Tips for Teaching International Students

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Macie Hall, Senior Instructional Designer
Center for Educational Resources

Image Source: Pixabay.com

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.com. 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

Image Source: Pixabay.com

Quick Tips: Provide Your Students with a Roadmap for Class

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Macie Hall, Senior Instructional Designer
Center for Educational Resources

Image Source: Pixabay.com

How to Deal with Contract Cheating

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Macie Hall, Senior Instructional Designer
Center for Educational Resources

Image Source: Pixabay.com

Using Backward Design for Course Planning

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

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

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

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

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

Instructors planning a course should ask themselves three questions:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Macie Hall, Senior Instructional Designer
Center for Educational Resources

Image Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Backward_design

Quick Tips: 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

Quick Tips: Growth Mindset

The Innovative Instructor covered the topic of Growth Mindset a few years back: Mindsets and Academic Motivation, Michael J. Reese, October 24, 2013, but a recent posting from the Stanford University blog Tomorrow’s Professor seemed worth highlighting.

Retrain Your Brain: Silhouette of head with brain-shaped word cloud describing growth mindset values.Mindsets and Resistance to Learning excerpts a chapter, “How Promoting Student Metacognition can Reduce Resistance” by Rob Blair, Anton O. Tobman, Janine Kremling, and Trevor Morris, from the book, Why Students Resist Learning – A Practical Model for Understanding and Helping Students, edited by Anton O. Tolman and Janine Kremling (Stylus Publishing, 2017). The post provides an excellent overview of Carol Dweck’s theories on fixed and growth mindsets, the self-theories that students develop to describe how they see themselves. “A mindset is a collection of ideas and beliefs about how the world works and how we, as individuals, work within it. Given these structuring beliefs, students’ perceptions about learning opportunities can vary significantly, and these beliefs can have a dramatic influence on how a student views risk taking, learning itself, or the definition of success – or failure.”

The article describes how mindsets contribute to students’ resistance to learning: students with fixed mindsets will resist challenges to do things that they find difficult out of fear of failure; students with growth mindsets believe that “…failure on a task is not failure as a person; it is a chance to learn something new.”

The authors discuss how teacher behaviors can affect student mindsets. In a study (Mueller and Dweck, 1998) students who were given effort-oriented praise (“You must have worked hard.”) were more willing to take on challenging tasks than those who received trait-oriented praise (You must be really smart at this.”). Other studies and their effects are cited. “These studies have implications not only for student learning but also for instructors as it relates closely to resistance to learning. To better understand why some students happily embrace new challenges and others resist those challenges, one must understand where the mindset comes from. This understanding will aid in overcoming resistance and helping students develop their potential.”

In fact, we are not born with a mindset, nor is it an “immutable trait of an individual’s personality (Dweck, 2006).” A person can have a fixed mindset in some areas but a growth mindset about others. Cultural beliefs and social biases, such as “girls/women aren’t good at math” continue to challenge females’ interest in pursuing STEM disciplines. Harsh criticism, or simply lack of support, can be a deterrent to developing a growth mindset. “Research has shown that it is the meaning of the criticism that influences mindset: When criticism is about the person, it instills a fixed mindset: when criticism is about the product or outcome, it has a roughly neutral impact on mindset; when criticism is about the strategies used to reach the product and includes suggestions on those strategies, the growth mindset is instilled (Kamins & Dweck, 1999; Mueller & Dweck, 1998).” Moreover, a fixed mindset can be changed by helping students understand the “malleability of intelligence” and the benefits of a growth mindset.

The article suggests using teaching strategies that foster a growth mindset will help all students to uncover their potential. The authors note in conclusion: “Although it doesn’t simplify the question of how to structure a class, it’s useful to think of students learning course content and key skills in the same way they might learn a complicated dance routine. Some will simply need more time and help than others, but all of them can make significant improvement.”

