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 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

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

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

The recent (Re)imagining Humanities Teaching conference offered a template for the future of teaching in higher education.

With its emphasis on teaching as a scholarly activity, the conference challenged participants to find effective ways to document student learning, to build and maintain strong communities around teaching, and to approach courses as perpetual works in progress that adapt to the needs of students.

Pat Hutchings speaks during a plenary session at the (Re)imagining Humanities Teaching conference

The conference was the final event of the Collaborative Humanities Redesign Project, or CHRP, a three-year course redesign program involving faculty at KU, Park, Rockhurst and Elon universities. Participants were united in their belief that humanities teaching must change if the humanities hopes to grow in an educational climate dominated by STEM and business.

The lessons from the conference apply to STEM fields as much as they do to the humanities, though. The future of higher education depends on our ability to put student learning at the center of our teaching, to embrace innovation and change, and to continually adapt our methods of instruction. It also depends on our ability to change the culture of teaching – not only in our classes but in the way institutions value the work of instructors.

So how do we do that? Here are four key elements that emerged from the CHRP conference.

Good teaching requires inquiry, evidence and time.

Kathy Wise, associate director of the Center of Inquiry at Wabash College, described course transformation as a process of “tuning, processing and iterating.” Many things can go wrong during experimentation and innovation, and rarely do first attempts go perfectly. That can be discouraging, especially when faculty members feel pressure to make changes and move on, largely because the demands of research and service bear down on them. Course transformation isn’t a box an instructor checks off, though. One of the characteristics of effective, innovative teaching is the constant assessment and change of a course. Instructors gather evidence of learning, adapt to students and circumstances, and approach teaching with questions that allow them to learn about their methods and their students.

To make course transformation more manageable, Pat Hutchings, a senior scholar at the National Institute for Learning Outcomes Assessment, underscored the value of carefully designed small steps. Don’t bypass large changes if time and resources are available, she said, but an iterative approach can reduce the anxiety of a top-to-bottom course remake and make it easier to persevere when things go wrong. Transforming a class in smaller steps also helps make the work sustainable, Hutchings said. Even small steps take time, though, something that a cash-strapped education system (with an emphasis on “more with less”) and rewards system (with its emphasis on volume of research and above-average student evaluations) generally don’t recognize. If we hope to succeed, we must find ways of giving faculty members the time they need to revise, reflect and gather appropriate evidence.

We must learn to teach rather than expect.

Hutchings said this idea from Brad Osborn, an assistant professor of music at KU, captured the spirit of the CHRP project and provided an important reminder to all instructors. Too often, we expect students to already have certain skills or expect them to accomplish something on their own. We certainly can’t teach everything to everyone in every course, so we have to make some assumptions based on students’ previous classes and experience. If we expect, though, we make too many assumptions. We assume that students know how to handle college work. We assume that they have the skills to complete an assignment. We assume that they have the skills to complete a course. Osborn put it this way in describing his transformation of a music history course:

Deandra Little, director of the Center for the Advancement of Teaching and Learning at Elon University, leads a session at the CHRP conference. To her right are Renee Michael, director of the Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning at Rockhurst University, and Kathy Wise, associate director of the Center of Inquiry at Wabash College.

“It has dawned on me only of late that my original impetus for including writing in this course (teaching, rather than expecting) still needs to be applied more specifically to the process of learning how to create a good argument. I need to actively teach this specific skill, not just expect it.”

If we teach rather than expect, we approach our students and our courses with an open mind. We listen to students, scaffold assignments, assign work that checks students’ understanding, give good feedback, and provide structure that helps students move through a course in a purposeful way. Peter Felten, executive director of the Center for Engaged Learning at Elon University, described the process this way: Set meaningful goals. Have students practice, practice, practice. Give them feedback. Start again.

Good teaching requires supportive leaders.

CHRP’s administrative leaders worked closely with campus leaders, providing “structures to scaffold creative and difficult work,” Wise said. This involved four campuses in three states, and the leaders handled a transition from “hope for organic, self-sustaining engagement” to development of a framework that aided understanding, reflection and change.

