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

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