Notice and Wonder

Sometimes you discover a great blog, only to learn that the authors have just posted their final article. At least, in this case, the posts are archived by a professional association, and in searching through said archive, you find a gem. Such is the story of The Teaching Tidbits Blog, hosted by the Mathematical Association of America.

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.The gem of a post is The Exercise with No Wrong Answer: Notice and Wonder (April 18, 2018) written by May Mei, Assistant Professor of Computer Science and Mathematics at Denison University. Mei asks: “How often have your students said nothing rather than risk saying something wrong? And how often in our own writing are we so paralyzed by the fear of imperfection that we end up writing nothing at all?” The solution is an exercise called Notice and Wonder, which “has no wrong answers.” The concept is to present students with an idea, which could be in the form of a drawing, diagram, graphical presentation, image, video clip, a sentence written on the blackboard, etc., and ask students what they notice about it. After students have explored the possibilities, they are asked what they wonder about it. Mei states: “This provides opportunities to discuss what is still unknown and puts all students on equal ground-everyone can wonder about something. Because there are no wrong answers for either of these questions, all students can participate in the activity.

Notice and Wonder exercises allow students to brainstorm ideas and explore a problem before attempting to find a solution or uncover meaning. These activities can be used in-class, but the concept is flexible enough to be adapted to online discussion board threads or outside-of-class group work. Mei uses it as a way to help her students review for exams. “If my students have an upcoming exam, I will use the class period before as review, and sometime before that review period I ask each of my students to email me one thing they noticed and one thing they’re still wondering about. Just before class on the review day, I put all the students’ Notices and Wonders into one document and distribute it to the class. As I’m making this document I’m able to recognize themes and repeated observations or questions and can focus on those during the in-class review.”

Many of the examples of these activities revolve around mathematics, and/or are directed at the K-12 population. But as creative thinkers, it is easy to see that this is an idea that can be expanded to any discipline or age group. A video by Annie Fetter, on staff at Math Forum (which is now part of National Council of Teachers of Mathematics), is often cited in articles on Notice and Wonder. It is directed at K-12 teachers, but demonstrates the concept in a way that will be useful to anyone considering using Notice and Wonder exercises. See Ever Wonder What They’d Notice (5 minutes).

Notice and Wonder activities involving data visualizations and images can help students develop interpretive, critical thinking, analytical, and visual literacy skills. The New York Times offers two resources: What is Going on in This Picture and the more recently launched What is Going on in This Graph. Of the latter, the Times says: “The content and statistical concepts will be suitable for most middle and high school students. Often, we’ll strip it of some key information, then ask students three question — inspired by Visual Thinking Strategies, but anchored in math and statistics thinking: • What do you notice? • What do you wonder? • What’s going on in this graph?” Again, these platforms are directed towards a K-12 audience, but looking at the examples may inspire you to conceive examples that will be relevant for your college-age students.

Have you used Notice and Wonder exercises in your class? If so, please share your experience in the comments.

Macie Hall, Senior Instructional Designer
Center for Educational Resources

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Dealing with Microaggressions in Your Classroom

Green chalkboard with Today's Lesson: Microaggressions written on it.Our last post, Lunch and Learn: Teaching Discussion-based Classes, summarized two faculty presentations at a recent event. One issue that came up during the discussion was how to handle a situation where one student has polarizing views and makes comments that become disruptive to class discussion. If such situations are not handled appropriately, the classroom climate can be negatively affected. A related circumstance that can have an impact on how students feel about a class is how the instructor handles microaggressions.

“Microaggressions are the everyday verbal, nonverbal, and environmental slights, snubs, or insults, whether intentional or unintentional, which communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative messages to target persons based solely upon their marginalized group membership. In many cases, these hidden messages may invalidate the group identity or experiential reality of target persons, demean them on a personal or group level, communicate they are lesser human beings, suggest they do not belong with the majority group, threaten and intimidate, or relegate them to inferior status and treatment.” [Sue, D.W., Microaggressions: More than Just Race, Psychology Today, November 17, 2010]

“Microaggressions come in many forms in the classroom: instructor to student, student to instructor, or student to student. All have a negative effect on classroom climate.” [IUPUI Microaggressions in the Classroom]

Because microaggressions are subtle, and sometimes unintended, it can be easy to overlook the harm that is caused. Instructors must be on guard against perpetuating microaggressions, as well as microinequities towards students (such as calling on male students more frequently than female), and be prepared to address students who exhibit these behaviors.

Here are a few resources to assist you:

The article by Derald Wing Sue cited above, Microaggressions: More than Just Race, is an excellent place to start. Originally the term was coined to describe biases against racial minorities; Sue presents the case that microaggressions are also directed at women, LBGTQ persons, those with disabilities, in fact, towards any marginalized group.

