Considering the Use of Turnitin

Earlier this week an article from Inside Higher Ed (IHE) caught my eye. Sign with hand and text reading prevent plagiarism. In New Salvo Against Turnitin (June 19, 2017) Nick Roll summarizes an essay by Sean Michael Morris, Instructional Designer in the Office of Digital Learning at Middlebury College, and Jesse Stommel, Executive Director, Division of Teaching and Learning Technologies at the University of Mary Washington. The essay authors argue that faculty should rethink the use of Turnitin, questioning not only “…the control and use of people’s data by corporations…” but “…Turnitin’s entire business model, as well as the effects on academia brought on by its widespread popularity.” Morris and Stommel further contend that those using Turnitin “supplant good teaching with the use of inferior technology” reducing the student-instructor relationship to one where suspicion and mistrust are at the forefront. [Turnitin is a software application used to detect plagiarism, and Morris and Stommel are not the first to decry the company’s business model and practices.]

Although the IHE article provides a fair summary, as well as additional comments by Morris and Stommel, it is worth reading the 3,928 word essay—A Guide for Resisting Edtech: The Case Against Turnitin (Digital Pedagogy Lab, June 15, 2017)—to appreciate the complex argument. I agree with some of the concerns the authors address and feel we should be doing more individually and collectively to school ourselves and our students in the critical evaluation of digital tools, but disagree with what I feel are over-simplifications and unfair assumptions. Morris and Stommel cast faculty who use Turnitin as “surrendering efficiency over complication” by not taking the time and effort to use plagiarism as a teachable moment. Further, they state that Turnitin takes advantage of faculty who are characterized as being, at the core, mistrustful of students.

The assumption that faculty using Turnitin are not actively engaging in conversations around and instruction of ethical behavior, including plagiarism, and are not using other tools and resources in these activities is simply not correct. The assertion that faculty using Turnitin are suspicious teachers who are embracing an easy out via an efficient educational technology is also not accurate.

The reality is that some students will plagiarize, intentionally or not, and the Internet, social media practices, and cultural differences have rendered complicated students’ understanding of intellectual property. I believe that many of our institutions of higher learning, and faculty and library staff therein, make concerted efforts to teach students about academic integrity. This includes the meaning and value of intellectual property, as well as finer points of what constitutes plagiarism and strategies to avoid it.

I believe it is relevant to note that Middlebury College’s website boasts a mean class size of 16, while the University of Mary Washington lists an average class size of 19. Student-faculty ratios are 8 to1 and 14 to 1 respectively.  I cannot help but feel that Morris and Stommel are speaking from a point of privilege working in these two institutions. Instructors who teach at large, underfunded, state universities with classes of hundreds of students, relying on a corps of teaching assistants to grade their essays, are in a different boat.

The authors state: “So, if you’re not worried about paying Turnitin to traffic your students’ intellectual property, and you’re not worried about how the company has glossed a complicated pedagogical issue to offer a simple solution, you might worry about how Turnitin reinforces the divide between teachers and students, short-circuiting the human tools we have to cross that divide.” In fact, we may all be worried about Turnitin’s business model and be seeking a better solution. Yet in this essay nothing more concrete is given us on those human tools and how faculty in less privileged circumstances can realistically and effectively make use of them.

The Innovative Instructor has in the past posted on Teaching Your Students to Avoid Plagiarism (November 5, 2012, Macie Hall), and using Turnitin as a teaching tool: Plagiarism Detection: Moving from “Gotcha” to Teachable Moment (October 9, 2013, Brian Cole and Macie Hall). This articles may be helpful for faculty struggling with the issues at hand.

Yes, we should all be critical thinkers about the pedagogical tools we use; in the real world, sometimes we face hard choices and must fall back on less than ideal solutions.
Macie Hall, Senior Instructional Designer
Center for Educational Resources

Image source: Microsoft Clip Art edited by Macie Hall

Quick Tips: Tools for Creating Rubrics

The Innovative Instructor has previously shared posts on the value of using rubrics (Creating Rubrics, Louise Pasternak, November 21, 2014 and Sharing Assignment Rubrics with Your Students, Macie Hall June 26, 2014). Today’s Quick Tips post offers some tools and resources for creating rubrics.

Red sharpie-type marker reading "Rubrics Guiding Graders: Good Point" with an A+ marked below

Red Rubric Marker

If you are an instructor at Johns Hopkins or another institution that uses the Blackboard learning management system or Turnitin plagiarism detection, check out these platforms for their built-in rubric creation applications. Blackboard has an online tutorial here. Turnitin offers a user guide here.