Macie Hall, Senior Instructional Designer
Center for Educational Resources

Image Source: Pixabay.com

Notice and Wonder

Sometimes you discover a great blog, only to learn that the authors have just posted their final article. At least, in this case, the posts are archived by a professional association, and in searching through said archive, you find a gem. Such is the story of The Teaching Tidbits Blog, hosted by the Mathematical Association of America.

Black and white line drawing of the upper torso of a young male in a thinking pose. Two question marks are on either side of his head.The gem of a post is The Exercise with No Wrong Answer: Notice and Wonder (April 18, 2018) written by May Mei, Assistant Professor of Computer Science and Mathematics at Denison University. Mei asks: “How often have your students said nothing rather than risk saying something wrong? And how often in our own writing are we so paralyzed by the fear of imperfection that we end up writing nothing at all?” The solution is an exercise called Notice and Wonder, which “has no wrong answers.” The concept is to present students with an idea, which could be in the form of a drawing, diagram, graphical presentation, image, video clip, a sentence written on the blackboard, etc., and ask students what they notice about it. After students have explored the possibilities, they are asked what they wonder about it. Mei states: “This provides opportunities to discuss what is still unknown and puts all students on equal ground-everyone can wonder about something. Because there are no wrong answers for either of these questions, all students can participate in the activity.

Notice and Wonder exercises allow students to brainstorm ideas and explore a problem before attempting to find a solution or uncover meaning. These activities can be used in-class, but the concept is flexible enough to be adapted to online discussion board threads or outside-of-class group work. Mei uses it as a way to help her students review for exams. “If my students have an upcoming exam, I will use the class period before as review, and sometime before that review period I ask each of my students to email me one thing they noticed and one thing they’re still wondering about. Just before class on the review day, I put all the students’ Notices and Wonders into one document and distribute it to the class. As I’m making this document I’m able to recognize themes and repeated observations or questions and can focus on those during the in-class review.”

Many of the examples of these activities revolve around mathematics, and/or are directed at the K-12 population. But as creative thinkers, it is easy to see that this is an idea that can be expanded to any discipline or age group. A video by Annie Fetter, on staff at Math Forum (which is now part of National Council of Teachers of Mathematics), is often cited in articles on Notice and Wonder. It is directed at K-12 teachers, but demonstrates the concept in a way that will be useful to anyone considering using Notice and Wonder exercises. See Ever Wonder What They’d Notice (5 minutes).

Notice and Wonder activities involving data visualizations and images can help students develop interpretive, critical thinking, analytical, and visual literacy skills. The New York Times offers two resources: What is Going on in This Picture and the more recently launched What is Going on in This Graph. Of the latter, the Times says: “The content and statistical concepts will be suitable for most middle and high school students. Often, we’ll strip it of some key information, then ask students three question — inspired by Visual Thinking Strategies, but anchored in math and statistics thinking: • What do you notice? • What do you wonder? • What’s going on in this graph?” Again, these platforms are directed towards a K-12 audience, but looking at the examples may inspire you to conceive examples that will be relevant for your college-age students.

Have you used Notice and Wonder exercises in your class? If so, please share your experience in the comments.

Macie Hall, Senior Instructional Designer
Center for Educational Resources

Image Source: Image from Pixabay.com

 

Dealing with Microaggressions in Your Classroom

Green chalkboard with Today's Lesson: Microaggressions written on it.Our last post, Lunch and Learn: Teaching Discussion-based Classes, summarized two faculty presentations at a recent event. One issue that came up during the discussion was how to handle a situation where one student has polarizing views and makes comments that become disruptive to class discussion. If such situations are not handled appropriately, the classroom climate can be negatively affected. A related circumstance that can have an impact on how students feel about a class is how the instructor handles microaggressions.

