By Doug Ward

Students engaged in active learning tend to be gloriously noisy. They share ideas and insights with each other. They write on whiteboards. They debate contentious topics. They work problems. They negotiate group projects.

In Genelle Belmas’s Gamification class, though, active learning took the form of silence – at least for a day.

That’s right. Silence — in a room with more than 100 students. A seat creaked now and then. Someone coughed. A notebook rustled. Otherwise, nothing. If you don’t believe me, listen to the video in the multimedia file below. Just don’t expect to hear much.

The silent approach in the classroom was part of an experiment in helping students reach a “flow state,” which Belmas, an associate professor of journalism, described as a state of mind “where everything is awesome.”

“Time melts away,” she said. “Ego melts away. You’re productive and you’re happy. That’s what I want these kids to get to.”

The idea of a flow state, Belmas said, comes from the psychologist Mihaly Csíkszentmihalyi, who argues that you must balance your skills against your challenges. Flow comes about when both skills and challenges are high.

“This fits into the gaming because research has demonstrated that people are happiest when they’re in a flow state,” Belmas said. “We want to keep people in a flow state in the game so that they accomplish the cool stuff that can be accomplished.”

The students in Gamification are working in teams to create games that Belmas calls “purpose driven.” Those games include one that will help children learn math, one that will focus on recycling, one that will help journalism students learn Associated Press style, and one that will help young adults learn money management.

Ideally, the games will push users into a flow state, just as the students pushed themselves into a flow state. Silence will be optional, though.


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

For many students and educators, this year’s election felt personal.

Women were ridiculed for their physical appearance. Mexican immigrants were called drug traffickers and rapists. Muslims were accused of hating the United States, and a ban on Muslim immigration was proposed. A reporter with a disability was mocked. Black Americans were portrayed as living in war zones. Supporters of one candidate were called “deplorables.”

Since the election, Muslims and students of color have been threatened and intimidated at some campuses, international students have wondered about their future in the U.S., and many students have feared for their safety.

This all runs counter to the inclusive nature of a university campus, not to mention an enlightened society. Higher education helps people discover their passions and build their intellect. It thrives when people feel safe to challenge conventional wisdom, examine assumptions and plumb the depths of understanding. Society at large thrives when its members feel safe.

words in sidewalk chalk saying peace & love
Messages like this appeared on sidewalks around the KU campus this week.

The election results have generated widely divergent feelings among college students and faculty, making some classroom conversations difficult. That is why at workshops this week at CTE, we have been discussing ways to engage in those conversations with students. Graduate teaching assistants and faculty members report anxiety in classes. Many students are afraid to speak even as others are in a celebratory mood. Some have retreated into themselves, needing time to comprehend the election results, while others have made inappropriate comments in classes.

This awkward environment challenges even experienced instructors. Participants in the sessions this week have provided some potential solutions (I’ll get to those shortly) but also asked many potent, difficult questions:

  • Where is the line between free speech and hate speech?
  • How do we make sure all of our students have a voice?
  • How do we help students who report disdainful interactions that aren’t crimes but that make learning more difficult?
  • How do we help students think more critically about the opinions they and others express?
  • How do we support students who feel threatened by the president-elect’s rhetoric without silencing the views of students who support him?
  • How do we help students become more comfortable with post-election ambiguity about the future?

The CTE website offers many resources for engaging in these sorts of difficult conversations and for creating an inclusive classroom environment. A handout created by CTE’s director, Andrea Greenhoot, provides additional guidance, and workshop participants offered more excellent suggestions. Among the advice:

  • Listen. Allow students to express their views in and out of class. Offer empathy and support while maintaining a civil, respectful environment.
  • Set ground rules for discussions. These are even better when students come up with the rules themselves.
  • Don’t force discussions. Some students may not be ready to engage in these difficult conversations. They need more time to process their thoughts and feelings.
  • Ask for evidence. Ask students to research the evidence they offer to support their points of view and to back up their assertions.
  • Find connections. Find ways to tie election discussions to the theme and content of your courses.
  • Look to your discipline. Consider how material from your own field can help promote civil discourse.
  • Practice respect. Ask students to listen to other perspectives and try to understand them before responding.
  • Use writing exercises to help students reflect and to help them step back from tumultuous encounters.sidewalk chalk message that says you are important

Unfortunately, divisiveness and alienation seem likely to continue in the coming years, given the rancor of the election, the deep political divide of the electorate, and the divergent worldviews of Americans. As educators, we simply cannot back away from controversial topics and difficult conversations. If anything, those conversations will be all the more important in the coming months and years.

At the same time, we simply cannot tolerate bigotry and hate. We must redouble our efforts to make facts, evidence and intellectual discovery the center of our academic journey and the political conversation.

Marta Caminero-Santangelo, who helped lead a workshop this week, pointed to the university mission statement as a means for guidance. That mission statement provides a reminder that even as we deal with attacks on our beliefs and our integrity, we have clear foundational principles to rely on as we move into the future.

“The university is committed to excellence,” it reads. “It fosters a multicultural environment in which the dignity and rights of the individual are respected. Intellectual diversity, integrity, and disciplined inquiry in the search for knowledge are of paramount importance.”

We have much work ahead to live up to that.


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

It’s no secret that we are big fans of active learning at the Center for Teaching Excellence.

So when the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy issued a call to action for active learning and declared today Active Learning Day, we had to join the festivities.

Jo Handelsman and Quincy Brown describe active learning this way on the White House blog:

“Implementing active learning can be as simple as using small group discussions for problem-solving, asking students to write down a question they have following a lesson, or allowing time for self-assessment and reflection by the students; it also can be as expansive as hands-on technology activities or engaging students in authentic scientific research or engineering design.”

We encourage instructors to experiment and innovate with active learning, finding ways to make learning more hands-on and more meaningful. To help with that, we’ve put together some examples of how faculty members at KU have approached active learning.


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

By Doug Ward

Education changes people.

Those of us who teach know that well. We see students transform during their degrees, and sometimes during a semester. Their skills improve. Their thinking deepens. Their confidence blossoms.

As it changes minds, though, education also changes the relationships students have with family and friends, adding stress to students’ lives from an unexpected source. Students generally learn to cope with those changes, but they often aren’t sure how to broach the subject with family and friends. They don’t want to anger others, or make them feel diminished. But they also don’t want to hold themselves back.

That personal aspect of learning is just one of many issues that students have brought up during focus groups I’ve led on learning, engagement, and student motivation over the past two years. I wrote recently about what students say helps them learn. Students openly admit that they struggle with many aspects of higher education, though. If we are willing to listen, they will tell us what they think we need to know.

What students want faculty to know

Some of students’ best experiences in college come from meaningful discussions with professors who have expertise in a particular field or who simply take time to learn who they are and help them find their way. Students rave about professors who “made me feel comfortable and made time for me.”

celka straughn, phil baringer and andrea greenhoot at the student learning symposium
Celka Straughn, director of academic programs at the Spencer Museum of Art, speaks with Phil Barringer, professor of physics, during a lunch session at the Student Learning Symposium. Andrea Greenhoot, director of CTE (background), led the session.

On the other hand, students say that professors who come across as unapproachable, condescending, and inflexible diminish the value of classes, majors, and degrees. Some of those professors simply won’t make time for students, though students recognize the challenge that large classes bring. Big lectures make students feel lost and anonymous, they say, and professors in those classes often have a hard time connecting to students.

Other obligations. Remember that students are taking more than your class. They also have obligations at work, family and organizations. Also remind students about office hours. Yes, they know about office hours, they say, but a reminder now and then helps.

Pointless classes. Far too many classes seem pointless, students say. They give a variety of reasons for that:

  • Some classes lack any relation to students’ goals or interests, and faculty members fail to explain the point of the class. All too often, the same professors who challenge colleagues to explain the “so what?” of research don’t ask the same question about the courses they teach. “I’m at point where I know what I want to do,” one student said. “I value the time and money I put into a class.”
  • Some courses within a major are too basic, students say. They want to be challenged, and some assignments seem like little more than busy work.
  • Some faculty members come across as pretentious and diminish the subject matter of their classes. They may think their class covers the most important topic in the world, students say, but simply saying that doesn’t make it so.

Professors also need to be clearer about the expectations of classes, students say. Some classes require more independent learning; others require students to follow specific guidelines. Students can work with either system, they say. They just need clear expectations.

What students want administrators to know

College costs too much. This is both a political and institutional issue, especially at a state university. Students understand the politics of state reductions in university financing and the corresponding rise in tuition. They also want a strong, vibrant university. Yet most have jobs to help pay college costs, they say, and some work 20 to 35 hours a week.

Advising is uneven. Most students rave about their advisors, especially the ones in their majors. They have harsh words for the general advising system, though. “For every good comment I’ve heard about general advisors, I’ve heard three bad ones,” one student said. Friends had been told to take classes they didn’t need, delaying graduation. One mentioned a friend who was told at freshman orientation that he had five minutes to figure out his first schedule. Most certainly, this isn’t a typical experience. Stories like these stand out in students’ minds, though, and cast a shadow on the advising system. Advisors and faculty members also need to keep an open mind, students say. Students change their minds about majors and classes as they learn more about themselves and their interests, and just learn more in general.

Smaller classes make a difference. I’ve heard this over and over from students, and pedagogical research backs it up. Those least equipped to handle large lecture classes are beginning students, yet those are the very students required to enroll in those classes. Many instructors have worked to overcome the weakness of large classes with in-class group work and two-stage exams, techniques that help shrink the class and improve student learning. Students at the most recent learning symposium spoke about the many benefits of that. Unfortunately, active learning in large classes is still rare.

Students generally rave about first-year seminars, saying that those types of courses help them make connections and help them acclimate to university learning. Some suggest a broader requirement for an orientation-type course that focuses on how to learn and how to structure your life in college.

Make classes more transparent. Students say they want to be able to make more informed decisions about the classes they take. Some want evaluations of courses and professors made public. They would take the evaluation system more seriously, they said, if they saw the results and knew their comments could help future students. They see the current system as opaque and don’t see that their evaluations matter much. That’s one reason they turn to sources like RateMyProfessor.com. They understand the downside of that sort of ratings system – that students who have had really good or really bad experiences are most likely to post – but they say the university has offered them no other options.

What students want families and friends to know

Students are often surprised by how education changes their relationships with friends and family members, they said. That’s especially true with first-generation college students, whose burgeoning independence, broadening views of the world, and distance from home make them wonder what to talk about with family and old friends. Those who had once anchored their lives seem to drift away as their lives change, they form new friendships, and they begin to understand better who they are.

As you can imagine, that unmooring generates stress. Students still care about family and friends back home, but they are torn between a new life and an old life. Family members and longtime friends, they say, sometimes don’t seem to value the changes the students are undergoing. Those changing relationships add to the stress students feel, and that stress can be enormous. A recent study of American freshmen found that a third felt overwhelmed by all the things they had to do in college.

None of this is particularly surprising, but it serves as a good reminder about the complexities of higher education. Students some to college to learn, and yet learning involves a tangle of interrelated components. Students at one focus group were especially vocal about something they wanted faculty members to keep in mind:

We are people, too.


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

Asked to describe the things that help them learn, students provide a remarkably consistent list:

  • Engagement
  • Interaction
  • Clarity
  • Openness
  • Accessibility
  • A sense of belonging

That’s hardly a complete list, but those ideas came up again and again during a focus group at KU’s recent Student Learning Symposium. Not surprisingly, those same components come up again and again in research on learning.

sara rosen, holly storkel and stuart day at the Student Learning Symposium
Holly Storkel accepted the university’s Degree-Level Assessment award on behalf of the Speech-Language Pathology program. She was joined at the Student Learning Symposium by Sara Rosen, acting provost, and Stuart Day, acting senior vice provost for academic affairs.

The focus group at the learning symposium consisted of three undergraduate and three graduate students who had agreed to share their experiences at a round-table discussion. They were open and candid in their assessment of their own learning and of the learning they see in classes they help with. These categories overlap, but they provide a good sense of what students say is important.

Engagement

One of the undergraduates, who also works as a TA for a biology class, described students’ mindset about their classes like this: “Is there a reason for being there?” That is, will attending class help them do better on quizzes, exams, papers, and other assignments? Or will the instructor just read from slides that are later posted online? When in-class work engages students and clearly makes a difference in their performance, “now there’s a reason to be there,” students said.

Openness

Many students are anxious and apprehensive at the beginning of a term, and a sullen or seemingly angry professor will push them away with just a look. Professors who do nothing except lecture can seem standoffish, students said, and students don’t know how those professors will react if students try to talk with them.

On the other hand, instructors who are approachable make a big difference in classes, students say. Even in big classes, some instructors walk around the room, talk with students and answer questions. It’s impossible to get to know students well in big classes, but setting a positive tone can make students feel that they belong and want to be involved in a class, students said.

Clarity

Too many instructors teach as if students are experts rather than beginners, students said. Instructors need to think more from students’ perspective and try to remember what it’s like to work with new material for the first time. Professors simply must get better at explaining, students said.

Relatedly, students say are willing to go along with experimentation in format, assignments, and other elements of a class. The key is communication. “As long as instructors explain, students will be up for that,” one undergraduate said.

Both undergraduate and graduate students said that disciplinary programs needed to do a better job of helping students see the bigger picture of a program or a degree. Students need to “understand that there’s a future to all this information,” one student said. Graduate students said departments also needed to do a better job of integrating coursework with research.

Sense of belonging

The first semester at a new university can be painful, and successfully negotiating the freshman jitters makes a huge difference in whether students will stay the year or eventually graduate. Universities have recognized that and use programs like First-Year Experience to reach out to freshmen and help them maneuver through the educational maze.

Graduate students said they experienced much the same pain, loneliness, and disorientation as undergraduates. Unfortunately, they said, the university doesn’t do much to help them get situated. They recommended orientation sessions for graduate students, a better means of acquiring coping and learning strategies from peers, and better communication from departments. Graduate school is “so much more rigorous and so much harder,” one student said, and the university needs to do a better job of helping students cope.

Interaction

Interaction among students, and between instructor and students makes class much more meaningful, students said, lamenting about classes where they are simply “talked at.” One undergraduate said, “Lecture makes me wonder why I am coming to class to have you read slides to me.”

A Ph.D. student in the sciences echoed that sentiment. Too many graduate courses in STEM fields involve little but lecture, he said. He came to graduate school expecting to delve into critical analysis of problems and pursuit of new ideas. Instead, he found a frustrating emphasis on delivery of information. Graduate students in STEM fields are discouraged from discussion, he said, even though “interaction makes or breaks a class.”

Training for TAs

Graduate students at the learning symposium said the university needed to do a better job of helping them learn to teach effectively, and to provide incentives for graduate assistants to teach well. Many teaching assistants, especially those in the sciences, are told to spend as little time as possible on teaching, students said. (We’ve heard the same lament from students at CTE events for years.)

Gradate programs should be designed so that doctoral students learn to be well-rounded faculty members, not just research machines, students said. They called for more teaching workshops and other training for TAs. “A lot of grad students are doing only research,” one student said. “Once they graduate, they will be thrown into teaching with no experience.” He added, “This narrow focus is hurting many grad 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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

By Doug Ward

At workshops for graduate teaching assistants on Monday, I shared one of my favorite quotes about education.

It’s from Joi Ito, director of MIT’s Media Lab. In a TED Talk on innovation last year, he said: “Education is what people do to you. Learning is what you do to yourself.”

Andrea Greenhoot, director of the Center for Teaching Excellence, leads a discussion during the open session of the GTA conference at KU.
Andrea Greenhoot, director of the Center for Teaching Excellence, leads a discussion during the open session of the GTA conference at KU.

He added, “What you need to learn is how to learn.”

Several students took issue with Ito’s premise of “education” as something imposed on students. They should. It’s a generalization that pulls in all the negative perceptions people have about schools and higher education. It draws on imagery of education as a factory where students are slathered with information as they move along a conveyor belt and tested for uniformity before they emerge at the end of the line wrapped in a generic diploma that guarantees they will provide the “right” answer on cue.

And yet that’s Ito’s point. Learning is individual. It’s something you take on because you see value in it for yourself. Ito dropped out of college twice and is largely self-taught, experiences that most certainly shape his perspective on education but should also inform ours. As educators, we need to stress the importance learning rather than information. We must provide approaches to learning that are as rich and varied as our students, and create opportunities for students to find their own meaning and relevance in our curricula.

In my classes, I tell students that I can’t make them learn. I provide material to help them learn. I try to create a classroom environment where they feel welcome, and lead discussions that I hope will inspire them to learn – and keep learning. But I can do only so much. Students have to meet me halfway. They must complete the work I assign, share their ideas, and participate in discussions. They must invest in the process of learning. Only then will they truly learn.

Discussions at the GTA conference continued in the hallways of Wescoe Hall during lunch.
Discussions at the GTA conference continued in the hallways of Wescoe Hall during lunch.

Most GTAs understand that, I think. After all, by making their way to graduate school they have learned to work within – and thrive in – the current educational system. As they shift from students to instructors, they must unravel the concept of learning and help their own students put it back together. That’s a challenging mission, one they will spend the rest of their careers trying to perfect.

The GTAs in my sessions had a good sense of how to begin that mission. When I asked them to consider how we can help students learn how to learn, the group discussions were robust and enlightening. Here are some of the responses:

    • Ask good open-ended questions and provide concrete examples that lead to meaty discussions.
    • Provide a variety of examples that allow students to approach ideas from many angles.
    • Provide a variety of ways for students to demonstrate understanding.
    • Vary the method of instruction to help students learn in different ways.
    • Model the behavior you want students to follow.
    • Draw on your own experiences with learning and use those as relatable examples.
    • Help students make connections between academic topics and life.
    • Scaffold class material so that students work in increments toward mastery of a subject.
    • Humanize yourself as an instructor, make yourself available, and provide consistency throughout the semester.

The students’ suggestions provide an excellent framework for classes of all types. I hope they left the sessions feeling as energized as I did about the possibilities not just of education, but of learning.


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

By Doug Ward

James Burns of Boston College uses a term I hadn’t heard before: “swirling students.”

Writing in The Evolllution, Burns says swirling students are those who move in and out of college, collecting a few hours here, a few hours there as they move toward a degree. They often have full-time or part-time jobs, families, health problems or financial challenges, he says.

class scene in lecture room with oil painting filter
Photo by Doug Ward

The best way to attract – and keep – those students is through personal attention, Burns says. Reach out to them as they apply and then follow up with personal meetings with advisors and faculty members. Providing flexibility through hybrid or online courses helps, as well, although online courses can seem impersonal to some students, he says.

It’s also important to identify these students early in the admissions process and recognize that they may need more attention than some other students. Burns recommends “high-touch advising” to help these students get settled.

His recommendations make sense, not just for the so-called swirling students but for all students. One of the keys to retention is helping students find connections to people and organizations at a college or university. They have to feel they belong. That means having faculty members and advisors who are approachable and available, and willing to listen and to help students.

That’s one characteristic of a great teacher, and it’s one more reason to value great teaching.

The benefits of online communication

One of the biggest challenges of teaching online is the lack of face-to-face communication.

Online discussions often lack the spark and spontaneity of in-person discussions, instructors lack the ability to read visual cues, and many students treat online discussion boards not as discussions but as obligatory places to dump notes from their reading.

Alexandra Samuel, vice president for social media at the technology company Vision Critical, gives a nod to those drawbacks but makes a solid argument for the benefits of communicating online. Writing in Harvard Business Review, Samuel applies that argument to internal corporate communication, but most of her observations transfer easily to education. She says online communication helps solve several problems:

  • Distance. Participants in a discussion don’t have to be in the same place.
  • Time. Participants don’t have to be on the same schedule or fill their calendars with meetings. Rather, they contribute to online discussions when they can, 24 hours a day.
  • Diversity of opinion. Online communication allows workers to get answers to questions sooner than they would if they had to wait for a specific person to arrive at a specific place. This also allows for a more diverse group of people to weigh in.
  • Styles of communication. In-person meetings work well for loquacious people but not so well for those who are more reserved. By relying on only in-person meetings, Samuel writes, “you’re missing out on the perspective and talents of people who like to mull on a problem before contributing, or that of people who communicate better visually or in writing than they do out loud.” She recommends using several different forms, including PowerPoint, Google Docs, mindmapping tools, and project management tools to make discussions engaging for a wider variety of people.

Samuel doesn’t address one crucial issue in online communication: relationship-building.

Building relationships can prove challenging in an online class, especially one with an abbreviated schedule. Instructors must  build rapport with online students through video, audio, email, discussion boards, announcements, and other means of communication. They must then maintain a presence throughout the course, and make themselves available to students.

Communication of any type succeeds, though, only when everyone – whether workers or students – participates willingly and meaningfully. That’s often easier in the workplace than in education, but not always.

Briefly …

As K-12 schools develop Common Core curricula, many are forgoing textbooks in favor of free online materials, The Hechinger Report says. … A report from the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco gives a big thumbs-up to college degrees, saying that college graduates earn starting salaries that are $5,000 to $6,000 higher than high school graduates, with the gap growing to $25,000 after 15 years, Bloomberg Business reports. … The Chronicle of Higher Education reports that professors at some colleges have begun producing video trailers to promote their courses to students.


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