PhysPort: Not Just for Physics Instructors

Screenshot of PhysPort home page.While tracking down some resources for active learning this past week, I stumbled on PhysPort, and wished I’d know about this site much sooner. PhysPort, formerly the Physics Education Research (PER) User’s Guide, supports “…physics faculty in implementing research-based teaching practices in their classrooms, by providing expert recommendations about teaching methods, assessment, and results from physics education research (PER). Work in PER has made enormous advances in developing a variety of tools that dramatically improve student learning of physics. Our goal is to synthesize and translate the results of this research so you can use it in your classroom today.” The thing is, many of the resources here will be valuable to faculty in any discipline and will help improve student learning in any course.

Certainly, some of the materials and examples are physics-specific; others may be more useful for STEM faculty generally. Yet, there is plenty here that will be appreciated by anyone looking for pedagogical resources, even Humanities faculty. The best thing is the emphasis on research-based strategies.

I liked the clean, clear structure of the site. There are five tabs at the top each page for easy navigation to the Home page, Expert Recommendations, Teaching Methods, Assessments, and Workshops.

On the Home page there are three areas for general help—Teaching (I want to…), Assessment (I want to…), and Troubleshooting (I need help with…). Clicking on a topic of interest will take you to a page with relevant materials and resources. Expert Recommendations are essentially articles/blog posts written by PhysPort staff and guest authors to help instructors. I’ve listed some articles of general interest further down.

Teaching Methods will take you to a form where you can enter information more specific to your course. You can enter subject from a drop down list (including “any subject” to keep results more generic), level, setting, student skills you’d like to develop, the amount of instructor effort required. You can choose the level of research validation, and exclude resources, such as computers for students or tables for group work, that may not be available to you. Below the form is the list of 57 Research-Based Methods that you can browse through if the form doesn’t provide you with relevant choices. Again, some of these are physics-specific, but others, like Just-in-Time-Teaching are broadly applicable. Each of the methods has tabs for Overview, Resources, Teaching Materials, and Research.

The Assessments tab allows you to explore “…where you can get instant analysis of your students’ scores on research-based assessment instruments, comparisons to national averages and students like yours, recommendations for improving your teaching, and reports for tenure and promotion files, teaching portfolios, and departmental accreditation.” It is also set up with a form at the top. You can scroll down to see a list of 92 Research-Based Assessments. Most of these are physics-based. But scroll to the bottom of the page for a few interactive teaching protocols that may be more generally appropriate.

The Workshops tab features video tutorials. Again, there is a mix of physics-specific and non-specific materials.

Back to my original quest for resources on active learning. Under Expert Recommendations tab of particular interest are a series of posts by Stephanie Chasteen, University of Colorado Boulder (June 20, 2017) on implementing active learning strategies in your classroom. These are applicable to any subject matter, not just physics or even STEM courses. Each topic covered has a section on further reading with a list of references, a general reading list, and suggested keywords for searching in the literature.

PhysPort is a rich resource for all faculty. Spend a little time digging around. You should come up with some great material.

Macie Hall, Senior Instructional Designer
Center for Educational Resources

Image Source: Screenshot of PhysPort home page: https://www.physport.or


Lunch and Learn: Alternatives to the Traditional Textbook

On Thursday, October 25, the Center for Educational Resources (CER) hosted 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.the first Lunch and Learn for the 2018-2019 academic year. Marian Feldman, Professor and Chair of History of Art, Professor of Near Eastern Studies; and Joanne Selinski, Associate Teaching Professor and Director of Undergraduate Studies, Computer Science; presented on Alternatives to the Traditional Textbook.

Marian Feldman started with a presentation on the Open Educational Resource (OER) she created several years ago for her courses on ancient Mesopotamian art [see slides]. She commented that Mesopotamian art may seem esoteric; not many people are readily familiar with the subject matter. Mesopotamian culture began in the 10th millennium BCE, centered in (but at times extending well beyond) what is now Iraq, and flourished in the Bronze and Iron Ages with the Sumerian, Akkadian, Babylonian, Assyrian, Neo-Assyrian, and Neo-Babylonian empires from the 3rd millennium to the 6th century BCE.