“Microaggressions are the everyday verbal, nonverbal, and environmental slights, snubs, or insults, whether intentional or unintentional, which communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative messages to target persons based solely upon their marginalized group membership. In many cases, these hidden messages may invalidate the group identity or experiential reality of target persons, demean them on a personal or group level, communicate they are lesser human beings, suggest they do not belong with the majority group, threaten and intimidate, or relegate them to inferior status and treatment.” [Sue, D.W., Microaggressions: More than Just Race, Psychology Today, November 17, 2010]

“Microaggressions come in many forms in the classroom: instructor to student, student to instructor, or student to student. All have a negative effect on classroom climate.” [IUPUI Microaggressions in the Classroom]

Because microaggressions are subtle, and sometimes unintended, it can be easy to overlook the harm that is caused. Instructors must be on guard against perpetuating microaggressions, as well as microinequities towards students (such as calling on male students more frequently than female), and be prepared to address students who exhibit these behaviors.

Here are a few resources to assist you:

The article by Derald Wing Sue cited above, Microaggressions: More than Just Race, is an excellent place to start. Originally the term was coined to describe biases against racial minorities; Sue presents the case that microaggressions are also directed at women, LBGTQ persons, those with disabilities, in fact, towards any marginalized group.

In Responding to Microaggressions in the Classroom: Taking ACTION (Faculty Focus, April 20, 2018), Tasha Souza, Ph.D. describes a strategy she calls ACTION for dealing with microaggressions. The acronym describes a “communication framework” and steps to take when a situation arises: Ask clarifying questions. Come from curiosity not judgment. Tell what you observed as problematic in a factual manner. Impact exploration by asking for, and/or stating, the potential impact of such a statement or action on others. Own your own thoughts and feelings around the impact. Take the Next steps by requesting appropriate action be taken. The ACTION framework gives instructors a tool to address microaggressions without escalating the situation.

The above referenced document from IUPUI (Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis), Microaggressions in the Classroom, provides a succinct summary of ways to create “a space where students can address difference and diversity in productive ways.” Instructors should inquire about the reasoning behind a student’s statement, use paraphrasing to reflect on the feelings and content of the speaker, use “I statements” to clarify your own feelings and remind students to be respectful of others, and redirect and reframe inappropriate comments. There are examples that will be helpful for you in your instructional practice.

A number of examples are presented in a detailed document from the Center for Multicultural Excellence at the University of Denver, also titled Microaggressions in the Classroom. The primary focus of this report is on faculty microaggressions and the goal is to help faculty create more inclusive classrooms. Seeing the examples may help you identify biases and correct them. There are concrete suggestions for addressing microaggressions.

Finally, Addressing Microaggressions in the Classroom from the Intercultural Center at Saint Mary’s College of California, presents some of the same content as the previous document in a shorter version. Definitions of microaggressions, examples, and suggestions for addressing the behavior in the classroom are covered in just over two pages.

Whether you are dealing with a student who is making polarizing statements, or with the subtler challenge of microaggressions, these resources will help you maintain civil discussions in a positive classroom environment.

Macie Hall, Senior Instructional Designer
Center for Educational Resources

Image Source: Modified image from Pixabay.com

Lunch and Learn: Teaching Discussion-based Classes

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 20, the Center for Educational Resources (CER) hosted the final Lunch and Learn—Faculty Conversations on Teaching, for the 2017-2018 academic year.

Sahan Karatasli, Assistant Research Scientist and Lecturer, Arrighi Center for Global Studies, Sociology, and Bill Egginton, Professor, German and Romance Languages and Literatures, presented on Teaching Discussion-based Classes.

Karatasli led off with a presentation that looked at various strategies for leading discussion (see slides). He noted that lectures are a straightforward means of disseminating information to students, and we have a pretty good understanding of what constitutes success and failure in this format. Seminars are more complicated. Nobody is sure what good ones look like. We don’t have a sense of how to determine success or failure—in general, leading a seminar is a more complex form of the teaching/learning practice.

