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Teacher Characteristics and Behaviors that Make a Difference

Tue, 08/15/2017 - 21:39

Teaching and learning. For decades, we focused almost exclusively on the teaching side of things. More recently, we’ve been paying attention to learning, and that’s a good thing. However, we shouldn’t be thinking about one without the other—they’re both important and inseparably linked.

The August-September issue of The Teaching Professor newsletter includes highlights from a couple of recent studies that get us back to teaching and those teacher qualities that students consistently say can make a difference in how they learn.

There’s no shortage of lists identifying desirable teacher characteristics. Researchers have been generating them since the 1930s. Moreover, the same or very similar characteristics keep showing up on list after list. This means we can profitably look at any list so long as we don’t assume it’s the only or best delineation of those teacher qualities made visible in the delivery of instruction and during interactions with students.

Here’s a collection of characteristics that was compiled with attention paid to three criteria: 1) the behavior or characteristic increases learning outcomes; 2) the behavior or characteristic is “historically prominent” in the communication education literature (communication education has a long history of impressive research and scholarship on teaching); and 3) the list includes a wide variety of teacher qualities.

What’s on the list below appears in random order. In the study, students were asked to prioritize these qualities. For teachers just starting a new academic year, it’s the whole list that merits review, self-appraisal and recommitment. The questions for teachers involve the extent to which their teaching demonstrates these characteristics and via what instructional behaviors, policies, and practices they are being communicated.

  • Assertive – the teacher has a strong personality, is independent, competitive, and forceful
  • Responsive – the teacher has compassion, is helpful, sincere, friendly, and sensitive to student needs
  • Clear – the teacher presents content in ways that students can understand, answers questions, has clear course objectives
  • Relevant – the teacher uses examples, explanations, and exercises that make the course content relevant to students’ careers and personal goals
  • Competent – the teacher is a content expert, intelligent, and knows how to teach
  • Trustworthy – the teacher is honest, genuine, and abides by ethical standards
  • Caring – the teacher cares about students, understands them, and has their best interests at heart
  • Immediate – the teacher’s nonverbal behaviors are expressive; the teacher smiles, nods, uses gestures, makes eye contact, and doesn’t speak in a monotone
  • Humorous – the teacher uses humor frequently
  • Discloses – the teacher reveals an appropriate amount of personal information when it’s relevant to the topic

I still regularly hear teaching described as a gift; some teachers are endowed with it and then there’s the rest of us. We all know teachers who are exceptionally effective and they sometimes brush off their excellence with comments about being lucky or just doing what comes naturally. But most teachers who are good at what they do have worked hard to get that way and continue to improve and refine their teaching. They take their professional development seriously and believe they can always get better.

Furthermore, the qualities students identify argue against the idea of teaching as a gift. None of the characteristics on this list is something bestowed upon persons at birth. All of them involve learned behaviors that can be demonstrated and communicated in different ways, and no teacher can do them all equally well. No, good teaching is not a birthright; it grows out of sets of characteristics that can be developed and continuously improved by everyone who teaches.

How we teach makes a huge difference in the learning experiences students have in our courses, in higher education and ultimately in their lives beyond. And for that reason, we should be simultaneously devoted to improving learning and to developing our teaching.

Reference: Goldman, Z. W., Cranmer, G. A., Solitto, M., Labelle, S., and Lancaster, A. L. (2017). What do college student want? A prioritization of instructional behaviors and characteristics. Communication Education, 66 (3), 280-298.

Review additional articles on characteristics of effective teachers:

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Brainstorming Questionnaire for Designing or Improving a Course with Increased Faculty Presence

Mon, 08/14/2017 - 21:01

Faculty presence is a component of the online classroom that’s sometimes overlooked or underestimated by new online instructors, but it is often the most important determining factor for a student’s success and overall satisfaction in a course.

Instructor presence influences the ways that your students interact with the course content and how they interact with you. So, if you’re not there, why should they be?

One of the things I like to think about with my classes is how do I form a better learning community? That’s something that a lot of instructors do in a face-to-face classroom. But when it comes to online instruction it’s a little more challenging.

I’ve outlined below some opportunities for increasing faculty presence. These are moments during the class when you can reach out to students and demonstrate that you’re a real person who’s there for them. You’ll find opportunities before the course begins, at various checkpoints, during follow up and interventions, beyond the classroom, and as part of the course wrap-up.

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Checklist to Evaluate Faculty Presence in an Existing Class

Mon, 08/14/2017 - 21:00

▢   Do you reach out to students first before the semester begins? ▢   Do you send a welcome email outside the course, perhaps to college email or another email provided by the student? ▢   Do you post…

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Engaging Students in Online Courses: Adding Experiential to Asynchrony

Mon, 08/14/2017 - 01:03

Teaching online is a unique experience for faculty and students. Although I love the online environment for some courses, it does present its own challenges. One of those challenges is how to engage online students in activities that push them to go beyond simply reading, interpreting, and interacting. After all, the idea (in most cases) is that the student can apply their learning, knowledge, and skills in their respective fields of study. As such, we are constantly seeking ways to engage students in learning that goes beyond the “click-through” material.

In this article, I share a few ideas—starting with the simplest and working through some more complicated endeavors—that may assist you in bringing more engagement to your online classroom.

Scaffolding the Recording Experience

To effectively engage in online learning that involves interactivity, students need to develop a sense of technology competence. While our most tech-savvy students have no problems jumping right in, others may need a scaffolded approach to engaging in online interactivity. Here’s one idea that may help get you started.

Most LMS platforms allow for the submission of video and audio files to a drop-box, assignment submission folder, or other location for grading within the course. Rather than asking students to record and post a video of a role-play or presentation, you could craft scaffolded assignments that promote real-time connectedness. For the first assignment, you could leverage Instant Messaging (IM) by asking students to work in pairs, sending messages back in forth in a “text-only” interactive session. Many LMS platforms have this capability and even allow for printed transcripts of conversations. Free IM providers are easy enough to find if your LMS does not provide such a capability. Next, students could collaborate using the synchronous video option either provided by your LMS or by a third party (e.g. Skype and Adobe Connect) and submit this work for feedback. Finally, students could take their skills into the real world, recording and uploading their experiential assignments to the LMS for review.

Case Studies

Case studies are a popular way to move students toward applying theory and knowledge in a meaningful way. The general procedure is to supply a narrative of the case and ask the student to respond by either answering questions or developing an intervention based on a theory or knowledge base covered in the course. Although there’s nothing wrong with this tried-and-true approach, with the addition of technologies like Adobe Captivate or Articulate Storyline, you can prompt students to take actions to move the story forward, select response options with variable feedback, and participate in a way that adds a visual component to the experience.

These two software options are only a couple examples of the many programs available to us and that can be learned with very little training. Although somewhat labor intensive, these activities can be used in nearly any learning management system (LMS) and can be reused, edited, and revised as needed. This type of activity development allows for case studies to presented in a way that calls for interactivity and that is represented in a way that visual cues, characters, and information can be displayed to students thereby enhancing their ability to connect with the story, perceiving the experience as a more real-life activity rather than an academic exercise.


Whether it’s in a “Choose Your Own Adventure” or score-based style, creating interactive content that includes a scoring system and the ability to replay scenarios allows students to engage with the content, potentially without the fear of grading. Although some instructors would advocate for grading these types of assignments, this usually comes in the form of a grade for completing/attempting the game rather than to assess knowledge. Regardless, most LMS systems are capable of tracking a student’s progress through these types of activities and even grading them, if you so choose.

