas, Illinois and New Jersey among the states with the largest losses.


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

Alma Clayton-Pedersen offers this vision for higher education:

“Imagine what a nation we would be if students really took away everything we wanted them to have,” she said at last week’s Teaching Summit in Lawrence.

Alma Clayton-Pedersen
Alma Clayton-Pedersen at the KU Teaching Summit

Problem is, they don’t. Much of the reason for that, she said, has to do with their background, the quality of the education they received before college, the way they are treated in college, and the connections they feel – or don’t feel – to their peers, their instructors and their campus.

We talk about college readiness as students being ready for college, she said, but “what about our colleges being ready for the students we have?”

Clayton-Pedersen is a senior scholar at the Association of American Colleges and Universities, a former administrator at Vanderbilt University and the chief executive of Emeritus Consulting Group. In her keynote address at the Teaching Summit, she spoke to more than 300 faculty members, staff members and administrators on Aug. 18 about the importance of combining excellence and inclusivity into a single goal.

“There is a disconnect between how we think about diversity and how we think about educational excellence,” Clayton-Pedersen said.

In fact, she said, faculty, staff and administrators too often see students’ diverse backgrounds as something that needs to be overcome rather than something that could serve as a frame for learning. Even students take that mindset, she said, explaining that well-meaning students often volunteer in disadvantaged areas with a mindset of “saving” people from their circumstances rather than recognizing that they are part of a living community.

That same disconnect shows up in universities in such forms as weed-out classes; an unwillingness to adapt teaching to the ways that students learn best; low expectations based on the types of students enrolled; and even preconceptions about students that lead to anger and frustrations among faculty and students.

“We need to be focused on all of our students,” Clayton-Pedersen said, “and we are not doing as well as we’d like – in all categories.”

Most of the enrollment growth in higher education is coming from students that colleges and universities haven’t served well, she said. When universities lose those students, they lose both money and reputation, she said.

Disparities in graduation rates between white students and underrepresented minorities “not only is it a travesty for those students, but it goes to the heart and vitality of your institution,” she said.

“You lose dollars every time one of those students walks out of your door,” Clayton-Pedersen said. “You lose reputation every time one of those students walks out of your door. Remember, they go back to their homes and say, ‘I had a bad experience.’ ”

She followed with a provocative question – “What does that do to you in the long run?” – and a sobering answer:

“If we don’t attend to this now, and do so rapidly, our institutions are at peril.”

Alma Clayton-Pedersen on the steps in Budig Hall, speaking with KU faculty members
Alma Clayton-Pedersen speaks with faculty during her keynote address in Budig Hall

A way forward

Even as she sounded alarm bells, Clayton-Pedersen offered suggestions for how to make the university learning environment more inclusive. Her suggestions drew heavily on research-based strategies and high-impact practices for teaching and learning that increasing numbers of faculty have been embracing. Among them:

  • Help students make connections. This involves creating meaningful, relevant curricula that allow students to see a clear path toward learning, that allow them to apply the knowledge they acquire, and that allow them to see connections among discrete ideas and concepts.
  • Encourage interaction. Students need meaningful interactions with instructors who accept their differences, mentor them, help them gain a deeper understanding of the world and the many cultures it offers. They also need instructors who see them more than just marks on a page. “Take a moment before handing that paper back and tell that student that I believe in you and will help you succeed,” Clayton-Pedersen said.
  • Create safe havens. Students need safe places “where they can go and relish in their identity,” Clayton-Pedersen said. They also need opportunities to move beyond those safe environments and interact with people different from themselves. Providing support systems and places where students feel like they belong, though, “matter as much as what you are teaching in a class because if they feel like they belong, they will listen differently.”
  • Embrace high-impact practices. These include first-year seminars, learning communities, writing-intensive courses, collaborative projects, service learning, internships, and courses that explore world cultures. They emphasize active learning, group work and similar practices that allow students to work hands-on with course material rather than have it recited to them in lectures. That is, the best courses work at application of information rather than the transfer of information.
  • Make learning relevant. Encourage students to propose solutions to social problems, take on open-ended questions, integrate ideas from disparate courses, and reflect on their own learning. This helps them learn to learn on their own, and to understand that learning is never a static process. It also helps students see the relevance in their coursework.

An emphasis on equity

In her keynote address and in her later sessions with faculty, Clayton-Pedersen stressed the importance of equity. She challenged the faculty to define both equity and equality, saying that we often misunderstand the terms.

