Establishing Ground Rules for Student-Instructor Communication

Perusing the Sunday Review in the New York Times recently, I came across a White pill bottle with blue and yellow labe for Etiquette tablets. Instructions read, "Students: take two tablets before each class and when sending emails to your instructor."piece by Molly Worthen, U Can’t Talk to Ur Professor Like This (May 13, 2017) that I thought deserved a share. As a beginning instructor, Worthen grappled with trying to seem cool, but she says …” [a]fter one too many students called me by my first name and sent me email that resembled a drunken late-night Facebook post, I took a very fogeyish step.” As part of her syllabus she included an attachment with basic etiquette for addressing faculty and writing “polite, grammatically correct emails.”  Worthen also cites a similar set of guidelines created by Mark Tomforde who teaches mathematics at the University of Houston. This practice may be on the increase as faculty are dealing with students whose communication skills are based on the informality of social media.

Women and minorities in particular may find that requesting students use formal titles and proper etiquette helps ensure deference not always given to non-white male faculty. Instructors note that stating on the syllabus they wish to be addressed as Professor or Doctor Last-Name helps to establish authority. Further, by linking the preference to mutual respect, by asking students how they wish to be addressed, can help to establish an inclusive classroom climate.

Providing guidelines for email will not only save you from dealing with the frustrating “Yo prof! I need to make up that exam!” type messages, but it will help students learn how to be professional in their interactions. This will serve these young adults well as they transition to the workplace. As Worthen says, “Insisting on traditional etiquette is also simply good pedagogy. It’s a teacher’s job to correct sloppy prose, whether in an essay or an email. And I suspect that most of the time, students who call faculty members by their first names and send slangy messages are not seeking a more casual rapport. They just don’t know they should do otherwise — no one has bothered to explain it to them. Explaining the rules of professional interaction is not an act of condescension; it’s the first step in treating students like adults.”

Some additional resources for creating classroom guidelines see:

 

Macie Hall, Senior Instructional Designer
Center for Educational Resources

Image Source: Pixabay.com image modified by Macie Hall.

How to get students to focus on learning, not grades

Here at Johns Hopkins we have a significant number of undergraduates who are pre-med students majoring in a range of mostly STEM disciplines. For many, their undergraduate studies are a milestone to be marked on the way to a degree in medicine. Getting into medical school is the goal, and grades are seen as critical to their success in meeting that objective. Of course, it’s not a problem just for pre-meds, we see it across the board. Instructors understand that grades are important, but do not necessarily equate to future success. It’s the learning that counts. So how do we get students to focus on the learning not the grades?

Students watching demonstration of frog dissection.An editorial from Inside Higher Ed Too Smart to Fail? (August 16, 2016), by Joseph Holtgreive, Assistant Dean and Director of the Office of Personal Development at Northwestern University’s McCormick School of Engineering, summarizes the challenges that face faculty and students. The “fear of failing to be perfect, ideally an effortless perfection, versus the joy of learning” creates situations where students opt for an easy grade as opposed to challenging themselves to learn. Holtgrieve has found this to be a problem particularly for students who did well academically in high school with little effort. Such students come to college focused on the “wrong outcome”—a high GPA—thinking “they’re keeping their eyes on the ball, they are actually just staring at the scoreboard.” While this affirms their measure of performance as long as their grades exceed their efforts, it can create a problem when their efforts exceed their grades.

Holtgreive points out that “[f]ocusing on the measurement of our performance reinforces what researcher Carol Dweck calls a fixed mind-set. If students believe that how they perform at one moment in time exposes the limits of their potential rather than serving merely as a snapshot of where they are in the process of growing their abilities, feelings of struggle and uncertainty become threatening rather than an opportunity to grow.” Focusing attention on grades may limit learning. On the other hand, when students can be convinced to “…set their intention to be genuinely curious and authentically excited by the challenge of finding connections between their current knowledge and new opportunities to understand, they experience the true joy of learning and all of the spoils that attend it.”

