An Evidence-based Approach to Effective Studying

Dr. Culhane is Professor and Chair of the Department of Pharmaceutical Sciences at Notre Dame of Maryland University School of Pharmacy.

If you are like me, much of your time is spent ensuring that the classroom learning experience you provide for your students is stimulating, interactive and impactful. But how invested are we in ensuring that what students do outside of class is productive? Based on my anecdotal experience and several studies1,2,3 looking at study strategies employed by students, the answer to this question is not nearly enough! Much like professional athletes or musicians, our students are asked to perform at a high level, mastering advanced, information dense subjects; yet unlike these specialists who have spent years honing the skills of their craft, very few students have had any formal training in the basic skills necessary to learn successfully. It should be no surprise to us that when left to their own devices, our students tend to mismanage their time, fall victim to distractions and gravitate towards low impact or inefficient learning strategies. Even if students are familiar with high impact strategies and how to use them, it is easy for them to default back to bad habits, especially when they are overloaded with work and pressed for time.

Several years ago, I began to seriously think about and research this issue in hopes of developing an evidence-based process that would be easy for students to learn and implement. Out of this work I developed a strategy focused on the development of metacognition – thinking about how one learns. I based it on extensively studied, high impact learning techniques to include: distributed learning, self-testing, interleaving and application practice.4 I call this strategy the S.A.L.A.M.I. method. This method is named after a metaphor used by one of my graduate school professors. He argued that learning is like eating a salami. If you eat the salami one slice at a time, rather than trying to eat the whole salami in one setting, the salami is more likely to stay with you. Many readers will see that this analogy represents the effectiveness of distributed learning over the “binge and purge” method which many of our students gravitate towards.

S.A.L.A.M.I. is a “backronym” for Systematic Approach to Learning And Metacognitive Improvement. The method is structured around typical, daily learning experiences that I refer to as the five S.A.L.A.M.I. steps:

  1. Pre-class preparation
  2. In-class engagement
  3. Post-class review
  4. Pre-exam preparation
  5. Post-assessment review

When teaching the S.A.L.A.M.I. method, I explain how each of the five steps correspond to different “stages” or components of learning (see figure 1). Through mastery of skills associated with each of the five S.A.L.A.M.I. steps, students can more efficiently and effectively master a subject area.

S.A.L.A.M.I. Steps

Figure 1

Despite its simplicity, this model provides a starting point to help students understand that learning is a process that takes time, requires the use of different learning strategies and can benefit from the development of metacognitive awareness. Specific techniques designed to enhance metacognition and learning are employed during each of the five steps, helping students use their time effectively, maximize learning and achieve subject mastery. Describing all the tools and techniques recommended for each of the five steps would be beyond the scope of this post, but I would like to share two that I have found useful for students to evaluate the effectiveness of their learning and make data driven changes to their study strategies.

Let us return to our example of professional athletes and musicians: these individuals maintain high levels of performance by consistently monitoring and evaluating the efficacy of their practice as well as reviewing their performance after games or concerts. If we translate this example to an academic environment, the practice or rehearsal becomes student learning (in and out of class) and the game or concert acts as the assessment.  We often evaluate students’ formative or summative “performances” with grades, written or verbal feedback. But what type of feedback do we give them to help improve the efficacy of their preparation for those “performances?” If we do give them feedback about how to improve their learning process, is it evidenced-based and directed at improving metacognition, or do we simply tell them they need to study harder or join a study group in order to improve their learning? I would contend that we could do more to help students evaluate their approach to learning outside of class and examination performance. This is where a pre-exam checklist and exam wrapper can be helpful.

The inspiration for the pre-exam checklist came from the pre-flight checklist a pilot friend of mine uses to ensure that he and his private aircraft are ready for flight.  I decided to develop a similar tool for my students that would allow them to monitor and evaluate the effectiveness of their preparation for upcoming assessments. The form is based on a series of reflective questions that help students think about the effectiveness of their daily study habits. If used consistently over time and evaluated by a knowledgeable faculty or learning specialist, this tool can help students be more successful in making sustainable, data driven changes in their approach to learning.