Equality, she said, is the outcome of equity. If we give people what they need to succeed, she said, we can move toward equality.

“Everyone is part of diversity,” Clayton-Pedersen said, “but not everyone is treated equitably.”

Providing more opportunities for people to learn will only grow in the future, she said. Already, the number of jobs that requires people to work with information and to solve unstructured problems dwarfs those that require routine tasks and minimal training. If we are going to be a country that employs all our people, we need to make sure that all have at least some college, she said.

“How many times do we need to have to belabor the point that all students need to learn in an economy that is going to require a lot more skills?” she said.

“Money isn’t the issue,” she added. “It’s the expectation that every student can learn and succeed.”


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

By Doug Ward

The future of teaching went on display Friday afternoon in Spooner Hall.

By display, I mean the 30-plus posters that hung from the walls of The Commons, documenting the changes that KU faculty members and post-doctoral teaching fellows made to courses this academic year.

Greg Baker of geology explains his poster to Chancellor Bernadette Gray-Little
Greg Baker of geology explains his poster to Chancellor Bernadette Gray-Little.

The poster session was the culmination of this year’s C21 Course Redesign Consortium, but it included work from participants in last year’s Best Practices Institute and those involved in a project known as Trestle, which is funded with a grant from the National Science Foundation.

Most of the posters explained efforts to incorporate active learning into classes.

Abbey Dvorak, an assistant professor of music therapy, captured the spirit of the poster session with a question she used to guide her course redesign:

“How am I going to get students to engage with this material, learn, and then demonstrate their learning?”

 

That’s a simple question, but don’t let it fool you. It can be difficult to answer. Most of us who teach struggle with that question semester to semester. The faculty members and teaching fellows at the poster session offered bursts of inspiration in their work, though, demonstrating how they have approached various problems in teaching and learning. For instance:    

  • Stefanie DeVito, Brad Williamson, and Trevor Rivers explained how making an introductory biology course more student-centered improved students’ attitudes toward biology.
  • Jennifer Roberts, Noah McLean, Greg Baker, and Andreas Moller explained how shifting an introductory geology course to an active learning model improved student grades, reduced the percentage of students who failed or withdrew, and greatly reduced performance gaps between men and women.
  • The Department of Speech-Language-Hearing explained how a series of faculty workshops helped it increase the number of online learning modules.
  • Susan Marshall from psychology explained her efforts to use a pre-class survey to better prepare students for an online course.

Not every poster showed success, but then success wasn’t the point. The point was to show how reflective teaching can lead to important changes in teaching and learning. (You’ll find more than 100 other examples at CTE’s online portfolio gallery.)

I called this session the future of teaching for three reasons:

  • It shows how instructors are using engaged and active learning, and evidence-based teaching practices to improve student learning.
  • It shows how important reflection is in the teaching process.
  • It shows how building community around innovative, reflective teaching can provide support for faculty in a broad range of disciplines.

Teaching rarely gets the attention it deserves, especially in the promotion and tenure process at research universities like KU. That simply must change. Students and parents are demanding more from their education. Society is demanding evidence that higher education does what it says it does. And those of us in the academy must provide better explanations.

Groups like C21 help bridge the gap between research and teaching. The future involves better teaching, better documentation, and constant revision in our courses. Those who participated in Friday’s poster session helped show us the way forward.


Check out some scenes of active learning at KU in this video, which we showed during the C21 poster session. (There’s no sound, just images.)
video platform video management video solutionsvideo player


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

Course redesign has become a crucial piece of helping college students succeed.

The statistics below about enrollment and graduation rates make it clear that success is too often elusive. Course redesign is hardly the only solution to that problem, but it is a proven, tangible step that colleges and universities can take.

Course redesign involves moving away from faculty-centered lectures and adopting student-centered techniques that improve learning. It usually includes online work that students do outside of class and in-class work that allows them to delve deeper into course material. (For more, see the report of the Provost’s Task Force on Course Redesign, of which I was a member.)

In the most recent issue of Change magazine, Carol Twigg of the National Center for Academic Transformation lists seven strategies that she says are “essential to improving the quality of student learning.” These strategies have emerged from the center’s work over the past 15 years and mesh well with what we have found at CTE. They are:

Brad Osborne with a group of students in a music theory class
Brad Osborne works with students in a music theory course he redesigned to provide more interaction and active learning.
  • Redesigning courses across sections to provide consistency.
  • Focusing on active learning.
  • Increasing student interactions. This includes group work and other activities that take the place of lecture.
  • Building in prompt, automatic feedback. This involves use of digital tools to provide feedback on quizzes and other assignments.
  • Providing one-on-one assistance. Twigg writes, “Students cannot live by software alone: They need human contact as well as encouragement to assure them that they are on the right learning path.”
  • Requiring sufficient time on task. This means providing incentives for attendance, participation, and completion of assignments.
  • Monitoring student progress and intervening when necessary.

