Things I learned when I designed and taught my first undergraduate course

Today we have a guest blogger. Adaeze Wosu is a PhD candidate in the Department of Epidemiology at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. In 2017, she was one of two teaching assistants who received the Student Assembly’s Teaching Assistant Recognition Award at the School of Public Health. In 2018, she was again recognized with this honor. Ms. Wosu obtained a BA in Public Health Studies from Johns Hopkins University, and a Master of Public Health from Boston University.

 

Large light bulb surrounded by small-scale symbols of pursuits in the arts and sciences. Light blue images on dark blue background.Throughout graduate school (both as a Master’s and Doctoral student), I have worked as a Teaching Assistant for several graduate-level courses—leading lab sections, facilitating discussions, holding office hours, developing assessments, and grading. I have also served as a section instructor for an undergraduate epidemiology course. However, I had never taught my own course until January 2018, when I developed a one-credit undergraduate intersession course on the increasing burden of non-infectious diseases (e.g., heart disease, cancers, diabetes) in Africa.

Although my course is focused on the African continent, it is noteworthy that heart disease and cancers are the two leading causes of death in the United States. Until my sophomore year of college, I was largely unaware that there were preventive measures (e.g., exercise, good nutrition, adequate sleep) that individuals can take to avert (or at least delay) the onset of these diseases. Learning about how to prevent these diseases was one of the epiphanies of my undergraduate education, and continues to inspire my research and teaching as a doctoral student.

The training I received in the annual three-day Teaching Institute organized by the Johns Hopkins University Teaching Academy helped prepare me for this experience. The Institute’s modules on backward-design helped me focus course lectures, discussions, and in-class activities on what students should gain from each session and the course as a whole, rather than simply filling time with content. Other modules on preparing for the first day of class, active learning, fostering an inclusive learning environment, and creating effective assessments were also valuable.

My course had an enrollment of eleven students—small but heterogeneous—with wide-ranging majors and interests, diverse cultural backgrounds, and at different levels of their college education. By the end of the course, I wanted students to have a general understanding of (1) the social, demographic, and economic factors driving the rise of these diseases on the African continent; (2) the biological mechanisms involved in these diseases; and (3) individual- and population-level approaches to prevention and control of these diseases.

I learned a lot from the process of developing this course as well as my interactions with students. Below, I have summarized, in eight points, some of what I learned and what was re-enforced for me through this process:

  1. Points of disagreement are great learning opportunities for both students and instructor. At the beginning of the course, I urged students to voice disagreements or objections that they had about course concepts, so we could discuss them as a group. The situations where students actively and strongly disagreed provided great teaching moments for clarifying and reinforcing important ideas. It made me appreciate the skill and tact required to factually and respectfully respond to misstatements or misconceptions without making students feel like they are being shut down. It was helpful to think through potential scenarios of disagreement beforehand, and how they could be handled. With practice, comfort with these scenarios grows.
  2. I learned to be comfortable with admitting when I did not know or was unsure about the answer to a student’s question. As a graduate teaching assistant, I had the luxury of referring students to an experienced faculty member if I encountered a particularly challenging question. In my course, this was not an option. I tried as much as possible to anticipate questions that would arise, but there were occasional questions to which I did not readily have answers. In such cases, I did not hesitate to tell the student that I did not have the answer at that moment. If I promised to look up the answer, then I did so, and got back to the student. For any questions that could potentially eat up class time or were beyond the scope of the course, my approach was to direct students to resources that could provide further insight. Admitting what you don’t know is all right.
  3. It is important to be as explicit as possible about expectations for assessments, and then be even more explicit. The writing-intensive courses I have assisted in teaching over the last seven years have for the most part involved public health instruction at the graduate level. It did not occur to me that undergraduate students would need substantial guidance regarding citations and what might count as credible sources for writing assignments. After I wrote what I thought were clear instructions for the final assignment, I found that students needed me to be even more explicit. With a diverse cohort of students in the class, from freshmen to seniors and from a range of disciplines, I could not make sweeping assumptions about familiarity with formatting requirements or with how to gather reputable sources for a research paper.
  4. Your enthusiasm and motivations for teaching are important and infectious. Your excitement shows through your body language and disposition from the moment you walk into the classroom until the final day. Your passion for the topic communicates to students why you care, and why they should care. As much as possible, I tried to make the content practical and applicable so that students could see how what they were learning extended beyond the classroom. I found that sharing my motivations for teaching the course helped me connect with students.
  5. Early opportunities for students to inform course direction will save you time and foster a more enjoyable student experience. Early in the course, I solicited feedback from students. This helped me identify what was working/not working, what aspects of the course the students enjoyed, and what they wanted to learn. Their comments led me to introduce one of the course units earlier than I had originally planned. Students also made me aware of additional helpful resources, which I incorporated (e.g., one student shared a YouTube video demonstration of what it feels like to breathe with Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease). I plan to use these materials in future iterations of the course.
  6. Don’t be afraid to use media (e.g., short movies, documentaries) to make your point. I had to think creatively about using educational videos, documentaries, and even movie and television clips to illustrate points during the lectures. When I felt a video or cartoon conveyed some idea more clearly than didactic lecturing, I included that medium in the day’s lecture. At first, I worried that students would consider these as “faux lecturing” or just filling up time. Instead, students embraced these modalities and found them helpful for putting complex concepts into relatable terms. You don’t have to re-invent the wheel.
  7. Standing and walking around the class as you teach is a great way to get in a few hours of exercise! And if your class sessions are 3 hours long like mine, allow breaks so that students can stretch and get in some exercise as well.
  8. Finally, do not underestimate how much time is needed to prepare lectures, and activities for the different class sessions. For me, this was the hardest point of transition from a teaching assistant to an instructor. Even for a topic such as mine, where substantial resources exist, it took time to read and digest journal articles that I wanted to incorporate into lectures, to identify good media examples (e.g., videos, news articles and documentaries), to properly insert citations so that students could refer to them when needed), and to plan and design engaging in-class discussions and activities. While preparing for lectures, I sometimes longed for my teaching assistant days when material was already prepared and organized—all I had to do was review before each course section or office hour. Nevertheless, the opportunity to teach my own course gave me immense fulfillment. As an instructor, I was able to create the classroom experience I desired on a topic that I am extremely passionate about.