To give a little more clarity to the idea of gamification, consider this example. Imagine creating the case study example above but taking it a step further. Instead of simply asking students to respond to questions or interact with the content, you could add a points system that allows students to earn points for successfully selecting responses that would be indicative of a particular action or approach to a problem. When completing the activity, students would receive a score and can then replay again, attempting to achieve the best score. Most software applications that allow for this type of gamification have additional templates for “mini-games” or activities that can be customized to fit nearly any content and with tools that allow for quick development with relatively little training.


Barzilai, S., & Blau, I. (2014). Scaffolding game-based learning: Impact on learning achievements, perceived learning, and game experiences. Computers & Education70, 65-79.

Qian, M., & Clark, K. R. (2016). Game-based Learning and 21st century skills: A review of recent research. Computers in Human Behavior63, 50-58.

Whitton, Nicola. Learning with digital games: A practical guide to engaging students in higher education. Routledge, 2009.

Dr. Eric J. Perry is assistant professor and coordinator of counselor education at Westminster College in New Wilmington, PA. He has experience as an online instructor, instructional designer, and curriculum developer.

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Creating an Effective Faculty Mentoring Program

Thu, 08/10/2017 - 20:22

Recruiting and hiring are duties that face almost all academic leaders, and they take a large bite out of their time and resources. It makes sense, then, to make every attempt to retain these new professionals. At the 2016 Leadership in Higher Education Conference, Kenneth Alford led a preconference workshop about the development and use of a mentoring program to help develop and retain new faculty.

Recruiting and hiring new faculty is time intensive and expensive. Despite the difficulties, hiring decisions are clearly among the most important that academic administrators ever make. The success of college programs and universities is directly correlated with hiring the right people and then providing them with the essential resources to succeed and excel in their work.

Getting started

Teaching at the collegiate level is a wonderful yet complex career. We hire people and expect them to be organized, teach effectively, research thoroughly, write lucidly, publish often, serve as effective committee members, and maybe even serve as successful administrators. How many new hires on your campus arrive fully prepared and competent to fill that job description?

Far too often, a college’s lofty expectations are not matched with appropriate training and resources for faculty members, especially during the more formative years. When a faculty member fails to meet expectations or falls short in the rank advancement process, the time-consuming and costly process of recruitment and hiring starts over.

Every new faculty hire has the potential to become a better teacher, researcher, writer, and administrator. Helping them reach their potential is the great challenge of creating and maintaining an effective mentoring program.

Because effective mentoring increases the likelihood that faculty members will be successful, designing and implementing a robust mentoring program is an essential part of a campus administrator’s job rather than a distraction.

Even if little or no thought is given to a faculty mentoring program, a certain percentage of faculty members will seek out and obtain formative training from informal mentors on their own. Consider the risk of leaving this outcome to chance. More often than not, the disappointing result will simply confirm the aphorism: “If you fail to plan, you plan to fail.” The reality is that “mentoring sometimes has to be formalized, even mandated, or it simply will not occur” (Mullen 2012).

College and department leaders can benefit from consciously considering several important questions when creating any organized mentoring program:

  1. Does my institution value mentoring? Lip service support is easy, but the easiest way to identify whether your institution truly values mentoring is to ask what specific resources will be devoted to support your program.
  2. What does mentoring currently look like at my institution? What organized mentoring, if any, is currently being done with your faculty?
  3. How well is the status quo working? Be honest. Analyze the degree to which your younger faculty members are progressing and meeting your department’s expectations. Are there particular aspects of their work that consistently fall short or cause you frustration? What are your pain points with newer faculty?
  4. In a perfect world, what would my mentoring program look like? Are there senior faculty members who could train younger faculty? How can I encourage, institutionalize, and incentivize mentoring interactions?
  5. What kind of ongoing financial and personnel resources would be required to support a mentoring program? The key is “ongoing” resources. Mentoring is not a one-time project or one-day faculty meeting. Colleges and their faculties seldom stay static. Hiring, firing, promotion, departures, retirement, and sometimes death can affect every faculty every year.
  6. How do I implement my envisioned mentoring program? “Nail it” before you scale it. It is wise to organize a core group who can work out the kinks before adding new elements and complexity to your program.

Launching a pilot program

Managing a pilot mentoring program will require you to confront several difficult program-based decisions and questions, such as

  • Funding. Even though a pilot program will be less expensive and easier to fund than a full-scale program, it will still take financial commitment from school administrators. How will you convince key decision makers to provide those funds?
  • Scope. Depending on the size and nature of your institution, you need to determine the pros and cons of implementing a mentoring pilot program at the department, college, or university-wide level.
  • Pairing choices. How will you match mentored faculty members with their mentors? Will you create mentor matches from within the same discipline? The same department? The same college? The same campus?
  • Mentor guidelines. Make the pilot program as representative of your future program as possible. Will you require mentors to be tenured faculty? Will you exempt administrators from serving as mentors? Success usually leads to success, so involve senior faculty who have demonstrated an ability to balance their workload and who have shown the propensity and capacity to train and lead effectively.
  • Mentored guidelines. Although you may wish to consider only full-time faculty for inclusion in the trial, consider how inviting one or more part-time or nontenured faculty members might increase the lessons learned for all participants.
  • Length. How long do you need to determine what works and what doesn’t? One year may be a reasonable starting point.
  • Evaluation. How will you measure the effectiveness of your pilot program? Determine the evaluation criteria before your pilot program begins.
  • Buy-in. How will you get administrators, mentors, and mentees to really invest in your program? Each of these groups needs to clearly understand the benefits of participating. If you set clear standards and observable benchmarks, you will be more likely to expand beyond the pilot phase in the future.

Mullen, Carol A. “Mentoring: An Overview.” In SAGE Handbook of Mentoring and Coaching in Education, edited by Sarah Judith Fletcher and Carol, 13. London: SAGE Publications, 2012.

Kenneth L. Alford is a professor at Brigham Young University. Tyler J. Griffin is an associate teaching professor at Brigham Young University.

This article was originally featured in the Best of the Leadership in Higher Education Conference, a collection of articles from some of the top-rated presenters and sessions at the 2016 conference. Download the full report » 

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How Good Are Your Discussion Facilitation Skills?

Wed, 08/09/2017 - 00:41

Successfully leading and guiding student discussions requires a range of fairly sophisticated communication skills. At the same time teachers are monitoring what’s being said about the content, they must keep track of the discussion itself. Is it on topic? How many students want to speak? Who’s already spoken and wants to speak again? How many aren’t listening? Is it time to move to a different topic? What’s the thinking behind that student question? How might the discussion be wrapped up?

Most of us are not trained discussion facilitators. We employ strategies discovered largely through trial and error—things that seem to keep discussions on track, moving forward, and engaging students. Unfortunately, many class discussions don’t stimulate thinking or push students to a deeper understanding. Sometimes that’s because students aren’t prepared, aren’t interested in the topic, are reluctant to participate, or think listening to their peers is a waste of time. But sometimes the discussion falls short because it wasn’t facilitated well.

How effective are your discussion facilitation skills? Do you have any evidence or are you relying on your impressions? Would some feedback be useful? If so, you’ll find in the table below and in a downloadable Word doc an empirically developed instrument that can be used to more clearly identify the various skills involved in effective discussion facilitation and to gather student feedback that can help you assess yours.

