Expanding Students’ Research Skills with a Virtual Museum Exhibit

Morgan Shahan received her PhD in History from Johns Hopkins University in 2020. While at Hopkins, she received Dean’s Teaching and Prize Fellowships. In 2019, her department recognized her work with the inaugural Toby Ditz Prize for Excellence in Graduate Student Teaching. Allon Brann from the Center for Educational Resources spoke to Morgan about an interesting project she designed for her fall 2019 course,“Caged America: Policing, Confinement, and Criminality in the ‘Land of the Free.’”

I’d like to start by asking you to give us a brief description of the final project.  What did your students do?

Students created virtual museum exhibits on topics of their choice related to the themes of our course, including the rise of mass incarceration, the repeated failure of corrections reform, changing conceptions of criminality, and the militarization of policing. Each exhibit included a written introduction and interpretive labels for 7-10 artifacts, which students assembled using the image annotation program Reveal.  On the last day of class, students presented these projects to their classmates. Examples of projects included: “Birthed Behind Bars: Policing Pregnancy and Motherhood in the 19th and 20th Centuries,” “Baseball in American Prisons,” and “Intentional Designs: The Evolution of Prison Architecture in America in the 19th and 20th Centuries.”

Can you describe how you used scaffolding to help students prepare for the final project?

I think you need to scaffold any semester-long project. My students completed several component tasks before turning in their final digital exhibits. Several weeks into the semester, they submitted a short statement outlining the “big idea” behind their exhibitions. The “big idea statement,” a concept I borrowed from museum consultant Beverly Serrell, explained the theme, story, or argument that defined the exhibition’s tone and dictated its content. I asked students to think of the “big idea statement” as the thesis for their exhibition.

Students then used the big idea to guide them as they chose one artifact and drafted a 200-word label for it. I looked for artifact labels that were clearly connected to the student’s big idea statement, included the context visitors would need to know to understand the artifact, and presented the student’s original interpretation of the artifact. The brevity of the assignment gave me time to provide each student with extensive written comments. In these comments and in conversations during office hours, I helped students narrow their topics, posed questions to help guide analysis and interpretation of artifacts, and suggested additional revisions focused on writing mechanics and tone.

Later in the semester, students expanded their big idea statements into rough drafts of the introductions for their digital exhibit. I asked that each introduction orient viewers to the exhibition, outline necessary historical context, and set the tone for the online visit. I also set aside part of a class period for a peer review exercise involving these drafts. I hoped that their classmates’ comments, along with my own, would help students revise their introductions before they submitted their final exhibit.

If I assigned this project again, I would probably ask students to turn in another label for a second artifact. This additional assignment would allow me to give each student more individualized feedback and would help to further clarify my grading criteria before the final project due date.

When you first taught this course a few years ago, you assigned students a more traditional task—a research paper. Can you explain why you decided to change the final assignment this time around?

I wanted to try a more flexible and creative assignment that would push students to develop research and analytical skills in a different format. The exhibit project allows students to showcase their own interpretation of a theme, put together a compelling historical narrative, and advance an argument. The project remains analytically rigorous, pushing students to think about how history is constructed. Each exhibit makes a claim—there is reasoning behind each choice the student makes when building the exhibit and each question he or she asks of the artifacts included. The format encourages students to focus on their visual analysis skills, which tend to get sidelined in favor of textual interpretation in most of the student research papers I have read. Additionally, the exhibit assignment asks students to write for a broader audience, emphasizing clarity and brevity in their written work.

What challenges did you encounter while designing this assignment from scratch?  

In the past I have faced certain risks whenever I have designed a new assignment. First, I have found it difficult to strike a balance between clearly stating expectations for student work while also leaving room for students to be creative. Finding that balance was even harder with a non-traditional assignment. I knew that many of my students would not have encountered an exhibit project before my course, so I needed to clarify the utility of the project and my expectations for their submissions.