Another tool that I use is called an exam wrapper. There are many examples of exam wrappers online, however, I developed my own wrapper based on the different stages or components of learning shown in figure 1. The S.A.L.A.M.I. wrapper is divided into five different sections. Three of the five sections focus on the following stages or components of learning: understanding and building context, consolidation, and application. The remaining two sections focus on exam skills and environmental factors that may impact performance. Under each of the five sections is a series of statements that describe possible reasons for missing an exam question. The student analyzes each missed question and matches one or more of the statements on the wrapper to each one. Based on the results of the analysis, the student can identify the component of learning, exam skill or environmental factors that they are struggling with and begin to take corrective action. Both the pre-exam checklist and exam wrapper can be used to help “diagnose” the learning issue that academically struggling students may be experiencing.

Two of the most common issues that I diagnose involve illusions of learning5. Students who suffer from the ‘illusion of knowledge’ often mistake their understanding of a topic for mastery. These students anticipate getting a high grade on an assessment but end up frustrated and confused when receiving a much lower grade than expected. Information from the S.A.L.A.M.I. wrapper can help them realize that although they may have understood the concept being taught, they could not effectively recall important facts and apply them. Students who suffer from the ‘illusion of productivity’ often spend extensive time preparing for an exam, however, the techniques they use are extremely passive. Commonly used passive study strategies include: highlighting, recopying and re-reading notes, or listening to audio/video recordings of lectures in their entirety. The pre-exam checklist can help students identify the learning strategies they are using and reflect on their effectiveness. When I encounter students favoring the use of passive learning strategies I use the analogy of trying to dig a six-foot deep hole with a spoon: “You will certainly work hard for hours moving dirt with a spoon, but you would be a lot more productive if you learned how to use a shovel.” The shovel in this case represents adopting strategies such as distributed practice, self-testing, interleaving and application practice.

Rather than relying on anecdotal advice from classmates or old habits that are no longer working, students should seek help early, consistently practice effective and efficient study strategies, and remember that digesting information (e.g. a  S.A.L.A.M.I.) in small doses is always more effective at ‘keeping the information down’ so it may be applied and utilized successfully later.

  1. Kornell, N., Bjork, R. The promise and perils of self-regulated study. Psychon Bull Rev. 2007;14 (2): 219-224.
  2. Karpicke, J. D., Butler, A. C., & Roediger, H. L. Metacognitive strategies in student learning: Do students practice retrieval when they study on their own? Memory. 2009; 17: 471– 479.
  3. Persky, A.M., Hudson, S. L. A snapshot of student study strategies across a professional pharmacy curriculum: Are students using evidence-based practice? Curr Pharm Teach Learn. 2016; 8: 141-147.
  4. Dunlosky, J., Rawson, K.A., Marsh, E.J., Nathan, M.J., Willingham, D.T. Improving Students’ Learning With Effective Learning Techniques: Promising Directions From Cognitive and Educational Psychology. Psychol Sci Publ Int. 2013; 14 (1): 4-58.
  5. Koriat, A., & Bjork, R. A. Illusions of competence during study can be remedied by manipulations that enhance learners’ sensitivity to retrieval conditions at test. Memory & Cognition. 2006; 34: 959-972.

James M. Culhane, Ph.D.
Chair and Professor, School of Pharmacy, Notre Dame of Maryland University

In Memory of P.M. Forni: The Case for Civility in the Classroom and Beyond

Johns Hopkins lost a treasured faculty member earlier this month; it is a loss felt far beyond the borders of our campus. Pier Massimo Forni was renowned in academia for his scholarship in the field of Italian literature (he taught Dante and Boccaccio), and more broadly for his work on the history and theory of civility. P.M. Forni was a personal friend as well as a contributor to the Innovative Instructor print article series. He was also the inspiration for Innovative Instructor blog posts on civil behavior in the classroom and the concept of creating a contract with your students (Tips for Regulating the Use of Mobile Devices in the Classroom, October 12, 2012).

