Quick Tips: Getting Your Students Names Right

A sheet of four names tags in red, blue, green, and purple, saying Hello My Name Is.Our last two posts have focused on diversity and inclusion in the classroom. Today I’d like to offer some resources for another important way to create a positive classroom climate: knowing your students’ names and pronouncing them correctly. A previous post Learning Your Students’ Names [September 6, 2013] will give you some tips for the first part. But making sure you pronounce names correctly can be challenging. Rather than stumbling through the attendance list on the first day of class, you can prepare ahead and know that you will be in the ballpark as you call names.

The first resource comes from the K-12 world, but is useful for us in higher education as well. Getting It Right: Reference Guides for Registering Students with Non-English Names (2nd Edition), gives a general overview of the naming conventions in Arabic, Chinese, Hindi, Korean, Russian, Somali, Spanish, Tagalog, Ukrainian, Urdu, and Vietnamese languages.  Each section provides guidance such as the number of given names or family names and the order of these names.

The My Identity/My Name website’s Take Action section has a list of online resources with links to web tools and applications that will help you to correctly pronounce names (as well as geographical places, phrases, and words). Here is a partial version of their list with the resources that seemed most relevant:

Forvo is a great web tool to learn how to pronounce words from a wide array of categories including common words, phrases and people’s names.

Guiding Tech: 4 Useful websites to help you pronounce names correctly features four possible tools a teacher, parent or student may use to help learn the correct pronunciation of a name they wish to use. Within the article are the links to all 4 sites.

 How to Pronounce is a great web application to get the audio and text pronunciation, meaning and other information related to wiki pages, synonyms and antonyms for the searched word.

Pronounce by VOA News is one of the great free web tools for learning more about pronunciation of places and names. Founded in 2000, this Pronounce tool has a plethora of words and names to find from. 

Regardless of your preparation before you take attendance in your first class, you should always confirm with the student that you’ve pronounced their name correctly and determine what name they would like to be called in your class.

Macie Hall, Senior Instructional Designer
Center for Educational Resources

Image Source: Pixabay.com

Texts of Engagement: Reading and Writing for Inclusivity in Any Discipline

[Guest post by Anne-Elizabeth Brodsky, Senior Lecturer, Expository Writing, JHU]

As part of the Lunch and Learn series, Karen Fleming (biophysics professor) and I gave presentations on fostering an inclusive classroom environment, summarized in the previous post.

In this follow up, I’ll offer some resources that seem to me versatile enough to use in different kinds of classrooms, and toward different ends. I’ve divided them into the categories below; the sources in the first three sections, in particular, can nearly all live quite comfortably in most disciplines.

What is college for?
Why bother with stories
How textual analysis works
Ideas for writing assignments

What is college for?

Cartoon rendering of an illuminated light bulb.Plenty of college students, from visibly diverse backgrounds and otherwise, feel mystified by the academy, at best —and overwhelmed by it, at worst. One way I try to help them find their footing is to engage them in examining university culture.

In my courses we use the sources below, and others, for informal “response writing.” I’m not using these sources to teach academic argument, although plenty of them have elegant arguments built into their narratives, and my students do notice that. I use them in hopes of activating their engagement and imagination about what their undergraduate experience will mean for them—to give them glimpses from the skybox.

Here’s a sampling:

Anna Deveare Smith raises the stakes of higher ed in her Chronicle interview “Are Students “Learning Anything About Love Here?’”

In “How to Live Wisely,”  Richard J. Light describes the Harvard course “Reflecting on Your Life.” Students explore: What does it mean to live a good life? What about a productive life? How about a happy life? How might I think about these ideas if the answers conflict with one another? And how do I use my time here at college to build on the answers to these tough questions?”

Mark Edmundson, first in his family to go to college, takes on undergraduate experience at research institutions in “Who Are You and What Are You Doing Here?”

“The Cosmos and You,” just a few paragraphs long, tells the story of an astronomy student who asks her professor the big question: “How do you keep from despairing at the immensity of space and the smallness of us?”

Julio M. Ottino and Gary Saul Morson write about empathy, engineering, and more in “Building a Bridge Between Engineering and the Humanities.”

Neil Koblitz advocates for clear, engaging storytelling in the sciences in “Why STEM Needs the Humanities.”

Lyell Asher’s essay “Low Definition in Higher Education” takes on Anna Karenina, safe spaces, and more: “Rightly understood, the campus beyond the classroom is the laboratory component of college itself. It’s where ideas and experience should meet and refine one another, where things should get more complicated, not less.”

Nicholas Lemann’s “The Case for a New Kind of Core” proposes “a methods-based, rather than a canon-based, curriculum,” with skills categories: information acquisition, cause & effect, interpretation, numeracy, perspective, language of form, thinking in time, and argument.

“The Astrophysicist Who Wants to Help Solve Baltimore’s Urban Blight” tells the story of a Hopkins professor and the Baltimore Housing Commissioner teaming up to tackle our vacant housing problem.

Finally, a dated but still very popular article among my students is Thomas Friedman’s “How to Get a Job at Google.” To a person, every student who has read this has been surprised. At JHU as at many other schools, it’s common for students to see college as a means to an end—professional school, a big job. Living in the future tense, focused almost entirely on the retroactive value of college they plan to enjoy after graduation, they default to a safe, well-worn path of coursework and GPA management. Friedman’s article, like many of those above, nudges them a bit on this.

Why bother with stories

Sea turtle rendered as a multi-colored mosaic.A central tenet of the Expository Writing Program at Hopkins is that our students engage in meaningful writing. Our students write to contribute to an ongoing intellectual conversation about a genuine problem or question. We expect students to think not only about their argument, based on the evidence at hand, but also about the implications of their argument.

