A Faculty Follow-up Discussion: Re-engaging Students for the Fall Semester

On Tuesday, November 8th, the Center for Teaching Excellence and Innovation (CTEI) hosted a discussion on re-engaging students for the fall semester. At faculty request, this discussion was a continuation of one initially held in August, when participants explored the challenges they faced with the return to in-person teaching in Spring semester 2022. During that session, faculty offered potential ways to address disengagement in a student population who reported high levels of “stress, fatigue, and anxiety” in a post-pandemic world.male student staring at his computer This phenomenon has been noted in many media outlets, including The Chronicle of Higher Education, which recently hosted a webinar on addressing student disengagement and summarized it in a follow-up article. Mike Reese, Associate Dean and Director of the CTEI, moderated the conversation.  

The session kicked-off with instructors offering their general sense about how student engagement in their Fall courses compared to their Spring courses. The overall assessment was that problems remained, though there were some bright spots:  

  • One instructor noted that attendance in his course’s Friday session, led by teaching assistants, was down almost 50% in the recent week.  
  • Another noted that Fall was “a little bit” better than Spring, when she was still teaching online via Zoom, but she continued to observe a lot of “struggle” among her students, exacerbated by a lack of knowledge of how to address it.  
  • One participant, who regularly polled his students on their overall well-being on a scale from one to five with five being the highest score, said he was seeing a lot of ones and twos among his students. However, he started this practice during the pandemic so he didn’t have any pre-pandemic data to baseline the response.  
  • A fourth participant had observed that her students’ behavior was better, but they also had large gaps in their subject-matter knowledge due to the instructional disruptions incurred by the pandemic. 

Time management issues quickly became the dominant topic when one faculty member pointed out that this was a particular problem for his students. Other participants also offered examples of students struggling with time management; one faculty member said that she had received a lot of requests for extensions from students who admitted these were due to poor time management, and another said that she observed an all-senior class – usually a population with a good sense of time management –also contending with this issue.group of students socializing The reason for this, attendees speculated, may have to do with the full return to on-site courses and residential campus life. Students may be excited to dive back into campus life, trying to take advantage of opportunities, like lab-based research, not available during the pandemic, and becoming over-committed as a result. Another reason offered was that the time management skills needed to negotiate pandemic life and instruction needed to be re-adjusted for more typical university life.   

The post-pandemic gap in content-specific knowledge, particularly in the STEM disciplines, has prompted some academic programs to start looking at ways to make changes to their large introductory or gateway courses. One participant said her program was looking to make data-based adjustments informed by placement tests, in-person attendance at office hours, and data from Canvas classrooms and learning-support software, such as ALEKS. 

As a group, the participants generated several useful ideas to enhance engagement in both large lecture-style courses and smaller seminar courses:  

  • Increasing structure for small-group discussions in large classrooms: One instructor had added question prompts and a pre-identified spokesperson to her small-group break-out discussions to increase student focus, participation, and output during these sessions.  
  • Flipping one class meeting a week to start homework: Another instructor had flipped one class meeting a week to provide students with a pre-determined timeslot in which to start their homework each week and receive real-time instructional feedback. This helped students with time management and on-time completion of the homework.  
  • Requiring a one-to-one meeting outside class: An attendee required that seminar students meet with him one-on-one at least once outside of class, which helped build relationships and comfort with class participation.  
  • Requiring student socialization outside class: A participant volunteered onegroup of students smiling approach that she heard about via the Chronicle Webinar: to require that students meet and socialize outside of class twice a month to work on “conversation fundamentals” – how to have a balanced conversation, how to use open-ended questions – to build “social sophistication and stamina” in in-person environments post-pandemic. 
  • Mid-semester surveys: Two instructors distributed mid-semester surveys to students that specifically targeted issues of classroom engagement, and one queried participants about their time-on-task for assignments and activities. Though survey participation was low in one course, both instructors were reviewing and integrating appropriate feedback.  
  • Panels of former students: One attendee noted that he had invited a panel of former students to talk about their experiences in the class and what contributed to their success. The credibility of the speakers and the authenticity of the guidance resonated with the current students.  
  • Strategic use of Learning Assistants or Course Assistants: Some instructors in large or introductory courses used Learning Assistants or Course Assistants – undergraduate students successful in the subject area who are trained to provide in-class instructional support – to scale up instructional reach and feedback. These assistants had been particularly crucial in courses that needed more hands-on instructional support, structure, and feedback.    

Many instructors found themselves structuring tasks and activities for students that, pre-pandemic, may not have required direct guidance and direction. Given this need, the importance of student meta-cognition – knowing how to learn something – was raised, which resulted in the following suggestions:       

  • Using learning science data to persuade students: One participant noted that her students were very responsive to research-based arguments. When she offered students evidence-based examples of effective ways to learn (she cited  The Learning Scientists blog as a good source of information), they responded affirmatively to these suggestions. Leveraging learning science research when suggesting better ways to study – retain, recall, and synthesize content – might be one way to help bolster meta-cognition.  
  • Building in self-reflection on effective learning approaches: An attendee recommended integrating opportunities for students to self-reflect on the usefulness of teaching interventions, such as the one-course-meeting-a-week flipped classroom for starting homework. Such reflection on why a certain approach worked (in this case, in-class time dedicated to starting homework with in-person instructional feedback) may help students build (or re-build) their meta-cognitive muscles.  