If neither of these options are available to you, there is a free, online application called Rubistar that offers templates for rubric design based on various disciplines, projects, and assignments. If none of the templates fit your need, you can create a rubric from scratch. You must register to use Rubistar. A tutorial is available to get you started. And you can save a printable rubric at the end of the process.

Wondering how others in your field have designed rubrics for specific assignments or projects? Google for a model: e.g., “history paper rubric college,” “science poster rubric college,” “video project rubric college” will yield examples to get your started. Adding the word “college” to the search will ensure that you are seeing rubrics geared to an appropriate level.

With free, easy to use tools and plentiful examples to work from, there is no excuse for not using rubrics for your course assignments.

Macie Hall, Senior Instructional Designer
Center for Educational Resources

Image source © 2014 Reid Sczerba

 

 

Faculty Office Hours: The Instructor is In

Peanuts comic showing Lucy in the psychiatrist's booth, re-labelled to say "Course Help Free; The Instructor is In."What if you hold office hours and nobody comes? That’s the issue that Dr. Richard Freishtat, Director of the Center for Teaching and Learning at UC Berkeley addresses in Don’t Be Alone During Office Hours (Tomorrow’s Professor, January 10, 2017). He describes a student panel at Berkeley on facilitating student success. When the student panelists were asked by a faculty member about attending office hours, there was silence. Why was this opportunity not being pursued? One student responded, “Reason #1: ‘I think office hours is for students who are struggling with the material and need extra help. I wouldn’t want my professor to know I’m struggling, even if I was.’ Reason #2: ‘I was fascinated by the Professor, the discipline, and research in the field beyond what we were focusing on in class. I would have loved to drop into office hours and just talk with my professor about her own research, but figured there’s no way she’d want to take the time to do that with me.’” Faculty in the audience expressed just how much they would appreciate students coming to see them for the latter reason.

Freishtat goes on to suggest some ways to increase student attendance at office hours including making it an assignment, telling students how to use/what the purpose is of office hours, explaining to students how to start an office hours conversations (bring a question, a quote of interest, a story), scheduling varying days and times to accommodate different schedules, and promoting office hours throughout the semester/quarter.

For more on practical measures to take to improve the participation and outcome of your office hours, see the Stanford Teaching Commons website on Office Hours That Work and the University of Washington Center for Teaching and Learning on Face to Face Office Hours.

Macie Hall, Senior Instructional Designer
Center for Educational Resources

Image Source: CC Image from Flickr [https://www.flickr.com/photos/frederickhomesforsale/16107671226] modified by Macie Hall

Establishing Ground Rules for Student-Instructor Communication

Perusing the Sunday Review in the New York Times recently, I came across a White pill bottle with blue and yellow labe for Etiquette tablets. Instructions read, "Students: take two tablets before each class and when sending emails to your instructor."piece by Molly Worthen, U Can’t Talk to Ur Professor Like This (May 13, 2017) that I thought deserved a share. As a beginning instructor, Worthen grappled with trying to seem cool, but she says …” [a]fter one too many students called me by my first name and sent me email that resembled a drunken late-night Facebook post, I took a very fogeyish step.” As part of her syllabus she included an attachment with basic etiquette for addressing faculty and writing “polite, grammatically correct emails.”  Worthen also cites a similar set of guidelines created by Mark Tomforde who teaches mathematics at the University of Houston. This practice may be on the increase as faculty are dealing with students whose communication skills are based on the informality of social media.

Women and minorities in particular may find that requesting students use formal titles and proper etiquette helps ensure deference not always given to non-white male faculty. Instructors note that stating on the syllabus they wish to be addressed as Professor or Doctor Last-Name helps to establish authority. Further, by linking the preference to mutual respect, by asking students how they wish to be addressed, can help to establish an inclusive classroom climate.

Providing guidelines for email will not only save you from dealing with the frustrating “Yo prof! I need to make up that exam!” type messages, but it will help students learn how to be professional in their interactions. This will serve these young adults well as they transition to the workplace. As Worthen says, “Insisting on traditional etiquette is also simply good pedagogy. It’s a teacher’s job to correct sloppy prose, whether in an essay or an email. And I suspect that most of the time, students who call faculty members by their first names and send slangy messages are not seeking a more casual rapport. They just don’t know they should do otherwise — no one has bothered to explain it to them. Explaining the rules of professional interaction is not an act of condescension; it’s the first step in treating students like adults.”