Adaeze Wosu, PhD Candidate
Department of Epidemiology, Bloomberg School of Public Health
Johns Hopkins University

Image Source: Pixabay.com

Using Backward Design for Course Planning

In all the years the Innovative Instructor has been blogging, we have not had a post dedicated to the concept of Backward Design. It’s long past time to correct this omission.

Diagram showing the three phases of Backward Design: Identify desired results, Determine acceptable evidence, Plan learning experiences and instruction.Backward Design is a framework for course design. With Backward Design an instructor starts course planning by identifying desired learning outcomes with the articulation of course goals and learning objectives. Assessment of those goals and objectives is determined, and finally, appropriate learning activities and instruction are developed.

Traditionally, faculty have approached course design by considering teaching the content first, striving to fit material into a set number of lectures and/or in-class activities, then developing assignments and tests, and finally grading students. This approach focuses on what the teacher wants to do, so it is instructor-centric.

The term Backward Design comes from starting course planning by thinking about what the instructor wants students to know and be able to do at the end of the course and working backward from there. In spite of the name, Backward Design is forward thinking—promoting intentional planning to create assessments and course activities that support the desired learning outcomes. Backward Design is student-centric in that the process starts by thinking about what students should be able to do.

Backward design focuses on the process of learning, encouraging the instructor to think intentionally about how in-class activities and assessment will ensure that the course goals and learning objectives are met. Faculty may find it challenging to think about the learning process instead of course content. They are experts in the latter, but may not be comfortable with the former. Backward Design helps instructors determine what material is necessary for students to meet the stated learning objectives. This makes it easier to decide what content to include and what is not as important. It is more efficient as well. When an instructor is clear about the desired student learning outcomes, assessing those outcomes, and determining the class activities and related course materials needed to obtain those outcomes will be clearer as well.  Another benefit of using Backward Design is that students appreciate the inherent transparency. When an instructor shares course goals and objectives, their students know what is expected of them. The alignment of learning objectives and learning assessments gives students clarity.

Instructors planning a course should ask themselves three questions:

  1. What do you want students to be able to do? (Course Learning Goals and Objectives)
  2. How will you measure if students can do that? (Aligned Assessment)
  3. How will you prepare students for assessments? (Design Instruction)

Writing good course learning goals (expectations of what students should be able to do by the end of the course) and effective learning objectives (explicit statements that describe what the students will be able to do at the end of each class or course module) is the first step in the Backward Design process. (See previous Innovative Instructor blog posts Writing Course Learning Goals and Writing Effective Learning Objectives.)

Next, what evidence is needed to determine that students have met the course goals? The performance tasks or assessments chosen should be appropriate to the level of the course. Bloom’s taxonomy is a useful tool for aligning the level of the course with appropriate assessment. (See the Innovative Instructor post A Guide to Bloom’s Taxonomy.)  For example, for an introductory level course, course goals are more likely to focus on remembering and understanding. Tests/exams that focus on asking students to identify, define, label, list, order (remembering) or calculate, describe, discuss, summarize, explain (understanding) will be appropriate. In a senior level seminar or design course students might be assigned papers, comprehensive projects, or creative tasks where they must argue, assess, debate, evaluate, defend (evaluation) or compose, construct, design, hypothesize, show, write (creation). Learning objectives, related to units or modules within the course, may be assessed by quizzes, homework assignments, problem sets, or short papers depending on the level of the course. Self-assessments and student reflections may also be useful.