The conversation turned to tools that could support both targeted in-class instruction and meta-cognition skill development. Brian Cole, Associate Director of the CTEI, said that he had been investigating different technologies that would enable real-time assessment of content comprehension and upvoting of particularly confusing content areas. Melo Yap, the new Sr. Educational Research Consultant at the CTEI, volunteered Kahoot as a tool that could offer such flexibility. 

 A faculty member suggested developing a toolkit with proven meta-cognitive strategies that could be inserted into the Canvas sections of each course. Instructors and students could access this toolkit on-demand and integrate into it their course design for both “just-in-time” support (e.g., before a high-stakes test) and more long-term development. The CTEI offered to collect any already-available guidance to help students learn more effectively in an effort to start collating this information in one place.  

Caroline Egan
Caroline Egan is a Project Manager in the Center for Teaching Excellence and Innovation, supporting instructional training and development for Hopkins faculty, graduate students, post-doctoral fellows, and staff.

Mike Reese
Mike Reese is Associate Dean of the Center for Teaching Excellence and Innovation and associate teaching professor in Sociology.

Image Source: Unsplash

Faculty Discussion: Re-engaging Students for the Fall Semester

The return to in-person teaching last year brought with it a high degree of uncertainty for students and faculty. Professors reported that stress, fatigue, and anxiety contributed to higher levels of student disengagement, disconnection, and languishing than in pre-pandemic courses. college students in lecture hallFaculty at other schools reported similar trends with several articles and essays published in the NY Times and Chronicle of Higher Education over the past several months. At faculty’s request, the Center for Teaching Excellence and Innovation (CTEI) hosted a discussion for instructors to share their experiences and brainstorm solutions for Fall 2022 and beyond. Over thirty instructors participated. Brian Cole, Associate Director of the CTEI, moderated the discussion.

Faculty attendees reported that students seemed to struggle transitioning from online classes to in-person classes last spring. One person shared that colleagues at other institutions were reporting the same concerns. The behaviors described included students:

  • expressing concerns about being prepared for high-stakes exams
  • regularly being distracted by devices during class
  • skipping class more frequently than before the pandemic
  • requesting more mental health accommodations
  • acting more aggressively toward  instructors (One instructor said this behavior is more likely seen by instructors of certain races and gender.)

Participants felt these behaviors could be traced to several sources. The pandemic was traumatic for many students suffering from social isolation and the stress of living under the threat of COVID. Faculty also felt some students were not as prepared for their classes because pre-requisite college classes or high school courses were online and employed pass-fail grading schemas. Other instructors reported students feeling stressed about other global events (e.g., political polarization, Ukraine war).  While the pandemic may be fading or becoming normalized, faculty shared that other stressors are constants that continue to weigh on students.

This led to a discussion about when it was appropriate for faculty to engage students about their stress and anxiety over global crises. Instructors teaching in the social sciences can more easily integrate discussions of current events into their curriculum. Is it appropriate for faculty in science and engineering to dedicate class time to social stressors that affect students? Most participants said yes. Several shared they provide opportunities for students to talk about current events that may impact them and ask students openly, “How are you doing? What’s going on with your peers?” to give them space to talk. stressed out male student looking at his laptop Several faculty participants asked for advice on how to set boundaries on the amount of time to dedicate to these discussions during class and what types of topics to discuss. Those that dedicate class time to talking about global issues or student mental health concerns felt it was appropriate to occasionally dedicate 15 minutes of class time to connect with students and build relationships with them. As for topics, instructors should choose topics they are comfortable discussing.

Another source of stress mentioned was the number of hours students are working. One professor shared he has seen an increase in students trying to work full time while attending school. It’s not a large number, but definitely an increase that was likely precipitated by the flexible schedules during COVID when classes were more likely to be asynchronous. Another instructor shared that she observed an increase in students working part-time jobs during COVID. She felt it was important to be more explicit with students about expectations for deadlines and the time it takes to complete assignments to help students balance working outside of class. However, many participants felt it was not appropriate for students to work full-time. Another instructor reported an increase in students continuing summer internships into the academic year. Students see this as a pathway to a job after graduation and are motivated to continue working. This may be a good opportunity, but again, faculty are concerned students are overcommitted.

Some faculty record their lectures for students to review later, while others questioned if this would result in students skipping class. Several faculty responded with strategies to encourage students to attend. These included using activities that motivate students to show up and awarding points for participating in those activities.  One instructor said he records the videos, but shares them with students only upon request. If a student is regularly requesting them and not showing up for class, he engages them to learn more about why they are skipping to address any issues. He shares all of the videos with students the week before the exam. Another instructor said she has recorded her lectures for 15 years, and uses activities to encourage student attendance and engagement with each other. She stresses, “I’m not the only person in the room. You also learn from the other students when you are here.”

Another instructor asked if recording the class discourages students from asking questions. Two instructors responded it did not affect behavior in their classes, but that could be because they teach large courses so students are generally less likely to ask questions during class meetings.

While the pandemic was stressful for everyone, faculty reported it provided opportunities to experiment with new teaching strategies. Many are now trying to evaluate which changes to keep or drop. One instructor said their decision is based on the time required to implement the strategy and its impact on student learning.students doing an activity with post-it notes on a whiteboard Another instructor said she offered more low-stakes assessments while teaching online. She felt this helped reduce the stress of high-stakes assessments, but she is now considering if she is requiring too much of students. The value of offering more low-stakes assessments is that students get more regular feedback throughout the semester.

Another instructor is hearing from students that instructors are assigning more applied learning assignments that leverage technology (e.g., arcGIS) which require significantly more time to complete. While it’s good to have interdisciplinary projects and collaborate with other groups, such as data services at the university, we need to remember that this also requires students to work with different groups and learn additional skills, all of which take time.

Overall, faculty felt the goal is not to penalize disengagement, but to encourage students to engage. Faculty participants shared additional strategies to address student disengagement which are summarized below:

  • Eliminate online tools for the course that are not critical.
  • Offer asynchronous work days. This is not an off day, but a chance to work on class assignments.  One instructor shared that students really liked having a day to work on their projects.
  • Clearly communicate expectations for class (e.g., assignment deadlines, pre-class work expectations) on a regular basis and in multiple modalities (e.g., verbally in class, on Canvas, via class email).
  • Build in flexibility to assignment deadlines. One instructor allows students to skip up to two assignments, and their grade is replaced by the average of the existing assignments.
  • Another instructor shared a similar approach: she does not permit any extensions on homework even if a student is sick, however, she replaces missing grades with the average of the other assignments if the student presents a viable excuse for missing the deadline. The instructor uses this approach because it allows her to share the homework solutions immediately after the deadline while students are still intellectually engaged with the assignment.
  • Another instructor builds in quizzes related to the homework to encourage students to look at it early. For example, the day after homework is posted, students are presented with a quiz asking them to describe what the homework is asking them to do. They don’t need to solve it, but it motivates them to look at it early instead of waiting until the last day when they will have less time to get help.
  • Consider using the discussion board in Canvas or encourage students to attend office hours if you don’t want to dedicate class time to check in with them.
  • Share wellness resources from JHU including the Student Well-being blog about talking with students about current events: https://wellbeing.jhu.edu/blog/. They also provide a page for dealing with more acute issues when students are in distress: https://wellbeing.jhu.edu/resources/faculty-staff/
  • Consider limiting the use of devices (phones, laptops, etc.) to minimize distractions during class.
  • Share mental health resources with your students including Mental Telehealth (free counseling via video chat), Calm app (great for sleep, focus, mindfulness), A Place to Talk (peer listening), Stress and Depression Questionnaire (10minute confidential assessment with feedback w/in 48 hours from a Hopkins clinician).
  • Share how you manage your stress to demonstrate that students are not the only ones dealing with these issues. One participant said, “We might feel it, but if we don’t say it, they don’t know it. If you talk about it, then you open up a space for students to talk about their own stressors.”
  • Consult inclusive teaching practices and Hopkins Universal Design for Learning resources which can help instructors build flexibility into their teaching. One instructor said that being flexible includes building in processing time to help students prepare for their assignments. This includes emotional processing time on difficult topics.

female student smiling in classroom with other studentsClare Lochary from the Office of Student Health and Wellbeing shared that the Counseling Center sees two clear spikes in incoming clients each semester. The first is six weeks into the semester when students begin to realize they aren’t doing as well as they want in their courses. The second  is during the last two weeks of the semester as they prepare for final papers and exams. Faculty should be aware of these cycles and pay special attention to student behavior  so they can refer students to help resources or address concerns about academic performance.

Mike Reese
Mike Reese is Associate Dean of the Center for Teaching Excellence and Innovation and associate teaching professor in Sociology.

Image Source: Unsplash

Teaching Cinema with Omeka

Since the death of the DVD player, several challenges have emerged for media-based courses: How can we give students access to a wide range of audiovisual, image, and text sources located on multiple different online platforms? What is the most efficient way for the instructor to access these materials in class spontaneously, and for students to be able to work with the materials on their own? Can we do this in a way that allows for critical engagement and sparks new associations? Can we make that engagement interactive? To address these challenges, graduate fellow Hale Sirin and I discovered Omeka, an open-source exhibition software tool developed at George Mason University. We found the Omeka platform optimal for creating media-rich digital collections and exhibitions.Omeka website Home page for Comparative Cinema

In Fall 2019, funded by a Center for Teaching Excellence and Innovation (CTEI) Technology Fellowship Grant, we created and customized an instance of Omeka with the specific goal of designing a web-based environment to teach comparative cinema courses. We implemented the Omeka site in Spring 2020 for the course “Cinema of the 1930s: Communist and Capitalist Fantasies,” further supported by a CTEI Teaching Innovation Grant. This course compares films of the era in a variety of genres (musical, epic, Western, drama) from different countries, examining the intersections between politics and aesthetics as well as the lasting implications of the films themselves in light of theoretical works on film as a medium, ethics and gender. We adapted the online publishing software package into an interactive media platform on which the students could watch the assigned films, post comments with timestamps, and help expand the platform by sharing their own video essays. We built this platform with sustainability in mind, choosing open-source software with no recurring costs so that it could be used over the years and serve as a model for future interdisciplinary and comparative film and media courses.