Some additional resources for creating classroom guidelines see:

 

Macie Hall, Senior Instructional Designer
Center for Educational Resources

Image Source: Pixabay.com image modified by Macie Hall.

How to get students to focus on learning, not grades

Here at Johns Hopkins we have a significant number of undergraduates who are pre-med students majoring in a range of mostly STEM disciplines. For many, their undergraduate studies are a milestone to be marked on the way to a degree in medicine. Getting into medical school is the goal, and grades are seen as critical to their success in meeting that objective. Of course, it’s not a problem just for pre-meds, we see it across the board. Instructors understand that grades are important, but do not necessarily equate to future success. It’s the learning that counts. So how do we get students to focus on the learning not the grades?

Students watching demonstration of frog dissection.An editorial from Inside Higher Ed Too Smart to Fail? (August 16, 2016), by Joseph Holtgreive, Assistant Dean and Director of the Office of Personal Development at Northwestern University’s McCormick School of Engineering, summarizes the challenges that face faculty and students. The “fear of failing to be perfect, ideally an effortless perfection, versus the joy of learning” creates situations where students opt for an easy grade as opposed to challenging themselves to learn. Holtgrieve has found this to be a problem particularly for students who did well academically in high school with little effort. Such students come to college focused on the “wrong outcome”—a high GPA—thinking “they’re keeping their eyes on the ball, they are actually just staring at the scoreboard.” While this affirms their measure of performance as long as their grades exceed their efforts, it can create a problem when their efforts exceed their grades.

Holtgreive points out that “[f]ocusing on the measurement of our performance reinforces what researcher Carol Dweck calls a fixed mind-set. If students believe that how they perform at one moment in time exposes the limits of their potential rather than serving merely as a snapshot of where they are in the process of growing their abilities, feelings of struggle and uncertainty become threatening rather than an opportunity to grow.” Focusing attention on grades may limit learning. On the other hand, when students can be convinced to “…set their intention to be genuinely curious and authentically excited by the challenge of finding connections between their current knowledge and new opportunities to understand, they experience the true joy of learning and all of the spoils that attend it.”

To find ways to help students “…reposition thinking about grades and learning,” Maryellen Weimer, PhD, offers some practical ideas in Five Ways to Get Students Thinking about Learning, Not Grades, from Faculty Focus, April 12, 2017.

  1. Position assignments as learning opportunities by discussing the “knowledge and skills” required rather than as something they are doing to “please the teacher.” Ask students to consider what they will learn in doing the work.
  2. Help students reflect on learning experiences throughout the course. Ask them to think about their professional ambitions and the skills and knowledge they will need. Have them make a list of those and use the list after every assignment or activity to write a short reflection on how the work they completed furthered their development.
  3. Create evolving assignments rather than one time tasks or activities. “One-time assignments don’t illustrate how learning is an evolving process and they don’t teach students how to do more work on something they have already done.” Instead, have students write a paper one step at a time (research a topic and create a bibliography, submit a thesis statement and an outline, write a first draft, revise, etc.), complete a multi-phase project, write a series of reflections and responses on a subject. Provide feedback but not grades for each phase.
  4. Encourage peer collaboration by structuring group learning and making sure that students are asking the right questions of each other.
  5. Change the conversation by talking about learning with students. Help students see how learning, not grades, will relate to their future professional goals.

Shifting the focus from grades to learning requires faculty to go against the tide of today’s prevailing academic culture. But making a few changes in how you think about teaching can go a long way to improving student perceptions of the importance of learning.

Macie Hall, Senior Instructional Designer
Center for Educational Resources

Image Source: Pixabay.com

Lunch and Learn: Using Videos in Your Course

Logo for Lunch and Learn program showing the words Lunch and Learn in orange with a fork above and a pen below the lettering. Faculty Conversations on Teaching at the bottom.On Friday, April 21, the Center for Educational Resources (CER) hosted the fourth and final Lunch and Learn—Faculty Conversations on Teaching—for the 2016-1017 academic year. Jane Greco, Associate Teaching Professor Chemistry and Alison Papadakis, Associate Teaching Professor Psychological and Brain Sciences, presented on “Using Videos in Your Course.”

