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

Despite declining enrollments (see below) and changes in student demographics, most colleges and universities have continued to divert resources into traditional areas related to rankings rather than to innovations that would help them reach and serve new audiences.

That’s the argument Michael R. Weise, a senior research fellow at the Clayton Christensen Institute, argues in an article in Educause.

Colleges and universities have pumped money into such things as technology, physical classrooms, faculty research, and dorms and dining facilities – what Weise calls “sustaining innovations.” That has increased the cost of education while ignoring the price sensitivity of what he calls “nonconsumers of higher education” and the increasing focus that most students have on careers. It also ignores the growing percentage of students age 25 and older and the declining confidence that many employers have in higher education.

cover of comic book on public domain issues from Duke University
Can a comic book help students and professionals deal with an onslaught of ignorance about copyright and public domain? The Center for the Study of the Public Domain at Duke hopes to find out. (See below.)

Weise suggests that higher education create more online courses and emphasize competencies rather than credit hours. That means breaking apart traditional courses into modules that help students gain specific skills and that can be arranged into clusters of competencies that best fit individual students.

This approach isn’t easy either for institutions or students, Weise says, and must emphasize the rigor of learning. It also requires frequent assessment and use of data to monitor student performance and progress. He writes:

For students, this educational model is hard. They are not able to get away with a merely average understanding of the material; they must demonstrate mastery—and therefore dedicated work toward gaining mastery—in any competency.

Weise’s organization has been one of the biggest advocates for competency-based education over the last few years. Others, according to the education writer Audrey Watters, include the Gates Foundation, the Lumia Foundation and Western Governors University.

She also urges educators, administrators, legislators and students to take a closer look at programs labeled “competency-based,” largely because the term has become a buzzword used to suggest a forward-looking curriculum that may prove empty at its core. She suggests asking two critical questions: Who profits from this approach, and how? (In many cases, that has been commercial organizations like Pearson.) Watters writes:

“In theory, competency-based education changes the focus from how much time students spend in a class to what they have learned. But it does not really resolve the question of what it is we expect college students to learn or what’s the best way for them to demonstrate this.”

She’s right on all accounts, and competency-based education alone won’t solve the many challenges of higher education. It can help drive conversations about change, though.

A hybrid approach of traditional courses (ones that promote critical thinking, creativity and a broad understanding of the world) combined with competency modules (ones that provide specific, individualized skills) might allow us to pull along some of the naysayers while putting the emphasis where it belongs: on student learning.

Another drop in college enrollment nationwide

Kansas was one of only a handful of states to show an increase in enrollment at colleges and universities this fall, according to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center.

Total enrollment at the state’s colleges and universities rose 3.5 percent over the total in Fall 2013, the center reports. That follows two years of declines (1.4 percent from 2012 to 2013, and 0.3 percent from 2011 to 2012). Enrollment at KU grew less than 1 percent.

All other Midwestern states reported declines in enrollment. Among surrounding states, that ranged from 5.4 percent in Iowa to 1.7 percent in Colorado. The totals include both public and private, two-year and four-year institutions.

Overall, the number of students enrolled in U.S. colleges and universities fell by 1 percent this fall, according to The Hechinger Report. That was the sixth consecutive semester in which enrollment has dropped.

Two-year colleges had the largest declines, while enrollment at public four-year colleges and universities rose by 2.2 percent. Students over age 24 showed the largest decline in numbers.

Between 2011 and 2013, college enrollment fell by 930,000 students, or 2.3 percent, the education website Evolllution reports, although many of those drops have occurred at for-profit institutions. Declining enrollments have led to budget problems at some institutions and speculation of an “enrollment bubble.”

Elizabeth Yohn, a consultant at Hanover Research, writes:

“If it is not one big bubble, what we see in the market is a reflection of the honing of individual choices by both students and institutions―students running from risky for-profits or middle-grade professional programs, and colleges and universities acknowledging that growth is not a constant or perfect metric of success and ability.

Briefly …

3-D printing has enormous potential in the sciences and arts, Innovation Excellence writes, predicting that it will enhance curricula, creativity and research. … The Center for the Study of the Public Domain at Duke has released a comic book (see the cover above) that explores copyright, fair use, Creative Commons and related issues. Appropriately, digital copies are available under a Creative Commons license.


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

Let’s peer into the future – the near future, as in next semester. Or maybe the semester after that.

