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

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

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

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

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

What is college for?

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

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

Here’s a sampling:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why bother with stories

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How textual analysis works

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ideas for writing assignments

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

Summarizing an academic article:

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

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

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

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

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

Entering a critical conversation about a text:

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

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

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


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

Images source: Pixabay.com

Lunch and Learn: Fostering an Inclusive Classroom

Logo for Lunch and Learn program showing the words Lunch and Learn in orange with a fork above and a pen below the lettering. Faculty Conversations on Teaching at the bottom.On Thursday, February 15, the Center for Educational Resources (CER) hosted the third Lunch and Learn—Faculty Conversations on Teaching, for the 2017-2018 academic year.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Macie Hall, Senior Instructional Designer
Center for Educational Resources

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


Fail (in order) to Succeed

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

These are valuable strategies for students and instructors alike.

Macie Hall, Senior Instructional Designer
Center for Educational Resources

Image Source: Pixabay.com

Quick Tips: Subscribe to the STEM|PROF Newsletter

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Macie Hall, Senior Instructional Designer
Center for Educational Resources

Image Source: STEM|PROF Newsletter Logo

Thinking about Accessibility Part 2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Macie Hall, Senior Instructional Designer
Center for Educational Resources

Image Source: Pixabay.com

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


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

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