As Twigg explains, none of this can be done without strong departmental and university support. She provides several excellent suggestions on how schools can do this.

College enrollment and completion rates decline

Two reports from the National Student Clearinghouse point to struggles among colleges to attract and keep students.

In one report, the clearinghouse said that six-year graduation rates for students who entered college in 2009 fell to 52.9 percent. That is down from 55 percent among students who began in 2008. Declines were steepest among students who delayed entering college after high school, and among adults.

Students at public universities fared better than the overall average, with 61.2 percent graduating in six years. That is still a decline from 62.9 percent among those who began in 2008. Six-year graduation rates at private universities were 10 points higher, at 71.5 percent.

The clearinghouse attributed the declines in part to strains brought on by the Great Recession, saying that they could have been even greater had colleges and universities not created programs to improve student success.

In another report, the clearinghouse said that fall enrollment at post-secondary institutions has fallen for the third straight year. Four-year public universities bucked that trend, with enrollment rising by 0.4 percent. Enrollment at all other types of post-secondary institutions declined: four-year for-profit colleges by 13.7 percent, two-year public colleges by 2.4 percent, and four-year non-profit private universities by 0.3 percent.

The need for a college education

Those graduation rates loom large as the skills needed for jobs grow. By 2020, 65 percent of jobs will require education and training beyond high school, according to a report by the Center on Education and the Workforce.

The U.S. has a long way to go. About a third of Americans age 25 and older hold a bachelor’s degree, and nearly 40 percent hold at least a two-year degree. (That varies widely by race and ethnicity, though.) Income generally rises along with level of education, but as Brian Stoffel of the Motley Fool explains, that doesn’t mean there’s a direct correlation or that a higher income translates into greater job satisfaction. Not everyone needs or wants a four-year degree. Anyone who wants to adapt to a changing job landscape, though, must be willing to continually gain new skills.

High school graduation rates rise

Interestingly, as colleges and universities struggle to maintain enrollments, the high school graduation rate has reached a record high. As The Atlantic reports, 82 percent of high school seniors received diplomas in 2014.

It points out many reasons to be skeptical of those numbers, though. And The New York Times goes even further, suggesting that high graduation rates may really be a sign of diminishing expectations and lower standards at some schools.

College rankings that follow the money

I don’t give college rankings systems much credence. Far too much of academic success depends on students’ backgrounds and on the amount of effort they put into their academic work, regardless of what college they attend.

The latest fad in rankings focuses on graduates’ earnings, something that has emerged as college costs have risen.

By one measure of earnings, The Topeka Capital-Journal reports, most of Kansas’s public universities don’t hold up well. Graduates of all but one state public university (Pittsburg State) earn less than expected 10 years after they began college. The article is based on federal data compiled by the Center for Education and the Workforce at Georgetown University, which created a salary-weighted rankings system.

Under this measure, KU ranks 1,212 out of 1,400 institutions. At the top are the University of Colorado at Denver, and (yes) Georgetown.

Much of the Capital-Journal article is taken up by university officials speculating about why their graduates fare so poorly under these rankings. The upshot: No one really knows, as is the case with most rankings.

Briefly …

Maine is the only state in New England that spends more on education than on prisons, The Bangor Daily News reports, citing a study from the American Academy of Arts & Sciences. …

Douglas Anderson of Southern Illinois University vents about university administrative bloat and suggests that higher education could solve many academic problems by slashing administrative staff and hiring “an army of good teachers.” …

Expect more top administrators in higher education to come from business and industry rather than the academy, the Hechinger Report says. The reasons: financial struggles, public pressure, and a lack of high-quality candidates from within academia.


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

PALO ALTO, Calif. – Nearly all college faculty members want to teach well but few have both the pedagogical background to make their classes more student-centered and the incentive to do so, the Nobel laureate Carl Wieman said Monday.

Carl Wieman (Stanford photo)
Carl Wieman (Stanford photo)

Wieman, a physics professor at Stanford, has been a leader in promoting effective teaching practices in the sciences, primarily through his Science Education Initiative. He spoke Monday at a meeting of the Bay View Alliance, a consortium of North American research universities working toward much the same goal.