“Without structure, nothing happens,” Wise said.

That structure involves more than being “the project nag,” as one campus leader described herself. Effective campus leaders value and support the changes that faculty members make in their courses. They help promote the work of innovative teaching not only among colleagues but in promotion and tenure committees. They recognize that students often complain about redesigned courses, at least initially, and that lower teaching evaluations are often part of the process of making a course more meaningful. Just as important, effective leaders find ways to keep faculty members thinking about their work in transforming classes by providing ways to share ideas, support one another, and make sure that the work carries on when a new instructor takes over a class.

A supportive community improves teaching.

Wise and Charlie Blaich, director of the Center of Inquiry at Wabash, focused specifically on face-to-face meetings that members of the CHRP project had, but a supportive community is just as important for faculty members in their day-to-day, week-to-week and semester-to-semester work. We all need colleagues who share our values, who can serve as sounding boards for ideas, and who can provide feedback on our work. Trust is crucial among members of these communities, especially because innovative teaching can leave us vulnerable. That vulnerability helps us learn about ourselves and our teaching, though, because it forces us to challenge assumptions and solidify the basics of instruction (things like scaffolding assignments, systematically reviewing student work, and asking hard questions about what we want students to learn from our courses). When we share our successes and failures, we not only help others learn, but we learn about ourselves.

Dan Bernstein, leader of the Collaborative Humanities Redesign Project, listens in on a discussion at the conference.

A vibrant community also expands resources and possibilities. Blaich brought up ways that academic disciplines can help or hinder teaching. For instance, a discipline establishes an epistemological foundation for teaching and learning, provides a common language for instructors and students, and helps foster collegiality, he said. Hutchings said CHRP participants clearly bonded around their identity as humanists, with a focus on narrative over statistics and a tolerance for uncertainty over a search for clear-cut answers. Participants also shared a feeling that they were underdogs in an academic climate that had elevated STEM fields over the humanities, she said. The downside of that disciplinary identity is that inquiry into teaching often leads instructors to questions they don’t have the methodological experience to answer. In fact, Blaich said, moving beyond a disciplinary methodology (using statistics in the humanities, for example) can “seem like a betrayal.” Strong communities can help instructors get over that reluctance, though, he said.

Communities also provide a much-needed boost of mental energy from time to time. Teaching, for all its many satisfying elements, is often a solitary activity, and working in isolation can drain our energy and elevate our doubts. Meetings and conferences alter our routines, providing time and space away from the daily grind, Blaich said. One participant described CHRP meetings as “sacred time” for reflection, learning and support. Hutchings also emphasized the power of community conversations to transform culture. When we share our experiences with colleagues, “no longer is it about individual changes to individual courses,” Hutchings said. “It’s bigger than that.”

Indeed it is. It’s about 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

KANSAS CITY, Mo. – The humanities have gone through much soul-searching over the past few years. So asking instructors in the humanities to take on hard questions about the way they teach seems like a natural step.

For instance, what do they value in their teaching? Is that truly reflected in their teaching and assignments? Why do they teach the humanities? What is humanities teaching and learning good for?

Those are some of the questions that arose in opening sessions this week at the (Re)imagining Humanities Teaching conference in Kansas City. The conference is the final event of the Collaborative Humanities Redesign Project, a three-year program involving faculty at KU, Park, Rockhurst and Elon universities. Dan Bernstein, the former director of the Center for Teaching Excellence at KU, has led the project, which was financed by a grant from the Teagle Foundation.

Glenn Lester of Park University

In one of the opening workshops, Glenn Lester, an assistant professor of English at Park University, asked participants to explore what they, as instructors, valued in writing. That’s important, he said, because instructors usually focus on the skills they want students to acquire but rarely engage in a deep reading of the feedback they give to students.

Lester did just that with a semester’s worth of papers, categorizing his feedback and creating a rubric that articulated what he was really looking for in student writing. He found that students’ writing seemed too generic and that he needed to adjust his teaching of the class. He used the evaluation of comments as a guide.