What is good discussion? Karatasli noted that it is possible to have discussion within the lecture format, in the form of the “The Usual”: Q and A. The lecturer throws out a question and students volunteer answers or risk being called upon. Moving into the seminar style class or discussion section, Karatasli identified four strategies.

“Free-for-all” describes staging a debate where students actively participate with little interference from the instructor. The strategy favors students who are well-prepared, understand the course content, and aren’t afraid to voice their opinions. Students who feel less confident may hide under the table (see slides to appreciate the analogy) and won’t learn.

With the “Kids’ Participation Trophy” strategy, the instructor encourages all students to participate without risk of criticism for their opinions. This can be useful in some classes, especially at the beginning of the term, to start discussion, as students will feel safe about contributing. To be sure that the class isn’t operating under misconceptions, it is important that the instructor finds a way to gently correct misinformation without shutting down the student.

“Socratic House Tour” involves asking one student (or several students) to come to class prepared to present or explain an idea or concept. The other students then visit the idea with questions, counter-ideas, further explanations. At the end, the instructor summarizes and synthesizes the discussion. These sessions should be designed so that all students take a turn as presenters during the semester. While some students may feel anxious in the role of presenter, the strategy tends to ensure that students will participate in the discussion, knowing that in the future they will be the ones leading the class.

“Barn Raising” builds on the “Socratic House Tour” in that one student introduces an idea or project and other students work to make it more substantive. This is the most creative and collective strategy and one where the instructor helps with the process.

Which strategy is the most helpful? That depends on your objective, the subject matter 13 students and a professor in discussion around a seminar table.you are teaching, and the audience. Karatasli suggested that most instructors will use a combination of methods in their teaching.  Lecturing with Q&A is an efficient way to disseminate a lot of information, the “free-for-all” is good when there is not necessarily a right or wrong answer and you want to explore ways of thinking about a topic, “kids’ participation trophy” helps in situations where you want to raise students’ self-esteem. Subject matter also comes into play—if you are teaching statistics, there is a right and wrong answer, so the “barn raising” approach might be most effective at getting the students where you want them to be.

Karatasli ended by talking about mental preparation and offering some tips. Preparation is key, perhaps even more so for discussion classes than lectures. Make sure you know what you want to achieve from the discussion. Prepare alternative sets of plans, questions, and activities for discussion. Know the level and expectations of students. And it is important to learn the names of all of your students and to use them.

The physical environment matters. Arrange the room to facilitate discussion—ideally in a circle or around a table. Give students time to respond. Don’t answer your own questions. Instead, turn to other students and ask what they think.

Bill Egginton offered a different approach by giving us a case study of a course he is currently teaching in the Department of German and Romance Languages and Literatures:  Cervantes: Don Quixote and The Exemplary Novels. This is a new course, and in designing it Egginton faced several challenges.

In the upper-level literature seminar, the students would be reading a total of 12 novels and novellas. He wanted students who wished to get credit towards the Spanish major to be able to read the works in the original language and attend a class conducted in Spanish. At the same time, he wanted to make the course available to other students, who could read the works in English translation and discuss them in English. As there were over 1600 pages of primary literature assigned, Egginton did not feel he could assign any secondary material, and would have to cover background material and context in class. He did, however, want the class to be primarily discussion-based, so needed to limit lecturing. He also wanted to be sure the students were keeping up with the reading and to have assessment be writing-based, not quizzes, test, or exams.

How did Egginton meet these challenges? He taught the course on Tuesdays and Thursdays in 90 minute sessions. Tuesdays were lecture days, but Egginton incorporated discussion as well by asking students to give examples from the week’s reading in response to the background he presented. He made sure to include lots of visual materials in his lectures. On Thursdays, the class was split into two sections, one English language and one Spanish language, meeting at the same time. He divided the class time in half. In one section, he would start the students with a challenge—for instance, a collaborative writing assignment. He would then move to the other classroom and spend some time in discussion on the readings before giving that section the day’s challenge. He would then return to the first section and have discussion with those students. Egginton says that he got lots of exercise on Thursdays going between the two sections’ classrooms.