Thus if I’m asking students (in my classes, mostly STEM majors) to enter a critical conversation about a short story, I have to be sure we are explicit about how it could possibly matter whether or not they make a compelling argument about a piece of fiction—you know, something that never really happened.

So, in class we ask the question: Why bother with stories? Here are some resources that have helped answer this:

Short fiction warrants a column in the New York Times op-ed pages in David Brooks’ “The Child in the Basement,” which nicely models a summary (of Ursula Le Guin’s “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas”) and then offers three socially relevant readings of the text.

Diaa Hadid’s interview with Mahlia Lone and Laaleen Sukhera, “2 Sisters in Pakistan Find They Have a Lot in Common with Jane Austen” illustrates connections between upper-class contemporary Pakistan and the England of Austen’s novels.

Two TED talks: The well-known “The Danger of a Single Story” by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and Raghava KK’s also wonderful 4½ -minute “Shake Up Your Story.”

Here’s an idea I haven’t tried yet: put Adichie’s talk next to John W. Krakauer and David Poeppel’s “Neuroscience Needs Behavior: Correcting a Reductionist Bias,” which is also about the “danger of a single story.”

Most recently: Lindy West writes in her op-ed “We Got Rid of Some Bad Men. Now Let’s Get Rid of Bad Movies”: “Art didn’t invent oppressive gender roles, racial stereotyping or rape culture, but it reflects, polishes and sells them back to us every moment of our waking lives.”

All of this depends on analysis, of course, and especially textual analysis…

How textual analysis works

Budding tree growing out of the center of an opened book.There are lots of ways to teach students how to do textual analysis (aka close reading). A few favorite resources:

“Twenty Titles: One Poem,” by poet Douglas Kearney, helps students see different interpretations (titles) of the same data (the sculpture).

Here, students analyze the poem “Since You Are Mortal” (Simonides) and then turn over the page to see how the translator, Danielle S. Allen, interprets it.

Danielle S. Allen, Our Declaration: A Reading of the Declaration of Independence in Defense of Equality (excerpts)

John Oliver, “Migrants and Refugees” (1:12-1:54)

NPR Code Switch Podcast: Camila Domonoske, “When ‘Miss’ Meant So Much More: How One Woman Fought Alabama — And Won”

Two more TED talks: John McWhorter’s “Txting is Killing Language. JK!!!” and Jean-Baptiste Michel and Erez Lieberman Aiden’s “What We Learned from 5 Million Books”

Ideas for writing assignments

Colored pencils arranged in a row.Again, just a quick sampling of texts that have worked well with first- and second-year students. My colleagues have loads of their own, as you likely do as well.

Summarizing an academic article:

Lin Bian et al, “Messages About Brilliance Undermine Women’s Interest in Educational and Professional Opportunities”

Samantha P. Fan et al, “The Exposure Advantage: Early Exposure to a Multilingual Environment Promotes Effective Communication”

Martha C. Nussbaum, “Teaching Patriotism: Love and Critical Freedom”

Finding an interpretive question in a text and reasoning through it:

James Baldwin, “Stranger in the Village”
Octavia Butler, “Bloodchild”
Ursula K. Le Guin, “She Unnames Them”
Toni Morrison, “Recitatif”
ZZ Packer, “Brownies”
David Sedaris, “Repeat After Me”
Alice Walker, “The Revenge of Hannah Kemhuff”
Patricia Williams, “The Emperor’s New Clothes”
EB White, “The Ring of Time” (the whole essay, including the section on Florida and segregation)

Entering a critical conversation about a text:

Build an argument about EB White’s “The Ring of Time” by responding to Craig Seligman’s review “Mr. Normal”

Build an argument about Octavia Butler’s “Bloodchild” by responding to the Butler’s comments in the Afterword about love and slavery

Build an argument about Toni Morrison’s “Recitatif” by responding to two of the following: Morrison’s prologue to Playing in the Dark; Elizabeth Abel’s “Black Writing, White Reading: Race and the Politics of Feminist Interpretation”; David Goldstein-Shirley’s “Race and Response: Toni Morison’s ‘Recitatif’”; and Danielle S. Allen’s prologue, chapter 1, and chapter 9 of Talking to Strangers: Anxieties of Citizenship Since Brown v. Board of Education.


Anne-Elizabeth Brodsky, PhD, has been teaching at Johns Hopkins since 2007 and co-chairs, with Professor Fleming, JHU’s Committee on the Status of Women.

Images source: Pixabay.com

Lunch and Learn: Fostering an Inclusive Classroom

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 Thursday, February 15, the Center for Educational Resources (CER) hosted the third Lunch and Learn—Faculty Conversations on Teaching, for the 2017-2018 academic year.

Anne-Elizabeth Brodsky, Senior Lecturer, Expository Writing and Karen Fleming, Professor, Biophysics, presented on Fostering an Inclusive Classroom.

Anne-Elizabeth Brodsky led off by describing the Expository Writing program. [See presentation slides.] Students learn in small class settings (10-15 students) how to write and academic argument using evidence. The academic argument is framed as an ongoing conversation—they say (identifies the problem or viewpoint), I say (recognizes a flaw in the argument and establishes a thesis to correct the flaw), so what? (what’s at stake or what’s next?)—to which the student is contributing. The vast majority of her students are in the STEM fields. This is the background for Brodsky’s introduction of diversity and inclusion in the classroom.