To find ways to help students “…reposition thinking about grades and learning,” Maryellen Weimer, PhD, offers some practical ideas in Five Ways to Get Students Thinking about Learning, Not Grades, from Faculty Focus, April 12, 2017.

  1. Position assignments as learning opportunities by discussing the “knowledge and skills” required rather than as something they are doing to “please the teacher.” Ask students to consider what they will learn in doing the work.
  2. Help students reflect on learning experiences throughout the course. Ask them to think about their professional ambitions and the skills and knowledge they will need. Have them make a list of those and use the list after every assignment or activity to write a short reflection on how the work they completed furthered their development.
  3. Create evolving assignments rather than one time tasks or activities. “One-time assignments don’t illustrate how learning is an evolving process and they don’t teach students how to do more work on something they have already done.” Instead, have students write a paper one step at a time (research a topic and create a bibliography, submit a thesis statement and an outline, write a first draft, revise, etc.), complete a multi-phase project, write a series of reflections and responses on a subject. Provide feedback but not grades for each phase.
  4. Encourage peer collaboration by structuring group learning and making sure that students are asking the right questions of each other.
  5. Change the conversation by talking about learning with students. Help students see how learning, not grades, will relate to their future professional goals.

Shifting the focus from grades to learning requires faculty to go against the tide of today’s prevailing academic culture. But making a few changes in how you think about teaching can go a long way to improving student perceptions of the importance of learning.

Macie Hall, Senior Instructional Designer
Center for Educational Resources

Image Source: Pixabay.com

Learning from Student Evaluations

The end of the semester is looming and with it the specter of student course evaluations.There are three face emoticons--yellow neutral face on the left, green smilely face in the center, and red frown face on the right. A hand with the index finger extended is pointing in the direction of the viewer at the yellow smiley face. On the whole, instructors dread dealing with these. Many question the value of institutionally administered evaluations.  Some ignore them, others read them and weep. It’s hard to consider student evaluations and not feel personally affronted by negative comments. You’ve worked hard, done your best, and the students are ungrateful. But maybe there is a better approach. Rather than going on the defensive, how can faculty use these evaluations to improve their teaching, and ultimately, improve student feedback?

Maryellen Weimer, What Can We Learn from End-of-Course Evaluations? (Faculty Focus, March 8th, 2017) suggests developing an “improvement mindset.” “Rather than offering answers, [student evaluations] can be used to raise questions. ‘What am I doing that’s causing students to view my teaching this way?’ Such questions need to lead us to specific, concrete behaviors—things teachers are or aren’t doing.” Weimer suggests looking at the Teaching Practices Inventory developed by Carl Wieman, Professor of Physics at Stanford,  and Sarah Gilbert, Department of Physics and Graduate School of Education at Stanford, as “…a great place to start acquiring this very detailed, nuts and bolts understanding of one’s instructional practice.” Although the inventory was developed with the STEM disciplines in mind, it is easily adaptable for teaching in other fields. An article by Weiman and Gilbert, The Teaching Practices Inventory: A New Tool for Characterizing College and University Teaching in Mathematics and Science, [CBE Life Science Education. 2014 Fall; 13(3):552-69. doi: 10.1187/cbe.14-02-0023], provides additional background and context.

There are other ways to improve teaching and thus evaluations. An underused resource to improve one’s teaching is classroom observation.  Weimer mentions peer observations in her article, but teaching and learning centers such as ours, the Center for Educational Resources, often provide this service for instructors. She also notes the value of formative assessment—seeking timely feedback from students during the course “…when there’s still time to make changes and students feel they have a stake in the action.”

For some solid, common sense advice that’s easy to put into practice, see David D. Perlmutter’s How to Read a Student Evaluation (The Chronicle of Higher Education, October 30, 2011). Perlmutter recommends “scanning for red flags”—the comments/complaints that a number of students make that, by paying attention and correcting, “…can help you head off longer-term troubles.”

He also recommends thinking ahead. Prepare yourself for the evaluations by taking the questions asked into account when designing your courses, and using them as a checklist for your teaching. Perlmutter also suggests how to tease out the qualitative data in open comments, and advises balancing negative comments against positive quantitative ratings. His take is to “…pay attention to student evaluations, try to understand them, and, equally important, communicate that you do not dismiss them as irrelevant.”

