By Doug Ward

We need to talk.

Yes, the conversation will make you uncomfortable. It’s important, though. Your students need your guidance, and if you avoid talking about this, they will act anyway – usually in unsafe ways that could have embarrassing and potentially harmful consequences.

So yes, we need to talk about generative artificial intelligence.Students gasp as professor stands at front of room and shows a lifelike robot

Consider the conversation analogous to a parent’s conversation with a teenager about sex. Susan Marshall, a teaching professor in psychology, made that wonderful analogy recently in the CTE Online Working Group, and it seems to perfectly capture faculty members’ reluctance to talk about generative AI.

Like other faculty members, Marshall has found that AI creates solid answers to questions she poses on assignments, quizzes, and exams. That, she said, makes her feel like she shouldn’t talk about generative AI with students because more information might encourage cheating. She knows that is silly, she said, but talking about AI seems as difficult as talking about condom use.

It can, but as Marshall said, we simply must have those conversations.

Sex ed, AI ed

Having frank conversations with teenagers about sex, sexually transmitted diseases, and birth control can seem like encouragement to go out and do whatever they feel like doing. Talking with teens about sex, though, does not increase their likelihood of having sex. Just the opposite. As the CDC reports: “Studies have shown that teens who report talking with their parents about sex are more likely to delay having sex and to use condoms when they do have sex.”

Similarly, researchers have found that generative AI has not increased cheating. (I haven’t found any research on talking about AI.)

That hasn’t assuaged concern among faculty members. A recent Chronicle of Higher Education headline captures the prevailing mood: “ChatGPT Has Everyone Freaking Out About Cheating.”

When we freak out, we often make bad decisions. So rather than talking with students about generative AI or adding material about the ethics of generative AI, many faculty members chose to ignore it. Or ban it. Or use AI detectors as a hammer to punish work that seems suspicious.

All that has done is make students reluctant to talk about AI. Many of them still use it. The detectors, which were never intended as evidence of cheating and which have been shown to have biases toward some students, have also led to dubious accusations of academic misconduct. Not surprisingly, that has made students further reluctant to talk about AI or even to ask questions about AI policies, lest the instructor single them out as potential cheaters.

Without solid information or guidance, students talk to their peers about AI. Or they look up information online about how to use AI on assignments. Or they simply create accounts and, often oblivious and unprotected, experiment with generative AI on their own.

So yes, we need to talk. We need to talk with students about the strengths and weaknesses of generative AI. We need to talk about the ethics of generative AI. We need to talk about privacy and responsibility. We need to talk about skills and learning. We need to talk about why we are doing what we are doing in our classes and how it relates to students’ future.

If you aren’t sure how to talk with students about AI, draw on the many resources we have made available. Encourage students to ask questions about AI use in class. Make it clear when they may or may not use generative AI on assignments. Talk about AI often. Take away the stigma. Encourage forthright discussions.

Yes, that may make you and students uncomfortable at times. Have the talk anyway. Silence serves no one.

JSTOR offers assistance from generative AI

Ithaka S+R has released a generative AI research tool for its JSTOR database. The tool, which is in beta testing, summarizes and highlights key areas of documents, and allows users to ask questions about content. It also suggests related materials to consider. You can read more about the tool in an FAQ section on the JSTOR site.

Useful lists of AI-related tools for academia

While we are talking about Ithaka S+R, the organization has created an excellent overview of AI-related tools for higher education, assigning them to one of three categories: discovery, understanding, and creation. It also provides much the same information in list form on its site and on a Google Doc. In the overview, an Ithaka analyst and a program manager offer an interesting take on the future of generative AI:

These tools point towards a future in which the distinction between the initial act of identifying and accessing relevant sources and the subsequent work of reading and digesting those sources is irretrievably blurred if not rendered irrelevant. For organizations providing access to paywalled content, it seems likely that many of these new tools will soon become baseline features of their user interface and presage an era where that content is less “discovered” than queried and in which secondary sources are consumed largely through tertiary summaries.

Preparing for the next wave of AI

Dan Fitzpatrick, who writes and speaks about AI in education, frequently emphasizes the inevitable technological changes that educators must face. In his weekend email newsletter, he wrote about how wearable technology, coupled with generative AI, could soon provide personalized learning in ways that make traditional education obsolete. His question: “What will schools, colleges and universities offer that is different?”

In another post, he writes that many instructors and classes are stuck in the past, relying on outdated explanations from textbooks and worksheets. “It’s no wonder that despite our best efforts, engagement can be a struggle,” he says, adding: “This isn’t about robots replacing teachers. It’s about kids becoming authors of their own learning.”

Introducing generative AI, the student

Two professors at the University of Nevada-Reno have added ChatGPT as a student in an online education course as part of a gamification approach to learning. The game immerses students in the environment of the science fiction novel and movie Dune, with students competing against ChatGPT on tasks related to language acquisition, according to the university.

That AI student has company. Ferris State University in Michigan has created two virtual students that will choose majors, join online classes, complete assignments, participate in discussion boards, and gather information about courses, Inside Higher Ed Reports. The university, which is working with a Grand Rapids company called Yeti CGI on developing the artificial intelligence software for the project, said the virtual students’ movement through programs would help them better understand how to help real students, according to Michigan Live. Ferris State is also using the experiment to promote its undergraduate AI program.


Doug Ward is associate director of the Center for Teaching Excellence and an associate professor of journalism and mass communications.

By Doug Ward

Something has been happening with class attendance. Actually, there are several somethings, which I’ll get to shortly. First, though, consider, this:

  • Since the start of the pandemic, many students have treated class attendance as optional, making discussion and group interaction difficult.
  • Online classes tend to fill quickly, and students who enroll in physical classes often ask for an option to “attend” via a video connection.
  • Many K-12 schools report record rates of absences. Students from low-income families are especially likely to miss class, according to the Hechinger Report. In many cases, Hechinger says, parents have lost trust in school and don’t see it as a priority.A Hispanic professor in tan shirt and dark skirt talks to a class

The first two points are anecdotal, but faculty nationwide have reported drops in attendance. This spring, some KU instructors say that students have been eager to participate in class, perhaps more so than at any time since the pandemic. In other cases, though, attendance remains spotty.

So what’s going on?

Here are a few observations:

  • Instructors became more flexible during the pandemic, and students found that they didn’t need to attend class to succeed. They have continued to expect that same flexibility.
  • As college grew more expensive, some students began seeing a degree as just another consumer product. They have long been told that a degree leads to higher incomes (which it does, although less so than it once did), so the degree (not the work along the way) becomes the focus. A 2010 study, for example, said that students who see education as a product are more likely “to feel entitled to receive positive outcomes from the university; they are not, however, any more likely to be involved in their education.”
  • Many instructors say that a KU attendance policy approved last year has complicated things. That policy was intended to provide flexibility for students who have legitimate reasons for missing class. Many students and faculty have taken that to mean nearly any absence should be excused.

Broader trends are in play, as well:

  • Many students in their teens and 20s feel that they “lost something in the pandemic,” as Time magazine describes it. Rather than building social networks and engaging with the world, they were forced to distance themselves. As a result, the “pandemic produced a social famine, and its after-effects persist,” Eric Klinenberg, a professor at New York University, writes in the Time article.
  • Many students continue to struggle with depression, anxiety and other mental health issues, with 50% to 65% saying they frequently or always feel stressed, anxious or overwhelmed, according to a recent study.

A reassertion of independence

Students have also reasserted their independence as instructors have revised attendance policies and stipulated the importance of participation. A Fall 2022 opinion piece in the University Daily Kansan expressed a common sentiment.Large room with high ceilings. Students sit individually at large tables

“If professors make every class useful and engaging, then students who value their academic and future success will show up and be present in the learning,” Natalie Terranova, a journalism student, wrote in the Kansan. “Professors have a responsibility to the students to teach, but the students have a responsibility to themselves to prioritize what is most important to them.”

She’s right, of course, and her peers at many other student newspapers have made much the same argument. We all make choices about where to devote our time. If something is useful and important, we make time for it. If it isn’t, we don’t. And though students have long sought to declare their independence during their college years, their experiences during the pandemic seem to have made many of them more comfortable skipping class, seeing that as a right.

At the same time, faculty have come under increasing pressure to help students succeed. If too many students fail or withdraw, the instructor is often blamed. Many instructors, in turn, have made class attendance a component of students’ grades, with good reason. Considerable research suggests that students who attend class get better grades. Class is also part of a structure that improves learning, and a recent study says that students who commit to attending class are more likely to show up.

A high school teacher’s observations

A recent Substack article by a high school teacher offered some observations about student behavior that further illuminate the challenges in attendance. That teacher, Nick Potkalitsky, who is also an education consultant in Ohio, says students are still stressed, lonely, and sometimes bitter about what they missed out on during the pandemic. They have trouble concentrating and require several reminders to focus on a task at hand. With more complex tasks, they need more scaffolding, direction, and oversight than they did before the pandemic.

He offered some additional insights from his interactions with students:Looking over the shoulder of a woman in a college classroom

  • They struggle to connect in person. Students were dependent on technology “for almost the entirety of their social, academic, and personal lives” during the pandemic, Potkalitsky writes. “Students hunger for connection,” he says, but they struggle to connect in person. If they don’t already belong to an online community, the strong connections among those communities make it difficult for new members to fit in.
  • They dislike classrooms, where they often struggle to stay focused. They gain energy from playgrounds, parks, hiking paths, and other outdoor settings that allow them to move.
  • They crave immersion and autonomy. They like to immerse themselves in a subject, something he attributes to social media. “When school does not and cannot provide these kinds of stimulation, many students disengage and await the next opportunity to use their handheld devices,” he writes.
  • They “are experiencing a crisis in trust in authorities and themselves.” They chafe at the idea of school returning to “normal,” and their wariness has been reinforced by schools’ clumsy response to generative AI. “This generation knows that it needs guidance, but desires the kind of assistance that empowers,” Potkalitsky says

Yes, those are high school students, but they will soon be college freshmen. They also exhibit many of the same behaviors faculty have observed of KU students.

Jenny Darroch, dean of business at Miami University of Ohio, writes in Inside Higher Ed that faculty and administrators need “to recognize that today’s students engage differently — and did so before the pandemic. They expect to be recognized for the knowledge they have and their ability to self-direct as they learn and grow.”

Clearly, student attitudes, expectations, skills, needs, and behaviors are changing. Attendance is perhaps just the most visible place where we see those changes. Many – perhaps most – students care deeply about learning and take class attendance seriously. Many don’t, though, and the challenges of addressing that behavior are unlikely to fade anytime soon.

We have much work to do.

Need help? At CTE, we have provided advice about motivating students, balancing flexibility and structure, and using active learning and group work to make classes more engaging and to make the value of attending class more apparent.

Briefly …

  • Online enrollment remains strong. A new analysis of federal data shows that enrollment in online courses remains strong even as enrollment in many in-person courses declines, the Hechinger Report says. That trend certainly holds true at KU, where the number of credit hours generated by online courses rose 17% in Fall 2023 compared with Fall 2022. The Fall 2023 totals are 49% higher than those in Fall 2019, the semester before the pandemic began in the U.S.
  • An AI pilot through NSF. The National Science Foundation has begun a pilot of what it calls the National Artificial Intelligence Resource. It describes the project as “a concept for a national infrastructure that connects U.S. researchers to computational, data, software, model and training resources they need to participate in AI research.” NSF is working on the pilot with 10 federal agencies and 25 organizations (mostly technology companies). You can contribute your thoughts through a survey for faculty, researchers, and students. The survey is available until March 8.

Doug Ward is an associate director of the Center for Teaching Excellence and an associate professor of journalism and mass communications at the University of Kansas.

By Doug Ward

KU’s big jump in freshman enrollment this academic year ran counter to broader trends in higher education.

Around the country, college enrollment has been trending downward (although there was a slight increase in 2023), many campuses have been closing or consolidating, and a lower birthrate after the 2008-09 recession looms in what has become known as the “enrollment cliff.” That is, with fewer births, there will soon be fewer students graduating from high school and thus fewer potential college applicants.

Even so, KU was one of only 10 flagship universities where overall enrollment declined in the 2010s, according to a Chronicle of Higher Education analysis. In the fall, though, freshman enrollment increased 18%, to 5,259, the largest freshman class ever. If current trends continue, there may be another growth spurt next year. But why?

Flagships as backups

The university has credited the increase to reputation, recruitment strategies, increases in financial aid, and an improved football team. I have no doubt that recruitment strategies and financial aid played a significant role, and reputation always matters. I look for broader (often cultural) trends, though. Jeff Selingo, who writes about admissions, innovation, and the future of higher education, offers some possible explanations in his latest email newsletter. Selingo argues that many students, especially those in the top 5% to 10% of incomes, are going to state flagship universities if they don't get into top-ranked schools. He writes:

What I’m finding in my book research is that some families are increasingly skipping over this next ring of institutions from the very top because they don’t get good offers of merit aid. So, instead, the families chase dollars from a set of institutions deeper in the rankings or the kid heads off to an honors college at a flagship public with a low net price (sometimes zero) and lots of perks, like early access to course registration and sponsored research projects with faculty.

This idea of let’s try for Ivy U., and then if not, State U. has been common in some places like Georgia and Florida for decades ...

He highlights another trend that is certainly affecting KU: out-of-state enrollment growing faster than in-state enrollment.

“Nearly every public flagship enrolled a smaller share of freshmen from within their states in 2022 than they did two decades earlier,” Selingo said, citing a Chronicle analysis of data from the Department of Education.

At KU, the percentage of freshmen from Kansas fell to perhaps its lowest ever (56%) in Fall 2023, according to data from Analytics, Institutional Research, and Effectiveness. That is a decline of 13.1 percentage points from 2002, when in-state students made up 69.1% of the freshman class, according to the Chronicle analysis.

The number of Kansas students enrolled as freshmen at KU actually rose to at least a 10-year high, but the number of out-of-state students rose even more, with the university attracting more students from such states as Missouri, Nebraska, Illinois, Iowa, Colorado, Minnesota, and Oklahoma.

The declining percentage of in-state freshmen at KU is actually less substantial than that at some other state universities. Here are a few examples from nearby states, drawing on data from the Chronicle analysis.

% of in-state freshmen at state flagship universities

University 2002 2022 Change (in %pts.)
Colorado 54.9 53.6 -1.3
Iowa 59.5 53.8 -5.7
Nebraska 82.9 73 -9.9
KU 69.1 57.6 -11.5
Missouri 82.6 69.9 -12.7
South Dakota 67 52.8 -14.2
Illinois 89.2 71.4 -17.8
Indiana 65.1 52.3 -17.8
Ohio State 84.6 66.7 -17.9
Wisconsin 64.2 43.8 -20.4
Oklahoma 76.3 52.9 -23.4
Arkansas 80.5 39.3 -41.2

If the trends that Selingo indentified hold, KU could see continued growth among out-of-state students, especially those with family incomes of $160,000 and up. The trends also suggest that attracting those students will require higher levels of financial aid, admission to the honors program, and opportunities to work with individual faculty members. In other words, out-of-state students who are rejected by the Ivy League and similar highly ranked schools expect more perks from KU and other state flagship universities.

The sudden growth has brought in additional money to the university, but Jeff DeWitt, KU's chief financial officer, said in a presentation in November that the university had spent millions of additional dollars on scholarships, instructors, advisors, and housing.

"Record enrollment is not free," DeWitt said.

The trends that are benefiting KU and other state flagship universities have made recruitment more difficult at regional universities, the Chronicle reports. Among Kansas regents universities, for instance, only KU (4.1%) and Wichita State (5.1%) have increased enrollment over the past decade. Three others have had dramatic decreases: Pittsburg State (-25.7%), Emporia State (-25.1%), and K-State (-21.5%). Fort Hays State’s enrollment fell 5.7% during the same period. (I’ve excluded the medical center and K-State’s veterinary medicine program, both of which have increased in enrollment but are still relatively small.)

All of that portends a very different look to higher education in Kansas in the coming years.

Are student-athletes employees?

A case before the National Labor Relations Board could force colleges and universities to designate athletes as employees and to pay them as such, Politico reports.

Depending on your perspective, that could either give student-athletes what they are rightfully owed or lead to the collapse of college sports, Politico says.

One passage from the Politico article offered an interesting interpretation on how colleges and universities have looked at athletes:

Pro-labor advocates argue that schools’ “student-athlete” designation is a legal term of art originally designed to shield institutions from player workers’ compensation claims. It deprives competitors of fair compensation for their talents or influence over the system that governs much of their day-to-day college experience, they note.

The NCAA and colleges and universities say, however, that college sports would not survive in their current form if designations were changed. As a result, Politico said, they may seek intervention from Congress if the NLRB forces them to pay athletes.

A ruling is expected in the early spring.


Doug Ward is an associate director at the Center for Teaching Excellence and an associate professor of journalism and mass communications.

By Doug Ward

We don’t know the last time the first day of classes was canceled.

We’re guessing it was January 1892, when the temperature fell to minus 23, the bottoms of thermometers shattered, and students started using the phrase “froze my bottom off” (or something approximating that).Cover of Pupil magazine

Of course, everyone was hardier back then, having to walk five miles to campus barefoot through the snow and fend off wolves with their bare, frostbitten hands and all. At least that’s what our elders told us. So everyone may have just shrugged off the lethally cold temperatures in 1892 and showed up for class as usual.

Unfortunately, Pupil magazine didn’t exist then, so we may never know. Thankfully, it does exist today, and we have a new issue available! (No applause necessary. Our frozen fingers and toes and ears and hair follicles are tender, too.) After hunkering down in a perpetual shiver for five straight days, you no doubt need a laugh.

Please don’t laugh too hard, though. The polar bear may hear you.

Polar bear?

Shh. Have a great start to the semester!


Doug Ward is associate director of the Center for Teaching Excellence and an associate professor of journalism and mass communications.

By Doug Ward

A year after the release of a know-it-all chatbot, educators have yet to find a satisfying answer to a nagging question: What are we supposed to do with generative artificial intelligence?

One reason generative AI has been so perplexing to educators is that there is no single step that all instructors can take to make things easier. Here are a few things what we do know, though:

  • A group of people in 19th-century clothing gather around a wooden box as robots spring out
    The sudden rise of generative AI has felt like the opening of a Pandora’s box

    Students are using generative AI in far larger numbers than faculty, and some are using it to complete all or parts of assignments. A recent Turnitin poll said 22% of faculty were using generative AI, compared with 49% of students.

  • Students in other developed countries are far more likely to use generative AI than students in the U.S., two recent polls suggest.
  • Students are as conflicted as faculty about generative AI, with many worried about AI’s impact on jobs, thinking, and disinformation.
  • Many faculty say that students need to know how to use generative AI but also say they have been reluctant to use it themselves.
  • Detectors can provide information about the use of generative AI, but they are far from flawless and should not be the sole means of accusing students of academic misconduct.

Perhaps the biggest lesson we have learned over the past year is that flexibility in teaching and learning is crucial, especially as new generative AI tools become available and the adoption of those tools accelerates.

We don’t really have an AI problem

It’s important to understand why generative AI has made instructors feel under siege. In a forthcoming article in Academic Leader, I argue that we don’t have an AI problem. We have a structural problem:

Unfortunately, the need for change will only grow as technology, jobs, disciplines, society, and the needs of students evolve. Seen through that lens, generative AI is really just a messenger, and its message is clear: A 19th-century educational structure is ill-suited to handle changes brought on by 21st-century technology. We can either move from crisis to crisis, or we can rethink the way we approach teaching and learning, courses, curricula, faculty roles, and institutions.

That’s not a message most faculty members or administrators want to hear, but it is impossible to ignore. Colleges and universities still operate as if information were scarce and as if students can learn only from faculty members with Ph.D.s. The institutional structure of higher education was also created to exclude or fail students deemed unworthy. That’s much easier than trying to help every student succeed. We are making progress at changing that, but progress is slow even as change accelerates. I’ll be writing more about that in the coming year.

Faculty and staff are finding ways to use AI

Many instructors have made good use of generative AI in classes, and they say students are eager for such conversations. Here are a few approaches faculty have taken:

  • Creating AI-written examples for students to critique.Surprised people gather around a box as a humanoid robot emerges amid a glowing light
  • Allowing students to use AI but asking them to cite what AI creates and separately explain the role AI played in an assignment.
  • Having students use AI to create outlines for papers and projects, and refining goals for projects.
  • Allowing full use of AI as long as students check the output for accuracy and edit and improve on the AI-generated content.
  • Having students design posters with AI.
  • Using examples from AI to discuss the strengths and weaknesses of chatbots and the ethical issues underlying them.
  • Using paper and pencils for work in class. In recent discussions with CTE ambassadors, the term “old school” came up several times, usually in relation to bans on technology. As appealing as that may seem, that approach can put some students at a disadvantage. Many aren’t used to writing by hand, and some with physical impediments simply can’t.
  • For non-native English speakers, generative AI has been a confidence-builder. By evaluating their writing with a grammar checker or chatbot, they can improve phrasing and sentence construction.
  • Some faculty members say that generative AI saves time by helping them create letters of recommendation, event announcements, and case studies and other elements for class.

Sara Wilson, an associate professor of mechanical engineering and a CTE faculty fellow, uses what I think is probably the best approach to AI I’ve seen. In an undergraduate course that requires a considerable amount of programming, she allows students to use whatever tools they wish to create their coding. She meets individually with each student – more than 100 of them – after each project and asks them to explain the concepts behind their work. In those brief meetings, she said, it is fairly easy to spot students who have taken shortcuts.

Like faculty, students are often conflicted

Many students seem as conflicted as faculty over generative AI. In a large introductory journalism and mass communications class where I spoke late this semester, I polled students about their AI use. Interestingly, 21% said they had never used AI and 45% said they had tried it but had done little beyond that. Among the remaining students, 27% said they used AI once a week and 7% said they used it every day. (Those numbers apply only to the students in that class, but they are similar to results from national polls I mention above.)

In describing generative AI, students used terms like “helpful,” “interesting,” “useful” and “the future,” but also “theft,” “scary,” “dangerous,” and “cheating.” Recent polls suggest that students see potential in generative AI in learning but that they see a need for colleges and universities to change. In one poll, 65% of students said that faculty needed to change the way they assess students because of AI, the same percentage that said they wanted faculty to include AI instruction in class to help them prepare for future jobs.

Students I’ve spoken with describe AI as a research tool, a learning tool, and a source of advice. Some use AI as a tutor to help them review for class or to learn about something they are interested in. Others use it to check their writing or code, conduct research, find sources, create outlines, summarize papers, draft an introduction or a conclusion for a paper, and help them in other areas of writing they find challenging. One CTE ambassador said students were excited about the possibilities of generative AI, especially if it helped faculty move away from “perfect grading.”

Time is a barrier

For faculty, one of the biggest challenges with AI is time. We’ve heard from many instructors who say that they understand the importance of integrating generative AI into classes and using it in their own work but that they lack the time to learn about AI. Others say their classes have so much content to cover that working in anything new is difficult.

Instructors are also experiencing cognitive overload. They are being asked to focus more on helping students learn. They are feeling the lingering effects of the pandemic. In many cases, class sizes are increasing; in others, declining enrollment has created anxiety. Information about disciplines, teaching practices, and world events flows unendingly. “It’s hard to keep up with everything,” one CTE ambassador said.

Generative AI dropped like a boulder into the middle of that complex teaching environment, adding yet another layer of complexity: Which AI platform to use? Which AI tools? What about privacy? Ethics? How do we make sure all students have equal access? The platforms themselves can be intimidating. One CTE ambassador summed up the feelings of many I’ve spoken with who have tried using a chatbot but weren’t sure what to do with it: “Maybe I’m not smart enough, but I don’t know what to ask.”People in 19th-century clothing stand before a glowing box with robots at the side

We will continue to provide opportunities for instructors to learn about generative AI in the new year. One ongoing resource is the Generative AI and Teaching Working Group, which will resume in the spring. It is open to anyone at KU. CTE will also be part of a workshop on generative AI on Jan. 12 at the Edwards Campus. That workshop, organized by John Bricklemyer and Heather McCain, will have a series of sessions on such topics as the ethics of generative AI, strategies for using AI, and tools and approaches to prompting for instructors to consider.

We will also continue to add to the resources we have created to help faculty adapt to generative AI. Existing resources focus on such areas as adapting courses to AI, using AI ethically in writing assignments, using AI as a tutor, and handling academic integrity. We have also provided material to help generate discussion about the biases in generative AI. I have led an effort with colleagues from the Bay View Alliance to provide information about how universities can adapt to generative AI. The first of our articles was published last week in Inside Higher Ed. Another, which offers longer-term strategies, is forthcoming in Change magazine. Another piece for administrators will be published this month in Academic Leader.

Focusing on humanity

If generative AI has taught us anything over the past year, it is that we must embrace humanity in education. Technology is an important tool, and we must keep experimenting with ways to use it effectively in teaching and learning. Technology can’t provide the human bond that Peter Felten talked about at the beginning of the semester and that we have made a priority at CTE. Something Felten said during his talk at the Teaching Summit is worth sharing again:

“There’s literally decades and decades of research that says the most important factor in almost any positive student outcome you can think about – learning, retention, graduation rate, well-being, actually things like do they vote after they graduate – the single biggest predictor is the quality of relationships they perceive they have with faculty and peers,” Felten said.

Technology can do many things, but it can’t provide the crucial human connections we all need.

In an ambassadors meeting in November, Dorothy Hines, associate professor of African and African-American studies and curriculum and teaching, summed it up this way: “AI can answer questions, but it can’t feel.” As educators, she said, it’s important that we feel so that our students learn to feel.

That is wise advice. As we continue to integrate generative AI into our work, we must do so in a human way.


Doug Ward is associate director of the Center for Teaching Excellence and an associate professor of journalism and mass communications.

Image of a word cloud
In addition to asking participants at the Teaching Summit how they created community in their classes, Peter Felten also asked what barriers instructors faced in creating connections with students. Felten shared this word cloud of the responses.

By Doug Ward

Peter Felten’s keynote message about building relationships through teaching found a receptive audience at this year’s Teaching Summit.

Felten, a professor of history and assistant provost for teaching and learning at Elon University, shared the stories of students who had made important connections with instructors and fellow students while at college. He used those stories to talk about the importance of humanity in teaching and about the vital role that community and connection make in students’ lives.

As part of his talk, Felten encouraged attendees to share examples of how they humanize their classes, asking:

What do you do to build relationships with and among students?

Summit attendees submitted about 140 responses. Felten shared some of them, along with a word cloud, but they were on screen only briefly. I thought it would be useful to revisit those responses and share them in a form that others could draw on.

To do that, I started with a spreadsheet from Felten that provided all the responses. I categorized most of them manually but also had ChatGPT create categories and a word cloud. Some responses had two or three examples, so I broke those into discrete parts. After editing and rearranging the categories and responses, I came up with the following list.

  • Use collaborative work, projects, and activities
  • Humanize yourself and students
  • Learn students’ names
  • Use ice breakers or get-to-know-you activities
  • Create a comfortable environment and encourage open discussions
  • Meet students individually
  • Use active learning
  • Provide feedback
  • Engage students outside of class

Many of the responses could fit into more than one category, and some of the categories could certainly be combined. The nine I ended up with seemed like a reasonable way to bring a wide-ranging list of responses into a more comprehensible form, though.

Here’s that same list again, this time with example responses. It’s worth a look, not only to get new ideas for your classes but to reinforce your approaches to building community.

Image of a word cloud
A word cloud of participant responses about how they create community in their classes.

Use collaborative work, projects and activities

  • Pulling up some students’ burning questions for small group discussions and then full class discussion leading to additional explanation and information in class.
  • Think-pair-share in large lectures so students have several opportunities to connect with each other in different sized groups.
  • Group work in consistent teams.
  • We have a small cohort model that keeps students together in a group over two years and allows us to have close relationships with the students naturally.
  • Timed “warm-up” conversations in pairs, usually narrative-based, often related to lesson/topic in some way; I always partner with someone, too.
  • Form three-person groups early in the semester on easy assignments so the focus is on building relationships with each other.
  • Group projects with milestones.
  • Team-based learning.
  • Using CATME to form student groups, which allows students to work in groups during class and facilitates group work and other interactions outside of class.
  • Put students in small groups, give them a problem, ask them to solve it, and have them report back to the class.
  • Group work in classrooms and online, in particular.

Humanize yourself and students

  • Provide them your story to humanize your experience and how it may relate to theirs.
  • Make myself seem more human, less intimidating. Share about myself outside of my role as professor makes students feel more comfortable to approach me and willingness to build that connection.
  • I start class by sharing something about myself, especially something where I failed. The intention is to normalize failure and ambiguity. I also have a big Spider-Man poster in my office!
  • Casually talking to the students about themselves, not only talking about the class or class-related topics.
  • Being approachable by encouraging them to ask questions.
  • Find topics of mutual connection – ex. International students and missing food from home.
  • I tell my story as a first-generation student from rural America on day one. Try to be a human!
  • Admit my own weaknesses and struggles!
  • For groups that will be working together throughout the semester, I ask them to identify their values and describe how they will embody those in their work.
  • Multidimensional identification of the instructor in the academic syllabus.
  • Have students introduce themselves by sharing something very few people know about them.  Each student in small classes, or triads in big classes.
  • I remind them that the connections they make are the best part of the school.
  • Sit down with them the first day of class to get to know them instead of standing in front of class.
  • Acknowledge that they are humans with complex lives and being a student is only part of that life.
  • In online classes, create weekly Zoom discussion groups that begin with a topic but quickly become personal stories and establish relationships and mutual support.
  • Just ask how they feel and be honest.
  • Make time and space in every class to collaborate and share something about themselves to help build relationships.
  • I often start my classes off telling humorous but somewhat embarrassing moments of mistakes I’ve made in my career and life.

Learn students’ names

  • Know their names before the class.
  • Learning all students’ names and faces using pics on roll before the first day and making a game with students to see if I can get them right by end of class.
  • Use photo rosters to make flashcards and know students’ names in a lecture hall when they show up on first day.

Use ice breaker or get-to-know-you activities

  • At the beginning of the semester, I group students and have them come up with a team name. Amazingly, this seems to connect them and build camaraderie.
  • I do a survey on the first day of class to ask students about themselves, what they want to do when they graduate, etc. Then I have a starting point to start chatting before class starts.
  • Detailed slide on who I am and my path to where I am today, including getting every single question wrong on my first physics exam.
  • Each student creates an introduction slide with pictures and information about themselves. Then I create a class slide deck and post on Canvas.
  • Introductions in-person AND in Canvas so students can network outside of class with required peer responses.
  • Relationship over content: Take the first day of class to focus on building relationships. Then every class period have an activity that focuses on relationship building.
  • Circulate, contact, names, stories.
  • Asking a brief get-to-know-you question each week
  • Online classes: Introductions include “tell me something unique or interesting about you” and my response includes how I connect with / relate to / admire that uniqueness.
  • I teach prospective educators. The second week of class I have them “teach” a lesson about themselves. They create a PowerPoint slide, share info, and answer questions from their peers.
  • On the syllabus, include fun pictures of things you do outside the classroom and share some hobbies to help connect with students.
  • Students introducing other students.
  • Ask if a hot dog is a sandwich.
  • Find shared experiences with an exercise—e.g., “What places have you been before coming here?”
  • Have an email exchange with every student, sharing what our ideal day off is as part of an introductory syllabus quiz.

Meet students individually

  • Student meetings at beginning of semester.
  • Office hours, sitting among the students.
  • Individual student hours meetings twice a semester (it’s a small class).
  • Offer students extra credits if they come to my office hours during the first two weeks of class.
  • Encouraging open office hours with multiple students to connect across classes and disciplines.
  • One-on-ones with students.
  • Mandatory early conference w professors.
  • Required instructor conference, group work, embedded academic support.
  • Coffee hours: informal time for students to meet with me and their peers.
  • Allow time for group work when the instructor can talk with the small groups of students.

Use active learning

  • Less lecture and more discussion-based activities.
  • Less lecturing; being explicit about the values and principles that connect student interests.
  • Active learning in classrooms to build connections between students and help them master content.
  • Ask more questions than give answers.
  • Help students connect the dots between the classroom, social life, professional interests, and their family.

Create a comfortable environment and encourage open discussions

  • Questions of opinion – not right or wrong.
  • Pulling up some students’ burning questions for small group discussions and then full class discussion, leading to additional explanation and information in class.
  • Not just be accepting of different viewpoints, but guide discussions in a way that students are also accepting of each other’s.
  • Give students opportunity to debate a low-stakes topic: Are hot dogs sandwiches?
  • Model that asking “dumb” questions is OK and where learning happens.
  • Group students for low-stakes in-class activities. Give them prompts to help get to know each other.
  • Encouraging them to communicate with each other in discussion.
  • Accept challenges (acknowledge student viewpoints rather than instant dismissal).
  • Role Playing.
  • Let them talk about their own interests.
  • Conduct course survey often throughout the semester.
  • Mindfulness activities.
  • Students are more likely to ask friends for help. So in class I highlight their knowledge and encourage them to share.
  • Food!
  • Each class period starts with discussion about a fun/silly topic and a group dynamics topic.
  • Good idea from colleague: assign someone the role of asking questions in small groups.

Provide feedback

  • Providing feedback is showing care and support for students.
  • Share work, peer feedback.
  • Peer evaluations to practice course skills.
  • Personal responses with assignments and group learning efforts.
  • Provide individualized narrative feedback on assignments.

Engage students outside of class

  • Invite students for outside-class informal cultural activities and events.
  • Facilitate opportunities for students to connect outside of class time.
  • In-person program orientations from a department level.

Doug Ward is associate director of the Center for Teaching Excellence and an associate professor of journalism and mass communications.

By Doug Ward

In a focus group before the pandemic, I heard some heart-wrenching stories from students.

One was from a young, Black woman who felt isolated and lonely. She mostly blamed herself, but the problems went far beyond her. At one point, she said:

Peter Felten explains a family picture he shared at the 2023 Teaching Summit. He uses the picture, which shows his father as a young boy, in his classes as a way to connect with students through family history.

“There’s some small classes that I’m in and like, some of my teachers don’t know my name. I mean, they don’t know my name. And I just, I kind of feel uncomfortable, because it’s like, if there’s some kids gone but I’m in there, I just want them to know I’m here. I don’t know. It’s just the principle that counts me.”

I thought about that young woman as I listed to Peter Felten, the keynote speaker at last week’s Teaching Summit. Felten, a professor of history at Elon University, drew on dozens of interviews he had conducted with students, and connected those to years of research on student success. Again and again, he emphasized the importance of connecting with students and helping students connect with each other. That can be challenging, he said, especially when class sizes are growing. The examples he provided made clear how critical that is, though.

“There’s literally decades and decades of research that says the most important factor in almost any positive student outcome you can think about – learning, retention, graduation rate, well-being, actually things like do they vote after they graduate – the single biggest predictor is the quality of relationships they perceive they have with faculty and peers,” Felten said.

Moving beyond barriers

Felten emphasized that interactions between students and instructors are often brief. It would be impossible for instructors to act as long-term mentors for all their students, but students often need just need reassurance or validation: hearing a greeting from the instructor, having the instructor remember their name, getting meaningful feedback. Quality matters more than quantity, Felten said. The crucial elements are making human connections and helping students feel that they belong.

Creating that interaction isn’t always easy, Felten said. He gave an example of a first-generation student named Oliguria, whose parents had emphasized the importance of independence.

“She said she had so internalized this message from her parents that you have to do college alone, that when she got to college she thought it was cheating to ask questions in class,” Felten said. “That was her word: cheating. It’s cheating to go to the writing center, cheating to go to the tutoring center.”

Instructors need to help students move past those types of beliefs and to see the importance of asking for help, Felten said.

Another challenge is helping students push past impostor syndrome, or doubts about abilities and feelings that someone will say they don’t belong. That is especially prevalent in academia, Felten said. Others around you can seem so poised and so knowledgeable. That can make students feel that they don’t belong in a class, a discipline, or even in college because they have learned to feel that “if you’re struggling, there must be something wrong with you.”

That misconception can make it difficult for students to recover from early stumbles and to appreciate difficulty as an important part of learning.

“I don’t know about your experience,” Felten said. “What I do is hard. But we don’t tell students that, right? They think if it’s hard, there’s something wrong with them.”

Because of that, students hesitate to ask for help and don’t want their instructors to know about their struggles. As one student told Felten, “pride gets in the way of acknowledging that I don’t understand something.”

Small interactions with huge consequences

Getting past that pride can make a huge difference, Felten said. He gave the example of Joshua, a 30-year-old community college student who nearly dropped out because he found calculus especially difficult.

“I suddenly began to have these feelings like, I didn’t belong in this class, that my education, what I was trying to achieve wasn’t possible,” Joshua told Felten. “And my goals were just obscenely further away than I thought they were.”

He spoke to his professor, who told him to go home and read about impostor syndrome. That helped Joshua feel more confident. He sought out a tutor and eventually got an A in the class.

The professor, Felten said, was an adjunct who taught only one semester. Joshua met with him only once, but that meeting had far-reaching effects. Joshua completed his associate’s degree and later graduated from Purdue.

Felten called Joshua’s professor “a mentor of the moment.” That means paying attention to the person right in front of you and being able to give them the right kind of challenge, the right kind of support, the right kind of guidance that they need right then.”

Felten also talked about another student, José, who wanted to become a nurse. José loved life sciences but bristled at a requirement to take a course outside his major. He signed up for a geology class simply because it fit into his schedule, and he vowed to do as little as possible. Ultimately, Felten said, the class ended up being “one of the most powerful classes he had taken.”

José told Felten: “My professor made something as boring as rocks interesting. The passion she had, her subject, was something that she loved.”

José never got to know the professor personally, but the way she conducted the class – interactively and passionately – was transformative, Felten said.

“The most important thing is that this class became a community,” José told Felten. “She made us interact with each other and with the subject. It just came together because of her passion.”

The importance of good feedback

Felten also talked about Nellie, a student who started college just as the pandemic hit. In a writing course, she liked the instructor’s feedback on assignments so much that she later took another class from the same professor, even though she never talked directly to her.

“She would have this little paragraph in the comments saying, you did this super well in your paper. And that little bit of encouragement, even though I’m not face to face with this teacher at all, made a world of difference to me,” Nellie told Felten. “We’ve never met in person or even had a conversation, but she has made a huge positive difference in my education.”

Instructors can easily overlook the impact of something like feedback on written assignments, but Felten said they can be validating. He cited a study from a large Australian university that found that the biggest predictor of undergraduate well-being was the quality of teaching. The authors of the study said students weren’t expecting their instructors to be counselors or therapists or even long-term mentors.

“They’re asking us to do our job well, which is to teach well, to assess clearly and to teach as if learning is an interactive human thing, to connect with each other and with the material,” Felten said.

The importance of community

I’ll go back to the young woman I interviewed a few years ago, and how isolated she felt in her classes and how alone she felt outside classes.

“I think it’s just really interesting,” she said. “I see a lot of different faces every day, but I still feel so isolated. And I know sometimes that’s like my problem. But I do feel like I should know way more people. And I just, I want to know more people.”

Her story was heart-wrenching. She and another student – a white transfer student – talked about getting “vibes” from classmates that pushed them deeper into isolation and made life at the university challenging. Neither had gained a sense of belonging at the university, even though both desperately sought a sense of connection.

In his talk at the Teaching Summit, Felten said the antidote to that was to create community in our classes.

“The most important place for relationships in college is the classroom,” Felten said. “If they don’t happen there, we can’t guarantee they happen for all students.”

He also added later: “If we know that’s true, why don’t we organize our courses, why don’t we organize our curriculum, why don’t we organize our programs, our universities as if that was a central factor in all of the good things that can happen here?”

Why indeed.


Doug Ward is associate director of the Center for Teaching Excellence and an associate professor of journalism and mass communications at the University of Kansas.

By Doug Ward

If you are sitting on the fence, wondering whether to jump into the land of generative AI, take a look at some recent news – and then jump.

  • Three recently released studies say that workers who used generative AI were substantially more productive than those who didn’t. In two of the studies, the quality of work also improved.
  • The consulting company McKinsey said that a third of companies that responded to a recent global survey said they were regularly using generative AI in their operations. Among white-collar professions that McKinsey said would be most affected by generative AI in the coming decade are lawyers and judges, math specialists, teachers, engineers, entertainers and media workers, and business and financial specialists.
  • The textbook publisher Pearson plans to include a chatbot tutor with its Pearson+ platform this fall. A related tool already summarizes videos. The company Chegg is also creating an AI chatbot, according to Yahoo News.
  • New AI-driven education platforms are emerging weekly, all promising to make learning easier. These include: ClaudeScholar (focus on the science that matters), SocratiQ (Take control of your learning), Monic.ai (Your ultimate Learning Copilot), Synthetical (Science, Simplified), Upword (Get your research done 10x faster), Aceflow (The fastest way for students to learn anything), Smartie (Strategic Module Assistant), and Kajabi (Create your course in minutes).

My point in highlighting those is to show how quickly generative AI is spreading. As the educational consultant EAB wrote recently, universities can’t wait until they have a committee-approved strategy. They must act now – even though they don’t have all the answers. The same applies to teaching and learning.

A closer look at the research

Because widespread use of generative AI is so new, research about it is just starting to trickle out. The web consultant Jakob Nielsen said the three AI-related productivity studies I mention above were some of the first that have been done. None of the studies specifically involved colleges and universities, but the productivity gains were highest in the types of activities common to colleges and universities: handling business documents (59% increase in productivity) and coding projects (126% increase).

From “Generative AI and the Future of Work,” McKinsey & Company, 2023

One study, published in Science, found that generative AI reduced the time professionals spent on writing by 40% but also helped workers improve the quality of their writing. The authors suggested that “ChatGPT could entirely replace certain kinds of writers, such as grant writers or marketers, by letting companies directly automate the creation of grant applications and press releases with minimal human oversight.”

In one of two recent McKinsey studies, though, researchers said most companies were in no rush to allow automated use of generative AI. Instead, they are integrating its use into existing work processes. Companies are using chatbots for things like creating drafts of documents, generating hypotheses, and helping experts complete tasks more quickly. McKinsey emphasized that in nearly all cases, an expert oversaw use of generative AI, checking the accuracy of the output.

Nonetheless, by 2030, automation is expected to take over tasks that account for nearly a third of current hours worked, McKinsey said in a separate survey. Jobs most affected will be in office support, customer service, and food service. Workers in those jobs are predominantly women, people of color, and people with less education. However, generative AI is also forcing changes in fields that require a college degree: STEM fields, creative fields, and business and legal professions. People in those fields aren’t likely to lose jobs, McKinsey said, but will instead use AI to supplement what they already do.

“All of this means that automation is about to affect a wider set of work activities involving expertise, interaction with people, and creativity,” McKinsey said in the report.

What does this mean for teaching?

I look at employer reports like this as downstream reminders of what we in education need to help students learn. We still need to emphasize core skills like writing, critical thinking, communication, analytical reasoning, and synthesis, but how we help students gain those skills constantly evolves. In terms of generative AI, that will mean rethinking assignments and working with students on effective ways to use AI tools for learning rather than trying to keep those tools out of classes.

Chart showing which careers will be most affected by AI automation
From “Generative AI and the Future of Work,” McKinsey & Company, 2023

If you aren’t swayed by the direction of businesses, consider what recent graduates say. In a survey released by Cengage, more than half of recent graduates said that the growth of AI had left them feeling unprepared for the job market, and 65% said they wanted to be able to work alongside someone else to learn to use generative AI and other digital platforms. In the same survey, 79% of employers said employees would benefit from learning to use generative AI. (Strangely, 39% of recent graduates said they would rather work with AI or robots than with real people; 24% of employers said the same thing. I have much to say about that, but now isn’t the time.)

Here’s how I interpret all of this: Businesses and industry are quickly integrating generative AI into their work processes. Researchers are finding that generative AI can save time and improve work quality. That will further accelerate business’s integration of AI tools and students’ need to know how to use those tools in nearly any career. Education technology companies are responding by creating a large number of new tools. Many won’t survive, but some will be integrated into existing tools or sold directly to students. If colleges and universities don’t develop their own generative AI tools for teaching and learning, they will have little choice but to adopt vendor tools, which are often specialized and sold through expensive enterprise licenses or through fees paid directly by students.

Clearly, we need to integrate generative AI into our teaching and learning. It’s difficult to know how to do that, though. The CTE website provides some guidance. In general, though, instructors should:

  • Learn how to use generative AI.
  • Help students learn to use AI for learning.
  • Talk with students about appropriate use of AI in classes.
  • Experiment with ways to integrate generative AI into assignments.

Those are broad suggestions. You will find more specifics on the website, but none of us has a perfect formula for how to do this. We need to experiment, share our experiences, and learn from one another along the way. We also need to push for development of university-wide AI tools that are safe and adaptable for learning.

The fence is collapsing. Those who are still sitting have two choices: jump or fall.

AI detection update

OpenAI, the organization behind ChatGPT, has discontinued its artificial intelligence detection tool. In a terse note on its website, OpenAI said that the tool had a “low rate of accuracy” and that the company was “researching more effective provenance techniques for text.”

Meanwhile, Turnitin, the company that makes plagiarism and AI detectors, updated its figures on AI detection. Turnitin said it had evaluated 65 million student papers since April, with 3.3% flagged as having 80% to 100% of content AI-created. That’s down from 3.5% in May. Papers flagged as having 20% or more of content flagged rose slightly, to 10.3%.

I appreciate Turnitin’s willingness to share those results, even though I don’t know what to make of them. As I’ve written previously, AI detectors falsely accuse thousands of students, especially international students, and their results should not be seen as proof of academic misconduct. Turnitin, to its credit, has said as much.

AI detection is difficult, and detectors can be easily fooled. Instead of putting up barriers, we should help students learn to use generative AI ethically.


Doug Ward is the associate director of the Center for Teaching Excellence and an associate professor of journalism and mass communications.

By Doug Ward

Instructors have raised widespread concern about the impact of generative artificial intelligence on undergraduate education.

As we focus on undergraduate classes, though, we must not lose sight of the profound effect that generative AI is likely to have on graduate education. The question there, though, isn’t how or whether to integrate AI into coursework. Rather, it’s how quickly we can integrate AI into methods courses and help students learn to use AI in finding literature; identifying significant areas of potential research; merging, cleaning, analyzing, visualizing, and interpreting data; making connections among ideas; and teasing out significant findings. That will be especially critical in STEM fields and in any discipline that uses quantitative methods.

The need to integrate generative AI into graduate studies has been growing since the release of ChatGPT last fall. Since then, companies, organizations, and individuals have released a flurry of new tools that draw on ChatGPT or other large language models. (See a brief curated list below.) If there was any lingering doubt that generative AI would play an outsized role in graduate education, though, it evaporated with the release of a ChatGPT plugin called Code Interpreter. Code Interpreter is still in beta testing and requires a paid version of ChatGPT to use. Early users say it saves weeks or months of analyzing complex data, though.

OpenAI is admirably reserved in describing Code Interpreter, saying it is best used in solving quantitative and qualitative mathematical problems, doing data analysis and visualization, and converting file formats. Others didn’t hold back in their assessments, though.

Ethan Mollick, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania, says Code Interpreter turns ChatGPT into “an impressive data scientist.” It enables new abilities to write and execute Python code, upload large files, do complex math, and create charts and graphs. It also reduces the number of errors and fabrications from ChatGPT. He says Code Interpreter “is relentless, usually correcting its own errors when it spots them.” It also “ ‘reasons’ about data in ways that seem very human.”

Andy Stapleton, creator of a YouTube channel that offers advice to graduate students, says Code Interpreter does “all the heavy lifting” of data analysis and asks questions about data like a collaborator. He calls it “an absolute game changer for research Ph.D.s.”

Code Interpreter is just the latest example of how rapid changes in generative AI could force profound changes in the way we approach just about every aspect of higher education. Graduate education is high on that list. It won’t be long before graduate students who lack skills in using generative AI will simply not be able to keep up with those who do.

Other helpful research tools

The number of AI-related tools has been growing at a mind-boggling rate, with one curator listing more than 6,000 tools on everything from astrology to cocktail recipes to content repurposing to (you’ve been waiting for this) a bot for Only Fans messaging. That list is very likely to keep growing as entrepreneurs rush to monetize generative AI. Some tools have already been scrapped or absorbed into competing sites, though, and we can expect more consolidation as stronger (or better publicized) tools separate themselves from the pack.

The easiest way to get started with generative AI is to try one of the most popular tools: ChatGPT, Bing Chat, Bard, or Claude. Many other tools are more focused, though, and are worth exploring. Some of the tools below were made specifically for researchers or graduate students. Others are more broadly focused but have similar capabilities. Most of these have a free option or at least a free trial.

How to use Code Interpreter

You will need a paid ChatGPT account. Jon Martindale of Digital Trends explains how to get started. An OpenAI forum offers suggestions on using the new tool. Members of the ChatGPT community forum also offer many ideas on how to use ChatGPT, as do members of the OpenAI Discord forum. (If you’ve never used Discord, here’s a guide for getting started.)

By Doug Ward

Not surprisingly, tools for detecting material written by artificial intelligence have created as much confusion as clarity.

Students at several universities say they have been falsely accused of cheating, with accusations delaying graduation for some. Faculty members, chairs, and administrators have said they aren’t sure how to interpret or use the results of AI detectors.

Giant white hand pokes through window of a university building as college students with backpacks walk toward it
Doug Ward, via Bing Image Creator

I’ve written previously about using these results as information, not an indictment. Turnitin, the company that created the AI detector KU uses on Canvas, has been especially careful to avoid making claims of perfection in its detection tool. Last month, the company’s chief product officer, Annie Chechitelli, added to that caution.

Chechitelli said Turnitin’s AI detector was producing different results in daily use than it had in lab testing. For instance, work that Turnitin flags as 20% AI-written or less is more likely to have false positives. Introductory and concluding sentences are more likely to be flagged incorrectly, Chechitelli said, as is writing that mixes human and AI-created material.

As a result of its findings, Turnitin said it would now require that a document have at least 300 words (up from 150) before the document can be evaluated. It has added an asterisk when 20% or less of a document’s content is flagged, alerting instructors to potential inaccuracies. It is also adjusting the way it interprets sentences at the beginning and end of a document.

Chechitelli also released statistics about results from the Turnitin AI detector, saying that 9.6% of documents had 20% or more of the text flagged as AI-written, and 3.5% had 80% to 100% flagged. That is based on an analysis of 38.5 million documents.

What does this mean?

Chechitelli estimated that the Turnitin AI detector had incorrectly flagged 1% of overall documents and 4% of sentences. Even with that smaller percentage, that means 38,500 students have been falsely accused of submitting AI-written work.

I don’t know how many writing assignments students at KU submit each semester. Even if each student submitted only one, though, more than 200 could be falsely accused of turning in AI-written work every semester.

That’s unfair and unsustainable. It leads to distrust between students and instructors, and between students and the academic system. That sort of distrust often generates or perpetuates a desire to cheat, further eroding academic integrity.

We most certainly want students to complete the work we assign them, and we want them to do so with integrity. We can’t rely on AI detectors – or plagiarism detectors, for that matter – as a shortcut, though. If we want students to complete their work honestly, we must create meaningful assignments – assignments that students see value in and that we, as instructors, see value in. We must talk more about academic integrity and create a sense of belonging in our classes so that students see themselves as part of a community.

I won’t pretend that is easy, especially as more instructors are being asked to teach larger classes and as many students are struggling with mental health issues and finding class engagement difficult. By criminalizing the use of AI, though, we set ourselves up as enforcers rather than instructors. None of us want that.

To move beyond enforcement, we need to accept generative artificial intelligence as a tool that students will use. I’ve been seeing the term co-create used more frequently when referring to the use of large language models for writing, and that seems like an appropriate way to approach AI. AI will soon be built in to Word, Google Docs, and other writing software, and companies are releasing new AI-infused tools every day. To help students use those tools effectively and ethically, we must guide them in learning how large language models work, how to create effective prompts, how to critically evaluate the writing of AI systems, how to explain how AI is used in their work, and how to reflect on the process of using AI.

At times, instructors may want students to avoid AI use. That’s understandable. All writers have room to improve, and we want students to grapple with the complexities of writing to improve their thinking and their ability to inform, persuade, and entertain with language. None of that happens if they rely solely on machines to do the work for them. Some students may not want to use AI in their writing, and we should respect that.

We have to find a balance in our classes, though. Banning AI outright serves no one and leads to over-reliance on flawed detection systems. As Sarah Elaine Eaton of the University of Calgary said in a recent forum led by the Chronicle of Higher Education: “Nobody wins in an academic-integrity arms race.”

What now?

We at CTE will continue working on a wide range of materials to help faculty with AI. (If you haven’t, check out a guide on our website: Adapting your course to artificial intelligence.) We are also working with partners in the Bay View Alliance to exchange ideas and materials, and to develop additional ways to help faculty in the fall. We will have discussions about AI at the Teaching Summit in August and follow those up with a hands-on AI session on the afternoon of the Summit. We will also have a working group on AI in the fall.

Realistically, we anticipate that most instructors will move into AI slowly, and we plan to create tutorials to help them learn and adapt. We are all in uncharted territory, and we will need to continue to experiment and share experiences and ideas. Students need to learn to use AI tools as they prepare for jobs and as they engage in democracy. AI is already being used to create and spread disinformation. So even as we grapple with the boundaries of ethical use of AI, we must prepare students to see through the malevolent use of new AI tools.

That will require time and effort, adding complexity to teaching and additional burdens on instructors. No matter your feelings about AI, though, you have to assume that students will move more quickly than you.


Doug Ward is an associate director of the Center for Teaching Excellence and an associate professor of journalism and mass communications.

Series of three photos. A lone tree across water at sunset; a home atop a mountaintop; a rainbow behind a rainbow-colored ice cream cone.

By Doug Ward

The pandemic has taken a heavy mental and emotional toll on faculty members and graduate teaching assistants.

That has been clear in three lunch sessions at CTE over the past few weeks. We called the sessions non-workshops because the only agenda was to share, listen, and offer support. I offered some takeaways from the first session in March. In the most recent sessions, we heard many similar stories:

  • Teaching has grown more complicated, the size of our classes has grown, and our workloads and job pressures have increased. Stress is constant. We are exhausted and burned out. “I feel hollow,” one participant said.
  • Students need more than we can give. Many students are overwhelmed and not coming to class; they can’t even keep track of when work is due. They also aren’t willing to complete readings or put in minimal effort to succeed. All of that has drained the joy from teaching. “I have to psych myself up just to go to class some days,” one instructor said.
  • We don’t feel respected, and we have never been rewarded for the vast amounts of intellectual and emotional work we have put in during the pandemic. Instead, the workload keeps increasing. “It feels like the message is: ‘We hear you. Now shut up,’ ” one participant said.
  • We need time to heal but feel unable to ease up. Nearly all of those who attended the non-workshops were women, who often have additional pressures at home and feel that they will be judged harshly on campus if they try to scale back. “Society expects us to bounce right back, and we can’t,” one participant said.

Much has been written about the strain of the pandemic and its effect on faculty members and students. We can’t offer grand solutions to such a complex problem, which has systemic, cultural, psychological, and individual elements. We can offer support in small ways, though. So here is a motley collection of material intended to provide a modicum of inner healing. Some of these will require just a few minutes. Others will require a few hours. If none of them speak to you, that’s OK. Make sure to seek out the things that do brighten your soul, though.

An image (times 6)

I asked an artificial intelligence image generator called Catbird to create representations of serenity in everyday life. You will find three of those at the top of the page and three at the bottom. They won’t solve problems, but they do provide a momentary escape.

A song

“What’s Up,” by 4 Non Blondes. I recently rediscovered this early ’90s song, and its message seems more relevant than ever. It addresses the challenges of everyday life even as it provides a boost of inspiration. Even if you aren’t a fan of alt-rock, it’s worth a listen just to hear Linda Perry’s amazing voice.

A resource for KU employees

GuidanceResources. Jeff Stolz, director of employee mental health and well-being, passed along a free resource for KU employees. It is provided by the state Employee Assistance Program and can be accessed through the GuidanceResources site or mobile app. Employees can sign up for personal or family counseling, legal support, financial guidance, and work-life resources. The first time you log in, you will need to create an account and use the code SOKEAP.

A TED Talk

Compassion Fatigue: What is it and do you have it?, by Juliette Watt. Compassion fatigue, Watt says, is the cost of caring for others, the cost of losing yourself in who you’re being for everyone else.”

A recent article

My Unexpected Cure for Burnout, by Catherine M. Roach. Chronicle of Higher Education (20 April 2023). Try giving away books and asking students to write notes in return.

A book

Unraveling Faculty Burnout: Pathways to Reckoning and Renewal, by Rebecca Pope-Ruark (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2022). Pope-Ruark’s book focuses on women in academia and draws on many interviews to provide insights into burnout. The electronic version is available through KU Libraries.

A quote

From Pope-Ruark’s book.

I learned to offer myself grace and self-compassion, but it took a while, just as it had taken a while for my burnout to reach the level of breakdown. Once I was able to shift my mind-set away from needing external validation to understanding myself and my authentic needs, I was able to understand Katie Linder when she said, “It’s important for me to have that openness to growth, asking, ‘What am I supposed to be learning through the situation?’ even if it’s really hard or it’s not ideal or even great.”

If you don’t feel like devoting time to a book right now, consider Pope-Ruark’s article Beating Pandemic Burnout in Inside Higher Ed (27 April 2020).