Students bring their complex identities and a sense of whether or not they feel they belong on campus to the classroom. Brodsky seeks to make sure that her curriculum includes reading diverse authors. Students are given a number of choices for each major writing assignment so that they can find something that interests and speaks to them. Additionally, students do informal writing on topics fincluding What is College For? Learning (science of learning, recent research, advice), School (campus life, student realities, ideas for redesign), Stories—why they matter, Words (language change, texting, big data). For each topic area Brodsky identifies a number of articles that students can choose from to read and write a response.  She tries to make topics current and relevant, and to be flexible, for example, after the death of Freddie Gray in April 2015, “I offered my students supplemental reading. I hoped to show how the JHU community engaged in local, ‘real-life’ struggles with rigorous, historically responsible, and creative thinking.” She encourages interdisciplinary conversations so that students don’t shut themselves off from possibilities.

Brodsky works with students who are afraid of writing and finds that different approaches work for different students. She is an advocate of Universal Design for Learning (UDL). In the classroom she practices eight ways of teaching.

  1. Giving students permission to fail successfully. The writing process is all about Slide from Anne-Elizabeth Brodsky's presentation listing 8 ways of learning.drafts and revisions; students learn that their first efforts may not work well, but they can learn from mistakes and rewrite.
  2. Using color highlighting while reading, by Brodsky and the students, to understand how an academic argument works.
  3. Sorting through key words used in an academic argument to understand how language works. For example, when identifying a flaw in an argument, key words are repudiate, contest, reject. Next, Brodsky has students perform textual analysis, by looking at a text and deciding whether it is either a conversation over coffee or actual textual analysis. For example, the text being analyzed is a comment on this quote (taken from a John Oliver segment): “A former British prime minister once described refugees as a “swarm of migrants.” Answer A is: “That made me crazy.” [conversation] Answer B is: “The word ‘swarm’ suggests invasion, threat, as well as equating humans to insects.” [textual analysis]
  4. Using Lego building blocks with statement taped to the sides, students “build their argument.”
  5. Learning to analyze and interpret by practicing describing things in different ways.
  6. Employing different ways of talking and discussing in the classroom. Students prepare elevator talks, engage in think/pair/share activities, anonymously share worries and wishes on index cards, and write questions to establish knowledge.
  7. Crafting a succinct “elevator pitch” to streamline their own academic argument.
  8. “What I mean here is to help and expect students to engage fully in their work on campus—not just their science brains for science, or even just their intellectual skills for their courses. Rather, they come here with richness of experience far beyond the academic classroom.”

In engaging students, Brodsky helps them to see frustration as unrealized potential and uncertainty as curiosity. She drew on a 2013 interview with British psychoanalyst and essayist Adam Phillips: “A student who’d been frustrated for weeks by my suggestion that thesis statements were probably not good things to have about works of literature began to recognize that her frustration was partly a fear of freedom. ‘You’re really just increasing my allowance,’ she said.”

By engaging in inclusive teaching practices, Brodsky has given her students the freedom to learn.

Karen Fleming started off by stating her goals for an inclusive classroom: To create a learning environment where everyone feels safe to express ideas and questions, where discussion brings multiple diverse questions and all opinions are considered, and where student experiences of marginalization are minimized. Two of the many challenges that instructors face are unconscious bias and student stereotype threat. [See presentation slides.]

Fleming noted that 99% of our cognitive processing uses unconscious reasoning. Unconscious bias stems from our experiential expectations; bias being an error in decision making. Expectation bias is grounded in stereotypes such as women are not as good at math or spatial learning; Hispanics and African Americans are lower achieving than Whites; Hispanics, African Americans, poor, and obese people are lazy; male athlete are jocks (muscular but not smart); Asians have higher math abilities; and blondes are less intelligent than brunettes. Stereotypes are cultural and both faculty and students have biases.

Fleming described a research study on science faculty and unconscious bias [Moss-Racusin et al. (2012) “Science faculty’s subtle gender biases favor male studentsPNAS 109: 16474-79.] The study was headed by Jo Handlesman, Professor, Department of Molecular, Cellular & Developmental Biology, Yale University. Fleming walked through the study details, noting that the institutions selected—research intensive universities—were geographically diverse, the demographics on faculty participants agree with national averages, and it was a randomized double-blind study (n = 127). Science faculty in biology, physics, and chemistry were asked to rate the application of a student for a lab manager position in terms of competency and hireability. Faculty participants were randomly assigned an application with a male or female name—the applications were otherwise identical and designed to reflect high but not outstanding qualifications.

Both male and female faculty participants showed gender bias by rating the male applicant as significantly more competent and hireable than the female applicant. They were willing to offer a significantly higher starting salary (and more career mentoring) to the male applicant. And, perhaps surprisingly to women in the audience, both female and male faculty were equally likely to show gender bias favoring male applicants and to offer the female candidates a lower salary. One possible explanation? Male stereotypes meet the expectation for the lab manager position.

Slide from Karen Fleming presentation showing male and female stereotypes.Expectation bias occurs when we hold different groups accountable to different standards. When a man performs well in a traditional male-type task, this performance is expected. When a woman performs well in a traditional male-type task, this conflicts with stereotypic expectations. As a result, her performance is closely scrutinized, and she is required to repeatedly prove her competence.

We can check our biases using tests set up by Project Implicit. “Project Implicit is a non-profit organization and international collaboration between researchers who are interested in implicit social cognition – thoughts and feelings outside of conscious awareness and control. The goal of the organization is to educate the public about hidden biases and to provide a ‘virtual laboratory’ for collecting data on the Internet.” Look for tests on bias concerning gender, race, religion, disability, age, sexuality, weight, skin tone, and more  in the Social Attitudes section.