Second, I never expected to go down such a long research rabbit hole when creating the assignment directions. I naively assumed that it would be fairly simple to put together an assignment sheet outlining the requirements for the virtual museum project.  I quickly learned, however, that it was difficult to describe exactly what I expected from students without diving into museum studies literature and scholarship on teaching and learning.

I also needed to find a digital platform for student projects. Did I want student projects to be accessible to the public? How much time was I willing to invest in teaching students how to navigate a program or platform? After discussing my options with Reid Sczerba in the Center for Educational Resources (CER), I eventually settled on Reveal, a Hopkins-exclusive image-annotation program. The program would keep student projects private, foreground written work, and allow for creative organization of artifacts within the digital exhibits. Additionally, I needed to determine the criteria for the written component of the assignment. I gave myself a crash course in museum writing, scouring teaching blogs, museum websites, journals on exhibition theory and practice, and books on curation for the right language for the assignment sheet. I spoke with Chesney Medical Archives Curator Natalie Elder about exhibit design and conceptualization. My research helped me understand the kind of writing I was looking for, identify models for students, and ultimately create my own exhibit to share with them.

Given all the work that this design process entailed, do you have any advice for other teachers who are thinking about trying something similar?

This experience pushed me to think about structuring assignments beyond the research paper for future courses. Instructors need to make sure that students understand the requirements for the project, develop clear standards for grading, and prepare themselves mentally for the possibility that the assignment could crash and burn. Personally, I like taking risks when I teach—coming up with new activities for each class session and adjusting in the moment should these activities fall flat—but developing a semester-long project from scratch was a big gamble.

How would you describe the students’ responses to the project? How did they react to the requirements and how do you think the final projects turned out?

I think that many students ended up enjoying the project, but responses varied at first. Students expressed frustration with the technology, saying they were not computer-savvy and were worried about having to learn a new program. I tried to reassure these students by outing myself as a millennial, promising half-jokingly that if I could learn to use it, they would find it a cinch. Unfortunately, I noticed that many students found the technology somewhat confusing despite the tutorial I delivered in class. After reading through student evaluations, I also realized that I should have weighted the final digital exhibit and presentation less heavily and included additional scaffolded assignments to minimize the end-of-semester crunch.

Despite these challenges, I was really impressed with the outcome. While clicking through the online exhibits, I could often imagine the artifacts and text set up in a physical museum space. Many students composed engaging label text, keeping their writing accessible to their imaginary museum visitors while still delivering a sophisticated interpretation of each artifact. In some cases, I found myself wishing students had prioritized deeper analysis over background information in their labels; if I assigned this project again, I would emphasize that aspect.

I learned a lot about what it means to support students through an unfamiliar semester-long project, and I’m glad they were willing to take on the challenge. I found that students appreciated the flexibility of the guidelines and the room this left for creativity. One student wrote that the project was “unique and fun, but still challenging, and let me pursue something I couldn’t have if we were just assigned a normal paper.”

If you’re interested in pursuing a project like this one and have more questions for Morgan, you can contact her at: morganjshahan@gmail.com. 

For other questions or help developing new assessments to use in your courses, contact the Center for Educational Resources (cerweb@jhu.edu).

Allon Brann, Teacher Support Specialist
Center for Educational Resources

Image Source: Morgan Shahan

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

Navigating Grades During Covid-19 

Like many other universities nationwide, Johns Hopkins has made the decision to forgo letter grades this semester for its undergraduates. Faculty in the Krieger and Whiting schools have been instructed to use the special designation S*/U* this semester. On Friday, April 3, the Center for Educational Resources (CER) hosted an online session, “Transitioning to S/U Grading.” Jessie Martin, Assistant Dean, Office of Academic Advising, and Janet Weise, Assistant Dean, Office of Undergraduate Affairs, provided an overview of JHU’s updated grading policy which was followed by a question and answer sharing session, moderated by Allon Brann from the CER.  