If you’re interested in how the instrument was developed and validated, here’s the reference: Finn, A. N. and Schrodt, P., (2016). Teacher discussion facilitation: A new measure and its associations with students’ perceived understanding, interest and engagement. Communication Education, 65 (4), 445-462. To request information to use the instrument for research purposes, please contact Amber Finn at a.n.finn@tcu.edu

An article highlighting the research appeared in the December 2016 issue of the Teaching Professor newsletter (reprint available here). As discussed in more detail in the newsletter and fully in Finn and Schrodt’s journal article, survey responses were used to identify five factors involved in effective discussion facilitation. They are listed on the instrument below. [We removed the factors and statistical data from the version in Word so as not to influence student responses]. The two factors that accounted for most of the variance were affirming students’ discussion and organizing the discussion.

In summarizing their research, Finn and Schrodt write that, “when instructors provoke and organize discussions using a variety of questions, employ responses that affirm students, and correct discussions to focus on course content, such behaviors are directly associated with student interest and engagement in the course, as well as indirectly predictive of both outcomes through perceived understanding.” (p. 459)

The instrument can be used in a variety of different ways.

  • You can use it for self-reflection. How would you rate yourself on each item? Are your skills in one factor area stronger than another? Are there skills you’d like to develop further? You can also use the instrument to help monitor how you facilitate a discussion. Read it carefully just before class, pay attention to these behaviors and then rate your skills after class.
  • You could share the instrument with a colleague, invite him or her to observe you facilitating a discussion, and then use the instrument to guide a conversation of what your colleague observed during that discussion.
  • You can use the Word doc version of the instrument to solicit student feedback. It can be formatted as a checklist. If you are interested in a more detailed response, you can use a Likert-type scale with 3, 5 or 7 points. Be sure to use an odd number so the scale has a mid-point and do not use more than 7 points.
  • You can complete the instrument along with students, either predicting their responses or offering your own assessments that can then be compared with theirs.
  • If you are short on time or only interested in soliciting feedback on one or two of the factors, you can simply use the questions listed under those factors.

Once you’ve collected student responses and had them scored, we strongly recommend talking about the results with students. Tell students what you’ve learned, what (if any) changes you’re going to work to implement, and how they might help improve the discussions you’re planning for the rest course. If you’re comfortable in doing so, you can even share the final results.

Please note: The instrument may be used by individual faculty for formative purposes, but not for research purposes without permission of the authors. The instrument is being shared with the agreement of publisher Taylor Francis and permission of communication scholars Amber Finn and Paul Schrodt, who hold copyright for the instrument.

.tg {border-collapse:collapse;border-spacing:0;} .tg td{font-family:Arial, sans-serif;font-size:14px;padding:5px 5px;border-style:solid;border-width:0px;overflow:hidden;word-break:normal;} .tg th{font-family:Arial, sans-serif;font-size:14px;font-weight:normal;padding:10px 5px;border-style:solid;border-width:0px;overflow:hidden;word-break:normal;} .tg .tg-erlg{font-weight:bold;background-color:#efefef;vertical-align:top} .tg .tg-cynk{font-family:Tahoma, Geneva, sans-serif !important;;vertical-align:top} .tg .tg-ux22{font-weight:bold;font-size:16px;background-color:#366394;color:#ffffff;text-align:center;vertical-align:top} .tg .tg-yw4l{vertical-align:top} @media screen and (max-width: 640px) {.tg {width: auto !important;}.tg col {width: auto !important;}.tg-wrap {overflow-x: auto;-webkit-overflow-scrolling: touch;}} Teacher Discussion Facilitation Instrument Provokes Discussion 1. My teacher simulates debates during class discussions. 2. My teacher makes controversial or debatable statements during class discussions. 3. My teacher plays devil’s advocate during class discussions. 4. My teacher encourages students to challenge other students’ points of view during class discussions. 5. My teacher asks the class whether we agree or not with other students’ interpretations during class discussions Organizes Discussion 6. My teacher organizes class discussions to ensure a structured presentation of material. 7. My teacher helps keep class discussions on track. 8. My teacher redirects class discussions if they are getting too far off point. 9. My teacher organizes class discussions so that there is a clear direction. 10. My teacher directs topics and conversations to make sure the course material is covered during class discussions. Questions Students 11. My teacher asks open-ended questions during class discussions. 12. My teacher asks probing questions during class discussions. 13. My teacher asks leading questions during class discussions. 14. My teacher asks students thought-provoking questions during class. Affirms Students 15. My teacher encourages participation during class discussions. 16. My teacher is patient during class discussions. 17. My teacher waits for students to answer questions instead of immediately sharing his/her opinion or providing the correct answer. 18. My teacher treats students with respect during class discussions. 19. My teacher creates a relaxed atmosphere for class discussions. 20. My teacher communicates appreciation for student contributions during class discussions. 21. My teacher values what students say during class discussions. 22. My teacher summarizes and draws conclusions during class discussions. Corrects Students 23. My teacher corrects wrong answers during class discussions. 24. My teacher helps us understand incorrect answers provided during class discussions. 25. My teacher uses constructive criticism during class discussions.

To collect feedback from your students, please use the Word doc below. The document contains the full list all 25 behaviors, but they’ve been reordered and are no longer grouped by the five factors researchers identified for effective discussion facilitation.

Download the instrument.

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Jedi Training: Developing Habits of Perception in Our Disciplines

Mon, 08/07/2017 - 02:32

As longtime practitioners in our disciplines, we develop implicit skills that can be the source of some of the deepest learning for our students. In his book Experience and Education, John Dewey describes habit as “the formation of attitudes, attitudes that are emotional and intellectual…our basic sensitivities and ways of responding to all the conditions we meet in living” (35). Experiencing implies the sensing body, embodied learning, and Dewey does not shy away from the emotional dimensions of learning—both of which are often where the deepest learning happens, where students’ passion for a discipline ignites, and where experts’ best ideas originate. These often-overlooked dimensions of learning are also where empathy lives, and so it is there that knowledge might blossom not only into expertise but into wisdom.

To facilitate this kind of development in our students, we need to 1) identify the habitual, underlying modes of sensing in our disciplines, and 2) design assignments for practicing these modes in whole-person ways that engage our students not only intellectually, but in their embodied, emotional everyday lives.

Jedi training

An example of a quick and simple-to-implement course component that can integrate whole-person learning is something I call “jedi training”: weekly experiential exercises crafted to cultivate essential habits of mind in my discipline. These low-stakes exercises yield big benefits by moving students away from their desks, toward new perspectives and deeper learning.

For instance, many seasoned writers have a habit of pausing to listen to what’s around them. Listening encourages an admission of not knowing and the pursuit of odd hunches (a preverbal, embodied, affective mode of thought). These are some of the core skills we could expect to find in the creative processes of scientists, engineers, and mathematicians. And so, some of my jedi trainings give students a chance to practice listening-oriented skills requisite for good creative work. I might have them dip into an ethnographic mode and transcribe the heart of a conversation, foregrounding the pauses. Or I might ask them to sit and listen for the qualities of silence in different settings.

One student recently remarked that while graded weekly assignments would sometimes “put me in completion mode, tackling it like a computer,” the jedi trainings “allowed me to move past [that]” so he could encounter the week’s concepts in a more process-oriented, immersive way.

“A way of seeing the world”

In my courses, a polished piece of writing is not the point of the jedi-training exercises. Developing habits of a writer—sharpening a novice writer’s senses and seeing oblique connections, getting a feel for the textures of words—is what I’m after. It is notable that in more than 10 years of implementing these exercises, students have often remarked that some of their favorite pieces of writing happen through these jedi-training exercises. And it is there that I often see them arriving at new ideas and strategies and their best works. Key to this is how the exercise is presented—free of the weight of being the “official” high-stakes weekly assignment, but rather a chance to try something new.