Fleming then discussed the issue of stereotype threat. For students, performance in academic contexts can be harmed by the awareness that one’s behavior might be viewed through the lens of stereotypes. And, culturally-shared stereotypes suggesting poor performance of certain groups can disrupt performance of an individual who identifies with that group. She referenced a study done by Steele and Aronson in 1995 [CM Steele and J Aronson (1995) Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 69: 797-811.] At Stanford, 114 undergraduate students volunteered for the study. They were given a test composed of Verbal GRE questions. First they took a test that was presented as diagnostic, a measure of intrinsic ability, and then a test presented as non-diagnostic, a laboratory tool for studying problem solving. The results showed that invoking stereotype threat (diagnostic test) affects performance of students who identified as African-Americans in an evaluation setting. Further, having to identify their race before taking the test, “race-priming,” increases the results of stereotype effect on performance in an evaluation setting.

How can instructors be more inclusive? Fleming offers these suggestions.

  • Establish a Growth Mindset
  • Set clear, equal and high but achievable expectations for all students
  • Include material created by people of different backgrounds
  • Pay attention to group dynamics (especially compositions of small groups).

As both Fleming and Brodsky reminded the audience, instructors can change the way they teach to be more inclusive, identify their biases, and work to establish a positive classroom climate.

Macie Hall, Senior Instructional Designer
Center for Educational Resources

Image Sources: Lunch and Learn Logo (© CER), slides from Brodsky and Fleming presentations


Grading in the fast lane with Gradescope

[Guest post by Scott Smith, Professor, Computer Science, Johns Hopkins University]

Three speedometers for quality, grades per hour, and efficiency.Grading can be one of the most time consuming and tedious aspects of teaching a course, but it’s important to give prompt and meaningful feedback to your students. In large courses, aligning grading practices across multiple teaching assistants (TAs) necessitates a level of coordination that includes scheduling grading meetings, reviewing materials for correct answers, and calibrating point evaluations, all of which can take up valuable time during the semester.

In courses that teach programming, we typically assign students projects that require them to write programs to solve problems. When instructors grade this type of assignment, they not only have to observe the program’s results but also the student’s approach. If the results are not correct or the program doesn’t run, we have to spend time reviewing hundreds of lines of code to debug the program to give thoughtful feedback.

In the past, my method for grading assignments with my TAs may have been arduous but it worked. However, last year, no TAs were assigned to my Principles of Programming Languages course. Concerned that I wouldn’t have enough time to do all the work, I looked for another solution.

Consistent grading and providing meaningful feedback for student’s every submission, especially with multiple teaching assistants (TAs) can be challenging. Typically, when grading, I would schedule a time to sit down with all of my TAs, review the assignment or exam, give each TA a set of questions to grade, pass the submissions around until all were graded, and finally calculate the grades. When a TA had a question, we could address it as a group and make the related adjustments throughout the submissions as needed. While this system worked, it was tedious and time consuming. Occasionally, inconsistencies in the grades came up, which could prompt regrade requests from students. I kept thinking that there had to be a better way.

About year and a half ago, a colleague introduced me to an application called Gradescope to manage the grading of assignments and exams. I spent a relatively short amount of time getting familiar with the application and used it in a course in the fall of 2016, for both student-submitted homework assignments and in-class paper exams. In the case of the homework, students would upload a digital version of the assignment to Gradescope. The application would then prompt the student to designate the areas in the document where their answers can be found so that the application could sort and organize the submissions for the ease of grading. For the in-class exams, I would have the students work on a paper-based exam that I set up in Gradescope with the question areas established. I then would scan and upload the exams so that Gradescope could associate the established question areas to the student submissions automatically. The process of digitizing the completed tests and correlating them to the class roster was made easy with a scanner and Gradescope’s automatic roster matching feature. Gradescope became a centralized location where my TAs and I could grade student work.

There are a few ways to consider incorporating Gradescope into your course. Here is a non-exhaustive list of scenarios for both assignments and exams that can be accommodated:

  • Handwritten/drawn homework (students scan them and upload the images/PDFs)
  • Electronic written homework (students upload PDFs)
  • In-class exams (instructor scans them and uploads the PDFs)
  • Coding scripts for programming assignment (students upload their program’s files for auto-grading)
  • Code assignments graded by hand (students upload PDFs of code)

The real power of Gradescope is that it requires setting up a reusable rubric (a list of competencies or qualities used to assess correct answers) to grade each question. When grading, you select from or add to the rubric to add or deduct points. This keeps the grading consistent across multiple submissions. As the rubric is established as a part of the assignment, you can also update the point values at any time if you later determine that a larger point addition/deduction is advisable, and the grade calculations will update automatically.

Screenshot from Gradescope--Review grade for assignment feature.

Screenshot of Gradescope’s Review Grade for an assignment

After being informed that I wouldn’t have any TAs for my Principles of Programming Languages course the following semester, I was motivated to use one of Gradescope’s [features, the programming assignment auto-grader platform. Being able to automatically provide grades and feedback for students’ submitted code has long been a dream of instructors who teach programming. Gradescope offers a language-agnostic environment in which the instructor sets up the components and libraries needed for the students’ programs to run. The instructor establishes a grading script that is the basis for the analysis, providing grades and feedback for issues found in each student’s submitted program.

Overall, the use of Gradescope has reduced time spent grading and improves the quality of feedback that I am able to provide students. For instance, when I release grades to the students, they are able to review each of the descriptive rubrics that were used when grading their submissions, as well as any additional comments. Auto-grader was really the star feature in this case. Students were able to submit their code, determine if it would run, and make corrections before the deadline to increase their chances of a better grade. There are features to reduce the number of allowed submissions, but I choose not to set a limit so that the students could use an iterative approach to getting the right solution.