In Responding to Microaggressions in the Classroom: Taking ACTION (Faculty Focus, April 20, 2018), Tasha Souza, Ph.D. describes a strategy she calls ACTION for dealing with microaggressions. The acronym describes a “communication framework” and steps to take when a situation arises: Ask clarifying questions. Come from curiosity not judgment. Tell what you observed as problematic in a factual manner. Impact exploration by asking for, and/or stating, the potential impact of such a statement or action on others. Own your own thoughts and feelings around the impact. Take the Next steps by requesting appropriate action be taken. The ACTION framework gives instructors a tool to address microaggressions without escalating the situation.

The above referenced document from IUPUI (Indiana University-Perdue University Indianapolis), Microaggressions in the Classroom, provides a succinct summary of ways to create “a space where students can address difference and diversity in productive ways.” Instructors should inquire about the reasoning behind a student’s statement, use paraphrasing to reflect on the feelings and content of the speaker, use “I statements” to clarify your own feelings and remind students to be respectful of others, and redirect and reframe inappropriate comments. There are examples that will be helpful for you in your instructional practice.

A number of examples are presented in a detailed document from the Center for Multicultural Excellence at the University of Denver, also titled Microaggressions in the Classroom. The primary focus of this report is on faculty microaggressions and the goal is to help faculty create more inclusive classrooms. Seeing the examples may help you identify biases and correct them. There are concrete suggestions for addressing microaggressions.

Finally, Addressing Microaggressions in the Classroom from the Intercultural Center at Saint Mary’s College of California, presents some of the same content as the previous document in a shorter version. Definitions of microaggressions, examples, and suggestions for addressing the behavior in the classroom are covered in just over two pages.

Whether you are dealing with a student who is making polarizing statements, or with the subtler challenge of microaggressions, these resources will help you maintain civil discussions in a positive classroom environment.

Macie Hall, Senior Instructional Designer
Center for Educational Resources

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Lunch and Learn: Teaching Discussion-based Classes

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

Sahan Karatasli, Assistant Research Scientist and Lecturer, Arrighi Center for Global Studies, Sociology, and Bill Egginton, Professor, German and Romance Languages and Literatures, presented on Teaching Discussion-based Classes.

Karatasli led off with a presentation that looked at various strategies for leading discussion (see slides). He noted that lectures are a straightforward means of disseminating information to students, and we have a pretty good understanding of what constitutes success and failure in this format. Seminars are more complicated. Nobody is sure what good ones look like. We don’t have a sense of how to determine success or failure—in general, leading a seminar is a more complex form of the teaching/learning practice.

What is good discussion? Karatasli noted that it is possible to have discussion within the lecture format, in the form of the “The Usual”: Q and A. The lecturer throws out a question and students volunteer answers or risk being called upon. Moving into the seminar style class or discussion section, Karatasli identified four strategies.

“Free-for-all” describes staging a debate where students actively participate with little interference from the instructor. The strategy favors students who are well-prepared, understand the course content, and aren’t afraid to voice their opinions. Students who feel less confident may hide under the table (see slides to appreciate the analogy) and won’t learn.

With the “Kids’ Participation Trophy” strategy, the instructor encourages all students to participate without risk of criticism for their opinions. This can be useful in some classes, especially at the beginning of the term, to start discussion, as students will feel safe about contributing. To be sure that the class isn’t operating under misconceptions, it is important that the instructor finds a way to gently correct misinformation without shutting down the student.

“Socratic House Tour” involves asking one student (or several students) to come to class prepared to present or explain an idea or concept. The other students then visit the idea with questions, counter-ideas, further explanations. At the end, the instructor summarizes and synthesizes the discussion. These sessions should be designed so that all students take a turn as presenters during the semester. While some students may feel anxious in the role of presenter, the strategy tends to ensure that students will participate in the discussion, knowing that in the future they will be the ones leading the class.

“Barn Raising” builds on the “Socratic House Tour” in that one student introduces an idea or project and other students work to make it more substantive. This is the most creative and collective strategy and one where the instructor helps with the process.

Which strategy is the most helpful? That depends on your objective, the subject matter 13 students and a professor in discussion around a seminar are teaching, and the audience. Karatasli suggested that most instructors will use a combination of methods in their teaching.  Lecturing with Q&A is an efficient way to disseminate a lot of information, the “free-for-all” is good when there is not necessarily a right or wrong answer and you want to explore ways of thinking about a topic, “kids’ participation trophy” helps in situations where you want to raise students’ self-esteem. Subject matter also comes into play—if you are teaching statistics, there is a right and wrong answer, so the “barn raising” approach might be most effective at getting the students where you want them to be.