A recent student’s final reflection captured the purpose of these seemingly small weekly exercises: “Instead of just sitting behind my laptop to get an assignment ready once or twice a week, poetry becomes a walk, an everyday walk and a way of seeing out in the world. Poetry is not something that just happens behind a screen—it is everywhere: in overheard conversations, in dreams, on billboards, out of the mouth of a homeless man or a soccer mom. It’s up to us to pay attention.”

So why jedi?

Jedi-training exercises require the kind of close attention and new ways of thinking that can lead to love for our subject matter. This kind of whole-person learning guards against abstraction, keeps us in relationship with the wider world, makes us better caretakers of people and planet. For after all, as observed by my four-year-old niece: “We are all connected. In a web. Like the Force.”

Tips for implementing

  • Base your teaching on the understanding that everyone is a potential practitioner of your discipline. 
  • Notice your implicit habits of perceiving everyday life as a practitioner in your field. For instance, historians develop a habit of seeing an object or event within a context, and tracing the changes of its meaning. What ways of experiencing the world do you want to help students cultivate this semester? 
  • Design activities that allow students to practice your discipline’s habits in their everyday lives. Ground these exercises in sensory experiencing and reflection. 
  • Communicate your exercises in an inviting tone that generates excitement so students want to take part in them. This is key.
  • Make these weekly assignments so that experiences accrue into habits of perception in your discipline over the course of the whole term. (In small classes, this kind of assignment can easily be reported in class discussion or in weekly journals, and can be recorded in large classes as a brief weekly logbook entry.)
  • Keep the exercises “low stakes” in terms of grading, rolled into participation points. This lets students take risks that can lead to creative breakthroughs.
  • Allow your own work in creating these activities to be “low stakes” too. This freedom will lead to its own rigor of experimenting and arriving at new avenues for learning.

Dewey, J. (1997). Experience and education. New York: Touchstone, Simon & Schuster.

Gillian Parrish, MFA, is an inveterate teaching-geek and an assistant professor in the MFA Writing Program at Lindenwood University.


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What Students Can Teach Us about Online Learning

Fri, 08/04/2017 - 10:59

My students participate in an activity called “Building a Learning Community” during the first week of classes. In this activity, completed via a discussion board, I ask them to share about three topics: what their best and “not best” teachers did that helped or hindered their learning, what peers have done that has had a positive or negative impact, and feedback on certain policies (e.g., late work, deadlines). The answers have taught me a lot about online teaching, and my responses on these boards provide the students with insight on what they can expect from me.

Students report that their “best” teachers had multiple ways to present ideas and were relatable and involved. They also enjoy lessons that include more than just reading the textbook and watching a lecture, lessons that, when appropriate, incorporate outside videos, other materials, or instructor-made videos to demonstrate concepts covered in the lecture and/or text. They typically define “relatable” faculty as those who make their enthusiasm for their topics and their students’ successes visible even through cyberspace, who talk “to them” about topics in lectures rather than “at them,” and who invite questions in person or virtually. Those identified as better teachers were those who make it clear they read discussion boards, either through being “on the boards” with the students or via the feedback given. Those instructors also tended to send a weekly message to wrap up lessons, preview the upcoming week, or comment on a common issue that might have come up in the class. These instructors were visible and obviously “in the class” with the students, being more of a “guide on the side” than a “sage on the stage.” The less effective teachers read straight from slides with no elaboration during video lectures, rarely encouraged students or gave much feedback, weren’t attentive to class concerns, and failed assignments for reasons such as formatting not being 100 percent correct. Students most commonly express frustration with past instructors who did not return emails or phone calls.

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An Inclusive Classroom Framework: Resources, Onboarding Approach, and Ongoing Programs

Thu, 08/03/2017 - 20:06

We all face the challenge of making our classrooms more inclusive. At Iowa State, a series of training opportunities helps guide faculty and academic leaders to the most effective methods for teaching inclusively and welcoming a diverse classroom, as Ann Marie VanDerZanden and Laura Bestler shared during the 2016 Leadership in Higher Education Conference.

The 2015 US Census reports an increasingly diverse population in the United States, and this diversity is also reflected in today’s college student population. Many national organizations of higher education have initiatives related to diversity, equity, and inclusivity to help address this new student demographic. Additionally, a number of institutions have followed suit and are implementing local diversity and inclusivity initiatives.

Iowa State University model

At the direction of the senior vice president and provost, the Center for Excellence in Learning and Teaching (CELT) created and facilitated an Inclusive Classroom Task Force. This task force, made up of faculty, graduate, and undergraduate students, was charged with designing a faculty development program that would help faculty build positive student learning experiences by creating inclusive classrooms. The task force met six times between December 2015 and April 2016 and established these overarching initiative goals:

  • Learn about teaching inclusively and why it is important at Iowa State University
  • Identify an individual’s attitudes towards inclusion, determine how it impacts teaching, and develop strategies to be more inclusive
  • Enhance instructional skills that contribute to an inclusive campus environment
  • Become familiar with student support resources at Iowa State University

Creating an inclusive classroom

The centerpiece of the Creating an Inclusive Classroom initiative is a series of four online modules that participants complete prior to a three-hour face-to-face workshop facilitated by the teaching center. Each online module includes a short reading, a brief video(s), and a set of critical reflection questions. The online modules prepare the faculty to actively engage in conversation during the face-to-face workshop, and they include these topics:

  • Module 1: ISU policies that are relevant to inclusion
  • Module 2: Exploring your inclusive teaching persona
  • Module 3: Developing a mindful syllabus and course design
  • Module 4: What are micro-aggressions and how do they impact learning?

During the face-to-face workshop, participants engage in individual, small group, and large group activities to explore the inclusive classroom, the importance of inclusion to Iowa State University, barriers to effective inclusion, and strategies to overcome them. Next, in small groups, participants discuss two diversity and inclusion classroom scenarios and identify possible solutions. The workshop concludes with a work session where participants complete a guided exercise to generate an individual action plan for implementing inclusion in their classroom. This exercise gives participants a tangible takeaway from the overall training.

In addition to the online modules and workshop, the task force members provide guidance to the teaching center in developing the Strategies to Create an Inclusive Course and the Mindful and Learner-Centered Syllabus Checklist documents. These resources are used in online learning modules during the workshop and posted online on the CELT website at the Creating an Inclusive Classroom page.

Results to date
Most participants to date have been faculty members. Participants valued the content shared during the workshop and how it applied to their teaching, as well as how the workshop was organized with open discussion, interactive activities, and personalized action plans. Workshop facilitators observed the supportive interactions between faculty during the workshop and the in-depth discussions that occurred.

Two common themes emerged from written comments in the post-workshop evaluation: the usefulness of sharing and discussing this topic with colleagues, and the fact that participants feel more prepared to make changes to increase inclusion in their own courses. One participant shared, “In-depth discussion was useful—particularly hearing examples from other faculty. Sharing classroom experiences. There is no ‘right’ answer or one way to do something. Every situation is unique and needs to be handled as such.” Another participant stated, “We can all do more than we currently do. Having all faculty go through the exercise of adding specific changes to a specific course creates the best opportunities to personalize the topic to their work.” Furthermore, the post-workshop evaluation responses showed an increase in knowledge, awareness, understanding, and comfort with creating an inclusive classroom, which supported the overall initiative goals.