Highlights of the grading policy for both KSAS and WSE faculty include: 

  • All AS and EN undergraduate students will receive S* or U* grades for the spring 2020 semester(The asterisk (*) distinguishes this semester from a regular S/U grade given during past semesters.) There will be a semester-specific transcript notation explaining that students were not eligible for a letter grade.
  • This applies to the AS and EN undergraduate students regardless of the fact that they may be in graduate level courses or in courses offered by other schools. 
  • There will be an option to assign a grade of I/U*
  • Faculty may have students enrolled in their undergraduate classes who are grad students and/or from other JHU schools and therefore have different emergency grading systems.  

More details about the policy can be found here:
KSAShttps://krieger.jhu.edu/covid19/teaching/
WSEhttps://engineering.jhu.edu/novel-coronavirus-information/faculty-undergrad-grading-faqs/
(Note: the links are different, but the information is identical for both the Krieger and Whiting Schools)

Session participants shared strategies in terms of how to move forward with grading this semester, which are summarized below:  

  • Consulting the studentsOne faculty member shared how she consulted with her students to help decide how to move her course forward this semester. She facilitated student discussions and allowed them a say in how things would be adapted. The outcome: course work has been scaled back, but no assessments have been eliminated. For example, instead of students turning in a full assignment, they now have to submit a list of bullet points highlighting the main ideas, or an outline instead of a full analysis. Lectures have been replaced by students working in groups through Zoom and then regrouping as a full class to report outThe faculty member has been very pleased with the results noting that because students were involved in the decision-making, they are working even harder because they chose this path.  
    Another idea related to consulting students mentioned by a CER staff member is to ask students how they are going to demonstrate that they’ve met the goals of the course.  
  • Using technology to monitor students:  Another faculty member described how Zoom can take attendancerecord how many minutes students are on a call, and even how attentive they are during a sessionShe also mentioned the detailed statistics provided by Panopto (lecture capture software) that records which video recordings students have viewed and for how longWhile it is possible to incorporate this information into students’ grades, this faculty member stated she prefers to use these tools in a more informal way to monitor students and flag those who are not engaged. 
    A CER staff member mentioned additional ways faculty are using technology, including: 
    • Embedding quizzes inside of Panopto as a knowledge check while watching video recordings. 
    • Creating a Blackboard quiz that is dependent on students having watched a video recording or attended a Zoom session.
  • Alternate grading strategiesA list of alternate grading strategies shared by the CER that may be useful in adjusting your approach this semester or in future semesters. 
  • Specific S/U grading approaches: A list of approaches shared by the CER that might be worth considering as you transition to S/U grading this semester.

What modifications, if any, are you making in order to shift to S/U? We encourage you to share your ideas in the comments section. 

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

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

Lunch and Learn: Strategies to Minimize Cheating (A Faculty Brainstorming Session)

On Wednesday, April 17, the Center for Educational Resources (CER) hosted the final Lunch and Learn for the 2018-2019 academic year: Strategies to Minimize Cheating (A Faculty Brainstorming Session).  As the title suggests, the format of this event was slightly different than past Lunch and Learns. Faculty attendees openly discussed their experiences with cheating as well as possible solutions to the problem. The conversation was moderated by James Spicer, Professor, Materials Science and Engineering, and Dana Broadnax, Director of Student Conduct.

The discussion began with attendees sharing examples of academic misconduct they identified. The results included: copying homework, problem solutions, and lab reports; using other students’ clickers; working together on take-home exams; plagiarizing material from Wikipedia (or other sites); and using online solution guides (such as chegg.com, coursehero.com, etc.).

Broadnax presented data from the Office of the Dean of Student Life regarding the numbers of cheating incidents per school, types of violations, and outcomes. She stressed to faculty members how important it is to report incidents to help her staff identify patterns and repeat offenders. If it’s a student’s first offense, faculty are allowed to determine outcomes that do not result in failure of the course, transcript notation, or change to student status. Options include: assigning a zero to the assessment, offering a retake of the assessment, lowering the course grade, or giving a formal warning.  A student’s second or subsequent offense must be adjudicated by a hearing panel (Section D – https://studentaffairs.jhu.edu/policies-guidelines/undergrad-ethics/).