Finally, the Vanderbilt Center for Teaching offers a full set of resources, articles, and advice on their website page: Student Evaluations of Teaching. From talking with students, to making sense of evaluation feedback, to research on student evaluations, it’s all here in one convenient location.

Now there is no excuse. Prepare yourself and vow to use student evaluations as a means to improve your teaching skills. Better evaluations will await you in the future.

Macie Hall, Senior Instructional Designer
Center for Educational Resources

Image Source: Pixabay.com

Silence is Golden

A recent post in Tomorrow’s Professor by Joseph Finckel, Associate Professor of English at Asnuntuck Community College in Connecticut, suggested an innovative approach to teaching courses that have a discussion-based component. He writes: “I teach English, and midway through the spring 2013 semester, I lost my voice. Rather than cancelling my classes, I taught all my courses, from developmental English to Shakespeare, without saying a word.”

Black and white drawing of a man with his mouth taped shut.In The Silent Professor, Finckel notes that with an instructor-centric approach, talking is often confused with teaching. What he observed when he had laryngitis has compelled him to “lose his voice” at least once a semester since. “A wealth of literature focuses on active learning and learner-centered instruction, but I submit that nothing empowers learners as immediately and profoundly as does removing the professor’s voice from the room.”

Finckel points out that there are non-verbal actions the instructor can employ such as writing on the board, posing questions by typing into a projected document, and using gestures. Further, he tells us that considering when and for what reasons to speak assists developing “…an intentional, reflective teaching practice.” Student response has been positive. Finckel feels that is because he is creating a situation where learning will occur. “Teaching without talking forces students to take ownership of their own learning and shifts the burden of silence from teacher to student. It also forces us to more deliberately plan our classes, because we relinquish our ability to rely on our knowledge and experience in the moment.”

Although such an approach wouldn’t be appropriate for a large lecture class, it is useful to think about whether talking too much or too soon inhibits students. In working with faculty who teach discussion-based courses, one pitfall is being afraid of the silence after asking a question. It’s all too easy to fall into the habit of answering the question yourself when the silence is deafening. That simply reinforces the students’ belief that if they wait long enough, they’ll be off the hook.

Check out the article for more details on implementing the silent approach. Maybe that next case of laryngitis will be an opportunity rather than bad luck.

Macie Hall, Senior Instructional Designer
Center for Educational Resources

Image source: Pixabay.com

Writing Effective Learning Objectives

The following post first appeared as an article in our Innovative Instructor print series.

Illustration of a light bulb with the word goals forming the filament and being written by a hand holding a pencil.Effective teaching depends upon effective planning and design. The first step in preparing a high quality course is to clearly define your educational goals, which are the broad, overarching expectations for student learning and performance at the end of your course. Next is to determine your learning objectives by writing explicit statements that describe what the student(s) will be able to do at the end of each class or course module. This includes the concepts they need to learn, and the skills they need to acquire and be able to apply.

Learning objectives are made up of 3 parts:

  1. Behavior: a description of what the learner will be able to do.
  2. Criterion: the quality or level of performance that will be considered acceptable.
  3. Conditions: a description of conditions under which the student will perform the behavior.

The following is a learning objective that has each of the three parts listed above:  After completing this class students will be able to write an historical article in chronological order when given a random list of events about the Second World War.

Instructors should be thinking about what a successful student in their course should be able to do on completion. Questions to ask are: What concepts should they be able to apply? What kinds of analysis should they be able to perform? What kind of writing should they be able to do? What types of problems should they be solving? Learning objectives provide a means for clearly describing these things to learners, thus creating an educational experience that will be meaningful.