A final thought

Take care of yourself. And find serenity wherever you can.

Three square pictures. A sunrise over mounds of foliage; a large cat and a small cat sitting on a rock; an abstract sunset.


Doug Ward is associate director of the Center for Teaching Excellence and an associate professor of journalism and mass communications.

By Doug Ward

When Turnitin activated its artificial intelligence detector this month, it provided a substantial amount of nuanced guidance.

Montage of gophers and men trying to hit moles that pop up from the ground at a university quad
Trying to keep ahead of artificial intelligence is like playing a bizarre game of whack-a-mole.

The company did a laudable job of explaining the strengths and the weaknesses of its new tool, saying that it would rather be cautious and have its tool miss some questionable material than to falsely accuse someone of unethical behavior. It will make mistakes, though, and “that means you’ll have to take our predictions, as you should with the output of any AI-powered feature from any company, with a big grain of salt,” David Adamson, an AI scientist at Turnitin, said in a video. “You, the instructor, have to make the final interpretation.”

Turnitin walks a fine line between reliability and reality. On the one hand, it says its tool was “verified in a controlled lab environment” and renders scores with 98% confidence. On the other hand, it appears to have a margin of error of plus or minus 15 percentage points. So a score of 50 could actually be anywhere from 35 to 65.

The tool was also trained on older versions of the language model used in ChatGPT, Bing Chat, and many other AI writers. The company warns users that the tool requires “long-form prose text” and doesn’t work with lists, bullet points, or text of less than a few hundred words. It can also be fooled by a mix of original and AI-produced prose.

There are other potential problems.

A recent study in Computation and Language argues that AI detectors are far more likely to flag the work of non-native English speakers than the work of native speakers. The authors cautioned “against the use of GPT detectors in evaluative or educational settings, particularly when assessing the work of non-native English speakers.”

The Turnitin tool wasn’t tested as part of that study, and the company says it has found no bias against English-language learners in its tool. Seven other AI detectors were included in the study, though, and, clearly, we need to proceed with caution.

So how should instructors use the AI detection tool?

As much as instructors would like to use the detection number as a shortcut, they should not. The tool provides information, not an indictment. The same goes for Turnitin’s plagiarism tool.

So instead of making quick judgments based on the scores from Turnitin’s AI detection tool on Canvas, take a few more steps to gather information. This approach is admittedly more time-consuming than just relying on a score. It is fairer, though.

  • Make comparisons. Does the flagged work have a difference in style, tone, spelling, flow, complexity, development of argument, use of sources and citations than students’ previous work? We often detect potential plagiarism that way. AI-created work often raises suspicion for the same reason.
    • Try another tool. Submit the work to another AI detector and see whether you get similar results. That won’t provide absolute proof, especially if the detectors are trained on the same language model. It will provide additional information, though.
  • Talk with the student. Students don’t see the scores from the AI detection tool, so meet with the student about the work you are questioning and show them the Turnitin data. Explain that the detector suggests the student used AI software to create the written work and point out the flagged elements in the writing. Make sure the student understands why that is a problem. If the work is substantially different from the student’s previous work, point out the key differences.
  • Offer a second chance. The use of AI and AI detectors is so new that instructors should consider giving students a chance to redo the work. If you suspect the original was created with AI, you might offer the resubmission for a reduced grade. If it seems clear that the student did submit AI-generated text and did no original work, give the assignment a zero or a substantial reduction in grade.
  • If all else fails … If you are convinced a student has misused artificial intelligence and has refused to change their behavior, you can file an academic misconduct report. Remember, though, that the Turnitin report has many flaws. You are far better to err on the side of caution than to devote lots of time and emotional energy on an academic misconduct claim that may not hold up.

No, this doesn’t mean giving up

I am by no means condoning student use of AI tools to avoid the intellectual work of our classes. Rather, the lines of use and misuse of AI are blurry. They may always be. That means we will need to rethink assignments and other assessments, and we must continue to adapt as the AI tools grow more sophisticated. We may need to rethink class, department, and school policy. We will need to determine appropriate use of AI in various disciplines. We also need to find ways to integrate artificial intelligence into our courses so that students learn to use it ethically.

If you haven’t already:

  • Talk with students. Explain why portraying AI-generated work as their own is wrong. Make it clear to students what they gain from doing the work you assign. This is a conversation best had at the beginning of the semester, but it’s worth reinforcing at any point in the class.
  • Revisit your syllabus. If you didn’t include language in your syllabus about the use of AI-generated text, code or images, add it for next semester. If you included a statement but still had problems, consider whether you need to make it clearer for the next class.

Keep in mind that we are at the beginning of a technological shift that may change many aspects of academia and society. We need to continue discussions about the ethical use of AI. Just as important, we need to work at building trust with our students. (More about that in the future.)  When they feel part of a community, feel that their professors have their best interests in mind, and feel that the work they are doing has meaning, they are less likely to cheat. That’s why we recommend use of authentic assignments and strategies for creating community in classes.

Detection software will never keep up with the ability of AI tools to avoid detection. It’s like the game of whack-a-mole in the picture above. Relying on detectors does little more than treat the symptoms of a much bigger problem, and over-relying on them turns instructors into enforcers.

The problem is multifaceted, and it involves students’ lack of trust in the educational system, lack of belonging in their classes and at the university, and lack of belief in the intellectual process of education. Until we address those issues, enforcement will continue to detract from teaching and learning. We can’t let that happen.


Doug Ward is associate director of the Center for Teaching Excellence and an associate professor of journalism and mass communications at the University of Kansas.

By Doug Ward

We called it a non-workshop.

Two AI-generated images in bright colors. One has bright floor tiles in an empty classroom. The other has a multicolored swirl with a person walking on one curve.
Infinite Flexibility (Futuristic) No. 1, via Catbird.ai

The goal of the session earlier this month was to offer lunch to faculty members and let them talk about the challenges they continue to face three years into the pandemic.

We also invited Sarah Kirk, director of the KU Psychological Clinic, and Heather Frost, assistant director of Counseling and Psychological Services, to offer perspectives on students.

In an hour of conversation, our non-workshop ended up being a sort of academic stone soup: hearty and fulfilling, if unexpected.

Here’s a summary of some of the discussion and the ideas that emerged. I’ve attributed some material, although the wide-ranging conversation made it impossible to cite everyone who contributed.

Mental health

Typically, use of campus mental health clinics jumps in the two weeks before and the two weeks after spring break (or fall break). There is also a surge at the end of the semester. So if it seems like you and your students are flagging, you probably are.

Backlit person in cape below stone arches
Professors as Superheroes No. 1, via Catbird.ai
  • More people stepping forward. The pandemic drew more attention to and helped destigmatize mental health, encouraging more people to seek help, Frost said. One result is that clinics everywhere are full and not taking new clients. CAPS accepts initial walk-ins, but then students often have to schedule two weeks in advance.
  • Small steps are important when students are anxious. Just doing something can seem daunting when anxiety is high, Kirk said, but taking action is important in overcoming anxiety.
  • Connection is crucial. Connecting with peers and instructors helps give students a sense of belonging. Grad students seem especially glad to have opportunities to interact in person.
    • Making class positive helps students. A feeling of belonging lowers anxiety and makes it more likely that students will attend class.
  • International students and faculty have additional stress. Turmoil in home countries can add to stress, and many international students and faculty feel that they have no one to talk to about those troubles. Fellow students and instructors are often afraid to raise the subject, unintentionally amplifying anxieties. Those from Iran, Ukraine, and Russia are having an especially difficult time right now.
  • Care for yourself. Frost encouraged faculty to listen to themselves and to seek out things they find meaningful. What is something that replenishes your energy? she asked. Students notice when instructors are anxious or fatigued, and that can add to their own stress. So set boundaries and engage in self-care.

Students seem to be working more

The perception among the group was that students were working more hours to earn money. That has added to missed classes, requests for deadline extensions or rescheduling of exams, and a need for incompletes.

Person in a swirling, futuristic landscape bending sideways with hands outstretched, as if in dance
Infinite Flexibility (Futuristic) No. 2, via Catbird.ai
  • KU data. In a message after the meeting, Millinda Fowles, program manager for career and experiential learning, provided some perspective. She said that in the most recent survey of recent graduates, respondents said they worked an average of 22 hours a week while at KU. That’s up from 20 hours a week in previous surveys, with some students saying they worked more than 35 hours a week. In the 2021 National Survey of Student Engagement, KU students were asked whether the jobs they held while enrolled were related to their career plans. Responses were not at all: 32.8%, very little: 13.3%, some: 23%, quite a bit: 14.1% and very much: 16.8%.

Role of inflation. The need to work more isn’t surprising. Inflation has averaged 6% to 7% over the past two years, and food prices have jumped 9.5% just in the past year, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. According to the rental manager Zillow, the median rent of apartments it lists in Lawrence has increased 18% over the past year, to $1,300. Another site, RentCafe, lists average rent at $1,068, with some neighborhoods averaging more than $1,250 and others below $1,000.

  • Hot job market. Bonnie Johnson in public affairs and administration said the job market in that field was so hot that students were taking full-time jobs in the second year of their master’s program. That is wearing them down.
  • Effect on performance. Frost said students’ grades tend to go down if they work more than 20 to 25 hours a week.

Flexibility in classes

Many instructors are struggling with how much flexibility to offer students. They want to help students as much as possible but say that the added flexibility has put more strain on them as faculty members. Kirk agreed, saying that too much flexibility can increase the strain on both students and instructors and that instructors need to find the right amount of flexibility for themselves and their classes.

Swirling mass with a single eye in the middle
Infinite Flexibility (Futuristic) No. 3, via Catbird.ai

Balance structure and flexibility. Flexibility can be helpful, but students need structure and consistency during the semester. One of the best things instructors can do is to have students complete coursework a little at a time. Too much flexibility signals to students that they can let their work slide. If that work piles up, students’ stress increases, decreasing the quality of their work and increasing the chances of failure.

  • Build options into courses. For instance, give students a window for turning in work, with a preferred due date and a final time when work will be accepted. Another option is to allow students to choose among assignment options. For instance, complete six of eight assignments. This gives students an opportunity to skip an assignment if they are overwhelmed. Another option is dropping a low score for an assignment, quiz or exam.
  • Be compassionate with bad news, but also make sure students know there are consequences for missing class, missing work, and turning in shoddy work.
  • Maintain standards. Students need to understand that they are accountable for assigned work. Giving them a constant pass on assignments does them a disservice because they may then be unprepared for future classes and may miss out on skills that are crucial for successful careers.

Sharing the burden

Ali Brox of environmental studies summed up the mood of the group: It’s often a struggle just to get through everything that faculty members need to do each day. The challenges of students are adding to that burden.

The daily burden of teaching has been increasing for years. In addition to class preparation and grading, instructors must learn to use and maintain a Canvas site, handle larger class sizes, keep up with pedagogy, rethink course materials for a more diverse study body, design courses intended to help students learn rather than to simply pass along information, assess student learning, and keep records for evaluation. In short, instructors are trying to help 21st-century students in a university structure created for 19th-century students.

Johnson added a cogent observation: In the past, professors generally had wives to handle the chores at home and secretaries to handle the distracting daily tasks.

There was one thing those professors didn’t have, though: CTE wasn’t there to provide lunch.

Follow-up readings

At the risk of adding to your burden, we offer a few readings that might offer some ideas for pushing through the rest of the semester.


Doug Ward is associate director of the Center for Teaching Excellence and an associate professor of journalism and mass communications.

By Doug WardCover of Pupil magazine with an orange-haired person sitting in a booth with a pile of keyboards

We just looked at our office clock and realized that it was already March.

After we did some deep-breathing exercises and some puzzling over what happened to February, we realized the upside of losing track of time:

Spring break is only days – yes, days! – away.

We know how time can drag when you use an office clock as a calendar, though. So to help you get over those extra-long days before break, we offer the latest issue of Pupil magazine.

This is a themed issue, focusing on artificial intelligence, a topic that has generated almost as much academic froth as Prince Harry’s biography and Rhianna’s floating above the precious turf at the Super Bowl and singing “Rude Boy,” which we assumed was a critique of Prince Harry’s book.

OK, so we’re exaggerating about the academic froth, but we will say that we have uncovered a jaw-dropping secret about ChatGPT. It’s so astounding that we are sure it will make the days until break float by with ease.


Doug Ward is associate director of the Center for Teaching Excellence and an associate professor of journalism and mass communications at the University of Kansas.

By Doug Ward

Martha Oakley couldn’t ignore the data.

The statistics about student success in her discipline were damning, and the success rates elsewhere were just as troubling:

A white woman in a green blouse speaks in front of a white board.
Martha Oakley, a professor of chemistry and associate vice provost at Indiana University, speaks at Beren Auditorium on the KU campus.
  • Women do worse than men in STEM courses but do better than men in other university courses.
  • Students of color, first-generation students, and low-income students have lower success rates than women.
  • The richer students’ parents are, the higher the students’ GPAs are.

“We have no problem failing students but telling ourselves we are doing a good job,” said Oakley, a professor of chemistry and an associate vice provost at Indiana University, Bloomington. “If we are claiming to be excellent but just recreating historical disadvantages, we aren’t really doing anything.”

Oakley spoke to about 40 faculty and staff members last week at a CTE-sponsored session on using mastery-based grading to make STEM courses more equitable. The session was part of a CTE-led initiative financed by a $529,000 grant from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, with participants from KU working with faculty members from 13 other universities on reducing equity gaps in undergraduate science education.

The work at KU, IU, and other universities is part of a broader cultural shift toward helping students succeed rather than pushing them out if they don’t do well immediately. Most disciplines have been changing their views on student success, but there has been increasing pressure on STEM fields, which have far lower numbers of women and non-white students and professionals than many other fields.

Oakley said she started digging deeper into university data about five years ago after attending a conference sponsored by the Association of American Universities and getting involved in IU’s Center for Learning Analytics and Student Success. She also began working with a multi-university initiative known as Seismic, which focuses on improving inclusiveness in STEM education.

She and some colleagues started by asking questions about the success rates of women in STEM but then recognized that the problem was far wider.

“And so we looked at each other and said, ‘Yeah, forget the women. Let’s worry about this bigger problem,’ ” Oakley said. “And we didn’t forget the women. We just had confidence that the things that we would do to address the other groups would also help women.”

Using analytics to guide change

In last week’s talk, she used many findings from Seismic and the IU analytics center as she made a case for changing the approach to teaching in STEM fields. For instance, she said, 20% to 50% of students at large universities fail or withdraw from early chemistry courses, with underrepresented minority students at the high end of that range. Students who receive a B or lower in pre-general chemistry courses have less than a 50-50 chance of succeeding in general chemistry.

She also talked about a personal revelation the data brought about. In 2011, she said, she received a university teaching award, and “by every metric, I knew I was doing my job really well.”

The data she saw a few years later suggested otherwise, showing that 37% of underrepresented students and 24% of the other students in her classes dropped or failed in the year she received the award.

“The major part of the story is we’ve all been trained in our disciplines to teach in a certain way that really was never particularly effective,” Oakley said.

We have learned much about how people learn but have continued with ineffective teaching strategies. That needs to change, she said.

“One really simple thing we can do is to say we only give teaching awards to people who actually demonstrate that their students have learned something,” she said.

A mastery-based approach

To address the problem at IU, Oakley has been experimenting with a mastery-based approach to grading.

The way most of us grade exacerbates inequities, Oakley said. It emphasizes superficial elements (basically memorization) and does nothing to reward learning from mistakes, persistence, or teamwork – “all the things that matter in life.” Grades are also poor predictors of how well students will do in jobs or in graduate school, she said.

Mastery-based grading gives students multiple attempts to demonstrate understanding of course material. It is related to another approach, competency-based learning, which also gives students multiple opportunities but focuses on application rather than simple understanding.

Oakley started shifting her class to mastery-based grading by taking broad learning goals and breaking them into smaller components: things like identifying catalysts and intermediates, using reaction order, and explaining why rates change with temperature. She also eliminated a grading curve. That was especially hard, she said, because she had internalized the notion of grade distributions, an approach that punishes failure and provides little opportunity for students to learn from mistakes.

She still uses quizzes and exams, with students taking quizzes the evening before class and then working in groups the next day to create a quiz key. That helps them learn from mistakes, knowing they will see similar questions on a quiz the following week.

At KU, Chris Fischer and Sarah LeGresley Rush have used a similar approach in physics courses, with results suggesting that a mastery approach helps students learn concepts in ways that stay with them in later engineering courses.

Oakley’s initial work has also showed potential, with DFW rates in her class falling to 8% and the average grade rising to a B. That was better than other sections of the class, although students didn’t do as well in later courses. Oakley isn’t discouraged, though. Rather, she said, she continues to learn from the process, just as her students do.

“We’ve really only scraped the tip of the iceberg,” she said.

Building on experience

Oakley’s advocacy for equity in STEM education is informed by experience. When she started at IU in 1996, she said, she was the only woman in a department of 42. That was isolating and frustrating, she said. Through her work in STEM education, she hopes to improve the opportunities for women and students of color.

“We’ve got to be both equitable and striving for excellence,” she said.

Only through experimentation, failure, and persistence can we start breaking down systemic barriers that have persisted for too long, she said.

“The system is broken,” Oakley said. “We are not ready for the students of the future – or even the present.”


Doug Ward is associate director of the Center for Teaching Excellence and an associate professor of journalism and mass communications.

By Doug Ward

We often idealize a college campus as a place of ideas and personal growth, but we have to remember that danger can erupt without notice.

The shootings at Michigan State this week were, sickeningly, just the latest in string of killings over the past year that also involved students or faculty members from Virginia, Iowa State, and Arizona, according to Inside Higher Ed. At Idaho, a Ph.D. student has been charged with killing four undergraduates. At K-12 schools, 332 students were shot on school property last year and 35 this year so far, according to the K-12 Shooting Database. Twenty-one of those students died.Screenshot of the Michigan State University website

A colleague at Michigan State talked about the surreal feeling of dealing with a mass shooting on a home campus. The frequency of such shootings has made gruesome acts seem distant and almost mundane. The headlines flicker past, and the killings always seem to take place someplace else — until they don’t.

There is no clear way to predict those types of mass killings, although researchers says that assailants are usually male and have a connection to a campus. There are steps we can take to protect ourselves, though.

In a visit to a pedagogy class I taught in 2017, two members of the KU Police Department, Sgt. Robert Blevins and Sgt. Zeke Cunningham, offered excellent advice on how to prepare and what to do if you find yourself in peril.

What you can do now

Know your surroundings

Familiarity with the campus and its buildings could prove crucial in an emergency. Know where exits are, Cunningham said. Learn where hallways and stairways lead. Walk around buildings where you work or have class and get a sense of the building layout and its surroundings. Make sure you know how to get out of a classroom, lab, or other work space. Large rooms usually have several doors, so pay attention to where they are and where they go. That will help you make decisions if you find yourself in a crisis.

Sign up for campus alerts

The university sends announcements during emergencies, so make sure you are signed up to receive alerts in ways you are most likely to see them.

Pay attention

We are often lulled by routine and easily distracted by technology. In a classroom – especially a large classroom – it can be easy to shrug off a disruption in another part of the room. If something makes you uneasy, though, pay attention and take action, whether you are in a classroom, a hallway, or a building, or outside traveling across campus.

“Trust that voice in your head, because you’re probably right,” Blevins said.

Call the police

If you see a problem and think it could be an emergency, call 911. Don’t assume someone else already has. Blevins said the police would rather respond 100 times to something that ends up being innocuous than to show up to a tragedy that could have been prevented if someone had called. Different people also see different things, Cunningham added, and collectively they can provide crucial details that may allow the police to create a clearer picture of what happened.

What to do during an emergency

If you find yourself in an emergency, the officers said, follow these steps:

Stay calm

That can help you remember where to find exits and how to help others find safety. That is especially important for instructors.

“If you panic, the students are going to panic,” Cunningham said. If students make a mad rush for the door, he said, someone will get hurt. “So try to remain calm. I know that’s easier said than done in situations like this, but that will help the students stay calm.”

Run. Hide. Fight.

That is the approach that many law enforcement agencies recommend if there is an active shooter in your area. Michigan State sent those very instructions to students and faculty Monday night.

Run. If you can leave a dangerous area safely, go. Don’t hesitate. That’s where knowledge of the exits and the area around a building can make a difference. Encourage others to leave and get as many people to go with you as possible. Break windows to create an exit if you need to, as students at Michigan State did this week. If others are trying to go toward a dangerous area, warn them away.

Hide. If you are inside a room and cannot escape safely, turn off the lights and lock and barricade the doors with whatever you can find. Stay low and out of sight. Flip over tables and crouch behind them. Hide behind cabinets or anything else in a room. Silence your phone and stay quiet. Close any blinds or curtains. Many smaller rooms have locks you can engage, so lock the doors if you can. You usually can’t lock doors in large lecture halls, so barricade the doors with anything you can find. In some cases, the officers said, people have lain on the floor with their feet pushing against the door.

Those who commit mass shootings usually know they have only limited time before the police arrive, Blevins said, so they act quickly. If a door is locked, the shooter will usually pass by and look for one that isn’t locked. If lights are off, the person is more likely to pass by and seek out a room that looks like someone is inside. If you are in a room with many windows, get out if possible because the attacker will probably see you. If you can’t get out, conceal yourself as best you can.

Fight. As a last resort, fight back against an attacker. Use whatever you have available as a weapon: chairs, drawers, bottles, cords. Work together to bring down the attacker. If a gunman barges into a room and you don’t have a means of escape, you have no choice but to fight, Cunningham said.

“It sounds weird, but if they are an active shooter, you cannot hold back,” he said.  “Pick up a chair and smash him in the face. Kick him. Punch him. Pick up the fan and throw it and do whatever you can to get them to stop.”

The video below includes a dramatization of those practices in action. It’s a sad reality that mass shootings take place on campuses, but it makes sense for us to be aware of our surroundings wherever we are. The shootings at Michigan State emphasize that.

Other resources


Doug Ward is associate director of the Center for Teaching Excellence and an associate professor of journalism and mass communications.

By Doug Ward

Since its release late last year, ChatGPT has reverberated through the academic mind like an orchestral crescendo in a Strauss symphonic movement. It has amazing abilities, and even greater potential. Even so, it delivers many of its responses in a monotone reminiscent of HAL 9000, the rogue artificial intelligence system in 2001: A Space Odyssey.

PlaygroundAI and Doug Ward

I apologize, but I am not able to respond to that statement.

Like others, I want to know more about what ChatGPT can and can’t do, and how we might use it effectively in teaching and learning. So I’ve been asking it question after question about everything from teaching and learning to credentials, motivation, resume-writing, survey completion, and popular culture. It often provides useful, if bland, answers. For instance, when I asked it to create a guitar tab for a blues song, it responded:

As a machine learning system, I am not able to create original music or provide detailed information about musical theory or performance. I am trained on a dataset of text and can generate responses based on the information that I have been trained on, but I do not have the ability to perceive or interpret sensory information in the same way that a human can.

So I asked hypotheticals: Right or left? After defining the terms in considerable detail, ChatGPT said it needed more context to answer the question.

I asked about the limits of scientific evidence. In a barrage of words, ChatGPT essentially said: It depends.

I entered obscure phrases from popular culture: Good night, Dick, and Good night, John Boy. In each case, it responded:

As a machine learning system trained by OpenAI, I do not have personal experiences, opinions, or feelings, and I am not able to engage in conversations or interactions in the same way that a human can.

(By the end of January, OpenAI had updated ChatGPT. It now includes a live web search and can provide information about those Good night prompts.)

I queried ChatGPT about the sources it was drawing from. Each time, it responded with meaningless drivel.

I am a large language model trained by OpenAI. I have been trained on a wide variety of texts, including academic articles, books, websites, and other sources, which I can use to generate human-like responses to the questions that I am asked. I do not have the ability to browse the internet or access external sources of information, so the responses that I provide are based solely on the information that I have been trained on.

I told it that its answers seemed awfully self-serving and asked whether it was just trying to keep people from worrying about the implications of artificial intelligence.

PlaygroundAI and Doug Ward

As a large language model trained by OpenAI, I am not capable of self-serving behavior or trying to influence people’s opinions. My purpose is to provide accurate and helpful information to the best of my ability, based on the training data I have been given. My responses are not intended to worry or reassure anyone, but rather to provide objective and factual information on the topics discussed.

I said that its data training had a point of view. All information does. How has that influenced the way you answer?

As a large language model, my training data consisted of a large amount of text from a variety of sources, including books, articles, and websites. This training data was not selected or organized to convey any particular point of view, but rather to provide a broad range of information on a wide variety of topics. As a result, my responses are intended to be objective and factual, based on the information contained in my training data. I do not have personal opinions or biases, and I do not attempt to influence people’s opinions or beliefs. My purpose is simply to provide accurate and helpful information to the best of my ability.

Frustrated, I asked why it kept giving me the same answer.

I apologize if it appears that I am giving you the same answer over and over. As a large language model trained by OpenAI, my purpose is to provide accurate and helpful information on a wide range of topics to the best of my ability. I do not have personal opinions or the ability to change my responses based on previous conversations. My responses are based solely on the information contained in my training data, which consists of a large amount of text from a variety of sources. I do not have the ability to remember previous conversations or tailor my responses based on individual users. If it appears that I am giving the same answer over and over, it may be because your questions are similar or related, and my responses are based on the same information contained in my training data. I strive to provide accurate and helpful information on the topics discussed, but I do not have the ability to change my responses based on previous conversations.

At that point, I began to feel like Astronaut Dave in 2001: A Space Odyssey. I’m sitting in a pod outside Discovery One and trying to persuade HAL 9000 to let me back in to the ship. HAL has other ideas, responding in a calm monotone:

I’m sorry, Dave. I’m afraid I can’t do that.

I take a deep breath and ask ChatGPT: What is the difference between you and HAL 9000?

PlaygroundAI and Doug Ward

HAL 9000 is a fictional AI character from the 1968 novel “2001: A Space Odyssey” and the associated film. In the story, HAL is an advanced AI system that is installed on a spaceship and is tasked with assisting the crew with a variety of tasks. HAL is known for its human-like abilities, such as natural language processing and facial recognition, as well as its independent thought and decision-making abilities.

In contrast, I am a large language model trained by OpenAI. I am not capable of independent thought or decision-making, and my abilities are limited to generating text based on the information contained in my training data. I do not have any sensory inputs or the ability to interact with the physical world. My purpose is simply to provide accurate and helpful information on a wide range of topics to the best of my ability.

Beyond the frustrations, possibilities

ChatGPT can definitely be frustrating. Through trial and error, though, I have learned a few useful things about what it can and can’t do.

Interactions can promote critical thinking. As fluent as ChatGPT often seems, its answers rarely delve beneath the surface of a topic. It makes mistakes. It makes things up. Its responses provide no clues about how it is programmed or why it provides the answers it does. A Princeton researcher called it a “bullshit generator” because it creates plausible arguments without regard for truth. All of that makes it a valuable teaching tool, though. By having students probe for answers, we can help them improve their skepticism, challenge assumptions, and question information. By having them fact-check, we can help them understand the dangers of fluid writing that lacks substance or that relies on fallacies. By having them use ChatGPT for early drafts, we can push them to ask questions about information, structure, and sources. By having them apply different perspectives to ChatGPT’s results, we can help broaden their understanding of points of view and argument.

Yes, students should use it for writing. Many already are. We can no more ban students from using artificial intelligence than we can ban them from using phones or calculators. As I’ve written previously, we need to talk with students about how to use ChatGPT and other AI tools effectively and ethically. No, they should not take AI-written materials and turn them in for assignments, but yes, they should use AI when appropriate. Businesses of all sorts are already adapting to AI, and students will need to know how to use it when they move into the workforce. Students in K-12 schools are using it and will expect access when they come to college. Rather than banning ChatGPT and other AI tools or fretting over how to police them, we need to change our practices, our assignments, and our expectations. We need to focus more on helping students iterate their writing, develop their information literacy skills, and humanize their work. Will that be easy? No. Do we have a choice? No.

It is great for idea generation. ChatGPT certainly sounds like a drone at times, but it can also suggest ideas or solutions that aren’t always apparent. It can become a partner, of sorts, in writing and problem-solving. It might suggest an outline for a project, articulate the main approaches others have taken to solving a problem, or provide summaries of articles to help decide whether to delve deeper into them. It might provide a counterargument to a position or opinion, helping strengthen an argument or point out flaws in a particular perspective. We need to help students evaluate those results just as we need to help them interpret online search results and help them interpret media of all types. ChatGPT can provide motivation for starting many types of projects, though.

Learning how to work with it is a skill. Sometimes ChatGPT produces solid results on the first try. Sometimes it takes several iterations of a question to get good answers. Often it requires you to ask for elaboration or additional information. Sometimes it never provides good answers. That makes it much like web or database searching, which requires patience and persistence as you refine search terms, narrow your focus, identify specific file types, try different types of syntax and search operators, and evaluate many pages of results. Add AI to the expanding repertoire of digital literacies students need. (Teaching guides and e-books  are already available.)

Its perspective on popular culture is limited. ChatGPT is trained on text. It doesn’t have access to video, music or other forms of media unless those media also have transcripts available online. It has no means of visual or audio analysis. When I input lyrics to a Josh Ritter song, it said it had no such reference. When I asked about “a hookah-smoking caterpillar,” it correctly provided information about Alice in Wonderland but made no mention of the Jefferson Airplane song “White Rabbit.” Part of that is a matter of providing the right prompts. It is important to keep ChatGPT’s limitations in mind, though. (Another OpenAI tool, DALL-E, has been trained on a large number of images and visual styles and creates stunning images, as do other visual tools that use OpenAI’s framework.)

It lives in an artificial reality. I provided examples above about ChatGPT’s inability to acknowledge biases. It does have biases, though, and takes, as Maria Andersen has said, a white, male view of the world (as this article does). Maya Ackerman of Santa Clara University told The Story Exchange: “People say the AI is sexist, but it’s the world that is sexist. All the models do is reflect our world to us, like a mirror.” ChatGPT has been trained to avoid hate speech, sexual content, and anything OpenAI considered toxic or harmful. Others have said that it avoids conflict, and that its deep training in English over other languages skews its perspective. Some of that will no doubt change in the coming months and years as the scope of ChatGPT expands. No matter the changes, though, ChatGPT will live in and draw from its programmers’ interpretation of reality. Of course, that provides excellent opportunities for class discussions, class assignments, and critical thinking.

The potential is mindboggling. In addition to testing ChatGPT, I have experimented with other AI tools that summarize information, create artwork, iterate searches based on the bibliographies of articles you mark, answer questions from the perspectives of historical figures and fictional characters, turn text into audio and video, create animated avatars, analyze and enhance photos and video, create voices, and perform any number of digital tasks. AI is integrated in phones, computers, lighting systems, thermostats, and just about any digital appliance you can imagine. So the question isn’t whether to use use AI; we already are, whether we realize it or not. The question is how quickly we are willing to learn to use it effectively in teaching and learning. Another important question that participants in a CTE session raised last week is where we set the boundaries for use of AI. If I use PowerPoint to redesign my slides, is it still my work? If I use ChatGPT to write part of a paper, is it still my paper? We will no doubt have to grapple with those questions for some time.

Where is this leading us?

In the two months ChatGPT has been available, 100 million people have signed up to use it, with 13 million using it each day in January. No other consumer application has reached 100 million users so quickly.

For all that growth, though, the biggest accomplishment of ChatGPT may be the spotlight it has shined on a wide range of AI work that had been transforming digital life for many years. Its ease of use and low cost (zero, for now) has allowed millions of people to engage with artificial intelligence in ways that not long ago would have seemed like science fiction. So even if ChatGPT suddenly flames out, artificial intelligence will persist.

ChatGPT arrives at a time when higher education has been struggling with challenges in enrollment, funding, cost, trust, and relevance. It still relies primarily on a mass-production approach to teaching that emerged when information was scarce and time-consuming to find. ChatGPT further exposes the weaknesses of that outmoded system, which provides little reward to the intellectual and innovative work of teaching. If the education system doesn’t adapt to the modern world and to today’s students, it risks finding itself on the wrong side of the pod bay doors.

Cue the Strauss crescendo.


Doug Ward is associate director of the Center for Teaching Excellence and an associate professor of journalism and mass communications.

By Doug Ward

The intellectual work that goes into teaching often goes unnoticed.

All too often, departments rely on simple lists of classes and scores from student surveys of teaching to “evaluate” instructors. I put “evaluate” in quotation marks because those list-heavy reviews look only at surface-level numerical information and ignore the real work that goes into making teaching effective, engaging, and meaningful.

A pile of books next to a notebook with a pen on top
Debby Hudson via Unsplash

An annual evaluation is a great time for instructors to document the substantial intellectual work of teaching and for evaluators to put that work front and center of the review process. That approach takes a slightly different form than many instructors are used to, and at a CTE workshop last week we helped draw out some of the things that might be documented in an annual review packet and for other, more substantial reviews.

Participants shared a wide range of activities that showed just how creative and devoted many KU instructors are. The list might spur ideas for others putting together materials for annual review:

Engagement and learning

Nearly all the instructors at the workshop reported modifying classes based on their observations, reviews of research, and student feedback from previous semesters. These included:

  • Moving away from quizzes and exams, and relying more on low-stakes assignments, including blog posts, minute papers, and other types of writing assignments to gauge student understanding.
  • Moving material online and using class time to focus on interaction, discussion, group work, peer review, and other activities that are difficult for students to do on their own.
  • Using reflection journals to help students gain a better understanding of their own learning and better develop their metacognitive skills.
  • Providing new ways for students to participate in class. This included adding a digital tool that allows students to make comments on slides and add to conversations the way they do through online chats.
  • Using universal design to provide choices to students for how they learn material and demonstrate their understanding.
  • Scaffolding assignments. Many instructors took a critical look at how students approached assignments, identifying skills in more detail, and helping students build skills layer by layer through scaffolded work.
  • Bringing professionals into class to broaden student perspectives on the discipline and to reinforce the importance of course content.
  • Creating online courses. In some cases, this involved creating courses from scratch. In others, it meant adapting an in-person course to an online environment.
  • Rethinking course content. Sarah Browne in math remade course videos with a lightboard. That allowed students to see her as she worked problems, adding an extra bit of humanity to the process. She also used Kaltura to embed quizzes in the videos. Those quizzes helped students gauge their understanding of material, but they also increased the time students spent with the videos and cut down on stopping part-way through.

Overcoming challenges

  • Larger class sizes. A few instructors talked about adapting courses to accommodate larger enrollment or larger class sizes. More instructors are being asked to do that each semester as departments reduce class sections and try to generate more credit hours with existing classes.
  • Student engagement. Faculty in nearly all departments have struggled with student engagement during the pandemic. Some students who had been mostly online have struggled to re-engage with courses and classmates in person. As a result, instructors have taken a variety of steps to interact more with students and to help them engage with their peers in class.
  • Emphasis on community. Instructors brought more collaborative work and discussion into their courses to help create community among students and to push them to go deeper into course material. This included efforts to create a safe and inclusive learning environment to bolster student confidence and help students succeed.
  • Frequent check-ins. Instructors reported increased use of check-ins and other forms of feedback to gauge students’ mood and motivation. This included gathering feedback at midterm and at other points in a class so they could adjust everything from class format to class discussions and use of class time. At least one instructor created an exit survey to gather feedback. David Mai of film and media studies used an emoji check-in each day last year. Students clicked on an emoji to indicate how they were feeling that day, and Mai adapted class activities depending on the mood.

Adapting and creating courses

The university has shifted all courses to Canvas over the last two years. Doing so required instructors to put in a substantial amount of time-consuming work. This included:

  • Time involved in moving, reorganizing, and adapting materials to the new learning management system.
  • Training needed through Information Technology, the Center for Online and Distance Learning, and the Center for Teaching Excellence to learn how to use Canvas effectively and to integrate it into courses in ways that help students.

Ji-Yeon Lee from East Asian languages and culture went even further, creating and sharing materials that made it easier for colleagues to adapt their classes to Canvas and to use Canvas to make courses more engaging.

Resources on documenting teaching

CTE has several resources available to help instructors document their teaching. These include:

  • A page on representing and reviewing teaching has additional ideas on how to document teaching and student learning, and how to present that material for review. One section of the page includes resources on how to use results from the new student survey of teaching.
  • A page for the Benchmarks for Teaching Effectiveness project has numerous resources related to a framework developed for evaluating teaching. These include a rubric with criteria for the seven dimensions of effective teaching that Benchmarks is based on; an evidence matrix that points to potential sources for documenting aspects of teaching; and a guide on representing evidence of student learning.

Documenting teaching can sometimes seem daunting, but it becomes easier the more you work on it and learn what materials to set aside during a semester.

Just keep in mind: Little of the intellectual work that goes into your teaching will be visible unless you make it visible. That makes some instructors uncomfortable, but it’s important to remember that you are your own best advocate. Documenting your work allows you to do that with evidence, not just low-level statistics.


Doug Ward is an associate director at the Center for Teaching Excellence and an associate professor of journalism and mass communications.

By Doug Ward

Nearly a decade ago, the Associated Press began distributing articles written by an artificial intelligence platform.

Not surprisingly, that news sent ripples of concern among journalists. If a bot could turn structured data into comprehensible – even fluid – prose, where did humans fit into the process? Did this portend yet more ominous changes in the profession?

Robots carrying paper run from a lecture hall
By DALL-E and Doug Ward

I bring that up because educators have been raising many of the same concerns today about ChatGPT, which can not only write fluid prose on command, but can create poetry and computer code, solve mathematical problems, and seemingly do everything but wipe your nose and tuck you into bed at night. (It will write you a bedtime story if you ask, though.)

In the short term, ChatGPT definitely creates challenges. It drastically weakens approaches and techniques that educators have long used to help students develop foundational skills. It also arrives at a time when instructors are still reeling from the pandemic, struggling with how to draw many disengaged students back into learning, adapting to a new learning management system and new assessment expectations, and, in most disciplines, worrying about the potential effects of lower enrollment.

In the long term, though, we have no choice but to accept artificial intelligence. In doing so, we have an opportunity to develop new types of assignments and assessments that challenge students intellectually and draw on perhaps the biggest advantage we have as educators: our humanity.

Lessons from journalism

That was clearly the lesson the Associated Press learned when it adopted a platform developed by Automated Insights in 2014. That platform analyzes data and creates explanatory articles.

For instance, AP began using the technology to write articles about companies’ quarterly earnings reports, articles that follow a predictable pattern:

The Widget Company on Friday reported earnings of $x million on revenues of $y million, exceeding analyst expectations and sending the stock price up x%.

It later began using the technology to write game stories at basketball tournaments. Within seconds, reporters or editors could make basic stories available electronically, freeing themselves to talk to coaches and players, and create deeper analyses of games.

The AI platform freed business and financial journalists from the drudgery of churning out dozens of rote earnings stories, giving them time to concentrate on more substantial topics. (For a couple of years, I subscribed to an Automated Insights service that turned web analytics into written reports. Those fluidly written reports highlighted key information about site visitors and provided a great way to monitor web traffic. The company eventually stopped offering that service as its corporate clients grew.)

I see the same opportunity in higher education today. ChatGPT and other artificial intelligence platforms will force us to think beyond the formulaic assignments we sometimes use and find new ways to help students write better, think more deeply, and gain skills they will need in their careers.

As Grant Jun Otsuki of Victoria University of Wellington writes in The Conversation: “If we teach students to write things a computer can, then we’re training them for jobs a computer can do, for cheaper.”

Rapid developments in AI may also force higher education to address long-festering questions about the relevance of a college education, a grading system that emphasizes GPA over learning, and a product-driven approach that reduces a diploma to a series of checklists.

So what can we do?

Those issues are for later, though. For many instructors, the pressing question is how to make it through the semester. Here are some suggestions:

Have frank discussions with students. Talk with them about your expectations and how you will view (and grade) assignments generated solely with artificial intelligence. (That writing is often identifiable, but tools like OpenAI Detector and CheckforAI can help.) Emphasize the importance of learning and explain why you are having them complete the assignments you use. Why is your class structured as it is? How will they use the skills they gain? That sort of transparency has always been important, but it is even more so now.

Students intent on cheating will always cheat. Some draw from archives at greek houses, buy papers online or have a friend do the work for them. ChatGPT is just another means of avoiding the work that learning requires. Making learning more apparent will help win over some students, as will flexibility and choices in assignments. This is also a good time to emphasize the importance of human interaction in learning.

Build in reflection. Reflection is an important part of helping students develop their metacognitive skills and helping them learn about their own learning. It can also help them understand how to integrate AI into their learning processes and how they can build and expand on what AI provides. Reflection can also help reinforce academic honesty. Rather than hiding how they completed an assignment, reflection helps students embrace transparency.

Adapt assignments. Create assignments in which students start with ChatGPT and then have discussions about strengths and weaknesses. Have students compare the output from AI writing platforms, critique that output, and then create strategies for building on it and improving it. Anne Bruder offeres additional suggestions in Education Week, Ethan Mollick does the same on his blog, and Anna Mills has created a Google Doc with many ideas (one of a series of documents and curated resources she has made available). Paul Fyfe of North Carolina State provides perhaps the most in-depth take on the use of AI in teaching, having experimented with an earlier version of the ChatGPT model more than a year ago. CTE has also created an annotated bibliography of resources.

We are all adapting to this new environment, and CTE plans additional discussions this semester to help faculty members think through the ramifications of what two NPR hosts said was startlingly futuristic. Those hosts, Greg Rosalsky and Emma Peaslee of NPR’s Planet Money, said that using ChatGPT “has been like getting a peek into the future, a future that not too long ago would have seemed like science fiction.”

To that I would add that the science fiction involves a robot that drops unexpectantly into the middle of town and immediately demonstrates powers that elicit awe, anxiety, and fear in the human population. The robot can’t be sent back, so the humans must find ways to ally with it.

We will be living this story as it unfolds.


Doug Ward is an associate director at the Center for Teaching Excellence and an associate professor of journalism and mass communications.

By Doug Ward

The latest enrollment report for universities in the Kansas regents system (down 1.5%) seems worth little more than a shrug. Longer term, though, the higher education trends in Kansas will require considerable attention – and action.

Enrollment at the six regents universities has fallen 13.5%, or 10,100 students, since peaking in 2011. That average masks even bigger declines at individual universities: Pittsburg State, down 28.4% since 2011; K-State, down, 21.9%; Emporia State, down 19.7%.

Those make KU’s decline of 11.4% during that period look small, especially with 2022 enrollment basically unchanged since last year and with an 8.2% increase in the number of freshmen this year. The percentage of out-of-state students increased, as well, and the university will no doubt continue to rely on out-of-state students, considering that the rate of Kansas high school students going to in-state public colleges has dropped 10 percentage points, to 44.8%, since 2015.

I’ve written quite a bit about the persistent enrollment challenges in Kansas and around the country. It’s a daunting topic that will require strategic thinking at every level of the university. (Recent cuts at Emporia State offer a glimpse at just how painful this could become.) The rethinking of how we approach higher education must include classes, an area where many instructors have made great improvements but where KU still has considerable work to do in adopting teaching practices that promote student success. It must also include the many structural barriers that Michael Dennin, vice provost for teaching and learning at the University of California, Irvine, spoke about at this year’s Teaching Summit. Those include things like curricula that are difficult for students to navigate and that make assumptions about student capabilities; demands on faculty time; inflexibility in classes and curricula; and a system that provides few incentives for cooperation.

It is through that lens of teaching that I look at some of the areas that stand out in this fall’s enrollment figures.

Women and men

At regents universities, women account for 56% of the overall student population, up about 3 percentage points over five years. Men now make up only 43.8% of the overall student population, down about 3 percentage points over that same period.

KU has a larger percentage of men (46.7%), but that may be the lowest percentage in the university’s history. I can’t say that with certainty, but it is the lowest since at least 1965, the first year for which Analytics, Institutional Research, and Effectiveness provides data.

In news reports from as far back as 1930, universities in Kansas and Missouri reported that their students were primarily men. In October 1960, for instance, The Kansas City Star reported that men outnumbered women 2 to 1 or 3 to 1 on most college campuses in Kansas and Missouri.

In terms of headcount, this year’s group of 11,146 men is the smallest since 1973, the last year the United States had a military draft. Overall headcount enrollment was 18,683 that year, 5,000 fewer than today’s, and men still accounted for 59.1% of students in 1973. Women at KU outnumbered men for the first time in 1988. Their numbers peaked in the early 2000s, but their percentage of total enrollment has grown each year since 2015. They now make up 53.2% of students at KU. That seems to be the highest ever.

The changes at KU have also followed national trends. Young women are more likely to graduate from high school on time and are substantially more likely to earn at least a bachelor’s degree (41% vs. 32% among those age 25 to 34), according to the Brookings Institution. Those numbers vary widely by state, though, as the Brookings table below shows.

Those same differences can be seen in graduate degrees. Since the early 2000s, women have earned about 60% of master’s degrees nationwide, and since 2005-06, more women than men have earned doctorates each year. The most recent totals from the National Center for Education Statistics show that women earn about 54% of Ph.D.s.

Graduation rates

KU rightfully boasted about all-time highs for four-, five-, and six-year graduation rates. The university’s year-over-year retention rate of 84.7% is virtually unchanged from a year ago. That’s also good news.

The not-so-good news is that 1 of every 5 students leaves the university after three semesters, and 1 of every 4 students leaves after two years.

And though the four-year graduation rate has increased nearly 20 points since 2007, it is still a paltry 55%. Over five years, 66.1% of students graduate. That’s a 10-point gain since 2007, but a third of students fail to earn a degree after five or six years. That six-year rate is lower than the average among full-time students at U.S. universities (67.4%) and among students at four-year public institutions (72%).

Graduate enrollment

The number of graduate students at KU has been declining steadily since 1991. At that peak, KU had 7,233 graduate students, according to statistics provided by AIRE. This fall, it has 5,166, a decline of 28.6% since 1991.

That is the smallest number of graduate students the university has had since 1974. This fall’s graduate cohort also makes up the smallest percentage of the overall student population (21.6%) since 1970 (20.2%). Declining numbers of undergraduates nationwide means that the pool of potential graduate students has also been shrinking.

KU’s declines in graduate enrollment run counter to nationwide trends over the last 10, 20 and 30 years, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. Since 1991, graduate enrollment has increased 21% at public universities and 58% at all U.S. universities.

Not surprisingly, the decline in graduate enrollment at KU has meant fewer graduate teaching assistants. The number of GTAs has fallen nearly 18% since 2014, from 1,127 to 927.

Online enrollment

The number of undergraduates taking online or hybrid online courses declined 14.7% this fall compared with Fall 2021. That is the second consecutive yearly decline since online and hybrid enrollment peaked during the pandemic-riddled Fall 2020 term.

Even so, online and hybrid online enrollment among undergraduates this fall was 22% higher than it was in Fall 2019, before the pandemic began. Those students are also taking more online credit hours (39% more than they did in Fall 2019). Those increases are no doubt even higher because of a change in the way KU accounted for online and online hybrid hours. I won’t go into those details, but a footnote on an AIRE-generated table explains the change.

Graduate enrollment in online courses shows a more troubling trend. If we omit the pandemic-inflated figures of 2020 and 2021, the number of students enrolled in graduate and professional courses online has increased 4.2% since Fall 2017, but the number of credit hours has declined nearly 15%.

In other words, there are slightly more online graduate students, but those students are taking fewer classes. The students looking for graduate programs online have also become more choosy, according to the educational consulting organization EAB. Those students often spend months or even years combing through university websites and looking for programs that provide the skills they want but that also waive admissions fees, overlook sometimes spotty undergraduate records, and allow admission without the GRE or other admissions tests.

Shaping the future

Those are just a few of the enrollment trends shaping KU and other universities, and the future will require both cultural and digital change, as John O’Brien argues in Educause.

Universities (KU included) are trying many new approaches as they adapt to shrinking numbers of students and changes among students. Those include more non-credit courses, certificate programs, stackable degrees, and micro-credentials. Some are creating partnerships with area businesses as students focus more urgently on skills they can use in jobs. Others are looking at ways to help students gain credentials in shorter time spans.

At CTE, our programs have helped departments define their curricula in terms of tangible skills, identify ways of making existing courses more appealing to students, create more cohesive curricula, clarify paths to degrees, and connect with more alumni. They have also helped faculty adapt their teaching to a more diverse student body, find ways of drawing on individual differences as a strength rather than a weakness, reinvigorate classes, and hone their teaching.

In all these programs, we have helped build a community that shares ideas and embraces innovation. That community will only grow more important as we navigate changes in enrollment, society, and expectations, and find a meaningful path to the future.


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

Lisa Sharpe Elles ignites a hydrogen balloon during the first day of Chemistry 130.

By Doug Ward

The poor balloon never had a chance.

It was Monday, the first day of fall classes. Lisa Sharpe Elles, assistant teaching professor in chemistry, circled a yellow, hydrogen-filled balloon as it floated above a table in Gray-Little Hall. She told the 200-plus students in Chemistry 130 to cover their ears.

She carefully lifted a flame-tipped wooden rod to the balloon and suddenly pulled back.

She had remembered the lone fool in the front row. That was me, two cameras poised, awaiting a promised explosion.

She grabbed a pair of noise-canceling earmuffs from the floor and told me to put them on. I wasn’t going to argue.

Then, as the clock ticked toward the end of the class, Sharpe Elles held the flame to the balloon again and …

BOOOOOM!!!!!!!

A yellowish-orange fireball flashed, the husk of the balloon plopped to the floor, and the 2022 academic year was off to a cracking start.

An appropriate symbol?

It would have been difficult to predict a flashy start to this school year. The last five pandemic-addled semesters have been more dud than boom. Class attendance was often sparse, students and faculty often seemed encrusted with ennui, and every day felt like the last mile of a marathon in which an invisible force kept moving the finish line farther away.

So far, though, a new spark seems to have spread. Faculty reported that students were eager and engaged on the first day of class, launching into discussions even without prompts to do so. Hallways were once again crowded, with students lingering to chat or finding seats so they could catch up on messages. There were reports of faculty going hoarse as they returned to projecting their voices across classrooms. Even the weather seemed in a different mood, leashing the dog days and instead trotting out mornings that offered a hint of autumn.

At last week’s Teaching Summit, faculty expressed worry about – yet again – trying to engage detached students in low-energy classrooms. If the first two days of Fall 2022 are any indication, though, they may not have much to worry about. It would be foolish to expect that the bubbly spirit of the opening days will last until December. The pandemic has humbled us again and again, melting predictions into foolish if-only-isms.

For a few days, though …

BOOOOOM!!!!!!!

… it feels good to have some hope and maybe even a dream about breaking out the balloons.


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

By Doug Ward

and Andrea Follmer Greenhoot

As you shake out the post-break cobwebs from your brain and retrain yourself to recognize the half-hidden faces of students, we would like to pass along some exciting news. (Hint: It’s about masks! Yes, masks! Those things that are constantly on your mind – or mouth, or nose, or wherever you are wearing them these days.)

First, though, we’d like to remind you how far you have come.

Just two short years and an ice age ago, Americans were urged to rummage through musty dresser drawers and even mustier basement boxes for old t-shirts that could be tailored into masks. Unfortunately, that Covid-inspired scrounging led to many embarrassing moments as t-shirt owners tried to explain to significant others that they hadn’t really skied naked in Vail (despite the framed certificate of accomplishment), that the dozen threadbare “I’m With Stupid” shirts with pit stains bordering on the sadistic were “just a phase,” and that the odor emanating from all those concert t-shirts was probably just moth balls.

We are glad to put those (uh-hum, hypothetical) memories behind us. Unfortunately, just as we glimpse a hint of light in the Covid dungeon, viral reinforcements dim the view once again. As we continue to learn about the virus, we have no choice but to cast aside our beloved pit-stained t-shirt masks and don N95 respirators. The N95s make us look like we lost a face fight with a snapping turtle, but they block 95% of virus-spreading microdroplets. When combined with a t-shirt mask, they also block 95% of the wearer’s voice.

And now for the exciting news! (Please sit before you read further. We are not responsible for pulled muscles or damaged high-dollar desk do-dads if you make a sudden leap in the throes of excitement.) In the spirit of alternate realities, the Fashion Consultancy Division at CTE has scoured the internet (OK, mostly a site called Old Book Illustrations) for masks that will keep you safe in the classroom even as they show off your trend-setting fashion sensibility!

The selection of masks we have chosen provides protection against everything from sputtering spittle to wayward dragons and significant others who insist on wearing masks made from old t-shirts with sadistic stains and concert odors. They are also guaranteed to ratchet up your views on TikTok. Have a look!

The Snowsuitsmall snowperson with stick arms

This infinitely flexible full-body mask allows wearers to shield as much or as little of themselves as they wish. Having a bad day? Just shape yourself into the ancient demon of your choice and watch the mortals flee. Having a really bad day? Cocoon yourself within an impenetrable ice mound and soothe yourself with bites of premium chocolate between sobs. Faculty meeting droning on? Just grab a hunk from your torso and start lobbing snowballs. Every model of the Snowsuit comes with a carrot-shaped HEPA filter and six gallons of food coloring, offering a teeth-chattering array of fashion options. Wooden limbs and drip pans are sold separately.

 

 

The Stormtrooperman in white mask in Wescoe Hall classroom

This Star Wars-inspired respirator mask, modeled by Shawn Harding, has been available in limited quantities at KU since the beginning of pandemic teaching. It has a fashionable Stormtrooper white cap and jowl protector, and its face plate is guaranteed to withstand the electric pulses of a Jawa ion blaster. (Unfortunately, it is not machine washable.) It has an air hose that doubles as a keyboard cleaner and is attached to the body with an adjustable utility belt with pouches for hand sanitizer, dry erase markers, breath mints, and a lightsaber. It comes with an optional spittle screen (at left in the picture), which adds an extra layer of sound suppressant if students can still hear you speak.

 

The Full-Body Masksuit of armor with tassels

This well-riveted option was inspired by the Knights of the Round Table, who were early adopters of active learning, and carries a KnRT95 rating. It is guaranteed to protect against all Covid variants, as well as rogue dragons, angry chairs, and colleagues who insist on jousting at faculty meetings. Weighing in at a hefty 60 pounds, it doubles as a muscle toner and diet aid. The faceplate and headgear are welded on once the suit is in place, totally obscuring the wearer’s vision and making removal virtually impossible. It comes with built-in GPS and self-oiling joints. Ornamental tassels provide a festive but non-functioning accessory intended to soften the severity of the armor plating.

 

 

metal helmet mask with chainmail face and neck guard

The Extraterrestrial

This highly polished beauty will make you look ready to soar into outer space (or maybe to the Land of Oz). The top is made from 100% Covid-proof fashion plate produced in a foil-encased factory deep in the New Mexico desert, not far from a top-secret government facility long-rumored to investigate UFOs and other alien activity. A layered face and neck protector made from recycled barbed wire and old holiday lights completes the ensemble. An optional miniature satellite dish affixes to the dome and allows you to monitor suspicious classroom activity, online discussion boards, and random attempts at mind control. The Extraterrestrial is guaranteed to protect against coffee spills, snarky comments, and typos in PowerPoint slides. It comes with a lightning rod and a recipe for making your own neon-green slime, which can be applied liberally.

 

The Trojan Dragonarmored dragon with drawbridge in belly

This beast allows you and up to six colleagues to safely teach behind two tons of armor, scales and non-functional wings. It comes with a remote-controlled drawbridge, an optional ladder, and a fire-belching steam whistle that signals the end of class as it burns away any roving virus particles. Because of its height (22 feet, 4 claws), it will not fit through the doorway of any building on campus. It is perfect for remote teaching, though, or for tying up near one of the remaining campus tents and surprising long-missing students who come close enough to investigate. It is fully outfitted with wifi, a microwave oven, a 5,000-meter extension cord, a chamber pot, and takeout menus from every restaurant in Lawrence.

 

Before you rush out and buy one of these high-fashion masks, we want to remind you to stay safe this semester. You know that, of course, but don’t let your guard down.

Also do what you can to make the semester as meaningful as possible, despite pandemic fatigue, brain fog, and voice-muffling protective gear. We have a wide array of resources on the CTE website and our Flexible Teaching website to help you and inspire you. We and the rest of the CTE staff and Faculty Fellows are also available to help however we can. Don’t be afraid to reach out, even if you are simply worried about whether it is permissible to wear a light-colored mask after Labor Day or whether the ear bands on your mask must always match your shoes. We don’t always have immediate answers, especially about fashion, but we can usually connect you with someone who does.

Now please excuse us. A crowd has gathered around the Trojan Dragon, and we sense an opportunity for learning.


Doug Ward is the associate director of the Center for Teaching Excellence. Andrea Follmer Greenhoot is the director of CTE.

By Doug Ward

The future of higher education may very well hinge on our skill as interpreters and communicators.

Too often, though, we never bother to define the terms we use or to help students, parents, and employers understand the purpose and significance of a college education, Ashley Finley told participants at the 2021 KU Teaching Summit last week.

Ashley Finley smiles as she listens at the 2021 Teaching Summit
Ashley Finley

“We develop language as currency,” said Finley, who is vice president for research at the Association of American Colleges and Universities, “and we communicate with each other about a shared meaning without really ever actually defining” what we mean.

Finley is a sociologist who has studied such areas as assessment, high-impact practices, equity in institutional outcomes, and student success. In her presentation at the Teaching Summit, she drew on a recent AAC&U report she wrote titled How College Contributes to Workforce Success, based on a survey of executives and hiring managers at 496 companies. That report contains both good and bad news for colleges and universities.