When building this website, our first task was to organize the digital archive of film clips and film stills for the course. These materials were then uploaded to Panopto, the online streaming service used by JHU, and embedded in the Omeka site.screenshot of embedded film hosted in Kanopy We also embedded the films that were publicly available on YouTube, Kanopy, and other archives, such as the online film archive of the production studio Mosfil’m, designing the Omeka site to serve as a single platform to stream this content. Each film, clip, text, or image was tagged with multiple identifiers to allow students to navigate the many resources for the course via search and sort functions, tags and hyperlinks, creating an interactive and rich learning environment. We added further functionality to the website by customizing interactive plugins, such as the “Comments” function, which allowed us to create a thread for each film in which students could respond to the specific prompts for the week and to timestamp the specific parts of the film to which their comments referred.

In order to abide by copyright laws, only films in the public domain were streamed in their entirety. For other films, we provided selected short clips on Omeka, which we were able to easily access during class. Students were able to access the films available on Kanopy through our website by entering their JHU credentials.

Teaching comparative cinema with the interactive website powered by Omeka provided the students with a novel way of accessing comparative research in film studies. The website served as a single platform, interconnecting the digital material (video, image and text) and creating an interactive and rich learning environment to enhance student learning both in and outside of class time. Rather than the materials being fixed to the syllabus week to week, students could search film clips by director, year, country, or theme. Students were thus able to compare and contrast many images and films from across cultural divides on a unified online platform.

Students were not only able to access the course materials on the Omeka site, but also to expand and re-structure the content. screenshot of Scarlett Empress film clip in Omeka site Over the course of the semester, students contributed to the annotation of film clips by uploading their comments to the films and timestamping important sequences. Since they were also required to draw their presentations from material in the exhibition, their engagement on the site was quantifiable on an on-going basis. As their final projects, they had the option of creating a video essay, which involved editing together clips from the films, and recording an interpretive essay over them, like a commentary track. Their video essays were shared with their peers on the Omeka site.

After switching to online learning in Spring 2020 due to Covid19, the Omeka site not only performed its original task, but was flexible enough to give us the opportunity to build an asynchronous, alternative educational environment, now not only hosting the course materials and discussion forums, but also the weekly recorded lectures, recordings of our Zoom discussion sessions, and students’ final video essays.

We thank the Center for Teaching Excellence and Innovation (previously known as the Center for Educational Resources) and the Sheridan Libraries for their support and continual guidance during this project.

Additional Resources:

https://omeka.org/

https://blogs.library.jhu.edu/2016/08/omeka-for-instruction/

Authors’ Backgrounds:

Anne Eakin Moss was an Assistant Professor in JHU’s Department of Comparative Thought and Literature, a board member of the program in Women, Gender, and Sexuality and of the Center for Advanced Media Studies. She was the 2017 recipient of the KSAS Excellence in Graduate Teaching/Mentorship Award and a Mellon Arts Innovation Grant, and a 2019 KSAS Discovery Award winner. Since the fall of 2021, she has been at the University of Chicago where she is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Slavic Languages & Literatures.

Hale Sirin is a Ph.D. Candidate in the Department of Comparative Thought and Literature. A recipient of the Dean’s Teaching Fellowship and the Women, Gender, and Sexuality teaching fellowship, she has taught courses in comparative literature, philosophy, and intellectual history. Her research interests include early 20th-century philosophy and literature, theories of representation and media in modernity, and digital humanities.

Image source: Hale Sirin

The Hazards of Teaching for the First Time

This post was submitted by Atousa Saberi, a graduate student in the Johns Hopkins Teaching Academy who reflected on her first-time teaching experience.

I would like to share my learning experience as a PhD student teaching my first undergraduate course during fall 2020: Natural Hazards.

Teaching this course, I wrestled with several questions: How can I engage students in a virtual setting? How can I make them think? What is the purpose of education after all and what do I want them to take away from the course?

About the course setting

Fall semester 2020 was a unique time to teach a course on natural hazards in the sense that all students were directly impacted by at least one type of disaster – the global pandemic. In addition, the semester coincided with a record-breaking Atlantic hurricane season on the East Coast and fires on the West Coast.  I used these events as an opportunity to spark students’ curiosity and motivate them to learn about the science of natural hazards.

As a student, my best learning experiences happened through dialogues and exchange of ideas between classmates and instructors that continued back and forth during class time. This experience inspired me to hold more than half of the class sessions synchronously.

To focus students’ attention, I motivated every class session by posing questions. For example, which hazards are the most destructive, frequent, or deadly? What is the effect of climate change on these hazards? What can we do about them?  Some of these questions are open ended and may sound overwhelming at first, but to me, the essential step in learning is to become curious enough to engage with questions and take steps to answer them. Isn’t the purpose of education to train future thinkers?

The course included clear learning objectives following Bloom’s Taxonomy to target both lower- and higher-level thinking skills. I designed multiple forms of assignments such as conducting readings, listening to podcasts, watching documentaries, completing analytical exercises, and participating in group discussions. To motivate the sense of exploration in students, instead of exams, I assigned a final term paper in which students investigated a natural disaster case study of their own interest.