Gradescope is only effective if your rubrics and grading criteria are well thought out, and the auto-grading scripts require some time to set up.  Creating the grading scripts for the programming assignments may seem time intensive, but by frontloading the work with detailed rubrics and test cases, more time is saved in the grading process. The value of this preparation scales as enrollment increases, and the rubrics and scripts can be reused when you teach the course again. With more time during the semester freed up by streamlining the grading process, my TAs and I were able to increase office hours, which is more beneficial in the long run for the students.

Screenshot showing student's submission with rubric items used in grading.

Student’s submission with rubric items used in grading

The process for regrading is much easier for both students and instructors. Before Gradescope, a regrade request meant determining which TA graded that question, discussing the request with them, and then potentially adjusting the grade. With the regrade feature, students submit a regrade request, which gets routed to that question’s grader (me or the TA) with comments for the grader to consider. The grader can then award the regrade points directly to the student’s assignment. As the instructor, I can see all regrade requests, and can override if necessary, which helps to reduce the bureaucracy and logistics involved with manual regrading. Additionally, regrade requests and Gradescope’s assignment statistics feature may allow you to pinpoint issues with a particular question or how well students have understood a topic.

I have found that when preparing assignments with Gradescope, I am more willing to create multiple mini-assignments. With large courses, the tendency would be to create fewer assignments that are larger in scope to lessen the amount of grading. When there are too few submission points for students who are deadline oriented, I find that they wait till the last few days to start the assignment, which can make the learning process less effective. By adding more assignments, I can scaffold the learning to incrementally build on topics taught in class.

After using Gradescope for a year, I realized that it could be used to detect cheating. Gradescope allows you to see submissions to specific questions in sequence, making it easy to spot submissions that are identical, a red-flag for copied answers. While not a feature, it is an undocumented bonus. It should also be noted that Gradescope adheres to FERPA (Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act) standards for educational tools.

Additional Resources:

  • Gradescope website: https://gradescope.com
  • NOTE TO JHU READERS ONLY: The institutional version of Gradescope is currently available to JHU faculty users through a pilot program. If you are faculty at Johns Hopkins University’s Homewood campus interested in learning more about how Gradescope might work for your courses, contact Reid Sczerba in the Center for Educational Resources at rsczerb1@jhu.edu.


Scott Smith, Professor
Department of Computer Science, Johns Hopkins University

Scott Smith has been a professor of Computer Science at Hopkins for almost 30 years. His research specialty is programming languages. For the past several years, he has taught two main courses, Software Engineering, a 100 student project-based class, and Principles of Programming Languages, a mathematically-oriented course with both written and small programming assignments.

Images Sources: CC Reid Sczerba, Gradescope screenshots courtesy Scott Smith

Quick Tips: How to Manage Your Teaching During a Personal Crisis

There are a number of resources available to help instructors deal with teaching when an institution or our country has experienced a disaster or crisis [see TheSilhouette of a man seated with elbows on his knees suggesting despair. Innovative Instructor post Quick Tips: Teaching in Challenging Times and Facilitating Difficult Discussions, November 15, 2016], and this blog has covered how to handle student crises, real and not [The Dead Grandmother Syndrome and How to Treat It, December 7, 2016], but what happens when the death or serious illness in the family is your family?

A recent article in Faculty Focus, Teaching During a Personal Crisis (Elizabeth Barnett, February 2, 2018) deals with these issues. Barnett outlines 7 strategies, recommended by experienced colleagues and mental health professionals for teaching during a time of personal difficulty. These are: acknowledge the crisis, triage, consider telling your colleagues, consider telling your students, adjust your expectations, try new routines, protect yourself.

Telling your students may seem like the most controversial piece of advice, but Barnett says:

Wait, you say, this is totally inappropriate. And it would be if you told them in the same way as you did your colleagues, as peers. But if your performance and availability are limited due to the crisis, you can reduce guilt and minimize questions by letting them know something is going on. …[Emphasize] to your students that you don’t need help from them, you have that support elsewhere, and you only want to inform them of the situation.

In other words, you don’t need to go into the gory details, just let your students know that you are experiencing some personal issues that may affect your teaching, for example, that you may be absent, or that someone else may be filling in as instructor for some classes or handling grading of some assignments.

Barnett also offers some tips on dealing with a colleague in crisis, particularly how to listen respectfully and things that you can offer to do to help.

The article is short, but useful. If you have suggestions from your own experiences with dealing with personal crisis, please share them in the comments.

Macie Hall, Senior Instructional Designer
Center for Educational Resources

Image Source: Pixabay.com

Fail (in order) to Succeed

Last week I attended the CUE2 Symposium held here on the Homewood Campus of Johns Hopkins University. CUE2 stands for the Second Commission on Undergraduate Education. The first CUE was formed in 2002 “…to identify the core values that should characterize the undergraduate experience of our students.” The charge of the second commission “… is to interpret the mission of an undergraduate education in the 21st century and develop a new model that will serve us for the next decade or more.” In fulfilling that charge, CUE2 leaders have invited noted thinkers and innovators in undergraduate education to campus to address these issues. Three speakers addressed us last week, Edward B. Burger, President, Southwestern University, Randy Bass, Vice Provost for Education and Professor of English at Georgetown University, and Steven Mintz, Professor of History at University of Texas, Austin and founding director of The University of Texas System’s Institute for Transformational Learning.

All three had interesting things to say about transforming undergraduate education, but I found Edward Burger’s remarks to be particularly intriguing.

Burger is the co-author of a book, The Five Elements of Effective Thinking, with Michael Starbird [Princeton University Press, 2012]. Burger and Starbird describe five elements that characterize effective thinking: understanding deeply, failing in order to succeed, raising questions, seeing the flow of ideas, and engaging change. A review of the book on Farnam Street Blog summarizes the elements. The book is a quick read and one that I think instructors will find valuable in thinking at a high level about learning and teaching. The chapter on how mistakes can ignite insight, along with Burger’s remarks at the symposium on effective failure, struck a chord.