Some faculty shared their reluctance to report misconduct because of the time required to submit a report. Someone else remarked that when reporting, she felt like a prosecutor.  As a longtime ethics board member, Spicer acknowledged the burdens of reporting but stressed the importance of reporting incidents. He also shared that faculty do not act as prosecutors at a hearing. They only provide evidence for the hearing panel to consider. Broadnax agreed and expressed interest in finding ways to help make the process easier for faculty. She encouraged faculty to share more of their experiences with her.

The discussion continued with faculty sharing ideas and strategies they’ve used to help reduce incidents of cheating. A summary follows:

  • Do not assume that students know what is considered cheating. Communicate clearly what is acceptable/not acceptable for group work, independent work, etc. Clearly state on your syllabus or assignment instructions what is considered a violation.
  • Let students know that you are serious about this issue. Some faculty reported their first assignment of the semester requires students to review the ethics board website and answer questions. If you serve or have served on the ethics board, let students know.
  • Include an ethics statement at the beginning of assignment instructions rather than at the end. Research suggests that signing ethics statements placed at the beginning of tax forms rather than at the end reduces dishonest reporting.
  • Do not let ‘low levels’ of dishonesty go without following University protocol – small infractions may lead to more serious ones. The message needs to be that no level of dishonesty is acceptable.
  • Create multiple opportunities for students to submit writing samples (example: submit weekly class notes to Blackboard) so you can get to know their writing styles and recognize possible instances of plagiarism.
  • Plagiarism detection software, such as Turnitin, can be used to flag possible misconduct, but can also be used as an instructional tool to help students recognize when they are unintentionally plagiarizing.
  • Emphasize the point of doing assignments: to learn new material and gain valuable critical thinking skills. Take the time to personally discuss assignments and paper topics with students so they know you are taking their work seriously.
  • If using clickers, send a TA to the back of the classroom to monitor clicker usage. Pay close attention to attendance so you can recognize if a clicker score appears for an absent student.
  • Ban the use of electronic devices during exams if possible. Be aware that Apple Watches can be consulted.
  • Create and hand out multiple versions of exams, but don’t tell students there are different versions. Try not to re-use exam questions.
  • Check restrooms before or during exams to make sure information is not posted.
  • Ask students to move to different seats (such as the front row) if you suspect they are cheating during an exam. If a student becomes defensive, tell him/her that you don’t know for sure whether or not cheating has occurred, but that you would like him/her to move anyway.
  • Make your Blackboard site ‘unavailable’ during exams; turn it back on after everyone has completed the exam.
  • To discourage students from faking illness on exam days, only offer make-ups as oral exams. One faculty member shared this policy significantly reduced the number of make-ups due to illness in his class.

Several faculty noted the high-stress culture among JHU students and how it may play a part in driving them to cheat. Many agreed that in order to resolve this, we need to create an environment where students don’t feel the pressure to cheat. One suggestion was to avoid curving grades in a way that puts students in competition with each other.  Another suggestion was to offer more pass/fail classes. This was met with some resistance as faculty considered the rigor required by courses students need to get into medical school. Yet another suggestion was to encourage students to consult with their instructor if they feel the temptation to cheat. The instructor can help address the problem by considering different ways of handling the situation, including offering alternative assessments when appropriate. Broadnax acknowledged the stress, pressure, and competition among students, but also noted that these are not excuses to cheat: “Our students are better served by learning to best navigate those factors and still maintain a standard of excellence.”