The assessment was structured using specifications grading. The method directly links course grades to achievements of learning objectives and motivates students to focus on learning instead of earning points (Kelly, 2018). Grading rubrics were provided for each individual assignment.

Lab demonstrations

Just as a picture is worth a thousand words, lab demonstrations go a long way to supplement lectures and to improve conceptual understanding of learning materials. But is it possible to perform them in a remote setting?

Simple demonstrations were still possible. I just needed to get creative in implementing them! For example, I used a rubber band and a biscuit to demonstrate the strength of brittle versus elastic materials under various modes of deformation to explain how the choice of materials can make a drastic difference in what modes of deformation a building tolerates during an earthquake, which impacts the survival rate during an earthquake.

I also used a musical instrument, my Setar, as an analogy for seismic waves. Just seeing the instrument immediately captured the students’ attention. I played the same note at different octaves and reminded them how that results in a different pitch due to the string being confined to two different lengths. This is analogous to having a short versus long earthquake fault and therefore higher or lower frequency in seismic waves (Figure 1). Students were also given an exercise to listen to the sound of earthquakes from an archive to infer the fault length.

Figure 1. Comparison of seismic waves to the sound waves generated by a string instrument. (a) length of two Earthquake faults (USGS). (b) music instrument producing analogous sound waves. The red and green arrows show the note, D, played on the same string in different octaves.

Freedom to learn

Noam Chomsky often says in his interviews about education that students are taught to be passive and obedient rather than independent and creative (Robichaud, 2014). He believes education is a matter of laying out a string along which students will develop, but in their own way (Chomsky & Barsamian, 1996). Chomsky quotes his colleague’s response to students asking about course content, saying “it is not important what we cover in the class but rather what we discover” (Chomsky & Barsamian, 1996). I was inspired by this perspective and decided to encourage the enlightenment style of learning in my students by giving them freedom in their final term paper writing style. I encouraged the students to pick a case study based on what they loved to learn about natural hazards and gave them freedom in how to structure their writing or what to expand on (the science of the disaster, the losses, the social impacts, the aftermath, etc.). I was surprised to see so many of the students asked for strict guidelines, templates and sample term papers from previous semesters, as if the meaning of freedom and creativity in learning was unfamiliar to them!

Student perceptions of the class

I administered two anonymous feedback surveys, one in the middle of the semester and the other at the end. The mid-semester survey was focused on understanding what is working (not working) for students that I should keep (stop) doing, and what additional activities we could start doing to better adapt to the unexpected transition to online learning. I learned that students had a lot to say, some of which I incorporated in the second half of the semester, such as taking a class session to practice writing the term paper and hold a Q&A session.

The end-of-semester survey was more focused on their takeaways from the class, and what assignments/activities were most helpful in their learning experience. I specifically asked them questions such as, “What do you think you will remember from this course?  What did you discover?”

The final survey revealed that by the end of the semester students, regardless of their background, comprehended the major earth processes and reflected on the relation between humans and natural disasters. They grasped the interdisciplinary nature of the course and how one can learn about intersection of physics, humanities, and international relations through studying natural hazards and disasters. They also developed a sense of appreciation for the role of science in predicting and dealing with natural hazards.

What I learned

Even though universities like Hopkins often train Ph.D. students to focus on producing publications rather than doing curiosity-driven research, I found that teaching a course like this led me to ask the kind of fundamental questions that could stimulate future research. This experience helped me develop as a teacher, as well as a true scientist, while raising awareness and sharing important knowledge about natural hazards in a changing climate in which the frequency of hazardous events will likely increase. I captured students’ attention by making the learning relevant to their lives, which inspired their curiosity. Feedback surveys revealed and reinforced my idea that synchronous class discussions, constant questioning, and interesting lab demos would hook the students and motivate them to engage in dialogue.

I am grateful to the KSAS Dean’s Office for making teaching as a graduate student possible, to the Center for Educational Resources for providing great teaching resources, and to Dr. Rebecca Kelly for her continuous support and valuable insights during the period I was teaching, to Dr. Sabine Stanley and Thomas Haine for their encouragement and feedback on this essay.

Atousa Saberi

References:

Kelly, R. (2018). Meaningful grades with specification grading. https://cer.jhu.edu/files/InnovInstruct-Ped-18 specifications-grading.pdf

Robichaud, A. (2014). Interview with Noam Chomsky on education. Radical Pedagogy, 11 (1), 4.

Chomsky, N., & Barsamian, D. (1996). Class warfare: interviews with David Barsamian. Monroe, Maine: Common Courage Press. 5

USGS (2020), Listening to earthquake: https://earthquake.usgs.gov/education/listen/index.php.

Image Source: Pixabay, Atousa Saberi

Surviving to Thriving: Reflections from Teaching Online

On Friday, December 11, 2020, the Office of the Provost, in conjunction with teaching and learning centers across Johns Hopkins University, sponsored a half-day virtual conference titled “Surviving to Thriving: Reflections from Teaching Online.” Faculty, graduate students, and staff came together to share ideas, challenges faced, and best practices when teaching in a virtual environment. Highlights from a few of the sessions are below:

Engaging Students in the Virtual Environment: A panel of faculty representing the School of Education, the Bloomberg School of Public Health, and the Whiting School of Engineering shared strategies for how building community, synchronous sessions, and using specific tools can help to engage students online.

