Enhancing Classroom Communication Through Slack

A few months ago, I posted about Slack, and some ideas for how it could be used in the classroom. In the article, I mentioned that JHU Professor Jennifer Bernstein regularly uses Slack to communicate with students in her classes. Since that time, we followed up with Professor Bernstein to find out more about her experience.

The following is a guest post by Jennifer Bernstein, Lecturer, Center for Leadership Education, Whiting School of Engineering, Johns Hopkins University.

The culture of the medical profession is continually evolving; issues ranging from the cost of health care to demographic changes are just some of the factors influencing the culture surrounding medical professionals in the United States. As an instructor in this field, it is imperative to keep things as current for students as possible. In my class, Culture of the Medical Profession, I am constantly integrating new content from the news, twitter feeds, Instagram, and other sources. When newsworthy items arise, which is multiple times per week, I need to be able to notify students about these developments quickly and efficiently. I also want to spark conversation among the students about these developments as they happen. In Blackboard, where much of my course content resides, the synchronous communication tools available do not offer me an effective solution to keeping students informed and up-to-date; I find posting new content in Blackboard cumbersome and time-consuming, and the chat areas offer little interest when compared with commonly used platforms like Twitter.

Most of the students in my Culture of the Medical Profession class are in the pre-professional program and are planning to go on to medical school, dental school, or some other clinical training program. One of the course goals is for students to explore challenges faced by health professionals on a daily basis and why they are relevant for students considering a life in medicine; following the ongoing conversations about these challenges provides students with an awareness of what issues they may face once they commit to the field. Another goal is to provide students with a platform to communicate their own thoughts and ideas about these issues with me and with each other. In addition to the benefits of being exposed to various perspectives on each of the issues, this exercise helps students learn to clearly convey their ideas and findings to various professional audiences. I need a tool that will accommodate both of these goals: a way to immediately share relevant current events and enable students to effectively communicate about them.

About three years ago, I discovered Slack, an online communication tool used for project management and information sharing. I was on a joint JHU-MIT research team that was using it and soon came to realize how easy it was to synchronously and asynchronously communicate and share resources with other members of the group. In particular, we had fun sharing relevant news items, commenting on those items, or leaving emojis when we were short on time. Slack seemed like a natural fit for my class so I decided to give it a try.

I created a workspace in Slack for my class, which was separate from my research workspace. Slack workspaces are organized into ‘channels’ which are similar to chat rooms dedicated to specific topics. In my case, I created a channel for each topic on my syllabus. The names of channels are preceded by hash tags (e.g., #mededucation, #costsofcare, etc.). Once the Slack space was set up, I walked students through the mechanics of using it. Many of them had used it before and/or currently had their own accounts because they work in research labs and other academic environments that commonly utilize Slack, so they caught on quickly.

I let students know at the beginning of the term that their participation in Slack would count towards their overall participation grade. Two to three times each week I posted articles, tweets, etc. and provided brief commentary on the relevance. I posted not only in whatever channel/topic we were currently studying but also across the other hashtags. Students almost immediately responded with their own articles, reactions, links, etc. Sometimes the online discussions were so lively that they continued into our next face-to-face class meeting. Students also realized they could have conversations with individuals, separate from the group, so there were often several side conversations going on at the same time.

Since using Slack, the level of engagement in online class discussions has been consistently high. Students post to channels on their own, unprompted. Many of the issues covered in class are controversial and not always easy to talk about face to face. Slack provides a safe space to discuss and consider various perspectives of these issues; I’ve noticed that it also gives the quieter students an outlet to participate more confidently.

Community building has also been enhanced by using Slack. In general, I structure my classes so that about half of the time is lecture-based and the other half is some sort of group activity. Because of their frequent interactions on Slack, students now get to know one another beyond the small groups they are assigned to during class. Out of class, they slack each other relevant articles, links, etc. pertaining to whatever project they’re working on.

Feedback from previous students about Slack has been very positive; because of the continuous, up-to-date exposure to various issues in the medical field and the opportunity to communicate about them, students report feeling much more confident and prepared for medical school interviews. According to students, interviewers have been very impressed with their knowledge, passion, and level of commitment.

A few of my previous students, now currently in their gap year or training, continue to participate in the course’s Slack space because they want to keep up with current issues. This has been extremely beneficial to myself and my current students.  As an instructor, it allows me to check in with them to see if there are any changes I should consider making to the course. For current students, it’s a connection to someone in the field, with an authentic perspective.

On the administrative side of things, Slack has definitely saved me time and frustration. It’s a snap to add/update links and notify students of any changes. There are also features that allow instructors to track student participation, if desired. Instructors can opt-in to an automatically generated weekly summary of usage statistics showing how many messages were posted, etc. There is also a powerful search feature in Slack which allows instructors to search and view posts made by individual students. If a discussion happens to get out of hand, instructors (as owners of a Slack space) have the ability to delete inappropriate posts and close it down if necessary.

Instructors have a range of options as they consider how to effectively communicate and share information with their students. Slack is working very well in my class of 19-25 students, but I recognize that it may not be the best tool for all classes. Instructors with large lecture classes, for example, might be challenged to use it effectively. Although I’m not there yet, I’m trying to figure out ways to use Slack in my other classes.  In the meantime, it challenges me to make sure students in Culture of the Medical Profession see the relevance of the class beyond just an academic exercise and realize its value in their life’s work and experiences.

Jennifer Bernstein, Lecturer
Center for Leadership Education, Johns Hopkins University

Jennifer Bernstein is a lecturer in the Center for Leadership Education and has 20 years of experience working on WHO-, industry-, U.S. government-funded research studies and clinical trials. She is an alum of the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and teaches a number of courses including Culture of the Medical Profession and Technical Writing.

Image Source: Pixabay, Jennifer Bernstein

Teaching a Multi-Disciplinary Course

On Wednesday, October 16, the Center for Educational Resources (CER) hosted the first Lunch and Learn for the 2019-2020 academic year. Steve Marra, Associate Teaching Professor, Mechanical Engineering, Susan Weiss, Associate Professor, jointly appointed in Musicology at the Peabody Institute and the Department of Modern Languages in the Krieger School of Arts and Sciences, and Nathan Scott, Associate Teaching Professor, Mechanical Engineering presented on Teaching a Multi-Disciplinary Course.