Karatasli ended by talking about mental preparation and offering some tips. Preparation is key, perhaps even more so for discussion classes than lectures. Make sure you know what you want to achieve from the discussion. Prepare alternative sets of plans, questions, and activities for discussion. Know the level and expectations of students. And it is important to learn the names of all of your students and to use them.

The physical environment matters. Arrange the room to facilitate discussion—ideally in a circle or around a table. Give students time to respond. Don’t answer your own questions. Instead, turn to other students and ask what they think.

Bill Egginton offered a different approach by giving us a case study of a course he is currently teaching in the Department of German and Romance Languages and Literatures:  Cervantes: Don Quixote and The Exemplary Novels. This is a new course, and in designing it Egginton faced several challenges.

In the upper-level literature seminar, the students would be reading a total of 12 novels and novellas. He wanted students who wished to get credit towards the Spanish major to be able to read the works in the original language and attend a class conducted in Spanish. At the same time, he wanted to make the course available to other students, who could read the works in English translation and discuss them in English. As there were over 1600 pages of primary literature assigned, Egginton did not feel he could assign any secondary material, and would have to cover background material and context in class. He did, however, want the class to be primarily discussion-based, so needed to limit lecturing. He also wanted to be sure the students were keeping up with the reading and to have assessment be writing-based, not quizzes, test, or exams.

How did Egginton meet these challenges? He taught the course on Tuesdays and Thursdays in 90 minute sessions. Tuesdays were lecture days, but Egginton incorporated discussion as well by asking students to give examples from the week’s reading in response to the background he presented. He made sure to include lots of visual materials in his lectures. On Thursdays, the class was split into two sections, one English language and one Spanish language, meeting at the same time. He divided the class time in half. In one section, he would start the students with a challenge—for instance, a collaborative writing assignment. He would then move to the other classroom and spend some time in discussion on the readings before giving that section the day’s challenge. He would then return to the first section and have discussion with those students. Egginton says that he got lots of exercise on Thursdays going between the two sections’ classrooms.

Another important component of the course was a class discussion board in Blackboard. Egginton was relatively new at using Blackboard’s features, but felt that the discussion board added an important component to the course. Each week he posted prompts and all students were expected to respond. He did not grade the responses, just checked that students had completed the assignment. This work ensured that students kept current with the reading. Egginton would read the responses before class each week and use the responses to facilitate class discussion. In addition to the weekly board writing, students write and revise a one-page paper mid-semester, and a three-page paper at the end of the semester.

Egginton has been pleased with how the course is going and feels that the design has allowed him to meet all of the challenges.

The discussion following Karatasli and Egginton’s presentations was appropriately stimulating and thought-provoking. Following are some of the questions asked and the responses given by Egginton and Karatasli as well as participants.

Q: How do you deal with the wall of silence?

Egginton suggests asking a question or making a statement and then calling on students in a conversational way: “Emma, what do you think about that?” After one student answers, he follows with a comment and then, “Carlos, what are your thoughts?” In the course he is teaching now, he refers to the specific discussion board posts that students have made and asks them to elaborate or clarify, or asks other students what their ideas are.

Karatasli noted that there is a study that shows that students don’t mind being called on, but do object to the instructor allowing one or two students to dominate the conversation. This problem can be dealt with by having the dominating student take notes on the board, or by pointedly asking that student to allow others to answer.

Others noted that it can be helpful to start with questions or topics that are accessible to students—personal, concrete, and specific—and then, once students are contributing, move to more challenging concepts. Visuals can be useful in stimulating discussion, as well as having students do prep work in advance of class, such as posting on a discussion board, or writing out questions in response to a reading assignment to bring to class.

Students who feel they are part of a community will be more likely to participate in discussion. Egginton suggested that collaborative work is a good way to build that feeling. Karatasli offered some specific solutions: Students can collaborate on a research project where some work is done in class. Or, in advance of class, assign a group of students to be responsible for asking questions for the discussion or preparing a short in-class presentation.

Q. How do you grade participation in discussion?

Egginton does not find this to be a problem because he makes sure to call on all students. If they are attending class, they are participating. Someone else noted that there is a concept in discourse analysis called uptake. Uptake is adding to the discussion and building on it, elevating it. That is what to look for when thinking about grading participation—that students are doing more than just answering responsively.

Q. How do you handle sensitive topics?

Egginton commented that sometimes attempts at empathy can go astray. It’s not necessarily appropriate to say that you can relate. Someone offered that the instructor should lead the discussion by stating what the expectations are and asking students to keep comments on topic and relevant.

