Collin Bruey and Laura Phillips check out posters at the Service Showcase. Bruey and Phillips created their own poster about work at the Center for Community Outreach.

By Doug Ward

I’m frequently awed by the creative, even life-changing, work that students engage in.

The annual Service Showcase sponsored by the Center for Service Learning, provides an impressive display of that work. This year’s Showcase took place last week. As a judge for the Showcase over the past two years, I’ve learned how deeply some students have become involved in the community. Here’s a sample of their work:

  • Improving a sense of community among residents of a local senior center
  • Documenting the risk of poverty on individuals’ health
  • Building a more sustainable community through community gardens, litter pickups and presentations
  • Creating support networks and building leadership skills among underrepresented youths
  • Tutoring of juvenile offenders at the Kansas Juvenile Correctional Complex
  • Teaching U.S. citizenship to refugees
  • Promoting discussion about inequality in Kansas City, Kan.
  • Raising awareness about the lack of food that many KU students face
  • Increasing physical activity among guests at the Lawrence Community Shelter

John Augusto, who directed the Center for Service Learning until early this year, said in an earlier interview that the annual poster event provided recognition for both students and community partners.

“We want to make sure that students understand that it’s OK to feel good about the work, but that what’s as important is that the community organization is getting a direct benefit from that work,” Augusto said. “It’s not just that I go in and I feel good about what I do but then the community organization has to clean up after my work. There really has to be a mutually beneficial relationship.”

He added: “I think what it teaches the students is that when they leave KU and they are in an environment in their professional life that’s different from what they’re used to, they need to learn to listen. A lot of times students tell us that when they’re doing this service work, and reflecting on it, they learn how to listen.”

This year’s winners were:

  • Tina Lai, graduate student
  • Razan Mansour, undergraduate individual student award
  • Jasmine Brown and Cierra Smallwood, undergraduate student group award

Short tenures vs. long-term thinking

As KU begins a search for a new provost, here’s something to keep in mind: Most provosts don’t stay in their jobs long.

The College and University Professional Association for Human Resources says the median tenure for provosts across the country is only three years. That’s the lowest among all types of administrators the organization surveyed.

Presidents and chief executives of universities stay in their jobs at a median rate of five years, about the same as leaders of human resources and student affairs.

From the website of the College and University Professional Association for Human Resources

Jackie Bichsel, director of research for the association, is quoted as saying: “It’s not surprising that administrators overall have a relatively short median tenure. Given that those with many years of tenure do not make considerably greater salaries, their best chance of a raise may be to find a new position.”

Unfortunately, that’s the case in most jobs, both inside and outside academia. Employees sometimes talk about the “loyalty penalty,” meaning that those of us who stay at an institution for many years never get the bump in pay and other benefits that those who jump from job to job get. That becomes especially frustrating when considering that faculty salaries at KU rank near the bottom of the university’s peers.

I don’t begrudge anyone opportunities for higher pay or greater challenges. Bringing in new leaders can infuse a university with new energy and new ideas. And top leaders also feel squeezed from many sides as they take on everything from shaky budgets, rising college costs and flagging trust in higher education to polarized students and faculty, concerns about campus safety, small incidents blowing up on social media and in some cases, the survival of a university. There’s no doubt that university leaders have difficult jobs.

When those leaders change so frequently, though, a campus can easily shift to a short-term mentality. Administrators know they probably won’t stay on the job long, so they push for quick results that don’t necessarily serve the institution in the long term. Universities need to change, as I’ve written about frequently, but real change takes time, and the pressure to produce quick results makes it difficult to focus on much-needed systemic change. Quick turnover also makes it difficult to know whether leaders’ initiatives are really in a university’s best interests or whether they are simply meant to pad resumes for the next job search.

Further clouding the picture, many administrators push small initiatives but take a “wait and see” approach on innovation, preferring to let others experiment with new ideas, approaches, and technology rather than budgeting for experimentation. (Experimentation takes time, after all.) That’s one place where KU shines, at least in terms of teaching. The provost’s office has provided thousands of dollars in course transformation grants over the past few years, putting the university on the cutting edge in classroom innovations that help improve student learning. (Many of those innovations will be on display on Friday at CTE’s annual Celebration of Teaching.)

Choosing new leaders is a difficult task, as anyone who has served on a search committee can attest to. One thing seems clear, though: A university can’t rely on a single leader, or even a few leaders, to chart a path into the future. It must build a strong cohort of leaders around the university to keep the institution moving forward even as top leaders rotate in and out quickly.

Reclassifying STEM

Here’s a silly question: What is STEM?

If you said science, technology, engineering, and math, you’d be right, of course. You’d then have to explain what you mean by science, technology, engineering, and math, though.

Need help? Let’s consult the federal government.