Finally, appropriate instruction can be designed for the course. Instruction should be tailored to ensure that students are prepared for assessments. Keep in mind that the more engaged students are, the more likely it is that they will learn. Active learning strategies help ensure student engagement.

Backward Design can be an iterative process.  As you develop your assessments you may find you need to refine your objectives.  Similarly, as you design your instruction you may generate creative ideas on how to assess students that lead you to change your original assessment plan.

Course instruction may take a number of different formats—lectures, seminars, labs, discussion sessions, studio and design classes, research or project-oriented studies to name a few. Other variables include class size and room arrangements. For courses with large enrollments scheduled in auditoriums, lecturing tends to be used more frequently. But lectures that include active learning strategies such as the effective use of clickers, think-pair-share activities, and peer learning will more likely engage students. For labs and smaller courses, consider using strategies such as authentic learning, case studies, team-based learning, community-based or project-based learning to engage students.

Adopting a new strategy for course design may seem daunting, but Backward Design offers a more efficient, transparent, and effective approach for instructors and their students. By focusing on learning outcomes rather than course content, instructors using Backward Design may improve both student learning and their teaching.

Macie Hall, Senior Instructional Designer
Center for Educational Resources

Image Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Backward_design

Quick Tips: Growth Mindset

The Innovative Instructor covered the topic of Growth Mindset a few years back: Mindsets and Academic Motivation, Michael J. Reese, October 24, 2013, but a recent posting from the Stanford University blog Tomorrow’s Professor seemed worth highlighting.

Retrain Your Brain: Silhouette of head with brain-shaped word cloud describing growth mindset values.Mindsets and Resistance to Learning excerpts a chapter, “How Promoting Student Metacognition can Reduce Resistance” by Rob Blair, Anton O. Tobman, Janine Kremling, and Trevor Morris, from the book, Why Students Resist Learning – A Practical Model for Understanding and Helping Students, edited by Anton O. Tolman and Janine Kremling (Stylus Publishing, 2017). The post provides an excellent overview of Carol Dweck’s theories on fixed and growth mindsets, the self-theories that students develop to describe how they see themselves. “A mindset is a collection of ideas and beliefs about how the world works and how we, as individuals, work within it. Given these structuring beliefs, students’ perceptions about learning opportunities can vary significantly, and these beliefs can have a dramatic influence on how a student views risk taking, learning itself, or the definition of success – or failure.”

The article describes how mindsets contribute to students’ resistance to learning: students with fixed mindsets will resist challenges to do things that they find difficult out of fear of failure; students with growth mindsets believe that “…failure on a task is not failure as a person; it is a chance to learn something new.”

The authors discuss how teacher behaviors can affect student mindsets. In a study (Mueller and Dweck, 1998) students who were given effort-oriented praise (“You must have worked hard.”) were more willing to take on challenging tasks than those who received trait-oriented praise (You must be really smart at this.”). Other studies and their effects are cited. “These studies have implications not only for student learning but also for instructors as it relates closely to resistance to learning. To better understand why some students happily embrace new challenges and others resist those challenges, one must understand where the mindset comes from. This understanding will aid in overcoming resistance and helping students develop their potential.”

In fact, we are not born with a mindset, nor is it an “immutable trait of an individual’s personality (Dweck, 2006).” A person can have a fixed mindset in some areas but a growth mindset about others. Cultural beliefs and social biases, such as “girls/women aren’t good at math” continue to challenge females’ interest in pursuing STEM disciplines. Harsh criticism, or simply lack of support, can be a deterrent to developing a growth mindset. “Research has shown that it is the meaning of the criticism that influences mindset: When criticism is about the person, it instills a fixed mindset: when criticism is about the product or outcome, it has a roughly neutral impact on mindset; when criticism is about the strategies used to reach the product and includes suggestions on those strategies, the growth mindset is instilled (Kamins & Dweck, 1999; Mueller & Dweck, 1998).” Moreover, a fixed mindset can be changed by helping students understand the “malleability of intelligence” and the benefits of a growth mindset.

The article suggests using teaching strategies that foster a growth mindset will help all students to uncover their potential. The authors note in conclusion: “Although it doesn’t simplify the question of how to structure a class, it’s useful to think of students learning course content and key skills in the same way they might learn a complicated dance routine. Some will simply need more time and help than others, but all of them can make significant improvement.”

Macie Hall, Senior Instructional Designer
Center for Educational Resources

Image Source: Pixabay.com

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

Image Source: Modified image from Pixabay.com

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

Image Source: Pixabay.com

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

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

 

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