“Open Educational Resources are free and openly licensed educational materials that can be used for teaching, learning, research, and other purposes.” ( Feldman’s motivation for creating OER for her course stemmed in large part from the fact that there was no good textbook available. The only text, The Art and Architecture of the Ancient Orient (Frankfort) was published in 1954, and though new editions were released up until 1996, the material was not updated. In 2017, a new text, Art of Mesopotamia (Bahrani), was published, but at $90 a copy, Feldman plans to stick with the OER she developed as a free alternative for her students that is also more directly relevant to the materials she covers.

The OER has other value as well. When Mesopotamian art is introduced in a standard survey of art course, a $90 textbook is overkill, while the modularity of her OER works perfectly for an introductory approach. Feldman was also interested in highlighting these works of art in a time when many cultural heritage sites and objects in the region have been destroyed or are under threat. The OER as an open resource puts information in the public domain where it is easily accessible.

Screen shot of OpenStax CNX website home page.Feldman applied for and won Technology Fellowship Grants (2015 and 2016) from the Center for Educational Resources (CER) that allowed her to work with two graduate students in Near Eastern Studies, Megan Lewis and Avary Taylor, to undertake the project. The CER advised her on a platform for sharing the modules—OpenStax CNX at Rice University. From the website: “OpenStax publishes high-quality, peer-reviewed, openly licensed textbooks that are absolutely free online and low cost in print.” OpenStax CNX was a good fit because Feldman was not particularly technology oriented, and it offered a relatively easy-to-use platform. She also liked the “knowledge chunks” concept where content modules can be aggregated into a custom “text” for students. The platform uses a Creative Commons license and content is freely accessible to all.

Feldman and her graduate students created 15 modules over two years. Each module is stand alone, and many incorporate videos. The modules can be downloaded as a PDF—which students found useful for study purposes—although multimedia content such as videos is not viewable in the PDF. She noted that because the platform is open, she cannot track use by individual students to be sure that they are viewing the modules. However, end-of-course surveys of the students indicated that they had found the OER modules to be valuable course content. She received positive feedback from colleagues as well. The one complaint from students was that at times the platform was slow, particularly when playing multimedia clips and downloading materials.

There were challenges with creating the OER modules. Feldman acknowledged that it was a lot of work. All multimedia content—images, videos, interactive materials—had to be in the public domain or permission had to be obtained from the rights holders. There were some technological challenges with the platform. Feldman described it as “clunky” at times. The built in HTML editor was easy to use, but limiting for formatting purposes. She had hoped that having the students use the modules might allow her to do less in-class lecturing, but that was not the case.

Feldman has run some analytics on the modules, using Google Analytics, and discovered that beyond her own use (and that of her students), the modules have been viewed by others, but perhaps not as much as she might have hoped. Over a 12-month period excluding JHU use, the various modules were viewed between 6 and 150 times. There was a big spread on the IP access—viewers came to the site from around the world. The relatively small numbers of viewers for her modules on OpenStax CNX are in contrast to a TED-Ed Animation project she worked on during the same time period, targeted at the K-12 constituency. The Rise and Fall of the Assyrian Empire has received over a million views!

zyBooks website home page screenshot.Joanne Selinski introduced the audience to zyBooks, billed as an affordable, interactive, online textbook platform for STEM disciplines. Selinski is piloting the use of a zyBook for the Gateway Computing course she is teaching, although she had previously used a limited version of zyBooks in teaching a Java course. While zyBooks is not free, it is relatively low-cost, about $50 per student depending on instructor customizations.