Building community in an online course helps students feel more connected with each other and can lead to more productive learning. Strategies for community building shared by faculty include:

  • Using ice breaker questions at the beginning of every class
  • Learning student names
  • Setting up sessions to get to know one another (in breakout rooms, online discussion boards, Google Sheets)
  • Offering frequent feedback in multiple formats (email, audio recordings)
  • ‘Humanizing’ situations by admitting mistakes and struggles with technology

Synchronous sessions allow students to experience learning with their peers in a real-time, interactive environment. For students nervous about speaking up during live sessions, faculty members suggested giving them a choice to either use the chat feature or the microphone. One faculty member required his students, in a seminar style class, to ask at least one question during the semester, which helped to build confidence. Another faculty member described posting a ‘speaker list’ ahead of each class so students knew in what order they would be speaking. Not only were students more prepared, but the sessions ran more efficiently. Faculty discussed the challenges of holding synchronous sessions with students in multiple time zones. While most faculty recorded their lectures and made them available online, some offered to give their lecture twice, and allowed students to choose which session to attend.  Technology can be another challenge when holding synchronous sessions. Faculty suggested offering material in multiple formats in order to meet the needs of students who may be having technological difficulties. For example, post slides in addition to video.

There are a variety of online tools that can be used to engage students online. Faculty in this session discussed the following:

  • Padlet – tool that allows students to collaborate synchronously or asynchronously
  • Loom – video recording application that allows students to create and send recordings
  • Flipgrid – video discussion board tool
  • Slack – communication platform used for information sharing, individual and group communication, synchronous and asynchronous collaboration (similar to Teams)

(Note: Instructors are encouraged to contact their school’s teaching and learning center before deciding to use third party tools that may or may not be supported by their institution.)

Jazzing Up Online Presentations: A panel of faculty representing the School of Education, the School of Medicine, and the Krieger School of Arts and Sciences shared strategies for how to strengthen online presentations and keep students engaged. One idea is to maintain a balance between synchronous and asynchronous sessions to help avoid Zoom fatigue. Another idea is to keep sessions interactive by using breakout rooms, videos, knowledge checks, and other active learning techniques. Modeling online navigation for students is another way to help make sure they are staying engaged. For example, if referring to a particular discussion board post, share your screen with students and navigate to the post, read it with students, and discuss together. Consider using a different tool, other than PowerPoint, for your presentation, such as Genially or Sway. Lastly, don’t be afraid to put your personality into your presentation – pets and silly bow ties can make a difference to students!

Student Perspectives: A moderated panel of four students from across the institution shared their experiences with virtual learning this past semester. When asked what has been the most challenging aspect, several students mentioned Zoom fatigue. With the many hours of online lectures they were expected to attend, students reported that it was often difficult to stay engaged. Zoom fatigue also made it a challenge to participate in outside events or clubs since they are virtual as well. Other challenges: difficulty connecting and networking with people online and students living in different time zones.

When asked what techniques they wished more faculty were using, one student mentioned following best practices of online learning to ensure consistency across courses. Another student appreciated how one of her professors asked how students were doing at the beginning of each class. This was a small class, and the student acknowledged that it probably wouldn’t be possible in a larger setting, but that it helped to build community among class members. Another consideration mentioned is to build in breaks during the lecture. Other techniques suggested were the use of collaborative assignments, to help students keep each other accountable, and breakout rooms (in Zoom) with a structured task or purpose in mind.

Students were asked about the positive aspects of virtual learning. One student from the School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) explained how students from all three SAIS campuses were able to participate in all classes together, and how beneficial it was for students to experience the others’ perspectives. Another student found it extremely helpful that faculty would record their lectures and post them to Blackboard for unlimited viewing.  Students also greatly appreciated the creativity and support of their instructors and teaching assistants.

Other topics presented at the conference include: student wellness, assessment, accessibility, and more. The Provost’s office has made the full day of recorded sessions available here with JHED authentication.

Amy Brusini, Senior Instructional Designer
Center for Educational Resources

Image Source: Pixabay

Teaching Online: What Have We Learned?

On Friday, October 9, the Center for Educational Resources (CER) hosted an online session, “Teaching Online: What Have We Learned?” where faculty were able to share and discuss best practices based on their experiences teaching online.  Mike Reese, director of the CER and faculty member in Sociology, and Allon Brann, teaching support specialist at the CER, moderated the discussion, structuring it with a few guiding questions as outlined below:

What is something you are doing differently this semester online that you will continue to do when you are back in the classroom?

Jamie Young from Chemistry described how he is using tools such as MS Teams and Slack to build classroom community. He anticipated students feeling isolated in an online environment, so he set up spaces for casual conversation for them to communicate and get to know one another. He said it has definitely encouraged and increased conversation among students. When asked how he motivates students to participate in these environments, Young responded that he made their participation a very small part of their grade. Young and his TAs make it a point to respond right away when students post to these spaces so that students know this is an active space and that they are being heard. This level of responsiveness has also helped boost participation. Back in the classroom, Young plans to continue using these tools for informal office hours.