Papadakis presented first (see slides). She teaches the introduction to abnormal psychology course, where students learn about symptoms, causes, and treatment of common psychological disorders, and an upper level course that expands on this content. Although she has wrestled with using videos in that they might be seen as entertainment, she likes the fact that they have the advantage of grabbing and focusing student attention. Studies have shown that student attentiveness drops off after about 15 minutes of lecture time, so well-timed videos can provide a way to bring them back to task. Papadakis noted that carefully selected video content can help bring dry or complicated content to life, foster discussion, challenge students to apply concepts to practice, build empathy, and set the mood. In her upper level course, she uses videos showing psychotherapists in practice, pausing the videos at strategic points to ask students what they would do next in the particular situation.

Papadakis offered several examples of her use. The first, a clip from The Office, is used to help students understand the concept of classical conditioning. She explains the concept first, shows the video, then tests the students understanding of the concept using clickers. The class then discusses the complexities of applying the concept.

In a second example, Papadakis showed videos of an OCD patient and her treatment.Graphic images showing an illustration of a film strip, projector and reel. As these videos are from a textbook publisher’s DVD, they can’t be shared here. Such videos bring complex phenomena to life, provide insight and build empathy, help the instructor test understanding of concepts, and foster discussion. Papadakis had another example, showing the hallucinations common to schizophrenia, that she uses in a similar way—to help deepen student understanding and learning of a complex disorder.

A final example showed how she used a video of students rapping about the value of learning statistic analysis relevant to analyzing data in her discipline to set the mood, make learning fun, and decrease students anxiety.

Papadakis discussed issues to consider when deciding to use videos in the classroom. Start with your pedagogical goals. Make sure the video connects to these in a meaningful way. Provide context before viewing. If the video is long, interrupt and debrief at strategic points. Use short videos or clips, extracting the minimum that you need to get the point across. Pair video viewing with other teaching techniques to increase student reflection on the content (clickers, think-pair-share exercises, minute papers, discussion). Fair use may also be a consideration and a useful resource is the Columbia University Copyright Advisory Office’s Fair Use Checklist. She also suggested sources for videos such as YouTube, textbook publishers, the library’s video database subscriptions, news websites, PBS documentaries, professional organizations websites and Facebook feeds, and even Google video searches.

If you use presentation slides in your teaching, embedding the video clips is advised. If you share your slides with students, the file size will be very large with the videos embedded, so consider removing them and providing access to the clips by linking or other means. Be aware of accessibility issues and make sure the videos are closed captioned.

While Jane Greco (see slides) also uses videos in her teaching she has a different approach. She uses videos created by others to demonstrate chemical reactions caused by materials considered too dangerous for use in undergraduate labs, and to bring experts in the field, who wouldn’t normally be available to speak to her students, into the classroom via readily available taped interviews or talks. But she also has her students produce videos, both through grant-funded projects to provide course-related content, and as student assignments.

In speaking of producing video to convey content, Greco said that instructors should balance the advantages of making your own—they are specific to your equipment and your method of teaching a topic, versus using available videos, which often have better production quality and offer a less time-intensive way to approach the topic. Questions to ask are 1) How much time to you want to put into production quality? 2) Where/How will you share your video content? (YouTube channel, Course Management System, video streaming service) 3) Who can help you with the videos and is there funding available? Greco made use of the Technology Fellowship Grants offered by the Center for Educational Resources, and CER expertise and equipment.

The first CER-funded project produced animations to help students understand complex chemical concepts, such as this one explaining Column Chromatography.  YESYOUCHEM was another project funded by a Technology Fellow Grant. The videos produced by student fellows can be found on both the YESYOUCHEM website and a Johns Hopkins YouTube channel. They include main concept videos, supplemental problems, and extended interviews with Hopkins faculty in relevant fields. One lesson she learned from having students produce videos for course work was to be sure that they have the requisite experience, and that a platform for sharing and guidelines for production (branding, credits) be specified by the instructor. For YESYOUCHEM she chose students whose work she had seen in a student project.