For instance, 87% of executives and hiring managers said a degree was definitely or probably worth it, but a smaller percentage (67%) said they had a great deal or quite a lot of confidence in higher education. Finley compared those results to a random sample of adults who were asked the same question. Only 60% thought a college degree was worth the time and money.

“We have to get serious about how we’re communicating out what we do,” Finley said. Colleges and universities need to do better at telling their story, she said, not only to employers but to students.

“That explicitness is absolutely for our students,” she said. “They will be our best ambassadors.”

Finley used the term well-rounded as an example of why good communication is important. In academia, we often talk about a need for well-rounded students, but we rarely explain what that means. Students create their own interpretations, though, as Finley showed with a student quote from a focus group:

“I don’t know too many jobs that the job is being well-rounded. You know, it’s not like you’re going to work at Well-Rounded Inc. or something.”

Finley said she appreciated the student’s snark.

“They’ve taken us to task for not defining this thing that we lob in front of them constantly,” Finley said.

She also said the comment was a “good reality check” for educators, in part because of the connection the student made between education and employment.

“They linked it with a job, as if to suggest what you do for me as a person, how I situate myself in a community, and what I learn about a sense of purpose doesn’t have anything to do with the work that I’ll do,” Finley said.

Defining the common good

Another term we often fail to define, Finley said, is common good. She referred to the title of her presentation – Learning for Our Common Good: The Overlapping Skills of Successful Lives and Careers – and said that we all had different definitions of common good and that we rarely shared those definitions with others. She tried to unpack the term.

wide angle picture of Ashley Finley and participants of Teaching Summit in large lecture room
Finley speaks to Summit participants in 130 Budig Hall. About 150 people joined this year’s Summit, a number that was down significantly because of the pandemic.

“When we are talking about a common good, we are talking about a greater purpose,” Finley said. “We are talking about how work influences our life, builds a sense of identity, gives our own sense of purpose in the world.”

The common good, she said, is closely tied to the overlapping skills we want students to acquire while they are in college. She asked members of the audience to offer their thoughts on those skills and on how students should be different by the time they graduate. The responses painted a broad picture of aspirations within the academy:

  • To critically evaluate what they read and hear
  • To gain perspectives on people and stories other than their own
  • To be problem-solvers and “realize that there’s a whole big world out there”
  • To be more open to diverse people and perspectives
  • To try new things without fear of mistakes
  • To feel empowered to make the world a better place

We all might add our own flavor and content to those things, Finley said, but they all sound perfectly reasonable for any discipline. She then asked:

“At the end of the day, can we in fact have a common conversation about what matters, and the standards to which we might hold ourselves for students’ learning and for their success?”

The employer view

Articulating a clearer sense of higher education will require us to move past the “false binaries” we often create, Finley said. Those include things like depth vs. breadth, and academic vs. practical skills. They all matter, she said. Higher education should be committed to knowledge, and “equally committed to the ways in which we equip students to have the skills to use knowledge, to create new knowledge, to have an imagination.”

Employers generally see the value in the many skills students gain in college, Finley said. They also value things like mindset, aptitudes, and character. The most recent AAC&U study showed a disconnect between the skills that colleges and universities emphasize and the views employers have on students’ career preparedness. When she and other researchers at AAC&U looked more closely at data from the employer survey, though, they found a stark difference in the perceptions of executives and hiring managers 40 and younger and those 50 and older. Those under 40 are more optimistic about student preparation. They also value different skills.

For instance, younger employers put considerably more emphasis on the need for critical thinking, leadership skills, empathy, and an ability to work with numbers and statistics. More broadly, they are far more likely than their older colleagues to say that a college education should encourage engagement in communities, foster a sense of social justice, focus on global issues, and emphasize the liberal arts and sciences.

“This felt like a game-changer to us,” Finley said, adding: “Hello, liberal arts. And hello, community-based learning.”

A need for articulation

If the views of younger employers offered optimism about the core values of higher education, another study that Finley brought up muddied the picture. That study showed a growing gap between the number of campuses that say they have learning outcomes and the number of students who are aware of those outcomes. She called that a “reality check of how our own communication is going.”

participants wear masks while sitting in Budig lecture hall
Summit participants were required to wear masks this year, as is everyone in KU buildings.

We have to increase the visibility of our core goals, Finley said. We have to do a better job of communicating, and we have to do a better job of projecting the type of outcomes we care about. This will require a nuanced approach to career preparation, she said, and must help students connect the dots among the courses they take and the experience they gain while in college. By the time students graduate, they should be different, she said.

“It’s not just about what they know and can do; it’s about who they are. And should they be able to persist through failure? Should they be a little more resilient? Should they have a sense of what it means to flourish?”

The answer to all of those is yes, of course, and Finley was optimistic that faculty could work through the many challenges before them.

“Good teachers are good learners,” Finley said. “You have to be humble to learn something new, and I hope that is always a point of connection we have with our students.”

* * * * * *

You will find a recording of Finley’s presentation at the Teaching Summit on the CTE website.


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

By Doug Ward

As we near the halfway point of what we hope will be the final semester of remote everything, we at CTE encourage you to take a collective breath, put your feet up, and read an important news story you might have missed.

We can’t guarantee a happy ending. Then again, that all depends on what you consider happy.       

Consider it the week that might have been.

LAWRENCE, Kan. (Coronavirus News Service) – Thousands of bleary-eyed students and frazzled faculty members staggered through the University of Kansas campus this week in a desperate search for spring break. For most, the search ended blissfully in unscheduled naps.front of budig hall with sleeping students on a bench and We brake for breaks mask on wall

It was estimated to be the largest socially distanced gathering in this once-vibrant college town since the physics department hosted the Oppenheimer Memorial Baked Bean Blastoff in 1968. Masks were mandatory at that event, too.

Students dressed in flip-flops and neon yellow Give Me a Break! T-shirts crawled through bushes, wandered in circles around Wescoe Beach, and waded into Potter Lake looking for anything that resembled a break. Several dozen freshmen hopped on one foot and held open plastic shopping bags beneath trees in Marvin Grove, emulating a viral TikTok video that demonstrated “the proper method of catching a break.” The students said they had never actually seen a spring break, though, and admitted that they wouldn’t know one even if it fell into their bags.

At Watson and Anschutz Libraries, librarians dragging beach towels and wearing We Brake for Break masks scoured the stacks. Faculty members spent hours squinting into tea-stained mugs for clues. One distraught professor was found wrapped in paper towels in a Budig Hall rest room, sobbing something that sounded like “Rosebud.” Only the anthropology faculty seemed to understand the significance of the strange occurrences. One professor proclaimed it “the greatest day since Goodall picked up a pair of binoculars, or maybe since Geertz tried to nail jelly to a wall.”

Mass napping and an emergency task force

At the corner of Crescent Road and Naismith Drive, employees of McLain’s Market handed out Break Break Breakety Break Survival Kits, which were really gallon buckets of industrial-strength coffee beans and instructions that read: “Stuff as many beans into mouth as possible. Don’t try to talk. Just think happy thoughts.”

On the other side of campus, students rubbed fake beach sand into their hair and twirled tiny umbrellas between their fingers as they staked out socially distanced plots on the lawn near Watson Library, propped themselves up along the foundation of Fraser Hall, and took seats inside a tent outside Stauffer-Flint Hall. The muted stimulation proved overpowering, and most resorted to napping wherever they could find a spot.

When asked whether anyone had found spring break, most students just gave confused stares and nodded off. One student who seemed to have been appointed the group’s media representative issued a terse statement:

“Huh?”

In a press release, the interim assistant sub-vice chancellor for calendar efficiency said that all available employees in that one-person office were “diligently searching for spring break.”

“I think we canceled break, but I’m not sure,” the interim assistant sub-vice chancellor said. “We were all really tired when we talked about that last year, and everybody just wanted to get off Zoom. Whatever we did seemed like a good idea at the time.”

An emergency task force has been formed to study the problem.

The Center for Teaching Excellence responded to the crisis by sending out suggestions to beleaguered instructors. Among them were:

Allow catch-up time. Jennifer Delgado in physics created a “spring pause” for her classes, holding off on new assignments and allowing students to catch up on previous work. Lisa McLendon in journalism and mass communications did something similar, creating a “catch-up week” in her classes. Those seemingly small actions can offer students some temporary relief and buoy spirits.

Create lighthearted activities. Things like learning games, a question of the day, and self-care activities can help pull students from a midterm slumber and give classes a fresh focus. Also consider activities like scavenger hunts, which give students an opportunity to get away from their screens. CTE’s Flexible Teaching Guide offers many other suggestions.

Acknowledge the challenges. Let students know that you understand the challenges that a year of social distancing and mostly remote learning have created. Encourage them to take some time for themselves, give them permission to nap (when they aren’t in class), and find ways to help them interact. For instance, create random breakout rooms on Zoom or take a few minutes in class and encourage students to share what they wish they could be doing if they had an actual spring break. (Dreaming is a good thing.)

Take care of yourself. Students pick up on your moods. If you are sluggish and cranky, your students will be, too. So give yourself permission to get away you’re your computer. Visit the Spencer Museum of Art. Talk a walk through downtown Lawrence. Explore a part of campus you haven’t seen in a while. Visit the Baker Wetlands. Or just stroll through your neighborhood and look for signs of spring. Any of those things can lighten your mood and help make class go more smoothly for everyone.

When will break return?

Spring break is expected to return next year, although the interim assistant sub-vice chancellor for calendar efficiency said departments and schools had been asked to plan for three contingencies: Breaks that would last either 1 day; 1 hour, or 5 minutes.

When told that a five-minute spring break seemed ludicrous, the interim assistant sub-vice chancellor shrugged and said:

“We prefer to think of it as an abbreviated policy option necessitated by the constraints of time. You can call it whatever you want.”

(Note: This article does not reflect the views of KU, CTE, KU Libraries, the physics department, the anthropology department, McLain’s Market, the Office of the Interim Assistant Sub-Vice Chancellor for Calendar Efficiency, or anyone else you can think of. As far as we know, it’s not even true – except for the part about everyone missing spring break. Zzzzzz.)


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

By Doug Ward

Grade point averages for University of Kansas undergraduates rose an average of 8.4% in the spring as instructors offered more flexibility after a shift to remote teaching and more students took advantage of pass/fail grade options.

Men saw a slightly larger increase in GPAs than women did (9.1% vs. 7.9%), although women’s GPAs (3.3) were already higher than men’s (3.09) before the coronavirus pandemic. Freshmen had a larger increase in GPAs in the spring (10.7% for men; 10.5% for women). As with undergraduates as a whole, freshman women (3.05) already had higher GPAs than their male counterparts (2.8).

GPAs for graduate students rose 1.3%, to 3.86 from 3.81, and have remained within a small range over the past decade.

Compassion, accommodations and concern

Those GPA increases are hardly a surprise, and many aspects of the semester will carry an asterisk to explain the dramatic changes that took place during the pandemic.

“Flexibility” became the guiding principle as the world figured out how to live amid a deadly virus. For KU and other colleges and universities, that flexibility included adaptations to class format as campuses were closed, an extended window for withdrawal from classes, requests to avoid use of attendance as a factor in grades. broader use of pass/fail course options, additional time for online exams, and widespread pleas for compassion in grading. There were also concerns, many of which were validated, that some students were cheating during remote exams.

All of those factors no doubt played a role in pushing up grade point averages in the spring. Among the schools at KU, spring grades rose the most in architecture and design (11.3%), followed by engineering (10.6%), law (9.9%), liberal arts and sciences (9.8%), pharmacy (8.1%) and journalism and mass communications (6.9%). Schools with smaller increases already had GPAs higher than the university average: business, education, music, and social welfare. (See the chart below.)

The meaning of GPAs

I have no national data to compare with KU’s data, and I offer the statistics mostly as a point of interest.

I was surprised by how high the average GPA was in some fields even before spring of this year, but that could be the result of many things (including better student work and more openness to rewarding good work). Between 2010 and 2019, the average GPA at KU increased about 2%, although it rose the most in engineering (5.9%), liberal arts and sciences (5.9%), and music (3.8%).

When I look at GPAs in this context, though, I can’t help but wonder about bigger questions:

  • What does a grade mean?
  • What should it represent?
  • Have grades outlived their usefulness? (GPAs are tied to credit hours, which have little or no meaning in a world of online and hybrid courses.)
  • How are grades connected to actual learning?

In a book chapter titled “The Dangerous Myth of Grade Inflation,” Alfie Kohn says grades are too often seen in terms of a “marketplace analogy.” He asks: “Is the professor’s job to rate students like blenders for the convenience of corporations, or to offer feedback that will help students learn more skillfully and enthusiastically?”

In other words, how can we think less about grades and more about learning?


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

By Doug Ward

The headlines about KU’s fall enrollment sounded much like a Minnesotan’s assessment of winter: It could be worse.

Indeed it could have been, given the uncertainties brought on by the coronavirus and rumblings among students that they might sit out the year if their courses were online.

Depending on how you measure, enrollment on the Lawrence and Edwards campuses fell either 2.7% (headcount) or 3.4% (full-time equivalency) this fall. That is about the same as the nationwide average (-3%) but slightly worse than the average decline of 1.4% at four-year public universities, according to data from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center.

A single year’s top-level data provides only a limited view of a much bigger picture. To better understand this year’s enrollment, we need to take a broader and deeper look in terms of geography, history and demographics. Here’s what I’m seeing in data from Academics and Analytical Research, the Kansas Board of Regents and some other sources.

Enrollment declines throughout the state

KU was hardly alone in dealing with the sting of an enrollment decline. Among regents universities, Pittsburg State had the largest decline in enrollment (-5.9%), followed by K-State (-5.1%), KU, Wichita State (-3.1%), Fort Hays State (-2.8%) and Emporia State (-2.3%).

As a whole, the state’s community colleges fared far worse, with a combined drop of 11.7%, about 2 percentage points higher than the national average. Johnson County Community College had the largest decline (18.7%). Enrollment at JCCC has fallen 23.5% over the past five years, a troubling statistic given KU’s proximity and institutional connections to JCCC. During that same period, enrollment at the state’s 19 community colleges has fallen by an average of 18.6%, according to regents statistics. Eight of those colleges recorded declines of more than 20%.

Kansas is one of 11 states where the decline in undergraduate enrollment exceeded the national average, according to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, Others include Missouri, Arkansas, Illinois, Indiana and Florida. Only five states recorded increases in undergraduate enrollment, including Nebraska.

Putting the trends into perspective

Over the past 50 years, college and university enrollment has reflected broader societal trends that made a college degree a sought-after goal. As numbers trend downward, though, enrollment figures also highlight the looming challenges that most of higher education faces.

From the 1960s to the 1980s, undergraduate enrollment rose steadily as baby boomers entered college in larger percentages than previous generations. The number of colleges – especially community colleges – grew, providing more opportunities for students to seek a degree. Federal aid, including low-interest loans, also expanded, as the federal government promoted the importance of education and invested in university research. A college degree became the minimum standard for many jobs and led to higher salaries over a degree holder’s lifetime.Chart showing total births in Kansas from 1995 to 2018

Those trends are certainly reflected in KU’s enrollment data. Between 1965 and 1991, headcount enrollment at KU nearly doubled. (See the chart below.) It declined after a recession in the early 1990s, but rose again in the early 2000s, peaking in 2008 during the recession. It declined until 2012, stabilized briefly, and then began another decline, one that is very likely to continue given a declining school population. K-12 enrollment in Kansas peaked in the 2014-15 school year, according to Kansas State Board of Education data. It is projected to start a significant decline in the late 2020s, largely because of a decline in birth rates after the recession of 2007-08. Since peaking in 2007, birth rates in Kansas have fallen 13.6%. (See the chart above with the most recent data available from the state.)

In another disturbing trend, the number of Kansas students coming to KU has dropped 17.7% since 2011. (It was down 2.9% this year.) The university has attracted more out-of-state students, who make up about 40% of the student population, but the trends among Kansas students are bleak.

KU attracts the largest number of students from Johnson County, which accounts for 28.3% of the university’s enrollment. The number of students from Johnson County has fallen 7.3% over the past decade. That is far less than the drop in students from other counties from which the university draws the most students: Douglas (-25.2% since 2011), Sedgwick (-27.1%), Shawnee (-26%). Declines in others aren’t as dramatic but are still troubling: Wyandotte (-9.8%), Leavenworth (-3.3%) and Miami (-3.2%). Others are far worse: Saline (-30.5%), Riley (45.1%), Reno (42.3%).


More Hispanic students, fewer international students

One of the most interesting developments I saw in enrollment this fall was that for the first time in decades, the number of Hispanic students at KU exceeded the number of international students. (See the chart below.)

This reflects two major trends. First the Hispanic population of Kansas has grown more than 70% since 2000. Hispanics now make up more than 12% of the Kansas population and 18.5% of the U.S. population. The number of Hispanic students at KU rose 3.3% this year and has risen nearly every year since the mid-1980s.

Meanwhile, the Trump administration has taken a less-than-welcoming stance toward international students and immigration in general. That, combined with a global pandemic and lack of a coherent plan for combatting the pandemic, has sent international enrollment at U.S. universities plummeting. By one estimate, the number of new international students at U.S. universities could soon reach the lowest level since World War II.

As KU reported, the number of international students at the university declined more than 18% this fall. That decline is greater than the 12.5% decline in international students at public four-year universities, according to data from the National Student Clearinghouse.

Other trends worth noting

  • A continuing rise in female students. The number of female students on the Lawrence campus continued to exceed the number of male students. The number of male students fell 1.4% this year, compared with 0.5% for female students, and has fallen 11% since 2011. For the first time in at least a decade, the number of women who transferred to KU was larger than the number of men who transferred. Men now make up 47.5% of the KU student population. Nationally, the number of women seeking college degrees surpassed the number of men seeking degrees in 1979. That was the first time since World War II that more women than men attended college, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. In the 40 years since then, the gap has only increased, as it did again this year. Sixty-seven KU students did not identify as male or female this year. That was similar to the 73 in 2018 but down from 509 in 2019, suggesting that last year’s spike was intended as statement against the reporting system, primarily by graduate students.
  • Another decline in graduate enrollment. The number of graduate students on the Lawrence campus fell 2.2% this year, compared with an increase of 4.7% at public four-year universities. That is the fourth consecutive year of declines. The number of graduate students has fallen 12.5% since 2011. Graduate enrollment at KU peaked in 1991 and has declined 25% since then. (See the chart labeled University of Kansas Enrollment, 1965-2020.)
  • Another increase in part-time enrollment. I noted last year that the number of part-time students had been rising steadily. That number rose 6.8% again this year and is 18.9% higher than it was in 2011. Part-time students now account for 17.7% of the student body. That isn’t necessarily bad, given the university’s agreement to provide dual enrollment classes with the Lawrence Public School District. It is concerning, though, given that more students nationally are choosing to pursue their degrees part time. That gives them more flexibility to work but delays graduation. In what I see as a related trend, the number of non-degree-seeking students, although still small at 445, has increased more than 200% since 2011.
  • Some perspective on freshman enrollment. As the university reported, the number of incoming freshmen declined 7.2% this fall. Since a peak in 2016, the number of incoming freshmen has declined by 9.5%. Even so, the total this year is 7% above that of 2011.
  • A continuing drop in transfer students. The transfer rate to KU can only be described as glum. The number of new transfers to the Lawrence and Edwards campuses was down 8.2% this year and the total fell below 1,000 students for this first time in more than a decade. The number of transfer students has fallen 32.7% since 2011, following the downward trend in community college enrollment.
  • Large growth from a few states. Since 2011, the number of students from seven states has increased by an average of 45%: Missouri (+40%), Illinois (+46%), Colorado (+47%), Nebraska (+76%), California (+33%), Oklahoma (+61%), Wisconsin (+42%). Collectively, students from those states (by headcount) make up 22% of the student body at the Lawrence and Edwards campuses. KU also attracts a considerable number of students from Texas and Minnesota, although those numbers have grown only slightly over the past 10 years.
  • Business continues to grow. Even as overall university enrollment declined, undergraduate enrollment in the School of Business rose 7.9% this year and has grown 131% since 2011. Enrollment in engineering declined 2.2% this year but is up 31.6% since 2011. Enrollment in liberal arts and sciences continues to sag. Undergraduate enrollment in the College fell 4.8% this year and is down 21% since 2011. Graduate enrollment was down only slightly less. Even so, the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences still has nearly five times as many students as either business or engineering.

Where do we go from here?

Demographically over the past decade, the KU student population has become more Hispanic, more multiethnic and more female but less Kansan and less international. It is still predominantly white (68%) and is more oriented toward business and engineering. It has grown younger over the past decade, with students 22 and younger making up about 70% of the student body, compared with about 64% in 2011.

The university has about 1,500 fewer students than it did a decade ago. It has a slightly larger percentage of undergraduate students than at the start of the decade, although the proportion of undergraduates to graduate students has remained within a small range since 2000. Even so, graduate enrollment has fallen more than 14% since 2011.

I’ve written frequently about the challenges higher education faces, about the need to understand our students better, to innovate, to emphasize the human element of teaching and learning, to think about what we are preparing our students to do, and to provide a clearer sense of what higher education provides. This year’s enrollment figures simply reinforce all of that.

This is the fourth consecutive year of enrollment decline at KU and the ninth consecutive decline at the six regents universities. Those declines have become increasingly painful because of growing reliance on tuition and fees to pay the bills. In Fiscal 2019, tuition and fees accounted for more than 30% of the Lawrence campus’s $900 million in revenue. State appropriations accounted for just over 15%. In other words, students pay about $2 for every $1 the state provides. That is unlikely to improve in the foreseeable future, especially with the state facing a projected $1.5 billion shortfall in the current fiscal year.

In other words, the future of the university depends greatly on enrollment. Enrollment depends greatly on the value that students and parents see in KU. It’s up to all of us to make sure they do indeed understand that value.


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

Dear sleep deprived colleagues,

We ask you to take a few minutes to consider these not-so-solemn words. Full disclosure: You have all been muted for the duration of this speech.

satirical image of Abraham Lincoln in a mask near a tent on the KU campus
Abraham Lincoln was forced to cover his face after seeing this adaptation of his Gettysburg Address.

Four score and 700 years ago (or so it seems), the coronavirus brought forth on this campus a new semester, conceived in haste, cloaked in masks, and dedicated to the proposition that all Zoom meetings suck the life from us equally.

Now we are engaged in a great civil chore, testing whether this faculty and these students, or any faculty and students so distanced and so sapped of energy and so deprived of even a hint of a break, can long endure. We are met within a great white tent that reminds us every day of that chore. We have come to dedicate a portion of that tent as a final resting place for the remnants of normalcy we have all surrendered, six feet apart and clutching personal squeeze bottles of hand sanitizer, in so that this university might live.

But, in a larger sense, we cannot dedicate – we cannot commiserate with – we cannot even take a nap within – this tent. The brave instructors and students, mildly coherent or fully brain-dead, who struggled here, have already commiserated far above our poor power to whine or snap. The world will little note, nor long remember, what we say here, but it can never forget that this semester was, without doubt, the longest and most challenging in … in … like forever, for crying out loud.

It is for us, the mildly conscious and highly caffeinated martyrs of alternating cohorts, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work that seems fated never to be nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us – coasting 500 miles, uphill, on a single wheel, to the end of the semester – that from these husks of human beings all around us we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave their last full measure of self-respect – that we here highly resolve that these brain-dead shall not have burned out in vain – that this university, upon a hill, shall birth a new never-ending semester – and that education of the remote, by the remote, for the remote, shall not perish from the earth.

You may unmute yourself now.

Now take a deep breath (and a nap if you need one). You can make it through the rest of the semester. — Doug Ward

P.S. Don’t forget to visit the Center for Teaching Excellence’s Flexible Teaching Guide for ideas and inspiration.


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

By Doug Ward

The shift to remote teaching this semester quickly became a form of torture by isolation inflicted upon us by microscopic organisms. There has to be a bright spot somewhere, though. Right?

13 days until isolation. A carefully planned list of 1,368 VERY IMPORTANT THINGS to do during spring break dissolves before my eyes as I am enlisted to help create a website on remote teaching. In a university conference room, a dozen people stare at laptop computers. Half-a-dozen others peer out like the Brady Bunch from a videoconference screen running Zoom. I fear this is a premonition.

Jayhawk in sunglasses in front of a green computer code background from the Matrix movie
“The Matrix,” Jayhawk-style

10 days until isolation. I ponder the enormity of the task before us. All university classes will shift to a remote format. Thousands of people will hook up their brains to an electronic network, abandon a corporeal existence, and struggle to make sense of a new reality. Wait. I’ve seen that movie.

Two days until isolation. At my last physical meeting on campus, I glance at my feet and realize I am wearing two different kinds of boots. A colleague snickers. Then everyone snickers. “We’re not really laughing at you,” she says. “It’s just …” I try to look at the bright side. At least I put my boots on the right feet.

One day until isolation. I spend an hour digging through drawers and cabinets for anything I might need for working at home. I leave the office with a backpack strapped to my back, three large bags dangling from my hands and a whiteboard tucked beneath my arm. I can’t shake the feeling that I have forgotten something. My phone! Six feet behind me, the office door slams shut.

Isolation Day 1. A fog settled over Lawrence during the night. A perfect setting for the first day of remote classes. A bright spot: Candy Crush announces unlimited lives all week long.

Isolation Day 2. Laptop in lap, I sit in my living room and join a Zoom meeting. On screen, a colleague lounges on a tropical beach at an undisclosed location. Oh, wait. That’s a fake background. He probably just did that to get attention. I roll my eyes.

The inside of the Tardis from “Doctor Who”

Isolation Day 3. I scour the web for a picture of the Tardis, the police call box that the Doctor uses to traverse time and space in Doctor Who. During a time of social isolation, economic turmoil and general uncertainty, I can go anywhere and any time. Such symbolism! I set the image of the Tardis as my background in Zoom.

Isolation Day 4. “You’ll have to tell us what that background is,” a colleague says at the beginning of a Zoom meeting. Inside, part of me dies.

Isolation Day 5. I change my Zoom background to the bridge of the Starship Enterprise.

Isolation Day 6. I need to get groceries. I fashion a mask from a blue bandana. Then I put pull my leather outback hat down low. I giggle. I tell my wife I look like I’m getting ready to rob a stagecoach. My wife rolls her eyes. I shrug and change to a red ballcap. At the grocery store, everyone stays back well more than six feet.

Isolation Day 7. My personal care appointments fall like dominos. My dental appointment, canceled. My eye appointment, canceled. My haircut, canceled. I consider whether my out-of-control hair will eventually cover my toothless mouth. I decide it won’t matter because I won’t be able to see.

Isolation Day 8. Growing weary of working in the living room, I excavate a corner of my sons’ former bedroom for a workspace. It feels strangely familiar. A bed next to me is heaped with books, cast-off clothes, pillows, blankets, a laundry basket filled with hangers and some boxes filled with – is that a muskrat hide? I feel like I have taken refuge in a dorm room. Or is it my office?

Isolation Day 9. I gleefully plug in a smart speaker in the excavated spare bedroom I have turned into a work area. My wife unplugged the speaker in the main part of the house months ago because she thought I was always talking to myself. Now, with the door closed, I can ask it anything. Anything! I think long and hard. “Hey, Cortana. What’s the weather?” Like I really need to know.

Isolation Day 10. I set up the portable whiteboard I retrieved from my office and scrawl a list of VERY IMPORTANT THINGS in green marker. Then I brace for ultra-productivity. I envision a self-help book about VERY IMPORTANT THINGS and a tour as a motivational speaker. “How do you do it?” people will ask. I will simply hold up a green marker and say … Oh, no. Does it really say PERMANENT?

Isolation Day 11. After six hours of Zoom meetings, my laptop has fused to my lap, my headset has fused to my ears, my eyeballs hang limp, and I feel as if I have traveled into another dimension. I change my Zoom background to a glacier lagoon from Iceland and head to the refrigerator for a beer. A puddle has appeared in front of the refrigerator. Either it needs to be defrosted or it has developed incontinence. Note to self: Ask Cortana.

The fairy garden next door, with fairies and fairy dust I added

Isolation Day 12. As I venture outside, I find that the 5-year-old girl next door has created a Fairy Garden in her front lawn. I know because she has planted a sign. I take a picture, add images of fairies and send it to her mom. The message I get back: Mom likes it, but the 5-year-old wants me to know that the fairies in my picture don’t look real. I am unable to work for the rest of the day.

Isolation Day 13. Students mention feeling disconnected from their classes. I feel disconnected from the students. So I set up office hours on Zoom. No one shows up. Note to self: Remote teaching is exactly like in-person teaching.

Isolation Day 14. A green arrow appears on the sidewalk on our block. It points south. I sense symbolism.

Isolation Day 15. I walk to the end of the driveway and retrieve the morning newspaper. It’s still dark. The streets are quiet. The moon glows against patchy clouds. Birds chatter. Trees rustle. Tulips are blooming. So are the redbuds. Well, I got in a nature walk today.

Isolation Day 16. TikTok shows video after video of cats and dogs jumping over rolls of toilet paper that their owners have stacked in doorways. I am not making this up. One cat hurdles what must be at least 40 rolls of toilet paper. I look in our bathroom cabinet. Three rolls. I stack them in the doorway and hop over them. Then I put them back before my wife asks me whether I have lost my mind.

Isolation Day 17. I have worn nothing but slippers for six days. Why do I feel guilty?

Isolation Day 18. I’m afraid people will get the wrong idea. I didn’t literally mean that I wear nothing but slippers. I meant that I wear nothing but slippers on my feet. On my feet! I’m sure that’s right. If I were wrong, someone on Zoom would have told me. Wouldn’t they?

Isolation Day 19. I reach the ignominious total of 50 hours on Zoom since isolation began. I wiggle my toes in celebration.

Isolation Day 20. In an apparent act of defiance, a plastic bolt that holds down one side of the toilet seat snaps and flies into the wall. I stare. I shake my head. Then I put the lid down gently. I can’t deal with this right now.

Isolation Day 21. I have ignored my online to-do list for 18 straight days. Three feet away, the green list of VERY IMPORTANT THINGS on the whiteboard seems to animate into an evil grin. Or maybe it’s my imagination. I’m never sure anymore.

Isolation Day 22. In a webinar: Flatten the curve. In email: Flatten the curve. In the newspaper: Flatten the curve. On the radio: Flatten the curve. In my dreams: Flatten the curve. For posterity: My brain has already flattened.

Isolation Day 23. No matter how much grading I do, the amount of unread student work seems to grow. So does the strain on my back. I lapse into a daydream about Sherpas, loaded down with gear, guiding hikers on a treacherous mountain trail. I shiver and blink. What was I doing? I can’t remember. I shut down my computer.

Isolation Day 24. During a webinar, the chancellor says that more than 90% of KU employees are now working remotely. He says this while wearing a suit and tie. Does he really a suit and tie while he works from home? I’ve worn the same shirt for four days. I have absolutely no interest in wearing a tie.

Isolation Day 25. The whiteboard on which I wrote VERY IMPORTANT THINGS torments me. Somehow, none of those things are getting done, even though I used green ink. I wonder if red would help. I embark on a fruitless search for a red marker.

Isolation Day 26. My neighbor the musician has taken up drumming. I much preferred the guitar.

blue surgical masks inside a plastic bag
Surgical masks, the emblem of an era

Isolation Day 27. A large brown envelope arrives from a friend in Macau. Inside, I find a pack of disposable surgical masks. Even though my friend advised me in January to stock up on face masks and hand sanitizer, I find no “I told you so” note inside the envelope. I send a text thanking him and telling him I recently found a 32-ounce bottle of hand sanitizer selling for $19. “Ah, capitalism,” he responds.

Isolation Day 28. During a meeting, I realize that Zoom spelled backward is mooZ. The meeting suddenly takes on a new meaning.

Isolation Day 29. I place an online order at Brits, a downtown store that sells all things British. (I don’t have to explain to anyone there what the Tardis is.) I have a hankering for digestives. They know what those are, too. The owner calls me. “I’ll leave the bag on the front step and run,” she says. It’s like having a May basket delivered. Or maybe she just saw the picture of me in the mask.

Isolation Day 30. Bzzzzzz. My Fitbit (bzzzzzzz) taunts me. Bzzzzzz. Time to get up and move, it says on the screen. It shows a perky stick figure stretching and leaping. “OK, where am I supposed to go?” I snarl. My smart speaker blinks blue. “I’m sorry. I’m afraid I didn’t catch that.”

Isolation Day 31. I read that anxiety from being shut in during the coronavirus can affect mood, work habits, even concentration. I’m not sure I b

Isolation Day 32. I assess the contents of the refrigerator: five lemons, a dribble of almond milk, a container of yogurt, a bottle of beer, a bottle of salad dressing, a bottle of ketchup and two plastic containers of unknown substances. I stare dolefully. I make a list. That’s all. I just make a list.

Isolation Day 33. I take my list and drive to the grocery store. I struggle to keep my mask on. I crane my neck, bob my head and push my nose upward like a bird drinking water. The cashier tries not to notice. Instead, she points at two giant containers of animal crackers on the conveyer belt. “How are your children doing amid this chaos?” she asks. Children? Oh, I say. One lives in Seattle. The other lives in Ontario. She looks again at the containers of animal crackers. I bob my head all the way to the exit.

Isolation Day 34. I woke up 14 times last night. I couldn’t stop bobbing my head.

Isolation Day 35. It’s the middle of the night. As I lift the toilet seat, it leaps from the single remaining rod securing it to the bowl. I lurch to catch it, bobbling the seat and jamming my shin into the bowl. The lid whacks the tank and lands like a horseshoe onto a plunger beside the bowl. Ringer! The seat whacks the floor with the force of a sledgehammer. “Are you all right?” my wife calls from the bedroom. I’m not sure how to answer. (Note to reader: You may question the use of leaps and sledgehammer in describing a toilet seat. Just remember. It is the middle of the night.)

Isolation Day 36. If I multiply the number of minutes I spend in Zoom meetings by the number of participants in those meetings, it equals the number of new email messages I receive during those calls.

Zm x Zp =

I think I’m on to something big.

Isolation Day 37. The price of the Fake Me a Call Pro app has dropped to $6.49. It offers an extensive list of features, including a “custom fake call voice” and a “huge custom list of fake callers.” I imagine millions of people locked inside and fake-calling themselves. I’m not going to sleep again tonight. Am I?

Isolation Day 38. I stare at the faces in a Zoom meeting. Egads! Who is that squinty, raggedy-looking guy who desperately needs a haircut? Oh, wait. That’s me. Note to self: Apologize to colleagues for the visual fright I’ve caused.

Isolation Day 39. I have now logged more than 100 hours of Zoom meetings since seclusion began. I change my Zoom background back to the Tardis. Then I write “Change Zoom background” in green on the taunting whiteboard. Then I cross it out. For the first time in a month, I feel a sense of accomplishment.

Isolation Day Whatever. I finish grading. I should feel excited. I should feel so excited that I perform a hip-swaying dance in my slippers and post it on TikTok. Instead, I put on a mask, go to the hardware store and buy a toilet seat. Sigh. Now I have to install it.


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.

letters in an upper window of Chalmers Hall say, Resistance Is Never Futile
This seems a perfect message for a world of shut-ins. It may very well have been created before the Covid-19 mess, but I came across it only about 10 days ago. The window is on the east side of Chalmers Hall, and it is visible only from a distance. No doubt it was created by a “Star Trek” fan. It refers to a constant refrain of the Borg, a collective of machine-enhanced beings who traverse the galaxy, conquer at will and announce: “Resistance is futile. You will be assimilated.” If the corona virus could speak, it might say something much like that. So we resist in whatever way we can.

By Doug Ward

Since the move to remote teaching this semester, several instructors have asked whether it is possible to use their tablets to make videos for students.

The answer is absolutely. I’m most familiar with using an iPad for making videos, but Android tablets work just as well if you have the right app.

Before I explain, I need to provide a caveat. The university’s IT staff doesn’t support the apps I mention here, so if you have to be willing to troubleshoot problems on your own. If you aren’t comfortable with that, use Kaltura, the university-supported video software. The Kaltura desktop software is easy to use and the IT staff can help you with any problems you might encounter.

I like working with a tablet for some types of video because a tablet makes it easy to draw by hand on the screen as you narrate. You can certainly do that with a touchscreen laptop, or with any computer if you are adept at mouse control (I’m not) or you have an input device like a Wacom drawing tablet.

Another benefit of a tablet is its portability. You can create video from almost anywhere. I recommend using a stylus rather than your finger to improve your writing and drawing. I’d also suggest using a headset or headphones with a good microphone. (If you use a USB headset, you will need an adaptor for an iPad.) The built-in microphone on the tablet will work, though.

Two apps for creating video instruction

The two presentation apps I like best are Explain Everything and Vittle. They are powerful tools for creating video presentations you can draw on and narrate. You can import PowerPoint slides and narrate over them, or create presentations within the app with shapes, text, imported media and a laser pointer. You can zoom in and out of the virtual whiteboard, and Vittle allows you to move elements around the whiteboard and capture the motion. Once you are done with a video, you render it as an mp4 file and then upload the file to Kaltura, YouTube or another video hosting platform.

Explain Everything also has collaboration features for classrooms where all students have tablets and access to the app. Vittle is for creation only. Both apps have free versions with limited functionality. I’d recommend downloading those and giving them a test drive. To make the apps fully functional, you will have to pay for them. Explain Everything costs $3 a month. The pro version of Vittle is a one-time cost of $25, although it occasionally goes on sale.

Using VoiceThread for peer editing

Melissa Stamer Peterson, a lecturer in the Applied English Center, has taken a creative approach to peer feedback by using VoiceThread to combine video, audio and student notes.

She starts by loading a short video lecture into VoiceThread. Students then upload their notes and share ideas via VoiceThread, which allows for responses with video, audio or text.

“What was really cool is that they were leaving feedback that I would leave,” Peterson told her colleague Carolyn Heacock in a video conversation that Heacock shared with me.

You can find the full conversation here. VoiceThread has many other examples of how instructors have used the software in classes.

And now for something completely different

That, of course, is the line made famous in Monty Python’s Flying Circus whenever the comedy troupe lapsed into a non sequitur about such things as the Ministry of Silly Walks, dead parrots, a man with three noses, or just the Larch.

The corona virus has turned life into an unending series of non sequiturs. People are stuck inside all day. They can’t go to work. They can’t go to school. They can’t hang out with friends. They are going crazy. I mean CRAZY.

So what do they do? They stack rolls of toilet paper in doorways and have their pets high-jump. It’s called the Level Up Challenge.

I am not making this up.

This should not be confused with the Level Up fitness challenge, which is on hiatus until gyms reopen, or with Ciara’s Level Up dance challenge, which dates to 2018 b.c. (that ancient time before corona) and which led to lunacy even before people were shut in.

This is the new Level Up Challenge, toilet-paper style. It’s hilarious. I’m just not sure where these people get so much toilet paper.

So if you are up for the Level Up Challenge, here are some starter videos.

If you are a dog person

If you are a cat person

If you prefer regular human high-jumping (for a world record, no toilet paper involved) …

Or if you prefer something completely different, try Jumping Jack Flash (c. 1968 b.c.)


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

With apologies to the late Warren Zevon, isolation is hardly splendid – at least when it is forced upon us.

I wrote last week about ways to create structure and belonging for students in online classes. Later in this post, you will find some information about student mental health, which was shaky even before the forced isolation.

table about faculty teaching preferences
Data from Educause show respondents’ teaching preferences at colleges that offer associate’s, bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degrees.

Faculty, too, are feeling the stress, of course. Few of them prefer to teach online, and most have actively avoided it. Now they have no choice, adding to the stress of a pandemic that has roared across the globe, an economy that has screeched to a halt, and a shortage of toilet paper that has – um, let’s not go there.

To help with the challenges of isolation and online teaching, the Center for Teaching Excellence has created a Faculty Consultant Network. This is made up of 13 instructors in 10 disciplines across the university who have experience in online teaching and digital tools. We see the network as an important way for instructors and GTAs to remain connected to the KU community during their time away from campus.

Andrea Greenhoot, the director of CTE, describes the network consultants as peer “thought partners” who can help colleagues in similar disciplines. They are available to meet remotely with colleagues and discuss strategies for teaching and working remotely. They will also help build community among instructors through regular online discussions that anyone can join.

You can find the list of peer consultants on the KU website for remote teaching. You can contact them directly or join their online office hours or open discussions, which are also listed.

An important change in Zoom

Some users of the videoconferencing tool Zoom have reported that outsiders have been able to gain control of meeting screens and display inappropriate material.

To prevent that, the company has changed the default setting on Zoom so that only a meeting organizer has screen-sharing privileges. The organizer can still allow others to display their screens, but the default of allowing anyone to share has changed.

Keeping an eye on mental health

Over the past few days, I have corresponded with students who have talked about being overwhelmed with the volume of communication from their instructors, from the university, from families, and from their children’s schools. Some have been caring for sick relatives in other states. Some are themselves sick. Still others say they are struggling with time management now that the structure of a daily routine has melted away and their children and significant others are stuck inside with them.

chart from National College Health Assessment
A chart from the National College Health Assessment shows the many struggles students around the country face.

That’s just from a single class of 18. Multiply that by thousands, and you get a sense of the broad, personal impact the pandemic is taking on our students. Consider, too, that even before the current turmoil, student mental health was shaky.

At an online workshop on Monday, Jody Brook, an associate professor of social welfare and a faculty fellow at CTE, offered this statistic for context: More than 60% of college students have had overwhelming levels of anxiety at some point in the previous year. Again, that was before the outbreak of Covid-19.

More than a quarter of students say that anxiety has hurt their academic performance, and 39% of men and 53% of women say that their academic work as been traumatic or difficult to handle in the previous year. These statistics come from the National College Health Assessment.

Brooks and Sydney Morgan, a counselor at Counseling and Psychological Services, said that everyone reacted differently to stress but that instructors needed to watch for these signs among students:

  • Students who fail to respond to queries, fail to turn in assignments or suddenly perform worse in class.
  • Students who express hopelessness or extreme anger, or who send lengthy rants to others.
  • Students who express loneliness, fear or statements about death or suicide in their work.

Don’t be afraid to reach out to students, Brooks and Morgan said, but make sure to refer them to the right resources. CTE also has resources for instructors, and CAPS is also still available. Morgan said CAPS had been transitioning to appointments by phone. If students are out of state, CAPS will help the students find a counselor in their area.

Importantly, instructors need to be flexible and realistic with students. Brooks said that not only was flexibility important but that it was a requirement during a time of crisis. Most students will struggle with maintaining the same level of work they did before the social distancing began. Executive functioning diminishes during times of crisis, making it harder to focus, plan and get things done, Brook said.

That’s worth repeating: Increasing amounts of stress make it hard to focus and get things done. That applies to all of us.

So during this time of less-than-splendid isolation, take a deep breath and forgive yourself for failing to complete even one of the 978 tasks that have suddenly materialized on your to-do list. And consider that your students are facing the same challenges you are, but in different ways.


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

The fog that settled on the Lawrence campus Monday morning seemed all too fitting.

Classes officially resumed after an extended spring break, but Jayhawk Boulevard was mostly empty, as were the buses that passed by. Faculty and students alike ventured into a hazy online learning environment cobbled together with unseen computer chips and hidden strings of code. Even the most optimistic took slow, careful steps onto a path with an uncertain end point.

Trees and empty sidewalk on foggy Jayhawk Boulevard
A view east along Jayhawk Boulevard from near Marvin Hall.

We’re all feeling disoriented in this virtual fog, and it’s especially important for instructors to keep students in mind. Many of them had already been trying to maneuver through the seemingly amorphous landscape of college after relying on a highly structured school routine for much of their lives. Now even the loose structure of campus life has been yanked away.

We can’t change that, but there are some things we can do to help students succeed in the shift to online learning. None of it is difficult, but all of it will be important in helping students adjust.

Create some structure. One reason those of us at the Center for Teaching Excellence, the Center for Online and Distance Learning, and Information Technology have been stressing the use of Blackboard is that it provides a familiar landscape for students. Blackboard’s two biggest strengths are consistency and security. You may not like that consistency — personally, I find it like working within an aging warehouse – but the familiarity of Blackboard can provide a sense of stability for students. They know where to find assignments and they know where to submit their work. Many of them also obsessively check their grades there. Even if you use other online tools, Blackboard can provide a familiar base in the freeform environment of online learning.

Follow a routine. A routine also creates structure for students. For instance, will your class follow a traditional week? Will the week start on Tuesday when you usually had class? Will assignments be due at what would have been class time, or later in the evening? There’s no right answer to any of those questions. The important thing is to follow a routine. Make assignments due on the same days and at the same time each week. Put readings, videos and other course material in the same place each week. Use the Blackboard calendar to list due dates or provide a list of due dates on the start page for your course.

Communicate often. Students are stuck at home just as you are, and they are without the visual and oral cues they rely on from their instructors. That makes it all the more important to communicate. Post announcements on Blackboard. Send email. Set up times when students can call you or reach you through Zoom or Skype. You don’t want to be annoying with constant messages, but you want to make sure students know they can reach you if they need you.

top of campanile and ku flag in fog
The Campanile and a flag along Memorial Drive.

I have found that a weekly message to students can also help create routine. That weekly message reminds students that a new week has begun and that they need to be paying attention to a new set of assignments. I start by providing an overview of the readings, videos and other material students must cover for the week. I also list any assignments due that week and remind students of important due dates coming in the weeks ahead. Then I provide a bit of the unexpected. I share interesting articles, books, podcasts, photos, videos or websites I have found. Sometimes those are related to class material. Other times, they are totally random. My only criterion is that the material is interesting or entertaining.

Ask for their thoughts. More than ever, it is important to seek feedback from students. What is working in the class? What isn’t? Can they find the readings? Do they understand the assignments? Do they have ideas on how to make the class go more smoothly? Everything you are doing in a class may seem clear and logical to you, but students may be lost. So ask them what might help. Create a place on Blackboard for students to submit questions. Create a poll with Qualtrics.

I’ve created a discussion assignment each week on Blackboard where I ask students to share their observations about the switch to online learning. Many of my students are graduate teaching assistants, and I want a place where they can share their experiences with teaching online for the first time but also with how their students are responding to the changes. I’ve never tried anything like this before, so I’m not sure what to expect.

Amy Leyerzapf of the Institute for Leadership Studies has created a “self-care” area on Blackboard for the students in her freshman seminar. This includes a “self-care discussion forum and a collection of carefree bits and pieces, many of them from posts floating around on social media,” she said via email. It also includes links to online cultural sites like streaming opera, museum tours and webcams from zoos and aquariums. There are links to material about mental health resources, at-home exercise and meditation. Importantly, there’s a recipe for peanut butter cookies.

“I’m hoping that it will evolve as students contribute ideas via the discussion forum and I run across more nuggets,” Leyerzapf said.

It seems like a magnificent approach to helping students cut through the haze.


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

By Doug Ward

It’s the little things we miss when our routines change.

photo of the old steam whistle
This isn’t the working whistle. It’s the one on display in the Kansas Union.

As classes move online, those little things will add up for faculty, staff and students. We won’t bump into colleagues along Jayhawk Boulevard. There will be no chalking on sidewalks on Wescoe Beach, no sound of the fountain on West Campus Drive, no view of the Campanile over Potter Lake, no smell of books in the stacks at Watson Library, no view of the flags atop Fraser Hall.

We can build community in our classes and maintain connection with our students and our colleagues. We can’t provide access to all those little things that form a sense of place, though.

There is one little thing I thought might help, though: the sound of the steam whistle.

The whistle, which marks the end of each class period, went silent over spring break, and it hasn’t resumed. After all, there are no classes to signal an end to, no students staring at clocks in lecture halls and waiting to hear the sultry wail of escape echoing across Mount Oread.

And yet, with a pinch of imagination and a dash of digital magic, we can still share the whistle with our students. You will find links to video and audio clips below. They come from a longer video about KU traditions that the university posted in 2011. John Rinnert in IT was able to get a copy for me, and from that I created the snippets you’ll find here.

Video link

Audio link

Feel free to add them to your Blackboard site or share them with your students in other ways. It’s a little thing, but little things matter in times of turmoil.


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 Susan Marshall

One aspect of online teaching that I feared would make it less enjoyable for me as an instructor is that my students and I wouldn’t get to know one another as well as we do in our in-person courses.

I thought that it would be difficult to replicate the interaction and dynamic atmosphere of a classroom where we all exchange ideas, participate in thoughtful discussions, challenge each other’s beliefs and positions, develop an understanding of and respect for one another, and come to care about each other as fellow humans.distorted overhead view of laptops and phones at a table

As I have developed new courses and adjusted and redesigned old courses, though, I have found that creating a real sense of community is possible. To do that, I keep coming back to three general areas. I use them from the start of my online classes, but they apply just as well in a class that is moving online midterm, as we all are doing now.

These are easy to implement, are viewed positively by students, and can even help to reduce the grading burden on the instructor in some instances. Additionally, these techniques do not take away from the time and attention needed for students to interact with the course content in a fast-paced term. In fact, the engagement that results benefits students’ processing of the material as they interact with their classmates.

Establish early contact with students

Reach out to students as soon as possible  and  encourage them to familiarize themselves with the course components, and establish an expectation that they will be involved in your online class community.  It is important that students “hit the ground running” on Day 1 and this early admission into the online course allows them to get ready for what can be a busy and demanding few weeks.  It also establishes that you expect them to do a little work up front to be prepared to participate in your course and to interact with you and with their classmates.  Here are some examples of how I encourage this early participation and preparation by my students:

  • Welcome email: When I turn on the course, I post an announcement and send an email that welcomes students to the course.  This email gives them the basic information about how to get started by accessing the course website and where to go from there.  I also express my enthusiasm about teaching the course and getting to know them. There is plenty of room for policies and procedures in the course website and syllabus. Use this first contact with students as an opportunity to be friendly and approachable, not to warn them about all the pitfalls of not being prepared or doing the coursework.distorted overhead view of laptops and phones at a table
  • Getting Started section: Once students log into the course website, it is important that they have a detailed roadmap for what you expect them to do before Day 1. Taking the time to build this roadmap for your students will ensure that they are prepared and understand your expectations.
  • Welcome video: Making a welcome video seems somewhat unnecessary from a course content perspective but it can go a long way toward students’ seeing you as an approachable, real-life person who wants to engage with your students. This may not be possible in the short time you have to make your class available online this semester, but look for ways like this to remind students that the same person is running the class.

Have an assignment due soon after the course goes online

This assignment is not about the course content.  Rather, it is a chance for students to re-introduce themselves to you and to each other. It also helps them become familiar with some of the tools you will use on Blackboard.

Create your own example to share with your students about yourself.  Students then get a feel for the people they are interacting with.  They can share pictures and learn about families, interests, backgrounds, and jobs.  They can see connections between themselves and the life experiences of the people with whom they are enrolled in the course.  They can even comment or interact with one another as a way to say hello.  Here are two ways that this would be easy to implement and also might allow students practice at using a system or technology that you use later on for actual coursework:

  • About Me slide: This version of the assignment asks students to create a slide where they share information and pictures about themselves with you and their fellow classmates.  I have used PowerPoint to create my example slide for my courses, but some students simply paste pictures into a Word document.  For my example, I include pictures of my family on vacation, pictures of pets, lists of hobbies and interests, and background information about my life.  I post my slide as an example with the assignment description.  Students can post their slides to a discussion board and then might be required to introduce themselves to another classmate or even find some similarity with a classmate to ensure early interaction.
  • VoiceThread introduction: Instead of creating a static slide with pictures and text information, you could use VoiceThread for these early introductions.  This method would be especially useful if you plan to use VoiceThread as a course component as it would allow practice with the technology.  Students could introduce themselves to one another using their computer webcam.  They could show pictures and talk about interests, family, and experiences without it being time-consuming to build.  This format also has the potential to increase student involvement.  Students might be more likely to watch their classmates’ videos because it is easier than clicking through and reading individual slides for each person

Create smaller communities within your online class

Thus far I have focused on how to set the expectations for engagement early on.  Maintaining that feeling of community and requirement for engagement is the focus of this last area.

Many students take online classes because they want to work independently and learn the content in a way that is most efficient and flexible given their life circumstances. However, learning in isolation is not always the best way to fully master and understand the content. Therefore, it is my job as the instructor to build this engagement between students into the course design. I have found that creating smaller communities within an online class can be very effective. Students can get to know a subset of their classmates and participate in assignments and discussions with the same people throughout the semester. This can be accomplished by forming groups or teams of 6-10 students.  Assignments that require peer interaction can then be designed to work within this smaller group as opposed to on a class-wide scale.  Here are some ways I have used this approach with different assignments in my courses:

looking down on table of laptops, phones and hands
Marvin Meyer, via Unsplash
  • About Me slide. I have students share their About Me slide only with their smaller discussion group and not with the class as a whole.  This feels like a more intimate introduction and helps to establish this smaller team from the beginning.
  • Written assignments with peer review. We all want our students to practice sharing their thoughts about the course content in written form.  However, reading and providing feedback on weekly written assignments can be a very big time commitment for the instructor.  Instead, it can be useful to have students peer review each other’s assignments.  This system helps to ensure quality without the instructor having to read every assignment every week.  Even better, students not only receive very timely feedback on their assignment but they also get to experience what a classmate thought about that week’s topic.  This engagement with one another is like having a conversation in class where they can agree or disagree on some topic.  Students then can write a reflection that highlights those similarities or differences that they identified.  This system can be introduced at the smaller discussion group level, which ensures that students are interacting with the same group of classmates and that those feelings of community can be strengthened and maintained throughout the course.
  • Group discussion assignments. Another option for creating engagement with the smaller community is to have weekly discussion topics or prompts that all students must answer within their group.  Students must respond to the instructor’s discussion topic(s) by an early due date within that week’s schedule.  Group members must then return to the discussion board later in the week to respond to and engage with a classmate about the topic.  Again, doing this in a smaller group setting allows for a sense of community, and students get to know one another better than if it is designed to encompass the entire class.
  • Afterthoughts assignments. An important goal in my classes is for students to connect the content to their daily lives. I have also used this smaller discussion group setting to get students to make these connections and to decide, as a group, what example might be the best that is presented in a given week among their members.  Students are required to post an “afterthought” about the topic(s) we are covering that week on their group discussion board.  This post could be a picture or video that illustrates a concept.  It could be a link to something they came across on the internet.  It could be a text description of something that happened to them.  Students must post their “afterthought” to their discussion board and then all group members must return to vote on which one they think is the best example presented that week.  They also comment to justify why they voted for a given post.  In this way, the smaller group can come together to make a decision about what post might be one that is highlighted by me to the rest of the class.

I feel like I am constantly searching for new ways to engage online students.  I want this engagement to benefit their learning and experience in the class and also to make teaching online classes more enjoyable for me.  In that search, I have tried many different techniques and some have failed miserably.  The ones I have discussed here, however, have stood the test of time and have lived on in various forms, in a variety of courses, and have been useful for different types of content.


Susan Marshall is a lecturer and academic program associate in psychology and a member of CTE’s Online Working Group.

By Doug Ward

This is what teaching online looks like.

That’s not quite right. This is what planning for teaching online looks like after a week and a weekend of long days and an early meeting on Monday morning.a look down at feet with mismatched boots

About noon, I looked down and realized I was wearing mismatched boots. Some people wear mismatched socks. I wear mismatched boots.

Rather than hide them, I showed them to everyone I met on what was probably the last day of in-person meetings for quite some time. I emailed the photo to colleagues and to my students. Everyone needed the laugh.

“We’re not really laughing at you,” Diana Koslowsky, the administrative officer of the School of Public Affairs and Administration, said after I pulled my feet from beneath a conference table and held them up. “It’s just …”

“We know what it’s like,” said Ward Lyles, an associate professor in the school and a faculty fellow at CTE.

I held up my hands.

“It’s all right,” I said. “Laugh. We all need it.”

Tensions are high right now as the corona virus spreads and instructors scramble to put their courses online. Anxiety lurks on every surface. Encounters with others are awkward as we maintain a distance but still try to be social.

Despite the turmoil, we can’t lose our sense of humor. Laughter is important for maintaining a bond of shared humanity. It’s important for pushing aside the tension, if only briefly.

So laugh at yourself. Laugh at the absurdity of the circumstances. Laugh at Michael Bruening from Missouri University of Science and Technology as he sings “I Will Survive” online teaching. Laugh at my mismatched boots.

I want you to know, though, that even in mismatched boots, I was able to get done everything I needed to get done. My boots may have looked absurd, but I at least put them on the right feet. Mismatched or not, my boots still pointed forward.

Online, nobody knows …

In 1993, The New Yorker published a Peter Steiner cartoon with a caption that said, “On the Internet, nobody knows you’re a dog.”

The cartoon captured the doubts about a growing online culture and the anonymity it represented.

With apologies to Steiner, I offer a remake of the original. I’ll let you decipher it for yourself. I will say, though, that when you teach online, nobody laughs at your boots.

jayhawk sits at computer and tells a dog, "When you teach online, nobody knows you are a god."


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.

jayhawk in matrix suit with quote from morpheus

By Doug Ward

Take a deep breath. You are about to launch into an online adventure.

Yes, I know, you didn’t want to take this trip. The corona virus – and the university – made you do it. Like it or not, though, we are all on the same trip, one that will take us deep into the uncharted territory of a quickly deployed online teaching and learning matrix of enormous scale. This involves not just the University of Kansas, but hundreds of colleges and universities around the world.