Clearly defined objectives form the foundation for selecting appropriate content,Diagram of the relationships between Learning Objectives and Learning Activities and Evaluation Plan indicating that learning objectives should both inform and be informed by learning activities and the evaluation plan. learning activities and evaluation plans. Learning objectives allow you to:

  • plan the sequence for instruction, allocate time to topics, assemble materials and plan class outlines.
  • develop a guide to teaching allowing you to plan different instructional methods for presenting different parts of the content. (e.g. small group discussions of a common misconception).
  • facilitate various evaluation activities, evaluating students, evaluating instruction and even evaluating the curriculum.

Learning objectives should have the following SMART attributes.

  • Specific – objectives that are clearly stated and consistent with the goals of the curriculum.
  • Measurable – data can be collected to measure student learning.
  • Appropriate – for the level of the learner.
  • Realistic – objectives that are doable.
  • Tailored – to the worthy or important stuff.

Another useful tip for learning objectives is to use behavioral verbs that are observable and measurable. Fortunately, Bloom’s taxonomy provides a list of such verbs [see this list from Cornell University’s Center for Teaching Excellence] and these are categorized according to the level of achievement at which students should be performing. (See “Bloom’s Taxonomy: Action Speaks Louder” from the Innovative Instructor series). Using concrete verbs will help keep your objectives clear and concise.

Here is a selected, but not definitive, list of verbs to consider using when constructing learning objectives: assemble, construct, create, develop, compare, contrast, appraise, defend, judge, support, distinguish, examine, demonstrate, illustrate, interpret, solve, describe, explain, identify, summarize, cite, define, list, name, recall, state, order, perform, measure, verify, relate.

While the verbs above clearly distinguish the action that should be performed, there are a number of verbs to avoid when writing a learning objective. The following verbs are too vague or difficult to measure: appreciate, cover, realize, be aware of, familiarize, study, become acquainted with, gain knowledge of, comprehend, know, learn, understand.

Since Blooms taxonomy establishes a framework for categorizing educational goals, having an understanding of these categories is useful for planning learning activities and ultimately, writing their learning objectives. The following list of learning objectives are written at each of the six levels in Bloom’s taxonomy.

  • Remembering: The students will recall the four major food groups without error.
  • Understanding: The students will summarize the main events of a story in grammatically correct English.
  • Applying: The students will multiply fractions in class with 90% accuracy.
  • Analyzing: Students will discriminate among a list of possible steps to determine which one(s) would lead to increased reliability for a testing a concept.
  • Evaluating: Evaluate the appropriateness of the conclusions reached in a research study based on the data presented.
  • Creating: After studying the current economic policies of the United States, student groups will design their own fiscal and monetary policies.

Additional Resources

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Richard Shingles, Lecturer, Biology Department

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 Summer Teaching Institute on the Homewood campus of JHU. Dr. Shingles also provides pedagogical and technological support to instructional faculty, post-docs and graduate students.

Images source: © Reid Sczerba, Center for Educational Resources, 2016

 

Updating the BlogRoll

The Center for Educational Resources launched The Innovative Instructor blog four years ago in September 2012. Recently, in my role as editor, I was checking over the pages and links to be sure that everything still worked. I realized that several of the blogs featured on the BlogRoll had ceased to be or were no longer being updated. Three down.

Screenshot of WordPress administrative menu to add new content.What to add? There are many good education-related blogs out there so it was difficult to narrow the choice to three. And I wanted to find candidates that didn’t overlap in too much in focus and philosophy. Here are the winners, which you can find linked on the right sidebar under BLOGROLL. Scroll down past RECENT POSTS, RECENT COMMENTS, ARCHIVES, and CATEGORIES.

Agile Learning is Derek Bruff’s blog on teaching and technology. Bruff is director of the Vanderbilt University Center for Teaching and a senior lecturer in the Vanderbilt Department of Mathematics. He says about Agile Learning, “This is my blog, where I write about topics that interest me: educational technology, visual thinking, student motivation, faculty development, how people learn, social media, and more.” Recent posts have covered Teaching with Digital Timelines, Flipping the Literature Class, and In-Class Collaborative Debate Mapping, or How a Mathematician Teaches a Novel.