The Department of Homeland Security says that STEM includes math, engineering, the biological sciences, the physical sciences and “fields involving research, innovation, or development of new technologies using engineering, mathematics, computer science, or natural sciences (including physical, biological, and agricultural sciences).”

That’s such a broad definition that it could theoretically apply to about anything. And that’s exactly what some universities hope to capitalize on as they try to attract more international students to the United States.

The Chronicle of Higher Education reports that universities have put such programs as economics, information science, journalism, classical art, archaeology, and applied psychology under the STEM umbrella. (Whether that will pass muster with the government remains to be seen.)

Why? Because international students who graduate in STEM fields are allowed to remain in the United States longer than those who receive non-STEM degrees, The Chronicle says. STEM graduates can work for three years in the U.S. after graduation, compared with one year for non-STEM grads.

International students, who generally pay full out-of-state tuition, have drawn increasing interest from public universities, which have struggled to make up for declining state funding. The number of international students has declined over the past couple of years, though. Nationally, there were 7 percent fewer international students in 2017-18 than in 2016-17, Inside Higher Ed reports. The largest declines were at universities in the Plains states (down 16 percent) and a region that encompasses Texas, Arkansas, and Louisiana (down 20 percent). At KU, the number of international students has declined 5.5 percent since a peak in 2016, according to university data.

I’ve heard of no moves to expand the STEM classification at KU, but some other universities have given themselves wide license to reclassify programs. In other words, STEM isn’t just about science, technology, engineering, and math. It’s also about marketing.

Worth repeating

“Good teaching is emotional work, requiring reserves of patience and ingenuity that are all-too-often depleted in overworked faculty members.”

—David Gooblar of the University of Iowa, writing about faculty burnout for The Chronicle of Higher Education


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.

Cleve Moler meets with students and faculty members after speaking at Eaton Hall.

By Doug Ward

“Look over Spock’s shoulder,” Cleve Moler told the audience at Eaton Hall on Thursday.

He was showing a clip from Star Trek: The Motion Picture, the 1979 movie that revived the classic 1960s science fiction television series. In a scene from the bridge of the Starship Enterprise, colorful graphics blink on a futuristic array of monitors.

Those graphics, Moler explained, came from what is now the Los Alamos National Laboratory, where he was part of team that developed a computational math library and an accompanying library for computer graphics. That work, written in Fortran, was “just a matrix calculator,” Molder said, but it was the basis for Matlab, software that creates an interactive environment for computation, visualization, modeling, and programming.

Moler, a former professor at New Mexico, Michigan and Stanford, is the “chief mathematician” and chairman of MathWorks, a company he co-founded in 1984. He visited KU this week, speaking to an auditorium filled mostly with undergraduates, but also with faculty and administrators, for the Russell Bradt Undergraduate Colloquium.

Graphics from the Los Alamos National Laboratory were used in scenes from “Star Trek: The Motion Picture.”

I’m not a mathematician, so I won’t pretend to understand the intricacies of Matlab. What I do understand is that Matlab plays an important role in researching and teaching mathematics, engineering, and other STEM areas. It is an environment created by mathematicians for mathematicians, and it has attained near iconic status in the academic world, with more than a million users.

In his talk at Eaton Hall, Moler spoke in a gravelly but upbeat voice about his influences in mathematics and computer science and about the steps that led to the development of Matlab. MathWorks, the company, started in 1984 with one employee, doubling every year for the first seven years. It now has about 4,000 employees in 20 offices around the world, Moler said. It has also expanded into such areas as cell biology, image processing, hearing aids, and driverless cars.

About midway through his talk, Moler gleefully described a project called Eigenwalker, which is using Matlab to break the human gait into its mathematical components and using those calculations to create stick and dot animations. As half a dozen panels with stick figures walked in place on the screen, Moler grinned at the audience and said: “I enjoy that demo. Everybody enjoys that demo.”

Then his analytic side came out.

“It’s all very amusing,” he said, “but what do we see here that’s so enjoyable?”

Through those stick figures, he said, we can understand things like mood, gender, and personality just by observing the way they move, and researchers are using the animations to study how people perceive others through their walk.

At 78, Moler doesn’t move nearly as smoothly as he did when he created Matlab, but his status as a math star was apparent at a reception in Snow Hall, where he sat with a cup of coffee and a cranberry oatmeal cookie talking with Professor Marge Bayer and others from the math department. Graduate students ringed the room, seemingly reluctant to approach Moler. They needn’t have worried. Despite his genius, Moler loves interacting with people, telling stories of his family and of the evolution of Matlab.

He shared one of those stories at the end of his talk at Eaton Hall after a student asked about the “why” command in Matlab. The original Matlab used terminal input, he said, and provided answers for commands like “help,” “who,” and “what.” Moler and others decided that Matlab needed a “why” function to go along with the others, so they programmed it to respond with “R.T.F.M.” when someone typed “why.”

