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.

By Doug Ward

Teachers and administrators say they want to see more innovation in teaching but blame each other for creating obstacles to experimentation, The Hechinger Report writes.

In the article, Jordan Shapiro says that lack of a “dependable shared language” may contribute to the problem. Education buzzwords abound, but clear definitions of those buzzwords are in shorter supply (see Audrey Watters below). That makes it harder to gauge what administrators want or what teachers are doing, Shapiro says.

Colleges and universities have additional problems when it comes to innovative teaching. In some cases, neither administrators nor instructors see much value in pursuing changes in teaching, making it easy to point a finger at someone else while continuing on the same easy but ultimately directionless path. A lack of recognition of and rewards for innovative and effective teaching further hinders change. And I agree with Shapiro that we need to do a better job of explaining what we mean by innovation and effective teaching.

One way to bring about change is to reach out to faculty and administrators who do value teaching, creating a community that demonstrates ways to improve teaching and learning, and helps others take small but meaningful steps toward change. That approach has worked well at the Center for Teaching Excellence with such efforts as the Best Practices Institute and the C21 Consortium, along with our annual teaching summit and periodic workshops and discussions.

Those and other events have generated new ideas for improving student engagement and student learning, promoting reflective teaching, and spreading the word that change is indeed possible from within.

Predictions for 2015 and beyond

Predictions abound at the beginning of every year. Among the publications, organizations and blogs I follow, here are some of the predictions that stood out:

Briefly …

Tuition from students now accounts for more revenue than state financing at public colleges and universities in the United States, USA Today reports, citing a report from the Government Accountability Office. … The Chronicle of Higher Education has released A Guide to the Flipped Classroom, a downloadable booklet that includes seven articles from the Chronicle, along with a short list of resources. Download requires a name, title and email address.


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

Two recent surveys help illustrate the barriers that block much-needed changes in teaching, learning and course design at colleges and universities.

In one, conducted by Gallup for Inside HigherEd, most full-time faculty members saw little value in online courses and took an even bleaker view of online courses at their own institutions. The survey found that only 24 percent of full-time faculty members agreed or strongly agreed that online courses could lead to the same level of learning as in-person courses. That fell to 13 percent for their own institutions.

WP_20141122_14_46_26_Pro
Photo by Doug Ward

Another recent survey, this one by the Higher Education Research Institute, found that adoption of online courses was growing, although only 17.4 percent of faculty members said they had taught an online course. At public universities, that number was nearly 10 points higher, though.

Online courses are simply one piece of a much larger structural change. Learning is shifting away from a mountaintop model in which students learn primarily from an instructor with rare information to a collaborative or multifaceted model in which students learn in many different ways, including in online environments. Ubiquitous access to information has made the how and the why of most subjects far more important than the what.

Rather than approaching change with a mindset of helping students, though, far too many instructors, especially those with tenure, simply dismiss calls for active learning as unworkable and unachievable. That, too, is reflected in the Gallup/Inside HigherEd poll, as 62 percent of respondents were age 50 or older. As the survey put it, the responses “may hint at generational effects,” as older faculty members are often slower to adopt new techniques and new technologies.

The HERI survey does show a heartening increase in student-centered teaching approaches like use of small groups, student-selected topics and group projects. Use of those approaches has risen nearly 20 percent over the last 25 years, the survey said. Use of extensive lecturing also showed a slight increase over the last three years, though, with half of faculty saying they use lecturing extensively in their classes.

The upshot of these surveys is that we still have a long way to go in persuading colleagues about the value of active learning and of trying new approaches (if online courses can really be considered new). That’s unfortunate, given the rising use of active learning in K-12 schools.

The most recent NMC Horizon report on K-12 education indicates that use of techniques like project-based learning, problem-based learning, inquiry-based learning, and other approaches that emphasize “learning by doing” and allow students to move deeper into topics is growing quickly. So is experimentation with technology and a shift of teachers’ primary role to that of mentor.

Students in those programs have many choices in where they go to college. Institutions that adapt will have a clear advantage in attracting students. Those that don’t will find themselves on the end of an uncomfortable question from prospective students and their parents: Why?


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

Forget the technology. Instead, focus on the humanity.

That’s the advice of Kirstin Wilcox, a lecturer at the University of Illinois-Champaign. Wilcox isn’t anti-technology. Rather, she says, learning technology generally means something that helps deliver class material for large lecture classes, not something that helps students understand literary texts in small classes.

Once-novel technologies like wikis, blogs or online discussions have become passé among students, who see them as yet another form of rote learning, she says, adding: “It now seems important, as it didn’t 10 years ago, to keep things simple: to focus on the humans in the room, the literature we’re reading, the tools that help us make sense of the texts.”

Classroom blurred with robot
Photo: Doug Ward

I agree. Education works best when instructors make a human connection with students. Innovations in delivery systems shouldn’t be cast aside, though. They provide a means for shifting material outside of class and allowing instructors to spend precious class time on areas that need and deserve the most attention. If done right, it can allow for even more of the human connection that Wilcox espouses. Technology can also help students see texts in a new light by helping them find and visualize patterns. Multimedia tools also provide new vistas for allowing students to explain their thinking.

So, yes, work at making classes more human. Work at making connections with students. Work at helping students learn in a deeper way. Those are essential components of good teaching. But don’t dismiss technology. It will never replace the thinking of a thoughtful instructor, but it can often enhance engagement and learning.

A bleak report on college enrollment

Nearly 40 percent of public universities and 45 percent of private colleges expect enrollment to drop next year, The Hechinger Report says. That means budget cuts lie ahead. A fourth of all universities expect their revenues to decline, Hechinger says, based on an analysis by Moody’s, the bond rating company. It expects those in the Midwest and Northeast to be the hardest hit. That doesn’t bode well for Kansas, where tax cuts have already drained state coffers and funding for higher education continues to slide.

Briefly …

Pete Burkholder writes about the challenges instructors encounter in trying to get students to look at sources of information more skeptically … Only a third of recent graduates say they had a college internship that allowed them to apply the skills they were learning in college, according to a new Gallup-Purdue poll. … Pete Smith, president of the Open College at Kaplan University, predicts that students’ ability to understand how learning has changed them will grow in importance.

Tech tools

A Google Sheets plugin called Flubaroo helps automate grading of multiple choice or fill-in-the-blank quizzes and tests. The plugin, which is free, also makes for easy analysis of grades. … Tim Slade of Articulate shares three helpful tips for working with images in PowerPoint, including the program’s ability to remove backgrounds from photos.


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.