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.

Jen Roberts geology class
Jennifer Roberts walks through the lecture hall during her geology class, above and bottom, working with students on collaborative problem-solving. Several teaching assistants also help in the classroom.

By Doug Ward

Jennifer Roberts first noticed the difference a few years ago in Geology 101.

The course regularly draws 300 or more students a semester, and Roberts, an associate professor of geology, was teaching in much the same way she had since she took over the course in 2002: lecture and exam.Teaching matters box2, spring 2015

Problem was, exam scores were dropping, she said, and as she interacted with students, she found that they had less understanding of the material than students had had just two or three years before.

So Roberts set out to transform the class, which is now called The Way the Earth Works, into an active learning format, with in-class group work, student presentations, clicker questions aimed at prompting discussions, and lots of interactions with students. With the help of Kelsey Bitting, a postdoctoral teaching fellow, she began moving away from what Bitting calls the “fire-hose approach” to teaching and concentrating on helping students learn core skills through hands-on activities.

Research has long cast doubt on the use of lecture in education. Donald Bligh, in his book What’s the Use of Lecture?, provides some of the most compelling evidence, reviewing more than 200 college-level courses in several disciplines. The biggest benefit of lecture is that it is an efficient means of reaching a large number of students in a single setting. Bligh argues that lectures can be useful in conveying information but that they do little to promote thought or problem-solving abilities, or to change behavior. Rather, they reinforce ideas, values, and habits that students have already accepted.

Students work in groups during Geology 101, discussing ways to solve problems.
Students work in groups during Geology 101, discussing ways to solve problems.

Despite the evidence about lecture’s weaknesses, two-thirds to three-quarters of faculty members continue to rely it, according to research summarized by Derek Bok of Harvard in his book Our Underachieving Colleges. As Bok argues, though, facts, theories, and concepts delivered in lecture have little value unless students can apply them to new situations, ask pertinent questions, make reasoned judgments, and arrive at meaningful conclusions.

Bitting urges instructors to think about it this way: “You may have a lecture that works to get students to take a multiple choice test really effectively,” she said. “But when you have a conversation with that student after your semester, they may not actually remember anything. Or they may not know how to make sense of it outside of the context of the little paragraph in the textbook where they read it the first time.”

Transforming a class, especially a large lecture class, isn’t easy. Roberts has essentially applied the scientific method to her teaching of Geology 101, experimenting with a variety of techniques. Some have failed; others have succeeded. “There has been a lot struggle but also self-reflection on my process and then on the learning process in general,” she said.

Jen Roberts' biology class
Roberts often sketches during class, having students create their own drawings, below right, and fill in areas that Roberts asks about.

Roberts said her experience with active learning in a large class had forced her to step away from the class material and recognize that students “are not me.”

“They don’t learn like I do,” she said. “And that’s OK. But my job is to have them learn, so I need to think about what’s the best to have everybody do the best they can and to learn.”Jen Roberts' biology class, 12-4-14 (49) - Copy

The adjustments in an active learning class can be difficult for students, as well. As Catherine Sloan writes in Change magazine, millennials “have a deep fear of failure,” so getting them to take intellectual risks takes patience. Nor do they deal well with ambiguity. They like clear, firm solutions to academic problems, and pushing them to think beyond a single “right answer” also takes work from instructors.

Tradition has also made changing the format of classes more challenging. Students have grown accustomed to sitting passively in lectures, reviewing instructors’ notes or slides posted online, attending study sessions (again, passively), cramming for exams, and moving on. Many resent having to take an active role in class – isn’t that the professor’s job? – and in their learning in general.

Even so, many students find the expectations of their professors lower than they had anticipated. Sloan writes that “the most common complaint we hear from students is not that their professors are too demanding but that they don’t hold firmly to deadlines and expectations.”

Bitting also urges instructors to look more broadly at student learning.

“Even if your lecture is working really well for getting your students to take a multiple choice test, if they’re not excited about it and they don’t care about it when they leave, maybe you’re not doing the job you want to do,” she said.

Jen Roberts' biology class, 12-4-14 (30)


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.

Active learning helps students learn in deep, meaningful ways, as study after study has shown.

That doesn’t mean it’s easy. On the contrary, students who have grown accustomed to sitting through lectures with one eye on their phones and one foot out the door often rebel at changing to hands-on exercises, in-class discussion among dozens or hundreds of students, peer learning, group projects, and other techniques that force them from their seats.

Alison Olcott Marshall, who, with the help of Kelsey Bitting, a postdoctoral teaching fellow, has transformed an undergraduate paleontology class for non-majors into an active-learning format, found out first hand last semester how difficult it can be.

“The first couple of weeks were hard because they were like, ‘Lady, you’re crazy,’” Olcott Marshall said.

She persisted, though, transforming a 100-level paleontology course that had long been a “romp through all the fossil organisms that had been found” into one with a narrower focus aimed at engaging students in the scientific process. The culmination of the craziness was an event called Paleocon, a public display of group projects that students worked on in lieu of taking a final exam. The goal was to synthesize paleontological topics in a way that students and their peers could understand, Olcott Marshall said, as the video above explains.

One of Olcott Marshall’s students, Ian Rhoads, described the class as “a very guided, hands-on learning process.”

“Ms. Olcott Marshall is really good at making sure that we’re all on track,” he said.

Annie Fuquay, Alex Tait and Wesley Riedmiller explain their project on the horseshoe crab at Paleocon.
Annie Fuquay, Alex Tait and Wesley Riedmiller explain their project on the horseshoe crab at Paleocon.

Another student, Miranda Mitchell, said she was “shocked having to be in a group and do so much group work.” She warmed to the process, though, saying, “It’s very cool to get to talk with someone every day and get to know people on a different level than you would anywhere else.”

Alex Tait, a photography major, worked in a group with a theater major (Annie Fuquay) and a business major (Wesley Riedmiller). She said the class format pushed students to take on research on their own rather than just read about it and listen to it described.

“We’re artsy kinds of people, so to this type of opportunity really motivates us to want to learn the information and apply it things that interest us as opposed to just being in the library and studying and then going and taking a test,” she said.

Olcott Marshall saw the results, as well. As she walked amid the dozen or so student displays at Paleocon, she and her students were clearly energized. Pushing through the students’ skepticism about this crazy active learning approach had clearly paid off.

“Now they’re like, ‘Oh, this makes sense. I see why I had to work,’ ” Olcott Marshall said.

By Doug Ward

Earlier this week, I wrote about the unlikelihood of competition and cultural forces pushing higher education to “unbundle” its degrees and services.

Jeff Young of The Chronicle of Higher Education provides yet another take on that notion. Young says that providers of massive open online courses, or MOOCs, have pledged to democratize education, allowing anyone to become an educator and a learner. He describes platforms like Udemy, edX and MOOC.org collectively as the “sharing economy meets education.”

In one example, a 25-year-old entrepreneur with no teaching experience has made tens of thousands of dollars through his app-building course on Udemy. An Iowa State professor makes $2,500 a month from a collection of online courses he calls the Critical Thinker Academy, and aspires to work on that full time.

abstract image of ceiling of Kimmel Center in Philadelphia
Doug Ward

As Young explains, there’s a growing audience for learning among motivated people who have degrees (or not) and want to keep learning but don’t want to pursue another degree. These people aren’t afraid to step outside the traditional realm of education.

“The bigger, more immediate threat to colleges is indirect,” Young writes. “These sites that let anyone teach courses might just change the way people think about the value of education, about the nature of expertise, and about what teaching is worth.”

There are no surprises here. This is just part of a much longer conversation on the role and value of MOOCs and the future of higher education. It is yet another sign of the need for colleges and universities to change, though, and another reminder of the opportunities for those institutions that can effect that change.

More unconventional learning

While we’re on the topic of unconventional approaches to learning, I’d recommend reading Jessica Lahey’s Atlantic article “What Teachers Can Learn From Vsauce’s YouTube Show.”

Lahey profiles Michael Stevens, host of a high-energy YouTube education channel called Vsauce. Stevens takes on such quirky topics as “Is Cereal Soup?” and “What If the Earth Stopped Spinning?” and (shudder) “What Does Human Taste Like?” She writes:

Stevens understands that the best teachers don’t just hurl vast shovelfuls of wisdom at their students, hoping some of it sticks as it whizzes by. Great teachers know that education is a long game, and much of the time, the lesson at hand is not the final destination but an opportunity to contextualize and support future learning.
Stevens’s ability to connect with audiences – his 10-minute videos get millions of views each – goes beyond great titles, pun-filled presentations and sharp visuals, though. Lahey writes:

You don’t learn from a Vsauce video because you put out a lot of effort to do so; you learn because Stevens makes the information matter.

That, perhaps more than anything, is what those of us in higher education need to take away from the popularity of Vsauce, Udemy and other unconventional forms of education: We have to make information matter. We have to make learning matter. We have to make education matter. We have to help students see the connections among the topics we teach, and among the topics our colleagues teach.

That ability to connect – with students and among topics – is a central component of the future of education.

Generate! Blah-blah-blah. Repeat! Blah-blah-blah.

In a post last month, I wrote about Audrey Watters’s list of vapid academic jargon and her prediction that the blah-blah-blah would continue unabated in 2015.

Since then, I’ve run across a wonderful tool called the Jargon Generator, which was created by Andy Allan, a high school teacher in California who maintains a site called ScienceGeek.net.

Allan says he was inspired to create the Jargon Generator after reading new guidelines for AP Chemistry. The generator was modeled on a similar tool on Dack.com.

The Jargon Generator is a must-see amusement for anyone who has slogged through a poorly edited academic journal, suffered through a grant application, endured an administrative meeting or survived a speech by an educational consultant. Just push the “Generate jargon!” button and see such amazing empty phrases as these:

  • We will visualize school-based pedagogy across content areas.
  • We will aggregate shared differentiated lessons within professional learning communities.
  • We will cultivate shared concept maps across cognitive and affective domains.

For even more fun, try an active learning experiment and string together some of the sentences on your own:

We will discern bottom-up paradoxes with a laser-like focus, ultimately integrating synergistic technologies within the new paradigm. We fully expect that to agendize college and career ready interfaces within professional learning communities and operationalize diverse stakeholders for high-performing seats.

My only complaint with the Jargon Generator is that all the sentences it creates are in active voice. True jargon is dipped from a cesspool of passive:

Bottom-up paradoxes will be discerned with a laser-like focus, and the new paradigm will ultimately be integrated with synergistic technologies. College and career ready interfaces within professional learning communities are expected to be fully agendized upon the operationalization by diverse stakeholders for high-performing seats.

If that doesn’t make you want to run for the exits, you’ve no doubt been reading too much of the Journal of Cooperative Paradigm Processes for 21st-Century Learners. You have my sympathy.


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.

By Doug Ward

The note cards I handed out to students in my hybrid class last week drew astonished looks.

Each contained a hand-written list of three things: events, people, animals, objects, locations, movies, songs, television shows. All were random, created one evening in a stream of consciousness. For instance:notecards showing groupings of items for the class exercise

“Eye of the Tiger”

Eye of a needle

Arctic Ocean

and

Fire alarms

Fairy tales

Calvin Klein

“Here’s the fun part,” I told students. “Find a connection among the three things.”

That’s where the astonishment came in.

The main goal of the exercise was to help students synthesize, to open their eyes to connections they might not otherwise see and to creative solutions they might not otherwise consider. They worked in pairs, and once they got beyond the initial “I can’t do this” shock, they generally came up with excellent answers.

After the exercise, one student asked a question that surprised me, even though it shouldn’t have.

“What’s the right answer?” she asked.

After wincing, I said there was no right answer to any of the postcard triads. Then I recited one of my educational mantras to all the students:

“There are no right answers in this class,” I said. “There are better answers. But there are no right answers.”

That’s a hard concept to grasp for students who focus far too much on a grade and a diploma rather than on learning. Ambiguity and uncertainty make them uncomfortable, and many have been taught that there are indeed right answers in their classes.

In some disciplines there are, of course, though even in those the understanding of the process is more important than any single answer.

I teach a class called Infomania, which is intended to help students become better researchers and to help them learn to solve problems with information and digital tools. I also try to help students work their way through ambiguity. Pushing them to find a link between fire alarms, fairy tales and Calvin Klein is part of that. So is working in groups, developing individual and group projects, and other approaches that emphasize active learning.

I thought about sharing some of the students’ creative responses to my nonsensical challenge but decided that wouldn’t be fair. You, dear reader, must work through that ambiguity on your own.

Remember, there are no right answers.


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.