That stood for “read the manual,” he said, with an extra word in the middle starting with “f.”

The room erupted in laughter.

Over the years, the “why” function became an inside joke, an Easter egg in Matlab that provided random humorous answers. He gave his audience a sneak peak of 30 or so new responses, including “Some smart kid wanted it,” “To please some system manager,” “To fool a young tall hamster,” “Some mathematician suggested it,” and “How should I know?”

At the end of his talk, Moler made a pitch for his company, which he said was hiring 250 to 300 “good people who know Matlab.” It wasn’t quite the same as in invitation to the bridge of the Enterprise, but for young mathematicians, it was close.

An entrepreneur endorses the liberal arts

The liberal arts got a recent thumbs-up from an unlikely source: Mark Cuban, the entrepreneur, Shark Tank star, and owner of the Dallas Mavericks.

“Unlikely” may not be quite the right description because Cuban encourages high school students to attend college and has a college degree himself (Indiana University business administration, 1981). So he is hardly part of the drop-out-now-and-chase-your-dream crowd of Silicon Valley entrepreneurs like Peter Thiel. Neither is he bullish on higher education, though. He has argued that colleges and universities are constructing unnecessary buildings financed by rising tuition, and that higher education is in the midst of a bubble, much as real estate was before 2008.

“As far as the purpose of college, I am a huge believer that you go to college to learn how to learn,” Cuban wrote on his blog in 2012. “However, if that goal is subverted because traditional universities, public and private, charge so much to make that happen, I believe that system will collapse and there will be better alternatives created.”

In a recent interview with Bloomberg News, Cuban said that students needed to think carefully about jobs, careers, and skills.

“What looked like a great job graduating from college today may not be a great job graduating from college five years or 10 years from now,” he said.

That’s because machine learning and artificial intelligence are changing the nature of work. Companies are hiring fewer employees as technology takes over more jobs, making it crucial for people to understand how to use computers and software, he said.

“Either software works for you or you work for software, and once the software takes over, you’re gone,” Cuban said.

He predicted enormous changes in the workplace in the coming years.

“The amount of change we’re going to see over the next five years, 10 years will dwarf everything that’s happened over the last 30,” Cuban said.

Because of that, Cuban said he expected English, philosophy and foreign language majors and others who are “more of a freer thinker” to have a distinct advantage.

“I personally think there’s going to be a greater demand in 10 years for liberal arts majors than there were for programming majors and maybe even engineering,” Cuban said.

It’s refreshing to hear someone from the business world extoll the virtues of liberal education, especially as higher education – and liberal education in particular – have come under intense criticism from many sides. There is certainly much to criticize, but there is also much to be hopeful about. No matter their career path, students benefit from a broad understanding of the world, an ability to research effectively, communicate clearly and analyze critically, and a desire to keep learning. (I’ll be talking more about those skills in the coming weeks.)


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

One poster offers to explain the chemistry of the world’s most popular drug.

Another teases about the fatty acids that make T-shirts feel soft.

Still another promises secrets about the oils used in making the perfect chicken nugget.

None of them offers its secrets outright, though. And that’s just how Drew Vartia, a postdoctoral teaching fellow in the chemistry department, wants it.

A poster in Malott Hall refers people to information about the chemistry of soap.

The posters were created by the 60 students in Honors Chemistry I, which Vartia worked on with Professor Tim Jackson. The project, Vartia said, was inspired by Rajiv Jhangiani, who spoke at KU in the spring about open education and the use of “renewable assignments” or “nondisposable assignments.” Most work that students complete never go beyond the class. Assignments and tests are created by the instructor for the instructor and are quickly disposed of by instructor and students after the class is over.

Nondisposable assignments, on the other hand, allow students to take their learning into the world or apply it to real-world problems.

Vartia wanted chemistry students to use that approach to help fellow students learn more about the invisible chemical interactions in everyday life.

“Chemistry is something that people tend to shy away from,” Vartia said. “For whatever reason, a lot of people have had a negative experience with it and so they don’t actively see chemistry in their immediate environment.”

So Vartia and the students in Chemistry 190 took chemistry to the people.

To do that, students researched the chemistry of everyday things: caffeine, blood, fabric softener, pigments, cooking oil, limestone, and body odor.

“We asked them to create information about chemistry that would be digestible to somebody who had only a high school chemistry course,” Vartia said. “So in principle their product could teach the public something about chemistry. It was low enough level that somebody could read it and latch onto it, and a high enough level that the person reading it would then further their knowledge of chemistry.”

Once students had completed their explanatory material, they created posters intended to grab people’s attention and try to get them to seek out more information. To assist with that, each poster has a QR code, which allows people to scan with a cellphone and retrieve the information the students wrote.