Steve Marra began the presentation by describing an Interdisciplinary Multi-Institutional Design Experience for Freshman Engineering and Art Students that took place in the Spring of 2018. This was a joint project initiated by instructors from JHU and the Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA). There were 44 students from JHU and 34 students from MICA who participated in the project. Marra described the project as having purposely vague specifications in order to allow for as much creativity as possible. Teams were given $100 to build something safe and interactive, with a variety of hard and soft materials over the course of 13 weeks that would “make your world better.” Each school determined its own grading schema; JHU students were graded on design reports and project notebooks, MICA students were graded on preliminary sketches and documentation, and all students were graded on quality of work. The project culminated with a week-long exhibition at MICA at the end of the semester.

Marra continued by describing obstacles encountered when implementing this project. One of the most significant challenges was scheduling and transporting students between campuses. While the faculty had considered this might pose a challenge in the initial stages of the project, transportation and scheduling conflicts were more of an issue than expected. Another challenge was the separation/isolation of work within student groups; in general, engineering students embraced the engineering tasks while art students gravitated toward the artistic tasks. They did work with each other but took on a ‘divide and conquer’ approach in most cases, rather than collaborating as much as the faculty had hoped.

Other unexpected challenges included:

  • Conflicting advice given to students by instructors. Marra commented that there was not enough collaboration between instructors ahead of time.
  • Staggered spring breaks between the two schools, resulting in two weeks of no work getting accomplished.
  • Multitude and diversity of projects due to vague assignment specifications. Marra commented that diversity of projects is normally celebrated, but in this case it made it difficult to efficiently assist students with their projects.

Despite the various challenges, student teams met their deadlines and created 18 projects in all for the exhibition. These included: a hugging machine, mega backpack, relaxation station, and a marble run. Marra concluded with suggestions for improvement:

  • Plan early
  • Develop a more focused assignment with very clear specifications
  • Schedule a kickoff meeting with icebreakers
  • Take time to teach teamwork and conflict resolution
  • Provide instruction on ideation
  • Develop an advising strategy
  • Do not underestimate the importance of convenient transportation

Susan Weiss continued the presentation by describing the course she co-teaches with Nathan Scott, History and Technology of Musical Instruments, which is offered jointly by ASEN and Peabody. Students are tasked with building their own instruments from scratch or repairing broken instruments in various states of disrepair. Materials used have expanded from simple cigar boxes and PCV pipe to much more sophisticated materials as the course has progressed and more funding has become available. Weiss noted that the content and direction of the course depends on the guests that are available to come in and work with the students during the semester, such as luthiers, professional musicians, guest speakers, etc. Students are graded on journal entries, weekly reflections, and presentations.

Weiss went on to describe some of the challenges with this course. One of the biggest challenges is the constant struggle to find a space for students to construct the instruments. In the past, students have used maker spaces at Homewood but most recently have been using a room in the basement of Peabody’s Leakin Hall. Finding the necessary raw materials can also be a challenge especially with budgetary constraints. Weiss also mentioned how students in this course tend to gravitate to their area of expertise, but that they have checks in place to ensure that students are sharing tasks equitably and learning from each other’s strengths.

Despite its challenges, the course continues to grow and evolve. When it first started, students were making cigar box guitars and other small instruments. Two years ago students built banjos; this past year, they took on the challenge of building cellos which they had the opportunity to play at the Whiting School of Engineering’s Design Day. Weiss noted how highly students rate this course and how much they appreciate the unique opportunity to collaborate and learn from other students.

Nathan Scott extended the presentation into a more philosophical discussion of what it means to be a student who embraces multi-disciplinary studies.  He likened a student who is not merely after a degree to a child who grows up in a bilingual or multilingual home.  That child, he stated, not only learns multiple languages naturally, but also has a brain now trained to learn skills more readily or easily than a child not exposed to multiple languages. He referred to this child as a ‘super learner.’

Scott noted that most research at JHU is multi-disciplinary and that there are fantastic opportunities for undergraduates to take part in this research and experience ‘super learning.’ He believes that our university, as a whole, could better design curriculum to ensure multi-disciplinary education for all students.  He suggested adding a graduation requirement for all WSE majors to complete a substantial, two-semester capstone project.  No classes would be held on Fridays, which would become ‘project days,’ so students from all majors could work together in teams to complete their projects.  In addition, students would have a collaborative space that would be their ‘home’ throughout their undergraduate years to develop community.

Below are some questions from audience members with answers from the presenters.

Q: (for Marra) The MICA/JHU course was worth one credit; wasn’t that a great deal of work for faculty and students?

Marra responded that while the course was only one credit, it was worth it because of the learning that occurred. However, if he did this project again, he would make some significant changes, such as limiting it to only Hopkins students to minimize the issues with logistics and schedules.  Marra did note that the credit hours rarely are a true reflection of the work necessary for the course by students or faculty.

Q: (for all) What is the payoff of the interdisciplinary course?

Scott reported that employers are hungry to hear about these experiences and meet students who have completed multi-disciplinary projects, not just taken x course or y course.  His ideal would be to have a campus design center where artists and experts in residence bring their skills to JHU and have student apprentices.

Marra remarked that interdisciplinary skills are different than team skills and that employers are recognizing the value of interdisciplinary skills. Students are often uncomfortable working in these types of environments and grow from the experience.

Weiss noted that students don’t necessarily have skills in one area or another, but as they collaborate, they discover each other’s abilities, and it is a revelation for them.

Q: (for Marra) How would you manage the issue of students gravitating toward their area of expertise if you ran this project again?

Marra responded that he would make it some sort of requirement that students demonstrate skills in their non-dominant major or skill set.

Read more about Steve Marra’s project in a recent HUB article. Read more about Susan Weiss and Nathan Scott’s course in this Peabody Post article.

Amy Brusini, Senior Instructional Designer
Center for Educational Resources

Photo credits: Steve Marra and Susan Weiss

Exhibiting the Avant Garde: Rare Primary Sources as Pedagogy

[Guest post by Molly Warnock, Assistant Professor, History of Art, Johns Hopkins University]

The library is often called the lab of the humanities. In my experience, the Johns Hopkins Sheridan Libraries embraces this role. I collaborate regularly with the Libraries’ staff to encourage students not only to use library resources to conduct their research but also to use the physical space to present their findings. In several of my undergraduate art history courses, students curate an exhibition as one of their major assignments. This article provides an overview of my collaboration with the Sheridan Libraries and describes a model that my colleagues are considering adopting for their own course projects.