Film still from a student-produced lab safety video showing the singing protagonist as he discusses proper lab clothing. He is wearing a white lab goad and safety googles.Greco assigns a creative group project to students in her lab. Although the project has a relatively small point value, it allows students to delve into a single topic and show their understanding outside of a testing environment, and it gives students an opportunity to use their other amazing creative talents. Videos are just one of many options the students can choose for the project, in the past there have been craft projects, dance performances, and other imaginative and inspired demonstrations of chemistry topics. She provides a list of suggested topics, but students can go off list with approval. Greco makes it clear that she expects chemistry content not just chemistry words. She also explains the limitations of group work. Different group members will contribute differently to the project, but there is just one grade assigned even if the group work was uneven. It is difficult to create an all-encompassing rubric for grading when the projects range widely in the platform chosen. She lets students know that grading might not be as quite as objective as for a test or exam. However, the assignment has been successful, students enjoy it and produce amazing projects. Here are links to two of the video projects produced by student groups in the course:

Students may choose to have their videos made public or kept private. Greco posts public videos for future classes to view.

In the discussion that followed, it was clear that faculty are eager to try the approaches that Papadakis and Greco presented—use of existing course-related content given context within a lecture or discussion, development of course-specific video content, and assigning students a project to produce videos.

Macie Hall, Senior Instructional Designer
Center for Educational Resources

Image Source: Pixabay.com, video still from I Just Had Lab https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=enFFIK2Mhzw

 

 

 

Learning from Student Evaluations

The end of the semester is looming and with it the specter of student course evaluations.There are three face emoticons--yellow neutral face on the left, green smilely face in the center, and red frown face on the right. A hand with the index finger extended is pointing in the direction of the viewer at the yellow smiley face. On the whole, instructors dread dealing with these. Many question the value of institutionally administered evaluations.  Some ignore them, others read them and weep. It’s hard to consider student evaluations and not feel personally affronted by negative comments. You’ve worked hard, done your best, and the students are ungrateful. But maybe there is a better approach. Rather than going on the defensive, how can faculty use these evaluations to improve their teaching, and ultimately, improve student feedback?

Maryellen Weimer, What Can We Learn from End-of-Course Evaluations? (Faculty Focus, March 8th, 2017) suggests developing an “improvement mindset.” “Rather than offering answers, [student evaluations] can be used to raise questions. ‘What am I doing that’s causing students to view my teaching this way?’ Such questions need to lead us to specific, concrete behaviors—things teachers are or aren’t doing.” Weimer suggests looking at the Teaching Practices Inventory developed by Carl Wieman, Professor of Physics at Stanford,  and Sarah Gilbert, Department of Physics and Graduate School of Education at Stanford, as “…a great place to start acquiring this very detailed, nuts and bolts understanding of one’s instructional practice.” Although the inventory was developed with the STEM disciplines in mind, it is easily adaptable for teaching in other fields. An article by Weiman and Gilbert, The Teaching Practices Inventory: A New Tool for Characterizing College and University Teaching in Mathematics and Science, [CBE Life Science Education. 2014 Fall; 13(3):552-69. doi: 10.1187/cbe.14-02-0023], provides additional background and context.

There are other ways to improve teaching and thus evaluations. An underused resource to improve one’s teaching is classroom observation.  Weimer mentions peer observations in her article, but teaching and learning centers such as ours, the Center for Educational Resources, often provide this service for instructors. She also notes the value of formative assessment—seeking timely feedback from students during the course “…when there’s still time to make changes and students feel they have a stake in the action.”

For some solid, common sense advice that’s easy to put into practice, see David D. Perlmutter’s How to Read a Student Evaluation (The Chronicle of Higher Education, October 30, 2011). Perlmutter recommends “scanning for red flags”—the comments/complaints that a number of students make that, by paying attention and correcting, “…can help you head off longer-term troubles.”

He also recommends thinking ahead. Prepare yourself for the evaluations by taking the questions asked into account when designing your courses, and using them as a checklist for your teaching. Perlmutter also suggests how to tease out the qualitative data in open comments, and advises balancing negative comments against positive quantitative ratings. His take is to “…pay attention to student evaluations, try to understand them, and, equally important, communicate that you do not dismiss them as irrelevant.”

Finally, the Vanderbilt Center for Teaching offers a full set of resources, articles, and advice on their website page: Student Evaluations of Teaching. From talking with students, to making sense of evaluation feedback, to research on student evaluations, it’s all here in one convenient location.

Now there is no excuse. Prepare yourself and vow to use student evaluations as a means to improve your teaching skills. Better evaluations will await you in the future.