Dr. Forni was the co-founder of the Johns Hopkins Civility Project (JHCP): “An aggregation of academic and community outreach activities, the JHCP aimed at assessing the significance of civility, manners and politeness in contemporary society.” JHCP became the Civility Initiative, which Dr. Forni directed. As his obituary in the New York Times (Neil Genzlinger, December 7, 2018) noted: “Civility, to Dr. Forni, was not just a matter of learning and observing rules of good manners. It was something with very real consequences. Civility means less stress, which has advantages like improved health, safer driving and more productivity at work.”

He authored two books on civility: Choosing Civility: The Twenty-Five Rules of Considerate Conduct (St. Martin’s Press, 2002), and The Civility Solution: What to Do When People Are Rude (St. Martin’s Press, 2009). The first book examines the tenants of thoughtful and effective connections with others; the second offers concrete suggestions for dealing with rudeness. If you have not read these books, I highly recommend them as an antidote for the increasing incivility we are encountering in our society today. Moreover, you will find them useful for establishing a climate of civility, respect, and inclusion in your classroom.

It was in the classroom that Dr. Forni had the revelation that sparked his interest in the history, theory, and practice of civility. From the New York Times obituary (as Dr. Forni recalls in “Choosing Civility): “One day, while lecturing on the Divine Comedy, I looked at my students and realized that I wanted them to be kind human beings more than I wanted them to know about Dante,” he wrote. “I told them that if they knew everything about Dante and then they went out and treated an elderly lady on the bus unkindly, I’d feel that I had failed as a teacher.”

P.M. Forni wrote two Innovative Instructor print articles for us. In Civility in the Classroom (September 2010) he recommends establishing a climate of relaxed formality, training students to distinguish the trivial from the valuable, selling your product (the topic of your course) and yourself (as a teacher), and stipulating a fair covenant. Creating a Covenant with Your Students (November 2009) expands on the idea of the covenant—essentially a contract that you and your students agree to abide by that clearly stipulates what the students can expect from you and what you as the instructor expect from them.

Johns Hopkins and the world have lost a gentle soul. In this holiday season, I hope that all of us will reflect on the virtues of civil behavior and resolve to do as P.M. Forni would do.

Macie Hall, Senior Instructional Designer
Center for Educational Resources

Image Source: book covers https://grll.jhu.edu/directory/pier-massimo-forni/

Scaffolding for Successful Learning

The Innovative Instructor likes the concept of scaffolding. Not the architectural structure,Construction workers climbing a scaffold. but the support faculty can provide for students in the classroom. Two previous posts, Scaffolding Part 2: Build Your Students’ Notetaking Skills (March 29, 2017) and Scaffolding: Teach your students how to read a journal article (February 28, 2017) looked at ways in which instructors can give students a framework to improve their skills and help them succeed. In an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education, Traditional Teaching May Deepen Inequality. Can a Different Approach Fix It?  (Beckie Supiano, May 6, 2018) instructor Kelly A. Hogan asks, “Doesn’t everybody like some structure or guidance? Why do we treat learning as something different or special?”

Ten years ago, Hogan, now STEM-Teaching Associate Professor and Assistant Dean of Instructional Innovation at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, was presented with data on students’ grades in her introductory level biology class and grasped the impact that inequities in K-12 education have. “About one in 14 white students earned a D or F in the course. About one in seven Latino/a students received those grades. For black students, it was one in three.” She was directly contributing to the leaky STEM pipeline—students who failed her course were unlikely to continue in a STEM field.

Faculty may recognize the racial gaps in education that first year college students bring to the classroom. They may see these as “inevitable inequities” revealing problems that are too vast for them, as instructors, to overcome. Hogan saw it differently. The gap was her problem and she became convinced that traditional undergraduate teaching—lectures, reading assignments, high-stakes assessments—was making it worse. Specifically, students whose high schools had not prepared them for college-level work were failing, not because they weren’t capable of doing that work, “…but because no one has taught them how to navigate the system.” That includes knowing how to take notes in lectures and on reading assignments, how to prepare for writing papers and taking tests, and how (and where) to ask for help when needed.

Hogan taught courses with 300 or more students and had a lot of student data, so she could see patterns and trends. And because she also ran study-skills workshops, she had strategies that would help students succeed. She now uses a pedagogical approach called inclusive teaching. “Inclusive teaching has two main components: putting more structure into a course, giving clear instructions so that all students know what to do before, during, and after class; and thoughtfully facilitating class discussion, so that everyone can participate.”

Hogan flipped her course so that students spend class time doing active learning exercises rather than listing to her lecture. She was explicit about her motives and how students would benefit. “She emphasized the habits of a successful student and focused on the importance of practice. She broke down the things students could do before, during, and after class to give themselves the best chances of performing well. Then she made those tasks mandatory, and a factor in students’ grades.” The article details some of the practices. Her course syllabus illustrates how she communicates these to her students.

Even in a class with a 300 plus enrollment, held in an auditorium designed for lecturing, Hogan has students working in assigned groups on projects. She moves around the room to oversee their work. Students use smart phones as classroom polling devices to answer questions, opening an opportunity for discussion. Hogan facilitates class discussions in ways to equalize participation.

The article goes on to detail how two of Hogan’s “converts” have implemented inclusive teaching in their own classrooms. Hogan runs workshops on inclusive teaching that include an unusual startup activity that clearly illustrates the educational inequity gap for incoming college students. At one workshop after completing the initial task, attendees turned to what might be done to remedy the problem. “Inequity, Hogan suggested, is not intractable. Even small changes in teaching can help counteract it. ‘Adding structure to the learning environment,’ Hogan said, ‘can mitigate unfairness, build feelings of inclusion, and promote student success.’”

Changing demographics mean that many students arrive at colleges and universities lacking high school preparation that used to be taken for granted. We can’t afford to shrug off responsibility for ensuring that all of our students can succeed. As Hogan points out, the impact on our society going forward is too great. Rather, instructors must consider how to level the field and provide guidance and scaffolding to support their students in successful learning.

Macie Hall, Senior Instructional Designer
Center for Educational Resources

Image Source: Pixabay.com

Discrimination, Harassment, and Sexual Misconduct Claims and Your Role as an Instructor

Illustration showing a standing male instructor making intimidating gesture to seated female student.In light of current events, a post covering how instructors can avoid discrimination, harassment, and sexual misconduct seemed relevant. Over the summer I revised the Center for Educational Resources manual for teaching assistants, Making the Difference. The manual lists general teaching resources available at Hopkins – e.g., TA-specific services offered by the library, services offered to students with disabilities, faculty responsibilities in working with such students, etc. Printed copies of the TA Manual are distributed at the TA Orientation in September and a PDF is available on our Teaching Academy website. I’ve taken the following advice from that document with minor changes.

The instructor-student relationship carries the potential of becoming grounds for claims of discrimination, harassment, and sexual misconduct because of the inherent power imbalance. Instructors should be mindful of this inequity and maintain appropriate and professional relationships with students. To this end, it is better to be too formal than to be too casual. Dressing professionally, keeping the door open during office hours, otherwise only meeting with students in public places and during daytime hours, and treating all students in the course equally will help create a natural sense of formality.

You can help minimize claims of discrimination by making it clear to students that you treat everyone equally. This may sound self-evident, but it is not so simple. Remember that you must maintain a professional relationship with ALL of the students. If some students perceive that you are especially friendly to other members of the class, they are likely to assume that you are discriminating and will not grade objectively. Maintain a professional distance, and be equally friendly with and accessible to all students.

Do not get too personally involved with your students, and absolutely do not become romantically involved with a student at your institution, undergraduate or graduate. Due to the nature of power relations in the classroom specifically, and in your department and on campus more generally, a fine line distinguishes romance from sexual harassment, and potentially, sexual misconduct.

Harassment is unwelcome behavior that is intimidating, hostile, or offensive. Harassment can occur in different forms. Sexual harassment, whether between people of different sexes or the same sex, is defined to include unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature, when:

  1. submission to such conduct is made implicitly or explicitly a term or condition of an individual’s participation in an educational program;
  2. submission to or rejection of such conduct by an individual is used as the basis for academic evaluation or advancement; or
  3. such conduct has the purpose or effect of unreasonably interfering with an individual’s academic performance or creates an intimidating, hostile or offensive educational environment.

Most institutions have an office that works to comply with affirmative action and equal opportunity laws, and investigates complaints of discrimination, harassment, and sexual misconduct. At Johns Hopkins, it is the Office of Institutional Equity; the Office of the Dean of Student Life may also be a resource for instructors at JHU. If you become aware of a discrimination, harassment, or sexual misconduct issue during the course of your duties, you should contact the appropriate office at your college or university.

Familiarize yourself with the policies at your institution. At Johns Hopkins, if a student discloses an issue involving discrimination, harassment, or sexual misconduct, an instructor is obligated to report it. Instructors confronted with such disclosures should not promise confidentiality, but should make the students aware of the available complaint process, and refer them to the appropriate office.

It is to your advantage to be proactive against student claims of discrimination, harassment, and sexual misconduct. Treat all students equally, be aware of the power you have as faculty and avoid situations where that power is used inappropriately, be professional in your interactions with students, and acquaint yourself with relevant institutional policies and your duties in regards to those. Create a culture of respect in your classroom so that all students can feel safe.

Macie Hall, Senior Instructional Designer
Center for Educational Resources

Image Source: Pixabay.com

Tips for Teaching International Students

As with many of our Innovative Instructor posts, this one was prompted by an inquiry from an instructor looking for resources, in this case for teaching international students. Johns Hopkins, among other American universities, has increased the number of international students admitted over the past ten years, both at the graduate and undergraduate level. These students bring welcome diversity to our campuses, but some of them face challenges in adapting to American educational practices and social customs. Fluency in English may be a barrier to their academic and social success. Following are three articles and an online guide that examine the issues and provide strategies for faculty teaching international students.

Silhouettes of people standing in a row, covered by flags of different nationalities.First up, a scholarly article that both summarizes some of the past research on international students and reports on a study undertaken by the authors: Best Practices in Teaching International Students in Higher Education: Issues and Strategies, Alexander Macgregor and  Giacomo Folinazzo, TESOL Journal, Volume 9, Issue 2, June 18, 2018, pp. 299-329. https://doi.org/10.1002/tesj.324  “This article discusses an online survey carried out in a Canadian college [Niagara College, Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario] that identified academic and sociocultural issues faced by international students and highlighted current or potential strategies from the input of 229 international students, 343 domestic students, and 125 professors.” The study sought to address the challenges that international students face in English-language colleges and universities, understand the difference in the perceptions of those challenges among faculty, domestic students, and the international students themselves, and suggest strategies for improving learning outcomes for international students.

International students need to know technical terms (and other vocabulary) and concepts to succeed, but complex cultural mores may hinder them from seeking assistance when needed and they may be reluctant to speak in class. These barriers exist even among students with high TOEFL (Test of English as a Foreign Language) scores. Unfamiliarity with American pedagogical practices, such as classroom participation and active learning, along with lack of awareness of American social rules and skills may further isolate these students.

The researchers used an online survey to identify the challenges that international students face and to suggest solutions. Key points in the findings include: 1) international students feel the area they most need to improve is proactive academic behavior, rather than language skills per se; 2) a lack of clarity on academic expectations of assessments and assignments hinders their success; 3) both faculty and domestic students feel that some accommodations for international students are appropriate (e.g., dictionary use in class and during exams, extra time for exams, lecture notes given out before class).

The authors conclude that “IS [International Student] input suggests professors could respond by providing clear guidelines for task expectations, aims, and instructions in multisensory formats (simplify the message without changing the material), clarifying content/format expectations with exemplars, and collecting exemplars of outstanding student work and substandard student work from past terms and using them as examples to clarify expectations.” The authors suggest faculty provide opportunities for language development, create a positive classroom climate, become informed about their students’ cultures, avoid fostering fear of error, reinforce students’ strengths, and emphasize the importance of office hours.

An article from Inside Higher Ed, Teaching International Students, Elizabeth Redden, December 1, 2014, looks at the challenges for institutions of higher education and their instructors in teaching international students and the implications for classroom “dynamics and practices”.

The author interviewed faculty at the University of Denver on the challenges they faced in teaching international students. Plagiarism is mentioned as a problem in some cases due to different practices in other countries. English as a second language (ESL) barriers were cited by a professor of classics and humanities, who has made an effort to teach a first-year seminar that compares Chinese and Western classical literature in order to bridge the cultural gap.

Faculty at University of Denver have pushed the administration to change admission policies in regards to the TOEFL, raising the score requirements. “In addition, Denver now requires admitted students who are non-native English speakers to take the university’s own English language proficiency test upon arrival. Despite having already achieved the standardized test scores required for admission, students who score poorly on Denver’s assessment may be required to enroll full-time in the university’s English Language Center before being allowed to begin their degree program.” This has meant potentially losing international students to competing undergraduate programs, but the school wanted to make sure that its students had a positive classroom experience.

Several faculty describe courses they have taught that “…will serve to enhance the quality of education by creating the opportunity for more cross-cultural conversations and a kind of perspective-shifting.”  This is an ideal situation, of course, and not all instructors have the flexibility to create new courses to take advantage of global viewpoints. None-the-less there are other strategies University of Denver faculty shared to improve learning experiences for international students, as well as their domestic counterparts.

Students may self-segregate themselves when seated in the classroom, so breaking up cultural groups and ensuring that students work across nationalities is important. Instructors should be aware that cultural references, slang, and idioms may not be understood by international students. Careful use of PowerPoint slides to reinforce course concepts, and sharing those slides with all students, ideally in advance of class, is recommended. Learn students’ names and how to pronounce them correctly. Learn something about their countries and cultures. “Professors talked about priming non-native speakers in various ways so they would be more apt to participate in class discussions, whether by allowing students to prepare their thoughts in a homework or in-class writing assignment, starting off class with a think-pair-share type activity, or appointing a different student to be a discussion leader each week.” The University of Denver Office of Teaching and Learning provides a web-page on Teaching International Students with helpful advice. Many of these recommendations are best practices for all students.

The article addresses the issues of consistency of standards and assessment. The consensus is that standards must be applied across the board to English-speakers and ESL-speakers alike. Writing assignments are particularly challenging. Doug Hesse, professor and executive director of the writing program at Denver notes that gaining fluency in writing for non-natives may take five to ten years. What, then, are fair expectations in terms of grading writing assignments?

“Hesse emphasizes the need to distinguish between global problems and micro-level errors in student writing. He isolates three dimensions of student writing: ‘aptness of content and approach to the task,’ ‘rhetorical fit,’ and ‘conformity to conventions of edited American English.’ He advises that professors ‘read charitably,’ reading for ‘content and rhetorical strategy’ as much as — or, actually, even prior to — reading for surface errors.” Hesse concedes that if the errors interfere with comprehension, that’s a problem, but he focuses his attention on content and approach. And he recommends “…sharing models for writing assignments, spending class time generating ideas for a paper, reading a draft and offering feedback, and structuring long projects in stages.” These, like the suggestions above, will be beneficial to all students. The University of Denver Writing Program offers a set of Guidelines for Responding to the Writing of International Students.

The University of Michigan, Center for Research on Teaching and Learning offers Teaching International Students: Pedagogical Issues and Strategies, another useful web guide for instructors. While some of the materials are specific to University of Michigan faculty, the topics Bridging Differences in Background Knowledge and Classroom Practice, Teaching Non-Native Speakers of English, Improving Climate, and Promoting Academic Integrity will be useful to all instructors.

If the deep dive of the first two articles is more than you are looking for, Teaching International Students: Six Ways to Smooth the Transition, Eman Elturki, Faculty Focus, June 29, 2018, cuts straight to the chase with practical tips. In a nutshell:

  • Communicate classroom expectations and policies clearly.
  • Encourage students to make use of office hours.
  • Discuss academic integrity.
  • Make course materials available.
  • Demystify assignment requirements.
  • Incorporate opportunities for collaborative learning.

More detail is provided on implementing these suggestions. Elturki sums up by repeating advice similar to that of the faculty at University of Denver, “…pursuing higher education in a foreign country can be challenging. Being mindful of international students in your classroom and incorporating ways to help them adapt to the new educational system can reduce their stress and help them succeed. In fact, adopting these practices have the potential to help all students, whether they grew up in the next town over or the other side of the globe.”

Macie Hall, Senior Instructional Designer
Center for Educational Resources

Image Source: Pixabay.com

Quick Tips: Provide Your Students with a Roadmap for Class

This time of year is ripe for blog posts and articles on what to do on the first day of class. There is lots of good advice out there for easy picking. But I especially appreciate guidance that works for the whole semester—tips you can use for instruction in every class. An article in Faculty Focus by  Jennifer Garrett and Mary Clement Advice for the First Day of Class: Today We Will (August 23, 2018), meets the criterion.

Garrett and Clement advocate for building a positive classroom climate from the first moments of class so that students “feel welcome, comfortable, and engaged.” Making expectations clear can go a long way towards accomplishing that goal. Specifically, the authors recommend creating a “Today We Will” list on the first day of class and for every class session during the semester. This list should be on the board or screen or on a handout where you and the students can see it throughout the class.

Hands holding a folded paper road map.“The “Today We Will” list is a road map. It lets students know what will be covered that day. They can glance at it to check progress or to see if they missed any big concepts. The list also keeps instructors on task. As you move around your classroom teaching, the “Today We Will” list is a visual reminder of what you need to accomplish in that period. It ensures that you don’t skip any concepts that you want or need to cover, and it keeps you from veering too far off on tangents.”

For example, your “Today We Will” list might look something like this:

  • Beginning of class writing prompt on reading assignment (~5 minutes)
  • Share thoughts from prompt/reading assignment discussion (~15 minutes)
  • Lesson on [topic for session] (~10 minutes)
  • Activity in groups related to [topic for session] (~15 minutes)
  • Questions, wrap-up, preparation instructions/expectations for next class (~5 minutes).

While the authors don’t suggest putting in time approximations, you may find doing so will help set expectations for the students and keep you on track. On the other hand, the authors suggest that leaving some blanks on the list will allow for flexibility. The list should not be thought of as rigid. If you decide in the moment to spend more time on a stimulating discussion rather than cutting students off, you can remove something from the list. On the other hand, if you progress more quickly through an activity, you will want to have some items you can add to the day’s instruction.

Students should understand from day one that they are responsible for the material on the day’s list whether or not they attend class. As the instructor, you may wish to post the list on the course website before or after class so that students have a reminder of the important concepts covered.

Giving your students a roadmap in the form of a “Today We Will” list is an easy way to get yourself prepared, help your students stay organized, and create a positive classroom climate. You may be into your second or third week of teaching, but it’s not too late to start using this tip.

Macie Hall, Senior Instructional Designer
Center for Educational Resources

Image Source: Pixabay.com

How to Deal with Contract Cheating

As a blog editor and writer, I follow a number of other blogs on a range of topics, as a way to keep tabs on what similar blogs are posting, stay current with educational trends, follow current news and information, and add some variety to my online reading. It was in the latter category earlier this summer, that I came across an article that threw me for a loop.

Young man at laptop. Gray-scale background shows a silhouetted man and woman shaking hands, all on a field of dollar bills.I won’t identify the blog or the writer, other than to say that this particular blog posts on a wide array of subject matter. The article caught my eye because it was about college students writing essays. As I read the piece, I was horrified to discover that the author was supporting the idea that students, finding themselves in a bind over a tight deadline, should feel it perfectly acceptable to pay for someone to write an essay or term paper for them. Students have enough stress in their lives, the authored reasoned, why not avail themselves of an essay-writing service?

It turns out that there are numerous such services out there. I was aware of this fact in part because this blog gets a fair number of spam comments, and in a given week, at least a couple of these are from paper-writing companies offering their wares. These companies employ writers with M.A. and Ph.D. degrees in a wide range of disciplines, who are skilled in research and writing, and who will, for fees varying from $20 a page to $80 a page and up—depending on the topic and assignment requirements, write any type of paper needed. This includes entire dissertations. If this concept is new to you, an article in The Atlantic, Write My Essay, Please!, by Richard Gunderman, October 24, 2012, will give you a good starting point on the issue. Note the date, 2012—this is not a brand new problem.

Gunderman outlines a typical scenario: An instructor receives a paper from a student that is excellent in all regards, but is suspicious because the writing is far superior to that of other work the student has submitted. The instructor puts the paper through the university’s plagiarism detection service, and is surprised to find it comes out clean. Confronting the student reveals that they have purchased the paper from an online service.  This is not plagiarism—the work was original. The ethical issue is that the student was planning to accept credit for the paper and the course based on someone else’s work.

Gunderson looks at the culture that perpetuates these services from both the standpoint of the consumers and those doing the real work. High-stakes assignments with no scaffolding and inflexible deadlines create an environment where students may feel desperate. Academics with PhDs who find themselves in low-paying adjunct jobs may discover that essay writing “can be quite a lucrative business.”  Gunderson notes that the real problem is that paying someone to do your work has become increasingly accepted in our culture and that “there is no law against it.” Of course these students are cheating their classmates and instructors, but most of all, themselves, by not taking the opportunity to learn. Gunderson called for “probing discussions in classrooms all over the country, encouraging students to reflect on the real purpose of education,” but as more recent articles attest, this has not yet happened.

Getting Smart—Cheating 2.0: How to Fight Back Against ‘Contract Cheating’, July 21, 2018 by Dennis Pierce examines contract cheating and looks at ways instructors can take action. Pierce suggests that instructors educate their students on the risks that using writing services brings to both themselves and the public at large. Graduates need to be properly qualified or they may ultimately endanger or harm people who depend on their work. The risks for students themselves start with getting caught. There have also been cases of paper-writing companies reporting to the college/university when students didn’t pay their bills for services, and there is an ongoing potential for blackmail. But just as important, instructors should examine their assignments and consider designs that will make it less likely that a student will use a paper-writing service. Scaffolding the work towards a final paper by creating smaller, lower-stakes assignments along the way will keep students from falling behind. It will also make it easier to detect a ghost-written assignment, because the instructor will have examples of the student’s work to compare. Pierce says, “Establishing a culture of integrity, communicating the risks of cheating to students, and designing more thoughtful writing assignments are important. … it’s equally important for educators to be able to recognize contract cheating when it happens.”

The International Center for Academic Integrity at Florida International University, offers academic integrity resources including  the Institutional Toolkit to Combat Contract Cheating [PDF]. This 15-page document offers high-level solutions—discussing what can be done by academic institutions to address the problem (e.g., creating a culture that counters cheating) but there is also practical advice for faculty designing assessments. These include:

  • Require multiple drafts of an assessment.
  • Use in-class writing to provide a baseline of student voice and writing style.
  • Create personalized and authentic assignments that are specific to the class.
  • Limit non-substantive requirements (e.g., page or word limits/requirements).
  • Allow for late submissions (flexible deadlines).
  • Give students more choice and control.
  • Provide at least one proctored assessment.

The toolkit also has suggestions for detecting contract cheating and advises making sure that your institution’s academic integrity policy is up-to-date and covers contract cheating. “Many policies don’t cover contract cheating adequately. For example, they cover students cheating, but not students cheating for other students. Many policies might also inaccurately treat this behavior as plagiarism or exam cheating, rather than Fraud.” There is also a short list of resources on contract cheating and academic integrity that may be useful.

Being aware of the problem and armed with solutions will put you in a good place to fight contract cheating.  A good thing, since at least for now, the problem is continuing to grow.

Macie Hall, Senior Instructional Designer
Center for Educational Resources

Image Source: Pixabay.com

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