Next steps

The ISU Center for Excellence in Learning and Teaching will offer the Inclusive Classroom Faculty Development Workshop eight times during the 2016–2017 academic year. In addition, CELT is also hosting and facilitating a monthly discussion group for faculty about inclusion titled Coffee and Critical Conversations during this academic year. This new program will provide faculty with an additional opportunity to discuss barriers to effective inclusion and strategies to overcome these hurdles.

Lessons learned

The inclusive classroom initiative at Iowa State University is a campus-wide initiative with input from multiple stakeholder groups, including faculty, staff, faculty senate leadership, college-level equity advisors, and graduate and undergraduate students. Input from these groups has resulted in a broad representation of viewpoints, opinions, and concerns. The success of this initiative to date stems in part from the process followed to create the deliverables (training materials, etc.). The process is not department specific and could easily be adapted to fit the local context of an institution, college, or curriculum area.

This article was originally featured in the Best of the Leadership in Higher Education Conference, a collection of articles from some of the top-rated presenters and sessions at the 2016 conference. Download the full report »


Garibay, J.C. “Creating a Positive Classroom Climate for Diversity.” Accessed May 5, 2016. https://equity.ucla.edu/programs-resources/educational-materials/classroom-climate/.

Saunders, S., and D. Kardia. “Creating Inclusive College Classrooms.” Accessed May 5, 2016. http://crlt.umich.edu/gsis/p3_1.

Ann Marie VanDerZanden is director of the Center for Excellence in Learning and Teaching, Iowa State University. Laura Bestler is the program coordinator of the Center for Excellence in Learning and Teaching, Iowa State University

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Set Students up for Success in Online Courses

Thu, 08/03/2017 - 09:56

Student success comes from strong leadership, including establishing rapport, providing resources, and putting the onus of responsibility on the students, rather than the instructor. Perhaps the most important area for success in any online course is what I call the “start here” area. Let’s explore this idea further.

“Start here” area
Some instructors call this an introductory area or a “welcome to the course” area. I like calling it “start here,” because, quite frankly, it’s incredibly descriptive and leaves no room for misinterpretation.

Let’s take a look at the six key elements of a start-here area: the instructor introduction video, course expectations, main assignment tutorials, technology tutorials, student engagement areas, and a syllabus quiz.

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Dos and Don’ts for Providing Effective and Efficient Feedback in the Online Classroom

Thu, 08/03/2017 - 03:40

Best practices consider feedback holistically and address three key elements: timing, target, and nature. It is important for instructors to be deliberate about all three factors and use care when determining when to deliver feedback, what the feedback should say, and what the feedback is meant to accomplish.

This post breaks down the dos and don’ts of effective feedback across four key areas: nature of feedback, time management, emergent technologies, and alternative approaches.

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Strategies to Develop Student Note-Taking Skills

Thu, 08/03/2017 - 01:39

Most students aren’t particularly effective note-takers. They don’t know the best way to go about it, they’re not often challenged on the quality of their note-taking, and they’re rarely motivated to take good notes.

Fortunately, there are techniques you can quickly and easily introduce in your courses that will drive better student note-taking. Maryellen Weimer, PhD, shares them in Take Note: Strategies to Develop Student Note-Taking Skills. Just in time for the fall semester, we’re making this online course available to Faculty Focus Premium members.

In this idea-filled, on-demand program, Dr. Weimer—longtime editor of The Teaching Professor newsletter and blog—provides research-based and classroom-tested developmental strategies. By focusing on exercises and activities that make the benefits of good note-taking plain to students, Dr. Weimer provides you with tools that are not just instructional but also motivational—designed to get your students to care about a subject they might otherwise find uninspiring.

Watch the intro to the program:

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The Importance of Learning Students’ Names

Tue, 08/01/2017 - 23:58

Names … why do we have such trouble learning them? For those of us who struggle with names, it never gets easier, no matter how many tricks we try. It can be embarrassing—to ourselves and to others. I remember once visiting a mall while out of town and hearing someone calling my name. Soon, a vaguely familiar person was greeting me with enthusiasm. “I am so happy to see you! It’s been so long? How are you?”

Who is this?, I’m thinking to myself. Course rosters roll through my mind. Nothing. No associations. No connections. Finally, in embarrassment I admit. “I’m terribly sorry but I can’t remember your name. When did you take my course?” “Maryellen! I’m Simone Beck. We went to college together.”

Learning students’ names is regularly recommended as good instructional practice. Less often is the recommendation accompanied with advice as to how, or what’s proposed is some convoluted approach that isn’t going to work for most of us. If the course is small, learning the names is possible. But as the numbers increase so does the challenge, until it becomes impossible. In a study exploring the use of names in large biology courses (reference below or see the June-July 2017 issue of The Teaching Professor for a summary of this research), of the 157 students who were in a biology course with 50 or more students 80% reported that it was “unlikely” the instructor knew their name.

So, if students aren’t expecting it, does that take us off the hook? Not really. In the same study, more than 85% of the students said it was important to them that their instructors knew their names. When asked why, they responded with a convincing set of reasons, among them these. It positively affects their attitudes about the course. They feel more valued and invested in the course. When the instructor knows their names, they say they feel more comfortable getting help. It’s easier to talk with the instructor. They think it improves their performance. Finally, they said it affects what they think about the course and the instructor.

We need to work on student names. Perhaps there are some different approaches and ways to think about the task.

Name tents – That’s what they used in a study of a course with 185 students. And yes, the students initially thought the idea was “silly” and “childish.” But their attitudes changed. The teachers (two of them) moved around the room a lot and addressed students by their names as they did. Interesting, when the course ended, they asked students if the teachers knew their names and 78% of the students said yes. But when looking at a picture roster without names, the instructors correctly identified just under 53% of the students. Bottom line: the name tents helped these teachers create the impression that they knew more student names than they in fact did.

Learn some of the names – It’s easy to get at least a few of the names—those who sit up front and regularly contribute, those who drop by during office hours, those who talk with us before and after class, those who communicate with us electronically, etc. Use the names you know and no, that isn’t preferential treatment. Read on.

Share the responsibility with students – Most of us shoulder all the name learning responsibility. Why? Isn’t it in a student’s best interest to have the teacher know his or her name? And aren’t the ways teachers learn students’ names (see above) opportunities available to every student? Tell students you want to learn their names, why it’s to their advantage, and then explain how they can help you.

Challenge students to learn and use each other’s name – None of this, “I agree with him.” Who is he? What’s his name? Someone, please, introduce him to the rest of us. When you give students an activity like think-pair-share, always remind them to first introduce themselves to their partner. Several faculty members have told me about a favorite first quiz they like to give in their courses. They make a big deal about the quiz and most everyone comes prepared only to discover there’s just one quiz question: “List the names of everyone you know in this course.” Yes, there’s usually some guessing. Is that any different from what normally happens?

How do you learn your students’ names or encourage them to learn each other’s names? Please share below.

Reference: Cooper, K. M., Haney, B., Krieg, A., and Brownell, S. E., (2017). What’s in a name? The importance of students perceiving that an instructor knows their names in a high-enrollment biology classroom. Cell Biology Education—Life Sciences Education, 16 (Spring), 1-13.

© Magna Publications. All rights reserved.

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Taking Collaboration Seriously

Tue, 08/01/2017 - 10:29

Like many professors, I use group projects in my classes. When my students work together on a project, I’m hoping they’ll be able to accomplish complex instructional tasks and support each other’s learning on the project and in the course. In my experience, I’ve found that many student groups function positively and productively, but there are always some groups that do not. In those groups infighting occurs, which negatively affects the students’ work in addition to their learning, their connection to course content, and their overall impression of the class.