The Science Education Initiative has led to the transformation of dozens of courses at the University of British Columbia and the University of Colorado, and Wieman drew on those experiences as he explained some of the successes and failures of his efforts.

The idea of “transformation” is elastic, but it generally means moving instructors and courses toward student-centered, evidence-based teaching practices that involve clear, measurable course goals, and effective means of assessment and reflection. Wieman said his work had also led to more interaction in the classroom as faculty members moved away from lecture; inspired more meaningful discussions of teaching within departments, and generated demands from students to change more courses.

“The dominant barrier to change is the incentive system,” Wieman said, adding that most faculty see anything that takes away from research time as penalizing their ability to succeed.

He and his colleagues countered that barrier primarily with what Wieman called an “artificial incentive system.” This involved spending $1 million to $2 million per department in two forms:

  • Department-centered teaching grants. These were grants to individual faculty members to use for summer salaries, to buy out classes, to hire research and teaching assistants, and to buy materials for class development.
  • Education specialists. These were mostly post-doctoral teaching fellows who had Ph.D.s in STEM disciplines and were willing to learn effective teaching practices. The initiative found almost no one who came in with the necessary expertise, so it created workshops to help the specialists learn about effective teaching. The specialists, in turn, provided guidance to faculty members, helped create course materials, and provided non-threatening coaching. That combination of disciplinary and pedagogical knowledge was critical in gaining the trust of faculty members and making the process work, Wieman said.

Wieman has found success with his model, but he has also run into barriers. For instance, all the faculty members in the targeted departments he worked with had the opportunity to change their approach to teaching, but many didn’t. Some tenure-track faculty members backed out because they said they were afraid that time spent on teaching would detract from their research and, ultimately, their ability to gain tenure. Others started but eventually gave up once they were left on their own. Math faculty were especially resistant to change, and only a small percentage joined the course redesign efforts.

Other snippets from Monday’s discussions with Wieman:

  • Supportive chairs and deans are among the most important factors in effecting change, and leaders who wouldn’t support the initiative all but scuttled some departmental efforts.
  • Faculty members who are considered “star” teachers in their departments are among the most resistant to change. These are often charismatic instructors who are popular among students and receive high teaching evaluations and even teaching awards as they give engaging performances in lecture but focus little on student learning. This group saw no reason to change and became passive resistors, Wieman said.
  • One of the most common pitfalls in course redesign, he said, is a focus on what to teach rather than how to teach.
  • Another problem is overreliance on student evaluations to gauge faculty effectiveness, something he elaborates on in an article in Change magazine. These evaluations aren’t related to learning or to best practices, he said, and evaluations tend to go down when faculty move toward new techniques.

One of Wieman’s initial goals was to see whether an infusion of money into the teaching process would lead to use of more effective teaching practices and to long-term change in department teaching cultures. In the short term, the answer is yes, but certainly not universally. It’s too early to tell whether the efforts will lead to long-term change, he said.

One thing that Wieman avoided addressing was the lack of effort in changing the incentive system, which he said was the largest barrier to change. That lack of an incentive system came up again and again during discussions at BVA meetings this week. There was broad agreement that universities must reward high-quality teaching in the promotion and tenure system to improve student learning, reduce failure rates, improve graduation rates, and to improve their long-term credibility and viability.

That won’t be easy, but like Wieman, the BVA has achieved meaningful steps in remaking courses, attracting faculty to student-centered practices, helping show meaningful ways of using class time, reducing failure rates in courses, and spreading a culture that values high-quality, innovative teaching.

As Wieman said, most faculty do see the value of high-quality teaching, and those who have shifted toward active learning and building teaching expertise within departments have found teaching much more personally satisfying, Wieman said.

“That’s the thing that keeps faculty members doing this,” he said.

KU continues to expand course transformation

KU began its own course transformation project in 2013 with a two-prong approach: creation of program for post-doctoral teaching fellows to help departments transform large undergraduate courses, and development of the C21 Course Redesign Consortium. Bob Goldstein, associate dean for the natural sciences and mathematics, was instrumental in development of the teaching fellows program after seeing the influence Wieman’s program had at the University of British Columbia.

But KU is testing an approach that requires a much smaller “artificial incentive system” (i.e., funds, and teaching specialists) than the UBC and CU programs, by building community around course transformation to amplify the catalyzing effects of the teaching specialists. To this end, Andrea Greenhoot, now CTE’s director, began C21, which has helped create a community among faculty and staff members, GTAs, and post-doctoral teaching fellows working to expand and improve student-centered teaching. The teaching fellows program, C21, and CTE’s Best Practices Institute have led to the transformation of dozens of courses at the university.