Pedagogy Unbound is a regular column covering pedagogical advice from Vitae, a service of The Chronicle of Higher Education. David Gooblar is the editor/columnist. Gooblar is a lecturer in the Rhetoric Department at the University of Iowa. He describes the site as a place for college instructors to share teaching strategies. Recent columns include Learning More About Active Learning, 4 Simple Ways to Help Them Persist, and Start Planning Now for Next Semester.

Faculty Focus  from Magna Publications “…publishes articles on effective teaching strategies for the college classroom — both face-to-face and online.” Magna Publications serves the higher ed community.  Faculty Focus covers a range of topics primarily teaching-related, but also things such as academic leadership, edtech news and trends, and faculty evaluation. There is a lot of useful content on the site from practical to pedagogical. The Teaching Professor Blog will be of particular interest with recent posts on What Does Student Engagement Look Like? and a follow-up Six Things Faculty Can Do to Promote Student Engagement.

If your summer “to do” list included catching up on new teaching strategies, these sites will provide you with plenty of inspirational reading material.

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Macie Hall, Senior Instructional Designer
Center for Educational Resources

Images source: Pixabay.com

How Do We Learn?

One of the online educational news sources that CER staff follow is Tomorrow’s Professor, edited by Rick Reis, a professor in Mechanical Engineering at Stanford University.  Tomorrow’s Professor is a newsletter with twice weekly postings. covering a range of topics having to do with faculty development, including academic careers, the academy, research, graduate students and postdocs, and teaching and learning.

Close up view of university students in a lecture setting.A recent posting (#1495) was a reprint from Ralf St. Clair, “Engaged and Involved Learners,” chapter two from Creating Courses for Adults: Design for Learning, Copyright © 2015 John Wiley & Sons, Inc. In it St. Clair poses the questions, how do we teach people to learn and how can we design education that will facilitate learning. To get at the answers, he examines how people learn. St. Clair discusses two groups of ideas on learning, behaviorism and sociocultural learning approaches.

Theories of behaviorism share the concept “…that all learning always produces a change in behavior.” It’s precision appeals to educators “…because our actions as educators have demonstrable results and the outcome is absolutely clear.” Behaviorism has provided educators with valuable tools for curricular development (i.e., backward design) and assessment. The perceived downsides are that its approaches can seem mechanistic, and that it may appear to discount learning without a defined outcome. And, behaviorism does not give much guidance for social aspects of learning.

Students watching demonstration of frog dissection.Another area of learning theory addresses those concerns. “Sociocultural learning approaches represent an attempt to understand the ways that people learn from others.” The key points are that “learning is always social,” communities of practice play a critical role, apprenticeship is an important model, learning is a dynamic process, and teaching should be flexible to accommodate differing applications. Problem-based learning (PBL) is an example of sociocultural learning.

St. Clair also mentions the theory of transformative learning. “In this model of adult learning, people possess schema, or ways of looking at the world, that help them make sense of what they see… .” When things change, the person experiences a “disorienting dilemma.” The only way to resolve the dilemma is “…to learn so that their world makes sense again.”

In this chapter, St. Clair proposes taking aspects of each of these ideas to create a new model for learning. “Such a model would have these beliefs at its core:

  • Learning is a social process conducted, either more or less directly, with other humans.
  • People begin to learn by trying peripheral activities, then take on more complex activities as they grow in confidence and see other people perform them.
  • Individuals will repeat actions that are associated with a reward, including the approval of peers.
  • Even if the aim of the learning is not behavioral, having an associated behavioral outcome can make it easier to communicate and assess.
  • People learn most, and most profoundly, when faced with a dilemma or need to understand something relevant to them.”

St. Clair goes on to describe what teachers need to do to support learning under this model. Using active learning exercises, scaffolding content, and encouraging student understanding and mastery are crucial concepts. He notes that this model allows students to have control over their learning, to build connections and move from simple to more complex ideas, and encourages collaboration.

Suggestions for adhering to the model are offered. St. Clair notes that “The primary role of educators is to create the relationships and the context that can bring about this type of engagement.” The article is well worth reading in its entirety.