Last summer The Innovative Instructor featured two posts on successful failure, When Failure is a Good Thing (July 14, 2017) and How Pretesting Can Help Your Students Fail Well (July 18, 2017. The first post discussed a program at Smith College that encourages students to understand the value of failure as a learning tool, the second offered a practical means, pre-testing, for instructors to use failure as an instructional strategy.

Burger maintains that effective failure is key to successful learning. It’s what you do after you make a mistake that informs your understanding. If a student receives an 80% on a test, does s/he think that is an adequate grade and move on or does the student take a careful look at what questions were answered incorrectly and seek to understand the topic? Burger characterizes acceptance of the 80% grade without further refelction as “ineffective failure.”

In Burger’s math courses, 5% of a student’s grade is based on effective failure; in order to get an A, students must first fail. Taking this approach opens students to taking risks and learning from their mistakes. When a student answers a question in class incorrectly, the instructor should ask, “Why is this wrong?” Let the students be the teachers and transform the failure into moving thinking and understanding forward. Burger maintains that “every mistake is a teacher and holds a lesson.” [The Five Elements of Effective Thinking, p. 50].

Burger summarizes the concept of making mistakes: “Fail to succeed. Intentionally get it wrong to inevitably get it even more right. Mistakes are great teachers — they highlight unforeseen opportunities and holes in your understanding. They also show you which way to turn next, and they ignite your imagination.” [p. 6].

These are valuable strategies for students and instructors alike.

Macie Hall, Senior Instructional Designer
Center for Educational Resources

Image Source: Pixabay.com

Quick Tips: Subscribe to the STEM|PROF Newsletter

STEM|PROF Newsletter Logo.In order to keep the readers of The Innovative Instructor informed, I follow a number of blogs and read a lot of books and articles on pedagogy and instruction in higher education. Recently I became aware of a new-to-me resource that I’d like to share, the STEM|PROF weekly newsletter.

The newsletter is part of the outreach for a National Science Foundation-funded and Center for the Integration of Research, Teaching, and Learning-supported longitudinal study looking at the effectiveness of professional development programs for STEM doctoral students on their early-career teaching. The website for the Longitudinal Study of Future STEM Scholars has a wealth of information on the research and related resources, including the STEM|PROF newsletter.

From the Longitudinal Study of Future STEM Scholars STEM|PROF webpage:

The Longitudinal Study of Future STEM Scholars publishes a weekly newsletter, STEM|PROF, that helps advance the preparation of future STEM faculty as effective undergraduate instructors and mentors. STEM|PROF curates news, research, and events from four areas:

  • Teaching development for current and future STEM faculty;
  • Undergraduate STEM education;
  • Doctoral education in STEM fields; and
  • Academic career formation.

Articles cited range widely in topic and are relevant to those outside of the STEM disciplines. For example, a recent newsletter linked to an article in the Washington Post, Why we still need to study humanities in a STEM world (Valerie Strauss, October 18, 2017). Often newsletters include links to upcoming webinars and professional development opportunities. This week’s topics included a link to an article on strategies for generating discussion and engagement in large classes: Class Size Matters by Deborah J. Cohan, Inside Higher Ed, September 19, 2017. And there are links to useful teaching tools such as Icebreakers that Rock from the blog Cult of Pedagogy by Jennifer Gonzalez.

To subscribe to STEM|PROF, send a blank email to join-stem-prof@lists.wisc.edu. The newsletter will be delivered to your email inbox on a weekly basis.

Macie Hall, Senior Instructional Designer
Center for Educational Resources

Image Source: STEM|PROF Newsletter Logo

New Mobile Application to Improve Your Teaching

Tcrunch logo. Tcrunch in white letters on blue background.Finding time to implement effective teaching strategies can be challenging, especially for professors where teaching is only one of their many responsibilities. PhD student John Hickey is trying to solve this problem with Tcrunch, a new application (available on the Apple and Google App stores for free) he has created.

Tcrunch enables more efficient and frequent teacher-student communication. You can think about it as an electronic version of the teaching strategy called an “exit ticket.” An “exit ticket” is traditionally a 3×5 card given to students at the end of class; the teacher asks a question to gain feedback from the students and the students write a brief response. Here you can do the same thing, but Tcrunch eliminates any paper and performs all collecting and analyzing activities in real-time.

Tcrunch Teacher Portal screen shot.There is both a teacher and student portal into the app. Teachers can create and manage different classes. Within a class, teachers can create a question or prompt and release it to their students, who will also have Tcrunch. Students can then see this question, click on it, and answer it. Student answers come into the teacher’s app in real-time. Teachers can evaluate the results in the app or email themselves the results in the form of an Excel document. Other functionalities include multiple choice, a bank of pre-existing questions to help improve teaching, and an anonymous setting for student users.

John developed Tcrunch because of his own struggles with time and improving learning in the classroom:

“I taught my first university-level class at Johns Hopkins, and I wanted more regular feedback to my teaching style, classroom activities, and student comprehension than just the course evaluation at the end of the year. As an engineer, frequent feedback is critical to iterative improvements. I also knew that I was not going to handout, collect, read, and analyze dozens of papers at the end of each class. So, I created Tcrunch.”

The app development process took nearly a year, with iterative coding and testing with Tcrunch student view of app. Screen shot.teachers and students. Both student and teacher users have enjoyed using Tcrunch. They have referenced enjoying the ease of use, being able to create and answer questions on the go, and having a platform for all their classes in one place. John has personally found Tcrunch has helped him to restructure classroom time and assignment load, and even to find out why students are missing class.