Amy Brusini, Senior Instructional Designer
Center for Educational Resources

Image Source: Lunch and Learn Logo

Lunch and Learn: Innovative Grading Strategies

Logo for Lunch and Learn program showing the words Lunch and Learn in orange with a fork above and a pen below the lettering. Faculty Conversations on Teaching at the bottom.On Thursday, February 28, the Center for Educational Resources (CER) hosted the third Lunch and Learn for the 2018-2019 academic year. Rebecca Kelly, Associate Teaching Professor, Earth and Planetary Sciences and Director of the Environmental Science and Studies Program, and Pedro Julian, Associate Professor, Electrical and Computer Engineering, presented on Innovative Grading Strategies.

Rebecca Kelly began the presentation by discussing some of the problems in traditional grading. There is a general lack of clarity in what grades actually mean and how differently they are viewed by students and faculty. Faculty use grades to elicit certain behaviors from students, but it doesn’t necessarily mean that they are learning. Kelly noted that students, especially those at JHU, tend to be focused on the grade itself, aiming for a specific number and not the learning; this often results in high levels of student anxiety, something she sees often. She explained how students here don’t get many chances to fail and not have their grades negatively affected. Therefore, every assessment is a source of stress because it counts toward their grade. There are too few opportunities for students to learn from their mistakes.

Kelly mentioned additional challenges that faculty face when grading: it is often time consuming, energy draining, and stressful, especially when haggling over points, for example.  She makes an effort to provide clearly stated learning goals and rubrics for each assignment, which do help, but are not always enough to ease the burden.

Kelly introduced the audience to specifications grading and described how she’s recently started using this approach in Introduction to Geographic Information Systems (GIS). With specifications grading (also described in a recent CER Innovative Instructor article), students are graded pass/fail or satisfactory/unsatisfactory on individual assessments that align directly with learning goals. Course grades are determined by the number of learning goals mastered. This is measured by the number of assessments passed. For example, passing 20 or more assignments out of 23 would equate to an A; 17-19 assignments would equate to a B. Kelly stresses the importance of maintaining high standards; for rigor, the threshold for passing should be a B or better.

In Kelly’s class, students have multiple opportunities to achieve their goals. Each student receives three tokens that he/she can use to re-do an assignment that doesn’t pass, or select a different assignment altogether from the ‘bundle’ of assignments available. Kelly noted the tendency of students to ‘hoard’ their tokens and how it actually works out favorably; instead of risking having to use a token, students often seek out her feedback before turning anything in.

Introduction to GIS has both a lecture and a lab component. The lab requires students to use software to create maps that are then used to perform data analysis. The very specific nature of the assignments in this class lend themselves well to the specifications grading approach. Kelly noted that students are somewhat anxious about this approach at first, but settle into it once they fully understand. In addition to clearly laying out Grade bundles used in specifications gradingexpectations, Kelly lists the learning goals of the course and how they align with each assignment (see slides). She also provides students with a table showing the bundles of assignments required to reach final course grades. Additionally, she distributes a pacing guide to help students avoid procrastination.

The results that Kelly has experienced with specifications grading have been positive. Students generally like it because the expectations are very clear and initial failure does not count against them; there are multiple opportunities to succeed. Grading is quick and easy because of the pass/fail system; if something doesn’t meet the requirements, it is simply marked unsatisfactory. The quality of student work is high because there is no credit for sloppy work. Kelly acknowledged that specifications grading is not ideal for all courses, but feels the grade earned in her GIS course is a true representation of the student’s skill level in GIS.

Pedro Julian described a different grading practice that he is using, something he calls the “extra grade approach.” He currently uses this approach in Digital Systems Fundamentals, a hands-on design course for freshmen. In this course, Julian uses a typical grading scale: 20% for the midterm, 40% for labs and homework, and 40% for the final project. However, he augments the scale by offering another 20% if students agree to put in extra work throughout the semester. How much extra work? Students must commit to working collaboratively with instructors (and other students seeking the 20% credit) for one hour or more per week on an additional project.  This year, the project is to build a vending machine. Past projects include building an elevator out of Legos and building a robot that followed a specific path on the floor.