Macie Hall, Senior Instructional Designer
Center for Educational Resources

Image Source: Pixabay.com

Scaffolding Part 2: Build Your Students’ Notetaking Skills

A few weeks back The Innovative Instructor posted on teaching your students how to read a journal article, essentially how to provide a scaffold for your students to effectively read scholarly writings. Another place where faculty can provide a framework for students is in the area of notetaking. Students who have grown up using laptops in class may not understand either the value of or the means to taking effective notes. Recognizing that schedules are already jam-packed, I am not suggesting that you spend a lot of class time to cover this. But, taking a few minutes on the first day of class to let students know why using laptops to take notes may not be a good idea, and providing them with some resources for several notetaking methods, may go a long way to improving their learning outcomes.

The image shows a green ball point pen resting on a blank page of graphing paper in a blue covered, open spiral notebook.Why not just let your students use their laptops to take notes? As I wrote in a previous post [May 21, 2014 Summer Reading: Three Articles for Your Consideration] in The Pen is Mightier Than the Keyboard Advantages of Longhand Over Laptop Note Taking  Pam A. Mueller and Daniel M. Oppenheimer [Psychological Science, April 23, 2014, doi: 10.1177/ 0956797614524581], reported on the benefits students gain by taking lecture notes longhand rather than on a laptop. Although using laptops in class is common (and instructors complain about the distractions laptops present), this study “…suggests that even when laptops are used solely to take notes, they may still be impairing learning because their use results in shallower processing.” “In three studies, [the researchers] found that students who took notes on laptops performed worse on conceptual questions than students who took notes longhand.” The authors conclude “…that whereas taking more notes can be beneficial, laptop note takers’ tendency to transcribe lectures verbatim rather than processing information and reframing it in their own words is detrimental to learning.”

As for resources on notetaking, the James Madison University Special Education Program offers the JMU Learning Toolbox, developed with a U.S. Department of Education grant on Steppingstones in Technology Innovation for Students with Disabilities. It features “tools and resources to enable students with learning difficulties to become better learners.” A section on notetaking outlines several different strategies for taking notes, based on common problems students may experience.

Students who have trouble keeping up with the fast pace of a lecture or discussion may benefit from the I SWAM method. If a student needs a better strategy for organizing notetaking, Cornell Notes may be the answer. For taking notes from a recorded talk PP 123 may be helpful. SCROL is beneficial for notetaking while reading course materials. TASSEL is a method offered for those who are easily distracted.

Although TASSEL is designed to help students not to doodle when they get distracted, Sketch Notes encourages drawing as a means to enhance notetaking. The webpage referenced mentions visual learners. In fact, learning styles such as visual, verbal, or kinetic have been debunked (for an overview or the research study see: Learning Styles Debunked: There is No Evidence Supporting Auditory and Visual Learning, Psychologists Say; for the full article see: Learning Styles: Concepts and Evidence by Harold Pashler, Mark McDaniel, Doug Rohrer, and Robert Bjork, Psychological Science in the Public Interest, Volume 9 Number 3 December 2008). Nevertheless, Sketch Notes will likely have the most appeal for those with artistic/creative leanings who like to doodle and draw.

In introducing notetaking strategies to your students, you will want to be sensitive to those who may have learning disabilities that make laptop notetaking a necessity. However, sharing the research on laptop notetaking with students will give them an understanding of why hand notetaking strategies may improve their learning. Providing them with resources to investigate will give them choices based on their needs.

Macie Hall, Senior Instructional Designer
Center for Educational Resources

Image Source: Pixabay.com

Does Active Learning Disadvantage the Learning Disabled?

Black and white line drawing of the upper torso of a young male in a thinking pose. Two question marks are on either side of his head.Active Learning is a good thing, right? As an instructional designer, I’ve read a great deal of research compiling evidence for teaching practices that promote active learning as a way to engage students and secure better learning outcomes. In my role consulting with faculty on curriculum design, I often suggest ways to increase student participation in their learning that match the learning goals and objectives articulated by the instructor. So it was a surprise to read a dissenting view in a Tomorrow’s Professor post by Fernando Gonzalez, an assistant professor of software engineering at Florida Gulf Coast University, titled For Some, Active Learning Can Be a Nightmare. [Full citation for original publication: Gonzalez, Fernando. “For Some, Active Learning Can Be a Nightmare.” ASEE Prism 26, no. 4 (December 2016): 52.]