Rachel Sangree from Civil and Systems Engineering shared that she has been holding evening office hours and what a difference it has made in the number of students who attend.  Acknowledging that it is sometimes exhausting, she stated that she sees more students now than ever before. When we’re back in the classroom, Sangree plans to continue to hold evening office hours, but perhaps not quite as late as she offers currently.

Alison Papadakis from Psychological and Brain Sciences described how she has adapted the “think pair share” active learning strategy to an online environment. Students are split into groups and assigned breakout rooms in Zoom, then use Google Sheets to record their ideas and notes while they’re in the rooms. This allows Papadakis to monitor the progress of students without having to manually drop in to each of the rooms. She is also able to add her own comments directly to the sheets in real time as students work on them. It was noted that separate tabs are created for each group in Google Sheets, so each group has its own space to work.  Initially Papadakis was concerned that students would feel like she was ‘spying’ on them and wouldn’t like this method, but so far the feedback has been positive.  Jamie Young shared a tutorial he put together on this topic: https://docs.google.com/document/d/1uvRB38GHIKNaxQL-dN-9vpWgC43Yslssyz_jh2uPtno/edit

Francois Furstenberg from History shared how he is using the e-reader platform Perusall which allows students to collaboratively annotate their online readings. The annotations inform Furstenberg what parts of the readings students are finding interesting and are helping to shape the in-class discussions. He plans to continue using this platform when in-person classes resume. It was noted that instructors need to have copyright permission before uploading reading material to Perusall. If they have questions about obtaining copyright, they are encouraged to contact their university librarian.

David Kraemer from Mechanical Engineering mentioned that he mailed USB oscilloscope boards and a kit of devices to each of his students so they could perform “hands-on” experiments at home. He recognizes the value of these kits whether or not students are learning online, and plans to keep using them when in person classes resume.

Joshua Reiter from the Center for Leadership Education described how he adjusted his approach to assessments by breaking up large exams into more frequent quizzes throughout the semester.  Some of these quizzes were meant to be ‘fun’ quizzes for participation points, but he noticed that students were feeling pressured when taking them, defeating their purpose. Reiter changed them from individual to group quizzes, using the breakout room feature in Zoom.  Since then, he’s noticed a significant reduction in stress among the students.

 

What is something that you are still struggling with?

Several faculty members mentioned that their workload is significantly higher this semester as they do their best to recreate their lessons online.  Some feel like they are putting in three times the normal amount of preparation time and as a result, are experiencing technological overload, having to learn and keep up with so many tools. Many faculty mentioned that their students are feeling this way, too.  It was suggested that adding technology should be done in a purposeful way and that faculty should not feel compelled to use all of the available tools. Some faculty acknowledged that although it has been very challenging, they have learned a great deal about tools that are out there, and which ones seem to work better for students.

Similarly, a faculty member mentioned how difficult it is to multitask within the online environment; for example, keeping up with the chat window in Zoom while lecturing synchronously. Many faculty agreed, commenting that they feel pressured to keep up with everything going on and that it often feels like a performance. Someone commented that sharing concerns with the students helps to humanize the situation, while setting realistic expectations helps to take pressure off of instructors. One instructor mentioned how he purposely builds pauses into his lectures to allow himself time to catch up. Others mentioned that they use their TAs to monitor the chat window; if the instructor does not have a TA, he or she could ask a student.  Another general suggestion is to ask students what works best for them, instead of trying to monitor everything.

Academic integrity was another issue that came up. At least one instructor acknowledged multiple instances of students cheating since moving online, while others shared that they are concerned it may happen to them. A brief discussion followed, with instructors sharing strategies they use to try and mitigate cheating: using online monitoring tools, lowering weights of exams, making all exams open-book/open-note, and placing more emphasis on project-based work.

Some technical questions also came up, such as how to recreate an interactive whiteboard. The responses ranged from configuring Powerpoint in a certain way to using multiple devices. Jamie Young shared a tutorial he put together that uses Open Broadcaster Software (OBS): https://docs.google.com/document/d/1JXptPGjnAOiqbpvrXJPGWDcbqE_l95C6Cm0moYpaelk/edit?usp=sharing  Faculty are welcome to contact the CER for help with this and other specific technological challenges.

Anything you would like to share with others?

A few faculty members shared how they are taking advantage of the online environment. Andrew Cherlin from Sociology mentioned how much easier it is to schedule outside guests, such as authors, since there are no travel arrangements, logistics, etc. to be worked out. He has had several guests this semester already. Cherlin also described how he has taken advantage of Zoom to meet with each student individually for about fifteen minutes to check in with them and make sure they are on track. He acknowledged that this is not practical for large courses, but it has been very beneficial to those in his seminar style course.

Lori Finkelstein from Museum Studies described how being online has reshaped her assignments. She usually has students go out into the field to different museums to conduct research. This semester, students are taking a look at what museums are offering virtually and whether or not they are successful, what seems to be working, what is not working, etc.

Lester Spence from Political Science is teaching a course with instructors from Goucher College and Towson University. Students from all three schools are collaborating together as they work on group projects, something that would not necessarily be possible in a face-to-face environment.

Amy Brusini, Senior Instructional Designer
Center for Educational Resources

Image Source: Pixabay

Building Community in an Online Course

Although a formal decision has yet to be made about the Fall 2020 semester here at Johns Hopkins, many instructors are beginning to prepare for the possibility of teaching online. Building community in an online course can be a challenge, especially if instructors are used to teaching in a face-to-face environment. The strategies below are meant to provide students with a sense of belonging, reduce feelings of isolation, and ultimately help keep them engaged throughout the course. 