Greenhoot followed up on those successes in creating a seven-university network aimed at expanding the adoption of empirically validated teaching practices. That project, known as Transforming Education, Stimulating Teaching and Learning Excellence, or TRESTLE , received a $2.5 million grant from the National Science Foundation. Each campus will hire teaching specialists to work with faculty members on transforming courses and build a community to share information across campuses. The project builds on the lessons learned in the Wieman Science Education Initiative but tests a model that could more feasibly promote sustained change at a wide range of institutions.

Virtual workshops on campus racism

The Center for the Study of Race and Equity in Education at the University of Pennsylvania is conducting a series of virtual sessions called Responding to Racism on College and University Campuses.

Two of the sessions have already taken place, but the next one, on Monday, looks especially relevant to faculty members. It is called “Race-Consciousness in Classrooms and Curricula: Strategies for College Faculty.”

Each session costs $25 and requires pre-registration.


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

In this month’s Teaching Matters, Mike Vitevitch writes about his experiences in having honors students give group presentations in lieu of a final exam.

Vitevitch, a professor of psychology, says he was “bowled over” by the quality of the students’ work at the end of the spring semester. As he explains in the accompanying video, honors students in Introduction to Psychology tend to do very well on exams. They know the material, and Vitevitch wanted to push their learning further.

So he divided up the main concepts from the semester – areas like methods, the brain, learning, memory, and emotion – and assigned groups of four to five students to lead 15-minute sessions during the final exam period.

You can see for yourself the types of things they came up with. And you can hear students explain their experiences. They make a compelling case not only for active learning but for relatable learning material.

Introduction to Psychology was a flipped course, and many of the students said they had had previous experiences with flipped courses. Some said they thought the flipped approach worked best with conceptual classes like psychology and less so with math and science. They said they had never taken a flipped math or science course, though.

When I asked them what advice they would give to other students taking a similar course, they were nearly unanimous: do the readings, complete the work ahead of time, and come to class prepared to learn.

They also offered advice to instructors who plan to flip their classes:

  • Choose high-quality online material, and follow up on that material effectively in class.
  • Look for good models in other classes to emulate.
  • Make learning hands-on and concrete.
  • Encourage students to make projects accessible.

It’s good advice from a top-notch group of 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

David McConnell sees both benefit and paradox in active learning.

McConnell, a professor of marine, earth and atmospheric sciences at North Carolina State University, spoke to members of the geology department at KU last week about his research into active learning and his work in helping others adopt active learning techniques in their classes.

David McConnell, in a photo from his N.C. State profile
David McConnell, in a photo from his N.C. State profile

Decades of research has provided ample evidence about the benefits of active learning, McConnell said. Failure rates decline when instructors move away from lecture and use hands-on problem solving, group work, and similar techniques in their classes. Students in active learning classes do better on tests than their peers who have received traditional instruction through lecture. Performance gaps diminish. And all students learn better when they actively monitor their understanding through a variety of activities, a process known as metacognition.

Paradoxically, though, only a small proportion of college instructors have embraced active learning, McConnell said. That proportion is growing, he said, albeit slowly.

McConnell is part of an organization called On the Cutting Edge, which has been working to expand the adoption of active learning in geoscience courses. The organization sponsors workshops, provides course materials, visits classes, and conducts research aimed at improving geoscience education.

noah mcclean working with students in Geology 101
Noah McClean works with students in Geology 101, a class that uses active learning techniques and hands-on engagement with course material.

The biggest challenge in expanding active learning is time, McConnell said. That often means giving instructors a semester away from teaching duties to create activities, videos, and lesson plans that will allow them to take a more hands-on approach in the classroom.

Even then, active learning can be a tough sell. At research universities, professors get little credit for their teaching even though it generally accounts for a similar proportion of their time as research. Until universities reward teaching in the promotion and tenure process, McConnell said, only the truly motivated will adopt active learning.

Here are some other areas McConnell touched on:

Think of learning as you would a workout. To make gains, you must push yourself beyond your comfort level. Set goals and work steadily toward those goals. Work with others who will push you, but realize that you will often fail. That’s an important part of the process. “My job is to get you to fail because only then will you know your limits,” McConnell tells his students.