The collaboration began when I discovered the extensive modern and avant-garde collections owned by the Libraries, which boast vast reserves of journals, rare exhibition catalogues, and artists’ books, as well as posters, pamphlets, and other ephemera. I Students viewing library exhibitwanted to integrate these materials into my courses, and started by setting aside a day or two every semester to visit Special Collections. Now virtually all of my courses at all levels include multiple sessions of this sort. For example, my introductory survey “Modern Art, 1880-1950,” includes thematic visits devoted to such topics as Futurist typography, the role of journals and little magazines in the spread of experimental practices, and utopian urbanism. These visits allow students to see and in many cases handle rare primary materials, adding substantively to our discussions in the classroom. They are almost always surprised to discover the extent of our collections.

The curatorial seminars that I have developed over the past six years are specifically aimed at increasing student engagement with these important library holdings. Each course is in certain respects a traditional seminar, focused on some area of twentieth-century practice. We have weekly readings, look at digital slideshows, and discuss various case studies. At the same time, however, students immerse themselves in a semester-long, hands-on curatorial project centered on one particular aspect of our subject matter. The first such course, “Surrealism,” produced a survey of Surrealist journals (“Surrealism at Mid-Century”), while the second, “The ‘Long Sixties’ in Europe,” turned the spotlight on the library’s wealth of Lettrist books, journals, posters, photographs, and film scripts, among other items (“Presenting: Lettrism”). Additional iterations of “The ‘Long Sixties’” have focused on the library’s recently expanded trove of materials relating to the avant-garde group Cobra (“Asger Jorn and Cobra”) and on the Paris-based journal Robho (“Robho in Context”). Student contributions drive all stages of the project, including: researching and studying the available holdings; crafting a final object list; writing exhibition labels for the selected works; and designing the exhibition layout. At the exhibition opening, the students serve as docents, guiding interested members of the Hopkins community through the show.

Students showing exhibit to library patronsCollectively curating an exhibition in one semester means negotiating difficult time constraints. I start my course planning by identifying a long list of objects relevant to my course. Throughout this period, I consult extensively with Don Juedes, the dedicated librarian for History of Art. We then meet with Mark Pollei and Alessandro Scola of the Conservation and Preservation team to ensure that the pre-selected objects are stable enough to be handled repeatedly and determine vulnerabilities that would have to be taken into consideration for exhibition—whether, for instance, a particular book or journal is especially light sensitive, or can only be opened halfway. Once the semester is underway, students begin working on the exhibition immediately. Within the first week, we’re in Special Collections, where students get their first peek of the objects cleared for exhibition; each selects a few to research individually. I provide some initial context, but encourage them to choose based on their broader interests or curiosity about specific items.

One of the course goals is to teach students how to interpret primary materials using different research strategies. Their first assignment is to outline a research plan for each of their chosen objects. Don introduces the students to library resources and teaches them the skills needed to conduct their research: for example, how to meaningfully generate and delimit searches in our online catalogue and how to navigate various databases and bibliographies. They have to locate relevant materials using the strategies Don has shared with them, and indicate how they plan to build an argument from these sources. This can be quite challenging in the case of objects that have not been studied extensively by scholars to date. I provide feedback and encourage them to think broadly about different angles of attack, from the more obvious (researching the artist or author) to the less immediately apparent (researching a gallery’s broader exhibition agenda).

By mid-semester, we are all back in Special Collections, where the students present their objects and recommend specific display options, based on their research findings and the various larger stories we might wish to tell. We then move into the most exciting—and difficult—phase: experimenting with different installation plans and whittling down our final object selection. We mark off spaces equivalent to the various display cases and physically move things around until we feel we’ve arrived at a coherent, visually compelling narrative.Students making adjustments to exhibit objects The Conservation and Preservation team stop by again to consult with us about our display concept, and then spend roughly a month and a half preparing the featured materials, building customized cradles, and installing the objects. The students use that same period to produce and collectively edit the banner text and individual object labels. The official opening usually takes place in the penultimate week of the semester and serves as a celebratory capstone for the course as a whole.

As an instructor, it is deeply satisfying to see how seriously the students take one another’s research, and how effectively a collaborative project of this sort can help to build community. I find myself continually refining my pedagogical approach to facilitate this. One crucial step was simply to limit the class size to a maximum of ten students. I’ve also explored the potential of new technological platforms to facilitate more lateral processes of peer-to-peer discussion and group editing. For example, having students generate and refine all exhibition-related texts in Google Docs allows me to afford class participants greater responsibility for the finished products, while still tracking individual contributions. This can be awkward at first, as students may not have prior experience giving one another constructive criticism. But they quickly learn that robust peer critique results in a better overall outcome: an exhibition that represents all of their contributions.

In their course evaluations, students rate this experience highly positively. One described “the opportunity to curate an exhibition and work with objects from the library’s collections” as “truly special,” while another called it “unlike anything I had done for a course at Hopkins before,” adding: “Interacting with one another so regularly to work on the exhibition also built a great sense of community among the students.” A third noted: “I really enjoyed getting to spend so much time physically with all these artifacts, and doing research on objects JHU owned.”

This project has also deepened my working relationship with Don Juedes. Don’s assistance has been instrumental at every stage. Early on, he helped me to put together an exhibition proposal and worked with the exhibition committee to significantly expedite the review process, which had previously taken several months. (Based on the success of previous course- related curatorial project, the Libraries now dedicate a regular slot in the calendar to our exhibitions.) He has also worked closely with library staff from multiple departments to streamline workflows and pin down a project timeline.

At the same time, Don and I consult regularly about the collections and often tailor new acquisitions in my research area to the courses I plan to teach and the kind of student-curated exhibitions that might accompany them.Students working to prepare exhibit For the students, there is an added benefit: working closely with Don teaches them the multi-faceted role that libraries play in supporting the scholarly community. They see that libraries are not just passive repositories but have a highly active custodial and, indeed, curatorial role, assembling and caring for the materials that enable forward-looking research and teaching. They learn the importance of developing relationships with library staff that can provide complementary expertise and assist in the discovery process. The students in these curatorial seminars often become avid library patrons, returning to use primary sources for other courses and independent research projects.

My partnership with the library has changed how I teach and opened up new learning experiences for students. I feel incredibly fortunate that the Libraries’ leadership and outstanding staff at all levels fully grasp the importance of teaching with objects and so generously support pedagogical innovation and collaboration in this area.

Molly Warnock, Assistant Professor
History of Art, Johns Hopkins University

In addition to critical surveys of modern and contemporary art, Molly Warnock’s recent and forthcoming undergraduate courses include several seminars with curatorial components, each focused on particular aspects of twentieth-century practice and culminating in an exhibition of journals and other ephemera from the Special Collections of the Sheridan Libraries. Recent graduate courses have explored the philosophical underpinnings of art history as a modern discipline; problems in abstraction; theories of painting and subjectivity; and the concept of an aesthetic medium, among other topics.

Image Source: Don Juedes

Classics Research Lab: The John Addington Symonds Project

This past spring, the Classics Department launched the Classics Research Lab (CRL). Within each CRL iteration, students conduct empirical research with faculty, contributing to a larger, ongoing project. Although the research takes place under the umbrella of a course, it is the larger project that dictates the course’s scope and even duration—extending, if needed, across multiple semesters. The initiative is similar, in some ways, to a traditional science lab course in which students carry out set experiments to learn disciplinary content and skills. But it differs in that CRL research is open-ended and discovery-based; assisting faculty with an authentic research project, students make new observations and original interpretations of the data under consideration. The guiding principle of the CRL is that undergraduate students should have the opportunity to experience the real, hands-on work of the humanities: to engage in the active questions that humanist scholars pursue, to recognize the historical and current stakes of those questions, and to add their labor, as increasingly competent collaborators, to the quest for answers through careful, detailed, discipline-specific research.

A second aim of the CRL is to counter prevailing myths about humanities research by making it more visible and accessible to non-specialists. Accordingly, CRL participants meet and work in a public lab space—a room in Gilman Hall that looks out onto the atrium. CRL work-in-progress is visible through the windows of the Lab as well as online, via the websites built by individual projects. (See, for example, https://symondsproject.org/.)

The pilot CRL project, co-taught by Shane Butler of the Classics Department and Gabrielle Dean of the Sheridan Libraries, focused on John Addington Symonds, a Victorian scholar who wrote a groundbreaking work on Ancient Greek sexuality, A Problem in Greek Ethics. In its first semester, the John Addington Symonds Project (JASP) produced outcomes that not only contribute to a richer narrative about the history of sexuality, showing how Symonds painstakingly built his innovative arguments, but also provide future researchers with a new set of tools. Along the way, students acquired key skills in bibliography, archival and rare book research, and digital humanities.

The discovery-based ethos of the course required some significant departures from the usual pedagogical protocols. In place of a fixed syllabus, with all assignments configured and described in advance, the instructors developed a semi-structured syllabus with readings and preparatory assignments in the first half of the semester and a more open schedule in the second half of the semester. The goal was to empower students to help guide the project’s directions based on what they learned.

The semester started with a collaborative assignment designed to orient students to the topic and to the basic tasks of humanities research. Using Zotero, an open-source, digital reference management platform, students collectively assembled the Sheridan Libraries’ catalog records of books by Symonds. The books were then checked out to the Lab and shelved in its secure, dedicated space, so that students could work with them over the semester. Students also visited the Libraries’ special collections to study rare, non-circulating books. This initial assignment introduced students from a range of disciplines to library resources and humanities research processes, while offering a broad overview of Symonds’ writings and range of interests. At the same time, students read and discussed Symonds’ autobiography and signature works in the history of sexuality to ground them in the topic. And they began their independent investigations of books written and read by Symonds. Using the materials checked out to the Lab and in special collections, students composed short blog-style essays documenting the physical features of these books, relating the books to Symonds’ letters and other writings, and construing from their observations new analyses of Symonds’ bibliographic and social networks. These blog posts, after undergoing peer review and instructor review, have been published on the project website. (https://symondsproject.org/blog/)

The second collaborative project undertaken by JASP was an “index locorum” to A Problem in Greek Ethics—a detailed index of citations. Using digital resources and reference books checked out to the Lab, students retraced Symonds’ own research to identify the specific texts he used in the composition of this seminal essay. This brand-new index makes it startingly clear how Symonds connected a breadth of Greek and Latin sources, integrated works by later writers, and from these foundations drew original conclusions about the evolution of same-sex love, eroticism, and social norms and ideas about gender and sexuality in the ancient Greek and Roman worlds—as well as the legacy of these practices and philosophies. The index locorum, which is still in progress, is published on the JASP website.  (https://symondsproject.org/greek-ethics-index/)

The index brought to the Project’s attention an important gap in Symonds scholarship: the absence of reliable digital editions of some versions of A Problem in Greek Ethics, which has a complicated publication history because of censorship and the practices that publishers undertook to evade it. In keeping with the CRL’s dedication to collaborative leadership, JASP participants decided to dedicate the second half of the semester to two linked endeavors.

Students also contributed to the visibility and ongoing viability of the lab through two “meta-lab” ventures: a video (still in development) about JASP, using footage captured throughout the semester via a camera set-up and workflow established by Reid Sczerba of the CER, and a manual documenting the Project’s research processes, to be used by future students. Finally, JASP hosted an “open lab” at the end of the semester with a display of rare books, facsimile photographs, and the physical manifestations of the reconstructed Symonds library, along with the chance to talk with students about their research.While the CRL will continue next semester with the John Addington Symonds Project, it is not constrained to that topic.  Other faculty will offer their own lab courses, sometimes simultaneously in the lab space, to provide students with a variety of opportunities to apply humanities research skills.

Professors Butler and Dean believe the research-based teaching model of the Classics Research Lab is a contemporary implementation of the historic Johns Hopkins model, as the first modern research university in America. The hope is that this curricular model might scale to other disciplines and other universities. For more information, contact Shane Butler (shane.butler@jhu.edu) or Gabrielle Dean (gnodean@jhu.edu).

Dr. Michael J. Reese, Associate Dean and Director
Center for Educational Resources

Image Source: Gabrielle Dean, Reid Sczerba

Empowering Students through Guided Reflection

[Guest post by Pamela Sheff, Director, Center for Leadership Education, Johns Hopkins University]

lighthouseEach spring, I teach a course called Culture of the Engineering Profession for the Center for Leadership Education in the Whiting School. Primarily through discussions and projects, students in this class investigate what it means to be an engineer, identify contemporary issues in engineering, and consider the ethical guidelines of the engineering profession. The majority of students in the Spring 2019 class were Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering majors with a Mechanical Engineering student mixed in. This semester, I decided to experiment somewhat with guided reflection, a metacognitive practice that was new for many of these students.

One of the goals of the course is to help students strengthen their communication skills; therefore I leverage a great deal of class discussion including a requirement for students to lead a discussion at least once during the semester. Several times during the semester, I guided the students in reflecting not only on the quality of their discussions, but also on the culture of the classroom as a whole. I raised questions such as the following: What is working well? What could be changed? What values do students want in the classroom? From this reflective exercise the students generated a rubric listing characteristics including accountability, respect, and transparency. Every couple of weeks, I asked them to reflect on how they were doing as a group by reviewing the list.

After about six weeks, I noticed the group coming to consensus on what they felt was working in our classroom practice and what needed to change.  For example, one idea suggested by the group was to speak purposefully during discussions.  Students should not talk simply to be heard, but to move the discussion forward. Results included higher quality discussions and improved leadership skills.

The success of using a rubric to guide class discussions led me to continue using reflection to help students evaluate their major projects.  We talked during class about effective project criteria, for example, and what they should look for in the posters they would see at the course-wide poster fair.  The teaching assistants in the class then compiled the list of suggestions, which helped the students create strong written critiques after the fair. I talked with the class about how to assign grades to the team discussions they had been leading. Again, we worked in class to develop a list of criteria to consider and, the TAs and I developed the grading rubric. I then gave the students an opportunity to comment on the rubric before it was finalized. I also made the decision to allow students to grade their own projects according to the rubric. If I agreed with the grade they chose, the grade stood.  If not, I modified the grade. In a class of 29 students, I only had to lower two grades.  I did raise three grades, in cases where the students were unduly critical of their efforts.

The results of continuous guided reflection? The projects were the best I have ever seen in this class, and I could not have been more pleased. I attribute the high quality of work to students taking ownership of the process. It pushed them to live up to the standards they defined for themselves, and in many cases, go beyond them.  Providing space for students to reflect on what they were working towards led them to act more purposefully and, in turn, allowed me to give them agency over the classroom. I am thrilled with the way this approach worked out and am planning to use it again in future semesters.

Pamela Sheff, Associate Teaching Professor and Director
Center for Leadership Education, Johns Hopkins University

Pamela Sheff is an award-winning writer and marketing communications consultant, with a wealth of experience developing marketing, public relations and communications strategies for clients ranging from start-ups to large corporate, institutional and government organizations. Now a full-time lecturer in the Center for Leadership Education, Pam has taught business communications for private companies and directed the Writing Program at Goucher College.

Image Source: Pixabay

Advising Graduate Students

[Guest post by Anne-Elizabeth Brodsky, Senior Lecturer, Expository Writing, Johns Hopkins University]

Usually teaching offers us a built-in apparatus. There’s a classroom, regular meeting times, a syllabus, an end of the semester in sight.

But advising grad students on their dissertations, or supervising them as their PI, is an entirely different sort of teaching. The familiar structures have evaporated, the final product is hard to envision, and what’s at stake is not a grade but a career.

As faculty we do our best to get it right, knowing that each grad student and each research project differs wildly.

But it’s tricky, as Drew Daniel (JHU English department) reflects in an August 2018  blog post:

“Graduate advising is intimate and intense. . . . It is a partnership but it is also structurally, Drew Daniel, JHU English departmentfundamentally unequal. One of you is learning how to do something; one of you is advising the other on how to do that thing based on prior experience and presumed expertise. . . . The advisor must help the grad student bring something new into the world which is the student’s own and which the advisor does not themselves already completely understand.”

Given that the road ahead is unpredictable, the initial steps we take as faculty become all the more important. It’s crucial that we set up clear terms and reliable mechanisms that will buttress our students, come what may.

What Works

Consider, for example, creating an advising statement to share with prospective advisees. This can be a tangible, transparent way to set clear and mutual expectations in the advisor-advisee relationship. Read more about advising statements in the Chronicle here (October 2018), where Moin Syed (in psychology at the University of Minnesota) shares his advising statement as a google doc you can adapt as your own.

Leonard Cassuto, in the English department at Fordham, explains here (in the Chronicle December 2018) how he sets up dissertation writing groups. This approach structures not only the faculty-advisee relationship but also collegial relationships among grad students at different levels in the program.

Along similar lines, but in the context of lab sciences, Allison Antes (from the Center for Research and Clinical Ethics at Washington University School of Medicine) offers six key steps to strong faculty advising in a November 2018 Nature article. For instance:

Task one: put recurring one-on-one meetings with the members of your group on your calendar. Set up a notebook or spreadsheet and jot down anything you should bring up during these meetings. Set an alert for ten minutes before the appointment to decide how to approach the meeting. Does the team member need encouragement? Career guidance? Feedback on their project and direction for next steps? Are they behind on deadlines or lacking confidence?

Task two: invite people to share both complaints and highlights. Several exemplary scientists explicitly require their trainees to relate a concern or struggle at some point in one-on-one meetings. They want to help people to be comfortable enough to bring problems and mistakes to light, and so address issues early, while they are manageable.

Compass pointing to the word CareerFinally, in March 2019, four professors from across disciplines offer “Three research-based lessons to improve your mentoring:”

  1. Approach the power dynamic between mentor and mentee by invoking relevant research. Aspects of mentoring line up with aspects of parenting; to say this is not to infantilize students but rather to acknowledge the power difference as well as (often) the generational difference—and to avoid reinventing the wheel. Research shows the benefits of “authoritativeness, which is defined by both high expectations and high attentiveness; offering a safe haven in times of distress; and fostering a secure base to promote exploration.”
  2. Communicate your confidence in students’ abilities and potential. Again, from the research: “if students think their professors believe that only a few special people have intellectual potential, it can harm their sense of belonging and their performance.”
  3. Model a growth mindset, and “help mentees embrace failure as growth.” One of the authors, Jay J. Van Bavel, shares his unofficial bio alongside his formal one. Some faculty circulate failure CVs.