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Macie Hall, Senior Instructional Designer
Center for Educational Resources

Images source: Pixabay.com

In Her Words: Alison Papadakis on Teaching

Five times a year the Center for Educational Resources publishes an e-newsletter that is distributed to Johns Hopkins University faculty in the schools of Arts & Sciences and Engineering. Most of the content is of local interest: “… [highlighting] resources that can enhance teaching or research or facilitate faculty administrative tasks.” A recurring feature is the Faculty Spotlight, in which a CER staff member interviews an instructor about their teaching interests. For the April 2016 edition, the interview was presented as a video rather than text. Because it is of general interest, I wanted to share it.

Alison Papadakis received an AB in Psychology from Princeton University, and an MA and PhD in Clinical Psychology from Duke University. She taught in the Department of Psychology at Loyola University Maryland from 2005 to 2014, before accepting a position as Associate Teaching Professor and Director of Clinical Psychological Studies in the Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences at Johns Hopkins. She is also a licensed psychologist in the state of Maryland. Among her many awards are several that speak to her success as a teacher, advisor, and mentor: 2015-2016 JHU Faculty Mentor for Provost’s Undergraduate Research Award, 2014-2016 JHU Faculty Mentor for Woodrow Wilson Fellowship Grant, and 2015 JHU Undergraduate Advising Award, Krieger School of Arts and Sciences.

At JHU Papadakis is teaching three undergraduate courses: Abnormal Psychology (enrollment 200), Child and Adolescent Psychopathology (enrollment 40), Child and Adolescent Psychopathology (enrollment 19), and Research Seminar in Clinical Psychology (enrollment 19). The large enrollment for Abnormal Psychology was a particular challenge for her after the small classes she taught at Loyola Maryland. As she notes in the video she sought ways of teaching much larger classes and keeping a conversational style and an environment that engages students. Papadakis also talks about ways in which she sets expectations for students and specific activities she uses in class.

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Macie Hall, Senior Instructional Designer
Center for Educational Resources

Lunch and Learn: Alternatives to the Research Paper

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 Friday, April 1, the Center for Educational Resources (CER) hosted the fifth Lunch and Learn—Faculty Conversations on Teaching, the final event in the program for this academic year. Bill Leslie, Professor, History of Science, and Adam Sheingate, Associate Professor and Chair, Political Science, presented on Alternatives to the Research Paper.

Bill Leslie, who has been at Hopkins since 1981, teaches a number of different undergraduate and graduate courses. He has long been a proponent of finding alternate methods for students to present the results of their research. He pointed out that the key components for traditional humanities courses are to have students working with primary and secondary resources, analyzing their findings, thinking critically about the meaning, and using succinct, precise writing to convey the results. While a research paper is a long-established format for output of this work, there are many other ways for students to learn and practice these key skills.

Leslie mentioned specifically his course taught some years ago, “Monuments and Memory,” a study of the great monuments of Western culture, where as a final assignment, students created either real or virtual models of an imagined monument. Another example cited was “Science on Display,” a history of popular science examined through the study of exhibits in museums, botanical gardens, and science centers. In this course students created their own museums on a subject of interest to them and designed an exhibit that would be found in that museum.  The course used a web-based application developed by the Center for Educational Resources (CER) called the Interactive Map Tool, where the students could easily create web pages to showcase their museum exhibits. A new version of the Map Tool, called Reveal, has been used by Leslie more recently for student assignments in the course “Science and the City,” co-taught with Robert Kargon and Joris Mercelis, both faculty in the History of Science department.

Screenshot from Google Site for the course project “Johns Hopkins: An Idea of a University,” Home Page with Google Map.Currently Leslie is writing a history of Johns Hopkins University, a subject that brings together many of his scholarly interests. As part of this work he has offered a series of courses for undergraduates that draw from his research. For one course he had students write new or edit existing Wikipedia entries pertaining to Johns Hopkins [see: Wikipedia editing tutorial for a guide]. Students learned about responsible research, editing, and engaged in dialog with other Wikipedia editors. The history function of the wiki allowed Leslie to see exactly what changes the students had made and when. This proved to be of value in grading the students on their work.