Over the years, I’ve tried different ways of forming student groups. I’ve put students in groups based on their schedules, their interests, and their majors. I’ve allowed students to choose their own groups and even used the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (www.myersbriggs.org) to form complimentary teams based on students’ personality types. Regardless of the system, I still have a few groups that just don’t function well. To work on this, I’ve attended different conference presentations over the last year where colleagues shared their grouping strategies. One presenter used a compatibility quiz similar to those used on online dating sites. Another described a complex online system called CATME (info.catme.org) that puts students in groups based on a series of survey responses. I was happy to discover that I wasn’t the only one interested in the best way to form groups.

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Civility is Needed in College Classroom—Now More than Ever

Mon, 07/31/2017 - 21:46

The children now love luxury; they have bad manners, contempt for authority; they show disrespect for elders and love chatter in place of exercise. Children are now tyrants, not the servants of their households. They no longer rise when elders enter the room. They contradict their parents, chatter before company, gobble up dainties at the table, cross their legs, and tyrannize their teachers.”
(Attributed to Socrates, 469–399 BC, by Plato)

My grandmother often told me to “treat others as you would like to be treated.” I just assumed parents and grandparents told all children this variation of the Golden Rule. I was also certain well-meaning teachers, coaches, clergy members reinforced it. Yet what has happened to common decency and basic civility in society these days? Have they just become signs from days gone by? Do we no longer teach or practice the Golden Rule? I’ve actually heard this alternative interpretation of the Golden Rule: “He or she with the most gold makes the rules.” As faculty members, I believe we need to step up and start teaching civility and compassion in our classrooms.

“You can catch more flies with honey than vinegar”—another of my grandmother’s favorite expressions. As a child I wasn’t quite sure what that meant, but I understand it now and often pass on this same sage advice. There is a related education quote that goes something like, “Students don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.” I wholeheartedly agree. Students of any age benefit when they have teachers who care.

Who Most Needs to Model Civility?

Although each college has its own policies for both student and faculty conduct, as college professors “the buck stops” with us when it comes to controlling the climate and establishing the expectations for civil discourse in our classrooms. Professors need to model civility, and by that I mean much more than proper manners and etiquette, such as regularly saying “please” and “thank you.” I mean feeling actual empathy toward students. A syllabus, even if it’s posted online, says a lot about us before the course even begins. The same could be said about an introductory welcome letter for an online course. First impressions are important. That very first class should clearly set the expectations. Too often faculty miss this opportunity and just dive into their academic content without any attention paid to the culture that needs to be established in that course. We should all be good stewards, heed our grandparents’ advice, and foster a caring learning community imbued with mutual respect. If we don’t practice civility, empathy, and respect, how can we expect meaningful conversations to occur in our courses?

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I’m in ‘Kahoots’ with Technology in the Classroom

Mon, 07/31/2017 - 00:48

Teaching tool or distraction? One of the most vexing issues for faculty today is what to do about cell phones in the classroom. According to a study conducted by Dr. Jim Roberts, a marketing professor at Baylor University, college students spend between eight to ten hours daily on their cell phones. Regardless of whatever “no cell phone” policies we attempt to enforce in our classrooms, many of our students are sneakily checking Instagram or texting friends when they’re supposed to be engaged in solving matrices or analyzing Shakespeare.

Because college students use technology in nearly every aspect of their daily lives, incorporating it into the classroom can raise student interest and participation. Rather than banning all electronic devices, we can restrict off-task behavior and increase engagement through the supplementation of educational apps. Here are two apps I recommend:

Kahoot!: I absolutely love Kahoot! and have used it across disciplines and age groups. Whether reviewing for a test on Julius Caesar with high school sophomores, assessing teachers’ prior knowledge on the state of literacy in America, or teaching freshmen to write stronger thesis statements, I have found this game to be motivational, learning focused, and fun. Students use their smartphones individually or in teams to respond to questions on the screen. The first student or team to respond correctly scores the most points.

The key to any engaging lesson in the classroom, of course, is to connect it to the learning objectives, and Kahoot! makes it easy to do so. User-friendly and aesthetically appealing, Kahoot! has helped me turn what might have been boring Q&A sessions into competitive and exciting learning activities. Plus, by assessing students’ ability to recall information from previous lessons, you will quickly uncover topics that may merit revisiting.

How to get started: First, go to https://getkahoot.com/ and sign up for a free account. The FAQ provides helpful hints to get your head around the gist of the program. I also recommend browsing through a few of the thousands of free Kahoots ready to use in your classroom under “Find Kahoots.” While I like to create my own, I often look there to get ideas. Once you’re ready, just click the “New K!” tab to begin inputting questions and answers, choosing your time limit per question, and selecting graphics (if you’re into that kind of thing). Within a short time, it’ll be ready for classroom usage. Tell your students to go to https://kahoot.it/ and launch your Kahoot! to give them the appropriate game PIN. Once they type it in, they’ll be ready to play!

Slido: This is a relatively new app to me, but I was hooked by its simplicity and usefulness. Slido is a quick way to get various types of feedback with minimal effort from both you and your students. There are two main functions of Slido in the classroom: students can ask you questions and you can question them. During the former, students type questions on their phones, which are displayed on a projector for the whole class to see. As the teacher, you control how often and in what way you want to respond, such as during or after the lecture, and you can also decide if the questions are anonymous. This tool can be a great way to combat shyness because students often hesitate to ask questions in class due to worries of appearing foolish in front of classmates. You can even allow students to vote on the questions they would most like you to answer. Second, you can poll your students to check prior knowledge or assess interest, giving you a quick snapshot of where students are at that moment. Finally, there’s an infographic feature that acts as the “interaction report” from the event, recording information such as the number of users and the most popular questions.

How to get started: Sign up at https://www.sli.do/. A basic account is free. Though this package does not allow question moderation and restricts the number of polls you can ask per class, this version is still interactive and informative. The site has helpful videos and information on how to proceed, but here are the basics: first, you’ll create an event, which can just refer to a class on one particular day. If you want to make use of the question feature, instruct your students to go to the main page and enter the event code on their phones. On your end, click on the “Questions” tab so students can ask questions whenever they like (as long as you keep that feature turned on). If you want to question students rather than vice versa, just click on the “Polls” tab and create your poll prior to class. I prefer the multiple-choice format, but you can set this up as “open text” and allow for more varied responses as well. Once it’s class time, students will head to the main page and type in the event code; you’ll activate the poll you want them to answer. Though I’m not the most tech-savvy educator, I found Slido extremely user-friendly and easy to implement.

Do you have a favorite app you like to use in the classroom? Please share in the comments.

Cassandra O’Sullivan Sachar is an assistant professor of writing at Bloomsburg University.

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Facilitating Discussion: Five Factors that Boost Student Engagement

Wed, 07/26/2017 - 21:06

It’s another of those phrases frequently used and almost universally endorsed but not much talked about in terms of implementation. What does facilitating discussion mean? How should a teacher do it? Two faculty researchers, Finn and Schrodt (2016), frame the problem this way: “The literature is replete with descriptive accounts and anecdotal evidence but lacks the kinds of empirical investigations that could create theoretical coherency in this body of work” (p. 446). They decided our understanding of discussion facilitation could be deepened with an operational definition, one that resides in an instrument to measure it quantitatively.

Beyond developing and validating the instrument, they wondered what learning-related outcomes does discussion facilitation accomplish. Does it generate student interest and motivate learning? Can discussion promote those behaviors that reflect interest and involvement in learning across courses and in activities outside the classroom?