Where Hopkins Fits In

Here at Hopkins there has been significant conversation around how best to mentor graduate students, particularly since the publication of the National Academies of Science report on sexual and gender harassment in the sciences. In October of 2018, at a Women Faculty Forum event concerning the NAS report, participants (faculty, students, and staff) generated suggestions for how JHU could implement NAS’s recommendation #5: “Diffuse the hierarchical and dependent relationship between trainees and faculty.” You can read notes from that conversation here.

In November 2018, a faculty coffee hour focused solely on the faculty-trainee relationship at Hopkins produced these suggestions.

Meanwhile, there is a new PhD Student Advisory Committee, convened by Vice Provost for Graduate and Professional Education Nancy Kass. Mentorship, inclusivity, professional development, and grad student well-being are among the key topics discussed. From the Hub: “We get these amazing students, and we want them to be productive, and happy, and feel good about what they’re doing, and then be prepared to do really wonderful things afterwards,” Kass says.

As a result of this work, the Doctor of Philosophy Board just passed two new policies: The first requires PhD students and their advisors to have annual conversations about not only research progress but also professional development goals. The second requires each PhD-granting school to distribute our new mentoring guidance and to put in place at least two “supports”—such as workshops, training, mentoring mavens, mentoring awards, and so on.

Finally, Vice Provost Kass also assembled a university-wide PhD Program Directors Retreat in early May. The focus was on PhD professional development and preparedness for non-academic careers. Farouk Dey, Vice Provost for Integrative Learning and Life Design, was the keynote speaker. His overall message to faculty PhD program directors: “Try not to ask [students] ‘What do you want to do?’ Instead ask, ‘What has inspired you lately?’ ‘What action can you take to turn that inspiration into reality and how can I help you with that?’”

Anne-Elizabeth Brodsky, Senior Lecturer
Expository Writing, Johns Hopkins University

Anne-Elizabeth M. Brodsky has taught in the Expository Writing Program since 2007. In addition to teaching “Introduction to Expository Writing,” she has also taught courses on friendship, public education, and race in American literature. A former member of the JHU Diversity Leadership Council, Anne-Elizabeth now serves as co-chair of the Women Faculty Forum at Homewood.

Using Slack in the Classroom

If you aren’t already using it, chances are you have probably heard of the online communication platform known as Slack. Slack is a cloud-based software program that is used for project management, information sharing, individual and group communication, as well as synchronous and asynchronous collaboration.  There are free and paid plans available; the main difference between the plans is the number of messages that are accessible (10,000 with the free plan) and how many third-party tools are supported (10 with the free plan).  What began in 2013 as a mode for inter-office conversation between two business offices has quickly expanded to hundreds of workplaces worldwide as well as many classrooms.

With the number of existing communication tools already available, you may be wondering how this one differs and why you might consider using it. Slack is organized into ‘channels’ which are like chat rooms dedicated to specific conversations. Messages posted to a channel can be seen by everyone who subscribes to that channel or directed to specific individuals and kept private. Unlike traditional chat rooms which may be hard to follow, Slack supports threading, which allows participants to respond directly to posts within a channel without interrupting the overall flow of conversation. Slack integrates with several third-party services, such as Box, Google Drive, and Dropbox, as well as developer platforms such as GitHub and Bitbucket. It also has a powerful search feature, making it easy to find files and specific topics in cross-channel conversations.

Slack was designed with efficiency in mind, therefore communication tends to be succinct and streamlined. Generally speaking, participants write short, direct messages closer in style to a messaging app without the ‘formality’ often used when composing an email. While this lack of formality may take some getting used to, many students are already accustomed to this style which they frequently use in various social media apps and when texting. Also unlike email, Slack follows more of an ‘opt-in’ model, where users can join in on conversations they feel are relevant and ignore those that are not.  Settings are available to determine how often users are notified of messages being posted.

The following is a list of possible ways instructors can use Slack in the classroom:

  • Share information – Create channels for posting announcements, sharing articles, links, relevant content, etc. Students can immediately ask questions or comment on the post which could lead to a dialogue around a specific topic. This may help to engage students in the topic as well as build a sense of community in the class.
  • Manage group projects – Each group can have its own channel to collaborate, share files, and communicate with each other. Instructors can post resources for groups in their specific channels and periodically check in and offer assistance as needed.
  • Crowdsource class notes – Create a channel for students to contribute main ideas from notes taken in class. This could eventually be used to create a study guide.
  • Poll the class – Slack includes a free polling tool which can be used to survey students for a variety of reasons in real-time, during class, or asynchronously, outside of class. Polls are optionally anonymous.
  • Include experts ‘in the field’ – Invite subject matter experts and/or those working ‘in the field’ to Slack so they can participate in conversations and answer student questions. JHU instructor Jennifer Bernstein invites former students to stay involved in her Slack channels so that current students can benefit from the perspective of someone who has recently graduated and is now working in the medical profession.
  • Monitor student engagement – Slack provides an optional weekly summary of usage statistics, including charts and graphs showing how many messages were posted, files uploaded, etc.

If you decide to use Slack in a classroom environment, there are some considerations to keep in mind. For example, there is no FERPA compliance in Slack. Sensitive data such as grades and personal information should not be shared in Slack spaces. Instructors should be clear with students about what types of conversations are appropriate for Slack, and what might be better served in an email or face-to-face. Another thing to consider is the capability available to members (students) that are invited to a Slack space. Instructors may be surprised with the permissions and features available to students (i.e. the ability to create their own channels). Therefore, it is recommended that instructors familiarize themselves with the established permissions of Slack before getting started.  Finally, it may be worth noting that Slack is not a course management system (Blackboard, Canvas, etc.), and does not contain many of the features available in those systems, such as a gradebook, assignment creator, rubrics tool, etc. It may, however, provide an interesting, alternative means of communication in relevant situations as determined by the instructor.

Amy Brusini, Senior Instructional Designer
Center for Educational Resources

Image sources: Slack logo, Phil Simon: How I Use Slack in the Classroom

Lunch and Learn: Community-based Learning

On Wednesday, December 12, the Center for Educational Resources (CER) hosted the second Lunch and Learn for the 2018-2019 academic year. Shawntay Stocks, Assistant Director of Engaged Scholarship, Center for Social Concern; and Dora Malech, Assistant Professor, Writing Seminars; presented on Community-based Learning.

Graphic illustration of Community-based learning process.