Julian described how motivated students are to complete the extra project once they commit to putting in the time. Students quickly realize that they learn all sorts of skills they would not have otherwise learned and are very proud and engaged. Student participation in the “extra grade” option has grown steadily since Julian started using this approach three years ago. The first year there were 5-10 students who signed up, and this year there are 30. Julian showed histograms (see slides) of student grades from past semesters in his class and how the extra grade has helped push overall grades higher.  The histograms also show that it’s not just students who may be struggling with the class who are choosing to participate in the extra grade, but “A students” as well.

Similar to Rebecca Kelly’s experience, Julian expressed how grade-focused JHU students are, much to his dismay. In an attempt to take some of the pressure off, he described how he repeatedly tells his students that if they work hard, they will get a good grade; he even includes this phrase in his syllabus. Julian explained how he truly wants students to concentrate more on the learning and not on the grade, which is his motivation behind the “extra grade” approach.

An interesting discussion with several questions from the audience followed the presentations. Below are some of the questions asked and responses given by Kelly and Julian, as well as audience members.

Q: (for Julian) Some students may not have the time or flexibility in their schedule to take part in an extra project. Do you have suggestions for them? Did you consider this when creating the “extra grade” option?

Julian responded that in his experience, freshmen seem to be available. Many of them make time to come in on the weekends. He wants students to know he’s giving them an “escape route,” a way for them to make up their grade, and they seem to find the time to make it happen.  Julian has never had a student come to him saying he/she cannot participate because of scheduling conflicts.

Q: How has grade distribution changed?

Kelly remarked how motivated the students are and therefore she had no Cs, very few Bs, and the rest As this past semester. She expressed how important it is to make sure that the A is attainable for students. She feels confident that she’s had enough experience to know what counts as an A. Every student can do it, the question is, will they?

Q: (for Kelly) Would there ever be a scenario where students would do the last half of the goals and skip the first half?

Kelly responded that she has never seen anyone jump over everything and that it makes more sense to work sequentially.

Q: (for Kelly) Is there detailed feedback provided when students fail an assignment?

Kelly commented that it depends on the assignment, but if students don’t follow the directions, that’s the feedback – to follow the directions. If it’s a project, Kelly will meet with the student, go over the assignment, and provide immediate feedback. She noted that she finds oral feedback much more effective than written feedback.

Q: (for Kelly) Could specs grading be applied in online classes?

Kelly responded that she thinks this approach could definitely be used in online classes, as long as feedback could be provided effectively. She also stressed the need for rubrics, examples, and clear goals.

Q: Has anyone tried measuring individual learning gains within a class? What skills are students coming in with? Are we actually measuring gain?

Kelly commented that specifications grading works as a compliment to competency based grading, which focuses on measuring gains in very specific skills.

Julian commented that this issue comes up in his class, students coming in with varying degrees of experience. He stated that this is another reason to offer the extra credit, to keep things interesting for those that want to move at a faster pace.

The discussion continued among presenters and audience members about what students are learning in a class vs. what they are bringing in with them. A point was raised that if students already know the material in a class, should they even be there?  Another comment was made regarding if it is even an instructor’s place to determine what students already know.  Additional comments were made about what grades mean and concerns about grades being used for different things, i.e. employers looking for specific skills, instructors writing recommendation letters, etc.

Q: Could these methods be used in group work?

Kelly responded that with specifications grading, you would have to find a way to evaluate the group. It might be possible to still score on an individual basis within the group, but it would depend on the goals. She mentioned peer evaluations as a possibility.

Julian stated that all grades are based on individual work in his class. He does use groups in a senior level class that he teaches, but students are still graded individually.

The event concluded with a discussion about how using “curve balls” – intentionally difficult questions designed to catch students off-guard – on exams can lead to challenging grading situations. For example, to ultimately solve a problem, students would need to first select the correct tools before beginning the solution process. Some faculty were in favor of including this type of question on exams, while others were not, noting the already high levels of exam stress.  A suggestion was made to give students partial credit for the process even if they don’t end up with the correct answer. Another suggestion was to give an oral exam in order to hear the student’s thought process as he/she worked through the challenge. This would be another way for students to receive partial credit for their ideas and effort, even if the final answer was incorrect.