Let students get to know you, take time to get to know them:

  • create a short video introducing yourself, including some personal details, not just academic credentials
  • convey enthusiasm for the course
  • create a survey asking students about themselves, their level of comfort with technology, what timezone they are in, etc.

Create opportunities for students to get to know each other:

  • use ice breaker activities: ‘introduce yourself’ discussion board forum, intro videos, etc. Relate the activity back to course content if possible (e.g,. “What is something innovative about your hometown?” used in an Urban Studies course.)
  • design activities that require student interaction: group work, peer review, etc.   

Create a safe and inclusive environment:

  • invite all voices to the room – listen to students, validate their points, and when possible, weave their examples into your lecture (Schmitt)
  • if possible, dedicate the first part of class to allow students to share challenges, coping strategies
  • if possible, hold some synchronous sessions to allow students to see each other
  • acknowledge and share your own struggles
  • remind students of the basic principles of netiquette when communicating online
  • facilitate a group discussion around setting ground rules and/or mutual expectations for dialogue and collaboration in class   

Communicate regularly/Be Present in the Course:

  • post daily/weekly announcements
  • send weekly email check-ins
  • remind learners about due dates, special events, share authentic news, share grading progress on assessments
  • encourage questions: set up a Q and A discussion board forum
  • make a commitment to respond promptly (daily, every other day) to student posts on discussion boards
  • consider using video in your communication with students at least some of the time, as they appreciate seeing and hearing directly from the instructor  

 

References: 

Schmitt, R. (2020, May 14). Fostering Online Student Success in the Face of COVID-19. The Scholarly Teacherhttps://www.scholarlyteacher.com/post/fostering-online-student-success-in-the-face-of-covid-19?fbclid=IwAR3v8lBQhOxT5fFU_q1HahnJVg6nCEvfGqeD_ZZHQ7gZHZkkH0LHuFGcX6g 

Amy Brusini
Senior Instructional Designer
Center for Educational Resources

Image Source: Pixabay

Quick Tips: Formative Assessment Strategies

Designing effective assessments is a critical part of the teaching and learning process. Instructors use assessments, ideally aligned with learning objectives, to measure student achievement and determine whether or not they are meeting the objectives. Assessments can also inform instructors if they should consider making changes to their instructional method or delivery.

Assessments are generally categorized as either summative or formative. Summative assessments, usually graded, are used to measure student comprehension of material at the end of an instructional unit. They are often cumulative, providing a means for instructors to see how well students are meeting certain standards. Instructors are largely familiar with summative assessments. Examples include:

  • Final exam at the end of the semester
  • Term paper due mid-semester
  • Final project at the end of a course

In contrast, formative assessments provide ongoing feedback to students in order to help identify gaps in their learning. They are lower stakes than summative assessments and often ungraded. Additionally, formative assessments help instructors determine the effectiveness of their teaching; instructors can then use this information to make adjustments to their instructional approach which may lead to improved student success (Boston). As discussed in a previous Innovative Instructor post about the value of formative assessments, when instructors provide formative feedback to students, they give students the tools to assess their own progress toward learning goals (Wilson). This empowers students to recognize their strengths and weaknesses and may help motivate them to improve their academic performance.

Examples of formative assessment strategies:

  • Surveys – Surveys can be given at the beginning, middle, and/or end of the semester.
  • Minute papers – Very short, in-class writing activity in which students summarize the main ideas of a lecture or class activity, usually at the end of class.
  • Polling – Students respond as a group to questions posed by the instructor using technology such as iclickers, software such as Poll Everywhere, or simply raising their hands.
  • Exit tickets – At the end of class, students respond to a short prompt given by the instructor usually having to do with that day’s lesson, such as, “What readings were most helpful to you in preparing for today’s lesson?”
  • Muddiest point – Students write down what they think was the most confusing or difficult part of a lesson.
  • Concept map – Students create a diagram of how concepts relate to each other.
  • First draft – Students submit a first draft of a paper, assignment, etc. and receive targeted feedback before submitting a final draft.
  • Student self-evaluation/reflection
  • Low/no-grade quizzes

Formative assessments do not have to take a lot of time to administer. They can be spontaneous, such as having an in-class question and answer session which provides results in real time, or they can be planned, such as giving a short, ungraded quiz used as a knowledge check. In either case, the goal is the same: to monitor student learning and guide instructors in future decision making regarding their instruction. Following best practices, instructors should strive to use a variety of both formative and summative assessments in order to meet the needs of all students.

References:

Boston, C. (2002). The Concept of Formative Assessment. College Park, MD: ERIC Clearinghouse on Assessment and Evaluation. (ERIC Document Reproduction Service No. ED470206).

Wilson, S. (February 13, 2014). The Characteristics of High-Quality Formative Assessments. The Innovative Instructor Blog. http://ii.library.jhu.edu/2014/02/13/the-characteristics-of-high-quality-formative-assessments/

Amy Brusini
Senior Instructional Designer
Center for Educational Resources

Image Source: Pixabay

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