By Derek Graf

As instructors, we sometimes look for ways to create big changes in our courses, departments, and degree programs. Searching for complete overhauls to our teaching practices, we risk losing sight of the small changes we can make in our next class meeting.

James M. Lang, author of Small Teaching: Everyday Lessons from the Science of Learning, believes that fundamental pedagogical improvement is possible through incremental change (4). For example, he explains how asking students to make predictions increases their ability to understand course material and retrieve prior knowledge. He offers various strategies for incorporating prediction exercises into the classroom, such as utilizing a brief pretest on new material at the beginning of class, asking students to predict the outcome of a problem, or closing class by asking students to make predictions about material that will be covered in the next class (60). As Lang says, “predictions make us curious,” and as instructors we can encourage student curiosity if we allow them to make predictions about the course material.

Graphic with examples of tips from Lang's book.
Graphic by Kali Jo Wolcow

In Small Teaching, Lang shows how instructors can capitalize on minor shifts to a lesson plan to motivate students, help them connect with new content, and give them time to practice the skills required on formal essays and exams. As Lang explains in the introduction, small teaching defines a pedagogical approach “that seeks to spark positive change in higher education through small but powerful modifications to our course design and teaching practices” (5). Lang argues that big changes begin with each new class, and he provides numerous strategies for enacting those changes.

An English professor and director of the Center for Teaching Excellence at Assumption College in Worcester, Mass., Lang says that small teaching practices can be utilized by teachers from any discipline, in any course, at any point in the semester. Lang understands that many instructors, such as adjuncts and GTAs, lack the time and the resources necessary to make major curriculum shifts in their departments. Small teaching allows instructors of all levels to innovate their teaching and generate enthusiasm in the classroom in ways that are incremental, deliberate, and, most importantly of all, accessible.

Lang identifies accessibility as the key to the potential success of small teaching: “Teaching innovations that have the potential to spur broad changes must be as accessible to underpaid and overworked adjuncts as they are to tenured faculty at research universities” (5). The small teaching activities Lang offers fulfill this criteria because, “with a little creative thinking, they can translate into every conceivable type of teaching environment in higher education, from lectures in cavernous classrooms to discussions in small seminar rooms, from fully face-to-face to fully online courses and every blended shade in between” (6). Lang has either practiced or directly observed every piece of advice he offers in Small Teaching, and these activities fall into one of three categories:

  • Brief (5-10 minute) classroom or online learning activities.
  • One-time interventions in a course.
  • Small modifications in course design or communication with your students.

Knowledge, understanding and inspiration

Over three sections, organized under the broad categories of “Knowledge,” “Understanding,” and “Inspiration,” Lang provides numerous ways to implement small teaching, even during the opening minutes of tomorrow’s class. For example, Lang shows how we can motivate students to develop an emotional response to the course material by telling great stories: “Once class has started, the simplest way to tap the emotions of your students is to use the method that every great orator, comedian, emcee, and preacher knows: begin with a story” (182). Drawing from the research of experimental psychologist Sarah Cavanagh, Lang explains how “when emotions are present, our cognitive capacities can heighten; so if we open class by capturing the attention of our students and activating their emotions with a story, we are priming them to learn whatever comes next” (182). While great stories don’t necessarily lead to great class sessions, they do allow for students to create an emotional bond with the course material.

The above example proved to be my favorite of the activities outlined in Small Teaching. As an instructor of freshman composition, I often feel as though my students enter college lacking a positive emotional relationship to writing. They associate writing with an instructor’s judgment on their intellectual capabilities.

Realizing this, I decided to open one of my classes with a personal story about a former instructor of mine who would humiliate students for their lack of quality prose. After sharing an anecdote in which I was the recipient of a particularly harsh and public critique, I admitted how his experience affected my confidence while also explaining that I did not let this moment define my identity as a writer or a student. I asked my students if they had any similar experiences with writing. Sure enough, several of them shared that their relationship with writing was dominated by the “red pen” approach of a past instructor, and some of them shared stories of procrastination gone wrong.

This conversation allowed me to explain my approach to grading and assessing student writing, increase my transparency as an instructor, and also commiserate with students about the difficulties of writing for an academic audience. My decision to begin class with a personal story altered the emotional climate of the room, and my students’ engagement with the course material benefited from that shift.

“Tell Great Stories” is just one of many activities Lang shares throughout Small Teaching. Balancing a personal tone with clear explanations of the psychological and cognitive research backing his argument, Lang ultimately collapses the binary between “small teaching” and “big changes.” Perhaps they are one and the same, each informing the other, and leading toward necessary shifts in higher education, one class at a time.