To be clear at the outset, this is an opinion piece, based on anecdotal evidence and personal experience. There is no research backing Gonzalez’s claims, at least not yet. The article is short, and I encourage you to read it for yourself. In summary, Gonzalez provides a short overview of active learning, then states that “…[active learning] can be a nightmare for students with learning disabilities (LD). While learning disabled students – including those with dyslexia, dyscalculia, dysgraphia, visual and auditory processing deficits, ADHD, nonverbal learning disabilities, and many others – vary in how they learn and on the type of accommodation they require, a common characteristic found in most LD students is needing more time to assimilate information from a lecture.” This he contends, makes it difficult for the learning disabled student “…who may not be able to learn the material in time to participate in the active learning activity immediately following the lecture or may have problems with the activity itself.” He notes that he has severe dyslexia and states he would not have “survived” an undergraduate education heavily based on active learning, and certainly would not have then been able to go on to get a PhD.

There are weaknesses in Gonzalez’s argument, starting with his construct of active learning as mostly being “…strategies [that] consist of a lecture where the student listens passively, followed by an activity that serves to clarify and reinforce what the student has learned.” There are many active learning strategies, and it is misleading to characterize them in total as being difficult for those with learning disabilities, which also are many and varied.

He cites only one concrete example of a strategy, the minute paper, which, although it can be considered an example of active learning, is typically used to obtain formative assessment from students. These exercises are not typically graded and therefore pose little pressure for students.

That said, I do not want to dismiss Gonzalez’s concerns. I was unable to find any published research on the benefits or disadvantages of active learning strategies for learning disabled students. Indeed, it would be valuable for these students and their instructors to have evidence of teaching and learning strategies that are inclusive. If you are aware of research in this area, please share the information in the comments.

Macie Hall, Senior Instructional Designer
Center for Educational Resources

Image Source: Pixabay.com

Scaffolding: Teach your students how to read a journal article

Recently I have had conversations with faculty and librarians about students and journal articles, specifically, that students don’t come to college knowing how to find or how to read a journal article. It may seem tedious to have to take time out of your already packed class schedule, but it will be valuable (for you and them) to provide some scaffolding and introduce them to these practices.

A pair of glasses and a highlighter are shown on top of an open text book.Here at Johns Hopkins, our Academic Liaison librarians will be happy to come to your class and discuss with students how to search for and locate appropriate materials for their research. Those at other institutions may have similar resources available. But you may also find it worthwhile to give some guidance on the reading aspect.

The Consortium for Political and Social Research (ICPSR) at the University of Michigan has a great three page guide, How to Read (and Understand) a Social Science Journal Article (pdf) that breaks down the parts of a journal article (e.g., title, abstract, introduction, literature review, etc.) and describes what each is and what it tells the reader. It’s aimed at social science students, but is broad enough to be useful for any discipline. After introducing the parts, the guide describes how to read an article by first determining your purpose, then devising a reading strategy.

The ICPSR guide references an article in Inside Higher Ed, It’s Not Harry Potter (Rob Weir, March 9, 2011), which starts off by asking the question “We tell them, but do we show them how?” referencing reading journal articles. Weir recommends starting by introducing students to the concept of audience and have them consider “…for whom and for what purpose a journal article is written.” He lists things students should consider when reading an article, but emphasizes, as is picked up in the ICPSR article, that having students identify their purpose for reading the article is a critical first step. Strategies such as determining the writer’s method, examining the footnotes to evaluate evidence, and skimming are described.

I usually avoid linking to commercial sites/resources, with the exception of apps and software references, however a blog post from ProfHacker (Chronicle of Higher Education) on another subject [Switching from Evernote to OneNote, part 1 by Amy Cavender, August 11, 2016] alerted me to an article by Michael Hyatt: How to Make Your Non-Fiction Reading More Productive, that I thought was worth citing.

Although Hyatt’s advice may be geared towards those in corporate environments, he offers a succinct guide to reading non-fiction books that will be useful for your students. He suggests starting with reviewing and recording the basic bibliographic information, then summarizing the author’s main premise and argument. “Think of this section like an elevator pitch. If you had to tell someone what the book is about in less than a minute, what would you say?” Then Hyatt advises readers to note the insight they gained before identifying their disagreements with the argument. What was missing from the book? What were the main takeaways? Are they quotes that are notable? Having this kind of template for analyzing a book (or article) will give students a concrete platform for tackling scholarly reading.

If you have tips for scaffolding reading or other assignments for students, please share them in the comments section.

Macie Hall, Senior Instructional Designer
Center for Educational Resources

Image Source: Pixabay.com