ThisScreenshot from Google Site for the course project “Johns Hopkins: An Idea of a University,” showing page on the Abel Wolman House. spring Leslie is offering a course called “Johns Hopkins: An Idea of a University.” With a small grant from the CER, Leslie is looking to teach narrative and visualization skills to his students; specifically, students are learning to build a narrative using images depicting the spaces that make up Johns Hopkins: laboratories, classrooms, campus spaces. The students started by learning how to read a single image and moved towards selecting a sequence of images to form a story. He has been working with CER staff to have the students combine Google Sites, Maps, and Drive to display the students’ research projects.

Sheingate assigns his students (class of 20) to groups of four. The students are introduced to the concepts of field observation, interviewing skills, and data collection in the classroom. He works with students to identify an appropriate place in Baltimore City for investigation of the food system—an urban farm, local grocery, soup kitchen, or farmers’ market. Student groups are expected to make several visits to their chosen site. Groups use Google Docs to facilitate their data collection, which also allows Sheingate to monitor their progress.

Sheingate uses Blackboard’s discussion board and has the students write reactions to the weekly reading assignments; this record becomes a collective resource for the class to draw on. Further, he breaks down the final project, which includes a group oral presentation and an individual paper, into assignments that are spread out through the semester. This prevents procrastination. He provides very specific guidelines for the oral presentations including elements that must be included such as data visualizations.

As the final component, each student submits an individual paper written in response to a precise prompt. The paper is based on the group’s work, but relies on the individual’s experience. This makes it less likely that students will be able to cheat or plagiarize. Sheingate provides students with guidelines for what is expected.

He also teaches a larger lecture course on rotation. He has the students in that course complete several small written assignments during the semester based on analyzing primary documents.

Sheingate pointed out that students coming into university today may not be as well-prepared as previously to write a long-form research paper. There are fewer college-level courses where they may be required to write. It’s important to think about how to teach our students to write in ways that will be helpful to their future careers. There are different kinds of writing that can be useful for students to practice, including op-ed pieces, briefs, and scholarly articles. Bringing in a writing coach/teacher to help students in a writing-intensive class might be useful. He emphasized the value of giving students a rubric for a writing assignment that can be returned to them with the graded work. This can act as a diagnostic tool if used early in the semester.

When a research paper is assigned, it is helpful to scaffold assignments to be due over the course of the semester—breaking them down into components (working with primary and secondary sources, preparing an annotated bibliography, writing an abstract) will help students focus on developing specific writing skills with feedback at each step.

In the discussion that followed the presentations, faculty suggested blogging, creating posters, and oral presentations as research paper alternatives they have used successfully.

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Macie Hall, Senior Instructional Designer
Center for Educational Resources

Image sources: Lunch and Learn logo by Reid Sczerba, Center for Educational Resources. Other images are screenshots of Bill Leslie’s students’ work in the course “Johns Hopkins: An Idea of a University.”

 

 

How Do You Get Your Students to Do the Assigned Reading?

Female with glasses reading a textbook.Recently I had a discussion with faculty about reading assignments. The perennial problem? Faculty assign but students don’t read. The faculty I work with aren’t the only ones facing this problem. David Gooblar, They Haven’t Done the Reading. Again. [The Chronicle of Higher Education, Vitae, Pedagogy Unbound, September 24, 2014], starts off by citing research showing that on a given day in class 70% of the students will not have done the assigned reading. He dismisses the use of quizzes as punitive and time-consuming. What to do instead?

Gooblar suggests starting by making sure that the assigned reading is really necessary. Students prioritize their work and won’t bother with the reading if they feel it is not essential. Make sure that your required reading aligns with course objectives and can be completed in a reasonable amount of time. Show students that the reading is, indeed, necessary. At the end of class preview the upcoming reading assignment, explain how it fits into the material to be covered in the next class, and give the students some questions to consider as they do the reading.