Selenski noted that she had the opposite problem from Feldman—her field, computer science, is constantly changing and advancing so that texts become outdated quickly and must be updated frequently. Print texts simply can’t keep up with the changing curriculum. Moreover, courses are not standardized across departments and institutions, so a standardized text may not be flexible enough for adaptation to a particular curriculum. And, every instructor teaches standard courses differently, so there really is no such thing as a one-size-fits-all textbook. Thus the discipline has seen a move from print books to courseware on interactive platforms.

In Selinski’s experience, students didn’t read textbooks and she would have to repeat the information in class. Homework assignments applied the work done in class. Using zyBooks allowed her to flip her class model, with students learning concepts outside of class and doing applied work in class individually or in groups. She had wanted to flip her class previously, but didn’t want to use only videos for outside-of-class instruction. While she does use some videos as a supplement, zyBooks provided a great overall solution.

Selinski gave a demonstration of the customized zyBook that she developed for her Gateway Computing course. The modules are a mix of various types of demonstrations and exercises interspersed with fill-in-the-blank, true-false, and multiple choice questions. She finds that the quizzing while doing method is beneficial to student learning. There are challenge activities for students looking for more advanced work, but they are not required as in-class group work covers the challenge material. Everything is auto-graded. Selinski can choose which assignments will be graded. The biggest benefit is that students get introduced to the core material before they come to class.

Selinski noted that the company worked closely with her (and other JHU faculty in the pilot) to develop their texts from a menu of pre-created modules. She liked that zyBooks offers lots of options for customization. The interface is easy to use. She can add notes on the modules for specific instructions or to make comments. More advanced students can take advantage of extra materials. She was able to add a student who enrolled in the class late and change the deadlines/due dates for that individual. And, she can see who has done what in terms of the on-line work. Overall, zyBooks has great reporting features. Her one caveat was that students won’t do work unless it is required.

Because this is the first semester of use, she does not yet have data on student response to the platform, however informal comments suggest that students like it overall. She responded to student complaints that too much was required in the early part of the semester and reduced required material to some extent. She will like be more selective when using zyBooks next semester.

A lively discussion followed the presentations. There was a question about whether material from these alternative texts could be integrated into Blackboard, JHU’s course management system. In both cases, the answer is no, that these are separate platforms. Links to material can be provided in Blackboard, but the content resides on the platform—OpenStax or zyBooks.

Selinski was asked to elaborate on what students do during class time. Classes are small sections of 19 or fewer students, and she has a teaching assistant, so she can have them working individually or in small groups and oversee them all. Generally, there is an in-class assignment, activity, or problem to be solved that reflects the material covered in zyBooks. Sometimes students are working on paper, others times on their laptops, other times on the board. For some activities she may do a brief lecture for background before the students start working.

There were questions about the zyBooks platform, course development, and subscription model, and the availability of materials for students on both platforms after a course has ended. Selinski elaborated that zyBooks offers general texts that are updated frequently and can be customized by each instructor for their use. A course can be saved and copied for use in a subsequent semester. There is no sharing across institutions—another institution cannot readily see a JHU instance of a course. Students subscriptions are for the duration of the semester; after which they cannot access the course. They are able to download PDFs of content during the semester they are enrolled. Feldman noted that OpenStax CNX is by nature open and free accessible to anyone at any time.

There was some discussion about the benefits of interactivity, and there was agreement that modality should match the content being presented. As for print versus online, it is clear that it may come down to personal preference–some prefer reading online while others want a hard copy of a text. Feldman noted that the evolution of the Internet has led to a re-thinking of the concept of an intellectual canon for an area of humanistic study. The Internet allows a break from such narratives with inherent advantages and drawbacks. This has implications for how faculty teach and students learn. [See M.H. Feldman, Rethinking the Canon of Ancient Near Eastern Art in the Internet Age, Published Online: 2017-06-22, DOI:]

Finally, Mike Reese, Associate Dean of University Libraries, Director of the CER, and lecturer in Sociology, offered another alternative to the textbook that is free to students. In the courses he teaches he is committed to students not having to pay for textbooks. Instead he assigns materials such as e-books and research articles that are available to students through the library. This Lunch and Learn session demonstrated that there is more than one way to lower the cost of textbook materials for your students.