Derek Graf is a graduate fellow at the Center for Teaching excellence and a graduate teaching assistant in English.

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

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.

By Doug Ward

“What just happened?” Carl Luchies asked his graduate teaching assistant.

 They stood at the front of a lecture hall in early 2013, watching as 120 normally subdued engineering undergraduates burst into spontaneous conversation.

Luchies, an associate professor of mechanical engineering, had just given the students a problem to work on and told them it was a collaborative quiz due at the end of class. Students could work with anyone in the room, he said.

“Anyone?” they asked.

carl luchies points to computer screen as he helps a student
Carl Luchies works with a student in a graduate-level biomechanics class

Anyone, he said. They could move wherever they wanted to move. Use Google if Google would help. Ask questions of him or the GTA. Do whatever they needed to do to find the answer.

After a few moments of uncertainty, “the class just came alive,” Luchies said.

Luchies was surprised at how successful his experiment was that day, especially because it was a spur-of-the-moment experiment to try to revive a mostly listless class. His willingness to experiment and to focus on the best approaches for students was nothing new, though. He received the school’s Louise Byrd Graduate Educator Award in 2010. And this fall, he received the Outstanding Teaching Award from the Midwest Section of the American Society of Engineering Education. He will now be considered for a similar national award.

Luchies looks at that day in 2013 when the class came alive as a turning point in the way he teaches. Robert Beichner, a professor at North Carolina State and an advocate for active learning in STEM fields, spoke to School of Engineering faculty members the week before classes started that year, urging them to try flipped and hybrid learning in large classes. Luchies was intrigued, but he didn’t think he had time to make changes.

In January and February, though, he realized that few students were listening as he lectured. After 15 to 20 minutes, students began checking their phones or staring blankly. He asked for questions at the beginning and end of each class. Students rarely responded.

“I tried to entertain them,” he said. “I tried to get excited about it. I was using an active display or I was writing out solutions and then automatically putting that on Blackboard so that they could see my solution. I was trying a lot of different things.”

It didn’t matter, though. Students had simply checked out. So he cut back on lectures, gave students in-class problems and told them to work collaboratively.

“All of a sudden, all the students were talking and asking questions, because now they needed to know – they wanted to know – because there was pressure to figure this out before they left the classroom,” he said. “That’s all I had to see. That was like a night-and-day difference between what I had been doing and what I was going to be doing in the future.”

Carl Luchies at his computer in a biomechanics class
Luchies answers a student question in class

Luchies describes his approach to teaching as one of engagement. He often demonstrates new material to students and then turns them loose to work in groups. He and a teaching assistant move about the room and offer assistance. Each student turns in an assignment, but he encourages the class to work collaboratively to find answers and learn from each other.

“If I explain how to do something, and then I say, OK, now let’s do it, then they have to now think about exactly what I said, what did I mean by what I said, and how do they actually use what I said to solve the problem, do the analysis, whatever it might be,” Luchies said. “That’s when the actual learning goes on. They are actually doing what I just taught them.”

Luchies has gradually expanded and adapted the in-class and out-of-class material for his class over the past few years. He recorded lectures and put them online, created online quizzes, and insisted that students come to class prepared to work collaboratively. He experimented with different types of peer-to-peer learning – pairs of students, groups of three, groups that change during the semester, groups that stay together – before settling on teams of five that work together the entire semester. Eventually, he was able to move out of the lecture hall and into the new active learning rooms at the School of Engineering, add an additional GTA and two undergraduate teaching fellows.

“Each semester, I just went further and further,” Luchies said.

That doesn’t mean that switching to an active learning approach was easy or universally accepted.

“When I first started off there was a lot of pushback,” Luchies said. “There were students who basically told me that for the last 13 years I have learned like a sponge and I don’t see why I have to do any work when I come to class.”

The numbers on Luchies’ student teaching evaluations dropped, and “I had some pretty negative comments.”

As students grew more accustomed to active learning in his class and in other classes, though, the pushback diminished. Most now like the approach Luchies uses, praising the variety of class activities and the ability to develop as teams. Luchies, too, has grown more comfortable with his changing role as a teacher, moving away from lecture and becoming what he described as a mentor or a coach.

“At the beginning I had no idea what I was doing,” he said. “I was just trying things. Now I’m much more intentional about it.”

He describes active learning as a continual learning process for students and instructors.

“Experiential learning goes both directions,” Luchies said. “I have learned a tremendous amount by trying new things and experiencing it and finding out for myself what works and what doesn’t work. Not everything I’ve tried works, but that’s OK. I don’t mind failing.”

Sometimes, though, those experiments pay off, leaving an instructor to ponder a delightful question:

“What just happened?”


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

Innovation, meet frustration.