Developing the instrument was the first task. To do so they used literature on discussion to generate an initial pool of 75 items. Three hundred and sixty undergraduates were asked to use those items to rate the discussion facilitation skills of the instructor they had in the course that met prior to the class in which the data were collected. Analysis of their responses revealed five factors involved in effective discussion facilitation.

  • Affirms students’ discussion: This aspect of discussion facilitation accounted for 45 percent of the variance, which was significantly higher than the other four factors. It included high ratings on items such as, “My teacher encourages participation during class discussions,” “My teacher communicates appreciation for student contributions during discussion,” and, “My teacher values what students say during class discussions.” These data confirm a fundamental feature of effective discussion facilitation. Teachers must “patiently” and “positively” encourage students to contribute during discussion (p. 448).
  • Organizes discussion: Discussions benefit from instructor guidance and direction, as long as they stop short of controlling the discussion. From the overall structure of the discussion, to promote the sense that it is going somewhere and to keep it on track, effective facilitation involves keeping the discussion focused on the designated topic. That focus needs to be achieved with guidance, a kind, constructive direction that sets the boundaries of the discussion without dictating or more subtly controlling what can be said within those boundaries. Participation in a discussion is dampened if there’s a sense that participants aren’t free to express relevant ideas, opinions, and perspectives.
  • Provokes discussion: The skill here is sparking discussion with controversial statements (i.e., points that can be debated). The teacher needs to give students reasons to want to discuss something. Sometimes that’s effectively accomplished when the teacher assumes a devil’s advocate role. Interestingly, Finn and Schrodt (2016) found this factor generated mixed reactions from students. “Playing ‘devil’s advocate’ with an air of inquisitiveness is quite different from playing ‘devil’s advocate’ with an air of superiority.” (p. 459) Discussion facilitation involves a nuanced use of verbal and nonverbal communication skills.
  • Questions students: What you want to hear is, “My teacher asks students thought-provoking questions.” Rather than questions with straightforward answers, these are open-ended, probing, even leading questions. When these kinds of questions are regularly infused throughout the discussion, they can help to provide the structure a discussion needs. They can continue to provoke student interest, but, more importantly, they can make students think.
  • Corrects students: Only accounting for 3.6 percent of the variance, this factor ended up being assessed with only three of the 33 items on the second version of the instrument. The idea here is that students appreciate teacher discussion facilitation that ensures that when it ends, they have information that is correct and enhances their understanding of course content.

As part of exploring the relationship between discussion facilitation and student interest and engagement, the researchers used a “student perceptions of instructor understanding” scale. It measures the extent to which students think instructors understand or misunderstand them, such as with, “My teacher understands the questions I ask.” The second study documented that “when instructors provoke and organize discussions using a variety of questions, employ responses that affirm students, and correct discussions to focus on course content, such behaviors are directly associated with student interest and engagement in the course, as well as indirectly predictive of both outcomes through perceived understanding” (p. 459).

Not only is this instrument of value to subsequent explorations of discussion facilitation, it is a great tool for instructors who wish to understand the specific components of effective discussion facilitation. And for those interested in feedback on the extent to which they are effectively facilitating discussion, items on the final 25-item version of the instrument are included in the article. Kudos to these researchers for developing an instrument with both empirical and pragmatic utility. Best of all, it offers a clear description of how a teacher facilitates a discussion.

Reference: Finn, A. N., & Schrodt, P. (2016). Teacher discussion facilitation: A new measure and its associations with students’ perceived understanding, interest and engagement. Communication Education, 65(4), 445–462.

Reprinted from Facilitating Discussion, The Teaching Professor, 30.10 (2016): 4. © Magna Publications. All rights reserved.

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Four Student Misconceptions about Learning

Tue, 07/25/2017 - 23:55

Editor’s Note: Today we’re revisiting an old favorite on how students think about learning.

“Efficient and effective learning starts with a proper mindset,” Stephen Chew writes in his short, readable, and very useful chapter, “Helping Students to Get the Most Out of Studying.” Chew continues, pointing out what most of us know firsthand, students harbor some fairly serious misconceptions that undermine their efforts to learn. He identifies four of them.

  1. Learning is fast – Students think that learning can happen a lot faster than it does. Take, for example, the way many students handle assigned readings. They think they can get what they need out of a chapter with one quick read through (electronic devices at the ready, snacks in hand, and ears flooded with music). Or, they don’t think it’s a problem to wait until the night before the exam and do all the assigned readings at once. “Students must learn that there are no shortcuts to reading comprehension.” (p. 216) Teachers need to design activities that regularly require students to interact with course text materials.
  2. Knowledge is composed of isolated facts – Students who hold this misconception demonstrate it when they memorize definitions. Chew writes about the commonly used student practice of making flash cards with only one term or concept on each card. The approach may enable students to regurgitate the correct definition, but they “never develop a connected understanding or how to reason with and apply concepts.” (p.216) The best way for teachers to correct this misconception is by using test questions that ask students to relate definitions, use definitions to construct arguments, or apply them to some situation.
  3. Being good at a subject is a matter of inborn talent rather than hard work – All of us have had students who tell us with great assurance that they can’t write, can’t do math, are horrible at science, or have no artistic ability. Chew points out that if students hold these beliefs about their abilities, they don’t try as hard in those areas and give up as soon as any difficulty is encountered. Then they have even more evidence about those absent abilities. Students need to bring to learning a “growth mindset,” recognized by statements like this, “Yes, I’m pretty good at math, but that’s because I’ve spend a lot of time doing it.” Teacher feedback can play an important role in helping students develop these growth mindsets.
  4. I’m really good at multi-tasking, especially during class or studying – We’ve been all over this one in the blog. “The evidence is clear: trying to perform multiple tasks at once is virtually never as effective as performing the tasks one at a time focusing completely on each one.” (p. 217) Chew also writes here about “inattentional blindness” which refers to the fact that when our attention is focused on one thing, we aren’t seeing other things. “The problem of not knowing what we missed is that we believe we haven’t missed anything.” (p.217)

Pointing out these misconceptions helps but probably not as much as demonstrations. Students, especially those in the 18-24 age range, don’t always believe what their teachers tell them. The evidence offered by a demonstration is more difficult to ignore.

Please be encouraged to read Chew’s whole chapter (it’s only eight pages). It’s in an impressive new anthology which is reviewed in the February issue of The Teaching Professor newsletter. Briefly here, the book contains 24 chapters highlighting important research on the science of learning. The chapters are highly readable! They describe the research in accessible language and explore the implications of those findings. Very rarely do researchers (and most of these chapters are written by those involved with research) offer implementable suggestions. This book is full of them.

And here’s the most impressive part about this book: you can download it for free. It’s being made available by the American Psychological Association’s Society for the Teaching of Psychology. Yes, it’s a discipline-based piece of scholarly work, but as the editors correctly claim it’s a book written for anyone who teaches and cares about learning. Kudos to them for providing such a great resource!

Reference and link: Benassi, V. A., Overson, C. E., & Hakala, C. M. (Editors). (2014). Applying science of learning in education: Infusing psychological science into the curriculum. Available at the Teaching of Psychology website: http://teachpsych.org/ebooks/asle2014/index.php

Four Student Misconceptions about Learning was originally published on Jan. 29, 2014 and went on to become one of the popular articles on Faculty Focus that year.

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Four Reasons Assessment Doesn’t Work and What We Can Do About It

Sun, 07/23/2017 - 23:22

I admit that I’m an assessment geek, nerd, or whatever name you’d like to use. I pore over evaluations, rubrics, and test scores to see what kinds of actionable insights I can glean from them. I’ve just always assumed that it’s part of my job as a teacher to do my very best to make sure students are learning what we need them to learn.

That being said, since serving on my university’s assessment committee, and for the last two years having acted as the university director of assessment, I have heard a litany of excuses for not utilizing assessment. Some are the types of excuses that would test the patience of any professor hearing them from a student. Here are a few of my favorites:

  1. It’s the students! Assessment doesn’t work when you’re looking at the results only in terms of what the student did wrong or right. Yes, student populations change, and student characteristics differ depending on whether you are teaching first-year college students or returning adult learners. But placing all the blame on the students—saying they don’t study or are unprepared—only adds to our frustration and gives the false impression that students are the only factor in the teaching and learning equation.
  2. It’s just busywork! Yes, for most of us assessment is an essential part of accreditation and for ensuring we maintain standards for our work. However, if you look at it as only busywork, you will just fill out the paperwork, check the boxes that need to be checked, and not take a hard look at what the results are trying to tell you. An effective assessment should force you to examine what it means to be a successful teacher, where your students are now, and how you can help them get where they need to go.
  3. I was hired to teach! We were all hired to teach, and that’s probably because we are good at our chosen profession. But we choose to teach, and part of being not merely a good but an excellent teacher is continually evaluating how well you’re doing. Just as buying a car means more than filling it with gas, it’s important that we examine assessment results to see whether we need to put “new tires” on our content.
  4. I am too busy to deal with it! OK, we are all busy—we have classes to teach, students to advise, and research to conduct, and we’re probably sitting on a few different committees. It’s not an easy job, especially for beginning faculty. Whether we’re assessing the effectiveness of a single course, a program, or an entire institution, assessment can be messy, frustrating, and, at times, difficult to hear. But there’s strength in numbers, and I have yet to meet a single faculty member who is not willing to share experiences, rubrics, and advice to help a colleague get better. There’s no need to go it alone and toil in isolation. Why try to reinvent the wheel when there’s an abundance of work that has proven effective?

Assessment does work
Now that we’ve outlined the different times assessment doesn’t work, let’s discuss when it does. Assessment works when we learn to look at it as a process for improving the quality of our teaching. It works when we dialogue with colleagues, both within our discipline and across campus, and create new ideas to help students learn. Assessment works when we try something new and don’t get disheartened when it doesn’t work; instead, we reevaluate and try something else. Assessment works when something new proves effective and we gain information that moves our curriculum forward. Assessment can work if we quit making excuses as to why it’s so difficult and messy and instead look to the information to reinforce what works and discard what doesn’t.  Assessment works when we embrace the challenge of always getting better.

Vickie Kelly is the program director in the Master of Health Science at Washburn University.

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Using Screencasts for Formative and Summative Assessment

Thu, 07/20/2017 - 21:18

As a new teacher, one of the resources I found most helpful in shaping my grading practices was Grant Wiggins’s advice on feedback and assessment. Meaningful feedback, he suggests, is much more than assigning a grade or even offering recommendations for improvement. Rather, meaningful feedback is descriptive, “play[ing] back” the student’s performance and connecting it to the learning outcomes of the course.

In the context of my field, freshmen composition, this means that meaningful feedback involves first describing to a student the strengths and weaknesses of her rhetoric and style, then explaining how those strengths and weaknesses affect my ability to follow and be persuaded by her paper. I work hard to provide such feedback, especially since I am convinced that it plays a key role in helping students learn to write.

Yet I face a real challenge in providing it consistently. In the one-inch margins of a printed paper there’s barely enough space to write a few brief words of advice or critique, let alone provide descriptive and meaningful feedback. I have therefore turned to a technological solution: screencasts.

Screencasts for formative assessment

I first encountered screencasts as a feedback tool several years ago in an online course I was taking for professional development. My instructor used screencasts to comment on my work. Inspired, I started using screencasts the following semester to comment on writing submitted in my face-to-face courses. Since then, I have come to rely on screencasts during both formative and summative assessment.

Like most writing teachers, I regularly collect and comment on partial or incomplete copies of student work, such as an outline or a rough draft. I now use screencasts to assess this work. Specifically, during formative assessment I use screencasts to:

  • Visually highlight a passage that needs attention.
  • Highlight an error repeated throughout the document.
  • Describe errors at length and explain how those errors interfere with my ability to follow the paper and be persuaded by it.
  • Employ analogy and example to assist students in understanding the error.
  • Demonstrate corrections to an error.

Consider, for example, my work with a student last spring. Although she was a top-notch student, she had a wordy, convoluted writing style. Rather than leaving inscrutable advice in the margins, I created a screencast. I highlighted several examples of wordiness, and then, referring to these examples, described several causes of wordiness in her writing and demonstrated possible ways to cut down on the wordiness. Thanks to the screencast, the student was able to literally see what she was doing wrong as a writer and how to improve it, allowing her to make the changes she needed to tighten up her writing.

Screencasts for summative assessment

Screencasts offer the potential for the precise, descriptive feedback students need to make effective changes in their work. But even when students’ work is finished, screencasts still play a role in assessment; their visual nature makes them a valuable part of summative assessment as well.

During grading, I often use screencasts to:

  • Match passages of a student paper with the grading rubric
  • Explain my reasoning for a grade fully and conversationally
  • Provide alternative feedback to audiovisual learners, or students with learning disabilities

The ability to visually match a student’s paper with the rubric and to explain my reasoning for a grade is especially valuable when the situation is sensitive – for instance, when a student receives a low score despite working hard work on an assignment.

I recently had such a situation in my freshmen literature course. A student who was a diligent worker and an aspiring English teacher, revised a project in hopes of earning a higher score. Unfortunately, the revision remained mediocre. To provide him with feedback, I decided to use a screencast. I clearly highlighted several passages where his work remained weak, then visually connected these with specific standards spelled out in the rubric. This allowed the student to see why his paper received the score that it did, as well as hear my sympathetic tone, softening the moment and providing some encouragement.

Additional benefits

I use screencasts as the primary means of providing feedback to students with learning disabilities. When they already have difficulty with written text, it seems unfair to ask that they decipher cramped handwritten notes; the visual nature of the screencast better demonstrates for them the strengths and weaknesses of their work. Thus, the screencast is key in differentiating instruction, making room for diverse learners in the classroom.

Numerous programs exist to aid those who want to integrate screencasts into the assessment process. Personally, I use Screencastify, a Google Chrome extension; and Jing, a user-friendly offshoot of TechSmith. Educational writer Andrew Douchy lists several more options at his blog, including the popular Screencast-o-Matic. Most screencasts have a basic free version and several options for paid versions.

Although a web-based tool, screencasts play a valuable role in face-to-face courses, allowing instructors to offer descriptive and, in Grant Wiggins’ words, “actionable” feedback. With this feedback, students are better able to improve their work and the entire writing process becomes a more positive, fulfilling learning experience.

Douch, Andrew. “The Best Screencasting Software for Teachers.” Douchy’s Blog. 13 Feb 2014. https://andrewdouch.wordpress.com/2014/02/13/the-best-screencasting-software-for-teachers. Accessed 1 June 2017.

Wiggins, Grant. “Seven Keys to Effective Feedback.” Educational Leadership. 70:1 (Sept 2012). 10-16. ASCD. 10-16. http://www.ascd.org/publications/educational-leadership/sept12/vol70/num01/Seven-Keys-to-Effective-Feedback.aspx. Accessed 1 June 2017.

Megan Von Bergen serves as the sole writing and literature instructor at Emmaus Bible College.

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