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.

By Doug Ward

After third grade, elementary students spend little time on in-class writing assignments, even though research shows that additional time improves both the quality of writing and the comprehension of written work.

That’s the distressing news from the Hechinger Report, whose recent article explores research in K-12 writing instruction. In English classes, U.S. students write an average of 1.6 pages a week, and most assignments (in English and in other classes) usually require a single page or less. The main reason: Most teachers say they don’t have time to grade frequent assignments.

Research also shows that grammar instruction continues to diminish. Researchers say, though, that traditional grammar instruction – learning grammar rules and diagramming sentences – doesn’t help students in grades three through seven learn grammar and can actually hurt students’ writing ability.

“Grammar instruction has declined in U.S. classrooms over the last 40 years,” Hechinger says. “But that might be because there isn’t much writing instruction going on at all.”

woman typing at computer keyboard
Death to the Stock Photo, Creative Community

Neither of those findings should surprise college instructors who work with student writing. My own school (journalism) is struggling with just that. More and more, we have to teach what would have once been considered remedial writing and grammar. We can no longer assume that students arrive at college knowing how to write clearly or read in depth. Those who can, excel.

Of course, curmudgeonly professors have for decades complained about students’ lack of excellence in writing, so it’s often hard to tell whether things are truly deteriorating or whether those of us who teach writing are just growing jaundiced with age.

One thing is certain, though: Most students need more practice – and instruction – in writing.

So how do we do that at the college level?

CTE offers several resources to help instructors use, evaluate and assess student writing. Nearly 40 faculty portfolios address use of student writing in some way. The annual publication Reflections from the Classroom frequently addresses writing, and CTE’s Essential Guide to Teaching at KU offers advice on such topics as developing and grading assignments, and engaging and mentoring students. I’ve included a few specific resources below.

Building Writing Skills, Critical Thinking and Teamwork through Technology and Revision

Megan Williams of American Studies explains use of reflections over readings, online discussion posts and a group reflection essay to help students explore American identity.

Incorporating Writing Into Mathematics Classes

Myunghyun Oh of math explains use of writing assignments in differential equations classes to help students communicate their understanding of course material.

Constructing Learning in the Online Environment

Kim Glover of libraries writes about her move to smaller, scaffolded assignments to help students progress toward a longer annotated bibliography that served as the final project for an online class.

Scaffolding Writing Assignments to Engage Graduate Students

Judy Postmus of social welfare explains her use of critical reflection of scholarly ideas, layering of concepts, and adaptive assignments to help a wide range of graduate students improve their writing and critical thinking.

Using Creative Writing to Engage Students in a General Education Course

Stephen Johnson of English explains how he used small writing assignments that helped students build up to longer essays in Introduction to Poetry.

On Design and Liberation

Sharon Bass of journalism explains a rethinking of her approach to teaching writing by focusing on high-quality writing assignments and feedback – things that helped students learn the most – rather than volume of assignments and volume of feedback.


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.

Recent news, research, trends and thoughts about education. Compiled by Doug Ward.

Using technology to help students take risks

Rather than use technology to make education more efficient, why not use it to help students take more risks in learning? That’s the question that Greg Toppo poses in an article for The Hechinger Report. “Good teaching is not about playing it safe,” Toppo writes. “It’s about getting kids to ask questions, argue a point, confront failure and try again.” He’s exactly right. By helping students push boundaries, we help them learn to think more critically, understand themselves more fully, and solve problems more effectively. Technology can indeed help with that. I’ve found that demonstrating and having students try new types of hardware or software often opens up thinking and sparks surprising creativity. My advice: Subvert away.

A good message about learning and doing, eventually

Wired magazine jumped on the sky-is-falling bandwagon last week, declaring, “American Schools Are Training Kids for a World That Doesn’t Exist.” Amid the alarmist words and some self-promotion, though, the article, by David Edwards of Harvard, makes some good points. Edwards argues that students need more opportunities to work in loosely structured environments like innovation labs and culture labs, which give them hands-on experience in using their own ideas to tackle big problems. “Learning and doing have become inseparable in the face of conditions that invite us to discover,” Edwards writes.

statue of child reading a book
Statue at Bibliothèque Saint-Jean-Baptistein, Quebec City, Doug Ward

When new ways of teaching aren’t so new
Buzzwords permeate education as much as any other profession. Often those buzzwords are just repackaged versions of tried-and-true techniques. Katrina Schwartz reminds us of that in an article for MindShift, writing about how school administrators and non-profits push “new” approaches onto teachers even though the teachers have used those same approaches for years. That can be especially disheartening when teachers adopt new techniques, only to have impatient administrators pull back financing. “To avoid that kind of disillusionment many teachers have decided the best policy is to keep their heads down and continue to do what works — using trial and error to figure out how to reach kids, sticking to the textbook, and focusing on building strong relationships with students,” Schwartz writes.