You’ll be teaching the same course that is wrapping up this week, and you’ll want to make some changes to improve student engagement and learning. Maybe some assignments tanked. Maybe you need to rearrange some elements to improve the flow of the course. Maybe you need to give the course a full makeover. By the time the new semester rolls around, though, the previous one will be mostly a blur.

So why not take a few minutes now to reflect on the semester? While you’re at it, why not solicit feedback from students?

Six question marks of different colors
Clker.com

To help, here are 20 questions to ask yourself and your students. This isn’t an exhaustive list. Rather, it’s a way to think about what you’ve accomplished (or haven’t) and how you can do better.

Learning and assessment

Use of class time

Assignments

  • What assignments or discussion topics worked best?
  • Which ones flopped? Why?
  • How might you improve the way you use Blackboard or other online resources?

Some questions to ask your students

I also like to spend time talking with students about the class. Sometimes I do that as a full class discussion. Other times, I use small groups. Either way, I ask some general questions about the semester:

  • What worked or didn’t work in helping you learn?
  • What would help next time?
  • How has your perspective changed since the beginning of the class?
  • What will you take away from the course?
  • How did the format of the class affect your learning and your motivation?

Sometimes students don’t have answers right away, so I encourage them to provide feedback in the self-evaluations I ask them to write, or in their course evaluations.

I promised 20 questions, so I’ll end with one more: What questions would you add to the list?


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

Sylvia Manning offers an insightful characterization of a college education that summarizes the challenges all of us in higher education face today. In a paper for the American Enterprise Institute, she writes:

The reality is that no one can guarantee the results of an educational process, if only because a key element is how the student engages in that process. The output or outcome measures that we have are crude and are likely to remain so for considerable time to come. For example, the percentage of students who graduate from an institution tells us next to nothing about the quality of the education those students received.

Poster that says "Just because kids know how to use Twitter, Snapchat, and Instragram doesn't mean they how how to use technology to enhance their learning."
A good message about students and technology from Sean Junkins, via Twitter: http://bit.ly/1yFYfY5

Manning is right. In a piece for Inside HigherEd last year, I argued that students and administrators had become too caught up in the idea of education as a product. Far too many students see a diploma, rather than the learning that goes into it, as their primary goal. I tell students that I can’t make them learn. My job is to provide the environment and the guidance to help them learn. They have to decide for themselves whether they want to take advantage of the resources I provide – and to what degree. Only after they do that can learning take place.

Colleges and universities face a similar conundrum. They have come under increasing pressure to provide ways to measure their effectiveness. As Manning says, though, they have struggled to find effective ways to do that. Most focus on graduation rates and point to the jobs their graduates get. Many, like KU, are working at decreasing the number of students who drop or fail classes. Those are solid goals, but they still don’t tell us anything about what students have learned.

I’m not convinced that we can do that we can truly do that at a university level, at least not in the form of simplistic numeric data that administrators and legislators seem to want. There’s no meaningful way to show that student learning grew X percent this semester or that critical thinking increased at a rate of X over four years, although critics of higher education argue otherwise.

A portfolio system seems the best bet. It provides a way for students to show the work they have done during their time in college and allows them to make their own case for their learning. Portfolios also provide a means for students to demonstrate their potential to employers. By sampling those portfolios, institutions can then get a broad overview of learning. With rubrics, they can create a statistic, but the real proof is still qualitative rather than quantitative.

As an instructor, I see far more value in the nuances of portfolios, projects and assignments than I do in the rigid numerical data of tests and quizzes. Until that thinking gains a wider acceptance, though, we’ll be stuck chasing graduation rates and the like rather than elevating what really matters: learning.

A defense of liberal arts, along with a challenge

Without a backbone of liberal arts, science and technology lack the ability to create true breakthroughs. That’s what Leon Botstein, president of Bard College, argues in The Hechinger Report. Botstein makes a strong case, but he also issues a stinging rebuke to programs that refuse to innovate.

“Students come to college interested in issues and questions, and ready to tackle challenges, not just to “major” in a subject, even in a scientific discipline,” Botstein writes. “…What do we so often find in college? Courses that correspond to narrow faculty interests and ambitions, cast in terms defined by academic discourse, not necessarily curiosity or common sense.”

Bravo!

He argues for fundamental changes in curricula and organization of faculty, but also in the way courses are taught. The only aspect of education “that is truly threatened by technology is bad teaching, particularly lecturing,” he says. Instead, technology has expanded opportunities for learning but has done nothing to diminish the need for discussion, argument, close reading and speculation. He calls for renewed attention in helping students learn to use language and to use liberal arts to help students become literate in the sciences.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t bring up Botstein’s comparison of teaching and learning to sex, along with the slightly sensational but certainly eye-grabbing headline that accompanied his article: “Learning is like sex, and other reasons the liberal arts will remain relevant.”

Related: At Liberal Arts Colleges, Debate About Online Courses Is Really About Outsourcing (Chronicle of Higher Education)

Briefly …

College instructors are integrating more discussions and group projects into their teaching as they cut down on a lecture-only approach, The Chronicle of Higher Education reports. … David Gooblar of PedagogyUnbound offers advice on handling the seemingly never-ending task of grading … Stuart Butler of the Brookings Institution suggests ways to “lower crazy high college costs.” They include providing better information to students, revamping accreditation, and allowing new models of education to compete with existing universities.


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.

By Doug Ward

Saundra McGuire urges faculty members not to judge students’ abilities too quickly or too harshly.

She speaks from experience. As a chemistry professor at Cornell and Louisiana State universities, she used to make snap judgments about her students, separating them into achievers and non-achievers.

Then she realized that those students who skipped class and didn’t study but then acted surprised at bad grades were “just being good scientists.”

Really. (More about that shortly.)

TP1 - Study Cycle 2010 (2)
A strategy for studying from the Center for Academic Success at Louisiana State University. Click to link to a PDF from the center.

McGuire, director emerita of the Center for Academic Success at Louisiana State, led workshops for faculty and staff members at KU on Monday, sharing strategies for helping students learn through a technique called metacognition.

She described metacognition as thinking about one’s own learning. Students who employ metacognitive strategies recognize themselves as problem solvers. They are proactive rather than reactive.

“You take steps to answer your own questions,” McGuire said.

That doesn’t come naturally to students, though, McGuire said. In high school, many teachers offer reviews before tests and simply give students the answers. Students learn that they don’t have to put in much effort. As long as they show up for the review sessions, they can usually get a B.

So as good scientists, having learned that they don’t need to exert themselves to get good grades, they show up at college overconfident and underprepared. When they get bad grades, often for the first time, many begin a downward spiral. They withdraw psychologically from classes, doubting their abilities, developing a negative self-perception and showing little interest in trying.

Faculty and staff members need to pay attention to that, she said. Recognize that an early failure may be the result of poor learning strategies, she said, and help students learn the strategies they need to succeed. She offered these suggestions:

Explain to students what we want them to do

Too often, McGuire said, we tell students we want them to move to a higher level of thinking and learning but never explain what we mean. Take reading, for example.

“Students think reading means looking at words while doing something else,” she said.

If we want them to read critically, take notes and prepare to discuss the material, we need to tell them that explicitly, she said.

Make sure students understand terms

She gave an example of a student who struggled with the concept of volume in geometrical figures because to the student, volume meant making the music louder or softer. Another student couldn’t grasp the concept of gases and liquids, saying that by definition gas is a liquid because if it weren’t you couldn’t put it in the tank of your car.

Providing the proper context for students can make all the difference, she said.

Help students develop solid reading strategies

She recommends that students read a paragraph of an article or a book, think about what they remember and put that down in their own words. That may sound as if it will take more time, she said, but it actually takes less time because students don’t have to reread.

“After you do this for a few paragraphs, you start to train your brain to learn,” McGuire said.

Make sure students do the example problems

Students in math and sciences often skip example problems when they complete readings, she said. When they see similar problems on a test, they don’t know how to work through them. So instructors should remind students to work through those problems, looking at the answers only after they have done the work themselves.

Explain Bloom’s Taxonomy to students

It doesn’t matter whether you use the original taxonomy (knowledge, comprehension, application, analysis, synthesis, evaluation) or the updated one (remember, understand, apply, analyze, evaluate, create), she said. The important thing is to help students recognize the different levels of learning and understanding.

Students understand the difference between studying and learning, she said. They’ll tell you that studying is memorizing and that learning is understanding. Studying is dull and tedious; learning is fun. Studying is short term; learning is long term.

Students get it, she said, but we need to have conversations about learning to help them learn.

We just have to remember not to judge them by a single bad grade.

——–

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