I’ve written frequently about how the lack of a reward system hampers (if not quashes) attempts to improve teaching and learning, especially at research universities.  A new survey only reinforces that short-sighted approach.

The survey was conducted by the consulting and research firm Ithaka S+R and involved a random sample of faculty members at U.S. universities in 2015. Ithaka has conducted the survey every three years since 2000.

The survey did offer reason for optimism: More than 60 percent of faculty members said they would like to use digital technology and new pedagogies to improve their teaching. The problem: Only 35 percent said their universities recognized or rewarded faculty for innovations in teaching.

The upshot: Most courses at most universities will remain mired in the past, failing to move beyond a curricular approach that emphasizes delivery and regurgitation of information over critical thinking, application, and adaptability. Only a small number of faculty members will be willing to risk the challenge of pedagogical innovation.

That’s especially unfortunate given another of the survey’s findings: More than 60 percent of faculty members in the humanities say that undergraduates do a poor job of finding and evaluating scholarly information. Those in the social sciences, sciences and medical fields are slightly more positive, but overall 54 percent of faculty members find students’ research skills lacking.

The United States has a larger number of colleges and universities relative to overall population than any other country. That provides more opportunities for more students, but it has also made it difficult for universities to distinguish themselves from one another. Research universities, especially, could do that by elevating the importance of teaching. Not only could students learn from top researchers and professionals, but they could learn in creative and innovative ways that would benefit them in the long run.

Or they could continue along the current path where teaching is treated as an afterthought, where one university pretty much looks like all universities, and where pedagogical innovation continually meets frustration.

Other findings from the survey:

  • Nearly 40 percent of faculty said open access materials were important to their teaching, but 25 percent said those types of resources were hard to find.
  • The percentage of faculty members looking to libraries to help undergraduates improve their research skills grew by 15 to 20 points between 2012 and 2015. The jump was largest among scientists.
  • The percentage of faculty who start their research at a physical library has dropped to nearly zero, though humanists are more likely than other disciplines to start at a library. Most start with either a general search engine or a specific database. A slightly smaller percentage start with a library catalog.

Financial challenges and hard questions

Recent statistics cast stark relief on the financial challenges that public colleges and universities face.

Between 1991 and 2008, enrollment at public colleges and universities grew 23 percent, although state support for those institutions rose only 13 percent. By 2010, enrollment rose an additional 8 percent while state support fell by 7 percent.

bar chart showing where research universities get their money
From ‘Recommitting to Lincoln’s Vision: An Educational Compact for the 21st Century’ https://www.amacad.org/content/Research/researchproject.aspx?d=929

The statistics come from an analysis of federal data by Steven Brint and Charles Clotfelter. Their article “U.S. Higher Education Effectiveness” was published this month in the Russell Sage Foundation Journal of the Social Sciences.

That declining state support has led to a growing reliance on part-time instructors. Non-tenure-track faculty now make up 37 percent of college and university faculty, up from 19 percent in 1970. Just as disturbing, the growth in spending on instruction has lagged that on student services and research. Actually, “lagged” isn’t quite the right word. Colleges and universities devoted two and a half times as much additional money to research (2.6 percent growth) as they did to teaching (1.1 percent), and nearly twice as much (2.2 percent) to student services.

That’s not bad on its own, but it is symbolic of how far too many universities view teaching. (See above.)

Another study, from an initiative of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, says that public flagship universities must adopt new financial models given the declining support from states. It called for states to increase their financing of public universities but said universities must reduce costs, seek out additional forms of revenue, and form new public-private partnerships.

In reviewing the state of public higher education, it asks some hard questions: “Is public higher education truly open to the public? Can high school graduates afford to attend their state’s postsecondary institutions?”

Those are pertinent questions given that the number of Americans with high-quality postsecondary credentials lags the needs of a digital-age economy.

One last question from the American Academy study should burn in the minds of all of us in academia: If students can afford to attend college, “what kind of education can they expect to receive?”

The future of higher education depends on how we answer that.

Briefly …

Faculty Focus offers a useful list of ways to deepen student learning. … A study of Chicago high schools found that students did considerably better in face-to-face courses than in similar courses online, NPR reports. … Schools that increasingly rely on digital resources also open themselves to risks of data breaches, PBS reports.


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

Learning matters.

That may seem like a truism in the world of education – at least it should be – but it isn’t.

All too often, schools and teachers, colleges and professors worry more about covering the right material than helping students learn. They put information above application. They emphasize the what rather than the why and the how.