Amy Brusini, Senior Instructional Designer
Center for Educational Resources

Image Sources: Lunch and Learn Logo, slide from Kelly presentation

An Evidence-based Approach to Effective Studying

Dr. Culhane is Professor and Chair of the Department of Pharmaceutical Sciences at Notre Dame of Maryland University School of Pharmacy.

If you are like me, much of your time is spent ensuring that the classroom learning experience you provide for your students is stimulating, interactive and impactful. But how invested are we in ensuring that what students do outside of class is productive? Based on my anecdotal experience and several studies1,2,3 looking at study strategies employed by students, the answer to this question is not nearly enough! Much like professional athletes or musicians, our students are asked to perform at a high level, mastering advanced, information dense subjects; yet unlike these specialists who have spent years honing the skills of their craft, very few students have had any formal training in the basic skills necessary to learn successfully. It should be no surprise to us that when left to their own devices, our students tend to mismanage their time, fall victim to distractions and gravitate towards low impact or inefficient learning strategies. Even if students are familiar with high impact strategies and how to use them, it is easy for them to default back to bad habits, especially when they are overloaded with work and pressed for time.

Several years ago, I began to seriously think about and research this issue in hopes of developing an evidence-based process that would be easy for students to learn and implement. Out of this work I developed a strategy focused on the development of metacognition – thinking about how one learns. I based it on extensively studied, high impact learning techniques to include: distributed learning, self-testing, interleaving and application practice.4 I call this strategy the S.A.L.A.M.I. method. This method is named after a metaphor used by one of my graduate school professors. He argued that learning is like eating a salami. If you eat the salami one slice at a time, rather than trying to eat the whole salami in one setting, the salami is more likely to stay with you. Many readers will see that this analogy represents the effectiveness of distributed learning over the “binge and purge” method which many of our students gravitate towards.

S.A.L.A.M.I. is a “backronym” for Systematic Approach to Learning And Metacognitive Improvement. The method is structured around typical, daily learning experiences that I refer to as the five S.A.L.A.M.I. steps:

  1. Pre-class preparation
  2. In-class engagement
  3. Post-class review
  4. Pre-exam preparation
  5. Post-assessment review

When teaching the S.A.L.A.M.I. method, I explain how each of the five steps correspond to different “stages” or components of learning (see figure 1). Through mastery of skills associated with each of the five S.A.L.A.M.I. steps, students can more efficiently and effectively master a subject area.

S.A.L.A.M.I. Steps

Figure 1

Despite its simplicity, this model provides a starting point to help students understand that learning is a process that takes time, requires the use of different learning strategies and can benefit from the development of metacognitive awareness. Specific techniques designed to enhance metacognition and learning are employed during each of the five steps, helping students use their time effectively, maximize learning and achieve subject mastery. Describing all the tools and techniques recommended for each of the five steps would be beyond the scope of this post, but I would like to share two that I have found useful for students to evaluate the effectiveness of their learning and make data driven changes to their study strategies.

Let us return to our example of professional athletes and musicians: these individuals maintain high levels of performance by consistently monitoring and evaluating the efficacy of their practice as well as reviewing their performance after games or concerts. If we translate this example to an academic environment, the practice or rehearsal becomes student learning (in and out of class) and the game or concert acts as the assessment.  We often evaluate students’ formative or summative “performances” with grades, written or verbal feedback. But what type of feedback do we give them to help improve the efficacy of their preparation for those “performances?” If we do give them feedback about how to improve their learning process, is it evidenced-based and directed at improving metacognition, or do we simply tell them they need to study harder or join a study group in order to improve their learning? I would contend that we could do more to help students evaluate their approach to learning outside of class and examination performance. This is where a pre-exam checklist and exam wrapper can be helpful.