Shawntay Stocks opened with a presentation on community-based learning (CBL) at Johns Hopkins speaking about how her organization—the Center for Social Concern (CSC)—can assist faculty who wish to use the CBL pedagogical model in their courses (see slides here). The Center for Social Concern is the part of the Homewood Student Affairs division of Johns Hopkins University that focuses on volunteerism and community engagement; Community-based Learning is just one of their programs.

Stocks described CBL as “…a pedagogical model that connects classroom-based work with meaningful community involvement and exchange.  Within the context of equitable partnership, community organizations and students mutually benefit from the CBL experience both by meeting course objectives and addressing community-identified goals.  Students may engage with groups including, but not limited to: nonprofits, government agencies, grassroots collectives, and other educational institutions.” She noted that collaboration is the key for faculty, students, and community groups in pursuing mutual goals and course objectives, and that faculty must provide adequate preparation for their students to engage in CBL. The Center for Social Concern offers training for faculty, stipends to support faculty and community partners, and provides a TA for courses using CBL. At the core CBL is an equal partnership. The community partner may not have an advanced academic degree, but does have expertise, relationships, and contextual knowledge to bring to the table.

Students benefit because CBL allows them to connect theory to real-life experience and to think critically, in our case, about urban life in Baltimore. They have the opportunity to work collaboratively and collectively and gain an understanding of diverse perspectives. The skills they develop will be transferable to other aspects of their lives. Students often transform their thinking about the city in positive ways as they gain knowledge through reflection.

How can faculty ensure a successful CBL experience? Stocks emphasized the importance of “doing your homework” in terms of the community partner. You should think about these questions: What are the areas of commonality? How do your academic goals and their programmatic goals overlap? What are the expectations on both sides? What types of training will students need for a successful partnership? What are the logistics for partnership meetings? What commitment is being made (e.g., one semester, multiple semesters or academic years) and what is the potential for an ongoing partnership? What type of action are you planning for your CBL course—research, service, community building, advocacy, dialog?

Critical for the student experience are reflection and assessment. Reflection deepens learning. Instructors must allow for students to express their discomfort, frustration, anxiety, anger as well as their positive, affirmative feelings. It’s important to have conversations around the emotional impact of their experiences and acknowledge difficulties. Assessment of learning can be done through journaling, discussion, essays, or presentations.

At the end of the course there should be a project evaluation that includes the community partner. How did the partnership work? Were the learning goals accomplished? What would make the partnership work better? What were the pitfalls? How can these be navigated next time?  CBL courses may be iterative processes and such evaluation will allow for continuous improvement of the experience for all involved.

Dora Malech won the Crenson-Hertz Award for Community Based Learning and Participatory Research from the Johns Hopkins University Center for Social Concern in 2016. For the past several years she has worked with CSC, partnering with the Writers in Baltimore Schools (WBS) program to give her Johns Hopkins Writing Seminars students a CBL experience. The WBS website has more information on this partnership. Malech shared her experiences with developing and teaching her course, Poetry and Social Justice.

Malech teaches undergraduate and graduate students now, but previously, at the University of Iowa, she directed a K-12 outreach program, which gave her an appreciation for community partnerships. In thinking about CBL, an important component for her is the concept of cultural humility, which comes from social work, a profession that emphasizes diversity and cultural competency. This idea of respecting the different experience of others and being open to learning from them works well for those interested in implementing CBL.

When she was first considering CBL, she made a lot of phone calls to prospective partners. Malech recommends meeting face to face, having coffee, getting to know the person. She ended up partnering with Patrice Hutton from the Writers in Baltimore Schools program. The program starts with Middle School students who participate in “in-school, after-school, and summer programming that builds skills in literacy and communication while creating a community of support for young writers.” Malech’s Writing Seminars students worked with Baltimore City high school students who had been program participants.

For the students on both sides, it is important to frame the relationship as a two-way transaction. The high school students have the experience of growing up in Baltimore City. They have cultural wealth and knowledge, and can articulate the community concerns. These students are college bound, but university culture is very much an abstraction for them. The JHU students may know nothing about inner-city life; the high school students give them the benefit of their urban experience, while the JHU students can help break down the mystery of what college life will be like for their high school partners.

Malech is explicit with her students about the course requirements. Participation in events outside of class time is mandatory—these include field trips, interview assignments, literary readings. Students are expected to get to these events on their own. Purchase of a Maryland Transit Administration CharmCard is recommended, and students should become familiar with public transportation such as local buses, light rail and the MARC train to DC. Due to logistics (the high school students are coming from all across Baltimore City), and to the high school students’ expressed preference, the class meetings are held on the JHU campus.

Malech said her role is to be explicit that the text is the community itself and that the students will build it together in the classroom. An on-going class blog—Poetry and Power—captures student writings. From the web site: “POETRY & POWER is the website and blog of “Poetry & Social Justice,” a Community Based Learning class that brings 15-20 Baltimore City high school students and 15- 20 Johns Hopkins University undergraduate students together to explore the intersection of poetry and social justice. They’ll write and read poetry together, engage with visiting writers, interview local poets and activists, and hold public performances of their own.”

As Stocks emphasized, Malech also views critical reflection as a key component for CBL. She uses the DEAL Model for Critical Reflection from Patti Clayton’s web site PHC Ventures (Mission: To build capacity for and generate best practices around community-engaged teaching, learning, and scholarship.), which Malech recommends as a great resource for those engaging in CBL.

A discussion followed the presentations. Stocks gave examples of different models of CBL. In one case a STEM faculty member and his class developed course modules to augment STEM programming at Margaret Brent Middle School. She fielded questions about whether it would be possible for Engineering capstone courses to use CBL with identified partners, specifically whether Civil Engineering students might partner with city agencies to identify and resolve infrastructure issues. This is an intriguing possibility that may be pursued with faculty and deans in the Whiting School of Engineering.

A question was posed about how to get departmental buy-in and funding for CBL courses. Malech noted that she had to prove that the concept was pedagogically sound and not overwhelming for the students. Strong positive feedback from the students showed that this was a high-impact teaching model. She said that she worked very hard to make the course a success. Getting positive publicity can be a strong incentive for department backing. Media attention acts as a “witness” to the process and as pressure for the administration to continue a project. She also presented at conferences and made the connection between strong writing and community engagement. Malech stated that culture change is an uphill battle where positive community feedback can really help. Being flexible and willing to scale up or down is important as well. The JHU President’s Office is advocating for community engagement, which may also be useful in getting departmental approval.