In an essay in Inside Higher Ed, Stephen Crew of Samford University makes an excellent case for the importance of learning. He does so with an anecdote about why instructors win teaching awards. For instance, the award-winners may have made sacrificed to pursue their teaching. They may have inspired students or made classes engaging. Perhaps their student evaluations were stellar.Education matters logo: Recent news, research, trends and thoughts about education

Crew doesn’t dismiss those aspects of teaching. Rather, he says they are simply too shallow.

“The implication is that award-winning teachers are not any more effective at engendering student learning than the rest of us,” Crew writes. “Rather, they devote more time and attention to their teaching and students than we do, or they persevere through greater challenges.”

He asks – rightly – whether those instructors have really helped students learn.

Crew makes an important distinction between learning-driven teaching and information-driven teaching.

Learning-driven teachers help students challenge their thinking, including their metacognitive skills, and demonstrate the importance of deeper understanding. They provide meaningful opportunities for students to apply skills, and then assess students’ understanding and nudge them toward a goal.

Information-driven teaching, on the other hand, is a relatively straightforward affair than nearly anyone can do. It emphasizes accurate, up-to-date content; presentation style; and perhaps the newest technology. “In this approach, the teacher either cannot or should not influence learning beyond the method of delivering information,” Crew writes.

Instructors may be popular and passionate and engaging, Crew says, but if they simply deliver information to students, they haven’t really taught anything.

Angelique Kobler of the Lawrence Public Schools made much the same point last year, saying that if instructors don’t embrace the idea that today’s students learn differently from those even a few years ago, “we will become irrelevant.”

A question that Kobler asked when she spoke with the KU Task Force on Course Redesign still resonates:

Has teaching occurred if learning hasn’t?

Related: What does a learner-centered syllabus look like? (Via Faculty Focus.)

* * * * * * *

Follow-up: The ups and downs of Blackboard

It will be interesting to see how a sale of Blackboard might affect the positive changes I wrote about earlier this week.

Reuters reported on Tuesday that Providence Equity Partners, which owns Blackboard, is looking to sell the company for more than $3 billion. Blackboard, which was created in 1998, had been a public company until Providence bought it and took it private in 2011, paying $1.64 billion and assuming $130 million in debt.blackboard logo

To put the Blackboard price into perspective, here are a couple of comparisons: Forbes estimates the value of the New York Yankees at more than $3 billion. After an initial public offering, the online marketplace Etsy is worth more than $3 billion. So is Donald Trump.

A sale wouldn’t be surprising. Companies like Providence buy lagging companies, revamp them and try to sell them for a profit. Blackboard has become more responsive to customers since Providence took over and hired Jay Bhatt as president and CEO. And news of a possible sale comes just after the completion of Bb World, Blackboard’s annual conference, and the announcement of a slew of changes that would finally pull Blackboard’s design and functionality out of the dial-up web era.

My colleagues in IT say, though, that Blackboard’s promised design changes probably won’t be practical for most schools to adopt for two to three years. That’s because Blackboard is building a new platform for Learn, its learning management system. That new platform lacks many of the integration capabilities the current system has, including grading for discussion boards, integration with SafeAssign, and integration with university enrollment systems.

So adopting the new platform, called Ultra, may depend on how much schools are willing to give up in terms of integration to gain a system that looks and acts like the modern web. Adoption will become even trickier for schools as the company pursues a pricing strategy that resembles that of the automobile industry. A college or university pays one price for the basic Blackboard Learn platform, and then must decide on an array of add-ons that drive up expenses but that contain the most sought-after functions and tools.

For instance, a school has to pay extra for access to the new student app and for the updated instructor grading app. (I wrote on Tuesday that I couldn’t get those apps to work. That’s why.) Blackboard Collaborate requires an extra fee, as does the assessment tool and a host of other digital goodies.

So even as Blackboard promises many positive changes, it is still acting very much like the behemoth it is.

We interrupt this post to report on the teacher draft

That’s right. I said the teacher draft. The comedy team Key and Peele take an ESPN-like look at what the world of teaching might look like if it were elevated to the status of sports: the $80 million salaries, the No. 1 draft pick whose father “lived from paycheck to paycheck as a humble pro football player,” and the “teacher-of-the-year play” in the day’s highlights. If only.

Briefly …

A participant on the E-Learning Heroes discussion board set off a flurry of responses with this question: “Do learners really care about learning objectives?” Trina Rimmer offers a useful overview of the discussions that followed. … First-time smartphone users said their devices distracted from their learning even though they initially thought they would help, The Journal reports, citing a study from Rice University and the U.S. Air Force. … Personalized learning, which allows students to choose the direction and the pace of their learning, provides a critical means to engage at-risk students, Rebecca Wolfe tells The Hechinger Report. Wolfe is the director of the Students at the Center project, which is part of the nonprofit organization Jobs for the Future.