John cites this development process as the main difference between his app and already existing polling technologies.

“Finding out what the professors and students wanted allowed me to see the needs that were not filled by existing technologies. This resulted in an app specifically designed to help teachers, instead of the other way around, for example, a generalized polling tool that is also applied to teaching. The specificity in design gives it its unique functionality and user experience.”

In the future John wants to extend the reach of Tcrunch to more teachers through advertising and partnering with Edtech organizations.

While the app may not be as flashy as Pokemon Go, Tcrunch has great utility and potential in the classroom.

To find and use the app, search Tcrunch in the Apple or Google App stores and download. John Hickey can be contacted at jhickey8@jhmi.edu

John Hickey
National Science Foundation Fellow
Biomedical Engineering Ph.D. Candidate
Johns Hopkins University

Images source: John Hickey 2018

Lunch and Learn: Creating Rubrics and Calibrating Multiple Graders

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, December 15, the Center for Educational Resources (CER) hosted the second Lunch and Learn—Faculty Conversations on Teaching—for the 2017-2018 academic year.  Laura Foster, Academic Advisor, Public Health Studies, and Reid Mumford, Instructional Resource Advisor, Physics & Astronomy, presented on Creating Rubrics and Calibrating Multiple Graders.

Laura Foster led by giving us a demonstration of her use of Blackboard for creating rubrics. She noted that she might be “preaching to the choir” but hoped that those present might take back these best practices to their colleagues. Noting that many faculty have negative opinions of Blackboard, she put in a plug for its organizational benefits and facilitation of communication with students.

Foster started using Blackboard tools for a Public Health Studies class where she was grading student reflections. The subject matter—public health studies in the media—was outside of her field of physical chemistry. Blackboard facilitates creating a rubric that students can see when doing an assignment and the instructor then uses to grade that work. She showed the rubric detail that students see in Blackboard, and how the rubric can be used in grading. [See the CER Tutorial on Blackboard Rubrics and Rubrics-Helpful Hints] The rubric gives the students direction and assures that the instructor (or other graders) will apply the same standards across all student work.

It empowers students when they know exactly what criteria will be used in evaluating their work and how many points will be assigned to each component. Foster has found that using rubrics is an effective way to communicate assignment requirements to students, and that it helps her to clarify for herself what at the most important points. She noted that a rubric is very useful when there are multiple graders, such as Teaching Assistants (TAs), as it helps to calibrate the grading.

In response to questions from the audience, Foster stated that rubrics can be developed to cover both qualitative and quantitative elements. Developing good rubrics is an iterative process; it took her some time to sharpen her skills. There is flexibility in differentiating points allotted, but the instructor must be thoughtful, plan for a desired outcome, and communicate clearly. The rubric tool can be used to grade PDF files as well as Word documents. Foster noted that it is important to take opportunities to teach students to learn to write, learn to use technology, learn to read instructions, and learn to look at feedback given on assignments. Being transparent and explaining why you are using a particular technology will go a long way.

Reid Mumford gave his presentation on how he calibrates multiple graders (see slides). Mumford oversees the General Physics lab courses. This is a two semester, required sequence, so not all students are excited to be there. The sequences are on Mechanics and Electricity and Magnetism; both labs are taught every semester with multiple sections for each course. Approximately 600 to 700 students are taking these lab sequences each semester; students are divided into sections of about 24 students. The labs are open-ended and flexible, so students aren’t filling in blanks and checking boxes, which would be easier to grade. Lab sections are taught and graded by graduate student TAs, with about 30 TAs teaching each semester. Teaching and grading styles vary among these TAs as would be expected. Clearly, calibrating their grading is a challenge.

Grades are based on the best 9 of 10 lab activities, which consist of a pre-lab quiz and a lab note. All activities are graded using the same rubric. The grading scale used can be seen in the slides. One of the criteria for grading is “style,” which allows some flexibility and qualitative assessment. Students have access to the rubric, which is also shown in the slides.

About three years ago, Mumford adopted Turnitin (TII), the plagiarism detection tool, for Screen shot of Quick Mark grading tool.its efficient grading tools. It works well for his use because it is integrated with Blackboard. TII does its job in detecting cheating (and Mumford noted that lots of students are cheating), but it is the grading tools that are really important for the TAs. TAs are encouraged to be demanding in their grading and leave a lot of feedback, so grading takes them two to four hours each week. TII’s Feedback Studio (formerly known as GradeMark) allows TAs to accomplish their mission. [See CER tutorial on Feedback Studio and The Innovative Instructor post on GradeMark.] It was the QuickMark feature that sold Mumford on Feedback Studio and TII grading. Using the rubric for each activity, QuickMark can be pre-populated with commonly-used comments, which can then be dragged and dropped onto the student’s submitted work.

Graph showing General Physics Laboratory Section Grading Trends.These tools helped make the grading load more efficient, but calibrating the multiple graders was another challenge. Mumford found that the TAs need lots of feedback on their grading. Each week he downloads all the grades from Blackboard grade centers. He creates a plot that shows the average score for the weekly lab assignment. Outliers to the average scores are identified and these TAs are counseled so that their grading can be brought into line. Mumford also looks at section grading trends and can see which sections are being graded more leniently or harshly than average. He works with those TAs to standardize their grading.

In calculating final grades for the course, Mumford keeps three points in mind: final letter grades must be calculated, there should be no “easy” or “hard” sections of lab, and distribution should not vary (significantly) between sections. He makes use of per-section mapping and uses average and standard deviation to map results to a final letter grade model. Mumford noted that students are made aware, repeatedly, of the model being used. He is very transparent—everything is explained in the syllabus and reiterated weekly in lab sessions.