Macie Hall, Senior Instructional Designer
Center for Educational Resources

Image Sources: Web page screenshots

Tips for Teaching International Students

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Macie Hall, Senior Instructional Designer
Center for Educational Resources

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What’s New in the News?

Row of brightly colored newspaper boxes.At The Innovative Instructor, I follow other pedagogy blogs and publications, and have a few favorites that are frequently referenced in these pages, including Vanderbilt mathematics professor Derek Bruff’s Agile Learning (“educational technology, visual thinking, student motivation, faculty development, how people learn, social media, and more”), Faculty Focus (“higher education teaching strategies”), Pedagogy Unbound (“a place for college teachers to share practical strategies for today’s classrooms”), and Tomorrow’s Professor (“online faculty development 100 times per year”).

One old friend, ProfHacker, had been hosted since 2009 at the Chronicle of Higher Education, and is now becoming independent. Beginning Monday, October 1, 2018, you’ll find new posts, as well as archived material, at ProfHacker has long been a great resource for technology for instructors inside and outside of the classroom, including hacks for productivity and personal work as well as teaching and learning.

Another good blog retired last spring, but fortunately the posts are archived. Teaching Tidbits, hosted by the Mathematical Association of America, offered assistance with problems math instructors face, but many of the posts were relevant to all teaching faculty (e.g., 5 Ways to Respond When Students Offer Incorrect Answer, How Transparency Improves Learning).

Recently I have come across two new-to-me resources I’d like to share. The first is Mark Connolly’s (Associate Research Scientist, Wisconsin Center for Education Research, University of Wisconsin School of Education) STEM Professor Newsletter. This, like Tomorrow’s Professor, is an email subscription. Unlike Tomorrow’s Professor’s posts, back issues of the newsletter do not seem to be available online. You can see the first two issues on the website to get an idea of the content.

Second, the Chronicle of Higher Education now offers the Teaching Newsletter. The link will take you to a page where you can subscribe as well as see back editions with articles such as What Podcasts Can Teach Us About Teaching, When Your Course Suddenly Needs an Overhaul, How One Teaching Expert Activates Students’ Curiosity, and The 5 Tips for Student Success That a Longtime Instructor Swears By.

There’s lots of great advice, teaching strategies, and instructional resources offered in these blogs and publications. Now comes the challenge of finding time to read it all.

Macie Hall, Senior Instructional Designer
Center for Educational Resources

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Using Backward Design for Course Planning

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

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

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

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

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

Instructors planning a course should ask themselves three questions:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Macie Hall, Senior Instructional Designer
Center for Educational Resources

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Quick Tips: Pedagogy Unbound

When I discovered the Pedagogy Unbound website recently, it was like opening a box Screen shot from Pedagogy Unbound website showing a selection of articles, arranged as squares in a grid, to choose from.of assorted chocolates and being presented with a wide selection of delicious choices. Chocolate ganache? “Use Monte Carlo Quizzes to promote student engagement.” Raspberry cream? “Give participation marks two weeks at a time.” Caramel crunch? “Engage students with project-based pedagogy.” You could spend an afternoon and devour the entire selection.

Pedagogy Unbound is both a website founded by David Gooblar (lecturer, Department of Rhetoric, University of Iowa), and a regular column in the Chronicle of Higher Education’s Vitae website. I was familiar with Gooblar’s columns; the Innovative Instructor has cited his work in the past. His advice in the articles is always thoughtful and useful.

The website “aims to provide a space for college teachers from all disciplines to easily share the practical strategies that have worked for them in their classrooms.” Not only can you benefit from the experiences of other instructors, you can share your own successful innovations by submitting a tip.

This summer, I encourage you to open a box of pedagogical treats by visiting both versions of Pedagogy Unbound and indulge.

Macie Hall, Senior Instructional Designer
Center for Educational Resources

Image Source: Screen shot from Pedagogy Unbound

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.

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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

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