Briefly …

In the Tomorrow’s Professor eNewsletter, Roben Torosyan writes about a book so useful to his teaching that it took him 10 years to finish. … Diverse: Issues in Higher Education writes about the trend of requiring undergraduates to take 15 credit hours a semester to help them graduate in a reasonable time. … The Chronicle of Higher Education writes about a professor’s idea to have researchers explain their work in the style of BuzzFeed.

Tech tools

The message scheduling service Buffer offers a list of useful tools for creating images for social media.DesignSkilz offers a substantial list of sites for downloading free photos.

Recent news, research, trends and thoughts about education. Compiled by Doug Ward.

Why a phone book isn’t a good learning tool

Daniel J. Klionsky of the Life Sciences Institute at the University of Michigan asks why so many instructors or programs continue to teach facts that students don’t need to know. In an article in Faculty Focus, he uses the telephone book as an example. No one needs to memorize all the numbers in a phone book. The idea is absurd. And yet, many instructors in science courses insist that students memorize facts they can easily look up, just as they would with a phone book. To help weed out the essential from the nonessential, he says that instructors should approach their courses with these questions:

  • How much of the information in our courses do the students really need to know?
  • How much time do we devote to making sure students know when they need a fact and how to look it up?
  • Do our students know what to do with the facts once they find them?

Dropout rates hit record lows

Pew Research reports that the high school dropout rates have reached a record low, 7 percent, continuing a decline that started in the mid-1990s. The dropout rate among Hispanics has declined by more than half since 1993, and the rate among blacks has been cut in half. Even with the declines, though, the number of high school dropouts is more than 2.2 million.

Those gaps that speak volumes

Matthew E. May writes about the creative power of empty space in attracting attention and intriguing audiences. His piece in the Harvard Business Review is aimed at marketers, but it applies equally as well to educators.

Digital technology for education 

Jane Hart has released her annual list of the top 100 tools for learning. The top of the list offers no surprises – Twitter, Google Drive, YouTube, PowerPoint – but the latter part is a good place to look for new tools you might try. It includes some that I’ve found useful, including Explain Everything and Powtoon.

The Chronicle of Higher Education reports on an app under development at Dartmouth that helps measure students’ mental health.

By Doug Ward

There’s no shortage of ideas for remaking higher education.

Consider a few recent ones:

Margaret Rhodes at Wired is among the latest to report on ideas for remaking an antiquated educational format that rewards students for taking notes, memorizing facts, and then checking boxes on tests.

“Students don’t need information,” Rhodes writes. “They need to learn how to process and use it.”

Bravo!

Rhodes offers four ways to help higher education become more creative, based on ideas from the Stanford School of Design:

  • Revamp the timeframe. Substitute the four-year degree for a six-year program that allows students to move in an out as their needs change.
  • Eliminate class designations. Rather than designating students as freshmen, sophomores, juniors or seniors, let them range across the curriculum, learning and then applying and then learning something new.
  • Ditch the transcript. Rather than focusing on GPAs, focus on skill building and portfolio development.
  • Forget majors. Rather, have students declare goals or missions and let them take classes that help them meet those goals.
barn-raising
Thinking about education as a barn raising offers many possibilities as we move toward changing teaching and learning.

Cathy Davidson of City University of New York immediately added two other ideas to the list: eliminate tuition, and provide better pay for high-quality instructors.

Davidson is spot-on in her argument that radical changes will have little effect unless we’re willing to change the underlying problems. That is, we say we want high-quality education but still fail to provide the incentives and rewards that would make that happen.

Leonard Cassuto, a professor of English at Forham University, explains perhaps the central difficulty of elevating teaching in the research-driven culture of higher education. “It’s not that teaching doesn’t matter,” Cassuto writes, “but even many community colleges are looking for publication these days. It’s the only credential that crosses institutional boundaries, so it’s the easiest one for institutions to brag on.”

Cassuto is right, but even in higher education’s research-driven culture, we brush aside teaching as impossible to measure. So we send research packets out for external review when a professor goes up for tenure or promotion, but to evaluate teaching, we generally resort to student evaluations and observations of a single class. We shrug our shoulders and move on.

We can change that. The Provost’s Task Force on Course Redesign, of which I was a member, offered several solutions to improving teaching at KU. The solutions apply to every university, though. They aren’t particularly radical, and there’s nothing as eye-popping as the ones from the Stanford School of Design. Rather, the ideas are intended to help change the culture of teaching and the systemic problems that hold good teachers back. They include these:

  • Create community. We need to identify faculty who want to improve or change their courses and provide opportunities for them to network with similar-minded instructors to share ideas that will lead to additional change.
  • Encourage collaboration. This means within departments but also among departments and universities to share ideas and approaches to improving education. It also applies to faculty members who teach different sections of the same course.
  • Provide support. We need to expand programs that provide support for faculty members interested in changing their courses. In our case, that includes the C21 Consortium and the teaching fellows program, both of which help faculty members and departments improve active learning.
  • Recognize and reward effective teaching. Until we truly reward innovative, high-quality teaching in the same way we reward innovative, high-quality research, we have little hope of wide-scale change.
  • Increase funds for remaking classrooms. Classrooms alone won’t change anything, but as I’ve written previously, classroom design can indeed improve student engagement and motivation.
  • Make better use of digital technology for learning. Good teaching starts with sound pedagogy, but digital technology provides the means for reaching students in new ways, making courses more engaging, and time-shifting assignments so we can make better use of class time to address areas where students struggle.

Whether radical or not-so radical, the ideas for improving higher education offer no magic powers. Rather, they provide blueprints we can follow and frameworks on which we can build.

Think of an old-fashioned barn-raising, which provides a lens for looking at many aspects of education. By joining our forces and applying our expertise, we can create something that none of us could accomplish individually. And yet, to effect change we need individuals to step up and join the community.


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

Good teaching often starts with a simple greeting to students.

A simple hello will work. A smile helps. So does body language that signals a willingness to work with students. That recognition — both inside and outside the classroom — can go a long way toward engaging students and setting the tone for an assignment, a class or even a college career.

We can’t forget that. Stellar lesson plans, carefully chosen readings and incisive questions mean little if students aren’t engaged. That doesn’t mean that every instructor needs a cult of personality. Not at all. It simply means that an instructor needs to show human elements that students can relate to. They have to connect in some way.

hands with puzzle pieces that fit together
Pixabay

At a discussion at CTE in the spring, a group of freshmen explained just how important that is. During their first semester, those freshmen were trying to find their place on campus: Where did they belong? Did they belong? How would they know?

One drove home the point this way: A few weeks into her first semester, she was still feeling unsure about herself and about KU. When one of her professors smiled and greeted her in the hallway one day, though, she felt validated. Her professor recognized her. He knew who she was. He said hello. That simple acknowledgment made her feel that she had a place on campus.

Charlie Blaich and Kathy Wise made a similar point in their opening plenary at the annual Teaching Summit last month.

Good pedagogy is important, Blaich said, but students need professors who make connections with them. They notice instructors who experiment with teaching and pay attention to students. They seek them out, and they learn from them.

“Being human and being present for them is a really important thing,” Blaich said.

A Gallup-Purdue Index Report released earlier this year further reinforced that idea. Students who felt that their professors connected with them, cared about them and made them excited about learning were far more likely to succeed in college. That held true whether colleges were large or small, public or private.

The connectedness lasted long after college, the report said, doubling the likelihood that graduates were engaged in their jobs and felt an overall sense of well-being.

None of that is surprising, but it provides a reminder of the important role that instructors play in the lives of college students. Simple acts of humanity pay dividends in students’ engagement, learning and long-term success.

That’s worth keeping in mind the next time we walk into a classroom, reply to email or see a student in the hallway.


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

Learning is a partnership, I tell students. As an instructor, I do my best to provide interesting and relevant material, use class time wisely, and grade student work fairly. I also make time in and out of class to help students better understand material they struggle with.

I can do only so much, though, I explain, and I certainly can’t make students learn. Learning takes place only when students engage themselves in their education, complete their work meaningfully, come to class prepared, and participate in discussions and projects.

It sounds simple, but it’s not, as a new study on undergraduate engagement makes abundantly clear.

The study, A Fresh Look at Student Engagement, surveyed freshmen and seniors on such things as higher-order learning, collaborative learning, student-faculty interaction and the supportiveness of their campus. In the foreword to the report, Paul E. Lingenfelter, former president of the State Higher Education Executive Officers Association, sums up the challenges well: “An authentic postsecondary education is more than simply acquiring knowledge; it must produce a sophisticated ability to use knowledge creatively to solve problems and add value.” (5)Pages from NSSE_2013_Annual_Results

That ability starts with engagement, and the report shows that those of us in higher education have lots of work to do on that front. Here are a few of the findings:

Collaborative learning

Only about a third of students reported engaging in collaborative learning, which was defined as working with other students on projects and assignments, explaining course material to others, or preparing for exams together. Those in engineering and biology reported the highest levels of collaborative learning; those in the arts, humanities, social sciences and social services reported the lowest levels.

Study time

Freshmen reported spending an average of 14 hours a week preparing for classes; seniors, 15 hours. Students taking all their courses online reported spending about an hour more studying each week. Seniors in engineering spent the most time studying (19 hours); those in communications, media and public relations, the least (12 hours).

Time spent reading

Students in online courses spent more time reading (eight hours a week for both freshmen and seniors) than students in traditional courses (six hours for freshmen, seven hours for seniors). A third of students reported doing no reading for class.

Amount of writing

Students in online courses did far more writing (59 pages a semester for freshmen, 107 for seniors) than students in traditional classes (45 pages for freshmen, 75 pages for seniors). Not surprisingly, the more reading and writing a course required, the more students perceived that they increased their ability to think in complex and critical ways.

Learning strategies

Students who used such learning strategies as identifying key elements of reading assignments, reviewing notes after class and summarizing what they had learned from a course generally reported higher grades than those who didn’t.

Effective teaching

Only about 40 percent of students at research universities reported that their instructors used effective teaching practices. The study defined those practices as having clear goals and organization, using clear examples to explain difficult concepts, and giving prompt and detailed feedback on assignments. Those in liberal arts reported the highest percentages of effective teaching; those in engineering, science and technology the lowest.

Interaction with faculty

Only about 20 percent of freshmen and seniors at large universities (those with more than 10,000 students) reported having meaningful interactions with faculty members. This included activities such as talking about career plans, meeting with faculty members outside class, and discussing academic performance.

Supportive environment

Older students, veterans and transfer students were less likely to find the campus environment supportive than other students were. Students who lived off-campus were less likely to describe campus as supportive than students who lived on campus were.

Online engagement

Students in online-only courses reported a higher level of interaction with instructors, advisers, student services staff members and administrators than students in traditional classes did. At the same time, they reported low levels of collaborative learning and were less likely to find the class environment supportive than those in face-to-face classes.

Use of technology

Students said courses that used technology for learning and that helped them understand the use of technology improved engagement and higher-order learning.

Adjustments to teaching

Assistant professors and lecturers were far more likely than associate and full professors to use course evaluations to improve their courses and their teaching.

Highimpact practices

This was the umbrella term the survey used to describe such things as learning communities, study abroad, internships, service learning and research with faculty members. Eighty-four percent of seniors reported engaging in at least one of these activities and 60 percent reported two or more. Fifty-eight percent of freshmen reported engaging in at least one, and 12 percent said they had done two. For seniors at research universities, the most common activity was an internship (53 percent), followed by service learning (52 percent). For freshmen, the most common activity was service learning (46 percent).

Student jobs and activities

Seniors at research universities averaged 14 hours a week working for pay, 12 hours relaxing and socializing, 5 hours participating in extracurricular activities, 5 hours commuting (including walking and driving to campus), 4 hours caring for dependents, and 3 hours doing community service.

The study was conducted by the National Survey of Student Engagement, an organization that focuses on undergraduate learning. Dan Bernstein, director of the Center for Teaching Excellence at KU, serves on the organization’s advisory board.

This year’s survey involved more than 1.6 million students at more than 600 colleges and universities. Unfortunately, KU was not among them.

I’d highly recommend looking more closely at the report, which provides a rich snapshot of student and faculty perceptions of higher education. Most certainly, the survey highlights many encouraging aspects of student engagement. As I said, though, we all have a ways to go.


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