Stocks reminded us that CSC has resources for faculty and can assist even if someone wants to start on a small scale and build up to greater community engagement. Mike Reese, who uses CBL in his Sociology courses (focused on Baltimore City) noted that CSC had helped him get a JHU van to transport students for field work assignments. Stocks referenced the CSC website page for faculty wanting to use CBL—there are resources listed. She invited interested faculty to come have a conversation and learn more.

A question was asked about how a course could be restructured to include a CBL component. Faculty who have implemented CBL agreed that the activities must be the core course fabric. Traditional assignments can be swapped out for CBL assignments; class time can be used, or time outside of class can be substituted depending on the activity. Both the Center for Social Concern and the Center for Educational Resources can assist faculty with course planning.

Several participants who have used CBL in their courses stressed the importance of structuring and scaffolding the experience for students to assure that they buy into the concept. Malech emphasized that students should be prepared for the fact that there will be a certain amount of chaos inherent in the program, and that interpersonal relationships can be challenging. That is part of any real-world experience, but if students are prepared, they will be able to adapt. Another faculty CBL user noted that it is never a majority of students who feel “unsettled” by the realities of city life and partnership, but for those who are it is important to keep communication lines open and be flexible. And someone else noted that the “chaos factor” is also part of the equation for faculty and doesn’t go away even after multiple experiences offering CBL courses. In her experience, the chaos is well worth the meaningful, long-term impact for students. Malech commented, “That’s what college should be all about.”

Ahmed Ibrahim, Senior Education Research Consultant in the Center for Educational Resources, has been analyzing data on CBL courses taught at JHU from 2015 to 2017. He shared that students indicated that the best aspect of CBL courses is the personal interaction. Students asked for negative aspects made comments when the course was not well-structured.

Mike Reese, Director of the Center for Educational Resources asked Stocks and Malech what the best thing about CBL has been for them. Stocks answered that she enjoys creating CBL partnerships and wants to further engage faculty in a CBL learning community. For Malech, it has been the publishing and presenting as an educational expert outside her field of poetry. In terms of the learning process, she has come to think differently about course content. While originally she was focused on social justice and lived experience for the high school students, they challenged her to allow them to be creative writers. She’s appreciated the chance to be more open about her own assumptions of what the community partner wants and needs.

Macie Hall, Senior Instructional Designer
Center for Educational Resources

Image Sources: Center for Social Concern, Community-based Learning web site: https://studentaffairs.jhu.edu/socialconcern/programs/community-based-learning/

 

PhysPort: Not Just for Physics Instructors

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Macie Hall, Senior Instructional Designer
Center for Educational Resources

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

 

Scaffolding for Successful Learning

The Innovative Instructor likes the concept of scaffolding. Not the architectural structure,Construction workers climbing a scaffold. but the support faculty can provide for students in the classroom. Two previous posts, Scaffolding Part 2: Build Your Students’ Notetaking Skills (March 29, 2017) and Scaffolding: Teach your students how to read a journal article (February 28, 2017) looked at ways in which instructors can give students a framework to improve their skills and help them succeed. In an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education, Traditional Teaching May Deepen Inequality. Can a Different Approach Fix It?  (Beckie Supiano, May 6, 2018) instructor Kelly A. Hogan asks, “Doesn’t everybody like some structure or guidance? Why do we treat learning as something different or special?”

Ten years ago, Hogan, now STEM-Teaching Associate Professor and Assistant Dean of Instructional Innovation at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, was presented with data on students’ grades in her introductory level biology class and grasped the impact that inequities in K-12 education have. “About one in 14 white students earned a D or F in the course. About one in seven Latino/a students received those grades. For black students, it was one in three.” She was directly contributing to the leaky STEM pipeline—students who failed her course were unlikely to continue in a STEM field.

Faculty may recognize the racial gaps in education that first year college students bring to the classroom. They may see these as “inevitable inequities” revealing problems that are too vast for them, as instructors, to overcome. Hogan saw it differently. The gap was her problem and she became convinced that traditional undergraduate teaching—lectures, reading assignments, high-stakes assessments—was making it worse. Specifically, students whose high schools had not prepared them for college-level work were failing, not because they weren’t capable of doing that work, “…but because no one has taught them how to navigate the system.” That includes knowing how to take notes in lectures and on reading assignments, how to prepare for writing papers and taking tests, and how (and where) to ask for help when needed.

Hogan taught courses with 300 or more students and had a lot of student data, so she could see patterns and trends. And because she also ran study-skills workshops, she had strategies that would help students succeed. She now uses a pedagogical approach called inclusive teaching. “Inclusive teaching has two main components: putting more structure into a course, giving clear instructions so that all students know what to do before, during, and after class; and thoughtfully facilitating class discussion, so that everyone can participate.”

Hogan flipped her course so that students spend class time doing active learning exercises rather than listing to her lecture. She was explicit about her motives and how students would benefit. “She emphasized the habits of a successful student and focused on the importance of practice. She broke down the things students could do before, during, and after class to give themselves the best chances of performing well. Then she made those tasks mandatory, and a factor in students’ grades.” The article details some of the practices. Her course syllabus illustrates how she communicates these to her students.

Even in a class with a 300 plus enrollment, held in an auditorium designed for lecturing, Hogan has students working in assigned groups on projects. She moves around the room to oversee their work. Students use smart phones as classroom polling devices to answer questions, opening an opportunity for discussion. Hogan facilitates class discussions in ways to equalize participation.

The article goes on to detail how two of Hogan’s “converts” have implemented inclusive teaching in their own classrooms. Hogan runs workshops on inclusive teaching that include an unusual startup activity that clearly illustrates the educational inequity gap for incoming college students. At one workshop after completing the initial task, attendees turned to what might be done to remedy the problem. “Inequity, Hogan suggested, is not intractable. Even small changes in teaching can help counteract it. ‘Adding structure to the learning environment,’ Hogan said, ‘can mitigate unfairness, build feelings of inclusion, and promote student success.’”

Changing demographics mean that many students arrive at colleges and universities lacking high school preparation that used to be taken for granted. We can’t afford to shrug off responsibility for ensuring that all of our students can succeed. As Hogan points out, the impact on our society going forward is too great. Rather, instructors must consider how to level the field and provide guidance and scaffolding to support their students in successful learning.

Macie Hall, Senior Instructional Designer
Center for Educational Resources

Image Source: Pixabay.com