Another important component of the course was a class discussion board in Blackboard. Egginton was relatively new at using Blackboard’s features, but felt that the discussion board added an important component to the course. Each week he posted prompts and all students were expected to respond. He did not grade the responses, just checked that students had completed the assignment. This work ensured that students kept current with the reading. Egginton would read the responses before class each week and use the responses to facilitate class discussion. In addition to the weekly board writing, students write and revise a one-page paper mid-semester, and a three-page paper at the end of the semester.

Egginton has been pleased with how the course is going and feels that the design has allowed him to meet all of the challenges.

The discussion following Karatasli and Egginton’s presentations was appropriately stimulating and thought-provoking. Following are some of the questions asked and the responses given by Egginton and Karatasli as well as participants.

Q: How do you deal with the wall of silence?

Egginton suggests asking a question or making a statement and then calling on students in a conversational way: “Emma, what do you think about that?” After one student answers, he follows with a comment and then, “Carlos, what are your thoughts?” In the course he is teaching now, he refers to the specific discussion board posts that students have made and asks them to elaborate or clarify, or asks other students what their ideas are.

Karatasli noted that there is a study that shows that students don’t mind being called on, but do object to the instructor allowing one or two students to dominate the conversation. This problem can be dealt with by having the dominating student take notes on the board, or by pointedly asking that student to allow others to answer.

Others noted that it can be helpful to start with questions or topics that are accessible to students—personal, concrete, and specific—and then, once students are contributing, move to more challenging concepts. Visuals can be useful in stimulating discussion, as well as having students do prep work in advance of class, such as posting on a discussion board, or writing out questions in response to a reading assignment to bring to class.

Students who feel they are part of a community will be more likely to participate in discussion. Egginton suggested that collaborative work is a good way to build that feeling. Karatasli offered some specific solutions: Students can collaborate on a research project where some work is done in class. Or, in advance of class, assign a group of students to be responsible for asking questions for the discussion or preparing a short in-class presentation.

Q. How do you grade participation in discussion?

Egginton does not find this to be a problem because he makes sure to call on all students. If they are attending class, they are participating. Someone else noted that there is a concept in discourse analysis called uptake. Uptake is adding to the discussion and building on it, elevating it. That is what to look for when thinking about grading participation—that students are doing more than just answering responsively.

Q. How do you handle sensitive topics?

Egginton commented that sometimes attempts at empathy can go astray. It’s not necessarily appropriate to say that you can relate. Someone offered that the instructor should lead the discussion by stating what the expectations are and asking students to keep comments on topic and relevant.

Q. How do you handle a situation where one student has polarizing political or religious views and makes comments that become disruptive to class discussion?

Eggington suggested that the instructor attempt to seek a balance. Can you encourage other students to express opinions? Ask the student to give evidence or present arguments rather than simply make comments. Perhaps the class could have a short debate and then return to the topic at hand.

Karatasli proposed saying: “I hear you.” Then put the comment or question on the board or state or rephrase it. Then ask what others think. Another thought was to ask students to switch sides and argue the opposite viewpoint. In this way you can unlink the person from the idea.

Egginton added that knowing the student’s perspective, the instructor can be prepared with facts and counter-questions to ask exactly what the student is asserting.

Q. How do you bring a discussion back when it veers off topic?

Karatasli referred to the different discussion strategies he had presented, which may mean that in each case the instructor has a different role. But, generally the instructor acts as a referee and when the ball goes off the field, the referee must bring it back into play.  Egginton sees this as an occupational hazard. He will say something like: “That’s an interesting insight—how can we relate that to the reading?” Someone else suggested that it may be appropriate at times to go off topic. The purpose of college is to explore ideas that are challenging and sometimes off-topic discussions can elevate your class.

Macie Hall, Senior Instructional Designer
Center for Educational Resources

Image Source: Wikimedia Commons