We are not our students. Instructors who have Ph.D.s were not average students when they were in college. They learned how to learn on their own and excelled at many levels of college work. McConnell urged instructors to avoid the trap of assuming their students have the same skills and learn in the same way. Most students need help in learning how to learn and in learning how to succeed in our classes and at our universities. “We have to adapt to the students we have,” McConnell said.

Make learning relevant. One reason students dismiss various disciplines is that they don’t see the application of the material. Instructors must make that relevance readily apparent and help students make connections to their lives. In doing so, though, instructors should hold students to high standards. “We don’t think enough of our students,” he said. “They will rise to the challenge.”


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

All too often, we pursue teaching as an individual activity. We look at our classes as our classes rather than as part of continuum of learning. And we are often ill-prepared to help other instructors engage in a course’s evolution when they take it over. We may pass along course material, but rarely do we pass along the background, context, and iterations of a course’s development.

In a recent portfolio for the Center for Teaching Excellence, Holly Storkel and Megan Blossom explain how they did exactly that, demonstrating the benefits of collaboration in improving learning and in keeping the momentum of improvement intact.

Holley Storkel in her office in the Dole Human Development Center
Holley Storkel in her office in the Dole Human Development Center

Storkel, a professor and chair of speech-language-hearing, added active learning activities to a 400-level class called Language Science, a required undergraduate class on the basic structure of the English language. The changes were intended to help students improve their critical thinking and their interpretation of research articles. Blossom, who was a graduate teaching assistant for the class, built on that approach when she later took over as an instructor.

Storkel had taught the class many times and had been mulling changes for several years to help students improve their ability to find and work with research.

“I decided they should start reading research articles and get more familiar with that: understand how to find a research article, understand how to get it from the library, have basic skills of how to read a research article,” Storkel said in an interview. “And this class is supposed to be kind of the sophomore-junior level so that then, as they move to the junior-senior level, they would have the skills to find a variety of papers and do the synthesis across the papers and where that sort of things is the next level up. But I figured, ‘You can’t synthesize information if you didn’t understand what it is to begin with.’ ”

Blossom, who is now an assistant professor at Castleton University in Vermont, taught the same class three semesters later, building on Storkel’s work but making several changes based on the problem areas that she and Storkel identified. She reduced the number of research articles that students read in an attempt to give them more time in class for discussion. She also added pre-class questions intended to help students better prepare for in-class discussions, worked to make those discussions more interactive, and provided structured questions to help students assess articles.

In later discussions, Blossom let students guide the conversations more, having them work in pairs to interpret a particularly challenging article. To gain a better understanding of methods, students also created experimental models like those used in the article. Blossom pooled their results and had students compare the differences in their findings.

In their course portfolio, Storkel and Blossom said the changes improved class discussions about research and helped instructors devote more one-on-one attention to students in class. That was especially helpful for students who struggled with concepts. They also said the process itself provided benefits for students.

The benefits of collaboration

In a recent interview, Storkel said that collaboration was crucial in gaining a shared understanding of what students were learning from the class and where they were struggling. Rather than telling Blossom what to do, they talked through how they might make it better. She suggested that others use the same approach to improving classes.

“I think one thing that I would say to that is sort of sharing what you know so that you can get on the same page,” Storkel said. “Look at some student work and say, ‘Here’s how I taught the class. Here’s what the performance on this assignment looked like. They were doing pretty well with this but there were some struggles here, and so that might be something you want to think about if you’re going to keep some of these activities, or even if you’re doing different activities this seems to be a hard concept for them to learn or this process seems to be the part that’s really a stumbling block.’ ”

Storkel suggested that faculty engage in more conversations about the courses they teach and use course portfolios to make shared information more visible.

Portfolios provide a means to look at a class “and say, ‘What skills are people taking away from this? Where am I having a challenge?’ ” Storkel said, adding: “It’s already in a format then that is shareable and that’s more than just, ‘Here are my lecture notes’ or ‘Here are my slides. Here’s the syllabus.’ Here’s what actually happened. I think having rich records that can be easily handed off is good.”

Assessment also provides opportunities for increased sharing of experiences in courses, Storkel said.

“That might be another place where you can have a conversation around teaching, and then it might not even be attached to a particular class but more, ‘Here’s a particular skill. Students aren’t always getting it.’ So as I approach this class where that skill needs to be incorporated or we expect that to happen, now I’ve some idea of what might be challenging or not.”

It all starts with a willingness to share experiences, to put defensiveness aside, and to focus on what’s best 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.