The inspiration for the pre-exam checklist came from the pre-flight checklist a pilot friend of mine uses to ensure that he and his private aircraft are ready for flight.  I decided to develop a similar tool for my students that would allow them to monitor and evaluate the effectiveness of their preparation for upcoming assessments. The form is based on a series of reflective questions that help students think about the effectiveness of their daily study habits. If used consistently over time and evaluated by a knowledgeable faculty or learning specialist, this tool can help students be more successful in making sustainable, data driven changes in their approach to learning.

Another tool that I use is called an exam wrapper. There are many examples of exam wrappers online, however, I developed my own wrapper based on the different stages or components of learning shown in figure 1. The S.A.L.A.M.I. wrapper is divided into five different sections. Three of the five sections focus on the following stages or components of learning: understanding and building context, consolidation, and application. The remaining two sections focus on exam skills and environmental factors that may impact performance. Under each of the five sections is a series of statements that describe possible reasons for missing an exam question. The student analyzes each missed question and matches one or more of the statements on the wrapper to each one. Based on the results of the analysis, the student can identify the component of learning, exam skill or environmental factors that they are struggling with and begin to take corrective action. Both the pre-exam checklist and exam wrapper can be used to help “diagnose” the learning issue that academically struggling students may be experiencing.

Two of the most common issues that I diagnose involve illusions of learning5. Students who suffer from the ‘illusion of knowledge’ often mistake their understanding of a topic for mastery. These students anticipate getting a high grade on an assessment but end up frustrated and confused when receiving a much lower grade than expected. Information from the S.A.L.A.M.I. wrapper can help them realize that although they may have understood the concept being taught, they could not effectively recall important facts and apply them. Students who suffer from the ‘illusion of productivity’ often spend extensive time preparing for an exam, however, the techniques they use are extremely passive. Commonly used passive study strategies include: highlighting, recopying and re-reading notes, or listening to audio/video recordings of lectures in their entirety. The pre-exam checklist can help students identify the learning strategies they are using and reflect on their effectiveness. When I encounter students favoring the use of passive learning strategies I use the analogy of trying to dig a six-foot deep hole with a spoon: “You will certainly work hard for hours moving dirt with a spoon, but you would be a lot more productive if you learned how to use a shovel.” The shovel in this case represents adopting strategies such as distributed practice, self-testing, interleaving and application practice.

Rather than relying on anecdotal advice from classmates or old habits that are no longer working, students should seek help early, consistently practice effective and efficient study strategies, and remember that digesting information (e.g. a  S.A.L.A.M.I.) in small doses is always more effective at ‘keeping the information down’ so it may be applied and utilized successfully later.

  1. Kornell, N., Bjork, R. The promise and perils of self-regulated study. Psychon Bull Rev. 2007;14 (2): 219-224.
  2. Karpicke, J. D., Butler, A. C., & Roediger, H. L. Metacognitive strategies in student learning: Do students practice retrieval when they study on their own? Memory. 2009; 17: 471– 479.
  3. Persky, A.M., Hudson, S. L. A snapshot of student study strategies across a professional pharmacy curriculum: Are students using evidence-based practice? Curr Pharm Teach Learn. 2016; 8: 141-147.
  4. Dunlosky, J., Rawson, K.A., Marsh, E.J., Nathan, M.J., Willingham, D.T. Improving Students’ Learning With Effective Learning Techniques: Promising Directions From Cognitive and Educational Psychology. Psychol Sci Publ Int. 2013; 14 (1): 4-58.
  5. Koriat, A., & Bjork, R. A. Illusions of competence during study can be remedied by manipulations that enhance learners’ sensitivity to retrieval conditions at test. Memory & Cognition. 2006; 34: 959-972.

James M. Culhane, Ph.D.
Chair and Professor, School of Pharmacy, Notre Dame of Maryland University

Tips for Teaching International Students

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Macie Hall, Senior Instructional Designer
Center for Educational Resources

Image Source: Pixabay.com