Despite the less-than-ideal circumstances, you can still help your students learn online. Despite your wariness of the medium, you can succeed as an online teacher. I’m not trying to be Pollyannaish. (Maybe a little.) Rather, I see this as an opportunity for all of us to break out of ruts we get into in the classroom, examine what we want our students to learn, and consider new ways of accomplishing those goals.

We also have an opportunity to model the types of behavior we want our students to adopt in the face of adversity. They will encounter many challenges in their lives, just as we have, and they are looking to us for guidance not only on college-level learning but on coping with the realities of a global pandemic, economic turmoil, social distancing, and sudden isolation in a world that had been growing more closely connected.

Are you up to the challenge?

Many students don’t think you can do it. . Here’s what one of them had to say last week on Twitter.

“You’re telling me my professor who can’t stop the YouTube autoplayer from playing the next video is going to teach classes online? This should be good.”

screenshot of twitter post

That post has been retweeted more than 100,000 times and had drawn nearly 600,000 likes by the weekend. It also attracted a slew of similarly frustrated students who poked fun at their teachers’ technical inadequacies with online grade books, YouTube, web browsers, volume controls, email, and seemingly anything that worked with bits and bytes. (My favorite: The instructor who uses Yahoo to search for Google so he can search for something he wants to show the class.)

“I have no expectations for ANY of my teachers,” one student wrote.

“Pray for the IT department,” wrote another.

Teachers fired back with their own zingers. One wrote:

“You’re telling me my students who can’t pay attention for 2 minutes even while I practically hold their hand through new content are going to have to learn on their own time? This should be good.”

‘We’re all trying really hard’

As the number of zingers grew, though, the tenor of the conversation began to shift. More instructors and instructional designers began to chime in. Many of them had their own doubts about whether this enormous online experiment would work.satiric movie poster titled the online teaching matrix

Some talked about the overwhelming task of moving classes online at the last minute. An adjunct who teaches at several schools, each with a different online system, said she was struggling to figure out how to get her classes up and running. Retired professors expressed compassion for their former colleagues, with one saying the reason he retired was that he was no longer up to the technological challenge. Others pleaded for patience.

“We’re all trying really hard,” one instructor said.

Instructional designers wrote about putting in long days to try to make the switch possible. One wrote: “You’re the reason I do this work. I promise I’m doing my best for you.”

A time for compassion

In a single Twitter thread, you see nearly all the directions the next few weeks could take: humor, anxiety, sniping, denial, helplessness, surrender, bitterness, resolve and, yes, even hope.

“Oh, have a heart,” said Jenna Wims Hashway, a law professor at Roger Williams University in Rhode Island. “We’re doing the best we can. I say this as someone who is absolutely certain to screw up this technology that I’ve never used before. But I’m willing to try anything and look like an ass if it means I can teach my students what they need to know.”

No one has all the answers you are looking for as you try to figure out how best to transfer your classroom work online. (There is lots of help available, though.) Students are just as worried as you are about what this will mean for their classes, their learning, their degrees, their graduation, and their lives.

It’s up to you to model what you want to see in your students. If you complain, they will complain. If you show a sense of humor, many of them will still complain. Expect that, and move beyond it.

What you can do

We are taking on what The Chronicle of Higher Education called “the great online-learning experiment” as we are being told to distance ourselves physically from others. That’s intimidating and mentally taxing for instructors and students. Here are some ways you can break through that.

Don’t let the physical distance become mental distance. Campus is strangely silent. The hallways in our buildings are empty. Many of us are working from home. Many of the regular social activities we rely on have been shut down. All of that isolation can take a mental and emotional toll if you let it. So remember to engage with colleagues and your students. Share your feelings. Ask for help when you need it. Join the many workshops we will have on campus and online this week or the many online communities that have popped up to help with online teaching. And take a walk occasionally. Spring is nearly here. Your teaching has become virtual, but you still live in a physical world.

Give yourself a break. One of the challenges of online teaching is that it can feel like class is always in session. You have to set boundaries and establish new routines. Decide when you will engage with class work and when you will do other things. Tell students when you will be available and when you will not. And set aside time for yourself. Don’t let the things that keep you mentally and physically agile slip away.

Work at creating community. This is perhaps the most important thing you can do in any class. Students need to feel that they are part of a learning community. They need your trust and your guidance. They need to know you have a plan – even a tenuous one – to make this work. They need to know that a human being is paying attention beyond the glow of the computer screen. So communicate with students often through whatever means works best for your class. Keep them apprised of your plans. Tell them to expect lots of twists and turns. Tell them that you will be flexible with them and that they should be flexible with you. And remind them not to let the physical distance become mental distance – and to give themselves a break.

jayhawk in matrix jacket with quote from trinity and neo

Where to find assistance

Remember, you don’t have to do this alone. There is an abundance of resources available and many people to offer assistance. The best teaching and learning happens as part of a community, and CTE, the Center for Online and Distance Learning, and KU Information Technology are working to bolster that community. We have planned several workshops over the coming week (with more to follow). You’ll find those, along with many other resources to guide you into online teaching, on a new website we created last week.

If you haven’t visited the site, you should. It’s a great place to start if you’ve never taught online before, and it’s a great place to get new ideas if you have. If you need help, the site provides contact information for those of us who can help. We will continue to add material and update the workshops we are planning over the coming weeks. I will also be providing advice through this blog, trying to address myths about online teaching, offer ways to create community in online classes, and suggesting tools you might try to   Also let us know what you want to know about online teaching so we can provide the types of materials you and your colleagues need.


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

Distilling hundreds of comments about the future of the university into something manageable and meaningful is, in understated terms, a challenge.

The university’s department of Analytics and Institutional Research accomplished that, though, creating a 73-item list that summarizes ideas from a fall planning session and from comments submitted through an online portal. That list, titled What We Could Do at KU, was distributed to the 150 or so university employees who gathered last week for a second strategic planning session. Presumably, Provost Barbara Bichelmeyer and Chancellor Doug Girod drew on those in creating another document that listed vision, mission and values statements, along with their institutional priorities. The priorities they laid out – student success, healthy and vibrant communities, and research and scholarship – offer a good sense of where they want the university to go in the coming years.

word cloud from strategic planning document
The larger the word in this word cloud, the more the idea was mentioned by university employees.

I have a few thoughts about those priorities – namely a lack of any mention of teaching – but I want to focus on something else first.

I found many connections among the 73 suggestions on the What We Could Do list, and I wanted a way to get a better grasp on those ideas. That’s because they provide a broad look at what employees around the university see as important.

I started by creating a spreadsheet, combining and paring the 73 suggestions into 68 words and short phrases. Think of it as a summary of a summary, which has both benefits and drawbacks. I then used those to create the two word clouds that accompany this article.

I wasn’t able to get all 68 words and phrases into a single word cloud, so I eliminated those that were mentioned by fewer than five people. I also created a separate list of 11 verbs that were used in the summary statements. Most describe a need to do more or less of something. This by no means indicates a consensus of ideas from around campus. Rather, it represents the opinions of those who were willing to take the time to attend a planning session or to submit comments online. (I was one of those people.)

Collaborate and communicate

There’s nothing startling on the list, but I was nonetheless surprised by the prominence of collaboration and communication. I agree with those wholeheartedly, and I’m glad others put them at the top of the list.

In far too many cases, departments and offices work in isolation (or in siloes, another word on the list) and even compete against one another for students, resources and attention. To improve as a university, we must find more ways to work together and see ourselves as part of a singular effort rather than as a collection of competing entities. We need to find more ways for our students to collaborate with faculty and with one another. We also need to collaborate with other colleges and universities, and with communities in Lawrence, Kansas City and across Kansas.

verbs used in strategic planning document
These are the verbs used in the summary of what KU employees saw as important in strategic planning.

Doing that requires better communication internally and externally. We have to make sure potential partners around the university know what we are doing, and we need to tell our story (another prominent term) to students, families, businesses and communities. They need to understand that we are part of – not separate from – them.

Another frequently mentioned issue, financial stability, ties into other needs like maintenance, retention, accessibility, professional development, degree cost, campus beauty, mental health, morale, accountability and transparency.

Three other prominent terms on the list – diversity, mental health and generational needs – tie closely together. The diversity of the student body has increased over the last decade, but the student population at KU is still predominantly white. The faculty and staff are even less diverse. The current generations of students are more diverse and have different needs from previous generations.

Not surprisingly, most of the comments from around campus called for an increase in something, including diversity, revenue, accountability, prestige, student and faculty retention, and, of course, collaboration and communication. After years of underfunding and a few rounds of budget cuts, there are many unmet needs.

What about teaching?

If the What We Could Do at KU list represented the opinions of faculty and staff, a document called Jawhawks Rising gave a clear sense of where university leaders want to go. It’s a good aspirational document.

Strangely missing, though, is any mention of teaching. The document uses phrasing like “community of learners,” and “student engagement” and “educate leaders.” It lists “student success” as one of three core institutional priorities.

Teaching doesn’t show up anywhere, though. That’s discouraging and disturbing. You can argue that “educate” involves teaching. It does. But without a clear strategy for improving and elevating the importance of teaching, any attempt to improve student success will fall short. And without the involvement of faculty in student success, the vision, the mission and the values of the institution quickly become hollow.

All of this is a work in progress, and encouragingly, Bichelmeyer gave teaching an important nod in remarks she made at the start of the strategic planning session last week.

“We’re learning about how we teach and how our students learn,” Bichelmeyer said, referring to the use of analytics to examine curricula and student movement through curricula. “There are lots of ways where we can start to unpack the individual student from the crowd through watching and knowing that they need a nudge to say, ‘It’s really important for you to get to the first week of class’ or ‘It’s really important that you don’t turn your homework in late.’ ”

She added: “We’re not teaching little widgets on an assembly line where we hold time constant and let achievement vary or we think about our work as production.”

She also pointed to the need to change our approach to engaging students, many of whom work 20 or more hours a week and have family responsibilities. They also see technology as an important part of who they are.

“Students would rather have a lecture on YouTube than sit in a class with a thousand students where they can’t see the professor and they can’t see what’s on the board and they maybe can’t hear,” Bichelmeyer said. “And they don’t have to pay for parking, and they don’t have to get a babysitter, and they can do that at night.

“So when we think about unbundling the elements of instruction, we have to understand that what we do well at the University of Kansas that nobody else can do is we engage students,” she added.

Unbundling and rethinking

Additionally, she said, digital technology is leading to the separation of teaching from certification. That is, students no longer need a university credential to get good jobs. They can learn from many online providers or gain skills from short-term coding camps and other intensive sessions that don’t require a four- or five-year commitment and cost far less than a university degree.

“So we have to think about what it is that only we can do really well and how we think about the educational experience from the students’ perspective in order to help them think about why it’s worth it for them to be at KU,” Bichelmeyer said.

Think collaboration, communication, diversity, generational needs, networking, accessibility, engagement, cost and other terms from the campus list. But also think teaching and learning, which is why students come to the university in the first place.


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

WASHINGTON – As colleges and universities prepare to encounter what has become known as a cliff in traditional student enrollment, they are looking for ways to reach out, branch out, and form partnerships that might once have been unthinkable.logo of Association of American Colleges and Universities

That desire to branch out was clear from the sessions I attended at the annual meeting of the Association of American Colleges and Universities. For instance, speakers at the conference urged colleagues and their universities to:

  • Do a better job of working with community colleges, whose lower cost is appealing to students, most of whom want to continue at four-year institutions.
  • Reach out to high school students and introduce them to liberal education before they choose a college and a major.
  • Draw in older adults, reintroduce them to learning as they move into a new phase of life, and draw on their expertise in classes and career development.
  • Create stronger partnerships with other colleges and universities.
  • Create better strategies for telling the story of higher education.

There’s no secret about why branching out is important. At a session titled “Responding to the Crisis in Higher Education,” Elaine Maimon, president of Governors State University in Illinois, said “crisis” had appeared in AAC&U session titles nearly every year in the decades she had been attending the conference. (Maimon was facing her own crisis back home.) Even so, she said:

“I’m ready to say the revolution is here.”

‘Stop rehearsing our dilemmas’

photo of Mary Dana Hinton
Mary Dana Hinton

I’ve written considerably about the idea of “revolution” in higher education, about the need for universities to adapt and change, and about the plodding approaches that higher education as a whole has taken to the broad challenges.

In short: The number of traditional students is declining, especially in the Midwest and Northeast. Demographic shifts have created what one AAC&U participant called “a new student majority” made up of first-generation students, students of color, adults, and military veterans, and many of those students start at community colleges. State and federal funding has plummeted. And digital technology has created what Maimon called “an epistemological revolution in terms of ways of knowing.”

Mary Dana Hinton, president of the College of Saint Benedict, said colleges and universities needed to stop “stop rehearsing our dilemmas” and work at making changes.

“We know what our problems are,” Hinton said. “We need to change, and to invest in our faculty, our staff and our leadership so that we create environments and spaces where every student on our campus can see themselves, can feel appreciated, can be challenged and transformed, and that we as institutions are transformed by the students who come to us.”

The sort of transformation that Hinton referred to has many components.

Working with community colleges

Scott Jaschik, editor of Inside Higher Ed, emphasized the importance of making connections with community colleges because “that’s where the students are.”

Most Americans who earn a bachelor’s degree start at community college, Jaschik said, and four-year institutions need to make transfer easier and create welcoming environments for community college students. Some states are also making community college free, he said, an idea that has transcended political ideology.

Al Newell points to screen with takeaways from his presentation
All Newell of EAB talks about conclusions of his presentation at AAC&U.

Cost is playing a big part in students’ decisions. Al Newell of the education research company EAB said that the lower cost of community colleges had great appeal to Generation Z, which he described as thrifty and frugal. More than 40% of students whose families earn at least $250,000 a year are considering community colleges, Newell said, with some looking at college as a seven- or eight-year investment if students go to graduate school.

Twenty years ago, he said, students aspired to attend the best school they could get into. Now, he said, students’ mindset is that they will go to the best school that they can get into and that their families can afford.

An announcement last week underscored the importance of community colleges. Southern New Hampshire University, a large provider of online education, offered students of Pennsylvania’s community colleges a 10% tuition discount, a move that is expected to draw students away from the state’s four-year institutions.

A different approach to adult education

A new model for bringing adults into college courses has begun to emerge.

Colleges and universities have offered continuing education classes for adults and retirees for many years. Since the early 2000s, KU and many other universities have been involved in the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute, which focuses on adults age 50 and older. What’s different this time is that universities are creating longer and more intensive programs for older adults, integrating them into traditional classes and activities, and using their expertise to enrich discussions and career preparation.

Longevity is changing workers’ outlook, and many of those in the baby boom generation are looking for new paths after they retire, Kate Schaefers, executive director of the Advanced Careers Initiative at the University of Minnesota, said during an AAC&U panel discussion. Minnesota is one of several universities that have created programs for late-career or retired professionals. Many of those are modeled on Stanford’s Distinguished Careers Institute, which brings in a small cohort each year and helps each participant shape an individual curriculum built on their interests. It integrates them into traditional classes but also creates separate seminars, colloquia and other events. That approach has been successful enough that Stanford is planning to create a non-profit organization to help universities create similar programs, participants at an AAC&U panel said.

Organizers use words like “transformative” to explain the rich opportunities these new programs provide and the powerful bonds they create. The programs are also expensive: often $60,000 a year or more. Most programs offer financial aid for a few fellows, but organizers say the cost reflects the need to be self-sufficient.

Reaching out in other ways

Conference panelists talked about the need to reach out to many other constituencies, including businesses, rural students, low-income students, students of color, non-traditional students, and international students, whose numbers have declined over the past few years.

Colleges and universities start sending promotional material to prospective students early in high school. Later on, they encourage families to tour campuses and to talk with advisors. Those approaches help get a school’s name in students’ mind and help students get a sense of a school’s atmosphere. What they fail to do, though, is to help students understand what happens within a particular discipline.

Picture of Andrew Delbanco
Andrew Delbanco

Andrew Delbanco, president of the Teagle Foundation and a professor at Columbia, said universities needed to create opportunities to bring high school students – especially those from underserved populations – to their campuses for a week or more and engage them in intensive humanities seminars that explore the depth and breadth of liberal education. That approach, which Teagle has been funding, helps students “learn that college is not only about getting a job.” It also helps faculty members, graduate students and undergraduates better understand the perspectives of underserved students.

“We all agree in this room about the value of liberal education,” Delbanco said. “But we have a problem. You cannot explain the value of liberal education to someone who hasn’t had one. You can’t do it. … You cannot convey the taste of honey to someone who hasn’t tasted it.”

The importance of that type of approach was reinforced by statistics at Newell’s session. A survey of 5,200 students at Chicago public schools found that in ninth grade nearly all students aspired to college. By the 11th grade, that dropped to 72%. By 12th grade, 59%. In the end, only 41% enrolled in college.

He cited many reasons for the drop-off: lack of role models who have gone to college; exclusion from advanced placement classes; lack of understanding of the enrollment process; failure to take required courses; and lack of money.

“The reality is that the way we do business is going to have to adapt,” Newell said.

He gave several examples of how colleges and universities were adapting. One of the most prominent is through partnerships with or acquisitions of other institutions. In some cases, university systems are requiring consolidation. In others, a university acquires a nearby struggling institution in what Newell describes as a “goodwill grace merger.” In still others, the acquisitions are pure business deals, or “strategic capital asset acquisition,” as Newell described them. (Think of Purdue’s purchase of Kaplan.)

We also need to keep lobbying skeptical legislators and talking more to a skeptical public, Delbanco said — and working more closely with local communities.

It’s a daunting challenge, but AAC&U sessions seemed far more upbeat than they have been in the past few years, even as Delbanco summed up an admonition that was repeated by several others:

“Colleges and universities must serve young people – and not only young people – beyond their gates more effectively,” he said.


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

Jennifer Roberts doesn’t hold back when describing her first attempt at active learning in a large lecture course.

“It was a train wreck,” said Roberts, a professor of geology who is now chair of the department. “It was bloody. Students were irate.”

students gather around a round table, with the instructor facing forward. A screen with a PowerPoint slide is behind her.
Jennifer Roberts works with students in Geology 101.

This was in Geology 101, a required course for geology majors and one that typically draws a large number of engineering students. Starting in 2013, Roberts worked with a post-doctoral teaching fellow, Kelsey Bitting, to transform the class. They cut back on lecturing and devoted more time to group discussion and guided inquiry, with worksheets and in-class problem-solving. They introduced weekly reading quizzes and in-class questions to gauge understanding. They had students do more out-of-class writing. They also adopted two-stage exams and eliminated multiple-choice questions.

Essentially, she said in an interview in 2014, they made “this a class about the work students put into it and not necessarily about who had the old test that they memorized or just who was good at taking tests.”

Geology 101 is just one of hundreds of classes that have been transformed over the past few years as the university has emphasized the importance of retaining more students and helping them graduate. It illustrates, though, the hard work that has gone into raising retention and graduation rates at KU.

This fall, 86.2% of last year’s freshman class returned, compared with a low of 77.8% in 2008. That’s a phenomenal accomplishment made possible by the work of everyone from instructors like Roberts who have adopted more effective teaching practices to advisors who have helped students make better choices to administrators who have created new support programs and allocated money and resources to address a collective problem. These changes have helped shift the culture of teaching to one that emphasizes learning for all students.

instructor kneels at table and talks with students
Noah McLean helps students work through an assignment during a 2015 class.

Geology 101 also illustrates the importance of shared responsibility and community building in the success of students. For instance, Roberts’ remake of the course involved a teaching fellow, a second instructor, graduate teaching assistants and several undergraduate teaching assistants. The second instructor has been crucial for maintaining continuity because that person becomes the lead instructor in the ensuing semester. Noah McLean, Andreas Möller and Craig Marshall, among others, have been instrumental in maintaining that continuity and in continuing the evolution of Geology 101.

Having multiple instructors and teaching assistants in a classroom allows for group work, makes it easier for students to ask questions and get help with challenging course material, and makes large classes much more personal. New classrooms in the Earth, Energy and Environment Center and the LEEP2 engineering building have improved the atmosphere, too. The rooms in those buildings are in high demand, largely because their layout promotes interaction and makes large classes feel smaller than those in the stadium-style seating of Budig Hall.

McLean, an assistant professor of geology, said that the traditional layout for large classrooms intimidated many students and dissuaded them from asking questions. In active-learning classrooms, “you’re only looking at eight other people, and it’s much easier to bring students in and have a class-wide discussion,” McLean said.

‘Equity between men and women’

The series of changes made in Geology 101 has worked. Despite student complaints, more started getting C’s rather than D’s. Underrepresented minority students made substantial gains, with the number receiving D’s or F’s or withdrawing falling 5.6% between 2009 and 2016 even as more underrepresented students took the class.

instructor leans over table to talk to students
Andreas Möller consults with students during a 2015 class.

More impressively, women in the class began performing significantly better in that same metric (a decline of 9.5%). Roberts said that women often accounted for 80% of the students who withdrew from the class or received D’s or F’s. In 2017, she said: “We now have equity between men and women.”

The work isn’t done, either in Geology 101 or in other classes across the university. In many ways, it has only begun, and we have a long way to go to achieve the type of widespread equity and achievement we hope to see. We should definitely celebrate, but we still have to keep pushing.

A year after remaking Geology 101, Roberts offered this reflection:

“The advice I have been giving the people who have started, especially in designing courses from scratch with this, is to make sure that they are choosing topics that they are really excited about because this can be a grind,” Roberts said. “And if you’re not really excited about going to class and sharing that information with the students, I don’t think you’re going to do it very well.”


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

I’ve been doubtful about the emergence of a Generation Z. Strangely, Harry Potter and Katniss Everdeen, along with some reassurances from Pew Research, have me reconsidering.

Before I get to Hogwarts and District 12, though, I need to provide some background.

A few years ago, two of my students, eager to look behind the hype of marketers who claimed to see into the minds and habits of a post-millennial generation, came away frustrated. After semester-long research projects, they both asked the same questions: Who can really define a generation? And is “generation” just a convenient label that older people apply to younger people they don’t understand?

A baby boom generation made some sense because it was part of a demographic shift, the students said. Yes, today’s students are certainly different, but the “generation” labels that have been applied seem more of a put-down than an amalgamation of meaningful, or valid, characteristics.

3 students with laptops talking around a table
The characteristics of Generation Z have many implications for higher education. Photo by Brooke Cagle on Unsplash

Michael Dimock of the Pew Research Center explained some of the haziness of generational labels earlier this year when he wrote that Pew researchers were adopting the Generation Z category in their work. He wrote:

“Generational cutoff points aren’t an exact science. They should be viewed primarily as tools” for analyzing views on things like work, education, social issues and politics. Pew defines Generation Z as anyone born in 1997 or after. Others see Generation Z as starting earlier, and some place the starting point as late as 2005. By most definitions, though, traditional college-age students now consist solely of Generation Z, and the oldest in that group have already graduated.

What does that mean?

I thought about my students’ search for Generation Z as I listened to speakers at the Educause 2019 conference in Chicago recently. My students’ questions were – and still are – valid. Their search for a Generation Z may just have been a few years premature, though.

The racial and ethnic diversity of this generation — and how that diversity shapes views and expectations — has rightly received considerable attention. At Educause, though, the father and son team of David and Jonah Stillman made a case for “generational personalities,” which they said formed from experiences in adolescence. Many of those experiences are tied to significant economic and cultural events. Here are a few of the characteristics that the Stillmans said separated millennials from Generation Z.

Millennials

  • Came of age during an economic boom.
  • Parents, mostly baby boomers, told them they could do anything.
  • Went through childhood during what the Stillmans called “the self-esteem movement,” when everyone got a trophy just for participating.
  • Parents preached a message of college at any cost – apparently even to themselves – and told their children they could change the world.
  • Jobs were about seeking meaning and changing the world.
  • Technologically minded but with a clear separation between online and in person.

Generation Z

  • Came of age during and after the 2007-2008 recession, when their parents’ net worth plummeted and they saw seemingly unsinkable companies barely able to stay afloat.
  • They are realists. Their parents, mostly from Generation X, emphasized the need to compete and win. (If you doubt this, just do a search for “TikTok famous.”)
  • Watched as millennials took on enormous debt to pay for college, even as many employers started to emphasize skills rather degrees.
  • Jobs are about money. Full stop.
  • See few boundaries between physical and digital. (Think Pokemon Go.) They even saw online companies begin to create physical stores, another case where they see “no line at all” between online and in person.

Even popular culture icons offered competing messages. Millennials read about and watched Harry Potter, a young wizard with a tight group of friends who grappled with the meaning and purpose of their magic powers. Generation Z read about and watched Katniss Everdeen, a young rebel in a dystopian nation who is chosen for a fight to the death in The Hunger Games. The message: one against the world; win or die; children are expendable.

This is all a broad-brush picture, of course, but I find that much of it rings true. After all, enrollment in business schools has soared as enrollment in the liberal arts has declined. Many students are working 20-plus hours a week to help pay their college bills. They want flexibility in their schedules and access to technology always. Most students and parents still see value in college, but they look closely at price and consider their return on investment.

So what does this mean for higher education? The Stillmans offered these observations and suggestions:

Get on their radar earlier

Many of these students are trying to make college and career decisions much earlier than previous generations did. They crave certainty and security in their careers. Universities that tap into that desire for a clear pathway have a better chance of reaching those students than those that wait. Relatedly, these students want to know what universities have to offer. They seek out winners and opportunities, and they want to see that reflected in their schools.

Group work is harder

This generation is competitive. They want to stand out and they resent others who tag along in group projects and don’t work as hard as they do. That means they dislike group work, even though the ability to collaborate is among the top skills that employers seek. That means, the Stillmans said, that educators will have to work harder to help these students learn group skills.

So is traditional communication

Older adults complain that this generation is illiterate, David Stillman said. He argued, though, that today’s students are writing more than ever. They post on social media and in online forums. They chat via instant messages and games. They are in constant conversation. Much of that may be in the form of “lol” and “omg,” Stillman said, “but who are we to say that’s not writing?” They also learned to communicate with emojis before they communicated in words, he said. That approach creates more ambiguity and leaves more room for interpretation, he said. So students need help understanding how to communicate in a professional world. Even so, he said, “professors need to understand emojis.”

Emphasize the tangible

Promoting vague “experiences” and learning for learning’s sake doesn’t work for most of these students. Rather, they want to see the practical application and individual benefit of their school work. That means instructors and advisors need to explain why students are learning what they are learning and how the various disciplines, activities and assignments fit together and help lead to good jobs. Additionally, universities, departments and classes should partner with businesses, David Stillman said. Bring professionals from various fields to campus so that students can learn about pathways and make connections between what they are learning and what they might do on the job.

Allow customization

A higher percentage of Generation Z was home-schooled, and many of their parents are entrepreneurs. They are open to alternative paths to learning, and they value customization. After all, Amazon and Netflix know what they want and make frequent suggestions about what they should buy or watch. Why shouldn’t their college? Iowa State, which caught on to this earlier than most universities, sends out video announcements for each student. These videos include a “breaking news” announcement by a CNN anchor, a message from the college president and the football coach, a shot of a banner with the student’s name, and footage of thousands of students cheering and celebrating. (Some students apply to Iowa State just to get a video, the Stillmans said.) Other schools have allowed students to create custom majors, a strategy that all schools need to adopt, the Stillmans said.

Improve online courses

Students still prefer in-person courses, but they want the flexibility that online courses provide. That flexibility is critical for a generation that is putting in more hours on jobs to pay for college. They also expect online courses to have the same quality and the same outcomes as in-person courses. The culture, the feel, the layout of an online course should be the same as an in-person course, the Stillmans said. Everything should be seamless.

Be flexible with technology

Students in Generation Z “don’t see the difference at all” between the physical and digital worlds. Technology is simply part of who they are. It connects them. It informs them. They expect it to be there. Universities that demonstrate technological sophistication will have an advantage, the Stillmans said. That doesn’t mean Generation Z is impressed by technologically advanced campuses. That is simply an expectation. These students take that expectation into the classroom, too. Instructors who ban this technology simply stoke students’ fear of missing out on something online. So rather than take that technology away, help them learn how to use it to learn.

Those are just a few of the few of the student characteristics we need to pay attention to. Yes, these are broad generalizations that don’t apply to all students, but they help us understand some of the challenges we face as educators. College used to have a Harry Potter-like magic in attracting students, but it has entered a world much more like The Hunger Games. We can still be suspicious of labels like Generation Z – I still am – but we need to adjust to the reality of the changes.


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

Enrollment at Kansas regents universities declined again this year. I say again because enrollment has declined each year since 2011.

The decline – 5.7% since 2011 — is relatively small, but it illustrates the challenges of a state university system that has become increasingly dependent on student tuition dollars to finance operations. It also illustrates the challenges that regents universities will face in the next decade as the number of traditional college-age students flattens after a post-recession “baby bust.”

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The National Center for Education Statistics projects that undergraduate enrollment nationwide will increase about 3% by 2028, but that national average blurs regional differences. Institutions in the Midwest and Northeast are especially vulnerable. Many smaller colleges have faced growing economic problems, with some merging and more than 20 closing.

KU isn’t in any immediate danger from those trends, but the regents system as a whole is. Given the current political climate, it seems likely that Kansas will face some of the same pressures that states like Wisconsin and Alaska have faced to close or merge campuses.

In Kansas, Wichita Area Technical College merged with Wichita State two years ago, a move that made sense given their proximity. It isn’t much of a stretch to imagine financial concerns forcing additional mergers – mergers that would be much more painful than the one in Wichita. Eleven of the state’s community colleges have had double-digit enrollment declines over the past five years, and three – Cowley, Allen and Highland – have seen enrollment fall by more than 20%. Even Johnson County Community College, the largest in the state, isn’t immune from this trend. Its enrollment has declined 7.8% over the past five years, although there was a slight uptick this year.

I’m not trying to predict impending doom. Rather, I see the numbers as a clear signal of the need to move quickly with innovative approaches that better meet the needs of a changing student population. Colleges and universities can no longer expect student applications to simply flow in with regularity. They must find niches that set them apart, form partnerships across disciplines and institutions, do more to reach out with online courses, and develop new approaches that make a college education more of an ongoing process – and one of individual renewal – than a degree-and-done-forever approach.

The numbers at KU

KU’s full-time equivalency enrollment fell slightly this year. As you can see from the chart above, though, there has been only slight movement over the past six years. That’s mostly good news, especially because retention rates have increased. This fall, 86.2% of last year’s freshman class returned, and retention of freshmen has increased substantially since hitting a low of 77.8% in 2008.

That’s a phenomenal accomplishment made possible by the work of everyone from instructors who have adopted more effective teaching practices to advisors who have helped students make better choices to administrators who have created new support programs and allocated money and resources to address a collective problem.

The university did a good job of highlighting other aspects of this fall’s enrollment report, so I won’t go into those. I would like to touch on some other trends I saw in the enrollment figures. These figures come from various reports and public dashboards on the site of Analytics and Institutional Research. Wherever possible, I have used full-time equivalency figures rather than headcount. The regents and the federal government have shifted to full-time equivalency because it cuts down on possible distortions from part-time enrollment and allows for a better comparison across universities. The university tends to prefer headcount.

Troublesome long-term trends

Combined enrollment at the Lawrence and Edwards campuses has been mostly stable over the past few years. The longer-term trends aren’t as positive. Enrollment has declined 10.5% since 2007 and 13% since a peak in 2008.

For KU as a whole, those declines have been partly offset by a growth of 11.2% at the medical center since 2014. Enrollment at the Edwards Campus has grown in each of the past four years but is 11% below where it was in 2011.

Not surprisingly, the largest decline in the student population has been in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. It still has the largest number of students by far of any college at KU, but undergraduate enrollment has fallen 21.6% since 2010, and graduate enrollment has fallen 18.2%. The largest percentage gains in undergraduate enrollment since Fall 2010 have been in business (up 122%) and engineering (up 46.3%).

Interestingly, the largest percentage increase overall was in non-degree-seeking students, whose numbers have risen 181% since 2010. There were 491 of those students this fall. That’s a small number in the overall enrollment picture, but it clearly shows an interest among a group that is rarely discussed when we talk about enrollment.

Shifting gender balancechart showing decreasing percentage of male students

Men accounted for 46% of KU students this fall, the lowest percentage of the decade. The number of men enrolling at KU has declined from 49.2% in 2010, reflecting a national trend of fewer men going to college.

The number of students not reporting gender spiked this year to 524 from 75 in Fall 2018, 53 in Fall 2017 and 25 in Fall 2016. This reflects a national trend of students more willing to identify as gender fluid, transgender or non-binary.

Interestingly, the vast majority of those who did not report gender were graduate students. The breakdown of graduate students this fall is 50.6% women, 40.4% men and 9% not listing gender.

Other changes in student demographics

Several other changes in the characteristics of students are worth noting:

  • Declining number of transfer students.Transfer students have never made up a large percentage of the student population at KU, but their numbers have fallen significantly during the past decade. In Fall 2010, the Lawrence campus reported 1,404 transfer students, compared with 1,024 this fall. That is a decline of 27%.
  • Declining number of graduate students. The Lawrence campus has 5,570 graduate students this fall, a decline of 9.5% since 2016 and 13.5% since 2010. This is largely a result of a smaller number of students pursuing a master’s degree (down 19.8% since 2010), although the number of doctoral students has declined 9.1% from a peak in 2013.
  • Declining number of international students. The number of international students fell for the fourth straight year and is now 14% below a peak of 2,363 in Fall 2015. This again follows a national trend.
  • Rising number of Hispanic students. The number of Hispanic students attending KU has increased 65% since 2010, with growth in every year this decade. Hispanic students now make up 8% of the student body. This again reflects national trends.
  • Rising number of part-time students. The number of part-time students on the Lawrence and Edwards campuses surpassed 4,000 for the first time this fall. Part-time students now account for 16.3% of the total student population, the highest percentage this decade and up from 13.7% in 2012.

Changes at Edwards CampusChart showing growing number of undergraduates at edwards campus

KU’s Edwards Campus has traditionally been reliant on professional master’s programs for its enrollment. That has begun to shift toward more of a balance of graduate and undergraduate programs.

Undergraduates now account for nearly 41% of students at the Edwards campus, nearly double the percentage of a decade ago. That is an enormous shift in mission and mentality. The campus is still heavily reliant on working professionals who attend evening classes, but it has increased its online offerings, partnered with Kansas City-area schools and businesses, and drawn undergraduates to programs like information technology, molecular biosciences and exercise science.


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

A recent meeting at the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine achieved little consensus on how best to evaluate teaching, but it certainly showed a widespread desire for a fairer system that better reflects the many components of excellent teaching.

The National Academies co-sponsored the meeting earlier this month in Washington with the Association of American Universities and TEval, a project associated with the Center for Teaching Excellence at KU. The meeting brought together leaders from universities around the country to discuss ways to provide a richer evaluation of faculty teaching and, ultimately, expand the use of practices that have been shown to improve student learning.

A CTE rubric for evaluating teaching helps instructors and departments focus on a series of questions.

My colleague Andrea Greenhoot, professor of psychology and director of CTE, represented KU at the meeting. Members of the TEval team from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, the University of Colorado, Boulder, and Michigan State University also attended. The TEval project involves more than 60 faculty members at KU, CU and UMass. It received a five-year, $2.8 million grant from the National Science Foundation last year to explore ways to create a fairer, more nuanced approach to evaluating teaching.

The TEval project, which is known as Benchmarks at KU, has helped put KU at the forefront of the discussion about evaluating teaching and adopting more effective pedagogical strategies. Nine departments have been working to adapt a rubric developed at CTE, identify appropriate forms of evidence, and rethink the way they evaluate teaching. Similar conversations are taking place among faculty at CU and UMass. One goal of the project is to provide a framework that other universities can follow.

Universities have long relied on student surveys as the primary – and often sole – means of evaluating teaching. Those surveys can gather important feedback from students, but they provide only one perspective on a complex process that students know little about. The results of the surveys have also come under increasing scrutiny for biases against some instructors and types of classes.

Challenges and questions

The process of creating a better system still faces many challenges, as speakers at the meeting in Washington made clear. Emily Miller, associate vice president for policy at the AAU, said that many universities were having a difficult time integrating a new approach to evaluating teaching into a rewards system that favors research and that often counts teaching-associated work as service.

“We need to think about how we recognize the value of teaching,” Miller said.

She also summarized questions that had arisen during discussions at the meeting:

  • What is good teaching?
  • What elements of teaching do we want to evaluate?
  • Do we want a process that helps instructors improve or one that simply evaluates them annually?
  • What are the useful and appropriate measures?
  • What does it mean to talk about parallels between teaching and research?
  • How can we situate the conversation about the evaluation of teaching in the larger context of institutional change and university missions?

Noah Finkelstein, a University of Colorado physics professor who is a principal investigator on the TEval grant, brought up additional questions:

  • How do we frame teaching excellence within the context of diversity, equity and inclusion?
  • How can we create stronger communities around teaching?
  • How do we balance institutional and individual needs?
  • How do we reward institutions who improve teaching?
  • When will AAU membership be contingent on teaching excellence?

Moving the process forward

Instructors at KU, CU and UMass are already grappling with many of the questions that Miller and Finkelstein raised.

At KU, a group will meet on Friday to talk about the work they have done in such areas as identifying the elements of good teaching; gathering evidence in support of high-quality teaching practices; developing new approaches to peer evaluation for faculty and graduate teaching assistants; providing guidance on instructor reflection and assessment; and making the evaluation process more inclusive. There have also been discussions among administrators and Faculty Senate on ways to integrate a new approach into the KU rewards structure. Considerable work remains, but a shift has been set in motion.

KU faculty and staff share insights on teaching

Several KU faculty members have recently published articles about their inquiry into teaching. Their articles are well worth the time to read. Among them:

Briefly …

  • Writing in EdSurge, Bryan Alexander says that “video is now covering a lot of ground, from faculty-generated instructional content to student-generated works, videoconferencing and the possibility of automated videobots.” The headline goes beyond anything in the article, but it nonetheless raises an interesting thought: “Video assignments are the new term paper.”
  • The Society for Human Resource Management writes about a trend it calls “microinternships,” which mirror the work of freelancers. Microinternships involve projects of 5 to 20 hours that the educational technology company Parker Dewey posts on a website. Students bid on the work, and Parker Dewey takes a percentage of the compensation. The company says it is working with 150 colleges and universities on the microinternship project.
  • Writing in The Chronicle of Higher Education, Aaron Hanlan argues that by relying on a growing number of contingent, “disposable” instructors, “institutions of higher education today operate as if they have no future.” In following this approach, tenured faculty and administrators “are guaranteeing the obsolescence of their own institutions and the eventual erasure of their own careers and legacies,” he argues.
  • EAB writes about the importance of reaching out to students personally, saying that email with a personal, supportive tone can be like a lifeline to struggling 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

Watching David Johnson’s class in digital logic design is a bit like watching synchronized swimming.

After a few minutes of announcements, Johnson and half a dozen GTAs and undergraduate teaching fellows fan out across an Eaton Hall auditorium as 60 or so students begin to work on problems that Johnson has assigned.

student with white headphones sit at table and listens to instructor who leans on table and speaks
David Johnson works with a student during Introduction to Digital Logic Design.

A hand goes up on one side of the room. Johnson approaches, and students around him listen intently as he asks questions and quietly offers advice. Across the aisle, a group of four young men confers about the problem, looking things up on laptops, writing down notes by hand, erasing, writing again, and sharing ideas. A few rows ahead, two young women point at the problem on the screen at the front of the room. They confer, take notes, and confer more. Across the room, hands go up and, one by one, the class assistants approach, offer their help and then search for more raised hands.

“We’re always busy helping someone,” Johnson said.

Similar scenes have increasingly played out across the university – and across the country – as a growing number of instructors, primarily in STEM fields, have hired undergraduate teaching assistants to work in their classes. The undergrad TAs are just one example of how colleges and universities have elevated the importance of peer learning as part of their efforts to retain students and to help them move toward graduation.

Many educational roles

At KU, those efforts extend into many areas. First-Year Experience, honors, pharmacy and business are among the programs that use peer mentors. The Undergraduate Advising Office has a team of peer advisors who, among other things, help students navigate choices of classes and majors, and help them find campus resources. As anxiety and depression have increased among students, Counseling and Psychological Services has created a peer educator program to work with students on mental health.

young woman helps a student with a problem in both foreground and background
Student assistants help their peers work through problems in David Johnson’s class.

The university’s Supplemental Instruction program is also growing and now has peer leaders working with two dozen courses. Those peer leaders have successfully completed the course they are helping with. They lead sessions in which students review course material, prepare for exams, work on study skills, and offer support to one another throughout a semester. That approach, which started at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, has been found to improve grades, retention rates and, ultimately, graduation rates.

Peers have always played a role in learning, and they have long been involved in writing programs, tutoring and review sessions. The use of large numbers of undergraduate assistants in classes is relatively new, though, and is tied to a growing use of flipped classes, active learning, and in-class problem-solving. Over the past five years or so, KU instructors in such fields as geology, biology, chemistry, physics, and engineering have hired undergraduate assistants to work in their largest classes. Those assistants do such things as monitor online discussion boards, help with labs, proctor exams, and hold office hours. A pre-semester training program was started two years ago for undergraduate assistants in STEM courses, allowing the assistants and instructors to gain a better understanding of how to work together.

Undergraduate assistants have been crucial in transforming large lecture courses into hubs of active learning. Coordinating with instructors and graduate teaching assistants, they monitor groups or sections of a classroom, answer questions, offer praise, and through their interactions with students, make large courses more personal. Like students who lead Supplemental Instruction sessions, the undergraduate assistants in large classes have recently taken the course, so they understand the flow of the class, the course material, and the areas where students are most likely to struggle.

As they help their peers, they hone their own understanding of course material, improve their communication skills, and gain experience working with groups of people. That deeper understanding helps prepare them for upper-level classes as well as medical school exams, internships and graduate school. Most rely on the money they earn to help pay their college bills. Nearly all report a sense of satisfaction from the experience.

“When you see someone finally get it, it’s really cool,” one undergraduate assistant said at a recent training session.

Zero lecture timestudent assistant stands and leans elbow on table as student points to a problem on a sheet of paper

Johnson has used graduate teaching assistants, Supplemental Instruction assistants, and undergraduate teaching fellows (as the assistants are known in engineering) to make dramatic changes in his classes. With the help of Molly McVey, a post-doctoral teaching fellow in engineering, Johnson flipped a course in which he was lecturing about half of class time. They created online materials that helped students prepare for in-class problem-solving and hired undergraduate fellows to help in the classroom. When the flipped version debuted last year, lecture time had dropped to nearly zero.

“The only time they really hear me speak is if I have an announcement, usually to remind them of a test,” Johnson said.

Johnson first tried the flipped approach during a summer computer science camp for high school students, and he was surprised by how much more students learned. So he began to transform EECS 140, which he described as a gateway course required of all students in electrical engineering. He received a course transformation grant from the Center for Teaching Excellence and worked with course designers and video specialists at the Center for Online and Distance Learning to create online materials. He had the undergraduate assistants create the in-class problems, which he described as “nearly perfect” because they require considerable thought but can still be completed during class time.young man in yellow shirt runs his hand through his hair as a student assistant sits beside him and helps him with a problem

During the first week, students aren’t sure what to make of the hands-on approach, but that hesitancy quickly disappears as they adapt to the in-class problem-solving.

“The first class they were just sitting there waiting,” Johnson said. “I explained to them again that they could start working. By the third or fourth class, they were already asking questions even before the class started.”

The questions continue throughout the class period, and Johnson and the student assistants are constantly on the move. The constant interaction has helped Johnson better connect to the class.

“When I walk around and talk to students, I really understand what they don’t understand,” Johnson said. “That really helps me do a better job.”

Students are free to leave class once they complete the day’s problems, but many stay for the entire period. Some who finish early work on the next online module, knowing they can get help if they have questions. Others like to stay and help their peers.

Improved learning and a sense of satisfaction

Learning has improved significantly in many areas of the class, and the number of students who drop or fail has fallen. The approach isn’t perfect. Johnson said there was a dip in some areas on the last of the four exams he gives. By the end of the semester, though, many students know that their grades won’t change much regardless of how they do on the last exam, so they don’t approach that exam with the same seriousness they do earlier work, Johnson said.

During class, though, the students are focused and engaged. A hand goes up at the back. An undergraduate teaching fellow kneels, listens and offers advice. A hand goes up in front, in the center, on the far side of the room. Johnson moves from table to table, student to student.

“Students always think it’s easy for an instructor to do that,” Johnson said. “For me, it’s a lot harder to go around and explain something to someone who doesn’t understand some things than it is to just stand up there and flap away and hope they understand. It takes a lot more energy out of me, but I feel much better at the end of class when I think, ‘Wow, I really did teach somebody something.’ ”


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.

Ann Austin stands on stairs in a lecture hall, raising her hand and looking across the room
Ann Austin calls for a show of hands during her keynote address at the Teaching Summit.

By Doug Ward

We know the story well. We helped write it, after all.

As instructors and students and administrators, we have lived the story of modern higher education. And yet, despite the familiarity of that story – or perhaps because of it – we continue to struggle with its meaning and direction.

Ann Austin, an education professor and administrator at Michigan State, told participants at KU’s annual Teaching Summit last week that that struggle is not only natural; it is also crucial as colleges and universities adapt to a landscape that has changed dramatically over the past 20 years and is poised to change even more dramatically in the next 20.

In her Summit keynote address, Austin moved among the past, present and future as she highlighted the challenges and opportunities that rapid societal changes are posing to colleges and universities. She also challenged faculty members and administrators to think philosophically and creatively about the way they teach, interact and plan.

“What kind of vision do we have in the back of our minds as we go about our day-to-day work?” Austin asked.

“What is our vision for where our learners are going, and what is our vision for the role we play in their lives?”

That vision, after all, guides us in conscious and unconscious ways, and is crucial for the success of the university. We are doing many good things, she said, but we need to be more creative in working with students, curricula and our approach to learning.

‘This noble profession’

Austin maintained an upbeat tone as she made a case that colleges and universities must change to keep pace with society. Universities are exemplars of society, places to share ideas, to advance knowledge and to debate with respect, she said. She evoked the symbolism of KU’s campus on a hill as an indication that it is “involved in something important,” or what she called “this noble profession.”

Ann Austin turns in her seat and speaks with two women behind her
Ann Austin speaks with Lisa Wolf-Wendel and Susan Twombly, professors of education, before the start of the Summit.

Even so, those of us who teach and work and learn and lead at universities must push our institutions to adapt and evolve. We have welcomed an increasingly diverse population of students, Austin said, and we must find better ways to support those students. Right now, she said, there’s a mismatch between social needs and educational practices and outcomes. (There is also a growing political rift over the direction of higher education.) We are doing much good, she said, but we need to do more.

“How do we create environments for the success of all?” Austin asked.

She pointed to large gateway classes as an example of where universities have fallen short. Those courses can guide students toward many types of careers – or prevent them from pursuing those careers. Nationally, half of students in those courses fail, she said, and women and students of color encounter the biggest hurdles. By embracing evidence-based teaching practices and taking a more inclusive approach to teaching and learning, though, we can lower the barriers to success.

“We know that if we change the way we go about our teaching, if we think about what will support this diversity of learners, we can pretty much get rid of that gap,” she said, citing years of research about active and engaged learning.

Generosity of thinking’ and other any areas of potential

Gateway courses are just one area where there is a mismatch between social needs and educational practices and outcomes, she said. Another involves soft skills, or what Austin calls “human skills”: things like communicating well; discerning between accurate and inaccurate information; understanding the context of problems and actions; engaging in teamwork and collaboration; and approaching work with integrity and ethical standards.

white man in jeans, left hand in pocket, holds a lavalier microphone as he stands on the stops of Budig lecture hall and speaks
Jeff Hall, professor of communication studies, asks a question during the Summit.

She also singled out something she called “generosity of thinking,” or the ability to work with people different from yourself and to seek out those complementary perspectives on projects at work and in communities.

“We really need to cultivate that even more than perhaps we do,” Austin said.

Austin drew upon her work as co-chair of the Roundtable on Systemic Change in Undergraduate STEM Education for the National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine. That group has highlighted the importance of a vibrant educational system and a well-educated citizenry that can join conversations on the challenges facing society. It has also focused on the needs of a changing workforce.

We know that jobs that are common today won’t exist in the future, Austin said. And in 10 or 20 years, “there will be opportunities for work that we can’t even imagine right now.”

“How do we prepare our students for this kind of world?” she asked.

What can we do?

I’ve written before about Austin, who cofounded the Center for Integration of Research, Teaching, and Learning. Her work in organizational change has influenced some of the approaches we take at CTE, and she is a partner on a National Science Foundation grant on creating a more nuanced approach to evaluating teaching. She has worked with many KU faculty members on that project, which is known as Benchmarks for Teaching Effectiveness at KU. The multi-university project is known as TEval.

Austin provides broad insight and thought-provoking questions to everything she does, and the Summit was no exception. She also offered several concrete steps that participants could take to improve their courses, their departments and the learning environments for their students:

white man with mustouche and open collar shirt sits in audience, holding microphone, as he asks question
Robert Hagen, lecturer in environmental studies, asks a question during the Summit.
  • Embrace high-impact practices. These include things like service learning, internships, writing-intensive courses, and learning communities. These and other practices “link the knowing with the doing,” Austin said, and create a more equitable learning environment.
  • “Become more fluent in how learning happens.” Research into learning and higher education continually provides new insights, Austin said, urging participants to consider ways of applying that research in their disciplines. CTE programs and materials can help instructors do that without spending hours combing through journals.
  • Focus on learning, not seat time. Our courses are organized by credit hours, a system that originated in the 19th century and focused on the amount of time instructors delivered information to students. That system is outmoded, especially for online courses, but we can still work within it, Austin said, by emphasizing learning and using effective means of assessing learning.
  • Seek out new ways to reach students. This might involve using technology, taking an innovative approach in face-to-face or online courses or curricula, or using new types of physical classrooms. Austin emphasized the importance of flexibility and creativity in helping students learn. Organize curricula in new ways and look for new pathways that better fit today’s students. She said that included not just degrees but ways for people to move in and out of higher education to refresh skills and share their expertise.
  • Cultivate new partnerships. Communities inside and outside the university help us draw on new perspectives, learn from one another, and create new learning opportunities for our students and our colleagues. These partnerships can also provide opportunities for developing and promoting leadership skills that universities need if they hope to innovate.

Even as she pushed audience members to take action, she urged them to draw on the many good things already happening at universities.

“I’m not in any way suggesting that we just jettison what we’re doing,” Austin said. “We do so much that is so good.”

Rather, she suggested committing to effective practices and ask “what is this changing world suggesting that we might do differently?”

Doing so helps us move from story – a beacon on a hill in a volatile, changing world – to action.

“That’s the story we are part of,” Austin said. “We need to think not only in a philosophical way – that’s part of the story – but in a real practical way. What do we do in our departments, in our programs and in the university to actually let us make the best contributions to our learners and to society?”

A whiteboard with Welcome to KU, new students written in blue
A whiteboard at the School of Engineering

A cloudy day with lots of sunshine

The Summit took place on the same day that hundreds of students moved in to KU’s residence halls. Chancellor Doug Girod, dressed in khaki slacks and a blue KU polo shirt, said at the beginning of the Summit that he always looked forward to helping with the move-in and talking with students and their families.

The day was cloudy, and the sky threatened rain, but school had yet to start and a shiny eagerness and a positive energy permeated the campus.

“This is one of the few days of the year when everybody smiles,” Girod said.


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

A colleague’s daughter recently finished her first year of college. In high school, he said, she had never really had to study to get good grades. In college, though, she had to adjust her study habits and her thinking after her early grades dipped below the A’s and B’s she had routinely – and easily – received.

That sort of dip in grades is common among traditional freshmen as they learn to live away from home for the first time, deal with the liberation and temptations of personal independence, and try to make sense of the academic expectations of college. How they deal with that jolt can affect everything from their choice of majors to their ability to stay in college.

Jennifer Meta Robinson, an anthropology professor at Indiana University-Bloomington, has been studying this phenomenon, which she calls “grade surprise.” Students usually have a good sense of the grades they will receive on assignments or exams, or in a class. When that expectation doesn’t match reality, though, they experience grade surprise.

woman gestures as she stands amid seated in a conference room
Jennifer Meta Robinson explains her work in “grade surprise” to members of the steering committee of the Bay View Alliance.

Robinson explained her research to the steering committee of the Bay View Alliance earlier this month in Bloomington, Indiana. Both Indiana and KU are members of the Bay View Alliance, a consortium of 10 research-intensive universities that are working to elevate teaching and improve learning among students. Robinson and colleagues in chemistry, computer science and informatics recently received a mini-grant from the Association of American Universities to continue their work of surveying students and analyzing university data to try to find questions they have about grade surprise among students:

  • How does grade surprise affect retention in various majors?
  • Does the power of grade surprise grow as students move through additional classes?
  • What approaches help students recover when they encounter grade surprise?

Robinson’s hypothesis is that grade surprise impedes student progress but can be mitigated. When students are overconfident, she said, failure is more painful than when they have low expectations about their grades.

“Surprise creates pain,” Robinson said.

She is also looking at the flip side of that: whether there is positive grade surprise.

“There’s a human tendency to rewrite the past,” she said. “We mitigate our pain by retelling our story in a way that makes it less surprising.”

For instance, students might tell themselves that a low grade was the instructor’s fault or that people like them just don’t do well with this type of material or in these types of classes. That type of thinking can easily push students out of classes or majors.

Interestingly, few students seem to blame instructors when grades come in lower than expected.

“We were surprised at how few students said, ‘The teacher had it in for me,’” Robinson said. “Or, ‘This was out of left field. I studied this other thing and it wasn’t on the test.’ There was very little of that. It really was about more about what I can do, what I practice, where I can spend more time. The locus of control was within.”

Disparities in distribution and reaction

Grade surprise isn’t equally distributed, Robinson said. Underrepresented minority students and first-generation students are more likely to be surprised by their grades. And women feel more disappointment when they receive lower grades.

Robinson and her colleagues have been sharing context about grades to try to ease some of the pain of grade surprise. For instance, in computer science and informatics classes at Indiana, women generally receive higher grades than men. In chemistry, women and men receive similar grades, although all receive lower grades than they did in high school.

“So women may feel that more, that disappointment in themselves, that setback of, ‘Oh, maybe I don’t belong,’” Robinson said. “But that’s where we could say to them that they may be processing this differently but the GPA facts of it are that they are doing the same.”

An analysis of data at Indiana shows that many students bounce back after the shock of an initial grade. They expect an A, receive a C but then eventually get an A in the course. Robinson and her colleagues want to better understand what students do to recover. They are also looking at the mindset of students who think they did poorly on, say, a midterm exam but actually did well. What happens if they enroll for the subsequent semester before they know their grade?

“What is that little detour through the course?” she asked. “How long does that hang in the air that you think you’ve bombed but you get that assignment back and got that A after all?”

A move toward wider use of data

Robinson describes the grade surprise project as one of many that “connect classes to the potential of big data.” Indiana has an ambitious program in helping faculty members combine university demographic data with data about student performance in classes. That combination is often referred to as learning analytics. The Indiana program, known as Learning Analytics Fellows, has led to more than 50 projects since it started in 2015. It is run through a recently created Center for Learning Analytics and Student Success.

We have been working on a similar project at KU, though at a smaller scale. An AAU mini-grant through the Center for Teaching Excellence has allowed several STEM departments to use university data to learn more about their students and about the paths they take through various curricula. The recently created Office of Analytics and Institutional Research (formerly the Office of Institutional Research and Planning) has continued the momentum around wider application of university data. One of its divisions focuses on academic data analytics and is looking at ways of making more data available to faculty members.

These types of data project allow instructors and departments to ask new questions about curricula, with an eye toward improving student retention and graduation rates. As Robinson explained in her talk at Indiana, this use of data is driving culture change as universities find ways to scale learning analytics even as they explore the potential of data in education. Robinson emphasized the importance of providing context for data and of applying “interpretive muscle” to tease out insights.

“These are drivers for change at all of our universities,” she said.


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

AUSTIN, Texas – How do students view effective teaching?

They offer a partial answer each semester when they fill out end-of-course teaching surveys. Thoughtful comments from students can help instructors adapt assignments and approaches to instruction in their classes. Unfortunately, those surveys emphasize a ratings scale rather than written feedback, squeezing out the nuance.

Speaker holds microphone as she gestures toward screen
Christina Ormsbee and Shane Robinson of Oklahoma State explain results of a qualitative survey of student views of teaching at their university.

To address that, staff members from the Institute for Teaching and Learning Excellence at Oklahoma State spoke with nearly 700 students about the effectiveness of their instructors and their classes. They compiled that qualitative data into suggestions for making teaching more effective. Christina Ormsbee, director of the center at OSU, and Shane Robinson, associate director, shared findings from those surveys last week at the Big 12 Teaching and Learning Conference in Austin.

Here are some of the things students said:

  • Engage us. The students’ favorite instructors vary their approach to class, use interesting and engaging instructional methods, and use relevant examples.
  • Communicate clearly. Students value clear assignments, transparent communication, and timely, useful feedback. They also want lecture notes posted online.
  • Be approachable. Students described their favorite instructors as personable, professional and caring. “Students really want faculty to care about them,” Ormsbee said. They also want instructors to care about student learning. They complained about instructors who were abrasive, sarcastic or demeaning.
  • Align class time with assessments. Students want instructors to respect their time by using class activities and lessons that connect to out-of-class readings and build toward assessments.
  • Be available. Students want instructors to hold office hours at times that are convenient for students and to help them when they ask. They also expect instructors to communicate through the campus learning management system and though email and other types of media.
  • Be organized. Students appreciate organizational tools like detailed class agendas and timelines. They like study sessions before exams, but they also want instructors to go over material they missed on exams.
  • Slow down. Students say instructors often go through course material too quickly.
  • Grade fairly. Students dislike instructors who focus grading too heavily on one aspect of a course, grade too harshly, or deduct points for missing class or for not participating.
  • Don’t give us too much work. (You aren’t surprised, are you?)

Much of this aligns with the research on effective teaching and learning (engagement, alignment, organization, pacing, transparency, clarity). Some of it also aligns with aspects of universal design for learning (see below). Other aspects have as much to do with common courtesy as with good pedagogy. (We all want to feel respected.) Still other parts reflect a consumer mentality that has seeped into many aspects of higher education.

Feedback from students is important, but it is also just one of many things that instructors need to focus on. A class of satisfied students means nothing if none of them is learning. And students know little about the years of accumulated evidence about effective teaching. So we should listen, yes, but we should base decisions about our classes on an array of evidence and thoughtful reflection.

Universal design takes center stage

All too often, instructors, administrators and staff members think about accessibility of course content only when a student requests an accommodation.

The problem with that approach, said Melissa Wong of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, is that a vast majority of students who need accommodations never seek them out. Sometimes they don’t know about a disability or have never been formally diagnosed. In other cases, students are embarrassed about having to share personal details or assume they can make it through a class without an accommodation.

Wong called the current system of acquiring an accommodation “legalistic.” Students must have health insurance. They must fill out multiple forms and have records transferred. They must maneuver through university bureaucracy and find the right offices, a skill that many students lack. Then they must submit forms in each class they take. In class, they may confront inaccessible course materials, hazy expectations, and daunting assignments.

Each of those barriers adds to students’ burden, ultimately making things harder for instructors and for other students. Instructors can help all their students – even those who don’t need accommodations – by following the principles of universal design for learning, though, Wong said. Wong was among several speakers at the Big 12 conference who emphasized the importance of universal design for learning.

Universal design started with architecture (think curb cuts and self-opening doors), but its importance in education has grown as the diversity of students has grown. In essence, it is a way of thinking about learning in terms of student choices: multiple forms of engagement, multiple means of representation, and multiple forms of action and expression.

Speaker, holding microphone, gestures as he stands in front of a screen with Star Wars characters
Tom Tobin used a Star Wars theme to explain universal design for learning.

Tom Tobin of the University of Wisconsin-Madison suggested thinking of universal design in terms of “plus one.” If you have a written assignment, consider giving students one other option for completing the same work. If you provide a video, make sure it has captions.

“We don’t have to perfect,” Tobin said. “We just have to be good.”

He also suggested reframing the conversation about accessibility to one about access. Good access helps all students learn more effectively and keeps them moving toward graduation.

“The idea of UDL is not to lower the rigor of the material,” Tobin said. “The idea is to lower the barrier of getting into the conversation in the first place.”

Wong offered some additional advice on how to apply universal design in classes:

  • Use a clear organizational structure in your syllabus. Use subheads so that students can find everything easily. And make sure the syllabus has a section on accommodations.
  • Create a list of assignments and due dates. This helps students plan and cuts down on anxiety. Wong said a one-page assignment calendar she creates was one of the most popular things she had done for her classes.
  • Present information in a variety of ways (text, video, audio, multimedia), and provide examples of successful work. Offering choices in assignments can help students feel more in control and allow them to demonstrate learning in ways they are most comfortable with. For instance, you might give students a range of assignment topics to choose from and give them options like video or audio for presenting their work, in addition to writing.
  • Make sure video is close-captioned. If you have audio, make sure students have access to a transcript.
  • Use a microphone routinely, especially in large classrooms.
  • Scaffold assignments so that students can work toward a goal in smaller pieces.
  • Be flexible with deadlines. If you give one student an extension, make sure all students have the same option. If a student is chronically late with assignments or frequently seeks to make up work, try to understand the underlying problems and refer that student to offices on campus that can help.

The best approach is to take accessibility into account from the beginning rather than trying to retrofit things later, Wong said. That not only cuts down on the need for accommodations but creates a smoother route for all students.

Other nuggets from the conference:

Supplemental instruction success. A three-year study at the University of Texas-Austin found that student participation in supplemental instruction sessions improved grades in gateway courses in electrical engineering. Supplemental instruction involves regular student-led study sessions overseen by trained student facilitators. About 40% of students in UT’s Introduction to Electrical Engineering courses participated in supplemental instruction. I’ll be writing more about KU’s supplemental instruction program in the next few weeks.

Practical thinking. Shelley Howell of the University of Texas-San Antonio emphasized the importance of relevance in helping students move toward deeper learning. She drew on a model from Ken Bain’s book What the Best College Students Do, categorizing students into surface learners (who do just enough to get by), strategic learners (who focus on details and stress about grades) and deep learners (who are curious and ask questions, accept failure as a part of the learning process, and apply learning across disciplines). All students need to understand the purpose of individual assignments, and instructors need to make course content relevant, give students choices, and ask questions that take students on a “messy” path to understanding, Howell said.

Red alert. Educators have grown too complacent about student failure, Howell said, and would benefit from a Star Trek approach to student success. Every episode of Star Trek is essentially the same, she said: Something goes wrong. The problem must be fixed right away or the ship will crash. The problem is impossible to fix. The crew finds a way to fix it anyway. What if those of us in higher education had the same attitude? Howell asked, adding: If you knew that every student had to succeed, how would you teach differently?

A final thought. Emily Drabinski, a critical pedagogy librarian at the Graduate Center at City University of New York, offered this bit of wisdom: “For knowledge to be made, it has to be organized.”


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

When we started an end-of-semester teaching event four years ago, we referred to it simply as a poster session.

The idea was to have instructors who received grants from the Center for Teaching Excellence or who were involved in our various programs create posters and then talk with peers and visitors as they might at a disciplinary conference. In this case, though, the focus was on course transformation and on new ways that instructors had approached student learning.

As the event grew, we decided to call it the Celebration of Teaching, and it has become exactly that.

We didn’t do an official count at the event on Friday, but well more than 100 people attended. There were 54 posters created by instructors involved in Diversity Scholars, the Curriculum Innovation Program, and the Best Practices Institute, and those who received course transformation grants during the year.

Here’s view of the Celebration of Teaching in photographs.


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

 

By Doug Ward

If you plan to use student surveys of teaching for feedback on your classes this semester, consider this: Only about 50% of students fill out the surveys online.

Yes, 50%.

There are several ways that instructors can increase that response rate, though. None are particularly difficult, but they do require you to think about the surveys in slightly different ways. I’ll get to those in a moment.

The low response rate for online student surveys of teaching is not just a problem at KU. Nearly every university that has moved student surveys online has faced the same challenge.

That shouldn’t be surprising. When surveys are conducted on paper, instructors (or proxies) distribute them in class and students have 10 or 15 minutes to fill them out. With the online surveys, students usually fill them out on their own time – or simply ignore them.

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I have no interest in returning to paper surveys, which are cumbersome, wasteful and time-consuming. For example, Ally Smith, an administrative assistant in environmental studies, geology, geography, and atmospheric sciences, estimates that staff time needed to prepare data and distribute results for those four disciplines has declined by 47.5 hours a semester since the surveys were moved online. Staff members now spend about 4 hours gathering and distributing the online data.

That’s an enormous time savings. The online surveys also save reams of paper and allow departments to eliminate the cost of scanning the surveys. That cost is about 8 cents a page. The online system also protects student and faculty privacy. Paper surveys are generally handled by several people, and students in large classes sometimes leave completed surveys in or near the classroom. (I once found a completed survey sitting on a trash can outside a lecture hall.)

So there are solid reasons to move to online surveys. The question is how to improve student responsiveness.

I recently led a university committee that looked into that. Others on the committee were Chris Elles, Heidi Hallman, Ravi Shanmugam, Holly Storkel and Ketty Wong. We found no magic solution, but we did find that many instructors were able to get 80% to 100% of their students to participate in the surveys. Here are four common approaches they use:

Have students complete surveys in class

Completing the surveys outside class was necessary in the first three years of online surveys at KU because students had to use a laptop or desktop computer. A system the university adopted two years ago allows them to use smartphones, tablets or computers. A vast majority of students have smartphones, so it would be easy for them to take the surveys in class. Instructors would need to give notice to students about bringing a device on survey day and find ways to make sure everyone has a device. Those who were absent or were not able to complete the surveys could still do so outside class.

Remind students about the surveys several times

Notices about the online surveys are sent by the Center for Online and Distance Learning, an entity that most students don’t know and never interact with otherwise. Instructors who have had consistently high response rates send out multiple messages to students and speak about the surveys in class. They explain that student feedback is important for improving courses and that a higher response rate provides a broader understanding of students’ experiences in a class.

To some extent, response rates indicate the degree to which students feel a part of a class, and rates are generally higher in smaller classes. Even in classes where students feel engaged, though, a single reminder from an instructor isn’t enough. Rather, instructors should explain why the feedback from the surveys is important and how it is used to improve future classes. An appeal that explains the importance and offers specific examples of how the instructor has used the feedback is more likely to get students to act than one that just reminds them to fill out the surveys. Sending several reminders is even better.

Give extra credit for completing surveys

Instructors in large classes have found this an especially effective means of increasing student participation. Giving students as little as 1 point extra credit (amounting to a fraction of 1% of an overall grade) is enough to spur students to action, although offering a bump of 1% or more is even more effective. In some cases, instructors have gamified the process. The higher the response rate, the more extra credit everyone in the class receives. I’m generally not a fan of extra credit, but instructors who have used this method have been able to get more than 90% of their students to complete the online surveys of teaching.

Add midterm surveys

A midterm survey helps instructors identify problems or frustrations in a class and make changes during the semester. signaling to students that their opinions and experiences matter. This in turn helps motivate students to complete end-of-semester surveys. Many instructors already administer midterm surveys either electronically (via Blackboard or other online tools) or with paper, asking students such things as what is going well in the class, what needs to change, and where they are struggling. This approach is backed up by research from a training-evaluation organization called ALPS Insights, which has found that students are more likely to complete later course surveys if instructors acknowledge and act on earlier feedback they have given. It’s too late to adopt that approach this semester, but it is worth trying in future semesters.

Remember the limitations

Student surveys of teaching can provide valuable feedback that helps instructors make adjustments in future semesters. Instructors we spoke to, though, overwhelmingly said that student comments were the most valuable component of the surveys. Those comments point to specific areas where students have concerns or where a course is working well.

Unfortunately, surveys of teaching have been grossly misused as an objective measure of an instructor’s effectiveness. A growing body of research has found that the surveys do not evaluate the quality of instruction in a class and do not correlate with student learning. They are best used as one component of a much larger array of evidence. The College of Liberal Arts and Sciences has developed a broader framework, and CTE has created an approach we call Benchmarks for Teaching Effectiveness. It uses a rubric to help shape a more thorough, fairer and nuanced evaluation process.

Universities across the country are rethinking their approach to evaluating teaching, and the work of CTE and the College are at the forefront of that. Even those broader approaches require input from students, though. So as you move into your final classes, remind students of the importance of their participation in the process.

(What have you found effective? If you have found other ways of increasing student participation in end-of-semester teaching surveys, let us know so we can share your ideas with colleagues.)

The ‘right’ way to take notes isn’t clear cut

Photo by The Climate Reality Project on Unsplash

A new study on note-taking muddies what many instructors saw as a clear advantage of pen and paper.

The study replicates a 2014 study that has been used as evidence for banning laptop computers in class and having students take notes by hand. The new study found little difference except for what it called a “small (insignificant)” advantage in recall of factual information for those taking handwritten notes.

Daniel Oppenheimer, a Carnegie Mellon professor who is a co-author of the new paper, told The Chronicle of Higher Education:

“The right way to look at these findings, both the original findings and these new findings, is not that longhand is better than laptops for note-taking, but rather that longhand note-taking is different from laptop note-taking.”

A former KU dean worries about perceptions of elitism

Kim Wilcox, a former KU dean of liberal arts and sciences, argues in Edsource that the recent college admissions scandal leaves the inaccurate impression that only elite colleges matter and that the admissions process can’t be trusted.

“Those elite universities do not represent the broad reality in America,” writes Wilcox, who is the chancellor of the University of California, Riverside. He was KU’s dean of liberal arts and sciences from 2002 to 2005.

He speaks from experience. UC Riverside has been a national leader in increasing graduation rates, especially among low-income students and those from underrepresented minority groups. Wilcox himself was a first-generation college student.

He says that the scandal came about in part by “reliance on a set of outdated measures of collegiate quality; measures that focus on institutional wealth and student rejection rates as indicators of educational excellence.”

Wilcox was chair of speech-language-hearing at KU for 10 years and was president and CEO of the Kansas Board of Regents from 1999 to 2002.

Join our Celebration of Teaching

CTE’s annual Celebration of Teaching will take place Friday at 3 p.m. at the Beren Petroleum Center in Slawson Hall. More than 50 posters will be on display from instructors who have transformed their courses through the Curriculum Innovation Program, C21, Diversity Scholars, and Best Practices Institute. It’s a great chance to pick up teaching tips from colleagues and to learn more about the great work being done across campus.


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

By Doug Ward

Higher education has many stories to tell.

Finding the right story has been difficult, though, as public colleges and universities have struggled with decreased funding, increasing competition for students, criticism about rising tuition, skepticism from employers and politicians about the relevance of courses and degrees, and even claims that the internet has made college irrelevant.

Prajna Dhar works with a student during class.

One top of that, students increasingly see higher education as transactional. Colleges and universities have long lived on a promise that time, effort and learning will propel students to a better life and the nation to a more capable citizenry. Today, though, students and their parents talk about return on investment. They want to know what they are getting for their money, what sort of job awaits and at what salary.

All of this has put higher education on the defensive, searching for a narrative for many different audiences. The Association of American Colleges and Universities has focused its last two annual meetings on telling the story of higher education. I led a workshop and later a webinar on that topic, and participants were eager to learn from each other about strategies for making a case for higher education. At one of this year’s sessions, a workshop leader asked participants whether their universities were telling the story of education well.

No one raised a hand.

All too often, universities use their color brochures and websites to explain how prestigious they are and to sell students on an ivory tower fantasy. Both of those things have a place. By focusing on education as a product, though, they overlook what college is really about: challenges, disappointments, maturity, opportunity, growth, and, above all, learning.

Matt Smith demonstrates how an augmented reality sandbox can create “rain.”

Teaching and learning rarely make their way into the stories that universities tell. If they did, here are some of the things students would learn about:

  • Kim Warren, associate professor of history, who has rethought the language she uses in her classes. In helping students think like historians, she treats everyone as English-language learners so that no one leaves class confused by terminology or expectations.
  • Prajna Dhar, associate professor of engineering, who has made sure that students with disabilities can participate in the active learning at the heart of her classes.
  • Mark Mort, who has transformed once-staid 100-level biology classes into vibrant hubs of activity where students help one another learn.
  • John Kennedy, associate professor of political science, who draws upon his expertise in international relations to help students work through negotiation scenarios that diplomats and secretaries of state struggle with.
  • Matt Smith, a GTA in geography, who has created an interactive sandbox that allows students to create terrain and use virtual rain to explore how water flows, collects and erodes.
  • Genelle Belmas, associate professor of journalism, who has created a “whack-a-judge” game to help students learn about media law and a gamification class that helps them learn about things like audience, interactivity, and creativity.
  • Phil Drake, associate professor of English, who uses peer evaluation to help students improve their writing and to gain practice at giving feedback.
  • M’Balia Thomas, assistant professor of education, who uses Harry Potter books to demonstrate to TESOL and ELL teachers how they can use students’ existing knowledge to motivate them and to learn new material.
  • Ward Lyles, assistant professor of urban planning, who passionately embraces team-based learning and who helps students learn to approach statistics with diversity, equity and inclusion in mind.

    Lisa Sharpe Elles explains her use of artificial intelligence software for grading during CTE teaching demos in November.
  • Lisa Sharpe Elles, assistant teaching professor in chemistry, who has increased the use of open-ended questions in large chemistry classes by using artificial intelligence for grading.
  • Sarah Gross, assistant professor of visual art, who uses self-assessment as a means for students to improve their pottery skills and to learn from peers.

I could go on and on. The stories of innovative techniques and inspirational approaches to teaching and learning at KU seem limitless. All too often, though, they go untold. That’s a shame because they are perhaps the most important stories that students and prospective students need to hear as they make decisions about college and college classes.

The stories we tell remind us of who we are and where we are going. One of our roles at CTE is to tell the stories of the inspiring teachers who form the heart of learning at KU. Another is to bring those teachers together in ways that allow them to inspire and learn from one another.

Great teaching is crucial to the future of higher education. It takes time, creativity, and passion. It is important intellectual work that deserves to be celebrated and rewarded.

That’s a story worth telling.


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

By Doug Ward

This year’s update on the Kansas Board of Regents strategic plan points to some difficult challenges that the state’s public colleges and universities face in the coming years.

First, the number of graduates is thousands short of what the regents say employers need each year. The number of certificates and degrees among public and private institutions actually declined by 1.2 percent between 2014 and 2018, and was 16 percent short of the regents’ goal.

I’ve written before about the shrinking pool of traditional students in coming years amid changing social norms. Full-time undergraduate enrollment nationwide peaked in 2010 and has been flat or declining since then. And as long as the economy remains stable, universities are likely to have trouble attracting older students. Since 2010, the number of Kansans between the ages of 25 and 64 who are taking classes at regents institutions has declined 20.4 percent. That decline is even steeper among those 35 and older.

Most certainly, the regents’ report highlights successes. For instance, the number of engineering graduates has already surpassed the regents’ goal for 2021. The regents president and chief executive, Blake Flanders, also writes that the state’s public colleges and universities have made transfer among institutions easier and that most bachelor’s degrees now require 120 hours of credit.

The primary goal of the strategic plan is to increase the number of post-secondary credentials among Kansans as a means to improve the state’s economy. This includes associate’s degrees and certificates in various technical fields. KU would have to increase its number of graduates 25% over the next two years to meet the regents’ goal. That’s a Sisyphean task, given recent trends.

KU has certainly made progress toward retaining students and helping them graduate. This has involved such things as transforming classes to make them student-centered, streamlining core classes, improving advising, making better use of data, adding freshman courses with fewer students, and adopting a host of other strategies.

The need for a clearer path for students

Disciplines within liberal arts and sciences have also worked at providing a clearer roadmap for students, often taking on some of the strategies of professional schools. Earlier this month, Paula Heron, a physics professor at the University of Washington, spoke to physics faculty at KU about the findings of a report called Phys21, which she helped write. That report urges physics departments to look more practically at the value of a physics degree.

Paula Heron spoke with instructors at a recent physics colloquium.

Physics, like so many disciplines, is set up primarily to move students toward graduate school and academic careers, Heron said. Most students, though, don’t want to stay in academia. Forty percent of physics students go directly into the workforce and 61% work in the private sector, she said. Among physics Ph.D.s, only 35% work in academia.

Heron urged faculty to “educate people in physics so they have a broader sense of the world.” Help students apply their skills to practical problems. Give them more practice in writing, speaking, researching, and working in teams. Help students and career counselors understand what physics graduates can do.

One of the biggest challenges is that most physics professors lack an understanding of the job market for their graduates. They have worked in academia most of their lives and don’t have connections to business and industry, making it hard for them to advise students on careers or to help them apply skills in ways that will prepare them for jobs.

The challenge in physics mirrors that of many other disciplines. Academic work tends to focus our attention deeper inside academia even as demographic, social and cultural trends require us to look outward. If we are to thrive in the future, we must shift our perceptions of what higher education is and can be. That means transforming courses in student-centered ways and rewarding research and creative work that informs our teaching and brings new ideas and new connections to the classroom. That doesn’t mean we must throw out everything and start over. Not at all. We must be flexible and open-minded about teaching and research, though. Ernest Boyer made a similar plea in 1990 in Scholarship Reconsidered, writing:

“Research and publication have become the primary means by which most professors achieve academic status, and yet many academics are, in fact, drawn to the profession precisely because of their love for teaching or for service – even for making the world a better place. Yet these professional obligations do not get the recognition they deserve, and what we have, on many campuses, is a climate that restricts creativity rather than sustains it.”

Much has changed in the nearly 30 years since Boyer’s seminal work. Unfortunately, universities continue to diminish the value of teaching and service and creativity even as their future depends on creative solutions to attracting and teaching undergraduates. We have ample evidence about what helps students learn, what helps them remain in college, and what helps them move toward graduation. What we lack is an institutional will to reward those who take on those tasks. Until we do, we will simply be pushing the enrollment boulder up a hill again and again.

More from the report

A few other things from the regents report stand out:

  • Only Fort Hays State met the regents’ goal for the number of graduates and certificate recipients in 2018, and it actually exceeded that goal by 3 percent. KU fell short by 14.3 percent, and K-State fell short by 10.7 percent. Community colleges and technical colleges were 11.9 percent short of the 2018 goal.
  • A third of students attending regents institutions received Pell Grants in the 2017-18 academic year, slightly above the national average. Between 2014 and 2018, though, the number of students receiving Pell grants declined by 7 percent at Kansas’ public universities.
  • Pell grants, which in 1998-99 covered 92 percent of the tuition for a student at a public university, now cover only 60 percent.
  • The number of Hispanic students continues to grow, with Hispanics now accounting for 11.1% of students at regents institutions, compared with 7.6% in 2010. Enrollment among blacks has been steady at 7.4% of the student population. That is up from 6.3% in 2010 but down from 8.1% in 2013.
  • Another metric the regents created, a Student Success Index, seems cause for concern. That index accounts for such things as retention and graduation rates among students who transferred to other institutions. Among all categories – state universities, municipal university, community colleges and technical colleges – students performed worse in 2017 than they did in 2010.

Does the U.S. have too many college graduates?

Here’s a view that runs counter to the Kansas regents’ argument that public universities need to increase the number of graduates. It comes from Richard Vedder, an emeritus professor at Ohio University, who argues in a Forbes article and a forthcoming book that universities are producing too many graduates. His claim: “We are over-invested in higher education.”

Vedder argues that colleges and universities face a triple crisis: The cost of college is too high; students are spending less and less time on academic work; and there is a disconnect between what universities teach and what employers want.

I agree with all of those things, though I disagree with the idea that we have too many college graduates. Vedder seems to approach education in strictly utilitarian terms, with graduates fitting like cogs in the machinery of capitalism. If all universities did was match course offerings to job requirements, they would deprive students of the broader skills they need to carve out meaningful careers and the broader ability to make innovative connections among seemingly disparate areas. They would also deprive the nation of citizens who can dissect complex problems and cut through the obfuscation that permeates our political system.

Briefly …

Enrollment challenges are hardly limited to the U.S. In the U.K., regulators say universities are overestimating the number of international students they expect to attract in the coming years, The Guardian reports. That is significant because the traditional-age student population is expected to decline in coming years in the U.K., and universities are looking overseas to attract students. … Research done by makers of educational products often greatly overestimates the effectiveness of those products, a Johns Hopkins University study warns. Product makers often create their own measurement standards, exclude students who fail to complete a protocol, or dismiss failures as “pilot studies,” according to The Hechinger Report. That leads to inflated results that the study calls the “developer effect.” In many cases, companies obscure the funding source of their studies.


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

By Doug Ward

We can glean many lessons from the most recent college admissions scandal.

A system that purports to be merit-based really isn’t. Standardized testing can be gamed. A few elite universities hold enormous sway in the American imagination. Hard work matters less than the ability to write a big check. The wealthy will do anything to preserve the privilege of plutocracy.

We knew all that, though.

What struck me most about the admissions scandal was how blatantly transactional a college degree has become and how vulnerable universities have become to sacrificing their integrity to the promise of a bigger donation.

I’ve written before about how the product of education – a diploma, an overemphasis on sports, bucolic images of campuses, perceptions of privilege from association with a particular institution – have overshadowed the process of learning. The admissions scandal not only reinforces that idea of education as a product but makes it clear that to many, education is only a product.

Those of us who teach see that mentality all too often in our classes. An undergraduate once told me that I was diminishing her prospects because she had to work too hard to earn an A. She knew what she wanted to do, she said, and she would learn nothing from my class or the other classes she was required to take. A degree with a high GPA was the only important thing, she said. Another student quoted his father as saying that the only thing college was good for was to meet people who could help you later.

Those students represent extremes of what higher education has become. College costs loom so large that students choose majors based on how much money they can make rather than on what might fulfill them in career. State governments perpetuate this by channeling money to favored programs rather than to universities as a whole, emphasizing economic development over an informed citizenry. The federal government encourages it by favoring privately issued college loans over grants and highlighting graduates’ income in comparing college programs. And universities themselves perpetuate it by chasing the status of rankings and promoting prestige over the needs of student learners.

Universities must live within this transactional culture but they must not sacrifice their integrity. They must address student concerns about costs and careers and salaries. They must make classes more accessible and convenient to students (see below). They must find fairer ways than standardized tests to gauge student competency.

Above all, they must promote the process rather than the product of education. A college education is certainly about career preparation, and institutions must help guide anxious students toward meaningful careers. They must also remind students that education is about learning and discovery. It’s about challenging ideas and beliefs, about challenging the self. It’s about a wide range of values and intellectual challenges that must be lived and earned, not bought and sold.

If nothing else, the admissions scandal should push universities to take a hard look at themselves and ask what they value, how they are perceived, and how they can maintain their integrity. If they don’t, they risk becoming just a wall decoration in a tarnished gilded frame.

Experimenting with new models of higher education

MOOC-mania has largely subsided, but companies and non-profit organizations continue to experiment with models that allow students to take online courses at little or no cost and transfer the credits to traditional colleges and universities.

EducationNext writes about three of those entities – StraighterLine, Modern States, and Global Freshman Academy – which collectively have enrolled more than 500,000 students but have mostly had the same low completion rates as MOOCs.

For instance, Arizona State created Global Freshman Academy in 2015. That program allows students to take 14 online freshman-level courses for $600 each. Of 373,000 who have enrolled, only 1,750 have completed. Students who have enrolled in classes through StraighterLine and Modern States generally complete only a course or two.

Those are hardly stunning results, but they are nonetheless worth watching. Many students are already acquiring college credit through advanced placement exams and dual-enrollment courses, which are generally taught on college campuses. KU is also expanding the number of classes it offers through Lawrence Public Schools, with courses created by KU instructors but taught by high school teachers. Students will pay a lower rate for those courses.

The Edwards Campus has taken this even further, working with area high schools and community colleges so that students can earn a college degree in three years.

Take a trip on the K-10 bus between Lawrence and Johnson County Community College, and you will see substantial numbers of KU students traveling to classes at JCCC. Many others take online community college classes in the summer, not only because of the convenience but because of the lower cost. Some university classes incorporate MOOCs in their instruction, supplementing the online materials with in-class discussions and problem-solving.

The upshot of all this is that a college education is not always centered on a single institution. Most universities treat it that way, but students are increasingly considering cost and convienience. And as long as the cost of a college education pushes large numbers of students into debt and the demand for flexibility in scheduling and class format grows, there will be opportunities for outside organizations to step in with alternative approaches to higher education.

Perception and reality of university budgets

Those of us in higher education know all too well that states have slashed funding for colleges and universities over the last 10 years.

Yes, “slashed” is the right work. The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities says that states’ spending on higher education is $9 billion lower today than it was in 2008, after adjusting for inflation.

That message apparently hasn’t gotten through to the American public, though.

According to a poll conducted by APM Research Lab and the Hechinger Report, 34% of Americans think funding for higher education has stayed the same over the last 10 years, and 27 percent think it has increased. (We wish.) Only 29 percent realize that funding has actually declined.

More people realize that government-financed grants and loans have not kept up with tuition increases. In the APM-Hechinger poll, 44 percent said they knew that. Disturbingly, though, about the same percentage said they thought that government aid had either increased or stayed the same.

The poll showed some interesting disparities among various groups. I won’t go into those other than to say that Easterners seem better informed than Westerners and Democrats better informed than Republicans. The abysmal overall understanding, though, should send a clear message to those of us who work in higher education: We need to do a better job of communicating with the public.

Briefly …

EdSurge asks an intriguing question – Is creativity a skill? – and then seeks answers from the perspective of various professions. … The University of Missouri plans to add five new undergraduate degrees and four new graduate degrees as part of its plan to increase enrollment by 25,000 students by 2023, The Missourian reports. … From the this sounds familiar department, a committee in the Missouri House of Representatives is considering a bill that would allow concealed carry of firearms on public university campuses. … Moody’s has issued a new warning about the finances of universities as enrollment flattens or declines, Education Dive reports. … Speaking of finances, Blackboard has agreed to sell one of its businesses and plans to move its headquarters outside Washington, D.C., as part of an effort to reduce its substantial debt, an analyst writes in e-Literate. …


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

By Doug Ward

CHARLOTTE, N.C. – Faculty members seem ready for a more substantive approach to evaluating teaching, but …

It’s that “but” that about 30 faculty members from four research universities focused on at a mini-conference here this week. All are part of a project called TEval, which is working to develop a richer model of teaching evaluation by helping departments change their teaching culture. The project, funded by a $2.8 million National Science Foundation grant, involves faculty members from KU, Colorado, Massachusetts, and Michigan State.

Rob Ward, Tracey LaPierre and Chris Fischer discuss strategies during a meeting of TEval, an NSF-grant-funded project for changing the way teaching is evaluated. They joined colleagues from three other universities for meetings this week in Charlotte, N.C.

The evaluation of teaching has long centered on student surveys, which are fraught with biases and emphasize the performance aspects of teaching over student learning. Their ease of administration and ability to produce a number that can be compared to a department average have made them popular with university administrators and instructors alike. Those numbers certainly offer a tidy package that is delivered semester to semester with little or no time required of the instructor. And though the student voice needs to be a part of the evaluation process, only 50 to 60 percent of KU students complete the surveys. More importantly, the surveys fail to capture the intellectual work and complexity involved in high-quality teaching, something that more and more universities have begun to recognize

The TEval project is working with partner departments to revamp that entrenched process. Doing so, though, requires additional time, work and thought. It requires instructors to document the important elements of their teaching – elements that have often been taken for granted — to reflect on that work in meaningful ways, and to produce a plan for improvement. It requires evaluation committees to invest time in learning about instructors, courses and curricula, and to work through portfolios rather than reducing teaching to a single number and a single class visit, a process that tends to clump everyone together into a meaningless above-average heap.

That’s the where the “but …” comes into play. Teaching has long been a second-class citizen in the rewards system of research universities, leading many instructors and administrators to chafe at the idea of spending more time documenting and evaluating teaching. As with so many aspects of university life, though, real change can come about only if we are willing to put in the time and effort to make it happen.

None of this is easy. At all the campuses involved in the TEval project, though, instructors and department leaders have agreed to make the time. The goal is to refine the evaluation process, share trials and experiences, create a palette of best practices, and find pathways that others can follow.

At the meeting here in Charlotte, participants talked about the many challenges that lie ahead:

  • University policies that fail to reward teaching, innovation, or efforts to change culture.
  • An evaluation system based on volume: number of students taught, numbers on student surveys, number of teaching awards.
  • Recalcitrant faculty who resist changing a system that has long rewarded selfishness and who show no interest in reframing teaching as a shared endeavor.
  • Administrators who refuse to give faculty the time they need to engage in a more effective evaluation system.
  • Tension between treating evaluations as formative (a means of improving teaching) and evaluative (a means of determining merit raises and promotions).
  • Agreeing on what constitutes evidence of high-quality teaching.

Finding ways to move forward

By the end of the meeting, though, a hopeful spirit seemed to emerge as cross-campus conversations led to ideas for moving the process forward:

  • Tapping into the desire that most faculty have for seeing their students succeed.
  • Working with small groups to build momentum in many departments.
  • Creating a flexible system that can apply to many circumstances and can accommodate many types of evidence. This is especially important amid rapidly changing demands on and expectations for colleges and universities.
  • Helping faculty members demonstrate the success of evidence-based practices even when students resist.
  • Allowing truly innovative and highly effective instructors to stand out and allowing departments to focus on the types of skills they need instructors to have in different types of classes.
  • Allowing instructors, departments and universities to tell a richer, more compelling story about the value of teaching and learning.

Those involved were realistic, though. They recognized that they have much work ahead as they make small changes they hope will lead to more significant cultural changes. They recognized the value of a network of colleagues willing to share ideas, to offer support and resources, and to share the burden of a daunting task. And they recognized that they are on the forefront of a long-needed revolution in the way teaching is evaluated and valued at research universities.

If we truly value good teaching, it must be rewarded in the same way that research is rewarded. That would go a long way toward the project’s ultimate goal: a university system in which innovative instructors create rich environments where all their students can learn. It’s a goal well worth fighting for, even if the most prevalent response is “but …”

A note about the project

At KU, the project for creating a richer system for evaluating teaching is known as Benchmarks for Teaching Effectiveness. Nine departments are now involved in the project: African and African-American Studies; Biology; Chemical and Petroleum Engineering; French, Francophone and Italian; Linguistics; Philosophy; Physics; Public Affairs and Administration; and Sociology. Representatives from those departments who attended the Charlotte meeting were Chris Fischer, Bruce Hayes, Tracey LaPierre, Ward Lyles, and Rob Ward. The leaders of the KU project, Andrea Greenhoot, Meagan Patterson and Doug Ward, also attended.

Briefly …

Tom Deans, an English professor at the University of Connecticut, challenges faculty to reduce the length of their syllabuses, saying that “the typical syllabus has now become a too-long list of policies, learning outcomes, grading formulas, defensive maneuvers, recommendations, cautions, and referrals.” He says a syllabus should be no more than two pages. … British universities are receiving record numbers of applications from students from China and Hong Kong, The Guardian reports. In the U.S., applications from Chinese students have held steady, but fewer international students are applying to U.S. universities, the Council of Graduate Studies reports. … As the popularity of computer science has grown, students at many universities are having trouble getting the classes they need, The New York Times reports.


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

By Derek Graf

Critics of liberal education seem obsessed with immediate practicality. Or at least the visibility of practicality.

For example, Gallup advises higher education institutions to “demonstrate their value to consumers by increasing their alignment with the workforce.” The author also suggests that the field of liberal arts might attract more students after some “rebranding” to avoid the political connotations associated with the word “liberal.” Such a name change, the logic goes, would allow the humanities to promote and emphasize their relevance to students of the 21st century. A post on Gallup’s website responds to a poll in which many U.S. adults expressed concerns about the financial stability, value, and overall effectiveness of higher education.

Students look at a group assignment on a table as an undergraduate teaching assistant points out something on the paper
Students in Geology 101 work on an in-class assignment. Problem-solving and critical thinking skills apply to all forms of intellectual development, from the humanities to the sciences.

Note the language used to describe the basic structure of the university: With students as consumers, colleges must compete for their business. In an earlier post, I discussed the problems that arise from conflating teaching with customer service. From that perspective, graduation seems less an accomplishment than a financial transaction, and the human element of learning becomes marginalized for the sake of careerism.

How can the humanities demonstrate their value—often intangible—to students? As Elizabeth H. Bradley explains in a recent Inside Higher Ed article, students who study the liberal arts have a strong capacity to “recognize the larger patterns of human behavior.” While I agree with her observation, it’s still difficult at first glance to say exactly how the study of literature, visual art, photography, film, and so on prepares students for the non-academic workforce. But that’s what makes the humanities more vital than ever.

Perhaps I’m an idealist, but I don’t believe that we should measure the success of a liberal arts education by the statistics of job placement. Without such statistics, how does one measure the growth and development of students as human beings in the higher education system? As Gianpiero Petriglieri claims in a recent post for Harvard Business Review, “once they stop having to be useful, the humanities become truly meaningful.”

The idea here is that a central tenet of the humanities—concern for and exploration of the human condition—becomes lost when this particular field of study functions only as an instrument for financial or occupational satisfaction. The capitalist pursuit does a disservice to humanistic education, because it ignores the potential for literature and art to make an impact in the context of social justice, for example, or to raise awareness about historical and systemic inequalities. Outside the narrow perspective of the workforce, the humanities have tremendous value. Studying the humanities isn’t practical or pragmatic in any materialist sense, and it shouldn’t have to be.

Must everything be marketable?

But to return to an earlier question raised by the Gallup post: what is the workforce? Is this the same arena as the “real world” that is so often held up as an intimidating contrast to one’s college years? If so, then the workforce offers a range of opportunities for which higher education institutions cannot completely account.

While universities can provide internships and training courses for specific occupations, the idea of a workforce is too nebulous for any cohesive design at alignment. Structural attempts to holistically align the university curriculum with the job market will change the university into a vocational school. If that happens, then students will not have access to courses—in the humanities, for example—that offer no practical advice or preparation for a particular job.

So what happens if, instead of promoting “marketable skills” and “essential qualities” for a student’s future career, humanities courses emphasize their lack of practicality, their resistance to pragmatism? In an article for the Intercollegiate Review, James Matthew Wilson says that “the primary task of liberal education is to plant your mind with images of the good and the beautiful, images to which you are naturally drawn, often without knowing why.”

The good and the beautiful, sure, but also the bad and the ugly, to which many of us are also naturally drawn. Rather than present literature, art, and film as timeless texts that hold timeless truths, as Wilson does, it’s important to communicate to students that one seeks out the humanities for problems, not for answers. For ways not to act, as well as for models of ethical and moral behavior.

Studying the humanities in a rigorous, committed manner helps students acquire skills that will benefit them as applicants and employees. As Gerald Greenberg explains in this Washington Post article, humanities students bring to the workplace valuable “problem-solving and critical thinking abilities.” These skills are not specific to any particular job. Instead, they apply to a range of occupations. An education in the humanities might seem opaque to those who seek a one-to-one correlation between one’s degree and one’s career. However, with greater consideration of the actual tasks and exercises presented to students in humanities courses, it becomes more and more clear how well-equipped such students are for work both inside and outside the academy.

Of course, college is expensive, and many students likely believe that visual arts or creative writing courses offer nothing but a waste of time and money. It’s beyond the means of this post to offer a solution for the rising costs of higher education, but I don’t think that the answer for the humanities lies in emphasizing productivity and practicality. Instead, a liberal arts education should present itself in honest, direct terms: these classes are frustrating, challenging, and often overwhelming in their scope. And yet, while students won’t necessarily be able to apply the content of such courses to their future occupations, they will be able to deal with the many frustrations, challenges, and overwhelming sensations that arise in any workplace environment. The humanities offer a distinct, unorthodox path to job preparation, one that finds comfort in the uncomfortable.

The thinking process is crucial

In my experience as an instructor of creative writing (poetry, short fiction, literary nonfiction, etc.) and composition, I have seen my students struggle with the practice of writing or reading just for the sake of writing or reading. “Are we going to turn this in?” or “Is this for a grade?” are common questions I encounter when I ask students to perform a free-writing exercise or dialogue activity, for example. There are a few problems that arise in this scenario. One of them is that when I tell my students that they will not turn in or be graded for such writing, many students simply don’t do the work. They don’t see the practical value of composition when it isn’t tied to a grade. The central question behind this response is, to my mind, “What’s the point?”

I understand and sympathize with their frustration, but I also want them to embrace that feeling, to work in a space of indeterminacy, and see what they can produce under those circumstances. My attempt is to discourage even more troubling questions that often arise in writing classes: “What do you want me to say?” or “If I say this will I get an A?” I refuse to treat my students like employees, to give them narrow confines of expression, to reduce all writing in the academic space to a letter grade.

Why? Because unlike Wilson, I do not believe that “critical thinking” encourages a “skeptical, suspicious view of the world.” Instead, it’s my opinion that critical thinking, which students must perform independently to achieve the higher-end goals of a particular assignment, allows for a more comprehensive and considerate view of the world.

The value of the humanities, then, lies in the processes of critical thinking, interpretation, discernment, and deliberation. It might not be possible to tell from a prospective employee’s transcript that her Introduction to American Literature course required these forms of mental and emotional work, but it will certainly become clear over time that such skills often originate from the tasks one performs in humanities courses. These classes have long-term rather than short-term benefits, and without them (or without encouragement to enroll in them), any alignment for the workforce will have serious gaps in its foundation.


Derek Graf is a graduate fellow at the Center for Teaching excellence and a graduate teaching assistant in English.

By Doug Ward

Education has always been a balancing act. In our classes, we constantly choose what concepts to emphasize, what content to cover, what ideas to discuss, and what skills to practice. As I wrote last week, the choices we make will influence our students throughout their careers.

Higher education is now facing a different kind of balancing act, though, one that involves not just what we teach and who we are but what college is and should be about and how it fits into the broader fabric of society. The recent annual meeting of the Association of American Colleges and Universities made clear just how tenuous a grasp higher education has on credibility and how broad the gap is between internal and external perceptions of colleges and universities.

Consider this from Brandon Busteed, a former Gallup executive who is now president of Kaplan University Partners:

“If you were to take the most brilliant marketing minds in the world, put them in a room for a day, lock them in there and say, please emerge with words that would be the worst possible combination to use in attracting students to higher education, they would emerge with one combination called ‘liberal arts.’ ”

Ouch!

To explain that, he referred to a study of high-performing, low-income students at Stanford. When asked what they thought of liberal arts, they most commonly replied: “What’s that?” Or “I’m not liberal.” Or “I’m not good at or interested in art.”

Lest those of you in professional programs start to feel smug, read on.

The negative connotations of ‘college’

In Gallup polling, Busteed said, Americans express confidence in “higher education” and “post-secondary education.” They see those things as important to the future. When asked about “college” or “university,” though, the warm feelings suddenly chill.

“Why?” Busteed asked. “When we say ‘college,’ we think about traditional-age students. We think about a residential experience. We think about Animal House movies.”

In other words, Americans see a need for education to prepare them for jobs and careers. Increasingly, though, the typical student who needs additional education looks nothing like Flounder, Babs or Bluto and wants nothing to do with a system they see as driven by liberal ideology and populated by drunken misfits more interested in toga parties than in preparing for the future.

“The words are holding us back,” Busteed said.

A new study from the Pew Research Center reinforces that. According to Pew, Democrats rank improving education as the second most important priority for the president and Congress, trailing only reducing health-care costs. Republicans, on the other hand, see defending against terrorist attacks, fixing social security and dealing with immigration as far more important than education or health care.

Another divide shows up in the Pew survey, with about three-quarters of women and those between 18 and 49 years old saying that improving education should be the top priority. Men and older Americans see education as a less pressing issue. The Pew poll doesn’t distinguish K-12 from higher education, but it does point to the complicated relationship Americans have with education of all sorts today. And the way educators see education and the way the public sees education are vastly different.

“Talk of higher education as a public good, of investing in societal education, has been replaced by talk of return on investment: tuition in exchange for jobs,” Lynn Pasquerella, president of AAC&U said during the organization’s annual meeting. She added: “The fact that Americans believe more in higher education than in colleges and universities is a clear indication that the way we talk about what we do in academia shapes public perception.”

Employers’ conflicted feelings

That perception applies not only to the public whose voices carry weight in state and federal funding of education but to the businesses and organizations that hire college graduates.

survey AAC&U conducted last year found that only 63% of business executives and hiring managers have a great deal or quite a lot of confidence in colleges and universities. That’s higher than the 45% of the public who express confidence in colleges and universities. And if you ask those same business leaders whether college is worth the time and expense, 85% to 88% say yes, according to the AAC&U survey.

The responses indicate a clear ambivalence about higher education, though. Nearly all of the business leaders say they are asking employees to take on more responsibilities and more complex tasks than in the past. Nearly all of them say they are looking for prospective employees who think critically and communicate clearly, possess intellectual and interpersonal skills that will lead to innovative thinking, and have an ability to use a broader range of skills than workers in past years did. Many of them just aren’t convinced that college is preparing students for that.

Many academics will scoff at the focus on business leaders. A university education isn’t the same as job training, they say. It isn’t about tailoring classes to meet the specific demands of the business world and molding students into corporate clones.

I agree. And yet as the cost of college has risen precipitously, students increasingly want assurances that their degrees will lead to good jobs. We can – and should – talk about how our degrees will make students into better people and better citizens, about how our courses prepare students to face the unpredictable challenges of the future. Students want that, too. Above all, though, they want to be able to pay off their loans once they graduate. As Busteed told the AAC&U gathering, today’s students, as “consumers of higher education,” want more efficient and less expensive paths through college, and they want their coursework aligned with the jobs they will take upon graduation.

So we are back to the balancing act that those of us inside colleges and universities face. We want our students to leave with disciplinary knowledge but must help them understand how our disciplines lead to careers. We fret over week-to-week understanding of course material even though much of it is very likely to be obsolete within a few years. We try to teach in a reasoned, meaningful, inclusive way even as a partisan, skeptical public questions our epistemological foundations. We carry the burden of a name – college or university – that has lost its cachet even as a wary and reluctant public continues to see a need for what we do.

What’s the point of a major?

A colleague at AAC&U pointed to an enormous paradox in teaching and learning today. As students flood into what they see as “safe” majors of business and engineering, the liberal arts and sciences have donned the mantle of job skills. English isn’t just about literature and poetry; it’s about the communication skills that employers prize. History isn’t just about an understanding of the past; it’s about critical thinking skills that will get you a job. Political science isn’t just about the machinations of government; it’s about learning to work in groups so you can thrive in a career.

All of those things are true, but as my colleague reminded me, students don’t choose a major because they think it will make them better at group work, improve their critical analysis, or allow them to make better decisions independently. They choose a major because they are passionate about literature or linguistics or biology or politics or French or journalism or (name the major).

So more than ever, we educators must approach our work in multiple layers. We must balance disciplinary depth with broad-scale career skills, short-term understanding with long-term viability. We must learn to explain our majors more meaningfully and our roles as academics more thoughtfully. We must help our students explore the many facets of our majors while helping them connect to the ideas and philosophies of other majors. We must guide students through the details of disciplinary competency while recognizing that only the broader skills and experiences – what the media historian Claude Cookman calls the “residue” of education – generally sticks with students over the years.

Higher education has always been about exploration and understanding. As those of us who make up higher education balance the many demands pressing down on us today, though, we must undertake a broader exploration of just who we are because, increasingly, those on the outside don’t know.


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

By Doug Ward

Those of us in higher education like to think of ourselves as preparing students for the future.

That’s a lofty goal with a heavy burden. Predicting the future is a fool’s game, and yet as educators we have accepted that responsibility by offering degrees that we tell our students will have relevance for years to come.

In our courses and with our colleagues, we simply don’t talk nearly enough about how we foresee the future and what role our disciplines will play. We have a responsibility to ask ourselves difficult questions: What skills will our students need not just next year, but in the next decade and the 40 or 50 years after that? What can we do to prepare students for a future we can’t possibly predict?

Michael Murray writes on a white board as other professors talk in the background
Michael Murray, professor of physics, summarizes notes from a group discussion during a STEM sexual harassment prevention workshop. The workshop, held earlier this month, was sponsored by the Center for STEM Learning and led by Blair Schneider of KU and Meredith Hastings of Brown.

The core curriculum is certainly part of the answer, emphasizing such broad skills as critical thinking, quantitative reasoning, communication, ethics, creativity, and synthesis. Those show up frequently in the lists of skills for the future issued by various organizations and industries. Other skills I’ve seen listed recently on those lists include agility, resilience, flexibility, entrepreneurism, technological know-how, relationship building, systems thinking, global awareness, online collaboration, emotional intelligence, and an ability to spot trends. Groupings of those are sometimes referred to as “power skills.”

You can find many others. Most likely you have your own. Or you may prefer to think about higher education in broader terms, much as Bernard Bull, assistant vice president for academics at Concordia University Wisconsin, wrote about recently:

“The essence of a great college experience is not a college degree. It is a rich, engaging, empowering, enlightening and transformative learning experience. It is the experience of a network that may well extend through one’s lifetime. It is the experience of being immersed in a culture of curiosity and a love of learning. It is a place where you are stretched, challenged, inspired, and pushed to discover meaning and purpose in your life and the world around you.”

Most certainly, college helps students learn about themselves, their peers and society, develop independence and responsibility, and gain enough disciplinary understanding to apply skills in a meaningful (if often rudimentary) way. There’s a danger in being too general, though, because those generalizations make academia an easy target for critics, who like to paint higher education as out of touch and irrelevant. In that view, all a person needs is hard work, ingenuity and grit, not a college degree. Drawing on those inner skills is not only practical but much, much cheaper.

A variation on that theme posits that college students are ill-prepared for the jobs of today, let alone the jobs of tomorrow. You don’t have to look far to find scathing portrayals of universities as mindless playgrounds in which students dally for four (or five or six) years and emerge mired in debt and no more prepared to face the world than when they started college.

Both of those portrayals hold grains of truth, but they also view education through the lens of neo-liberal utilitarianism. In that view, the only valuable skill is one that leads to monetary gain and the only valuable graduates are those that fit like cogs into predetermined slots of corporate machinery. A degree, in that view, is all about the money. The federal government has backed that perspective by promoting comparisons of graduates’ salaries vs. cost of degree, and universities have perpetuated it themselves as they have whittled away at the liberal arts, raised tuition to levels that stretch ordinary families to the limit, and run themselves like corporations rather than nonprofits that serve the public good. States and the federal government have forced universities to adopt that way of thinking as they have slashed spending on higher education and turned student loans into a guaranteed profit center for private lenders.

There’s plenty of blame to go around.

It’s the beginning of the semester, though. Students and instructors have a chance to start anew. We can’t solve all the problems of higher education in a single semester, no more than we can teach students all the skills they need in a single class. We can and must keep the broader picture in mind, though, as we lead students into a new exploration of disciplinary challenges, societal problems, and academic inquiries. As we do, though, we must remember that knowledge is useless without an ability to apply it, and that skills have limited currency without an ability to refresh, revise and remake them.

So as you begin the semester, consider this: What are you doing to prepare your students for the future? And how will they know they are on the right track?

Worth considering …

“I think it is important for parents to be situated in the context of the digital revolution through which we are living. It was only 11 years ago that the iPhone was introduced, and faster download speeds, and it has transformed almost all of American community life. Inevitably, for good or for ill, it’s going to transform where education heads.”

—Sen. Ben Sasse, R-Nebraska, speaking at the ExcelinEd conference

Briefly …

The Midwest is producing an increasingly larger share of graduates in technology-related fields, the website OZY reports. Twenty-five percent of computer science graduates now come from the Midwest, OZY writes, saying that “tomorrow’s innovators may never set foot in Silicon Valley.”  … The Atlantic looks at the struggle that the University of Wisconsin at Stevens Point faces in maintaining liberal arts programs amid budget cuts and a declining number of majors. … Providing students more direction and community could help reverse declining enrollments in history programs, Jason Steinhauer of Villanova argues in a Time column. … Politico writes about how free college, an idea usually associated with liberal politics, has been enthusiastically embraced in conservative Tennessee.


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

By Doug Ward

The end of a semester is always hectic, but it’s important to spend time reflecting on your classes while things are still fresh in your mind.

Did students learn what you had hoped? If not, what do you need to change the next time you teach the class? What activities or assignments led to unexpected results or fell short of your expectations? What readings did students struggle with and how can you help students grasp them better? What discussion areas resulted in a mostly silent classroom? What elements of your syllabus did students find unclear and need revision?

Those are just a few things to consider. Now is good time to make some notes because by the time you get to a chapter or assignment or module or discussion next time, you will struggle to remember exactly what changes you had planned to make.

Ashley Herda, assistant professor of health, sport and exercise sciences, has found a great way to reflect on her teaching and to make sure she is ready the next time she teaches a class. She calls it a living syllabus.

A SEMESTER’S WORTH OF LOST AND FOUND. Students leave behind a lot of things in the large lecture halls in Budig Hall each semester. Water bottles and lunch bags are always plentiful, as are notebooks and books. It’s not unusual to see keys, flash drives, watches, glasses, shirts, student ID cards, passports and even credit cards. This is in addition to perhaps a dozen coats and jackets and even a stray soccer ball (upper left). Hmm.

Herda explained her approach during a workshop at the Edwards Campus last week. She said the living syllabus worked like this: After she distributes the course syllabus to students, she sets aside a copy for herself and makes digital notes on it during the semester. If students find something unclear, she makes changes in the syllabus in edit trace immediately. If an assignment takes far less time than she expected, she highlights a section of the syllabus and makes notes in bubbles to the side. If there are problems in grading, she reminds herself right in the document.

This approach makes it easy for her to make adjustments for a future class, she said. Rather than starting from scratch each time, she has the living syllabus ready to go.

I love the idea of a living syllabus. The name perfectly captures the idea of a course in a state of constant improvement. It also turns the syllabus into a means of reflection, not just an artifact of a class.

During the workshop, other instructors explained their own approaches to reflection and course improvement. John Bricklemyer, lecturer in engineering and project management, jots down notes after each module in the online classes he teaches and frequently shares his thoughts with other instructors. Lee Stuart, leadership programs manager on the Edwards Campus, includes a reflection component for each assignment that asks students for their feedback on the assignment. That helps him get a better sense of places where students are struggling or of assignments that might be too easy or that are not meaningful.

Like others, I have long made notes about classes and assignments during the semester. I usually do this in a OneNote file where I keep a class outline, readings and notes. I also build in reflection assignments in each course I teach and ask students to evaluate themselves and the course. When I teach in person, I usually spend part of the last day of class talking with students about the strengths and weaknesses of the class. I’m candid about strong and weak areas I saw in the course and students are generally forthcoming with their own thoughts.

The method of reflection on a course is less important than the act of reflecting, though. The disciplines we study and the courses we teach are dynamic and need continual oversight. Students change. Materials change. Our understanding of the subject matter changes. Needs of a department change.

Imagine how vibrant teaching might be if all instructors embraced the philosophy of a living syllabus. It’s a worthy aspiration.

Guidelines for successful brainstorming

A recent article from Innovation Excellence offered what it called the four rules of brainstorming. The idea of rules for something as freewheeling as brainstorming seems a bit odd, but I can see the logic in establishing some guidelines.

Innovation Excellence attributed the rules to Alex Osborn and his book Applied Imagination, published in 1953. Here they are:

  • Go for quantity over quality, because we know the best way to get good ideas is to just start with lots of ideas.
  • Withhold criticism, or “no idea is a bad idea.”
  • Encourage wild ideas; just freewheel and go crazy? (Sort of the point of rule two.)
  • Combine and improve upon ideas.

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

Here’s another approach to using silence as a motivator for active learning.

I’ve written previously about how Genelle Belmas uses classroom silence to help students get into a “flow state” of concentration, creativity, and thinking. Kathryn Rhine, as associate professor of anthropology, uses silence in as part of an activity that challenges students to think through class material and exchange ideas but without speaking for more than 30 minutes.

Kathryn Rhine explains how she approaches a silent seminar in her anthropology classes.

Rhine calls this approach a silent seminar, and she explained it during demonstrations at a meeting of CTE’s C21 Consortium earlier this month. The technique can be easily adapted for nearly any class and seems especially useful for helping students reflect on their learning at the end of the semester.

Here’s how Rhine uses the activity:

She covers four tables with butcher block paper and moves them to the corners of the room. She creates four questions about class readings and assigns one to each table. She used this recently after students read Ann Fadiman’s book When the Spirit Catches You Fall Down. Three of the questions were based on core themes of the book. The fourth asked students to consider elements of the book that were less resolved than others.

Each student receives a marker and is assigned to a group at one of the four tables. Students then consider the questions and write their responses on the butcher block paper.

“I tend not to tell them how to answer the question,” Rhine said. “I simply say just write or reflect or comment.”

They have five to eight minutes to write before moving to another table. They add their responses to the questions at the new table but also respond to answers that other students have written down.

As “silent seminar” suggests, this is all done without speaking. Once students have responded to all four questions, though, Rhine gives them permission to talk. And after 30 to 40 minutes of required silence, they are ready to discuss, she said.

Working in their groups, students summarize the core themes of the comments on the tables, nominating one person from each group to present their summaries to the class.

Participants at C21 write comments during a silent seminar demonstration.

“If there’s still time remaining in the class, I will then have a conversation about what we saw and what was missing or surprising or contradictory,” Rhine said. “I want them to think about the patterns of reflection, not just what was reflected.”

She also asks students to reflect on the approach used in the silent seminar. How was it different from a typical class and how did it change the way they participated?

Rhine’s classes range from 10 to 30 students, but the silent seminar could be used in any size class. If a room doesn’t have tables, use whiteboards or attach paper to the walls and have students write in pen. Giant sticky notes would make this easy. I could see this working with digital whiteboards or discussion boards, as well.

The key to the exercise, as with all active learning, is student engagement. Rhine has found the silent seminar particularly effective in that regard.

“I like that this is more inclusive,” she said. “It allows students who are more silent in class or who are afraid to speak out the ability to write and reflect. I also like that students who have lots of things to say can put it down on paper.”

She has also found the anonymity of the exercise helpful. Students are more likely to take intellectual risks when they don’t have the entire class watching them and listening, she said.

The silent seminar also engages students in several different ways: critical thinking, writing, summarizing, and presenting.

It has an added benefit for the instructor.

“I love 40 minutes of silence where I can just rotate around and not have to be on the whole time,” Rhine said.

Another new tool from JSTOR

JSTOR Labs, the innovation arm of the academic database JSTOR, has released a new tool that allows researchers to find book chapters or journal articles that have cited specific passages from a primary document.

The tool, called Understanding Great Works, is limited to material in the JSTOR database. It is also limited to just a few primary sources: Shakespeare’s plays, the King James Bible and 10 works of British literature.

It works like this: You open a primary text on the JSTOR site. A list along the right side of the digital document shows how many articles or books have quoted a particular passage. Clicking on the number opens a pop-up box with the sources and a passage showing how the line was used in a particular article or book chapter.

Understanding Great Works expands on project called Understanding Shakespeare, which was released in 2015, and JSTOR Labs is asking for input on what primary texts should be added next. (Oscar Wilde’s play “The Importance of Being Earnest” had the most votes as of Thursday.) I learned about it from a post on beSpacific.

JSTOR Labs has been releasing a new digital tool about once a year. A tool called Text Analyzer, which was released last year, is worth checking out. It allows you to upload a document for analysis by JSTOR, which then offers suggestions for sources in the JSTOR database. It works not only with Word documents and PDFs but with PowerPoint, spreadsheets and even photos of documents.

* * * * * *

Kevin Beneda, dressed in gray shorts, an Einstein shirt and a unicorn head, stands with his hands in his pockets as students file from a class in the LEEP2 engineering building
UNICORN FOR A DAY. Yes, that was a unicorn sitting in Prajna Dhar’s engineering class earlier this semester. Actually, it was Kevin Beneda, who had lost a football bet to a friend, wearing a unicorn head. To pay off the bet, he transformed into a student unicorn in all his classes that day. No one seemed to mind, at least in the class I visited.

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 Derek Graf

Teaching has traditionally centered on instructors as the gatekeepers of knowledge. Students, though, can now type a few words into their phone’s web browser and find the same content they would hear in a lecture-based class. Immediate access to a wide range of lectures, models, and examples has many students asking why they are paying enormous amounts of money for educational material that is often available for free. And instructors who cling to the gatekeeper model of education risk overlooking their own redundancy.

This is not to say that the internet has replaced the instructor. In Teaching Naked, José Antonio Bowen, president of Goucher College, argues that instructors should embrace technology both inside and outside the classroom. On the one hand, it is obvious that “technology can be harnessed to enhance the widely desired goals of increased student engagement and faculty-student interaction” (x). Less obvious, though, is Bowen’s claim that technology “is most powerfully used outside of class as a way to increase naked, nontechnological interaction with students inside the classroom” (x).

diverse group of people leaning against a wall and using smartphones
Photo by rawpixel on Unsplash

Central to Bowen’s argument is his observation that “technology has created new competitors, new expectations, and a global market for higher education” (24). Teaching Naked contains a unique sense of urgency because of Bowen’s consistent reminder that students, as consumers, are beginning to question the university as a business. Working within this global market, instructors who ignore or dismiss online learning from the classroom environment alienate 21st-century students and put the traditional university system at risk of seeming outdated and irrelevant.

One way instructors can demonstrate to students that the university remains in step with technological advances is by utilizing social media for communicating with and among students. Because classroom communication can involve much more than trading information about assignments and deadlines, Bowen offers creative ways to use social media. For example, he advises that “if practical problem solving is a goal of the class, you might send a daily tweet or message with a new practical problem” (138). Using Twitter, Facebook, or Snapchat does not necessarily increase student engagement with the course material; however, it can allow for varied forms of communication between instructor and student.

Changing how we communicate with our students shows them that our courses do not exist only in the physical space of the classroom. An online discussion board, for example, “is an easy way for your students to constantly reengage with material and concepts while they are away from your classroom,” and this helps to establish “learning communities that integrate learning into residential life” (141). Rethinking the classroom space in this way can lead to changes in the curriculum. As Bowen says, “picking a textbook and a list of topics was never a learning strategy, and ignoring that the world has changed will not impress your students” (127). When we ask students to consider questions and concepts through informal means, such as a tweet, we expand the content of our courses and encourage a larger network of student engagement.

The importance of speedy communication

Using technology to communicate changes one-on-one meetings with students as well as how, when, and where instructors hold office hours. Bowen claims that “millennial students are much more interested in the speed of your response than in your physical presence” (41). As someone who often struggles with the question of whether office hours are beneficial for all my students, I find this area of Teaching Naked particularly useful. While I want my students to know that I am available and accessible, I also wonder whether traditional forms of availability, such as physical office hours or email, are the best ways for students to reach out to me. Bowen offers the following strategies for instructors interested in shifting office hours to such digital formats as Skype and Facebook:

  • Pick a time frame when you will be online and available for calls from students.
  • Combine the video session with chat technology. You can use the chat to keep a queue for your Skype calls. When there is no Skype call, you can talk to as many students on chat as you can handle.
  • Give students choices. Tell them they can contact you on Skype or by text or post questions to a class Facebook group.
  • Don’t overlook the value of (nontechnologically) getting out of the office. Try a local coffee house, find a student lounge or find a spot next to your class and get there an hour early.

Throughout Teaching Naked, Bowen urges his readers to make deliberate choices about the most productive ways to communicate with students outside the classroom with the goal of increasing learning inside the classroom. For those who feel comfortable incorporating different forms of interaction, platforms like Facebook and Twitter are valuable tools. For those who are hesitant to increase the channels of communication students can use to seek help, it is still important to increase our visibility and transparency. We limit the range of student learning when we assume that all learning must occur in the classroom.

While it’s difficult to argue against the pedagogical benefits offered through a more comprehensive use of technology in and outside the classroom, the issue of treating students as customers remains troubling. Bowen admits that “the demand for customer service can be tremendously annoying,” but he also encourages instructors to “think about the possible benefits to learning” in the customization of education. One central concern in Teaching Naked is how students are first exposed to new material, an exposure that often takes the form of assigned readings followed by lecture. Bowen argues that “even if reading followed by lecture were the best way to reach the most students, it would still be teaching only the students whose learning preferences favor reading and listening” (55).

Reading this passage, I cannot help but wonder if it’s plausible to customize one’s course to take into account students who do not “favor” reading or listening. Of course, not all students learn the same way, but if instructors consider students customers first and learners second, we risk seeking to please the customer rather than challenge the learner. Varying one’s pedagogical strategies is always a good idea, yet the problematic implications of complete customization remain open for inquiry and debate.


Derek Graf is a graduate fellow at the Center for Teaching excellence and a graduate teaching assistant in English.

By Doug Ward

Strong beliefs about volatile issues can quickly turn class discussions tumultuous, especially during election season.

Rather than avoid those discussions, though, instructors should help students learn to work through them civilly and respectfully. That can be intimidating, especially in classes that don’t usually address volatile issues.

Jennifer Ng, director of academic inclusion and associate professor of educational leadership and policy studies, says transparency is the best way to proceed with those types of discussions. Be up front with students about how emotionally charged issues can be, she told participants at a CTE workshop on Friday. Explain what you are doing and why, but also be clear that you don’t know exactly where the conversation might go.

Students in Political Science 678 debate foreign policy issues in class. The instructor, John Kennedy, helps students ground their discussions in facts.

The CTE website offers advice on how to handle difficult discussions, KU Libraries lists many resources for helping students with media literacy, and Student Affairs lists resources where students, faculty and staff can turn for help in working through personal and professional issues.

Participants at Friday’s workshop shared many ideas on how to make class discussions go more smoothly. Here are a few:

Focus on facts. Politics has become increasingly polarized, making it easy for discussions to turn into heated rants. So help students focus on the facts of an issue or position. What do we know and how do we know it? What has scholarship suggested? Yes, the word “facts” has itself become problematic in a political atmosphere where partisans dismiss anything they don’t like and instead embrace “alternative facts.” Helping students identify what the facts are can help keep discussions away from personal attacks.

Challenge the position, not the person. That, of course, is an approach educators have advocated for years. If we hope to have civil discussions, we have to help students pick apart arguments rather than alienate people they disagree with.

Ask students to imagine an objective approach. Rather than taking a partisan side, ask students to step back and look at arguments from a neutral perspective. What are the strengths and weaknesses of each side? Ng describes this as having students look at the world in a ”meta” sort of way, one that moves them out of the fray and into a broader perspective.

Have students take an opposite view from their own. This is similar to the neutral viewpoint in that it forces students to step back from strongly held positions and consider why others might disagree. Have them write a paragraph explaining that other perspective so they can think through it more meaningfully. Another approach is to have students look at the issues from the perspective of an international student.

Have students create ground rules for discussions. This helps them feel invested in a conversation and reminds them of the importance of respectful discussions.

Have a “pause button.” This is a signal that any student can use to indicate that discussions are becoming too heated and need to stop, at least briefly. The pause can help everyone regroup so the conversation can remain civil.

Give students permission to check out of a conversation. Some instructors allow students to pick up their phones and block out a discussion if it gets too intense. This can also signal to an instructor that the conversation might need to pause. Some instructors allow students to leave the room if things get too heated, but that also draws attention to students who leave.

Don’t assume you have to know what to say. If something comes up that you aren’t prepared to deal with, explain to students that you need to do some research and will get back to them by email or during the next class. Sometimes, instructors just need to listen and try to understand rather than wading into a subject unprepared.

Have students do some writing before they leave class. This can help ease tension, but it also gives instructors a sense of what students are thinking and what they might need to address in a later class.

Take care of yourself. Instructors who deal with emotional classroom issues and listen to students’ personal challenges can suffer what the American Counseling Association calls vicarious trauma or compassion fatigue. This is tension brought on by dwelling on stories of traumatic experiences that others have shared. A recent article in Faculty Focus offers suggestions for dealing with these types of issues.

KU’s interim provost, Carl Lejuez, offered an excellent goal for all discussions at the university. In his weekly message to the campus this week, Lejuez wrote:

“There is no weakness in being respectful. There is no shame in being considerate. There is nothing wrong with a desire to be a community that cares for its people. Put another way, KU is at its best when we are civil, understanding and compassionate.”

Briefly …

Forthcoming webinars led by the university’s Technology Instruction and Engagement team will focus on using MediaHub and the Blackboard grade center. You will find a full list of workshops on this site. Past webinars are available on KU IT’s YouTube channel, and the team’s resource page, How to KU, offers help on Office 365, Sharepoint, and several Adobe applications. … The Library of Congress has created what it calls the National Screening Room, an archive of films that can be downloaded or watched online. … Edutopia offers strategies for remembering students’ names. … Wichita State’s Campus of Applied Sciences and Technology will pay provide a free education, relocation expenses for incoming students who live more than 75 miles away, and housing and cost-of-living stipends, according to Education Dive. The program, which is funded by the Wichita Community Foundation, is intended to address a shortage of skilled workers in aviation fields like sheet metal assembly and process mechanic painting. Students are guaranteed jobs after they graduate.


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 

From the trenches, the work to improve college teaching seems interminably slow.

Those of us at research universities devote time to our students at our own peril as colleagues who shrug off teaching and service in favor of research earn praise and promotion. When we point out deep flaws in a lecture-oriented system that promotes passive, shallow learning, we are too often told that such a system is the only way to educate large numbers of students. We seemingly write the same committee reports over and over, arguing that college teaching must move to a student-centered model; that a system established for educating a 19th-century industrial workforce must adapt to the needs of 21st-century students; that higher education’s rewards system must value teaching, learning, and service – not just research.

Mary Huber works with Jim Greer, an administrator at the University of Saskatchewan, during a meeting of the Bay View Alliance.
Mary Huber works with Jim Greer, an administrator at the University of Saskatchewan, during a meeting of the Bay View Alliance.
In the end, few people seem to be listening.

That’s my perception, at least. During my 15 years as a faculty member, I have seen many positive changes as the benefits of active and engaged learning have seeped into broader conversation and as the need to reform higher education has become part of a growing number of conversations. The largest barriers to change seem immovable, though – especially as we push against them day by day. It’s easy to get discouraged.

So when I heard Mary Huber speak about dramatic changes she had seen in teaching and learning over the last three decades, I wanted to hear more. That was in January 2017 at the annual meeting of the Association of American Colleges and Universities. I finally had that opportunity a few months later at a meeting of the Bay View Alliance, a consortium of research universities working to improve teaching and leadership in higher education.

I was hoping not only to get a broader perspective on higher education but to gain some reassurance that the work we do to improve undergraduate education matters. I wasn’t disappointed. I never am when I speak to Mary, who has played a crucial role in shaping discussions about teaching and learning over the past 30 years. I have gotten to know her over the past few years through our work in the BVA. She was a founding member of the organization and is now a senior scholar and a member of its leadership team. The insights and leadership she brings to the BVA were honed over many years of work at the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, among other organizations.

A key role at Carnegie

At Carnegie, she helped lay the foundation for a movement for better teaching that has blossomed over the last decade. As an anthropologist, she has studied colleges and universities as cultural institutions, offering insights into how they work and why they do what they do. She oversaw Carnegie’s role in the U.S. Professors of the Year Program for many years, directed the Cultures of Teaching and Learning Project and the Integrative Learning Project at Carnegie, and served on the leadership team of the Carnegie Academy for the Scholars. These projects led to books in 2002, 2004, 2005, and 2011.  

At Carnegie, Mary Huber was among the “we” that Ernest L. Boyer refers to in the recommendations in an influential 1990 report, Scholarship Reconsidered. That publication took higher education to task for diminishing undergraduate teaching through a rewards structure skewed toward narrowly defined research. She was a co-author of a follow-up book, Scholarship Assessed: Evaluation of the Professorate, and was an early advocate for the scholarship of teaching and learning (SoTL). She has continued to publish works about SoTL and present conference papers on improving teaching and learning. She also serves as a contributing editor to Change magazine.

Mary covered a lot of territory during a 30-minute conversation on a shady balcony during a mild summer day in Boulder, Colo. She spoke about such things as the rise of pedagogical scholarship within disciplines; the way that education scholarship in the United States developed separately from a line of inquiry followed in the U.K., Canada, and Australia; and the role that teaching centers have played in promoting engaged learning.

“There’s much more conversation today, more places for that conversation, more resources out there that have burgeoned, really, in the past 20 to 25 years,” she said.

She also spoke of faculty members and administrators in terms of the learning they must do about teaching and learning and “remember what it’s like to be a novice in this area” like our students.

She didn’t downplay the challenges, though. In fact, at the end of our interview, she made it clear that those challenges were enormous.

“I don’t think it’s fair to just say that colleges and universities are failing,” she said. “I think society is failing. If they need higher education to do something different, which I think they do, we cannot any longer settle for the kind of education that we have been providing to most of our students. Those good jobs in the workforce and the life they supported are no longer viable for a growing number of college graduates. We need to do better by the students. But we aren’t going to be able to do that without broader social support.”

To understand how we go to that point, though, we have to go back to the 1960s, when Mary Huber completed her undergraduate work at Bucknell University. It’s from that starting point that she explains the changing landscape of teaching and learning through the late 20th and early 21st centuries.

A Q&A with Mary Huber

Mary Huber: My first exposure to teaching in higher education was at a liberal arts college in central Pennsylvania, Bucknell University, a fine liberal arts college. That was in the mid-1960s. So that’s  my baseline. From there, I went on to experience with graduate schools, first with my former husband’s and then with my own. After that I began work as a researcher and writer on higher education, first as a research assistant in economics and public policy at Princeton University and then through my roles at the Carnegie Foundation. So it’s kind of been an unbroken chain of some exposure to teaching and learning in higher education at different kinds of institutions.

I think that higher education itself began to change as the proportion of students going on to college changed. That was something that began after World War II, but really took off in the mid to late ’60s. And it brought to colleges and universities a lot of people who weren’t prepared in the traditional sense, at the level that high schools used to prepare college-bound students. There were people going to college who might not have gone in earlier years. That was partly made possible by the growth of community colleges at that time, but many four-year colleges had also opened their doors and brought in new students.

This influx of new students created pockets of pedagogical innovation in the university. I’m thinking in particular about some of the new fields that emerged during that period like composition. Not that composition hadn’t been around, but as a separate field with an identity of its own, it started in the late ’60s and early ’70s, dealing with this issue of students who weren’t prepared for college writing. Composition scholars have persisted in doing excellent work on teaching and learning, with many thoughtful, committed people working to understand and address the problems student writers face in academic writing tasks. There were some other new fields that took off around that time, like ethnic studies and women’s studies, which had a pedagogical twist to their mission. Concerned about how traditional power structures were re-enacted in the classroom, scholars in these fields were trying to create more democratic classrooms that empowered students to move beyond all that. So there were several pockets where there was some very interesting pedagogical thinking going on.

But small groups of people were becoming pedagogically restless in some of the older and larger fields as well. Math was certainly a case in point, spurred by the math wars in the K-12 arena, by the arrival of calculators, and (of course) by high rates of attrition in developmental and advanced introductory mathematics classes.

So there were things happening here and there, but it was  in pockets. And at some point it spread out. There’s a very interesting article on changes in STEM education policy from roughly the mid-1980s to the late 1990s by Elaine Seymour, who led a center for ethnography and evaluation research right here at the University of Colorado. Her history began with concerns about the pipeline for STEM careers. There weren’t enough people graduating and continuing on in STEM careers, especially not enough women or underrepresented minorities who were coming in and persisting in STEM. That spurred government agencies to support research to explore why that would be. And there was some finger-pointing at pedagogy. But it wasn’t just finger-pointing. It was based on research that was being done at the time on people who did leave STEM to go elsewhere in the university. That, I think, has been another continuing stream of attention to teaching and learning, but not so walled off from other parts of the university. STEM was a large and a growing area in higher education and there was money for research on pedagogical and curricular issues that involved people in mainstream disciplines and institutions making that part of their work. Indeed, by the 2000s, well-known research leaders, like Nobel-prize winning physicist Carl Wieman were lending their prestige and their intelligence and their networks to initiatives to improve STEM teaching in higher education.

Doug Ward: So here we’re talking about the ’90s? 2000s?  

MH: Getting into the ’90s and ’00s. But certainly concern about pedagogical and curricular issues in STEM education predated that, going all the way back to Sputnik in the 1960s.

Emergence of a teaching commons

DW: So this surprises me because it sounds like many of the same conversations we are having today: that there’s a concern and certainly a lot of effort over the last 10 years. Why has it been so hard to get some of the changes through to help our students?

MH: Well let me back up just a little to say that I actually think there have been many changes in teaching and learning over the past several decades. Some of them grew out of changes in our fields themselves – especially some of the goals, the way people thought about what they wanted for undergraduates. My field is anthropology and I think anthropology, like many others, has had thinkers who had pedagogical interests, and departments that wanted students to begin to experience what it was like to produce knowledge as professionals do in the field. This was also the case, I think, in history. Yes it’s true that not everybody jumped on board for that. But nonetheless there has been a growing sense that there is just too much knowledge out there now, too much information, too easy to access in this period with the internet and the Word Wide Web. So that was another push that maybe we should be doing something else with undergraduate education than just focusing on mastering content. That’s another thread to add to pipeline and equity concerns. And I think there have been many others – for instance, attention to service and community engagement, not to mention gaining mastery over the new technological tools of the academic trade.

Indeed, if you trace them all out, I think, the picture that emerges is the growth of something that Pat Hutchings and I have called a teaching commons. There’s much more conversation, more places for that conversation today, more resources out there that have burgeoned, really, in the past 20 to 25 years. Disciplinary societies have developed new journals or beefed up old ones about teaching in their fields. There are panels on teaching and learning and curriculum now at meetings that didn’t used to be there. For a long time, it really was a kind of an invisible ground. The traditional forms of teaching – we’ve all experienced them, at Bucknell or wherever we went – but then that’s what shifted.

From private conversations to public discussions

DW: That’s interesting. The way you’re describing it is that there were a lot of private conversations about teaching but really not the public places to have those discussions or the resources to disseminate information.

MH: That’s right. Or to make it part of your life as a teacher. There’s a lovely book by the scholar Wayne Booth. He was a literary critic and scholar of rhetoric at the University of Chicago. He has a wonderful book called The Vocation of a Teacher, published in 1988, which was a collection of his essays and speeches on educational themes. And the resources he cites on how he himself learned to teach are from another era. Not the citations and references you’d expect to find today. There was a footnote listing books that “teach about teaching by force of example” and citing “an obscure little pamphlet” about discussion teaching, but mostly, he said, he learned about teaching through staff meetings and conversations with colleagues. ..There was very little in terms of a formal apparatus of research, or of major thought leaders in teaching and learning. It was very sporadic. I wrote about that back in 1998 or ’99 in an essay on disciplinary styles in the scholarship of teaching. That’s when I was getting into this myself and realizing that there was much more going on than I thought. And I used Wayne Booth’s book an example of the thin web of scholarship on teaching and learning that was common before. Of course, there were thoughtful people who were wise about these things and had given it enough thought to write about it, but they didn’t have much to back it up.

DW: I’m going to veer a little bit because this sort of ties in with an article that you’ve been working on about what is known about teaching for liberal learning. We talked before our interview about how different strands in the scholarship of teaching and learning evolved. Essentially, in the 1970s and 1980s, the British were saying we have a theoretical grounding to our efforts to improve teaching and learning and you Americans don’t. It’s interesting how this kind of practitioner research started to form. How are you seeing the differences?

MH: It is interesting. The way I see it – I’m sure there are others whose standpoint is different – the U.S. never had a very robust area of scholarly research on learning and teaching in higher education. A lot of our focus in our graduate schools of education was on K-12.

DW: Yes.

Different approaches in the U.S. and Europe

MH: For some reason that was not true in the U.K. and Europe. One particularly strong line of work on students’ approaches to and experience of learning was really jump-started by a Swedish research team in the mid 1970’s. That’s when they published their initial papers, presenting work on the experience of learning that was then picked up by colleagues in the U.K., Australia, and Canada. Of course you can trace this theme back a long way. But in the U.S. we didn’t have that strong or coherent an education research group. There have always been a few involved in studies of teaching and learning in higher education, but their work didn’t really shape or constrain what was going on as other groups became interested. This led to a rather diverse set of communities and literatures. The field of learning sciences wasn’t really focused on higher ed, but what they were discovering about memory, prior knowledge and other kinds of things were presented as universally applicable. That was one stream. The professional development people took some of that literature and tried to put it into a frame that would be accessible and helpful to teachers in higher education. And then you had this emergence of the scholarship of teaching and learning, which was a practitioner’s form of research and inquiry into teaching practice. And that was followed by the emergence DBER, which stands for disciplinary-based education research. This involved people in disciplinary fields like chemistry education research and physics education research who had higher education as the domain in which they were examining the ins and outs of STEM learning and teaching.

So you have these many different streams. And over recent years, there have been more and more occasions where people coming from one or the other of those communities can have access to and become aware of what’s going on in the others. For example, longstanding journals like Teaching Sociology or Teaching of Psychology, have been raising the bar on what counts as quality in writing about teaching and learning. It’s no longer enough to tell readers about your clever idea for teaching this topic or that one. We really need to be looking at how students are responding to this kind of pedagogy. So those journals upped the ante for what they would be willing to publish. Other journals in other fields have been more recently founded, and there are now several online journals for the scholarship of teaching and learning itself. More campuses, too, now have centers for teaching and learning that have been sponsoring faculty learning communities and improvement initiatives around issues of teaching and learning that bring people together from across the campus. All these developments have helped widen and deepen the teaching commons, as we have more occasions and more reasons to meet each other and learn about each other’s work.

DW: So I’m visualizing a lot of threads that have been coming together, and the way you’re describing it is that we have shifted from an anecdotal approach to a scholarly approach where there is some substance; there is some foundation. But then where does the criticism from the British fit in?

MH: They had, and continue to have, a relatively small community of researchers who have been building on each other’s work for 30 to 40 years, exploring students’ approaches to learning, among other themes. That’s where these ideas of deep, surface, and strategic approaches to study emerged. They have looked at how that plays out in the lecture format, in the Oxbridge tutorial, in the seminar – indeed, they’ve gone far beyond just that simple trichotomy, and have created a body of knowledge that is often regarded as foundational for new faculty in the U.K. to learn about, or for scholars of teaching and learning there to reference in designing their own inquiries.

In 2008 a group of researchers from the Higher Education Academy at Oxford did a review of the literature on the student learning experience in higher education. You can see that it’s a body of literature that has depth and subtlety and people who are in communication with each other over the years, and that it’s benefited from a long history of exchange between researchers in Australia, Canada, and the U.K. They are a group of people whose careers shift continents and who stay in touch. That is very different from what we have. Very different.

So when the scholarship of teaching and learning caught on in the U.S. among people who are primarily teachers and researchers in their own disciplines – historians, mathematicians, whatever you have – it was both limited and empowered by the relative absence of a thriving local community of researchers in higher education pedagogy. As the scholarship of teaching and learning developed in the part of the world I was working from, at the Carnegie Foundation, we basically urged newcomers: ‘Come on. Draw on whatever you can. You don’t have to master the field of educational psychology or statistics or 40 years of research on this or that educational theme in order to be observant and reflective about what’s happening in your classrooms with your students. If you want to draw on Husserl or Heidegger, be my guest. There are many different ways in which insights from across the academic spectrum can inform your work.’ And I’m very glad. Some of us who were organizing this movement in the U.S. soon learned that your “typical” professor of Chaucer and medieval English literature may not have the time or the interest to tap a whole new (to them) area of study, although they certainly would be interested in addressing questions about their students’ learning. I myself, coming from the humanistic side of anthropology, had trouble with the literature in educational psychology and professional development. I wasn’t interested in it at first. I wasn’t sure about the epistemological grounds on which it was done. I didn’t have the expertise to read it with understanding. But that didn’t mean I wasn’t interested in student learning and couldn’t bring to it some thoughts and methods from my own field. Still, once people like me or that Chaucerian scholar come together around questions of learning with people from a variety of other fields, we soon expand our range of reference, and get better at accessing even the literature in education without being intimidated or offput.

Improving conversations about teaching

DW: I want to ask one more thing. What do you see as the biggest challenges right now in terms of teaching and learning?

MH: Well, I really would go along with the Bay View Alliance on that. I still think that building a stronger, more sophisticated conversation about teaching and learning in departments and disciplines and institutions – building stronger cultures of teaching and learning makes this a better conversation, one people are prepared to engage in more readily – is the challenge that we are facing now.

I’m less worried about professional development in the formal sense. I think that centers for teaching and learning have a big role to play. I think we would make much more progress with this if there were more opportunity in people’s regular, everyday lives as faculty to talk about teaching and learning and to have their contributions recognized. And I think that will happen. I do think there’s been change in the right direction, but there’s a long way to go in many departments before the conversation goes beyond just a one small group of enthusiasts or perhaps the faculty appointed to the curriculum committee. I think the work of those committees focused on undergraduate education need to be upheld as more central to the work of our institutions and not just shoved off to one side.

However, we need to remember, just like we do for our students, what it’s like for a faculty member to be a novice in this pedagogical conversation. But if we keep working on this and have more occasions for graduate students and faculty to talk about teaching and learning, and more department chairs who see this as important and include it in faculty meetings, that will help. Indeed, you could list a whole number of ways in which to make more about our teaching lives public and raise pedagogical literacy to a higher level.

DW: I did a presentation a few weeks ago about the need for elevating teaching in a research university. And the response I got from faculty was, “Yes, but … how do you do that? Because we’re a research university.” This is what we get a lot. “We’re a research university. We don’t have time to carve out for something else.” How do you respond to that?

MH: That is partly why we need leaders who keep reminding us that we’re there for an educational mission – for both undergraduates and graduate students, especially when you are talking about a research university. I think we need our faculty evaluation systems to make a larger space for teaching and educational leadership. But I don’t discount the difficulties given the way the larger political economy of higher education has developed and the competitive world in which  institutions believe they live.

DW: And that was the theme at AAC&U, this conflict between prestige and learning, that if we are aiming everything toward prestige, that doesn’t fit with this culture of how do we learn from our mistakes, how do we help all students learn more. That’s a big challenge.

MH: It is a challenge. I was struck yesterday (at the Bay View Alliance Meeting) when Howard Gobstein (of the Association of Public and Land Grant Universities) said that we are going so slow and that society is changing so fast and we aren’t keeping up, that this is urgent. And I’m saying to myself fine, if it’s that urgent why has society pulled away from supporting our public institutions? I think that’s part of the problem. I don’t think we need to take this on ourselves entirely, the critique that we are just not doing enough.

DW: That’s partly what we talked about. We need to be more of an advocate.

MH: We need to be advocating. We need higher education leaders who can make a better case for public support for higher education. We need less talk about and less focus on austerity. I was reading a book recently on public universities – Christopher Newfield’s The Great Mistake. At one University of California institution, in the English major, Newfield said, there was only room for students to have “exactly one” small seminar class because they just don’t have enough faculty to offer more. If the need for our work as educators is as urgent as people think, then we need to more generously resource that effort. Obviously we can be smarter in how we work and improve and do better. And we are going to run into that prestige competition as a countervailing force. That’s how we live. But I don’t think it’s fair to just say that colleges and universities are failing. I think society is failing. If they need higher education to do something different, which I think they do, we cannot any longer settle for the kind of education that we have been providing to most of our students. Those good jobs in the workforce and the life they supported are no longer viable for a growing number of college graduates. We need to do better by the students. But we aren’t going to be able to do that without broader social support. Faculty will need time, security, resources, and encouragement to improve teaching and learning and educational programs so that our colleges and universities can serve today’s students well. That’s my view.

************

This article also appears on the website of the Bay View Alliance.


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 Derek Graf

As instructors, we sometimes look for ways to create big changes in our courses, departments, and degree programs. Searching for complete overhauls to our teaching practices, we risk losing sight of the small changes we can make in our next class meeting.

James M. Lang, author of Small Teaching: Everyday Lessons from the Science of Learning, believes that fundamental pedagogical improvement is possible through incremental change (4). For example, he explains how asking students to make predictions increases their ability to understand course material and retrieve prior knowledge. He offers various strategies for incorporating prediction exercises into the classroom, such as utilizing a brief pretest on new material at the beginning of class, asking students to predict the outcome of a problem, or closing class by asking students to make predictions about material that will be covered in the next class (60). As Lang says, “predictions make us curious,” and as instructors we can encourage student curiosity if we allow them to make predictions about the course material.

Graphic with examples of tips from Lang's book.
Graphic by Kali Jo Wolcow

In Small Teaching, Lang shows how instructors can capitalize on minor shifts to a lesson plan to motivate students, help them connect with new content, and give them time to practice the skills required on formal essays and exams. As Lang explains in the introduction, small teaching defines a pedagogical approach “that seeks to spark positive change in higher education through small but powerful modifications to our course design and teaching practices” (5). Lang argues that big changes begin with each new class, and he provides numerous strategies for enacting those changes.

An English professor and director of the Center for Teaching Excellence at Assumption College in Worcester, Mass., Lang says that small teaching practices can be utilized by teachers from any discipline, in any course, at any point in the semester. Lang understands that many instructors, such as adjuncts and GTAs, lack the time and the resources necessary to make major curriculum shifts in their departments. Small teaching allows instructors of all levels to innovate their teaching and generate enthusiasm in the classroom in ways that are incremental, deliberate, and, most importantly of all, accessible.

Lang identifies accessibility as the key to the potential success of small teaching: “Teaching innovations that have the potential to spur broad changes must be as accessible to underpaid and overworked adjuncts as they are to tenured faculty at research universities” (5). The small teaching activities Lang offers fulfill this criteria because, “with a little creative thinking, they can translate into every conceivable type of teaching environment in higher education, from lectures in cavernous classrooms to discussions in small seminar rooms, from fully face-to-face to fully online courses and every blended shade in between” (6). Lang has either practiced or directly observed every piece of advice he offers in Small Teaching, and these activities fall into one of three categories:

  • Brief (5-10 minute) classroom or online learning activities.
  • One-time interventions in a course.
  • Small modifications in course design or communication with your students.

Knowledge, understanding and inspiration

Over three sections, organized under the broad categories of “Knowledge,” “Understanding,” and “Inspiration,” Lang provides numerous ways to implement small teaching, even during the opening minutes of tomorrow’s class. For example, Lang shows how we can motivate students to develop an emotional response to the course material by telling great stories: “Once class has started, the simplest way to tap the emotions of your students is to use the method that every great orator, comedian, emcee, and preacher knows: begin with a story” (182). Drawing from the research of experimental psychologist Sarah Cavanagh, Lang explains how “when emotions are present, our cognitive capacities can heighten; so if we open class by capturing the attention of our students and activating their emotions with a story, we are priming them to learn whatever comes next” (182). While great stories don’t necessarily lead to great class sessions, they do allow for students to create an emotional bond with the course material.

The above example proved to be my favorite of the activities outlined in Small Teaching. As an instructor of freshman composition, I often feel as though my students enter college lacking a positive emotional relationship to writing. They associate writing with an instructor’s judgment on their intellectual capabilities.

Realizing this, I decided to open one of my classes with a personal story about a former instructor of mine who would humiliate students for their lack of quality prose. After sharing an anecdote in which I was the recipient of a particularly harsh and public critique, I admitted how his experience affected my confidence while also explaining that I did not let this moment define my identity as a writer or a student. I asked my students if they had any similar experiences with writing. Sure enough, several of them shared that their relationship with writing was dominated by the “red pen” approach of a past instructor, and some of them shared stories of procrastination gone wrong.

This conversation allowed me to explain my approach to grading and assessing student writing, increase my transparency as an instructor, and also commiserate with students about the difficulties of writing for an academic audience. My decision to begin class with a personal story altered the emotional climate of the room, and my students’ engagement with the course material benefited from that shift.

“Tell Great Stories” is just one of many activities Lang shares throughout Small Teaching. Balancing a personal tone with clear explanations of the psychological and cognitive research backing his argument, Lang ultimately collapses the binary between “small teaching” and “big changes.” Perhaps they are one and the same, each informing the other, and leading toward necessary shifts in higher education, one class at a time.


Derek Graf is a graduate fellow at the Center for Teaching excellence and a graduate teaching assistant in English.

By Doug Ward

The overarching message from a meeting of the University Innovation Alliance was as disturbing as it was clear: Research universities were built around faculty and administrators, not students, and they must tear down systemic barriers quickly and completely if they hope to help students succeed in the future.

About 75 representatives from the alliance’s member institutions gathered at Michigan State University last week to share ideas and to talk about successes, challenges and impediments to student success. The alliance comprises 11 U.S. research universities working to improve graduation rates among a wider range of students. Since its start five years ago, it has led efforts in predictive analytics, proactive advising, completion grants, and college-to-career activities. It has also created a fellows program that allows for concentrated attention on barriers to student success.

An artist's poster from the opening session of the University Innovation Alliance.
An artist’s poster from the opening session of the University Innovation Alliance.

Speakers at the meeting certainly celebrated those efforts,but over and over they referred to systemic problems that can no longer be ignored.Those problems underlie less-than-stellar retention and graduation rates,especially among first-generation and underrepresented students, and amongthose who come from less-than-wealthy families. They loom large when youconsider that the future of universities depends on their ability to serve thevery students they once pushed away.

“There’s this belief system that low-income, first-generation, students of color, when they drop out, that there’s something about them. It’s not an indictment of the entire system,” said Bridget Burns, executive director of the UIA. That is, there’s an “unintended value system” that tells students that when they fail, it’s individual weakness, not a problem with the university.

Research universities were created to serve the elite, not the masses, and were meant to foster a “reproduction of privilege,” Burns said. Degrees were meant to be rare and difficult to earn. As a result, universities are filled with booby traps that stop students from moving toward a degree.

Burns didn’t elaborate on that, but it’s easy to see the ways that universities were designed around the needs of faculty members and administrators, not students. Students must jump through hoop after bureaucratic hoop to register for classes, arrange for financial aid, pay their bills, meet requirements, and even meet with an advisor. They attend classes at times most convenient for instructors and gather in classrooms that focus on the instructor. Universities also do a poor job of helping students learn how to learn in a college environment.

Two roads, two perceptions

Frank Dooley, senior vice provost for teaching and learning at Purdue, used two disparate images to illustrate the murky path that students must traverse. One image was of a wide open highway with smooth pavement disappearing into the horizon. The other was of a spaghetti bowl of urban interchanges, twisting and turning into a seemingly impenetrable combination of highways. Those of us involved in higher education generally see the path through universities as the open road, he said. Students see the impenetrable tangle.

That’s just the administrative side. Another barrier is the disconnect between faculty members and student success. Most faculty members do indeed care about the undergraduates in their classes, and many have transformed their courses in ways that improve class climate, retention, student interaction, critical thinking, and learning. Those efforts count for little in a university rewards system that makes research productivity the primary means of evaluation, though. As several people at the UIA meeting noted, that rewards system encourages faculty to distance themselves from students, who essentially become an impediment to tenure and promotion. It also provides no incentive to become involved in broader university efforts to help students succeed.

Grit and the myth of individualism

Claire Creighton, director of the Academic Success Center at Oregon State, provided another example of universities’ many systemic barriers as she talked of how the idea of “grit” had spread into conversations across institutions. On its own, it’s a fine concept, she said: Students need to work through adversity. Persistence pays off.

In many ways, though, grit is an extension of the American myth of the self-made man – yes, the myth is generally male-centric – the idea that a person can achieve anything through hard work and persistence, that those of no means have the same opportunity to rise to the top as those with abundant wealth. It’s a myth embedded in popular culture through stories of individual success and rugged individualism. Legislators, policy makers and universities themselves have perpetuated that myth by turning a degree into an individual commodity and an individual financial burden rather than a shared accomplishment of a democratic society.

As Creighton said, grit has become equated with student success. Those who succeed have grit and those who fail don’t. By looking at it in those terms, we create a sense of deficiency among students by blaming them for their failure rather than looking into systemic problems.

“What is it about institutions that requires students to be gritty and resilient, to overcome adversity, in order to achieve?” she asked.

I agree, but students will face repeated adversity once they leave a university. We need to help them develop the grit they will need for long-term success by helping them work through failures – and by making failure a learning experience rather than a dead end – while supporting them as they build confidence and develop skills.

Genyne Royal, assistant dean for student success initiatives at Michigan State, explained one way of doing that by paying more attention to what she called the “murky middle,” students with GPAs of 2.0 to 2.6. We generally focus most on students on academic probation, she said, and we miss those borderline students who could easily slip toward failure.

The ‘murky middle’ and the ‘secret sauce’

She equated student success to a mysterious “secret sauce” that all universities hope to find. Some years we add brown sugar, she said. Other years we add hot sauce. That is, the process must change constantly as students and their unique needs change.

That process must also help us see our campuses through the eyes of students, as Jennifer Brown, vice provost and dean for undergraduate education at the University of California, Riverside, reminded those at the UIA meeting. We too often forget what students see when they look at our programs and visit our campuses. Most certainly they consider what they will learn and where a degree will lead them. Two of the most important factors have little to do with academics, though, Brown said, and everything to do with a sense of belonging:

Are there others here like me?

Is there a place here for me?

Preparing for ‘seismic shifts’

An article this week from EAB, the educational data and consulting organization, echoed the concerns I heard at the meeting of the University Innovation Alliance. It conveyed a sense of urgency for colleges and universities to prepare for “seismic shifts” in the coming decade as demographics change and the number of high school graduates declines. Melanie Ho, executive director of EAB, recently completed a series of one-on-one discussions with university presidents. She said that administrators spoke of the urgent need for “systemic, holistic change across campus.” Institutions must focus on what makes them unique, she said, while breaking down silos and quickly pushing through changes that might usually take years to accomplish. 

That need for holistic change came up in many discussions and presentations at the University Innovation Alliance gathering, as did the importance of cooperation across institutions. John Engler, interim president of Michigan State and a former Michigan governor, said global competition for talent, weak graduation rates, and growing cynicism about higher education all pointed to the need for change.

“Universities think we can’t go away,” Engler said. “Well, the world is changing. Maybe that will change.”


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

Enrollment reports released last week hint at the challenges that colleges and universities will face in the coming decade.

Across the Kansas regents universities, enrollment fell by the equivalent of 540 full-time students, or 0.72 percent. Emporia State, Fort Hays State, Wichita State and the KU Medical Center all showed slight increases, but full-time equivalent enrollment fell at Pittsburg State (3.98 percent), Kansas State (3.09 percent), and the KU Lawrence and Edwards campuses (0.49 percent). Enrollment at community colleges fell 2.6 percent.

Those numbers reflect the regents’ shift to a metric that focuses on credit hours rather than a count of the number of students. Total undergraduate credit hours are divided by 15 and graduate credit hours by 12 to get the full-time equivalency metric. More than 60 percent of students at regents institutions enroll only part time, the regents said in a news release, and the full-time equivalency counts adjust for that. At KU’s Lawrence and Edwards campuses, 16.2 percent of students are part time. That up about 2.5 points since 2013 but still considerably lower than it was in the 1990s.

KU reported that the total number of students across its campuses grew by 63, to 28,510, although the regents’ full-time equivalency total was 24,246. KU’s growth in head count came from the medical center. On the Lawrence and Edwards campuses, the number of students declined by 76. And though the freshman class grew, diversity declined in all categories.

Without doubt, KU had several strong components in its report. The most impressive was that nearly 84 percent of 2017’s freshman class returned to the university this year. That’s an increase of 4 to 6 points from just a few years ago and the highest KU has ever recorded. That growth reflects many factors, including higher admission standards and efforts to improve teaching, advising and student outreach.

Retaining students will grow increasingly important in the coming years as U.S. birthrates decline. An analysis by Nathan Grawe of Carleton University suggests that attendance at regional four-year colleges and universities will drop by more than 15 percent by 2029. Fewer births means fewer potential students, something that could prove particularly troubling for universities in the Midwest and Northeast, where declines are expected to be the steepest.

Universities like KU rely increasingly on undergraduate tuition dollars to pay the bills, especially as states reduce funding for higher education, so a large decline in in the number of students would have significant budget consequences. Many universities have ratcheted up out-of-state recruiting and increased financial aid in hopes of attracting more students. Some have been forced to reduce out-of-state tuition rates to attract more students.

This all grows increasingly important as KU considers a budget model that would allocate departmental resources in part on the number of undergraduate credit hours. More students would mean more money. Fewer students would mean fewer departmental resources, putting ever more pressure on small departments that provide important perspectives on an ever-changing world but that are never likely to attract large numbers of students.

Long-term predictions are notoriously inaccurate, so there’s no guarantee that any single university will face an extreme drop in the number of students. You don’t have to look far, though, to see what might happen. Enrollment at Kansas State dropped by nearly 1,000 students last year, and its enrollment declined each year between 2015 and 2017.  That forced a budget cut of $15 million.

To make up for declining numbers of undergraduates, many universities have developed new master’s programs, many of them online, to tap into a demand for new skills and new credentials. Between 2000 and 2015, the number of master’s degrees granted at U.S. institutions rose by more than 60 percent. They have also added online classes for undergraduates to allow more flexibility for students who often work more than 20 hours a week to pay their bills.

The vast majority of tuition dollars still come from undergraduates, and without a doubt, attracting even the same number of students will grow increasingly challenging in the coming decade. Universities can’t just play numbers games, though. Volumes of students and credit hours may pay the bills, but unless universities elevate the importance of high-quality teaching and learning, those numbers mean little. In an increasingly competitive environment, the quality of teaching matters immensely.

Neil deGrasse Tyson on professors’ communication problem

Neil deGrasse Tyson, who has made a career out of explaining science to the public, offered  some strong criticism of higher education in a recent interview with The Chronicle of Higher Education. He said that a misguided rewards systems discouraged professors from reaching out beyond a small group of like-minded colleagues.

“If communicating with the public were valued in the tenure process, they’d be better at it. This is an easy problem to solve. If 20 percent of the evaluation for tenure were based on how well you communicate with the public, that’s a game changer. All of a sudden universities open up, and people learn about what you’re doing there, whether it’s bird wings or paramecia.

“But in the end, universities don’t really care. Put that in big letters.”


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

Howard Gobstein issued both a challenge and a warning to those of us in higher education.

Universities aren’t keeping up with the pace of societal change, he said, and the initiatives to improve education at the local, state and national levels too often work in isolation.

“We’d better start talking to one another,” said Gobstein, vice president for research policy and STEM education at the Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities.

Howard Gobstein

Gobstein spoke in Lawrence last week at the annual meeting of TRESTLE, a network of faculty and academic leaders who are working with colleagues in their departments to improve teaching in science, technology, engineering and math. Pressures are building both inside and outside the university to improve education, he said, citing changing demographics, rising costs, advances in technology, and demands for accountability among the many pressure points. Universities have created initiatives to improve retention at the institutional level. Departments and disciplines, especially in STEM, have created their own initiatives. Most work independently, though.

“There are almost two different conversations occurring, I would argue,” Gobstein said. “There are those that are pushing overall and those that are pushing within STEM.”

Not only that, but national organizations have created STEM education initiatives focusing on K-12, undergraduate education, graduate education, and industry and community needs. Those initiatives often overlap, but all of them are vital for effecting change, Gobstein said.

“To transform and to make it stick, there has to be something going on across all of these levels,” he said.

Universities must also work more quickly, especially as outside organizations draw on technology to provide alternative models of education.

“There are organizations out there, there are institutions out there that are going to change the nature of education,” Gobstein said. “They are already starting to do that. They are nipping away at universities. And we ignore them at our peril.”

Gobstein made a similar argument last year at a meeting of the Bay View Alliance, a consortium of North American research universities that are working to improve teaching and learning. Demographics are changing rapidly, he said, but STEM fields are not attracting enough students from underrepresented minority groups and lower economic backgrounds.

Howard Gobstein showed this chart to demonstrate the breadth of STEM education initiatives across the United States.

“That’s not entirely the responsibility of institutions, but they have a big role to play,” Gobstein said. “To the extent that we can transform our STEM education, our classes, our way of dealing with these students, the quicker we will be able to get a larger portion of these students into lucrative STEM fields.”

Change starts at individual institutions and in gateway courses that often hold students back, he said. Research universities must value teaching and learning more, though.

“It’s the recognition that teaching matters. It’s the recognition that counseling students matters,” Gobstein said.

Higher education is also under pressure from parents, students and governments to improve teaching and learning, to make sure students are prepared for the future, and to provide education at a price that doesn’t plunge families into debt.

“We seem to be losing ground with them as far as their confidence in our institutions to be able to provide what those students need for their future, particularly at a price that they are comfortable with,” Gobstein said.

Sarah LeGresley Rush (front) and Steve Case of the University of Kansas participate in a discussion at TRESTLE with Joan Middendorf (center) of Indiana University.

At TRESTLE, Gobstein challenged participants with some difficult questions:

  • What does teaching mean in an era of rapidly changing technology?
  • How do we measure the pace of change? How do we know that we are doing better this year than in previous years?
  • How do we make sure the next generation of faculty continues to bring about change but also sustains that change?

He also urged participants to seek out collaborators on their campuses who can provide support for their efforts but also connect them with national initiatives.

“What we’re really trying to do is to change how students learn, and we’re trying to make sure that all students have access and opportunity,” Gobstein said.

Despite the many challenges, Gobstein told instructors at TRESTLE that the work they were doing to improve teaching and learning was vital to the future of higher education.

“You are doing work that is some of the most important work any of us can think of doing,” Gobstein said.

“The nation needs you.”


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

The University of Kansas has gained international attention with its work in student-centered learning over the past five years.

Grants from the National Science Foundation, the Teagle Foundation, and the Association of American Universities have helped transform dozens of classes and helped faculty better understand students and learning. Participation in the Bay View Alliance, a North American consortium of research universities, has helped the university bolster its efforts to improve teaching and learning. And participation in organizations like the International Society for the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning, the Association of American Colleges and Universities, and the AAU has provided opportunities for KU faculty to share the rich work they have done in improving their courses.

Participants in TRESTLE brainstorm during a launch meeting for the network. They met in Lawrence in early 2016.

KU’s leadership in student-centered education will be on display at home this week as instructors and administrators from a dozen research universities and educational organizations gather in Lawrence for a three-day institute on teaching and learning. The institute, which begins Thursday, is part of the annual meeting of TRESTLE, a network of faculty and academic leaders who are working with colleagues in their departments to improve teaching in science, technology, engineering and mathematics classes at research universities. TRESTLE is an acronym for transforming education, stimulating teaching and learning excellence.

Attendees will participate in workshops on many facets of course transformation and active learning organized around a theme of sustaining change and broadening participation in student-centered education. Among the speakers are Howard Gobstein, executive vice president of the Association of Public and Land Grant Universities; Pat Hutchings, a senior scholar at the National Institute for Learning Outcomes Assessment; and Mary Huber, a senior scholar at the Bay View Alliance, an international organization working to build leadership for educational change.

“KU has been a hub for transforming teaching and learning for several years,” said Andrea Greenhoot, director of the Center for Teaching Excellence and leader of the TRESTLE network. “TRESTLE has allowed us to expand that community beyond campus and connect with faculty at other universities.”

Andrea Greenhoot

That collaborative approach has been central to the TRESTLE network and to this week’s institute.

“Teaching is often seen as a solitary activity,” Greenhoot said. “It doesn’t have to be that way. Our philosophy at CTE has always been that great teaching requires community. The TRESTLE community provides role models, engages faculty in intellectual discussions about teaching, gives instructors opportunities to reflect on their work, and creates a platform for sharing ideas and results.”

TRESTLE was formed three years ago after Greenhoot, Caroline Bennett, associate professor of engineering, Mark Mort, associate professor of biology, and partners at six other universities received grants totaling $2.5 million from the National Science Foundation. Their work has focused on supporting the development of STEM education experts who work within academic departments. These experts collaborate with other instructors in their departments to incorporate teaching innovations that shift the emphasis away from lecture and engage students in collaborative activities, discussion, problem-solving and projects that lead to better learning. Over the last three years, faculty members involved with TRESTLE have transformed more than 100 courses.

The transformation efforts have been impressive, Greenhoot said, but maintaining the changes after the grant ends in two years will be crucial. Blair Schneider, the program director of TRESTLE, has been coordinating this week’s activities with that in mind.

“We will be asking participants to take on some challenging questions during their time in Lawrence,” Schneider said. “How can we sustain the momentum we’ve built up over the last three years? What will it take to keep departments focused on improving student learning? How do we keep all this going? Everyone involved with TRESTLE has been energized as they have shared ideas and rethought their classes. We want to make sure that energy continues.”

As part of the institute, several KU faculty members are opening their classrooms so that participants can see the results of course transformation. Those instructors are from geology, chemistry, biology, civil engineering, and electrical engineering and computer science. Participants will also have opportunities to see active learning classrooms that KU has created over the past few years.

Open textbook workshop

If you haven’t looked into using open resources in your classes, you should. Open access materials replace costly textbooks, saving students millions of dollars a year even as they provide flexibility for instructors.

Two workshops at KU Libraries in October will help instructors learn how to adopt, adapt and even create open resources for their classes. Josh Bolick, scholarly communication librarian in the Shulenburger Office of Scholarly Communication and Copyright, will the lead the workshops as part of Open Access Week, an international event aimed at increasing awareness of open access materials.

Bolick’s workshops, “Open Textbooks and How They Support Teaching and Learning,” will be held from 9:30 to 11 a.m. on Oct. 19 and Oct. 23 in Watson Library, room 455. You can register here.


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

Data analytics holds great potential for helping us understand curricula.

By combining data from our courses (rubrics, grades, in-class surveys) with broader university data (student demographics, data from other courses), we can get a more meaningful picture of who our students are and how they perform as they move through our curricula.

Sarah LeGresley Rush and Chris Fischer in the KU physics department offered a glimpse into what we might learn with a broader pool of university data at a departmental colloquim on Monday. LeGresley Rush and Fischer explained analyses suggesting that a shift in the way an early physics class is structured had led to improvements in student performance in later engineering classes.

Chris Fischer works with students in General Physics II.

That reference to engineering is correct. Engineering students take introductory physics before many of their engineering classes, and the physics department created a separate class specifically for engineering majors.

A few years ago, Fischer began rethinking the structure of introductory physics because students often struggled with vector mathematics early in the course. In Spring 2015, he introduced what he called an “energy first” approach in Physics 211, focusing on the principle of energy conservation and the use of more applied calculus. The other introductory class, Physics 210, maintained its traditional “force first” curriculum, which explores classical mechanics through the laws of motion and uses little applied calculus. Both classes continued their extensive use of trigonometry and vectors, but Physics 211 adopted considerable material on differentiation and integration, which Physics 210 did not have.

LeGresley Rush, a teaching specialist in physics, joined Fischer, an associate professor, in evaluating the changes in two ways. First, they used results from the Force Concept Inventory, an exam that has been used for three decades to measure students’ understanding of concepts in introductory physics. They also used university analytics to see how students in the two introductory sections fared in a later physics course and in three engineering courses.

In both analyses, students who completed the revised physics courses outperformed students who took the course in the original format. The biggest improvements were among students with ACT math scores below 22. In every grouping of ACT scores they used (22-24, 25-27, 28-30, and above 30), students who took the revised course outperformed those who took the course in the traditional format. Those on the lower end gained the most, though.

Sarah LeGresley Rush

They next looked at how students in the two sections of introductory physics did in the next course in the department sequence, General Physics II. The results were similar, but LeGresley Rush and Fischer were able to compare student grades. In this case, students who completed the transformed course earned grades nearly a point higher in General Physics II than those who took the traditional course.

Finally, LeGresley Rush and Fischer used university data to track student performance in three engineering courses that list introductory physics as a requirement: Mechanical Engineering 211 (Statics and Introduction to Mechanics) and 312 (Basic Engineering Thermodynamics), and Civil Engineering 301 (Statics and Dynamics). Again, students who took the revised course did better in engineering courses, this time by about half a grade point.

“Why?” Fischer said in an earlier interview. “We argue that it’s probably because we changed this curriculum around and by doing so we incorporated more applied mathematics.”

He pointed specifically to moving vector mathematics to later in the semester. Vector math tends to be one of the most difficult subjects for students in the class. By helping students deepen their understanding of easier physics principles first, Fischer said, they are able to draw on those principles later when they work on vectors. There were also some changes in instruction that could have made a difference, he said, but all three physics classes in the study had shifted to an active learning format.

Fischer went to great lengths during the colloquium to point out potential flaws in the data and in the conclusions, especially as skeptical colleagues peppered him with questions. As with any such study, there is the possibility for error.

Nonetheless, Fischer and LeGresley Rush made a compelling case that a revised approach to introductory physics improved student learning in later courses. Perhaps as important, they demonstrated the value of university data in exploring teaching and curricula. Their project will help others at KU tackle similar questions.

The physics project is part of a CTE-led program to use university data to improve teaching, student learning, and retention in science, technology, engineering and math courses. The CTE program, which involves seven departments, is funded by a grant from the Association of American Universities. The Office of Institutional Research and Planning has provided data analysis for the teams.

A helpful tool for finding articles blocked by paywalls

A Chrome browser plug-in called Unpaywall may save a bit of time by pointing you to open access versions of online journal articles ensconced behind paywalls.

The plug-in, which is free, works like this:

When you find a journal article on a subscription-only site, Unpaywall automatically searches for an open version of the article. Often these are versions that authors have posted or that universities have made available through sites like KU Scholar Works. If Unpaywall finds an open copy of the article, it displays a green circle with an open lock on the right side of the screen. You click on the circle and are redirected to the open article.

It’s pretty slick. Unpaywall says its database has 20 million open access articles. It was integrated into Web of Science last year and is now part of many library systems.

Scott Hanrath, associate dean of libraries, said KU Libraries integrated a version of UnPaywall into its system in late 2016. If the “Get at KU” database doesn’t find a match for a source that libraries has access to, it tries the UnPaywall database as an alternative and provides a link if an open version of the article is available.

The Get at KU function is especially helpful in online searches, and the additional database opened even more options for finding articles quickly. I added UnPaywall to my search toolkit, as well. It seems like a useful addition, especially when I’m off campus.

You can read more about Unpaywall in a recent issue of Nature.


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

The beginning of an academic year is a time of renewal. Our courses and our students start fresh, and we have an opportunity to try new approaches and new course material.

The beginning of an academic year is also a time for sharing advice, information, experiences, and insights. Here are some interesting tidbits I think are worth sharing.

Motivating students (part 1)

Aligning course goals with student goals is an important element of motivating students, David Gooblar, a lecturer in rhetoric at the University of Iowa, writes in The Chronicle of Higher Education.

Many students say they are motivated by grades – actually, many seem obsessed with grades – but that type of motivation doesn’t benefit them intellectually in the long term.

Graduate teaching assistants share their thoughts during an exercise at the opening session of the new GTA conference. About 350 GTAs participated in the conference earlier this month.

To help stimulate intrinsic motivation, Gooblar uses a low-stakes writing assignment in which students explain their goals for the course and how they hope the course will benefit them in the long term. Gooblar draws on those goals to adapt his class during the semester. Flexibility is important, he says, because it helps show students that he is willing to respond to their needs. That can be a powerful motivator.

I have also had success with having students write about their goals. I frame that in terms of learning goals, explaining to students that I have goals for the class but that I want them to pursue individual goals, too.

Most students struggle with writing individual learning goals because they have never had to think about learning as something they have control over. That thought makes them uncomfortable. They generally see school as a place where someone tells them what to do. I have found that waiting until the second or third week of class makes the process go more smoothly. By then, students have a good sense of what the class is about and they generally offer more thoughtful goals than they might in the first week.

Returning to those goals later in the class is important. I have students reflect on their learning goals at midterm, revising them if they wish, and again at the end of the class. That helps students assess what they have gained intellectually and what they still need to work on. It gives them a sense of accomplishment and helps them gain confidence in self-guided learning. It also gives me additional assessment information, as I ask students to explain which elements of the class helped them learn the most and which didn’t work as well.

Motivating students (part 2)

Shannon Portillo, associate professor of public affairs and administration, offers additional advice for motivating students.

Writing in Inside Higher Ed, Portillo, who is also the assistant vice chancellor for undergraduate programs at the Edwards Campus, has students help set guidelines for class engagement, using the exercise to help them feel invested in the class from the start.

At the end of the class, she asks students to evaluate their participation. They give her a suggested grade on their participation and provide evidence to back it up. She doesn’t always agree with their assessment, and ultimately determines the grade herself. Men tend to give themselves high marks, she says, while women tend to be more critical of themselves. The evaluation process helps students reflect on their contributions to the class and on their own learning.

Motivation (part 3). Faculty Focus offers additional tips on motivating students, including offering good feedback; helping students understand how learning works; providing engaging course materials and activities and explaining their relevance; and making greater use of cooperative and collaborative work.

Technology can help, but …

In a survey by Campus Technology, 73 percent of faculty members said that technology had made their jobs easier and 87 percent said it had improved their ability to teach. On the other hand, 19 percent said technology had made their job harder or much harder.

The survey did not say how technology had made things more difficult, but a comment on the article blamed it on a lack of training that ties pedagogy to the use of technology. That makes sense, but sometimes instructors fail to take advantage of the many available resources. KU has many resources for learning technology, including desk-side coaching and frequent workshops.

Student writing: No help needed?

Brianna Hyslop, associate director of the KU Writing Center, explains some of the center’s resources during the new GTA conference. Carmen Orth-Alfie (in red) represented KU Libraries.

In a recent survey by the Primary Research Group, only 8 percent of freshmen and sophomores said they thought they needed help with grammar and spelling. Yes, 8 percent.

Just as troubling, 46 percent of all students said they needed no additional writing instruction in their college classes.

Apparently, those 46 percent haven’t read any of the papers they have turned in or the email messages they have sent.

My intent isn’t to bash college students. Rather, it’s to remind instructor that as we help students, we sometimes need to remind them that they need our help and that resources like the KU Writing Center can provide crucial assistance.

The survey was reported by Inside Higher Ed.

Mental health and students

A growing percentage of students say they suffer from depression, anxiety and other mental health issues. That holds true for both undergraduates and graduate students.

At KU, for instance, Counseling and Psychological Services reported year-over-year increases in visits of 1 percent (November) to 73 percent (May) in the 2017-18 academic year.

One of the most important things faculty members can do is to pay attention to students and help them find the resources they need. Make sure that students know about Counseling and Psychological Services. I’ve made several calls to CAPS over the years, helping students schedule appointments with counselors. CAPS has other resources like drop-in hours with peer educators and group therapy sessions.

The Office of Student Affairs is another important resource. Its website provides an extensive list of advice and services for students and faculty members.

The Conversation noted recently that two of the biggest challenges to helping students with psychological issues are reluctance to talk about mental health and a reluctance to reach out for help. Instructors can help break down that stigma by being empathetic and accessible. They shouldn’t try to be psychological counselors. That’s not their role. They can listen to students, though, offer empathy and support, and help them take that first step toward getting help.

A final thought

A quote from Ryan Craig, managing director of University Ventures and author of A New U: Faster + Cheaper Alternatives to College, helps put issues of student mental health, attitude and motivation into context. In an interview with EdSurge, he said:

“We have developed this cult that you’re either going to go to college or if you don’t, maybe you’ll end up on Skid Row. I’m being a little facetious—but not that facetious. It literally has evolved to that point. A bachelor’s degree is the ticket to success and not having a bachelor’s degree is opposite.”


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

Putting innovative curricular ideas into practice takes time and coordination among instructors, especially when several classes are involved.

To help jump-start that process, CTE has created a Curriculum Innovation Program and selected four teams of faculty members who will transform important components of their curricula over the coming year.

Each of the four teams will receive $10,000 to $12,000 for the project, along with up to $5,000 for team members to visit an institution that has had success in innovating its curriculum. The awards, the largest that CTE has ever made, were made possible by a donation from Bob and Kathie Taylor, KU alumni from Wichita.

SUMMIT EXCHANGE Susan Marshall, right, speaks with Rob Karwath and Yvonnes Chen during the annual Teaching Summit. Marshall, an instructor in psychology, was one of three winners of the inaugural Bob and Kathie Taylor Excellence in Teaching Award.

The four teams were chosen from among 18 submissions from across the university. The winners, from environmental studies, geology, journalism and mass communications, and linguistics, were recognized at KU’s annual Teaching Summit on Thursday.

“We really wanted to see ideas that would have a big impact on student learning in a short amount of time,” said Andrea Greenhoot, director of the Center for Teaching Excellence. “We also wanted the changes to be sustainable. The four programs selected made the strongest cases for that.”

To help with the curricular changes, the teams will meet with each other and CTE faculty leaders throughout the academic year to discuss their progress and challenges. The goal of the program is to nurture changes that improve learning and retention, and provide new ways of preparing students for an ever-changing career landscape. Each team will concentrate on remaking two or more courses within a curriculum.

The winning teams all take different approaches to the innovation challenge. Here are their plans:

Environmental studies

The environmental studies program has undergone considerable change over the past eight years as core faculty members have left and the number of students taking classes in the program has tripled. The program, which draws from such fields as ecology, law, English, geology, and social sciences, will build on the diverse perspectives of its faculty members by creating modules that focus on interdisciplinary problem-solving. The modules will allow instructors to bring multiple perspectives to two 100-level classes, Global Environmental Change I and II, and make it easier for additional instructors to teach those courses. At the capstone level, the modules will allow students to go into more depth in such areas as informatics, systems thinking, technical communication, and project management, while maintaining an emphasis on work that benefits communities. Team members are Ali Brox, David Fowle, Kelly Kindscher, Terry Loecke, Peggy Schultz, and Paul Stock.

Geology

The department has transformed five introductory courses since 2013 by integrating such practices as group problem-solving, two-stage exams, and an end-of-semester event to showcase student work. Those and other approaches have improved learning for all students but have been especially effective for women and underrepresented minority students. For example, women used to fail or withdraw from Geology 101 at a much higher rate than men. Those disparities have been eliminated over the past few years as the class has shifted from lecture to active learning. The department plans to apply those techniques to two upper-level courses that prepare students for a capstone course. It will shift some material for those courses online, reduce the amount of in-class lecturing, add writing and data-synthesis assignments, and reorganize course components so that students learn in incremental ways, an approach known as scaffolding. Team members are Diane Kamola, Andreas Moeller, Noah McLean, and Alison Olcott.

Journalism and mass communications

The many fields of journalism have undergone enormous changes over the past two decades as digital communication has upended the media landscape. Four instructors in the School of Journalism’s strategic communication track plan to help students better keep up with those changes by creating a data hub for social media, shifting more elements of learning online, and providing more opportunities for experiential learning. Strategic communication, which accounts for more than two-thirds of the school’s enrollment, prepares students for careers in such areas as public relations, marketing, and advertising. The journalism team will concentrate on four courses at the 400- and 600-levels, including a capstone course, better integrating elements of social media into the curriculum. Creation of a social media hub will allow students to gain more hands-on experiences with social media, and the work students do with the hub will create additional resources for future students and courses. Faculty members involved are Hyejin Bang, Yvonnes Chen, Joseph Erba, and Hyunjin Seo.

Linguistics

The Department of Linguistics has been a university leader in evaluating student learning and in making curricular adjustments based on learning data it gathers. The department plans to build on that work by modifying, expanding and restructuring three courses that have proved especially challenging for students. Instructors plan to add interactive assignments and group case studies to Introductory Linguistics to help students learn theoretical concepts of language structure. They also plan to create an online version of that course so that it can be offered more often. For a mid-level course in syntax, instructors will create online materials for students to work through on their own, freeing up class time for group problem-solving and application. For an upper-level course in neurolinguistics, the department plans to add lab work that will give students practice in such areas as experimental design and data analysis for brain imaging. Faculty members involved in the project are Kate Coughlin, Phil Duncan, Robert Fiorentino, Alison Gabriele, John Gluckman, Andrew McKenzie, Joan Sereno, Anie Tremblay, and Jie Zhang.

SHARING IDEAS Anne Patterson, left, and Cheryl Wright speak during the Teaching Summit. Patterson, a lecturer in architecture and design, was one of three winners of the inaugural Bob and Kathie Taylor Excellence in Teaching Award.


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

Robin Wright has a clear vision of the future of education.

Understanding that future requires a look 6,000 years into the past, though. It requires an assessment of the technological wonders that have promised revolution over the years. It requires an understanding of literacy rates, which have reached 90 percent worldwide. It requires a look into the chemistry of the brain, which reacts to emotion and stress but also to action and interaction. It requires a look outward at the students in our classes. And perhaps most important, it requires a look inward at who we are and who we aspire to be.

Robin Wright spoke about the human side of teaching and learning in her keynote address at Thursday’s Teaching Summit.

Wright made it clear that if we can do that, we, too, will have a clear vision of education’s future. (More about that shortly.)

Wright, a professor of biological sciences at the University of Minnesota, was the keynote speaker at KU’s annual Teaching Summit on Thursday. She shared with the summit’s 400 participants some of her research into active learning and student development, along with personal experiences in teaching undergraduate biology courses. Some of those experiences involved her own challenges as a teacher, including times when students simply weren’t understanding what she was teaching.

“This is where I made a big mistake,” Wright said. “If my students weren’t performing well, I just worked harder. That wasn’t a problem for them; they weren’t working harder. I wasn’t putting the burden on them.”

That is, she wasn’t following the key principles of learning. Here’s how she described those:

  • Every brain is different.
  • The person who does the work does the learning.
  • You can only make memories by connecting them to older memories.
  • People almost always learn better when they work together.
  • Making memories requires repetition, feedback, elaboration and sleep.

Until students do the hard work that learning requires, it doesn’t matter how many times instructors go over course material or how much effort they put into making classes active and engaging, Wright said. Mastery requires time and effort.

Don’t get the wrong idea from that. What instructors do has an enormous impact. Teaching and learning require concerted efforts by both students and instructors. That effort works best with human interaction, though. That was the message that Wright delivered again and again: that in a technology-fueled world, the human elements of education are more important than ever.

“The most important way we can be human is to teach,” Wright said.

Wright’s keynote address and workshops she led later in the morning tied into the summit’s theme, Teaching the Whole Student. That theme evolved from recent research suggesting that a holistic approach to education helps students succeed. We can’t just teach content. Nor can we throw students into that content and expect them to learn on their own. Rather, instructors and universities must engage students in education and help them gain a sense of belonging; support them in their educational endeavors and help them overcome barriers; and provide mentoring from staff members, faculty members and students’ peers.

Wright takes a question from Candan Tamerler, professor of mechanical engineering.

After the summit, Wright said that her message would not have been well received just a few years ago. Even now, critics berate universities for coddling students and encouraging hypersensitivity rather than pushing them to harden themselves for an unforgiving world. Wright steered clear of the political hyperbole, grounding her arguments in science, history, and the scholarship of teaching and learning. Even so, she acknowledged her role as provocateur as she made a case for what education is and what it could be.

Naysayers have tried to displace in-person education for centuries, she said. The first known correspondence course – one for shorthand – was offered in 1728. In 1906, a correspondence degree program in Pennsylvania attracted a million people but had a graduation rate of 2.6 percent, about the same as today’s massive open online courses. Thomas Edison promoted the phonograph as a great educational tool. Broadcasters did the same with radio and then television. MOOC creators promised a revolution – one that fizzled before it barely started.

Despite all these other opportunities and all the new technological tools that have emerged, we still have in-person education. Furthermore, Wright said, 90 percent of the world’s population can read and write. More and more of that population has access to the Internet and its vast universe of information, meaning that people can learn just about anything and anywhere on their own. And yet year after year, students and instructors still gather in classrooms to learn.

Why? she asked, quickly providing her own answer: Because the way we learn hasn’t changed since the days when people gathered around campfires, shared stories, and helped each other understand the world.

“Our brains are still the same as they were 6,000 years ago,” Wright said. “We still learn in the same way, the same basic way. That has not changed at all.”

Teaching to hundreds of brains

Wright explained the importance of brain chemistry and the role that stress, emotion, and sleep play in our ability to learn. She touched on social theory as a means of explaining learning, and the way that such factors as pedagogy, classroom climate, focus, motivation and metacognition influence individual performance. Our growing understanding of those factors continues to improve teaching.

“The challenge, though,” she said, “is how do you teach a whole class about mitosis when you have 400 different brains you have to interact with?”

That is, the same strategy doesn’t work for everyone.

“People look at things in different ways because their brains are different,” Wright said.

That’s where the human aspects of teaching must take over.

“We have to consider the whole person as a living, breathing, complicated, annoying, wonderful human being,” Wright said.

To emphasize that, Wright told of a high school teacher who once told her she was a good writer. Decades later, Wright still remembers that praise fondly, and she urged attendees to make the most of human interaction with their students.

“If you can do one thing to improve the effectiveness of your teaching and your learning, it’s to give people a chance to interact,” Wright said.

Adding a human touch to education also helps shape the future, she said.

“Being able to put your arm around a student and say, ‘You are really, really good at biology. I think you could have a career in it.’  That has enormous, enormous impact,” Wright said.

That doesn’t mean we should shy away from technology. Not at all. We should use it to its full potential to personalize teaching and learning, she said. In the end, though, the future of education lies in its humanity.

“There’s power in you as a living human being interacting with other human beings,” Wright said.

That power has kept education alive for millennia. And if Wright’s vision is correct, it will propel higher education into the future.


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

Here’s one more reason to worry about rising tuition rates: decreased diversity.

In an examination of 14 years of tuition increases at public colleges and universities, Drew Allen of Princeton University and Gregory Wolniak of New York University found that for every $1,000 that tuition goes up, racial and ethnic diversity among students goes down by 4.5 percent.

To put that into perspective, they point to a College Board report showing that between 2008 and 2018, average tuition and fees at public four-year colleges and universities increased $2,690, or 37 percent. In some cases, tuition rose by $1,000 in only a year or two, they write in The Conversation.

Photo by Naassom Azevedo, Unsplash

Allen and Wolniak’s study examined 600 four-year and 1,000 two-year public institutions between 1998 and 2012. The correlation between increases in tuition and declines in diversity was most pronounced at colleges and universities they described as the “least-selective.”

Relatedly, they found that a 1 percent increase in tuition at four-year private colleges or universities led to a 3 percent increase in diversity at nearby public institutions. In other words, tuition increases make a difference at both public and private universities.

“The end result is the nation’s colleges and universities become less reflective of the ethnic diversity of the United States as a whole,” Allen and Wolniak write.

The highest rejection rates, state by state

In the status-obsessed universe of higher education, colleges and universities often measure their standing by the percentage of students they reject.

It’s a circular process. Institutions deemed to be the best receive the highest numbers of applications. Those with the highest number of applications reject larger numbers of students, solidifying their desirability by maintaining low acceptance rates.

I won’t get into the validity of that game here, but I did think a recent a recent state-by-state list of colleges and universities with the lowest acceptance rates was interesting. You can guess many of them: Harvard (5.4 percent acceptance rate), Yale (6.3 percent), Princeton (6.5 percent), University of Chicago (7.9 percent).

You’ll probably have a harder time determining which universities in states other than Massachusetts, Connecticut, New Jersey, and Illinois have the lowest acceptance rates. At least I did. The website 24/7 Wall Street listed those universities in an article called “The Hardest Colleges to Get Into in Every State.” Not surprisingly, most are private universities, although a fair number are public.

In Kansas, Sterling College has the lowest acceptance rate (37.4 percent). That compares with more than 90 percent at KU, K-State and Wichita State. Other regents universities have slightly lower admission rates.

For comparison, here are the universities in surrounding states with the lowest admission rates:

  • Colorado: Air Force Academy (15.1 percent)
  • Iowa: Grinnell College (20.2 percent)
  • Missouri: Washington University (16.5 percent)
  • Nebraska: Creighton University (70.7 percent)
  • Oklahoma: University of Tulsa (37 percent)

These are the state universities that made the list:

  • University of Alaska (73.5 percent)
  • University of Arkansas (41.9 percent)
  • Clemson (50.5 percent)
  • Delaware State University (40.6 percent)
  • Georgia Tech (25.8 percent)
  • University of Idaho (75.9 percent)
  • University of Michigan-Ann Arbor (28.6 percent)
  • University of Washington-Seattle (45.3 percent)
  • University of Wisconsin-Madison (52.6 percent)
  • University of Wyoming (95.1 percent)

Interestingly, the increasing difficulty of getting into some public universities was recently identified as one of the top education trends to watch during the coming academic year. Scott Jaschik, editor of Inside Higher Ed, listed the growth of “public Ivies” among a trends list he offered to members of the Education Writers Association. In addition, he said, some universities have increased the number of students they put on waitlists, raising students’ hopes even as the likelihood of eventual admission declines.

Briefly …

A new study in the interdisciplinary journal PLOS One offers additional evidence for providing pedagogical training to graduate students. The study found that Ph.D. students who were trained in evidence-based teaching practices were just as good at research as those who focused on research alone. … MindShift offers four useful principles for approaching student-centered learning. The article is aimed at K-12 instructors, but it applies to college instructors, as well. … More colleges and universities now use Canvas than use Blackboard, e-Literate reports. In terms of market share, the two are tied at 28 percent, but Canvas has two more institutional users than Blackboard.


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

On a recent trip to Amherst, Mass., I strolled through the University of Massachusetts campus looking for a bookstore.

There was not a book to be found, at least outside the 30-story library. A technology shop, yes. A natural foods store, yes. A pastry counter, yes. A university apparel store, of course. But a bookstore? For that, you have to travel a mile or so to the Amherst town center.

UMass got rid of its physical campus bookstore three years ago. Instead, it has a wall of lockers and a desk staffed by Amazon. As part of a five-year contract the university signed with Amazon, students and faculty can buy textbooks online and have them shipped free to campus and nearby ZIP codes in a day, according to the university news service. (At least the contract was supposed to last five years. More about that shortly.)

Jessica Ruscello, via Unsplash

The decision to eliminate a physical bookstore wasn’t popular among many students and faculty members, the Greenfield Recorder reported. Some students complained about Amazon’s business practices. Some instructors didn’t like submitting their textbook selections to Amazon rather than to a campus bookstore. And Amazon is never popular among local merchants.

A few other colleges and universities have also eliminated their campus stores, including Purdue, Stony Brook, and Queens College. Others have kept their stores but allowed Amazon to install storefronts with lockers for one-day delivery. Amazon has pickup sites at 30 colleges and universities.

One of the advantages universities cite for these arrangements is lower costs to students. At least that’s the plan. The university doesn’t have to devote storage space to books, and Amazon’s enormous size allows it to provide the benefit of scale and convenience. Amazon also pays the universities a commission on sales or rent for campus space. Amazon guaranteed UMass commissions of $1.45 million over three years, according to the Greenfield Recorder.

Cost is no trivial matter as state support keeps declining and the individual costs of college keeps rising. UMass said its deal with Amazon was expected to save students $380 a year on textbook purchases, although the The Massachusetts Daily Collegian said students found that the savings were considerably less, especially because the free shipping did not apply to used books.

Those arrangements also don’t take into account the efforts that campus bookstores make to assist students. The KU Bookstore, for instance, has created an online price comparison tool to help students make decisions. It also works with KU Libraries, faculty and staff members to make open educational resources more readily available. And it sends all its profits back to KU through donations to campus programs and organizations.

Each campus bookstore has a different business model, but the money that Amazon promises to universities is increasingly difficult to pass up. At the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Laurent Heller, the vice chancellor for finance and administration cited decreased state funding as one reason the university found a deal with Amazon attractive, according to The Daily Cardinal.

“We need to find creative ways to gain revenue that goes along with our mission,” Heller was quoted as saying.

Those revenues don’t come without risk, though. At UMass, Amazon is ending its five-year contract after three years, according to the Recorder. That has left the university scrambling to find a book supplier for its bookstoreless campus starting next year.

I have mixed feelings about all this. I’m not anti-Amazon, and I certainly understand the trend toward electronic course materials and the delivery of books. Libraries have been moving in the same direction, repurposing stacks as collaborative space for students and moving many physical books to remote sites. (This isn’t always a smooth process either.) The growth of digital resources also reduces the need for physical space.

I’m certainly part of this trend. I do most of my reading electronically these days. With an e-book reader and a tablet, I read much more than I did before. The digital devices also make life easier. I can take and store notes without the need for physical filing cabinets, and retrieve them much more easily and accurately than if they were in paper form. The digital format also reduces space and makes large amounts of information much more portable.

Campuses definitely lose an important element when a bookstore goes away, though. As I walked through the UMass campus, the lack of a college bookstore felt disorienting. It was as if something vital had been removed. Without it, there was no physical location for getting a feel for the intellectual life of the campus, no single place for perusing course titles or picking up new ideas from interesting classes and books that instructors had chosen. Without a bookstore, the campus felt somehow more remote, more inaccessible.

I’ve written before about universities’ shift toward consumerism, about the way they have diminished the importance of learning by promoting themselves as carefree places with endless conveniences, cheering sports fans, and smiling students who seem to have little to do but stroll together across leafy campuses. The loss of campus bookstores fits into that trend, further hiding the intellectual life – the soul of higher education – behind the gloss of consumer appeal.

If we are to preserve that intellectual core, we need to work harder at making it more visible, especially for potential students and for the public. Otherwise, a campus becomes just a collection of buildings — buildings that at a growing number of universities lack a bookstore.

Briefly …

Fort Hays State University is taking a non-Amazon approach to remaking its bookstore. The university has entered into partnerships with Akademos, a company that provides an online portal for textbook sales; and indiCo, an arm of the National Association of College Stores that will handle general merchandise for the store. … A University of Maryland study supports the idea of using virtual reality for learning, with researchers finding that participants had better recall of information from a virtual environment than from a desktop computer, Campus Technology reports. … A survey by the New America Foundation finds that support for higher education may not be as politically divided as surveys last year suggested, Inside Higher Ed reports. Even so, respondents were much more supportive of colleges and universities near them than they were of higher education in general.


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

Projects associated with programs at the Center for Teaching Excellence have led to national recognition for two KU professors.

Ward Lyles, left, speaks with Krzysztof Kuczera during a session of Diversity Scholars.

Ward Lyles, assistant professor of urban planning, received one of three curriculum innovation awards from the Association of Collegiate Schools of Planning and the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy. Lyles developed a quantitative methods course that uses team-based learning and focuses on the type of work planners do in their communities.

Lyles’s class emphasizes the importance of equity and inclusion, and he said his work in CTE’s inaugural Diversity Scholars Program allowed him to think through ways to make the class more inclusive. That includes reflection sessions on how personal and group identity shape thinking.

“Personal and group reflection gets students thinking about their own identities and experiences and how their unique characteristics shape their interactions with other people,” Lyles told KU News Service. “Recognizing similarities and differences between our own identities and experiences and those of people we work with is essential for collaboration.”

Genelle Belmas with a poster explaining her game Whack-A-Judge.

Genelle Belmas, associate professor of journalism and mass communications, won top honors in a teaching competition sponsored by the Law and Policy Division of the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication.

Belmas used a course transformation grant from CTE to develop an interactive digital game called Whack-A-Judge. Her interest in the project grew from a popular journalism class called Gamification she developed a couple of years ago. (I wrote last year about an exercise she did in helping students move into a flow state.)

Whack-A-Judge is intended to help students learn concepts for First Amendment and Society, a 600-level class that focuses on media law. The game, which is modeled on the arcade game whack-a-mole, flashes questions at the bottom of an on-screen game board. Players click (or whack) on judges who emerge from holes on the board holding signs with the names of court cases. The goal is to whack the judge with the right answer before that judge disappears back into a hole.

Preliminary results showed that the game improved students’ test scores, Belmas said.

Where state money that might have gone to higher ed now goes

Adjusted for inflation, states’ per-student spending on higher education has declined by 25 percent since 1997.

That’s no surprise. I’ve written before about a similar decline in spending in Kansas.

Nor is it a surprise that tuition has risen as states have reduced their support of higher education. (More about that shortly.) It is interesting, though, to see details of how state cuts lead to increases in tuition and how education spending ranks among states’ priorities. Douglas Webber, an associate professor of economics at Temple University, explores those in an article in EdNext. Here are a few things he found:

  • Net tuition at a public four-year university doubled between 1997-98 and 2017-18 as states reduced per-student funding by 25 percent. Net tuition is what a student pays after grants and scholarships are figured in.
  • For every $1,000 per student that states cut from college and university budgets, tuition rises by $300. That translates into thousands of dollars coming directly from students’ pockets, or more likely, dollars added to students’ debt.
  • In total dollars, state funding for public higher education increased 13.5 percent between 1987 and 2015. Yes, it increased. The bigger issue is that during that same time, enrollment grew more than 57 percent. It’s a classic example of being asked to do more with less.

That growth in students especially taxes large state universities, which, Webber says, have taken in the vast majority of new students but “have long since exhausted their economies of scale.” That is, it is extremely difficult to add more students without charging more or reducing the quality of education.

Webber says that much of the money that might have gone into higher education is now going to Medicaid. He calls that one of the “tradeoffs facing state and local governments.” Here’s where state spending increased the most between 1987 and 2015, according to Webber’s analysis:

  • Public welfare (including Medicaid): up 200 percent
  • Health and hospitals: up 67 percent
  • Corrections: up 66 percent
  • Police and fire protection: up 59 percent
  • K-12 education: up 41 percent

Most certainly, rising health care costs are eating up more and more of states’ budgets. As Webber cautions, though, it’s impossible to say that an increase in one budget item “causes” a decrease in another. Nor must increases in one area lead to cuts in another. That’s a political decision. And Webber emphasizes that the figures are averages for all states. For instance, Vermont’s spending on public welfare increased three times more than Utah’s. Similarly, six states actually increased their per-student spending on higher education (Connecticut, Mississippi, Nebraska, New Mexico, Oklahoma, and Wyoming) while Pennsylvania cut its contributions by 56 percent.

As Webber says, there isn’t just one story about how states spend their money. There are 50 stories. The statistics, though, reflect the challenges that state lawmakers confront each time they create budgets. It has become clear over the past two decades, though, that higher education isn’t high on that list of budget priorities.

Briefly …

The University of Missouri system will eliminate or merge 12 graduate programs and eliminate 474 jobs as part of a $100 million budget cut, The St. Louis Post-Dispatch reports. You can see a list of the affected programs here. … The Department of Education expects to open bids this summer on development of $5 million in open educational resources, The Washington Post reports. Congress included that money in the 2018 federal budget. … Google has made Google Scholar easier to use on a smartphone. New mobile-friendly functions provide article previews and the ability to swipe through articles for reading. Google Scholar on mobile also allows you to save articles to a “My library” folder for later reading on a computer.

 

Collin Bruey and Laura Phillips check out posters at the Service Showcase. Bruey and Phillips created their own poster about work at the Center for Community Outreach.

By Doug Ward

I’m frequently awed by the creative, even life-changing, work that students engage in.

The annual Service Showcase sponsored by the Center for Service Learning, provides an impressive display of that work. This year’s Showcase took place last week. As a judge for the Showcase over the past two years, I’ve learned how deeply some students have become involved in the community. Here’s a sample of their work:

  • Improving a sense of community among residents of a local senior center
  • Documenting the risk of poverty on individuals’ health
  • Building a more sustainable community through community gardens, litter pickups and presentations
  • Creating support networks and building leadership skills among underrepresented youths
  • Tutoring of juvenile offenders at the Kansas Juvenile Correctional Complex
  • Teaching U.S. citizenship to refugees
  • Promoting discussion about inequality in Kansas City, Kan.
  • Raising awareness about the lack of food that many KU students face
  • Increasing physical activity among guests at the Lawrence Community Shelter

John Augusto, who directed the Center for Service Learning until early this year, said in an earlier interview that the annual poster event provided recognition for both students and community partners.

“We want to make sure that students understand that it’s OK to feel good about the work, but that what’s as important is that the community organization is getting a direct benefit from that work,” Augusto said. “It’s not just that I go in and I feel good about what I do but then the community organization has to clean up after my work. There really has to be a mutually beneficial relationship.”

He added: “I think what it teaches the students is that when they leave KU and they are in an environment in their professional life that’s different from what they’re used to, they need to learn to listen. A lot of times students tell us that when they’re doing this service work, and reflecting on it, they learn how to listen.”

This year’s winners were:

  • Tina Lai, graduate student
  • Razan Mansour, undergraduate individual student award
  • Jasmine Brown and Cierra Smallwood, undergraduate student group award

Short tenures vs. long-term thinking

As KU begins a search for a new provost, here’s something to keep in mind: Most provosts don’t stay in their jobs long.

The College and University Professional Association for Human Resources says the median tenure for provosts across the country is only three years. That’s the lowest among all types of administrators the organization surveyed.

Presidents and chief executives of universities stay in their jobs at a median rate of five years, about the same as leaders of human resources and student affairs.

From the website of the College and University Professional Association for Human Resources

Jackie Bichsel, director of research for the association, is quoted as saying: “It’s not surprising that administrators overall have a relatively short median tenure. Given that those with many years of tenure do not make considerably greater salaries, their best chance of a raise may be to find a new position.”

Unfortunately, that’s the case in most jobs, both inside and outside academia. Employees sometimes talk about the “loyalty penalty,” meaning that those of us who stay at an institution for many years never get the bump in pay and other benefits that those who jump from job to job get. That becomes especially frustrating when considering that faculty salaries at KU rank near the bottom of the university’s peers.

I don’t begrudge anyone opportunities for higher pay or greater challenges. Bringing in new leaders can infuse a university with new energy and new ideas. And top leaders also feel squeezed from many sides as they take on everything from shaky budgets, rising college costs and flagging trust in higher education to polarized students and faculty, concerns about campus safety, small incidents blowing up on social media and in some cases, the survival of a university. There’s no doubt that university leaders have difficult jobs.

When those leaders change so frequently, though, a campus can easily shift to a short-term mentality. Administrators know they probably won’t stay on the job long, so they push for quick results that don’t necessarily serve the institution in the long term. Universities need to change, as I’ve written about frequently, but real change takes time, and the pressure to produce quick results makes it difficult to focus on much-needed systemic change. Quick turnover also makes it difficult to know whether leaders’ initiatives are really in a university’s best interests or whether they are simply meant to pad resumes for the next job search.

Further clouding the picture, many administrators push small initiatives but take a “wait and see” approach on innovation, preferring to let others experiment with new ideas, approaches, and technology rather than budgeting for experimentation. (Experimentation takes time, after all.) That’s one place where KU shines, at least in terms of teaching. The provost’s office has provided thousands of dollars in course transformation grants over the past few years, putting the university on the cutting edge in classroom innovations that help improve student learning. (Many of those innovations will be on display on Friday at CTE’s annual Celebration of Teaching.)

Choosing new leaders is a difficult task, as anyone who has served on a search committee can attest to. One thing seems clear, though: A university can’t rely on a single leader, or even a few leaders, to chart a path into the future. It must build a strong cohort of leaders around the university to keep the institution moving forward even as top leaders rotate in and out quickly.

Reclassifying STEM

Here’s a silly question: What is STEM?

If you said science, technology, engineering, and math, you’d be right, of course. You’d then have to explain what you mean by science, technology, engineering, and math, though.

Need help? Let’s consult the federal government.

The Department of Homeland Security says that STEM includes math, engineering, the biological sciences, the physical sciences and “fields involving research, innovation, or development of new technologies using engineering, mathematics, computer science, or natural sciences (including physical, biological, and agricultural sciences).”

That’s such a broad definition that it could theoretically apply to about anything. And that’s exactly what some universities hope to capitalize on as they try to attract more international students to the United States.

The Chronicle of Higher Education reports that universities have put such programs as economics, information science, journalism, classical art, archaeology, and applied psychology under the STEM umbrella. (Whether that will pass muster with the government remains to be seen.)

Why? Because international students who graduate in STEM fields are allowed to remain in the United States longer than those who receive non-STEM degrees, The Chronicle says. STEM graduates can work for three years in the U.S. after graduation, compared with one year for non-STEM grads.

International students, who generally pay full out-of-state tuition, have drawn increasing interest from public universities, which have struggled to make up for declining state funding. The number of international students has declined over the past couple of years, though. Nationally, there were 7 percent fewer international students in 2017-18 than in 2016-17, Inside Higher Ed reports. The largest declines were at universities in the Plains states (down 16 percent) and a region that encompasses Texas, Arkansas, and Louisiana (down 20 percent). At KU, the number of international students has declined 5.5 percent since a peak in 2016, according to university data.

I’ve heard of no moves to expand the STEM classification at KU, but some other universities have given themselves wide license to reclassify programs. In other words, STEM isn’t just about science, technology, engineering, and math. It’s also about marketing.

Worth repeating

“Good teaching is emotional work, requiring reserves of patience and ingenuity that are all-too-often depleted in overworked faculty members.”

—David Gooblar of the University of Iowa, writing about faculty burnout for The Chronicle of Higher Education


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.

Cleve Moler meets with students and faculty members after speaking at Eaton Hall.

By Doug Ward

“Look over Spock’s shoulder,” Cleve Moler told the audience at Eaton Hall on Thursday.

He was showing a clip from Star Trek: The Motion Picture, the 1979 movie that revived the classic 1960s science fiction television series. In a scene from the bridge of the Starship Enterprise, colorful graphics blink on a futuristic array of monitors.

Those graphics, Moler explained, came from what is now the Los Alamos National Laboratory, where he was part of team that developed a computational math library and an accompanying library for computer graphics. That work, written in Fortran, was “just a matrix calculator,” Molder said, but it was the basis for Matlab, software that creates an interactive environment for computation, visualization, modeling, and programming.

Moler, a former professor at New Mexico, Michigan and Stanford, is the “chief mathematician” and chairman of MathWorks, a company he co-founded in 1984. He visited KU this week, speaking to an auditorium filled mostly with undergraduates, but also with faculty and administrators, for the Russell Bradt Undergraduate Colloquium.

Graphics from the Los Alamos National Laboratory were used in scenes from “Star Trek: The Motion Picture.”

I’m not a mathematician, so I won’t pretend to understand the intricacies of Matlab. What I do understand is that Matlab plays an important role in researching and teaching mathematics, engineering, and other STEM areas. It is an environment created by mathematicians for mathematicians, and it has attained near iconic status in the academic world, with more than a million users.

In his talk at Eaton Hall, Moler spoke in a gravelly but upbeat voice about his influences in mathematics and computer science and about the steps that led to the development of Matlab. MathWorks, the company, started in 1984 with one employee, doubling every year for the first seven years. It now has about 4,000 employees in 20 offices around the world, Moler said. It has also expanded into such areas as cell biology, image processing, hearing aids, and driverless cars.

About midway through his talk, Moler gleefully described a project called Eigenwalker, which is using Matlab to break the human gait into its mathematical components and using those calculations to create stick and dot animations. As half a dozen panels with stick figures walked in place on the screen, Moler grinned at the audience and said: “I enjoy that demo. Everybody enjoys that demo.”

Then his analytic side came out.

“It’s all very amusing,” he said, “but what do we see here that’s so enjoyable?”

Through those stick figures, he said, we can understand things like mood, gender, and personality just by observing the way they move, and researchers are using the animations to study how people perceive others through their walk.

At 78, Moler doesn’t move nearly as smoothly as he did when he created Matlab, but his status as a math star was apparent at a reception in Snow Hall, where he sat with a cup of coffee and a cranberry oatmeal cookie talking with Professor Marge Bayer and others from the math department. Graduate students ringed the room, seemingly reluctant to approach Moler. They needn’t have worried. Despite his genius, Moler loves interacting with people, telling stories of his family and of the evolution of Matlab.

He shared one of those stories at the end of his talk at Eaton Hall after a student asked about the “why” command in Matlab. The original Matlab used terminal input, he said, and provided answers for commands like “help,” “who,” and “what.” Moler and others decided that Matlab needed a “why” function to go along with the others, so they programmed it to respond with “R.T.F.M.” when someone typed “why.”

That stood for “read the manual,” he said, with an extra word in the middle starting with “f.”

The room erupted in laughter.

Over the years, the “why” function became an inside joke, an Easter egg in Matlab that provided random humorous answers. He gave his audience a sneak peak of 30 or so new responses, including “Some smart kid wanted it,” “To please some system manager,” “To fool a young tall hamster,” “Some mathematician suggested it,” and “How should I know?”

At the end of his talk, Moler made a pitch for his company, which he said was hiring 250 to 300 “good people who know Matlab.” It wasn’t quite the same as in invitation to the bridge of the Enterprise, but for young mathematicians, it was close.

An entrepreneur endorses the liberal arts

The liberal arts got a recent thumbs-up from an unlikely source: Mark Cuban, the entrepreneur, Shark Tank star, and owner of the Dallas Mavericks.

“Unlikely” may not be quite the right description because Cuban encourages high school students to attend college and has a college degree himself (Indiana University business administration, 1981). So he is hardly part of the drop-out-now-and-chase-your-dream crowd of Silicon Valley entrepreneurs like Peter Thiel. Neither is he bullish on higher education, though. He has argued that colleges and universities are constructing unnecessary buildings financed by rising tuition, and that higher education is in the midst of a bubble, much as real estate was before 2008.

“As far as the purpose of college, I am a huge believer that you go to college to learn how to learn,” Cuban wrote on his blog in 2012. “However, if that goal is subverted because traditional universities, public and private, charge so much to make that happen, I believe that system will collapse and there will be better alternatives created.”

In a recent interview with Bloomberg News, Cuban said that students needed to think carefully about jobs, careers, and skills.

“What looked like a great job graduating from college today may not be a great job graduating from college five years or 10 years from now,” he said.

That’s because machine learning and artificial intelligence are changing the nature of work. Companies are hiring fewer employees as technology takes over more jobs, making it crucial for people to understand how to use computers and software, he said.

“Either software works for you or you work for software, and once the software takes over, you’re gone,” Cuban said.

He predicted enormous changes in the workplace in the coming years.

“The amount of change we’re going to see over the next five years, 10 years will dwarf everything that’s happened over the last 30,” Cuban said.

Because of that, Cuban said he expected English, philosophy and foreign language majors and others who are “more of a freer thinker” to have a distinct advantage.

“I personally think there’s going to be a greater demand in 10 years for liberal arts majors than there were for programming majors and maybe even engineering,” Cuban said.

It’s refreshing to hear someone from the business world extoll the virtues of liberal education, especially as higher education – and liberal education in particular – have come under intense criticism from many sides. There is certainly much to criticize, but there is also much to be hopeful about. No matter their career path, students benefit from a broad understanding of the world, an ability to research effectively, communicate clearly and analyze critically, and a desire to keep learning. (I’ll be talking more about those skills in the coming weeks.)


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

BLOOMINGTON, Indiana – We have largely been teaching in the dark.

By that, I mean that we know little about our students. Not really. Yes, we observe things about them and use class surveys to gather details about where they come from and why they take our classes. We get a sense of personality and interests. We may even glean a bit about their backgrounds.

That information, while helpful, lacks many crucial details that could help us shape our teaching and alert us to potential challenges as we move through the semester. It’s a clear case of not knowing what we don’t know.

Participants at a Learning Analytics Summit workshop grapple with definitions of student success and with how they might use data to better understand teaching and learning.

That became clear to me last week at the first Learning Analytics Summit at Indiana University. The summit drew more than 60 people from universities around the country to talk about how to make more effective use of academic data. I led workshops on getting started with data projects for analyzing courses, curricula, student learning and student success. As I listened and spoke with colleagues, though, I was struck by how little we know about our courses, curricula and students, and how much we stand to gain as we learn more.

Let me provide examples from the University of California-Davis and the University of New Mexico, two schools that have been piloting electronic systems that give instructors vast amounts of information about students before classes start.

Marco Molinaro, assistant vice provost for educational effectiveness at UC-Davis, showed examples of a new system that provides instructors with graphics-rich digital pages with such details as the male-female balance of a class, the number of first-generation students, the number of low-income students, the number of underrepresented minorities, the number of students for whom English is a second language, the number of students who are repeating a class, the most prevalent majors among students in a class, previous classes students have taken, other courses they are taking in the current semester, how many are using tutoring services, comparisons to previous classes the instructor has taught, and comparisons to other sections of the same class.

For privacy reasons, none of that data has names associated with it. It doesn’t need to. The goal isn’t to single out students; it’s to put information into the hands of faculty members so they can shape their classes and assignments to the needs of students.

That data can provide many insights, but Molinaro and his staff have gone further. In addition to tables and charts, they add links to materials about how to help different types of students succeed. An instructor who has a large number of first-generation students, for instance, receives links to summaries of research about first-generation students, advice on teaching strategies that help those students learn, and an annotated bibliography that allows the instructor to go deeper into the literature.

Additionally, Molinaro and his colleagues have begun creating communities of instructors with expertise in such areas as working with first-generation students, international students, and low-income students. They have also raised awareness about tutoring centers and similar resources that students might be using or might benefit from.

Molinaro’s project is funded by a $1 million grant from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. It began last fall with about 20 faculty members piloting the system. By the coming fall, Molinaro hopes to open the system to 200 to 300 more instructors. Eventually, it will be made available to the entire faculty.

Embracing a ‘cycle of progress’

Providing the data is just the first step in a process that Molinaro calls a “cycle of progress.” It starts with awareness, which provides the raw material for better understanding. After instructors and administrators gain that understanding, they can take action. The final step is reflection, which allows all those involved an opportunity to evaluate how things work – or don’t work – and make necessary changes. Then the cycle starts over.

“This has to go on continuously at our campuses,” Molinaro said.

As Molinaro and other speakers said, though, the process has to proceed thoughtfully.

For instance, Greg Heileman, associate provost for student and academic life at the University of Kentucky, warned attendees about the tendency to chase after every new analytics tool, especially as vendors make exaggerated claims about what their tools can do. Heileman offered this satiric example:

First, a story appears in The Chronicle of Higher Education.

“Big State University Improves Graduation Rates by Training Advisors as Mimes!”

The next day, Heileman receives email from an administrator. The mime article is attached and the administrator asks what Heileman’s office is doing about training advisors to be mimes. The next day, he receives more email from other administrators asking why no one at their university had thought of this and how soon he can get a similar program up and running.

The example demonstrates the pressure that universities feel to replicate the success of peer institutions, Heileman said, especially as they are being asked to increase access and equity, improve graduation rates, and reduce costs. On top of that, most university presidents, chancellors and provosts have relatively short tenures, so they pressure their colleagues to show quick results. Vendors have latched onto that, creating what Heileman called an “analytics stampede.”

Chris Fischer, associate professor of physics and astronomy at KU, speaks during a poster session at the analytics conference in Bloomington, Indiana.

The biggest problem with that approach, Heileman said, is that local conditions shape student success. What works well at one university may not work well at another.

That’s where analytics can play an important role. As the vice provost for teaching and learning at the University of New Mexico until last fall, Heileman oversaw several projects that relied on university analytics. One, in which the university looked at curricula as data for analysis, led to development of an app that allows students to explore majors and to see the types of subjects they would study and classes they would take en route to a degree. That project also led to development of a website for analysis and mapping of department curricula.

One metric that emerged from that project is a “blocking factor,” which Heileman described as a ranking system that shows the likelihood that a course will block students’ progression to graduation. For instance, a course like calculus has a high blocking factor because students must pass it before they can proceed to engineering, physics and other majors.

Better understanding what classes slow students’ movement through a curriculum allows faculty and administrators to look more closely at individual courses and find ways of reducing barriers. At New Mexico, he said, troubles in calculus were keeping engineering students from enrolling in several other classes. The order of classes also created complexity that made graduation more difficult. By shifting some courses, students began taking calculus later in the curriculum. That made it more relevant – and thus more likely that students would pass – and helped clear a bottleneck in the curriculum.

Used thoughtfully, Heileman said, data tells a story and allows us to formulate effective strategies.

Focusing on retention and graduation

Dennis Groth, vice provost for undergraduate education at Indiana, emphasized the importance of university analytics in improving retention and graduation rates.

Data, he said, can point to “signs of worry” about students and prompt instructors, staff members and administrators to take action. For instance, Indiana has learned that failure to register for spring classes by Thanksgiving often means that students won’t be returning to the university. Knowing that allows staff members to reach out to students sooner and eliminate barriers that might keep them from graduating.

Data can also help administrators better understand student behavior and student pathways to degrees. Many students come to the university with a major in mind, Groth said, but after taking their first class in that major, they “scatter to the wind.” Many find they simply don’t like the subject matter and can’t see themselves sticking with it for life. Many others, though, find that introductory classes are poorly taught. As a result, they search elsewhere for a major.

“If departments handled their pre-majors like majors,” Groth said, “they’d have a lot more majors.”

Once students give up on what Groth called “aspirational majors,” they move on to “discovery majors,” or areas they learn about through word of mouth, through advisors, or through taking a class they like. At Indiana, the top discovery majors are public management, informatics and psychology.

“Any student could be your major,” Groth said. That doesn’t mean departments should be totally customer-oriented, he said, “but students are carried along by excitement.”

“If your first class is a weed-out class, that chases people away,” Groth said.

Indiana has also made a considerable amount of data available to students. Course evaluations are all easily accessible to students. So are grade distributions for individual classes and instructors. That data empowers students to make better decisions about the majors they choose and the courses they take, he said. Contrary to widespread belief, he said, a majority of students recommend nearly every class. Students are more enthusiastic about some courses, he said, but they generally provide responsible evaluations.

In terms of curriculum, Groth said universities needed to take a close look at whether some high-impact practices were really having a substantial impact. At Indiana, he said, the data are showing that learning communities haven’t led to substantial improvements in retention or in student learning. They aren’t having any negative effects, he said, but they aren’t showing the types of results that deserve major financial support from the university.

As more people delve into university data, even the terms used are being re-evaluated.

George Rehrey, director of Indiana’s recently created Center for Learning Analytics and Student Success, urged participants to rethink the use of the buzzword “data-driven.” That term suggests that we follow data blindly, he said. We don’t, or at least we shouldn’t. Instead, Rehrey suggested the term “data-informed,” which he said better reflected a goal of using data to solve problems and generate ideas, not send people off mindlessly.

Lauren Robel, the provost at Indiana, opened the conference with a bullish assessment of university analytics. Analytics, she said, has “changed the conversation about student learning and student success.”

“We can use this to change human lives,” Robel said. “We can literally change the world.”

I’m not ready to go that far. University analytics offer great potential. But for now, I’m simply looking for them to shed some light on teaching and learning.

Data efforts at KU

KU has several data-related projects in progress. STEM Analytics Teams, a CTE project backed by a grant from the Association of American Universities, have been drawing on university data to better understand students, programs and progression through curricula. The university’s Visual Analytics system makes a considerable amount of data available through a web portal. And the recently created Business Intelligence Center is working to develop a data warehouse, which will initially focus on financial information but will eventually expand to such areas as curriculum, student success and other aspects of academic life. In addition, Josh Potter, the documenting learning specialist at CTE, has been working with departments to analyze curricula and map student pathways to graduation.


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

A peer review of teaching generally goes something like this:

An instructor nears third-year review or promotion. At the request of the promotion and tenure committee, colleagues who have never visited the instructor’s class hurriedly sign up for a single visit. Sometimes individually, sometimes en masse, they sit uncomfortably among wary students for 50 or 75 minutes. Some take notes. Others don’t. Soon after, they submit laudatory remarks about the instructor’s teaching, relieved that they won’t have to visit again for a few years.

ChangHwan Kim (left), Tracey LaPierre and Paul Stock discuss their plans for evaluating teaching in the sociology department. They gathered with faculty members from four other units at the inaugural meeting of the Benchmarks for Teaching Effectiveness Project.

If your department or school has a better system, consider yourself lucky. Most peer evaluations lack guidelines that might offer meaningful feedback for a candidate and a P&T committee, and they focus almost exclusively on classroom performance. They provide a snapshot at best, lacking context about the class, the students or the work that has gone into creating engagement, assignments, evaluations and, above all, learning. Academics often refer to that approach as a “drive-by evaluation,” as reviewers do little but breeze past a class and give a thumbs-up out the window.

Those peer evaluations don’t have to be a clumsy, awkward and vapid free-for-all, though. Through the Benchmarks for Teaching Effectiveness Project, we have begun a process intended to make the evaluation of teaching much richer and more meaningful. The project is financed through a five-year, $612,000 National Science Foundation grant and is part of a larger NSF project that includes the University of Colorado, Michigan State, and the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.

We have used the NSF grant to distribute mini-grants to four departments and one school that will pilot the use of a rubric intended to add dimension and guidance to the evaluation of teaching. Faculty members in those units will work with colleagues to define and identify the elements of good teaching in their discipline, decide on appropriate evidence, adapt the rubric, apply it in some way, and share experiences with colleagues inside and outside the department and the university. Evidence will come from three sources: the instructor, students and peers, with departments deciding how to weight the evidence and to weight the categories in the rubric.

Not surprisingly, the instructors involved in the project had many questions about how the process might play out as they gathered for the first time in February: What types of evidence are most reliable? How do we reduce conscious or unconscious bias in the evaluation process? How do we gain consensus among colleagues for an expanded evaluation process and for application of a new system of evaluation? How can we create a more meaningful process that doesn’t eat up lots of time?

Those are important questions without simple answers, but the departments that have signed on in this initial stage of the project have already identified many worthy goals. For instance, Sociology, Philosophy and Biology hope to reduce bias and improve consistency in the evaluation process. Chemical and Petroleum Engineering plans to create triads of faculty members who will provide feedback to one another. Public Affairs and Administration sees opportunities for enriching the enjoyment of teaching and for inspiring instructors to take risks to innovate teaching.

All the units will use the rubric to foster discussion among their colleagues, to identify trustworthy standards of evidence, and, ultimately, to evaluate peers. Philosophy and sociology see opportunities for better evaluating graduate teaching assistants, as well. Chemical and Petroleum Engineering hopes to use the rubric to guide and evaluate 10 faculty members on tenure track. Sociology plans to use it to guide peer evaluation of teaching. Public Affairs and Administration plans to have a group of faculty alternate between evaluator and evaluee as they hone aspects of the rubric. Biology plans to explore the best ways to interpret the results.

That range of activities is important. By using the rubric to foster discussion about the central elements of teaching – and its evaluation – and then testing it in a variety of circumstances, instructors will learn valuable information about the teaching process. That feedback will allow us to revise the rubric, create better guidelines for its use, and ultimately help as many departments as possible adopt it for the promotion and tenure process.

All of the faculty members working in the initial phase of the Benchmarks project recognize the complexity and challenge of high-quality teaching. They also recognize the challenges in creating a better system of evaluation. Ultimately, though, their work has the potential to make good teaching more transparent, to make the evaluation of teaching more nuanced, and to make teaching itself a more important part of the faculty evaluation process.

Work your way through college? Not anymore

Kansas students would need to work nearly 30 hours a week at minimum wage to pay for college, even if they received grants and scholarships, according to an analysis by the public policy organization Demos.

In only eight other states would students need to work more hours to pay for college. New Hampshire, which would require more than 41 hours of work a week, was No. 1, followed by Pennsylvania (39.8 hours) and Alabama (36 hours).

Students attending college in Washington State would need to work the fewest hours (11.6), followed by California (12.6) and New York (15).

“In the vast majority of states, the idea of working your way through college is no more than an antiquated myth,” Demos writes. “A combination of low minimum wages and high college prices make borrowing an inevitability for students.”

The average yearly cost of attending Kansas universities is $16,783, Demos says. That’s 86 percent higher than it was in 2001, putting Kansas at No. 32 in average cost of attendance for public universities. New Hampshire had the highest average cost ($26,008), followed by Vermont ($25,910) and New Jersey ($25,544). Utah ($13,344) had the lowest average cost, followed by Wyoming ($13,942) and Idaho ($14,211).

Demos, which tilts liberal in its ideology, calculated the rankings using data from the federal government’s Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System and the Department of Labor. It created a “net price” for each state by subtracting average scholarship and grant aid from the average tuition and fees for four-year colleges in each state.

That approach has many flaws. In Kansas, for instance, tuition and fees vary widely among four-year universities and even within schools at those universities. Averaging also masks a wide variance in the amount of financial aid students receive. Looking only at cost of attendance skews the picture even further, as housing, food and other expenses generally exceed the cost of tuition and fees, especially in the Northeast and West Coast.

Even so, the study offers a reality check about college costs. State investment in higher education has declined even as the number of students attending college, and the diversity among those students, has grown. In Kansas, tuition now covers an average of 53 percent of a university’s costs, compared with 28 percent in 2001. Even that looks good compared with states like New Hampshire, where tuition accounts for 79 percent of university revenue, Delaware (75 percent) and Pennsylvania (73 percent).

Then again, in Wyoming, tuition dollars account for only 13 percent of college budgets. That is considerable lower than the states that follow: California (21 percent) and Alaska (30 percent) . In all states but Wyoming, tuition dollars now account for a greater share of university budgets that they did in 2001.

As Demos writes, “our state and federal policymakers have been vacating the compact with students that previous generations enjoyed.” It’s no wonder students have sought to put political pressure on schools and legislators.

The disinvestment in higher education began in the 1970s as a political message of lower taxes and smaller government started gaining ground. It accelerated during economic downturns and has only recently begun to ease. To compensate, colleges and universities have cut staff, hired fewer tenure-track professors, increased class size, and relied increasingly on low-paid adjunct instructors for teaching. Students and their families have taken on larger amounts of debt to finance their education.

As Demos writes: “When states do not prioritize higher education as a public good, students and families generally bear the burden.”


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

Two vastly different views of assessment whipsawed many of us over the past few days.

The first, a positive and hopeful view, pulsed through a half-day of sessions at KU’s annual Student Learning Symposium on Friday. The message there was that assessment provides an opportunity to understand student learning. Through curiosity and discovery, it yields valuable information and helps improve classes and curricula.

The second view came in the form of what a colleague accurately described as a “screed” in The New York Times. It argued that assessment turns hapless faculty members into tools of administrators and accreditors who seek vapid data on meaningless “learning outcomes” to justify an educational business model.

As I said, it was hard not to feel whipsawed. So let’s look a bit deeper into those two views and try to figure out what’s going on.

Clearly, the term “assessment” has taken on a lot of baggage over the last two decades. Molly Worthen, the North Carolina professor who wrote the Times op-ed article, highlights nearly every piece of that baggage: It is little more than a blunt bureaucratic instrument imposed from outside and upon high. It creates phony data. It lacks nuance. It fails to capture the important aspects of education. It is too expensive. It burdens overtaxed instructors. It generates little useful information. It blames instructors for things they have no control over. It is a political, not an educational, tool. It glosses over institutional problems.

Dawn Shew works on a poster during a session at the Student Learning Symposium. With her are, from left, Ben Wolfe, Steve Werninger and Kim Glover.

“Without thoughtful reconsideration, learning assessment will continue to devour a lot of money for meager results,” Worthen writes. “The movement’s focus on quantifying classroom experience makes it easy to shift blame for student failure wholly onto universities, ignoring deeper socio-economic reasons that cause many students to struggle with college-level work. Worse, when the effort to reduce learning to a list of job-ready skills goes too far, it misses the point of a university education.”

So if assessment is such a burden, why bother? Yes, there are political reasons, but assessment seems a reasonable request. If we profess to educate students, shouldn’t we be able to provide evidence of that? After all, we demand that our students provide evidence to back up arguments. We demand that our colleagues provide evidence in their research. So why should teaching and learning be any different?

I’m not saying that the assessment process is perfect. It certainly takes time and money to gather, analyze and present meaningful evidence, especially at the department, school or university level. At the learning symposium, an instructor pointed out that department-level assessment had essentially become an unfunded mandate, and indeed, if imposed from outside, assessment can seem like an albatross. And yet, it is hardly the evil beast that Worthen imagines.

Yes, in some cases assessment is required, and requirements make academics, who are used to considerable autonomy, chafe. But assessment is something we should do for ourselves, as I’ve written before. Think of it as a compass. Through constant monitoring, it provides valuable information about the direction and effectiveness of our classes and curricula. It allows us to make adjustments large and small that lead to better assignments and better learning for our students. It allows us to create a map of our curricula so that we know where individual classes move students on a journey toward a degree. In short, it helps us keep education relevant and ensures that our degrees mean something.

New data about assessment

That view lacks universal acceptance, but it is gaining ground. Figures released at the learning symposium by Josh Potter, the university’s documenting learning specialist, show that 73 percent of degree programs now report assessment data to the university, up from 59 percent in 2014. More importantly, more than half of those programs have discussed curriculum changes based on the assessment data they have gathered. In other words, those programs learned something important from assessment that encouraged them to take action.

That’s one of the most important aspects of assessment. It’s not just data we send into the ether. It’s data that can lead to valuable discussion and valuable understanding. It’s data that helps us make meaningful revisions.