The posters, created by 15 groups of four students each, then went up in 11 locations where students were likely to find them, including the Kansas Union, The Underground, the Spencer Museum of Art, the Natural History Museum, dorms, and Watkins Health Center. Each poster was tied to some aspect of the location. For instance, one at the Roasterie in the Kansas Union focuses on caffeine, which it referred to as “the world’s most popular drug.” One at Watkins Health Center focuses on the chemistry of blood. One at the Spencer Museum of Art focuses on the chemistry of pigment, and one in the dorms sends people to information about fabric softeners, which release fatty acids that give clothes a soft feel.

Vartia was pleased with the students’ work, but he said they learned a few lessons for next time. The most important is that the posters need to be bigger. The current lot is 8½ by 11 inches, and they are easily overlooked. The other important takeaway is that they need to be displayed earlier in the semester so that students can gather data about viewership before class ends. The assignment was certainly successful, though, Vartia said.

“Traditional writing assignments are typically two-party transactions between the student-author of some research paper and the instructor,” he said. “They do some back and forth and then the utility of the assignment is over. In this case, students were excited that what they were doing mattered to a greater number of people and had the ability to influence people that they’ve never met.”

The posters will remain in place through at least part of the spring semester, Vartia said. If you see one, give it a scan.


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 and Mary Deane Sorcinelli

BOULDER, Colo. – Symbolism sometimes makes more of a difference than money in bringing about change in higher education.

That’s what Emily Miller, associate vice president for policy at the Association of American Universities, has found in her work with the AAU’s Undergraduate STEM Initiative. It’s also a strategy she has adopted as the initiative expands its work in improving undergraduate teaching and learning at research universities by encouraging adoption of evidence-based practices.

Miller provided an update on the work of the STEM initiative for the Bay View Alliance, whose steering committee met at the University of Colorado, Boulder, one of its member institutions, earlier this month for its semiannual meeting.

She pointed to an approach to systemic and sustainable change to undergraduate STEM teaching and learning in a framework that AAU has developed. The framework recognizes the wider setting in which educational innovations take place – the department, the college, the university and the national level – and addresses the key institutional elements necessary for sustained improvement to undergraduate STEM education, Miller said.

Emily Miller gestures at BVA steering committee meeting
Emily Miller of the Association of American Universities speaks with Jennifer Normanly of the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, at the BVA steering committee meeting.

The framework, which was vetted by campus stakeholders at 42 AAU institutions, guides the work of the initiative. Miller said that 55 of 62 AAU member universities had participated in activities hosted by AAU, engaging more than 275 faculty members and institutional leaders.

“Simply put, there’s has been widespread enthusiasm and interest in the initiative and impressive changes in teaching and learning,” Miller said.

Miller said instructors needed to draw on the same skills they use in teaching students to inform the public about science and science education. That outreach is also critically important, she said, because it helps to demonstrate the societal benefits of federal investment in science. This is an area where AAU has redoubled its efforts to promote the importance of government/university partnership  in response to significant cuts to research budgets at the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation, among other federal agencies, Miller said.

“We are going back to some real roots to explain what is the relationship between our research universities and the federal government, particularly around the research enterprise,” Miller said. “But we also have strong interest in the value of an undergraduate degree at a research institution, so we are helping explain that value by our work in the Undergraduate STEM Initiative.”

Since the STEM initiative began in 2011, it has received nearly $8 million in grants from foundations and the federal government. And though it has awarded several universities $500,000 over four years to improve STEM teaching, Miller sees just as much value in smaller mini-grants.

“I would have never thought of writing a grant to give $20,000 grants,” Miller said, “but that has actually allowed us to effect more change on more campuses because of the symbolic significance of the resources.”

Twelve universities, including KU, recently received those mini-grants, and the AAU plans to put out a call for another round of grants next year.

“The significance of getting money from AAU matters more than any dollar amount,” Miller said. “And while the money might help leverage more internal dollars, it symbolically means so much because it convenes people around the table.”

Getting people together helps organizations take steps toward changing the culture of teaching and learning, a central goal of the Undergraduate STEM Initiative. Miller said, though, that AAU needs to lead by example; that as it works toward “cultural change on campuses, cultural change needs to happen within my association.”

She added:

“By increasing its own emphasis on improving the quality of undergraduate teaching, the AAU can help the university chancellors, presidents and provosts who make up its membership increase the degree to which they focus attention on this matter. Our institutions have traditionally emphasized research, especially in the way faculty members are rewarded. AAU can help balance the scale between teaching and research.”


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. Mary Deane Sorcinelli is a senior fellow at the Institute for Teaching Excellence & Faculty Development at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, and a co-principal investigator of the AAU Undergraduate STEM Education Initiative. Both Ward and Sorcinelli participated in the recent BVA steering committee meeting.

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

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.