In conclusion, Mumford offered these take-aways:

  • Calibrating Multiple Graders is not easy
  • Tools are needed to handle multiple sections efficiently
  • Rubrics help but do not solve the calibration problem
  • Regular feedback to graders is essential
  • Limit of the system: student standing is ambiguous

In the future Mumford plans to give students a better understanding of course standing, to calculate a per-section curve each week, and to overcome some technical issues and the greater time investment that will be required with weekly calibrating and rescaling.

Macie Hall, Senior Instructional Designer
Center for Educational Resources

Image Sources: Lunch and Learn Logo, slides from Mumford presentation

Thinking about Accessibility Part 2

Four universal signs for disabilities: wheelchair access, hearing access, captioning, visual accession. Signs are white on blue background.Last week ‘s post summarized the first part of an important article by Anne-Marie Womack, Teaching Is Accommodation: Universally Designing Composition Classrooms and Syllabi, College Composition and Communication, February 2017. Womack, assistant director of writing at Tulane University, encourages instructors to rethink accommodation as normative rather than an exception to a rule.

The second part of the essay focuses on creating an accessible syllabus both in theory and in practice by “moving from syllabus as contract to syllabus as accommodation.” This can be accomplished in a number of ways, starting by not limiting the notion of accommodation to a paragraph stating the institutional disability policy. Syllabi are often heavy on text and present inflexible policies written in a punitive and/or defensive tone. Womack suggests instead that instructors strive to create accessible documents that engage students with “cooperative language” and flexibility in assignments. She does acknowledge that it is important to consider the particular student audience in designing a syllabus—one solution doesn’t fit all. Instead, she suggests three strategies.

The first strategy is Creating Accessible Document Design. Reducing the amount of text in your syllabus is the primary consideration. Womack starts with the boilerplate policies that may be required by the institution, school, or department. Such information may be reduced to basics, linked to, or included at the end in an appendix. Other information can be provided during the semester as it is needed, e.g., assignment specifics, writing prompts.

How the text is formatted can make a big difference—Womack suggests trading some text for accessible images. This will necessitate the creation of alternative text (alt text) to describe the image for those who use screen readers. She suggests that alt text be “focused on data, not extraneous visual details.” Since images can introduce color that may not be visible to all readers, there are guidelines for best practices. (I’ve included some resources for creating accessible images and documents at the end of this post.) Womack shows examples of how she converted her syllabus from text heavy to accessible by using images, blocks of text, bulleted lists, and icons, and increasing the amount of white space. Using a larger font size and a san serif font will also improve readability. Your goal is to “make the syllabus user-friendly” because you want your students to use it. Other tips include creating a table of contents for improved navigation, making internal hyperlinks to connect items within the syllabus, using headings to establish hierarchy, bolding text to emphasize key ideas.

The second strategy Womack advocates is Engaging Students with Cooperative Language. You want to convey “approachability and empathy” rather than making students feel uncomfortable requesting accommodations. Don’t focus on negative consequences and punitive rules. Instead look at inclusive practices in your syllabus as a means to engage student cooperation.

Womack suggests beginning with an “inclusive learning statement” and offers an example:

Your success in this class is important to me. We will all need accommodations because we all learn differently. If there are aspects of this course that prevent you from learning or that form barriers to your inclusion, please let me know as soon as possible. Together we’ll develop strategies that can enable you to succeed in the course.

I encourage you to visit the Office of Disability Services to determine how you could improve your learning as well. If you need official accommodations, you have a right to have these met. There is also a range of resources on campus, including the Writing Center, Tutoring Center, and Academic Advising Center. (Figure 5, p.513).

Further, she gives examples of positive versus punitive language, commands versus invitations, and cooperative versus paternalistic language.

The third strategy is labeled Empowering Students through Flexible Course Plans. Womack saw that “traditional accommodations, such as longer time and adaptable assessment, provide a starting point to improve course practices.” Citing a number of research studies, she states that students are more motivated to learn when they feel they have autonomy. Womack suggests ways in which instructors can give students control. She discusses allowing students flexibility in deadlines. Her approach combines student-set and instructor-set deadlines, which allows an extended time-frame but prevents students from falling behind. Low-stakes writing assignments and incremental assignments may also provide flexibility. Minimal grading for some of this work is recommended. Womack also examines building flexibility into grading distributions. She focuses on those which work well for her writing courses, including contract grading where a system of assessment is negotiated. While this aspect of flexibility may be more difficult to incorporate into large lecture courses, the point is that assessments and grading should be carefully considered. Allowing students to drop the lowest grade in a series of quizzes or homeworks is an easy means of allowing students flexibility and control in a larger class.

In concluding Womack reminds us that accommodation does not give disabled students an unfair advantage; “it is more likely all students have been given an unfair disadvantage through inaccessible pedagogy.” We should look at the “best versions of accommodation” as a way of teaching inclusively to a diverse audience and adapting in response to individual needs.

While Womack offers some good examples in her essay, there are some great resources with “how-to” guides available. Womack created a website at Tulane University on making an accessible syllabus that frequently cited, but alas, no longer “accessible.” However, you can view an archived image of the site here.

If you are someone who likes video tutorials, the University of Minnesota Accessible U has a series of video tutorials on creating an accessible syllabus and making accessible documents and accessible PDFs.

You will also want to check out the University of Colorado Boulder Universally Designed Syllabus Materials website “to employ best practices when creating a course syllabus.” Some of the material is UC system-specific, but much of the information is widely applicable.

Macie Hall, Senior Instructional Designer
Center for Educational Resources

Image Source: Pixabay.com