Q. How do you handle a situation where one student has polarizing political or religious views and makes comments that become disruptive to class discussion?

Eggington suggested that the instructor attempt to seek a balance. Can you encourage other students to express opinions? Ask the student to give evidence or present arguments rather than simply make comments. Perhaps the class could have a short debate and then return to the topic at hand.

Karatasli proposed saying: “I hear you.” Then put the comment or question on the board or state or rephrase it. Then ask what others think. Another thought was to ask students to switch sides and argue the opposite viewpoint. In this way you can unlink the person from the idea.

Egginton added that knowing the student’s perspective, the instructor can be prepared with facts and counter-questions to ask exactly what the student is asserting.

Q. How do you bring a discussion back when it veers off topic?

Karatasli referred to the different discussion strategies he had presented, which may mean that in each case the instructor has a different role. But, generally the instructor acts as a referee and when the ball goes off the field, the referee must bring it back into play.  Egginton sees this as an occupational hazard. He will say something like: “That’s an interesting insight—how can we relate that to the reading?” Someone else suggested that it may be appropriate at times to go off topic. The purpose of college is to explore ideas that are challenging and sometimes off-topic discussions can elevate your class.

Macie Hall, Senior Instructional Designer
Center for Educational Resources

Image Source: Wikimedia Commons



Quick Tips: Take Your Office Hours for a Walk

Spring is here and the end of the semester looms. Your students should be showing up Overhead view of five people walking along a path, casting long shadows.for office hours to discuss their progress. Are they? We’ve shared some tips on office hours in the past (Faculty Office Hours: The Instructor is In, June 6, 2017), but here is an interesting idea. When the weather is conducive, maybe you could consider taking a walk with your students during office hours.

The Tomorrow’s Professor newsletter shared this post Thinking outside the Office (Hours) by Fiona Rawle-Close, excerpted from National Teaching and Learning Forum, Volume 26, Number 4, May 2017. Rawle-Close says:

I was trying to think of ways in which I could make my office hours more effective in terms of connecting with students and having meaningful discussions. I noticed that some students often seemed intimidated in my office, and sometimes avoided making eye contact. I decided to hold walking office hours, where we walk on trails around campus. Being a parent, I noticed that my kids are sometimes more willing to talk about difficult subjects when they are in the car and aren’t making direct eye contact. I thought perhaps the same would be true of my students, as it is difficult to make direct eye contact when walking on trails. It became clear to me that walking office hours, although I’m not advising that they should act as a replacement for traditional office hours, are an excellent supplement.

She goes on to detail her methods and strategies. It should be noted that the walking office hours were in addition to traditional office meetings. She discovered that students came to the two sessions for different reasons.  “The walking office hour students asked questions about my research, my experience as a student, sought out advice for personal matters, or just wanted to chat about current events. During my walking office hours, students would rarely ask questions about test or exam marks or even about course content.” Obviously it is difficult to go over papers or problem sets in detail when you are out walking, so you may want to set expectations for the walking versus traditional settings.

Rowle-Close reminds us to keep the needs of mobility-challenged students in mind and makes some suggestions for accommodations. All in all, she felt that the additional time and scheduling was well worth the time given the success she had in connecting with students.

Macie Hall, Senior Instructional Designer
Center for Educational Resources

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What is Specifications Grading and Why Should You Consider Using It?

During the fall semester I came across the concept of specifications grading. We had a faculty member interested in trying it out, and another professor who was already using a version of it in his courses. For today’s post, I’d like to give an overview of specifications grading with resources to turn to for more information.

Note paper check list with pencil.Specifications grading is not a brand new concept. In the spring of 2016, both Inside Higher Ed and The Chronicle of Higher Education ran articles on this grading method. The Inside Higher Ed piece, Yes, Virginia, There’s a Better Way to Grade (January 19, 2016) was written by Linda Nilson, who authored the seminal work on the concept: Specifications Grading: Restoring Rigor, Motivating Students, and Saving Faculty Time (Stylus Publishing, 2015).

Nilson starts her book, which is a relatively short read (131 pages of text), by giving an overview of the history of grading. While the origins of our university system goes back to the 6th century, grading students is a more recent idea, first appearing in the 1700s and becoming more formalized in the 19th century. There is little standardization across institutions and practices vary considerably. Nilson notes that grading on the curve, grade inflation, and interpretations attached to grades further complicate the practice, leading to a system that she characterizes as broken and damaging to both faculty and students. Moreover, it is not at all clear that grades are an accurate predictor of future success.