He found two important things, he said. First, he hadn’t been emphasizing the need for students to explain the relevance of their work, the “so what?” question. He also realized he valued the curiosity that students displayed in their writing, and wanted them to reveal more of their metacognitive processes.

He used the rubric he created from those comments not for students but for himself. It became a tool to self-assess the elements of writing he needed to make more explicit to students in his teaching. In a portfolio he created about the changes he made in the class, he offered this:

“But most of all, I want my students to care. I want them to care about what they write about. I want them to recognize that their words, their ideas and their experiences have value. I want them to use writing and research as tools to explore their own interests, curiosities, and communities.

In the opening plenary, Peter Felten, assistant vice provost for teaching and learning at Elon University, asked conference participants to reflect on the purposes of humanities teaching. They offered many ideas:

  • making connections
  • explaining what it means to be human
  • learning about subjectivity
  • understanding the self through the other
  • cultivating empathy
  • appreciating ambiguity
  • exploring the world through multiple perspectives, memories and histories
  • learning the importance of text and context, as well as narrative, perspective and representation

Felton then asked participants whether those larger goals were the ones they talked about on their last day of classes. That is, do they follow through on those aspirational goals. If not, why? 

LaKresha Graham of Rockhurst University answers a question from Pat Hutchings, center, during a lunch session at the conference. At left are Charlie Blaich and Kathy Wise of Wabash College.

He then offered a synthesis of the goals that participants in the Collaborative Humanities Redesign Project had expressed in portfolios they created on their course redesign work. The recurring themes, he said, were to set meaningful goals; practice, practice, practice; and then give feedback on student work.

Digging a bit deeper, he offered a reading of how CHRP participants approach reflective teaching, saying that three themes emerged:

  • Treat student work as the core text.
  • Expect messiness and failures.
  • Learn with colleagues.

He offered a final thought for conference participants to consider: What if we looked into not just student skills, but their habits of mind. What would we see in our students’ work?

It was a rhetorical question, but one that spoke to the goals and aspirations of the many excellent teachers in the crowd, and to the continued soul-searching that instructors in the humanities must keep doing.


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

Let’s call it pride.

That’s probably the best way to describe the look of Sandra Gautt as she wandered among the 45 posters and the dozens of people at The Commons in Spooner Hall.

Xianglin Li and Moein Moradi from mechanical engineering discuss the work that went into their posters.

Gautt, former vice provost for faculty development, returned to KU for CTE’s third annual end-of-semester poster session on teaching. More than 40 instructors from more than 30 departments contributed posters, demonstrating the work they had done over the past year transforming classes to make them more student-centered, adding elements of diversity and assessing student learning more meaningfully.

The poster session represents work faculty have done thanks to course development funds from CTE, the Provost’s Office and a KU grant project called Trestle, which is funded by the National Science Foundation.

Gautt led the Teaching Commons Committee in the early 1990s and helped establish CTE in 1997. She said she never imagined that an idea for building community around teaching could turn into such a vibrant and diverse demonstration of intellectual engagement. It has, though. As CTE turns 20 years old this year, the poster session represents just one of many ways that teaching has gained in importance over the years.

Krzysztof Kuczera from chemistry talks about his poster with Mary Lee Hummert, vice provost for faculty development

I write frequently about the challenges of and barriers to innovative teaching. There are many. But the poster session offered many reasons for hope, especially as administrators and department chairs joined the dozens of people who attended and learned about the things faculty members had been doing in their classes. Among those efforts:

  • Joseph Brennan and Missy Shabazz from math explained how they have begun moving calculus courses toward a flipped model that provides increased incentives for participation.
  • Lin Liu, Carl Luchies and Mohammedmoein Moradi from mechanical engineering explained development of interactive learning modules to help students gain a better grasp of physics and math concepts they need in an introductory mechanics sequence.
  • Pam Gordon from classics explained changes she made in testing that provided better comprehension and understanding of the grammar of ancient Greek.
  • Sharon Billings, David Fowle, Amy Burgin, Pamela Sullivan, Terry Loecke and Dan Hirmas explained how they developed an interdisciplinary course in biogeochemistry.
  • Nancy Brady and Kelly Zarifa from speech, language and hearing explained a shift from an exam to a midterm project to aid student learning.
  • Trevor Rivers, Mark Mort and Stefanie DeVito explained how they had worked to create consistency in a biology course at the Lawrence and Edwards campuses.

Those are just a sampling of the work being done in such areas as geography, biochemistry, math, engineering, music therapy, physics, music, psychology, biology, African and African-American studies, journalism, philosophy, law, English, social work, design, chemistry, art and business. They give a good sense of the types of work faculty members are doing as they focus on student learning rather than delivery of content.

Ward Lyles from urban planning talks about making his courses more inclusive with Carl Lejuez, dean of liberal arts and sciences

The posters also help demonstrate some of the principles we promote at CTE:

  • The needs of students and society are changing, and our teaching must change to meet those needs.
  • Teaching needs constant re-evaluation and reflection if we want courses and instructors to improve.
  • Teaching should be more open and collaborative, allowing instructors to learn from one another by sharing insights and challenges, and working toward shared goals.
  • Communities provide effective vehicles for change, and the communities we have built around teaching have indeed led to important changes at KU.
  • Teaching is intellectual work on par with research and deserves equal weight in the promotion and tenure process.

As Gautt wrote recently, “Teaching and learning are now campus conversations, and reflective/intellectual inquiry into teaching and student learning are a part of the KU culture.”

That’s certainly reason for pride.

Dan Bernstein, former director of CTE, presents the 2017 Bernstein Award for Future Faculty to Rebekah Taussig and Carolina Costa Candal

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 new grant-funded initiative at the University of Kansas will promote the use of data to improve teaching, student learning and retention in science, engineering, technology and math programs.

KU is one of 12 universities to receive a $20,000 grant from the Association of American Universities as part of a major AAU project to improve STEM education. The grant will be used to promote faculty-led course and curricular changes that enhance student learning among undergraduates, and to help eliminate long-standing achievement gaps for students from underserved groups.AAU logo

The KU initiative will be led by an interdisciplinary team that includes Andrea Greenhoot, a professor of psychology and the director of the Center for Teaching Excellence; Caroline Bennett, an associate professor of engineering; Mark Mort, an associate professor of ecology and evolutionary biology; DeAngela Burns, vice provost for undergraduate studies; and Doug Ward, associate professor of journalism and associate director of the Center for Teaching Excellence.

“We see this as an important evolution in teaching and learning at KU,” said Greenhoot, who also leads a multi-university course-improvement program called TRESTLE, which is funded with a $2.5 million grant from the National Science Foundation. “Many KU faculty have been actively working to integrate evidence-based practices into their classes. Institutional data will help us gauge whether these efforts are helping students be more successful in later courses, and in completing their degrees.”

The new initiative will build on another project that CTE began last year. That project, part of a multi-university partnership known as the Bay View Alliance, is intended to help faculty members and departments use data to better understand student learning and student success, and to align with university goals of increasing retention and graduation rates.

Both initiatives aim to answer such questions as these:

  • How well are entry-level courses preparing students for later courses in a program sequence?
  • Are redesigns of such courses leading to better preparation and higher rates of success in later courses?
  • Are there inequities in student achievement and success for students from underserved or other groups? How effective are our efforts to reduce such gaps?

The AAU initiative at KU will begin later this semester with a goal of including 10 STEM departments in discussions about how to use institutional data to inform course and curricular improvements that can foster better student learning and improved degree completion. Administrators and deans already have access to this type of data, Burns-Wallace said, but many universities are extending access to faculty as they work to improve student success.

“This is a great opportunity to incorporate faculty into a wider conversation,” Burns-Wallace said. “Student success is a shared responsibility, and this grant will help STEM faculty understand how their course and curricular transformations have an even broader impact on overall student progress at KU.”


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.

CTE’s Twitter feed