Handouts created for the students can be useful, Gooblar writes. These can be specific to each reading assignment or more general to be used for all the readings. Questions posed in handouts help prepare students for in-class discussion. End by asking “What one question would you like me to answer in class about the reading?”  Instead of a quiz, create a questionnaire to gauge problems students are having with the reading. “By asking questions that point to the use you’ll make of the reading, you’ll underline the fact that the reading is indeed integral to the course. You’ll also provide yourself with useful information to guide your lecture or class discussion.” These questionnaires can be used to monitor students’ completion of the reading.

Finally, Gooblar advises making use of the information from the reading assignments in class without repeating it in detail. Why should students spend their time reading if you are going to tell them what they need to know? You want the reading to serve as a foundation for in-class discussion or use lecture time to build on the ideas presented in the reading.

A special report from Faculty Focus on Teaching offers 11 Strategies for Getting Students to Read What’s Assigned [Magna Publications, July 2010]. I’ve summarized the main point(s) of each one after the title, but the articles are all short, so it won’t take long to review the full report.

  • Enhancing Students’ Readiness to Learn: Being explicit with your students about expectations [concerning the reading assignments] and assessing their preparedness improves motivation and learning outcomes
  • What Textbook Reading Teaches Students: Make sure your students understand why you are assigning textbook readings and how it relates to other course content. Don’t repeat the exact information in class and thus make it easy for students to skip the reading.
  • Getting Students to Read: Design your course so that students must do the reading to do well. Create assignments that require more than passive reading, structuring these so that students must engage with and respond to the reading.
  • Helping Students Use Their Textbooks More Effectively: Suggestions in this article include giving explicit requirements, introducing the text in class, and offering students effective textbook study practices.
  • Still More on Developing Reading Skills: Quizzing is not an effective motivator for students to complete reading assignments and may encourage surface reading. Assignments, such as reading responses, that structure reading for the students work better.
  • Text Highlighting: Helping Students Understand What They Read: Have students bring highlighted/annotated/underlined texts to class and share their reasons for the markup. “In this way, the types of thinking that accompanies purposeful, active reading become more apparent.”
  • When Students Don’t Do the Reading: Students won’t read if they know that the material will be closely reviewed during lecture. Let students know that the reading is necessary background that will be referenced and built on.
  • Pre-Reading Strategies: Connecting Expert Understanding and Novice Learning: Examples of scaffolding or structuring the reading experience for students, especially underclassmen, by building a framework for topics, giving them reading strategies, making connections to the course content, identifying roadblocks to understanding, and uncovering the structure of the argument presented.
  • The Use of Reading Lists: The article looks at a British study on how students can be motivated to read outside of required texts for a course. The answer lies in taking time to develop student reading skills and raising interesting, challenging questions whose answers are to be found in the readings.
  • The Student-Accessible Reading List: Structured and discussion-specific lists (of non-required texts) with a limited number of readings are more accessible to students. Annotations direct students to readings that will be useful to them.
  • How to Get Your Students to Read What’s Assigned: The final article provides a nice summary of ideas. Introduce the textbook and encourage use of supplemental materials the textbook provides, identify discipline-specific terminology, have students mark-up readings, structure the reading by providing questions to be answered ahead of class, use the textbook in class to emphasize its importance, teach students to ask questions about the reading, link the reading to exams, and identify and work with students who need help with reading.

Faculty I talked with pointed out that students coming into colleges and universities today may be less prepared to take on reading assignments than in the past. In high schools today many students are being taught to the test and may be associating reading with learning facts, which often means reading on the surface without understanding the big picture. If you teach a course that relies heavily on reading assignments, consider taking time at the beginning of the semester to provide some in-class training on the best practices and strategies that your students should adopt. Have the students scan a text, skimming the abstract or first paragraphs and conclusion, noting the section headings, illustrations and or graphics. Based on this preview, have them frame several questions that they have about the content, before they do a thorough reading. Discuss the value of taking notes and what those notes should cover. Ask them what they highlight when they read and why. Remind your students that they should be bringing questions to class about their reading assignments.

If you have a solution that you’ve used to encourage students to do the reading, please share it with us in the comments.

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Macie Hall, Senior Instructional Designer
Center for Educational Resources

Image source: Pixabay.com