Nilson contends there is a better system (see summary pp. 129-131), i.e., specifications grading (also called specs grading), which will:

  1. Uphold high academic standards,
  2. Reflect student learning outcomes,
  3. Motivate students to learn,
  4. Motivate students to excel,
  5. Discourage cheating,
  6. Reduce student stress,
  7. Make students feel responsible for their grades,
  8. Minimize conflict between faculty and students,
  9. Save faculty time,
  10. Give students feedback they will use,
  11. Make expectations clear,
  12. Foster higher-order cognitive development and creativity,
  13. Assess authentically,
  14. Achieve high interrater agreement,
  15. Be simple.

Her grading construct, which can be adapted in part or fully (as she explains in detail in her book), relies on pass/fail grading of assignments and assessments, the structuring of course content into modules linked to learning outcomes, and the bundling of assignments and assessments within those modules. The completion of course modules and bundles is linked to traditional course grades. In the pure form of specs grading, students determine what grade they want and complete the modules and bundles that correspond to that grade.

Nilson provides a summary of the features of specifications grading (p. 128):

  • Students are graded pass/fail on individual assignments and tests or on bundles or modules of assignments and tests.
  • Instructors provide very clear, detailed specifications (specs)—even models if necessary— for what constitutes a passing (acceptable/ satisfactory) piece of work. Specs reflect the standards of B-level or better work.
  • Students are allowed at least one opportunity to revise an unacceptable piece of work, or start the course with a limited number of tokens that they can exchange to revise or drop unacceptable work or to submit work late.
  • Bundles and modules that earn higher course grades require students to demonstrate mastery of more skills and content, more advanced/ complex skills and content, or both.
  • Bundles and modules are tied to the learning outcomes of the course or the program. Students will not necessarily achieve all the possible outcomes, but their course grade will indicate which ones they have and have not achieved.

Nilson’s article in Inside Higher Ed referenced above, gives a quick overview to specifications grading basics. It’s a good starting place to determine if the concept holds appeal for you. While any new system of teaching, including grading, will have a learning curve, specs grading offers a great deal of flexibility. In her book, Nilson gives examples of ways to partially integrate the concept into your course planning. It is also clear that once implemented, the system saves faculty time in making “hairsplitting decisions” about how many points to award on an assignment or test. Rubrics are required, but they are based on a satisfactory/unsatisfactory set of criteria, rather than spelling out what is expected for a full range of grades. Yes, faculty must be transparent and up front about this system with the students, but the anecdotal experiences that Nilson shares in her book indicate that students find specs grading to be less stressful and more motivating than traditional methods.

I recommend reading Nilson’s full book to understand the nuances and to determine which aspects of the system you will want to employ. To give you a sense of the scope of the book, following is an outline of the chapters and material covered.

Chapter 1: Introduction to and history of grading, and rationale for a new grading system.
Chapter 2: Discussion of learning outcomes and course design.
Chapter 3: Linking grades to outcomes—covers Bloom’s Taxonomy and how specs grading works in this regard.
Chapter 4: The efficacy of pass/fail grading.
Chapter 5: Details of specifications grading with detailed examples, including the role of rubrics, and adding flexibility through the use of tokens and second chances.
Chapter 6: How to convert specs graded student work to final letter grades. This chapter explains the concept of modules and bundling as related to levels of learning and grades that will be earned as modules/bundles are completed.
Chapter 7: Examples of specifications-graded course design. Nilson presents nine case studies from a variety of disciplines that include the types of activities and assessments that can be used.
Chapter 8: How and why specs grading motivates students—this chapter examines theories and research on student motivation to build a case for specs grading.
Chapter 9: Detailed instructions for developing a course with specs grading. This chapter includes tips for a hybrid course model that combines elements of specs grading with traditional grading constructs, and ideas for introducing students to specs grading.
Chapter 10: Conclusion and evaluation of specifications grading.

I also want to mention the article in The Chronicle of Higher Education, Prof Hacker Blog, Experimenting with Specifications Grading, Jason B. Jones, March 23, 2016, which reports on an instructor’s experience with specifications grading. It links to this blog post Rethinking Grading: An In-Progress Experiment, February 16, 2016, by Jason Mittell, who teaches at Middlebury College. The first-hand experience will be enlightening to those considering specs grading. Mittell includes the statement on his syllabus explaining specs grading to students, which will help you formulate your own explanation for this important part of a successful implementation of specs grading. You should also be sure to read the comments on the Prof Hacker piece for some additional ideas and resources.

As always, I am interested in comments from those who have tried or are considering this idea. Please share your thoughts.

Macie Hall, Senior Instructional Designer
Center for Educational Resources

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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

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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:

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:
  • 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


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: