Thinking about Accessibility Part 1

Four universal signs for disabilities: wheelchair access, hearing access, captioning, visual accession. Signs are white on blue background.Often I read an article or blog post and suddenly find that I am falling down a rabbit hole. Hours, or even days, later I emerge, having uncovered a wealth of information and resources that have to be edited down in order to present a reasonably digestible overview of a topic for you readers. Such was the case with David Gooblar’s post Now is the Time to Think About Accessibility on his Chronicle Vitae Pedagogy Unbound blog (August 8, 2017). From the links in his article, I went on to discover other great material on accessibility to share—enough good stuff for two posts. This first post will cover thinking about accessibility in your classroom in general; next will be a follow-up post focused on creating an accessible syllabus and other documents for your class.

Gooblar starts off by noting that for many instructors, accessibility is given a brief mention at the end of the syllabus and then forgotten. Accessibility is seen as “an exception to the norm” and given little thought. He then notes an article by Anne-Marie Womack, assistant director of writing at Tulane University, which takes issue with that way of “conceptualizing accessibility.”

Teaching Is Accommodation: Universally Designing Composition Classrooms and Syllabi (College Composition and Communication, February 2017) by Anne-Marie Womack should be required reading for all higher ed instructors. [Note: if the link does not work, try copying and pasting this URL directly into your browser: http://www.ncte.org/library/NCTEFiles/Resources/Journals/CCC/0683-feb2017/CCCC0683Teaching.pdf.] It is an important document that asks us to rethink disability and academic accommodations. She starts by discussing “contemporary theories of disability to retheorize accommodation as the process of teaching itself.” Womack provides a history of disability law and American institutions of higher education, noting that students today must “pass substantial hurdles to qualify for accommodations” often at the risk of being stigmatized. Faculty, who may receive little institutional support, come to feel that they are the ones burdened by the process. Any resulting pedagogical changes are seen as affecting only the students with disabilities.

Womack argues that resistance to accommodation by university administration and faculty assumes that accommodations are an exception to a rule, to a best practice, or normal way of teaching. Womack states, “Ultimately, though, there is no normal, primary way of learning, only normalized methods made primary through frequent use. Material always changes as it moves from expert to novice. Every act of teaching is an accommodation because it creates certain conditions for students to learn and display learning.” Even though effective student learning means that the material is accessible, instructors have come to feel that “making material accessible to disabled students threatens academic rigor.”

Seen from another vantage point, inclusive teaching means eliminating barriers to learning, not eliminating intellectual challenges. Womack says, “Accommodation is the most basic act and art of teaching. It is not the exception we sometimes make in spite of learning, but rather the adaptations we continually make to promote learning.” She advocates accommodation of disabled students within a universal design framework.

Universal Design is the design and composition of an environment so that it can be accessed, understood and used to the greatest extent possible by all people regardless of their age, size, ability or disability.” Universal design is good for everyone. In your classroom, Womack suggests, for example, considering guidelines for dyslexic and blind readers, working under the assumption that by creating documents that more students can read, more students will read. She warns, however, that universal design must be used as a process, not to negate the need for accommodations, but to start to negotiate the means to accessibility for all.

In my next post I will look at the second part of Womack’s article, which provides suggestions for creating accessible documents, engaging students by using “cooperative language” and building flexibility into your course to empower students. “If instructors see the syllabus through the lens of disability, then the question becomes not how policies protect a normative standard but how far they extend inclusion.”

Macie Hall, Senior Instructional Designer
Center for Educational Resources

Image Source: Pixabay.com

The Open Faculty Patchbook: An OER on Pedagogy

We are seeing an increased interest in Open Educational Resources (OER) in our library and among faculty. [See Consider the OER an Innovative Instructor blog post by Marian Feldman, November 7, 2016.] What is an OER? Wikipedia defines open educational resources as being “freely accessible, openly licensed text, media, and other digital assets that are useful for teaching, learning, and assessing as well as for research purposes.”

With the skyrocketing costs of textbooks used in higher education, colleges have responded to student demand by instituting programs to support the production of OER texts, especially for discipline-standard introductory courses. There is a listing of OER initiatives, resources, and projects on the SPARC (the Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition) website. The Open Education Consortium also lists OER initiatives, including a list of open textbooks.

Image resembles a patchwork quilt with 26 hexagonal patches, each with a stylized image of a person representing the authors of the articles making up the book.By happenstance, I came across an OER written by faculty for faculty on pedagogy. The Open Faculty Patchbook was created by faculty at Fleming College in Peterborough, Ontario.  The Learning Design and Support Team at Fleming was tasked in 2016 with revising the faculty development model. Inspired by a presentation given by Robin DeRosa at the 2016 Open Education Conference in Richmond, Virginia, the team decided to create a how-to teach manual. They came up with the metaphor of a quilt, with each contributor creating a “patch” to add to the “community quilt of pedagogy.” Currently, there are 21 pieces describing how instructors do their work. Topics include cohort-based-learning, teaching within the Universal Design for Learning (UDL) framework, activating students’ background knowledge, formative assessments, facilitating deep learning, laboratory assessments, co-teaching, group work, and more.

The Patchbook was initially designed to cover the University of Michigan’s School of Education High Leverage Practices, which are described as “…the basic fundamentals of teaching. These practices are used constantly and are critical to helping students learn important content. The high-leverage practices are also central to supporting students’ social and emotional development. These high-leverage practices are used across subject areas, grade levels, and contexts. They are “high-leverage” not only because they matter to student learning but because they are basic for advancing skill in teaching.”

The patches in the Open Faculty Patchbook are relatively short, making this an easy to digest guidebook. It is also open to contributors for additional patches. At the end of the current book is the statement: “Future versions planned include ones focused on professional learning, digital pedagogy (online learning) and course design. If you would like to contribute, email ldsteam@flemingcollege.ca with the subject heading ‘I’m awesome. I want to add a Patch’. Your patch, when complete, would immediately appear on our WordPress site facultypatchbook.wordpress.com and be added to a Pressbook publication.”

Macie Hall, Senior Instructional Designer
Center for Educational Resources

Image Source: Open Faculty Patchbook

Teaching Transparently

Back in September 2015, The Innovative Instructor posted Do Your Students Understand the Assignment?, an article that examined the concept of transparent Semi-spherical transparent soap bubble on a grey wood surface.teaching. Transparent teaching helps students understand the why and how of their learning. Research from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas (UNLV) Transparency in Learning and Teaching Project (TILT) has shown that when students understand the task, its purpose, and the criteria for evaluating their work, they are more motivated and feel the work is more relevant. The TILT website has some excellent suggestions and resources for instructors, including examples of assignments from various disciplines presented in two versions, less transparent and more transparent, for comparison.

A recent post on Teaching Tidbits,  a blog sponsored by the Mathematical Association of America to keep higher ed math faculty up on advances in educational research and pedagogical practices by providing “…quality, evidence-based ideas with high impact and low time commitment that can be used by a wide audience,” examined teaching with transparency. [October 24, 2017, How Transparency Improves Learning by Darryl Yong] Although the focus is on teaching college mathematics, the key points are applicable to a range of subjects.

Yong starts by citing the work done at UNLV, noting in particular the finding that underrepresented students experienced the greatest improvement in learning outcomes when transparent teaching methods were used. Yong speculates that transparent teaching helps to level the playing field for these students.

A key to teaching more transparently is to see things from your students’ vantage points. What would they find “bewildering, frustrating or alienating?” Being transparent does not mean that you don’t expect the work to be challenging rather that you will “engage your students in a productive struggle.”

Providing instructions in more than one format is helpful. For example, you should include information on assignments in writing on your syllabus, verbally in class, and again in written form in handouts to be sure that students aren’t missing important details.

Yong says, “The amount of transparency that you provide to students depends on their maturity and the level of the course. There are times when you don’t want to be explicit about everything. For example, you don’t want to constrain their creativity by priming them with examples, you want them to struggle with figuring out what the first step should be, or you want them to be more independent in their learning.”

He concludes the post with some suggestions on transparency for mathematics courses, but even these can be translated to more general use. The concepts are:

  • Be sure that students understand discipline-specific terminology.
  • Be clear about the tools, applications, and resources are students allowed to use for assignments and exams.
  • Explain why you have chosen a particular assignment, project, or type of exam. Connect these choices to their learning outcomes. Share strategies that successful students have used in the past for assignments and evaluations. Share rubrics when used for grading. Share examples of successful projects.
  • Tell students why you have chosen the pedagogical strategies you use to teach.
  • Start each class by highlighting a relevant current area of research and the people doing it. If your field has not been inclusive in the past, acknowledge that and “showcase women and people of color in these highlights to engage in counter-stereotyping.”

Teaching transparently will involve more planning and preparation for your course. It also means teaching intentionally. Improved learning outcomes and greater student satisfaction will make it worth your effort.

Macie Hall, Senior Instructional Designer
Center for Educational Resources

Image Source: Pixabay.com

 

Midterm Course Evaluations

Many of us are reaching the mid-semester mark and students are anticipating or completing midterm exams. Perhaps you are in the throes of grading.  Now is a good time to think about letting your students grade you, in the sense of evaluating your teaching. Think of this as a type of formative assessment, an opportunity for you to make corrections to your teaching strategies and clarify student misconceptions.

There are several ways to obtain feedback and these evaluations do not needTwo buttons, green with a thumbs up and red with a thumbs down. to be lengthy. Examples and resources are explored below. Popular among instructors I’ve talked to are short, anonymous surveys, offered either online or on paper. Blackboard and other course management systems allow you to create surveys where student responses are anonymous but you can see who has responded and who has not, making it easy to track. You want to keep these evaluations focused with three or four questions, which might include: What is working in the class/what is not working? What change(s) would you suggest to improve [class discussions/lectures/lab sessions]? What is something you are confused about? Have you found [specific course assignment] to be a useful learning activity?

As the Yale Center for Teaching and Learning states on their website page Midterm Student Course Evaluations: “Midterm course evaluations (MCE) are a powerful tool for improving instructors’ teaching and students’ learning.  … MCE provide two critical benefits for teaching and learning: the temporal advantage of improving the course immediately, and the qualitative benefit of making teaching adjustments specific to the particular needs and desires of current students. In addition, MCE generally produce better quality feedback than end-of-term evaluations since students have a shared stake in the results and instructors can seek clarification on any contradicting or confusing responses.” The Yale site offers useful examples, strategies, and resources.

Michigan State University Academic Advancement Network offers a comprehensive guide with Mid-term Student Feedback, which includes research citations as well as examples. Here, too, you will find a list of resources from other universities on the topic, as well as more in-depth methods to gain student feedback. There is also a section with tips on effective use of information gained from student feedback.

A sampling survey-type midterm evaluations can be found in PDF format at the UC Berkeley Center for Teaching and Learning: Teaching Resources: Sample Midterm Evaluations. This document will get you off and running with little effort.

Ideally you will be using the results on the midterm exam or other learning assessment as a gauge along with the teaching evaluations. If the learning assessment is indicating gaps in content understanding, you can see how it aligns with feedback gained from the student evaluations. The value is that you can make timely course corrections. Another plus—students will see that you are genuinely interested in your teaching and their learning.

Macie Hall, Senior Instructional Designer
Center for Educational Resources

Image Source: Pixabay.com

Quick Tips: Considerations for Flipping Your Course

Text reading flipping the classroom with the classroom upside downThe Innovative Instructor is offering a quick tip during this busy first week of classes. Have you been thinking about flipping your class? We’ve written a number of posts on the subject previously—see the list below—but we’ve just released a new guide: Considerations for Flipping Your Class [PDF]. The guide will help focus your thinking by asking questions about activities planned for class time, addressing recording issues and student access to recordings, and suggesting best practices. The primary audience is the Johns Hopkins faculty that our center serves, but the guide will be useful to anyone in the initial phase of thinking about hybrid teaching. We recommend consulting the teaching and learning staff at your institution for assistance. The following articles may also provide insight as you plan your strategy for flipping your course.

  1. Flipping a Statistical Analysis Course (January 31, 2017) by Avanti Arthreya and Dan Naiman
  2. Lunch and Learn: Flipped courses: What is the purpose? What are the strategies? (October 26, 2016)
  3. A Manual for Flipping Your Classroom (January 14, 2015)
  4. Flipping Your Class Humanities Style? (March 10, 2014)
  5. Quick Tips: Flipping Your Classroom (August 14, 2013)
  6. 2013 GSI Symposium Breakout Session 3: Flipping the Classroom (February 20, 2013)
  7. Flipping Your Class (January 23, 2013)

Macie Hall, Senior Instructional Designer
Center for Educational Resources

Image Source: CC Macie Hall 2013

Facilitating and Evaluating Student Writing

Over the summer I worked on revising a manual for teaching assistants that we hand out each year at our annual TA Orientation. One of the sections deals with writing intensive courses across disciplines and how TAs can facilitate and evaluate writing assignments. The information, advice, and resources in the manual speak to an audience beyond graduate student teaching assistants. Even seasoned instructors may struggle with teaching writing skills and evaluating written assignments.

View from above and to the right of a woman's hands at a desk writing in a journal next to a lap top computer.Two mistakes that teachers may make are assuming that students in their courses know how to write a scholarly paper and not providing appropriate directions for assignments. These assumptions are likely to guarantee that the resulting student writing will disappoint.

As a quick aside, faculty often complain about the poor quality of student writing, claiming that students today don’t write as well as students in some vaguely imagined past, perhaps when the faculty member was a college freshman. However, the results of an interesting longitudinal study suggest otherwise. A report in JSTOR Daily, Student Writing in the Digital Age by Anne Trubek (October 19, 2016), summarizes the findings of the  2006 study by Andrea A. Lunsford and Karen J. Lunsford, Mistakes Are a Fact of Life: A National Comparative Study. “Lunsford and Lunsford, decided, in reaction to government studies worrying that students’ literacy levels were declining, to crunch the numbers and determine if students were making more errors in the digital age.” Their conclusion? “College students are making mistakes, of course, and they have much to learn about writing. But they are not making more mistakes than did their parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents.” Regardless of your take on the writing of current students, it is worth giving thoughtful consideration to your part in improving your students’ writing.

Good writing comes as a result of practice and it is the role of the instructor to facilitate that practice. Students may arrive at university knowing how to compose a decent five-paragraph essay, but no one has taught them how to write a scholarly paper. They must learn to read critically, summarize what they have read, identify an issue, problem, flaw, or new development that challenges what they have read. They must then construct an argument, back it with evidence (and understand what constitutes acceptable evidence), identify and address counter-arguments, and reach a conclusion. Along the way they should learn how to locate appropriate source materials, assemble a bibliography, and properly cite their sources. As an instructor, you must show them the way.

Students will benefit from having the task of writing a term paper broken into smaller components or assignments. Have students start with researching a topic and creating a bibliography. Librarians are often available to come to your class to instruct students in the art of finding sources and citing them correctly. Next, assign students to producing a summary of the materials they’ve read and identifying the issue they will tackle in their paper. Have them outline their argument. Ask for a draft. Considering using peer review for some of these steps to distribute the burden of commenting and grading. Evaluating other’s work will improve their own. [See the May 29, 2015 Innovative Instructor post Using the Critique Method for Peer Assessment.] And the opportunity exists to have students meet with you in office hours to discuss some of these assignments so that you may provide direct guidance and mentoring. Their writing skills will not develop in a vacuum.

Your guidance is critical to their success. This starts with clear directions for each assignment. For an essay you will be writing a prompt that should specify the topic choices, genre, length, formal requirements (whether outside sources should be used, your expectations on thesis and argument, etc.), and formatting, including margins, font size, spacing, titling, and student identification. Directions for research papers, fiction pieces, technical reports, and other writing assignments should include the elements that you expect to find in student submissions. Do not assume students know what to include or how to format their work.

As part of the direction you give, consider sharing with your students the rubric by which you will evaluate their work. See the June 26, 2014 Innovative Instructor post Sharing Assignment Rubrics with Your Students for more detail. Not sure how to create a rubric? See previous posts: from October 8, 2012 Using a Rubric for Grading Assignments, November 21, 2014 Creating Rubrics (by Louise Pasternak), and June 14, 2017 Quick Tips: Tools for Creating Rubrics. Rubrics will save you time grading, ensure that your grading is equitable, and provide you with a tangible defense against students complaining about their grades.

Giving feedback on writing assignments can be time consuming so focus on what is most important. This means, for example, noting spelling and grammar errors but not fixing them. That should be the student’s job. For a short assignment, writing a few comments in the margins and on the last page may be doable, but for a longer paper consider typing up your comments on a separate page. Remember to start with something positive, then offer a constructive critique.

As well, bring writing into your class in concrete ways. For example, at the beginning of class, have students write for three to five minutes on the topic to be discussed that day, drawing from the assigned readings. Discuss the assigned readings in terms of the authors’ writing skills. Make students’ writing the subject of class activities through peer review. Incorporate contributions to a class blog as part of the course work. Remember, good writing is a result of practice.

Finally, there are some great resources out there to help you help your students improve their writing. Perdue University’s Online Writing Lab—OWL—website is all encompassing with sections for instructors (K-12 and Higher Ed) and students. For a quick start go to the section Non-Perdue College Level Instructors and Students. The University of Michigan Center for Research on Learning and Teaching offers a page on Evaluating Student Writing that includes Designing Rubrics and Grading Standards, Rubric Examples, Written Comments on Student Writing, and tips on managing your time grading writing.

Macie Hall, Senior Instructional Designer
Center for Educational Resources

Image source: Photo by: Matthew Henry. CC License via Burst.com.

 

 

Back to School: From the Archives

Illustration of a blackboard with "Welcome to Class" written in white chalk.The Innovative Instructor blog is celebrating its five-year anniversary—we started posting in September 2012. To mark the beginning of the academic year, here are some tips and helpful hints in the form of posts from the archives to get instructors started on another successful semester. There are some new resources included as well.

Looking for advice on preparing for the first day of class and beyond? A post on from August 15, 2015, Back to School, offers some resources.  The Center for Teaching Excellence (CTE) at the University of Virginia has a great webpage on Teaching the First Day(s) of Class, with references to material on engaging students, creating an inclusive classroom, building rapport, learning names, and troubleshooting common teaching challenges.

What about using an icebreaker, an exercise or activity that provides an opportunity for students and the instructor to get to know one another? Take a look at the August 30, 2013 post Icebreakers for some ideas. Faculty Focus had a recent article, First Day of Class Activities that Create a Climate for Learning (July 19, 2017) that offers some other options.

Learning your students’ names is important to create a positive classroom climate. Even in a larger lecture course there are some ways to accomplish this task. See the post Learning Your Students’ Names from September 6, 2013 for tips and tricks. You can also download the guide Not Quite 101 Ways to Learn Students’ Names from the University of Virginia’s CTE website.

The use of mobile devices in the classroom, particularly smartphones, has become an issue faced by all faculty. It’s best to be clear about your policies on device use from day one. For strategies on dealing with this issue, see the October 12, 2012 post, Tips for Regulating the Use of Mobile Devices in the Classroom.

With these resources and strategies in hand, your semester should be off to a great start.

Macie Hall, Senior Instructional Designer
Center for Educational Resources

Image source: Pixabay.com

Writing Course Learning Goals

Today’s post is timely—many instructors are putting together syllabi for fall courses. This year, Johns Hopkins’ faculty who teach undergraduates are being urged to include course learning goals in their syllabi. Mike Reese, Associate Dean and Director of the Center for Educational Resources (CER), and Richard Shingles, a lecturer in Biology and Pedagogy Specialist in the CER, and created an Innovative Instructor print series article as an aid, shared below. If you are looking for other information on creating effective syllabi, type syllabus in the search box for this blog to see previous articles on the topic. Another resource for writing course learning goals is Arizona State University’s free Online Objectives Builder. It runs instructors through a logical process for creating course goals and objectives. Take the short tutorial and you are on your way.

 

Graphic illustration of three lit light bulbs.

What are course learning goals and why do they matter?

Effective teaching starts with thoughtful course planning. The first step in preparing a course is to clearly define your course learning goals. These goals describe the broad, overarching expectations of what students should be able to do by the end of the course, specifically what knowledge students should possess and/or what skills they should be able to demonstrate. Instructors use goals to design course assignments and assessments, and to determine what teaching methods will work best to achieve the desired outcomes.

Course learning goals are important for several reasons. They communicate the instructor’s expectations to students on the syllabus. They guide the instructor’s selection of appropriate teaching approaches, resources, and assignments. Learning goals inform colleagues who are teaching related or dependent courses. Similarly, departments can use them to map the curriculum. Departmental reviews of the learning goals ensure prerequisite courses teach the skills necessary for subsequent courses, and that multiple courses are not unnecessarily teaching redundant skills.

Once defined, the overarching course learning goals should inform the class-specific topics and teaching methods. Consider an example goal: At the end of the course, students will be able to apply social science data collection and analysis techniques. Several course sessions or units will be needed to teach students the knowledge and skills necessary to meet this goal. One class session might teach students how to design a survey; another could teach them how to conduct a research interview.

A syllabus usually includes a learning goals section that begins with a statement such as, “At the end of this course, students will be able to:” that is followed by 4-6 learning goals clearly defining the skills and knowledge students will be able to demonstrate.

Faculty should start with a general list of course learning goals and then refine the list to make the goals more specific. Edit the goals by taking into consideration the different abilities, interests, and expectations of your students and the amount of time available for class instruction. How many goals can your students accomplish over the length of the course? Consider including non-content goals such as skills that are important in the field.

Content goal: Analyze the key forces that influenced the rise of Japan as an economic superpower.
Non-content goal: Conduct a literature search.

The following list characterizes clearly-defined learning goals. Consider these suggestions when drafting goals.

Specific – Concise, well-defined statements of what students will be able to do.
Measurable – The goals suggest how students will be assessed. Use action verbs that can be observed through a test, homework, or project (e.g., define, apply, propose).

Non-measurable goal: Students will understand Maxwell’s Equations.
Measurable goal: Students will be able to explain in words and pictures the full set of Maxwell’s Equations in a vacuum.

Achievable – Students have the pre-requisite knowledge and skills to achieve the goals.
Relevant – The skills or knowledge described are appropriate for the course or the program in which the course is embedded.
Time-bound – State when students should be able to demonstrate the skill (end of the course, end of semester, etc.).

The most difficult aspect of writing learning goals for most instructors is ensuring the goals are measurable and achievable. In an introductory science course, students may be expected to recall or describe basic facts and concepts. In a senior humanities course, students may be expected to conduct deep critical analysis and synthesis of themes and concepts. There are numerous aids online that suggest action verbs to use when writing learning goals that are measurable and achievable. These aids are typically structured by Bloom’s Taxonomy – a framework for categorizing educational goals by their challenge level. Below is an example of action verbs aligned with Bloom’s Taxonomy.

Chart showing verbs aligned with Bloom's Taxonomy levels.

Avoid vague verbs like “understand” or “know” because it can be difficult to come to consensus about how the goal can be measured. Think more specifically about what students should be able to demonstrate.

Here are examples of learning goals for several different disciplines using a common introductory statement. “By the end of this course, students will be able to do the following…

“Propose a cognitive neuroscience experiment that justifies the choice of question, experimental method and explains the logic of the proposed approach.” (Cognitive Science)
“Articulate specific connections between texts and historical, cultural, artistic, social and political contexts.” (German and Romance Languages and Literature)
“Design and conduct experiments.” (Chemistry)
“Design a system to meet desired needs within realistic constraints such as economic, environmental, social, political, ethical, health and safety, manufacturability, and sustainability.” (Biomedical Engineering)

Additional Resources
Bloom’s Taxonomy article. http://cer.jhu.edu/files/InnovInstruct-BP_blooms-taxonomy-action-speakslouder.pdf
Blog post on preparing a syllabus. http://ii.library.jhu.edu/2017/02/23/lunch-and-learn-constructing-acomprehensive-syllabus

Authors
Richard Shingles
, Lecturer, Biology Department, JHU
Dr. Richard Shingles is a faculty member in the Biology department and also works with the Center for Educational Resources at Johns Hopkins University. He is the Director of the TA Training Institute and The Teaching Institute at JHU. Dr. Shingles also provides pedagogical and technological support to instructional faculty, postdocs and graduate students.
Michael J. Reese Jr., Associate Dean and Director, CER
Mike Reese is Associate Dean of University Libraries and Director of the Center for Educational Resources. He has a PhD from the Department of Sociology at Johns Hopkins University.

Images source: © 2017 Reid Sczerba, Center for Educational Resources

How Pretesting Can Help Your Students Fail Well

Our previous post When Failure is a Good Thing, looked at an initiative at Smith College called Failing Well, a set of programs that helps student understand that failing can lead to better learning. Today, The Innovative Instructor offers a concrete way in which you can introduce students to that concept.

Piece of lined, loose leaf notebook paper with six multiple choice questions. ABC or D is circled in red for each question.In Why Flunking Exams Is Actually a Good Thing (New York Times Magazine, September 4, 2104), Benedict Carey discusses the benefits of pretesting. He asks us to imagine that on the first day of a course we illicitly got a copy of the final exam. Would it help us to study more effectively and better attend to course readings, lecture materials, and class discussions? Undoubtedly it would. He then asks, “But what if, instead, you took a test on Day 1 that was just as comprehensive as the final but not a replica? You would bomb the thing, for sure. You might not understand a single question. And yet as disorienting as that experience might feel, it would alter how you subsequently tuned into the course itself — and could sharply improve your overall performance.” This is the concept of pretesting.

Carey calls it one of the most exciting developments in the science of learning field. “Across a variety of experiments, psychologists have found that, in some circumstances, wrong answers on a pretest aren’t merely useless guesses. Rather, the attempts themselves change how we think about and store the information contained in the questions. On some kinds of tests, particularly multiple-choice, we benefit from answering incorrectly by, in effect, priming our brain for what’s coming later.” The failure on the pretest is an example of failing well. It sets students up for better learning during the course. A study by U.C.L.A. psychologist Elizabeth Ligon Bjork found that “…pretesting raised performance on final-exam questions by an average of 10 percent compared with a control group.”

Carey cites additional studies of pretesting with the insight that “testing might be the key to studying” and a way of “enriching and altering memory.” More traditional ways of studying do not seem to produce the same depth of learning that frequent testing, including the kind of self-examination that includes recitation, appears to yield. Other studies have shown that immediacy of feedback—getting the correct answers soon after the pretest—led to the greatest learning gains.

Why does pretesting work? There are several theories. First it gives students a preview of the material and helps them “prime the brain” to absorb what is most important. A pretest sets up a hierarchy and adjusts student thinking. Secondly, it exposes false impressions, things students think they know but don’t, by conveying multiple possible answers that they may not have considered as possibilities. Biological factors may come into play as well. Guessing at an answer on a pretest works differently from the memory functions at play in remembering and studying. Guessing embeds an unfamiliar concept into the brain that will be recognized when come across again, particularly if that happens within a short timeframe.

There are limitations. For example, a pretest for an intro course in a foreign language using unfamiliar characters (Russian, Chinese, Arabic) wouldn’t work because students have no “scaffolding of familiar language to work with.” In fact, “[t]he research thus far suggests that prefinals will be much more useful in humanities courses and social-science disciplines in which unfamiliar concepts are at least embedded in language we can parse.”

What can we take away from Carey’s article? Because pretests don’t need to be graded, this can be an easy innovation to implement in your courses. A short multiple choice quiz given before your lecture or class discussion asking questions pertaining to the key points you will cover could make a big difference in your students’ learning of the material. To be sure that they leave with the right information, review the quiz and the correct answers at the end of class.

Macie Hall, Senior Instructional Designer
Center for Educational Resources

Image source: Pixabay.com

When Failure is a Good Thing

Smith College, and some other institutions of higher learning, are taking a new approach to failure and we should all be paying attention. At many colleges and universities, students strive for success at all costs; failure is not an option. There is a prevailing sense that peers are easily achieving great things with little effort, a B- is perceived as a bad grade, stress levels run high. At Smith, the time had come to call out both the ubiquity and the benefits of failure.

In On Campus, Failure is on the Syllabus (The New York Times, June 24, 2017), Jessica Bennett describes the initiative at Smith where students and faculty were videotaped describing their worst failure. These have been played at a campus hub during fall orientation and again during the final-exam period. In an atmosphere where everything seems pressured and competitive it was helpful to students to see that everyone struggles and that that is O.K.

The initiative, Failing Well, “…is a set of programs dedicated to the discussion of failure, risk taking and mistakes. …the mission is to increase student resilience by teaching, telling stories, and opening a campus conversation about failure.” The idea is to show students that their self-worth shouldn’t be tied solely to success, and that “failing well” can lead to unexpected bonuses. Given a set of skills and permission to “screw up” actually leads students to better learning and helps them to develop networks of resources.

Smith is not alone in this endeavor. Bennett lists other institutions engaged in similar “…remedial education that involves talking, a lot, about what it means to fail.” Today’s students have different needs in the real world and higher education should be preparing them appropriately.

As to the causes for the intense need to succeed, complicated forces and factors are at play, including child-rearing and cultural practices, “college admissions mania,” economic fears, social media, and a need to be busy, so called “competitive stress.”

Although an individual instructor may not be able to implement a campus-wide initiative, it is worth thinking about ways in which faculty can help students understand that failure is valuable to learning. In the next post, The Innovative Instructor will look at a specific practice of failure that enables better learning that anyone can use in teaching.

Macie Hall, Senior Instructional Designer
Center for Educational Resources

Image source: Pixabay.com