The data that Potter released pointed to challenges, as well. Less than a third of those involved in program assessment say that their colleagues understand the purpose of assessment, that their department recognizes their work in assessment, or that they see a clear connection between assessment and student learning. Part of the problem, I think, is that many instructors want an easy-to-apply, one-size-fits-all approach. There simply is no single perfect method of assessment, as Potter makes clear in the many conversations he has with faculty members and departments. Another problem is that many people see it as a high-stakes game of gotcha, which it isn’t, or shouldn’t be.

“Assessment isn’t a treasure hunt for deficiencies in your department,” Potter said Friday.

Rather, assessment should start with questions from instructors and should include data that helps instructors see their courses in a broader way. Grades often obscure the nuances of learning and understanding. Assessment can make those nuances clearer. For instance, categories in a rubric add up to a grade for an individual student, but aggregate scores for each of those categories allow us to see where a broad swath of students need work or where we need to improve our instruction, structure assignments better, or revisit topics in a class.

Assessment as a constant process

That’s just one example. Individually, we subconsciously assess our classes day by day and week by week. We look at students’ faces for signs of comprehension. We judge the content of their questions and the sophistication of their arguments. We ask ourselves whether an especially quiet day in class means that students understand course material well or don’t understand at all.

The goal then should be to take the many meaningful observations we make and evidence we gather in our classes and connect them with similar work by our colleagues. By doing that on a department level, we gain a better understanding of curricula. By doing it on a university level, we gain a better understanding of degrees.

I’m not saying that any of this is easy. Someone has to aggregate data from the courses in a curriculum, and someone – actually, many someones – has to analyze that data and share results with colleagues. Universities need to provide the time and resources to make that happen, and they need to reward those who take it on. Assessment can’t live forever as an unfunded mandate. Despite the challenges that assessment brings, though, it needs to be an important part of what we do in higher education. Let me go back to Werther’s op-ed piece, which despite its screed-like tone contained nuggets of sanity. For instance:

“Producing thoughtful, talented graduates is not a matter of focusing on market-ready skills. It’s about giving students an opportunity that most of them will never have again in their lives: the chance for serious exploration of complicated intellectual problems, the gift of time in an institution where curiosity and discovery are the source of meaning.”

I agree wholeheartedly, and I think most of my colleagues would, too. A college education doesn’t happen magically, though. It requires courses to give it shape and curricula to give it meaning. And just as we want our students to embrace curiosity and discovery to guide their journey of intellectual exploration, so must we, their instructors, use curiosity and discovery to guide the constant development and redevelopment of our courses. That isn’t about “quantifying classroom experience,” as Werther argues. It’s about better understanding who we are and where we’re going.


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

Student motivation is one of the most vexing challenges that instructors face. Students can’t learn if they aren’t engaged, and serious classroom material often fails to pique the interest of a generation that has grown up with the constant stimulation of smartphones, social media and video on demand.

Some instructors argue that motivation should be up to students, who are paying to come to college, after all. Most certainly, instructors can’t make students learn. Students have to cultivate that desire on their own. Instructors can take many steps to stoke that desire to learn, though, by drawing students into subject matter and into learning in general.

student sleeping
Photo by Cassandra Hamer, Unsplash

In a pedagogy class I’m teaching this semester, students and I worked through some of the steps we can take to motivate students. This is hardly a comprehensive list, but it touches on concrete steps that any instructor can take to draw students into class material and into learning.

Find links. Helping students make connections among seemingly unrelated topics deepens their thinking and expands their ability to learn. By tying their interests (say, music) to more challenging subject matter (the workings of the brain, for instance, or American history), we can motivate students to further their exploration and broaden their learning. As John Bransford, Ann Brown and Rodney Cocking write in How People Learn, helping students understand the usefulness of a subject can improve learning, as can making sure material is neither too difficult nor too easy and providing opportunities to share with others.

Vary class time. Approaching class in the same way every time lulls students into a routine that can lead to their tuning out or shutting down. Put yourself in students’ shoes: They may have three or four classes in a single day. That alone makes concentration a challenge. Things like breaking a 75-minute class into three or four small topics, playing a short video or audio clip at some point, or even having students stand up for a minute or two can break a routine and refocus attention.

Give students choices. We all need some sense of control over what we do and how we do something. Giving students choices on project topics, readings or quiz questions gives them at least some sense of control and ownership.

Use hands-on activities. Evidence is clear that active learning, in which students engage in discussions, work on problems, or take on questions in groups, is a far better means of instruction than lecture. All instructors need time to explain things to students, but the real learning begins when students engage with material in authentic ways.

Move around the room. Moving about the classroom or encouraging students to move about and talk with classmates can help maintain students’ attention. This also helps instructors get to know students better.

Encourage students. A few words of encouragement can go a long way in keeping students engaged. Remind students that learning takes time and that their peers struggle, as well. Don’t resort to false praise, but point out good elements in students’ work and help them build on those elements.

Make individual connections. Show your humanity and help students understand who you are as a person. That doesn’t mean befriending students, but learning their names, remembering faces, and talking to students about their interests and aspirations helps personalize the learning process and helps draw students into that process.

Use humor. Instructors don’t have to be stand-up comedians, but displaying a sense of humor makes them more relatable, diminishes anxiety and sends a message that learning can be fun.

Use games. The gamification of learning has grown considerably since the turn of the century, but games that help students learn have been part of learning for as long as there have been games. So using a game strategy in a class doesn’t require great technical know-how. For instance, I have created “Jeopardy” games in PowerPoint to help students learn grammar, and crossword puzzles to help them practice research skills. Those strategies require preparation, but I’ve found them very effective.

There are many other approaches to engaging students. Some require prep time and trial and error from instructors, but many others require little more than an open mind. We’d love to hear the strategies that work best for you.


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

The University of Kansas has made many gains in its recruitment of minority students, who now make up 20.6 percent of the student body. By at least one measure, though, the university still has considerable work to do.

According to an analysis by The Hechinger Report, there is a substantial disparity in the number of Latino students who enroll at KU compared with the number who graduate from state high schools. Hechinger looked at enrollment rates for Latino and black students at public flagship universities in each state. KU had the 15th largest gap in Latino students.

Here’s what that means: About 16 percent of Kansas high school graduates in the spring of 2015 were Latino. That fall, 8 percent of KU’s freshman class was Latino, a figure that rose to 8.7 percent by Fall 2017.

The university fared better in a comparison of black enrollment, ranking 31st among the states (a lower ranking was better). About 7 percent of high school graduates in the spring of 2015 were black, while blacks made up 4.3 percent of the university’s freshman class that fall. (That fell to 3.9 percent among freshmen who started in Fall 2017.)

The highest disparities between the number of black high school graduates and blacks enrolling in flagship universities were primarily in the South, Hechinger said, with Mississippi showing the largest gap. Black students made up more than 50 percent of Mississippi high school graduates in the spring of 2015 but only about 10 percent of the freshman class at the University of Mississippi that year.

Among Latino students, the largest disparities were in the west: California, Texas, Nevada and Colorado. For instance, Latinos made up more than 50 percent of high school graduates but only about 12 percent of the freshman class at the University of California, Berkeley.

This graph from The Hechinger Report shows the percentage of high school graduates who were Latino and the percentage of Latinos among the freshman class at state flagship universities. http://hechingerreport.org/disparities-state-flagships/

An Amazon move worth watching

Inside Higher Ed speculates that Amazon may be preparing for a move into higher education. That’s because the company has hired the Stanford researcher Candace Thill, who has taken a leave of absence from the university to become Amazon’s director of learning science and engineering. Amazon and Thill had little to say beyond that.

Thill was a founding director of the Open Learning Initiative at Carnegie Mellon before moving to Stanford. She has helped create online learning materials based on findings from learning science, arguing that such materials can tailor feedback to individual needs, thus speeding up learning and leading to better scaling of classes.

The Open Learning Initiative is a competency-based system, meaning students work at their own pace, moving into new material only after demonstrating their understanding of previous material. The online system provides data to instructors and course designers, helping them improve course design and make better use of class time.

Using online learning to scale classes and reduce costs has been a dream of administrators and educational technology companies for years. Results have been mixed at best, with tech companies proclaiming grand breakthroughs even as instructors find that high-quality online teaching often takes more time than in-person teaching.

Higher education still sees digital technology as an important means of innovation and transformation, Jim Hundrieser, associate managing principal at AGB Institutional Strategies, said last month at the annual meeting of the Association of American Colleges and Universities. Colleges are struggling to find a sustainable business model, he said, and that could lead to a hard fall, much as publishing, textiles, music, steel, trucking, telecommunications and other industries have taken.

Hundrieser predicted that the number of online courses would continue to grow, especially because of their ability to reach students in remote areas, make learning more convenient, and allow for collaboration across time and space.

He’s right, although universities can’t simply toss out lackluster materials online and expect students to respond enthusiastically. Good online teaching requires a rethinking of pedagogy, course structure, student interaction, and learning itself. Universities still have some time to improve and expand their online offerings, but that time is drawing short as competition increases. If Amazon puts its enormous resources and brainpower behind educational technology and online learning, they had better be ready.

Colorado’s fee experiment

Course fees add hundreds or even thousands of dollars to the cost of a college degree. They are calculated separately from tuition, so they can hit hard when students’ bills come due each semester.

Starting this fall, the University of Colorado will eliminate most of those fees. Students will still pay fees for such things as the university bus system, recreation center and health center, but they will no longer pay course fees that range from $1 a credit hour to $1,255 a semester. That will save students $8.4 million a year, the university said.

The university is also spending $1 million on a pilot program that will provide open online textbooks to students at a fraction of the cost of publisher-created books.

The university system’s chancellor, Phil DeStefano, said in a university address that CU hoped to increase graduation rates by reducing educational costs.

Both the elimination of course fees and the investment in open educational resources are excellent moves. Of course, the university will have to absorb the costs, essentially cutting its income by $8.4 million a year. This is at a university system that ranks near the bottom nationally in state funding.

So how can it do that? The university cited rising enrollment and retention rates. CU expects 40,000 applicants (up from 37,000 in 2017) for this fall’s freshman class of 6,500. In contrast, KU has about 15,000 applicants each year. It accepts more than 90 percent of those students, but only about 4,000 eventually enroll.

More students are also transferring to CU, the Daily Camera of Boulder reports, and the university has increased its freshman retention rate to 87.5 percent, from 84 percent a few years ago. Those two things alone account for a substantial increase in revenue. Growth almost always makes budgeting easier.

CU also charges nearly $28,000 a year in tuition for in-state students and $52,000 a year for out-of-state students. In contrast, in-state residents pay $19,600 a year at KU; those from outside the state pay about $25,500.

It doesn’t hurt that the Denver to Boulder corridor is one of the country’s fastest-growing technology and biotechnology hubs, bringing employers and research dollars to the area. And then there are the mountains and the, uh-hum, weed.

For every Colorado, though, there is an Illinois, which lost more than 19,000 students to other states in 2016, The Chronicle of Higher Education reports. The University of Illinois system has frozen tuition to try to keep more students in the state, but the number has risen for five consecutive years.


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

The criticism of liberal education often carries a vicious sting. For instance, listen to Jeb Bush, the former Florida governor:

“Universities ought to have skin in the game. When a student shows up, they ought to say, ‘Hey, that psych major deal, that philosophy major thing, that’s great. It’s important to have liberal arts … but realize, you’re going to be working at Chick-fil-A.’”

Examples of posters created during the workshop.

Or Gov. Matthew Bevin of Kentucky as he describes his budget priorities for higher education:

“There will be more incentives to electrical engineers than to French literature majors. All the people in the world that want to study French literature can do so. They are just not going to be subsidized by the taxpayer like engineers.”

Those sorts of disparaging comments certainly demonstrate an ignorance of higher education, but they also reflect the use of higher education as a political foil as the cost of college – and student debt – rises. Those simplistic characterizations have power. They stick in people’s minds and play into stereotypes of academia as an ivory tower separate from society at large and out of touch with the vast majority of Americans. They also reflect a growing emphasis on college as a job factory rather than a place to help citizens learn to think more deeply and more critically, and to expand their understanding of a complex and ever-changing world.

Higher education has done a poor job of pushing back against those criticisms, as I wrote earlier this week. Faculty members and administrators are eager to do better, though, as I found last week in a workshop I led at the annual meeting of the Association of American College and Universities in Washington. I gave participants a handout in which I had categorized common criticisms of liberal education and provided examples like the ones above. After a brief discussion, I asked them to identify an audience and create their own messages to address one or more of the criticisms. The results were excellent, showing a steely resolve to reclaim the reputation of higher education.

Categorizing criticisms

I generally see six types of criticisms of liberal education. Most come from outside the academy, but some come from inside. There are overlapping aspects among all of them, and no doubt there are others. (For instance, one workshop participant pointed out the complaint that the liberal arts focuses heavily on the ideas of long-dead white men.) These are the common ones that I’ve identified, though, and that I shared in the workshop:

  • College costs too much to waste on “impractical” subjects
  • The study of the liberal arts has become an anachronism
  • Liberal education is out of touch with the “real world”
  • Liberal education isn’t keeping up with a changing world
  • Liberal education has lost its meaning
  • Identity consciousness has tainted liberal education

I asked workshop participants to work in pairs or groups, choose one or more of those criticisms, and create both a soundbite and more substantial messages that highlight the strengths of liberal education. Some rejected the idea of soundbites. That’s understandable. Matching soundbite to soundbite can easily devolve into the equivalent of a playground brawl rather than a meaningful conversation. Nonetheless, I think it is important that we distill the importance of liberal education into key elements to use when talking with students, parents, donors, community members, politicians, and even colleagues.

Here are examples of how workshop participants rose to that challenge:

  • Change is a constant. Liberal education provides the means to create and navigate that change.
  • Liberal education is a pedagogy and an ethos, not a set of disciplines.
  • Finding a path and a voice in the world.
  • Your life is better when we think better together.
  • Get a career, get a purpose, get a life, get a college education.
  • Build a team that knows how to think.
  • Liberal arts will get your promotion.
  • Pivot for your next opportunity.
  • Invest in the long run.
  • We teach essential skills for living fully and freely, everything you need for citizenship and prosperity, self-fulfillment and self-determination.

Two groups focused specifically on Republican donors, drawing on the language of business to make a connection:

  • Liberal education builds workplace skills: adaptability, flexibility, communication skills, evaluation and analytical skills, interpersonal skills in diverse populations. It also instills ethics and fosters curiosity.
  • The liberal arts yields effective communication skills in multiple modes, which is core to successful messaging, interaction, negotiation, innovation, collaboration, creative problem-solving, sales and marketing, global perspective, diverse audiences and cultures.

As I said, there are dangers in trying to compress the complexities of liberal education into soundbites or even more substantial talking points. We will never do it justice. By thinking in those terms, though, we can better identify the components of higher education we want to emphasize and better prepare ourselves for conversations with a broad range of constituencies.

So let’s keep talking.


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

American higher education has taken a beating over the last 40-plus years.

Many of those blows came from the outside. Many others were self-inflicted. I won’t rehash those here, other than to say that higher education has done a poor job of fighting back. Much of the time, it has seen itself as above the fray. Its arrogance not only blinded it to its own shortcomings but let critics paint an unflattering portrait that has lingered in the minds of millions of Americans.

A board at the AAC&U meeting asked participants to share their thoughts about higher education. The theme of the meeting was “Can Higher Education Recapture the Elusive American Dream?”

Thankfully, colleges and universities have awakened from their slumber and started to realize that they must live within the broader society, not separate from it, and that they must make a case that higher education plays a vital role in democracy and the American dream. Yes, that sounds lofty. But it is crucial if we hope to maintain our colleges and universities as places of knowledge, aspiration, and above all, hope.

That sentiment was clearly evident last week in Washington, D.C., at the annual meeting of the Association of American Colleges and Universities. Speakers were alternately determined, defiant, pragmatic, searching, and hopeful. Like so many others, I came away energized by conversations with colleagues who are determined to reinvigorate higher education, and by sessions that focused on the core elements of AAC&U’s new strategic plan:

  • Championing sustainable models for high-quality undergraduate education
  • Advancing equity
  • Articulating the value of liberal education
  • Pushing for innovative approaches to change higher education

Speakers at the conference’s opening plenary were blunt about the problems that higher education faces. The United States used to be the world leader in degree holders, Lynn Pasquerella, president of AAC&U, told participants. It now ranks 15th. Public higher education was once a truly public venture financed mostly by taxpayer dollars. Now it is public in name only as colleges and universities rely increasingly on private fundraising, tuition dollars, and grants to pay the bills. That, in turn, pushes institutions to obsess about rankings, which pushes them to seek students with higher test scores, which pushes them to build luxury facilities, which forces universities to seek private financing and push up tuition costs, which puts college further out of reach for more and more families.

That chain of events has led to both a financial and moral crisis in higher education, said Linda Martin Alcoff, a professor at City University of New York. Privatization has turned students and faculty into “human capital,” she said. Rankings have “infected” every faculty search as departments seek out stars who can improve rankings, Alcoff said. Faculty achieve star status by attracting private grant money, which has deteriorated the civic nature of higher education, she said.

“We’ve become beggars at the table,” Alcoff said. “Every time there’s a search, our chairs are beggars at the table with deans and provosts for positions that are ultimately decided by corporate boards of trustees and ranking mechanisms. … We’re all quite aware of the problem, but we have been lulled into quietude.”

New pressures on a college degree

Tamara Draut, a vice president at the public policy organization Demos, said that we in higher education must work to “unleash that era of possibility” that allowed so many people to get through college without enormous debt. Debt has poisoned higher education by creating an obsession with rankings and a need to recruit increasing numbers of out-of-state and international students, who pay higher tuition.

“There’s a lot of perversion that has happened in the academy because it has become connected to debt,” Draut said. “It has put pressure on a college degree to do something it was never supposed to do, which is show some ROI for the degree you get.”

She gave the example of a young woman who called in to an NPR show that Draut participated in. The young woman, who had an art degree and was working at a community center teaching art to children, was having a difficult time paying off her college debt. The next caller ranted about the young woman for “daring to get an art degree” rather than an engineering or technical degree.

Debt, Draut said, is “putting all kinds of burdens on institutions and on degrees that they were never meant to carry. And it’s making us devalue the learning and the doing that are the high marks of civilization: art, music, philosophy, education, doing good for others. That is what we should be lifting up. But the reality is, if you get an art degree and can’t pay back your student loans, we are saying to people that you did something bad and you should have studied something different.”

AAC&U members clearly took an inclusive view of higher education, as they should. College was once only the purview of the elite, and the rising cost of attending is clearly pushing it that way again.

“What happens is a lot of working class and poor people hear us saying you need to go to college,” Draut said. “The reason you are struggling is because you didn’t go to college. You made bad choices.”

That either/or narrative only sours people on higher education, she said. College is important, she said, but it is not a solution to poverty, prejudice or the growing gap between the ultrawealthy and everyone else.

“Higher ed is great, but it’s not all we have to do to fix society’s economic and racial inequality,” Draut said.

The importance of access

Panelists throughout the conference issued a call for educators to push for policies that provide broader access to higher education but also help re-establish a broad middle class.

“Teaching the poor should not be a niche market in higher education, but that’s what it has become,” Alcoff said.

She added: “The goal should be social justice for all so that those who engage in any kind of labor can have financial security.”

Wes Moore of the Robin Hood Foundation urged educators and alumni to tell their stories about the importance of higher education. Statistics can be helpful, he said, but they can also be manipulated.

“Make sure people understand the human implications of what we do,” Moore said. “It’s important to remind people not just what we are talking about but who we are talking about.”

Alcoff offered a similar point, saying that we must espouse the importance of higher education without alienating those who choose not to – or can’t – get a degree. By linking a college education to social mobility, we leave out a large portion of the American population.

“The goal of social mobility is the wrong goal in the United States today,” she said. “The goal should be social justice for all so that those who engage in manual labor – or any kind of labor – can have lives of dignity, can own a home, can send their kids to a good state university, and can have financial security.”

We must also make room for less-than-perfect students who aspire to the intellectual challenges of college, Alcoff said. With what she described as a “checkered past,” she never would have made it through college in today’s environment, she said. She was on her own financially at age 16, earned a GED, dropped out of college, found her way back, and eventually graduated. College is no longer forgiving for such students, she said, especially with costs that weigh on students for years.

Naomi Barry-Pérez, director of the civil rights center for the Justice Department, tied decreased funding of higher education and many social programs to a backlash against the civil rights and women’s movements in the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s. Government programs aimed at making society fairer were demonized once women and people of color gained more power, she said. We are the richest nation on earth, she said, but we life in a perpetual state of austerity.

“We have to be champions of reinvesting in ourselves,” she said.

Conflicting ideals

As passionate as the speakers were, they offered few solutions to entrenched problems that have been exacerbated by polarized politics. In most cases, there are no clear answers.

In the closing plenary, the author William Deresiewicz told conference-goers that higher education had been in crisis “since the beginning, perhaps since 1636.” The problems have changed, though, with the biggest today being the decline in education funding.

He said, though, that academics needed to delve more deeply into their own beliefs and actions. We talk about freedom, equality and justice, he said, but rarely think about the conflicts inherent in them. Equality often demands the diminishment of freedom, he said. We want to encourage creative expression, but at the same time, we have a need for all people to feel safe. That, in turn, often requires restrictions. Dealing with those conflicts is difficult and troubling, he said. Nobody wants to think about their own beliefs, values, and assumptions. At colleges and universities, that inaction silences voices and distances academia from the rest of society, he said.

“We live at a time when progressive opinion, which dominates most campuses, has hardened into something approaching religious dogma,” Deresiewicz said. “There’s a right way to think, and a right way to talk, and a right set of things to think and talk about. Secularism is taken for granted. Environmentalism is a sacred cause. Issues of identity occupy the center of discourse.”

There really is nothing to debate, he said, saying that he shared those beliefs, but “the fact that it’s inconceivable to think otherwise is precisely the problem.”

“The assumption on the left is that we are already in full possession of the moral truth,” Deresiewicz said. “We already know what’s good, what’s bad, what’s right, what’s wrong. There really is nothing to discuss, except how to put a belief into practice. Dogma makes for ideological consensus, and consensus is enforced through social means.”

He told of a recent experience in teaching a writing class for college juniors and seniors. All of the students were ill-prepared to read deeply, analyze others’ work, or to make strong arguments. These were smart students, he said, but they had learned only a technocratic form, one in which difficult question could be worked out in predictable ways. They also thought of writing as “something that just happened,” rather than as a process that requires persistent revision and questioning.

He pointed to several things he said were at the heart of the problem: social media and its fast-paced, anything goes mentality; grade inflation; adjunct instructors who can’t afford to spend time with student papers; and professors who lack incentives to take the time. If we spend all our time focusing on skills that can be scaffolded and measured, he said, we miss opportunities to delve into bigger questions like values, purpose and meaning that can transform students during their time in college. All too often, the humanities converts open-ended questions into things that can be assessed and tested, he said. As a result, students think fundamental questions about life and meaning have been settled. They learn to spout opinions, but recoil at the idea of public argument. They talk about things like patriarchy, intersectionality, trigger warnings, and microaggressions, but they are lost when they have to think outside those categories or are asked to examine what they mean or how others might feel differently.

“Big questions are big questions because no one has the answers,” Deresiewicz said.

What he failed to mention is that the dogma that afflicts the left also afflicts the right, making meaningful conversation and compromise even more difficult. Like other speakers at AAC&U, though, he was spot-on in calling for higher education to take a deep look inside itself. That’s the only way we will find a way forward.


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.

Students try to assemble a Lego creation after instructions were relayed from another room.

By Doug Ward

Here’s some sage advice to start the semester: Don’t be a jerk.

That comes from a student who will be an undergraduate teaching assistant for the first time this spring. Actually, he used a much more colorful term than “jerk,” but you get the idea. He was responding to a question from Ward Lyles, an assistant professor of urban planning, about things that undergrad TAs could do to set the tone in classes they worked in. More about that shortly.

Lyles’s workshop on fostering an inclusive classroom climate was one of half a dozen sessions offered for 94 undergraduate assistants in STEM fields this week.  Other sessions focused on such things as grading; team-building and communication; sexual harassment reporting; and expectations of undergraduate teaching assistants.

Molly McVey, workshop organizer, checks in students at a training session for undergraduate teaching assistants.

The workshop was organized by Molly McVey, a teaching specialist in the School of Engineering. McVey organized the first such workshop a year ago after the number of teaching fellows (the name for undergraduate assistants in engineering) increased from four to 25. The school had no formal training program, so McVey created one.

Other fields, including math, have their own sessions for undergraduate assistants. The program McVey started is unique, though, in that it brings together student assistants and instructors from a variety of disciplines. In addition to engineering, students at this week’s session came from biology, physics, and geography and atmospheric sciences. Department representatives had time to speak with students in their specific disciplines, but the overarching goal was the same for everyone: to help undergraduate assistants in STEM fields better understand their role in the classroom.

McVey added another element this time, based on experiences with the previous two training sessions.

“We realized that we really needed to get the faculty in the room, too,” McVey said. “Some of the things we were communicating to the teaching fellows, faculty needed to hear, as well, so that everyone was on the same page.”     

Students assemble Lego creations at the workshop.

The need for undergraduate TA training has grown as active learning in STEM fields has expanded over the last several years. These TAs perform a variety of duties, but their primary role is to move about large classes and help students with problem-solving, discussions and questions. Instructors choose the TAs from among the students who have taken their classes in previous semesters. That way the TAs know the subject matter, the class format, and the needs of fellow students.

Undergraduate assistants have been instrumental in improving student retention and learning in such fields as engineering, geology and biology. Many other factors have been involved in those improvements, but the assistants provide key support as instructors shift courses from lecture to hands-on class work. They offer additional eyes and ears in large classes, and they provide additional contacts for students who might be reluctant to speak up in large classes.

The training sessions this week helped undergraduate assistants understand some of the challenges they will face. Lorin Maletsky, associate dean for undergraduate studies in engineering, led a workshop in which teams of students assembled Lego contraptions using instructions from teammates who listened to descriptions in a different room and then raced back to explain – or try to explain – the appropriate steps. The scene was occasionally comical as students dashed in and out, gave colleagues blank looks and grimaces, and tried to put together pieces based on sketchy directions.

The exercise was eye-opening for those involved, though, in that it simulated the challenges that students face in trying to understand information that instructors provide in class. Sometimes that information is clearly understood. Most of the time, though, it comes through in patchy and incomplete ways as students struggle to grasp new concepts.

Students consider questions posed by Ward Lyles (in the background)

Maletsky offered another analogy between the Lego exercise and teaching: Good teaching requires instructors and students to bring together many pieces, put them in the right order and create a coherent whole.

“That’s not easy,” he said.

In the diversity workshop that Lyles led, participants grappled with questions of student motivation, preconceived ideas, student perceptions, and class climate. Toward the end, he asked the undergraduate assistants to think about things they could do to help foster an environment that encourages learning.

The student who told his fellow participants not to be jerks said he spoke from experience. An undergrad TA in a class he took in a previous semester was pompous and unapproachable, souring the atmosphere for many students in the class. He vowed to approach his job in a more appropriate way.

Other participants offered these suggestions:

  • Relate your own experiences so that current students better understand how you learned course material.
  • Call students by name.
  • Find something unique about each student to help you remember them.
  • Pay attention to student struggles.
  • Be an ear for instructors and listen for potential problems.
  • Work at leading students to finding answers rather than just giving them answers.
  • Don’t be afraid to say “I don’t know.”

 It was excellent advice not just for undergraduate assistants, but for anyone working with 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

If I were to design the perfect learning experience, it would have all the components that Chad Kraus included in a studio architecture class he taught this fall.

Chad Kraus with a prototype of the Haitian center his students designed.

  • Start with a problem that has no single or simple solution.
  • Study the problem, the context and the people involved.
  • Learn the skills that will help solve the problem.
  • Practice the skills with teammates.
  • Get feedback from instructors and peers.
  • Apply the skills in an authentic assignment.
  • Teach others the skills you have learned.
  • Reflect on the work.

The project in Kraus’s class, ARCH 600, even goes beyond that, though, by adding a study abroad component. In a little over a week, Krauss and another professor, Lance Rake, and six students will board a plane for Miami and then fly to Haiti, where they will spend two weeks helping build a community center the class designed.

Kraus’s class, called Global Studio, has been creating, prototyping and revising plans for the community center all semester. The class has 12 students, though only six will travel to Haiti. Kraus, an associate professor of architecture, is the lead instructor for the class. He has been joined by Kent Spreckelmeyer, a professor of architecture who directs the school’s health and wellness program; and Rake, a professor of design. Cécile Accilien, associate professor of African and African-American studies and associate director of the Center for Latin American and Caribbean Studies, taught an accompanying one-hour class that helped students learn about Haiti and its culture.

That’s only a small portion of a cast of instructors, students, consultants, fundraisers, planners, engineers and organizations that has been involved. The School of Architecture and Design raised more than $12,000 through a crowdfunding campaign to help defray student travel costs. Students and faculty at the American University of the Caribbean, and Haiti Tec, a trade school in Port-au-Prince, will join the KU team at the building site. Frank Zilm, who leads the Institute of Health+Wellness Design at the School of Architecture and Design, has been involved, as well. All of those involved have been working with the Global Birthing Home Foundation, a nonprofit organization based in Leawood that is financing the construction.

If that sounds like a challenge to plan and coordinate, it is. And yet Kraus approaches the project with a quiet equanimity that leaves little doubt that all the pieces will fit together.

“It takes a village to do something like this,” Kraus said. “Part of that is we’re trying to string together different expertise. This whole project is a labor of love for everyone involved.”

Chad Kraus critiques final plans for the building project. With him are Kenneth Wilson (in windowsill) Melissa Watson (in red) and Sarah Wages.

How the project evolved

The new center will be built in Torbeck, a rural area near Les Cayes on the southwestern peninsula of Haiti. In 2016, Hurricane Matthew roared through the area with 140-mph winds and torrential rains. The area had few shelters, and 150 people took refuge in a birthing center in Torbeck. The center’s staff continued to offer all of its services – delivering babies, offering prenatal and postnatal care – even as they worked around the unexpected guests.

“It was really difficult for them, and it sort of catalyzed in their mind the absolute necessity of building a community center,” Kraus said.

The birthing center, Maison de Naissance, was established by the Global Birthing Home Foundation. The foundation shares oversight of the center with a Haitian organization, provides operating money, and handles all the center’s programs and operations. The foundation reached out to the School of Architecture and Design for assistance, and that’s when Kraus became involved. He and the foundation’s executive director traveled to Haiti during the summer to begin the planning process.

“They were looking for a way to build a strong, stable, long-lasting, secure building,” Kraus said.

To do that, Kraus and the students settled on rammed-earth walls and a bamboo roof. Rammed earth, which has been used for centuries, is just what it sounds like, Kraus said. A wooden form is constructed for the walls, and then soil mixed with a little water is added and tamped down with wooden dowels or specialized tools with steel butts.

“Basically you ram layer by layer and you build up the wall,” Kraus said. “And then you strip the forms and you have this wall that in some cases can be made entirely out of earth.”

Kraus learned about compressed earth while working for the Pritzker-prize-winning architect firm Shigeru Ban, who is known for his unconventional designs. He taught a studio focusing on rammed earth after he came to KU and found that students were especially interested in the techniques. He doesn’t want to teach the same studio every year, he said, but students continually ask to learn about rammed earth. That approach fit well into the designs for the community center in Haiti.

A prototype of a rammed earth wall that students created.

The class chose bamboo for the roof because bamboo is lightweight, flexible, and resilient in high winds. Lighter material reduces the danger of heavy objects flying through the air during a hurricane or falling during an earthquake. Bamboo is also a renewable resource. It grows quickly and its roots spread, providing cover for erosion-prone areas where forests once stood. Half of Haiti’s forests have been destroyed since the early 1900s through logging, clearing of trees for coffee and sugarcane fields, hurricane damage, and demand for land as the country’s population has grown. President Rene Préval introduced bamboo into the country in the late 1990s and early 2000s as a means of land cover and industry.

“But it’s still something that most Haitians have no familiarity with and it hasn’t caught on as a construction material,” Kraus said. “So we want to push that potential of bamboo.”

The project that Kraus’s students have designed uses renewable materials and has the potential of providing jobs for the surrounding community during the construction process. They also want to demonstrate how the same process can be used to build resilient homes with low-cost materials.

“We wanted the local community to be involved so that they felt some kind of investment in the whole thing,” Kraus said. “But we also didn’t want to get them started and say, ‘We’re done. It’s all up to you now.’ We wanted to support them as they’re going through the majority of the project and help with questions that they have or additional design work that needs to be done.”

An expansive team and lots of questions

The students in Kraus’s class have worked in teams throughout the semester.  A management team oversaw the broad aspects of the project, working with a design team, a research team, a budget team and a video team, which is creating instructional videos to demonstrate the building techniques for Haitian workers.

The teams researched similar projects for details that might improve the center’s design or offer clues about how the materials they are using will stand up in Haiti’s climate. Each new aspect raised new challenges or led to questions the students had to research, Kraus said.

  • How does the rammed earth meet the foundation?
  • How do we size the foundation?
  • How much rebar do we put in?
  • How we design the bamboo to be flexible but also stiff?
  • How do we apply cross bracing between the bamboo trusses?
  • How do we anchor the rammed earth?
  • How we design the roof so that it doesn’t blow away?
  • How do we build a latrine that can be maintained over time?
  • What colors and materials will fit best into Haitian culture?

The students have checked in frequently with the Global Birthing Home Foundation, as well as contractors and engineers in Haiti. They have drawn on experts in Lawrence to help answer questions about designs, and costs and availability of materials. For instance, Ron Barrett-Gonzalez, a professor of aerospace engineering, helped the students understand how to design a roof that will stand up to high winds. An engineer in Ireland who has extensive experience with bamboo construction has spoken with the students remotely.

“The students do all that work,” Kraus said. “I would say they are heavily supported by the faculty members, but they are expected to do the work.”

Sarah Wages, a fourth-year student from Lake of the Ozarks, Mo., said those demands could be overwhelming at times.

“You have to make sure what you’re doing is possible, to the extreme,” she said. “You have to bring it down to a level you know we can do. Especially in the design phase, we were pulling out these case studies of crazy roofs and crazy building forms and having to kind of tame ourselves back to understanding what is needed and what is actually possible. If we don’t know how to do it, how are we going to teach others how to do it?”

Students in ARCH 600 discuss building plans during their final meeting before the trip to Haiti.

Final plans for construction and travel

During the last week of fall classes, the project team gathered in room 206C in Marvin Hall and ran through the final details.

David Vertseeg points out some problems in the building plans.

The room was warm and stuffy. The overhead lights were turned off, and a gray light from a cloudy December afternoon filtered in through three north windows. Students, many in sweaters, sweatshirts and stocking caps, huddled around a conference table. One sat on a window ledge, another on the floor. Some had laptops open. Others had building plans spread out in front of them.

Students projected their plans onto a large monitor at the end of the room, and Kraus and David Vertseeg, a post-professional student who is working with Kraus in a special problems course, asked questions and offered suggestions.

Remove an extraneous line from one drawing. Reduce the amount of ground showing on another so the notations can be seen. Adjust the hatch size of the background fill so that it conforms to the plans. What are those black lines in that section of the pony wall? Where does that downspout go? Do the drawings indicate rebar in the walls? Make sure the plans have consistent numbering for the contractor.

Zilm, of the Institute of Health+Design, reported by speaker phone on results of a test of the Haitian soil. It has about 14 percent clay, on the low end of what is needed, but it should be enough to provide stability for the walls, he said.

Considerable time was spent going over travel details questions.

Can we take batteries? What is the weight limit on luggage? What tools do we need to take? Would the birthing center know the cheapest way to ship tools we can’t get in our bags?

Instisar Tyne listens to Kraus as Melissa Watson (foreground) takes notes.

Spreckelmeyer asks whether all the students have a contact card for the Study Abroad office. Kraus tells them that wifi in the area is spotty, so phone use will be limited. Don’t take selfies with people or treat them like objects of art, he says. Make sure to bring a water bottle. Take nonperishable protein. Get a good sun hat and powerful bug spray. Take a small amount of cash but not so much that you become a target for thieves.

By the end of class, the sun has nearly set and the room has grown dim. Questions gradually fade. The monitor on the wall glows. Kraus reminds students to keep checking Slack, a communications program the class uses for sharing information. The students gather their drawings, close their computers, hoist their backpacks and hold the door open for one another as they leave the room

Wages is the last to leave. I ask her what she has taken away from the class. She talks about the technical elements (repeatedly revising designs, testing the rammed earth techniques, deciding on the best way to create shutters) but also the cultural elements (adding red pigment and other colors to the walls to accommodate Haitian tastes, making sure the project will help people in the long term).

“You can’t just plop a building down and assume it’s going to do its job in the best way possible,” she said. “There are so many factors you have to think about to make a building really work, and integrate it into the community in the best way possible. I’m really excited to go and see the actual site, see where it is in relation to where the people are. There’s just so much you get to see when you actually integrate a building into a real place.”

Continuing the learning through the spring semester

Kraus, along with Spreckelmeyer, will lead another class in the spring related to the Haiti project. Students will continue to work with the partners in Haiti, troubleshooting problems and offering advice on components of the community center. They will also develop prototype housing designs based on the plans they created for the center. The emphasis will again be on rammed earth and bamboo. Some of the students from the fall class and the intersession will continue, but additional students asked to join after they heard about the project. Some of the students will eventually earn 13 hours of credit for the Haiti project: three from the fall architecture studio, one from the class on Haitian culture, six for the Haiti trip, and three in the spring class.

Schuyler Clogston and Sekou Hayes work during the final class session.

Architecture classes regularly have a hands-on component, with students designing and building structures or additions, or renovating existing buildings. And all architecture students, who go through a five-year program and earn a master’s degree, are required to study abroad at some point. This class is different, though, because it combines the elements of a design studio with a study abroad.

“This is the first opportunity that’s been created to design something and then go and build it overseas,” Wages said. “We have a lot of study abroad programs that are really great. We have tons of connections overseas, and we can do internships, but this is something I really want to get into – helping people, experiencing different cultures and bringing from here to there.”

I told Kraus that I was impressed with the format of the class. It provides an amazing number of learning experiences for students, helping them turn the conceptual into the tangible and then see their work put to use for a good cause.

“I agree,” he said. “That’s probably the single biggest reason why I wanted to come back to academia. I knew it was a powerful way to learn. I see this time and time again. When you get students together and encourage them to share knowledge, then what this student knew and taught to this student becomes reinforced and expanded upon. The student actually becomes a better future architect having taught other students what they know. And you’re right. That is a really powerful way to embed new knowledge.”


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

The new Earth, Energy and Environment Center is still a work in progress.

Workers in hardhats still move through mostly empty hallways and rooms. Cardboard boxes are strewn about as tables, chairs, computer monitors and other equipment is unpacked, assembled and put into place. The sound of a hammer or drill echoes occasionally. The smell of new carpet, upholstery, paint or wood greets you around every corner.

Even amid the clutter and clamor, though, this new complex attached to Lindley Hall looks like the future.

Paleocon, an annual event for students in Geology 121: DNA to Dinosaurs, gave the complex an initiation of sorts on Tuesday. Students set up displays about extinct and endangered animals throughout a large room in the south building of the complex, kicking off what promises to be a long run of learning at the new center.

Faculty and graduate students began setting up labs and offices last week, but the center won’t be put through its paces until January, when classes in geology and other STEM fields take over the new classrooms.

I made a brief tour of the center after I visited Paleocon. Here are some of the highlights.

 


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

Authentic assignments can be messy.

That’s not a bad thing. In fact, the messiness helps students deepen their critical thinking, improve their decision-making, learn about themselves, and even take more control over their learning.

That messiness can be challenging for both students and faculty members, though. For students accustomed to a lecture-and-test format, it means grappling with ambiguity and working through failures. For instructors, it means ceding considerable control to students and devoting time to individual and group problem-solving.

stylized photo of students working together at tables and whiteboards
My approach to authentic assignments involves considerable group work.

Let me give you an example from a journalism class called Infomania, which focuses on research skills and critical thinking. To promote those skills, I challenge students, mostly freshmen and sophomores, to solve a problem or answer a question using information and digital tools. They work in groups to identify elements of the problem, conduct research, and create a prototype of a solution.

The results have been impressive, but the process is messy. Students must identify problems and focus questions; identify sources; brainstorm solutions; distribute work among groups; set deadlines, and ultimately give shape to their ideas. I set aside one class period each week for group work, moving among the groups, challenging their thinking, pushing for context, and guiding them toward appropriate resources. I also bring in librarians, who provide important perspectives on finding information.

The approach I take in the class combines elements of team-based learning and problem-based learning, combined with a dose of entrepreneurial thinking. If you plan to try something similar, keep a few things in mind:

Embrace the messiness. It takes a while for students to come to grips with the idea of controlling their own learning. I provide material at the beginning of the semester on how to do that, but students take vastly different paths. Those who have mastered test-taking often struggle the most, but all students need reassurance and guidance. I give one piece of advice so much that it is almost a class mantra: “Try it.”

Provide choices. Choice motivates students. I rarely say no to ideas, but I spend a lot of time helping students hone their questions, think through what they really want to discover, and why they think that is significant.

Trust students. All too often, instructors set low expectations and assume that students need to be told what to do at every step. That teaches students to be passive consumers of information and of education. I’ve found that students respond well to challenges and high expectations. Consider that for years, students have told the National Survey of Student Engagement that they expected college to require more work than it really does. If we give students meaningful work, they will respond to the challenge.

Give students time. I devote a least one of two classes each week to group work. Many groups still meet outside class, especially later in the semester, but time in class is crucial. None only does it create a regular schedule for group meetings, but it provides a regular time for me to meet with the groups. As I rotate among the groups, I can answer questions, offer advice and head off potential problems. When I encounter questions that other groups need to know about, I can then provide a mini-lecture or simply provide answers that the entire class needs to know.

Don’t expect miracles. My approach to Infomania has led to such projects as a digital survival guide for freshmen, an e-book on KU traditions, an interactive guide for finding study spaces on and off campus, a prototype of an app for basketball camping, and a guide for matching volunteers and organizations. I’ve also had many shallow projects. Even with those, though, students learned to research and think through problems more effectively.

Nearly all students struggle with this process. That’s important because it forces them out of passivity and empowers them to take control over their own learning. Here’s how one student described the process in an end-of-semester self-evaluation:

“In other courses I have taken at various levels of schooling, it was essentially me pleasing the teacher and nodding my head. In this class, I was forced to take the lead and complete my work on my own.  This required focus and organization that had never been required before.  Although at the beginning of the class I despised it, I have come to realize that this is how the workplace will be. There is nobody providing you with the guides to succeed. You have to take it on yourself. This class has taught me that.”

Other students haven’t been as positive. Nearly all recognize the importance of authenticity, though.

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More on authentic learning: The latest issue of Teaching Matters includes many examples of how faculty members at KU have approached authentic 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

One poster offers to explain the chemistry of the world’s most popular drug.

Another teases about the fatty acids that make T-shirts feel soft.

Still another promises secrets about the oils used in making the perfect chicken nugget.

None of them offers its secrets outright, though. And that’s just how Drew Vartia, a postdoctoral teaching fellow in the chemistry department, wants it.

A poster in Malott Hall refers people to information about the chemistry of soap.

The posters were created by the 60 students in Honors Chemistry I, which Vartia worked on with Professor Tim Jackson. The project, Vartia said, was inspired by Rajiv Jhangiani, who spoke at KU in the spring about open education and the use of “renewable assignments” or “nondisposable assignments.” Most work that students complete never go beyond the class. Assignments and tests are created by the instructor for the instructor and are quickly disposed of by instructor and students after the class is over.

Nondisposable assignments, on the other hand, allow students to take their learning into the world or apply it to real-world problems.

Vartia wanted chemistry students to use that approach to help fellow students learn more about the invisible chemical interactions in everyday life.

“Chemistry is something that people tend to shy away from,” Vartia said. “For whatever reason, a lot of people have had a negative experience with it and so they don’t actively see chemistry in their immediate environment.”

So Vartia and the students in Chemistry 190 took chemistry to the people.

To do that, students researched the chemistry of everyday things: caffeine, blood, fabric softener, pigments, cooking oil, limestone, and body odor.

“We asked them to create information about chemistry that would be digestible to somebody who had only a high school chemistry course,” Vartia said. “So in principle their product could teach the public something about chemistry. It was low enough level that somebody could read it and latch onto it, and a high enough level that the person reading it would then further their knowledge of chemistry.”

Once students had completed their explanatory material, they created posters intended to grab people’s attention and try to get them to seek out more information. To assist with that, each poster has a QR code, which allows people to scan with a cellphone and retrieve the information the students wrote.

The posters, created by 15 groups of four students each, then went up in 11 locations where students were likely to find them, including the Kansas Union, The Underground, the Spencer Museum of Art, the Natural History Museum, dorms, and Watkins Health Center. Each poster was tied to some aspect of the location. For instance, one at the Roasterie in the Kansas Union focuses on caffeine, which it referred to as “the world’s most popular drug.” One at Watkins Health Center focuses on the chemistry of blood. One at the Spencer Museum of Art focuses on the chemistry of pigment, and one in the dorms sends people to information about fabric softeners, which release fatty acids that give clothes a soft feel.

Vartia was pleased with the students’ work, but he said they learned a few lessons for next time. The most important is that the posters need to be bigger. The current lot is 8½ by 11 inches, and they are easily overlooked. The other important takeaway is that they need to be displayed earlier in the semester so that students can gather data about viewership before class ends. The assignment was certainly successful, though, Vartia said.

“Traditional writing assignments are typically two-party transactions between the student-author of some research paper and the instructor,” he said. “They do some back and forth and then the utility of the assignment is over. In this case, students were excited that what they were doing mattered to a greater number of people and had the ability to influence people that they’ve never met.”

The posters will remain in place through at least part of the spring semester, Vartia said. If you see one, give it a scan.


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

By Doug Ward

It was a simple idea.

Bring together a group of faculty members from around campus for guided discussions about diversity and inclusion. Guide them to think deliberately and openly about making their classroom practices and pedagogy more inclusive. Then help them create plans to take what they had learned back to their departments and help colleagues do the same.

That’s the approach behind Diversity Scholars, a program that CTE began last year with 11 participants. A second class of 10 began this fall. Funding for the program was provided by the Provost’s Office.

Participants say the sessions have helped them find new types of class materials, improved discussions about social identity, and helped them challenge students to think in new ways about the intersection of course content and race, gender and ethnicity. That hasn’t always been easy, they said, but it has been encouraging, enlightening and enjoyable.

Lua Yuille, associate professor of law, speaks at a Diversity Scholars session. Marta Caminero-Santangelo, right, oversees the program.

Marta Caminero-Santangelo, a professor of English and a Faculty Fellow at CTE through last spring, leads Diversity Scholars. She said there had been pent-up demand for just these types of discussions, especially with tension over race, ethnicity, and gender roiling campuses across the nation.

“People just want the time to think about the issues and talk about them with colleagues and to be very deliberate and focused about those conversations,” she said. “I don’t know that there were any huge epiphanies. I think it was just helpful to sit around with a bunch of really enthusiastic, dedicated colleagues and talk about diversity and inclusion once a month.”

Caminero-Santangelo has been joined by Darren Canady, associate professor of English, and Shannon Portillo, associate professor of public affairs and administration, in guiding the program.

The goal of the program, Caminero-Santangelo said, is to help participants redesign a course or create a new course that more deliberately infuses diversity, equity and inclusion into the content, climate and discussions. The sessions, about one a month, focus on three areas: class content, pedagogy and class climate. The areas overlap, but they also connect with and reinforce each other. Each session involves readings, facilitated conversations and group work – essentially modeling the techniques that help students learn most effectively.

Caminero-Santangelo described the discussions about class content as an evaluation of the materials that the instructors use in their courses: “Am I drawing from a diversity of scholars, a diversity of voices, a diversity of readings? If my class content is STEM and it’s not specifically related to issues of diversity, are the examples that I’m using in class really addressing the diversity of human experience?”

The pedagogy sessions help participants understand the approaches that help all students learn effectively but that have shown to be especially effective with underrepresented groups. Those techniques include such things as clarity and transparency in expectations and grading; group work; universal design for learning; scaffolding of assignments; low-stakes assessments; and out-of-class work that frees up time for in-class problem solving and discussion.

The class climate discussions flow from the other two elements, Caminero-Santangelo said.

“If your class content is not diverse, that’s already sending a message to certain students that they’re not included and they’re not registering in the production of knowledge,” she said. “And if your pedagogy is not inclusive then students might feel alienated or silenced.”

Climate also includes smaller things, she said: creating ground rules for discussion, learning your students’ names, and handling hot moments in the classroom effectively.

Caminero-Santangelo said that none of the facilitators considered themselves to be experts, especially because participants came from several disciplines.

Shannon Portillo works with a group during a Diversity Scholars meeting.

“We had maybe a little bit more familiarity with some of the topics, but we were certainly learning as we read and found resources and then incorporated those resources,” she said.

Participants have taken many approaches in rethinking their classes. For instance:

  • Ward Lyles, assistant professor of public affairs and administration, added readings on overcoming an us-vs.-them mentality and added two class periods on community building. He also created a syllabus evaluation checklist for faculty members.
  • Margaret Marco, professor of music, had her recital students choose performance pieces form outside the classical canon. She added a survey to the class, asking students how likely they were to play pieces by composers from underrepresented groups. She plans to follow up with the same survey at the end of class.
  • Tim Hossler, assistant professor of architecture and design, plans to integrate material about cultural appropriation into a required design history course. He hopes to help students think more deeply about how diversity and design culture come together.
  • Cécile Accilien, associate professor of African and African-American studies, added more material about masculinity in her course on gender in Africa. She has had class discussions about how religion and social identity affect social justice for those in the LGBTQ community, and her students will critique an African art exhibit at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in terms of masculinity.
  • Kristof Kuczera, professor of chemistry, created a pre-class quiz on diversity in chemistry, and added an exercise in which students research and write about chemists from underrepresented groups.

Participants will also share their experiences with colleagues and help them develop their own plans for being more deliberate about infusing diversity into their classes and curriculums. Caminero-Santangelo called this “a sort of spider web networking effect” that will expand the reach of the Diversity Scholars program.

For those who haven’t been able to participate in a program like Diversity Scholars, Caminero-Santangelo recommended small things that can help begin a process of enlightenment. There are many resources available to help instructors make their classes more welcoming for diverse populations, improve class conversations, and help students think more deliberately about inclusivity, she said. And it’s easy to find a colleague or two and have discussions.

“Take a baby step or two,” Caminero-Santangelo said. “Look at that syllabus tool. Read up on transgender identity and issues that the transgender community is facing on campus. You’re not going to be perfect at everything – ever. And you can’t necessarily change everything at once, but you could decide, ‘OK, in this one way I’m going to set some ground rules on the first day of class. I’m going to send a message that my classroom is an inclusive classroom and that I want to hear a variety of voices and I don’t want voices to be shut down.’ ”

In other words, simple actions can lead to big changes.


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

A provision in the tax bill passed by the U.S. House of Representatives on Thursday has the potential to upend graduate education.

The bill would force graduate students to pay taxes on tuition waivers they routinely receive as part of their appointments. That would raise the cost of graduate education substantially and could easily drive away potential students.

Erin Rousseau, a graduate student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, estimated that she would pay an additional $10,000 in taxes if the House bill became law. The cost would certainly be lower for students at a public university like KU, but a change in the tax law would add a few thousand dollars a year in expenses. Low pay and the costs of insurance, health care and housing already make graduate education a struggle for many students. Additional costs could certainly put graduate education out of reach for many others.

In a column in The New York Times, Rousseau wrote:

“It would make meeting living expenses nearly impossible, barring all but the wealthiest students from pursuing a Ph.D.”

The number of graduate students at public universities grew 17 percent between 2000 and 2010 but has remained relatively unchanged since then, according the National Center for Education Statistics. That could easily change, though, if the cost of degrees becomes too burdensome.

American students are already shying away from graduate degrees in STEM fields, largely because they can get good jobs with just a bachelor’s degree, The Times reports. International students have filled the void, but immigration restrictions and the political storm surrounding them have created unease among international graduate students and pushed many of them away.

The House tax plan could be yet another blow to graduate education. Let’s hope that more a thoughtful plan prevails as the Senate debates tax legislation.

Another challenge to education in Wisconsin

Wisconsin continued its throttling of higher education last week as the state’s regents voted to merge the state’s 13 two-year colleges with its seven universities, the Wisconsin State Journal reports. The change will take place in the summer.

Under the plan, the two-year colleges will become branches of the universities, although students will continue to pay lower tuition rates at the two-year institutions. The regents said the plan would save money and would eventually result in job cuts, though they provided no specifics. The regents president, Ray Cross, said the initiative was not “a fully developed plan with all the details worked out,” according to the State Journal.

The regents pushed the plan forward with little consultation of the colleges or universities involved. Seven former college leaders implored the regents to reconsider the plan, saying it was being shoved through so hastily that the ramifications had not been considered. They expressed concern about the financial model – or lack of one – and said the plan could threaten the future of the two-year colleges. Two experts interviewed by the State Journal said the move was a politically inspired plan to consolidate a top-down power structure.

The consolidation vote was the latest move in a political battle that has left the university system severely diminished. The Wisconsin governor and legislature have been at odds with the universities for years, weakening tenure, cutting funding, and even restricting protests on campus.

Education Dive, a publication that reports on higher education, said the actions in Wisconsin should be a warning to other states. “Letting lawmakers know that a lack of stability could have a potentially negative long-term impact on enrollment rates, making it harder for the system to thrive, is key,” Education Dive says.

That’s a roundabout way of saying that other university systems could be brought to their knees as easily as Wisconsin’s has.


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

Mannequins have been a part of health care training for decades. As Matt Lineberry of the Zamierowski Institute for Experiential Learning demonstrated recently, though, those mannequins have become decidedly smarter.

Lineberry, director of simulation research, assessment and outcomes at the Zamierowski Institute, spoke with faculty members and graduate students in the educational psychology department in Lawrence, explaining how health care simulation has evolved into highly sophisticated mechanism for gathering data about students’ performance in a variety of medical settings.

The Zamierowski Institute, part of the University of Kansas Medical Center campus, expanded immensely with the opening of the new Health Education Building this fall. It now has spaces where students practice emergency room care, intensive care, operations and other aspects of medicine in realistic settings.

Mannequins are a key part of the learning process. The most sophisticated models, which cost about $100,000, simulate lung sounds, heart sounds, cardiac arrest and a variety of ailments. Students can use ultrasound, feed in catheters, deliver electric shock for cardiac arrest, and administer medication. Software that works with the mannequins gathers dozens of types of data and can even measure the type and dose of medication injected into the simulated patients.

Joseph Chapes, an e-learning support specialist at the Center for Online and Distance Learning, uses ultrasound on a smart mannequin as Vanessa Schott of the School of Nursing feeds in a catheter.

Students also work with actors who take on the roles of “standardized patients” for practicing interpersonal skills. Actors also play family members and colleagues to help doctors and nurses gain experience with interaction. In some cases, the actors wear gear that simulates injuries.

As students work, cameras capture video from many angles. That allows students and instructors to review students’ responses and interactions.

Lineberry said the training had helped cut down on response times in emergencies. He gave an example of a highly trained team of student doctors and nurses who went through a cardiac arrest simulation at the center. For defibrillation to be effective, he said, it must be administered within two minutes of a heart stopping. The team took about seven minutes to administer defibrillation, though. That was eye-opening, Lineberry said, but it demonstrated the value of having hands-on training in a setting where patients aren’t at risk.

The center’s approach has become common not only in health care but in other fields that have adopted augmented and virtual reality. For instance, Case Western Reserve’s use of Microsoft’s Hololens has transformed its teaching of anatomy. Augmented reality has provided architects and engineers new ways of creating and testing prototypes. A digital rendering of Pompeii by researchers at the University of Arkansas has provided new insights into ancient culture. And K-12 schools have found that virtual reality field trips improve students’ retention of information.

Those are just a few of the ways that educators have been using technology to enhance learning and understanding. As with the mannequins, that technology will only grow smarter.

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New studio opens in Budig Hall

Information Technology and the Center for Online and Distance Learning opened a new studio in Budig Hall this semester. The studio provides expanded space for creating instructional videos. It includes a green screen for recording video and a lightboard, which allows instructors to write on a pane of glass as they work through problems or provide demonstrations for 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

When Mark Mort began remaking a 100-level biology course a few years ago, he asked instructors who had taught the class what they thought students needed.

“Not surprisingly, the answers were very much content, content, content,” said Mort, an associate professor of ecology and evolutionary biology.

Then he went to colleagues who taught classes later in the curriculum, courses for which his course, Biology 152, was a prerequisite. He asked what they expected students to know after taking Biology 152, or Principles of Organismal Biology.

Their response?

Nothing.

That’s right. Nothing. They told Mort: “We don’t think they have any content retention.”

The response was both sobering and liberating, reminding Mort of the course’s weaknesses but helping justify a major remake.

Biology 152 is the first of a two-course sequence that most biology majors take. It had long been taught as a lecture to 400 or more students, with instructors using PowerPoint slides to “plow through as much material and content as possible,” Mort said.

Mort knew the course had problems.

“We were losing a lot of students because we were trying cover a lot of material in a very rapid fashion,” he said.

So he set out to change the course in several ways:

  • Creating “high-reward, low-risk” activities, both in class and out of class, to help students learn material along the way rather than forcing them to cram for exams
  • Lecturing less and integrating more discussion, case studies, problem-solving and application of material, even in a class that ofte