Author Archives: kingscollegecelt

Spring 2016 Events

Innovation in Teaching Grant Presentations

  • Tuesday, January 26 at 3:30 p.m. in the Postupak Room, McGowan

  • Presenters: Bridget Costello and Corine Coniglio

Bridget Costello, Sociology Department, “Specs Grading and the Illusion of Choice”

For two sections of Core 157: Introduction to Sociology, I implemented a “specs” grading system, wherein each student chooses both the number and the difficulty of assignments to complete from a “menu” that directly corresponds to both the demonstration of specific course learning outcomes and the student’s desired course grade. In theory, specs grading results in greater course rigor without increasing either student or faculty workload, in that it does not reward partial effort on assignments and instead incentivizes full effort on a smaller number of assignments, while also ensuring that most students – even those earning C’s and D’s – have achieved at least basic competency in all course learning outcomes. As implemented, however, students did not seem to perceive any greater degree of choice in the volume, pacing, or challenge of their workload as compared to a traditionally graded course; relatedly, the system did not seem to substantially improve the quality of student work.

Corine Coniglio, English Department, “From Online to Inline”

While many teachers approach new online courses for the challenges they present–engagement, accountability, efficient use of tools–this discussion of course development focuses on suggestions for how to use the strengths of online courses in traditional and hybrid courses through backwards design. Participants will engage in discussion that aims to turn the usual discussions about online learning into pedagogical opportunities for traditional, face-to-face courses.

Faculty Research Colloquium

  • Tuesday, February 16 at 3:30 p.m. in the Postupak Room, McGowan

  • Presenters: Janine Janoski and Noreen O’Connor

Janine Janoski, Department of Mathematics and Computer Science, “The Hidden Mathematics of Super Tic-Tac-Toe”

We all have played the beloved game tic-tac-toe. Now imagine in each square of the board, we draw a smaller tic-tac-toe board, making a 9 × 9 grid with 9 squares making a larger board. Impartial Super Tic-Tac-Toe (STTT) is a game where each player uses an “x” and their move dictates which larger square the other player must make their next move. In this talk we will explore the mathematical structure of impartial STTT.

Noreen O’Connor, Department of English, “Recovering Elizabeth von Arnim”

Elizabeth von Arnim, who wrote 22 novels between 1898 and 1940, was a witty and popular novelist who explored women’s lives in daring ways. Noreen O’Connor will discuss the writer, focusing on some of her most successful works. She will also address her recent work to help recover the writer, including the literary society, web site, and literary journal dedicated to the writer that were all established with her help during her sabbatical semester.

Faculty Research Colloquium

  • Thursday, February 25 at 3:30 p.m. in the Molewski Room, Sheehy-Farmer Campus Center

  • Presenters: Anne Szklarski and Frank Varriale

Anne Szklarski, Department of Chemistry and Physics, “Synthesizing Molecules Using Light”

Isoindolines are chemical structures that are commonly found in pharmaceuticals, natural products, and pigments. This research project was aimed at discovering a new way to make isoindolines using light as a main component of the chemical reaction. Since this photochemical strategy uses light instead of other chemicals, it has the potential to reduce the amount of harmful chemical waste this is currently generated by other known methods.

Frank Varriale, Department of Biology, “Dental Microwear as an Indicator of Jaw Action in the Dome-Headed Dinosaurs (Pachycephalosauria)”

Microscopic pits and scratches are formed on teeth whenever an animal chews its food. These features are termed dental microwear, and the orientation of scratches can be used as an indicator of jaw motion. Microwear was examined in the dome-headed dinosaurs Pachycephalosaurus and Stegoceras to determine jaw action, and the evolution of this behavior throughout the group Pachycephalosauria.

Faculty Research Colloquium

  • Monday, March 21 at 2:00 p.m. in Postupak Room, McGowan

  • Presenters: Melissa Ciocco and Daniel Clasby

Melissa Ciocco, Department of Sports Medicine, “A Review and Compilation of Physical Examination Orthopedic Special Tests and Their Diagnostic Accuracy Values”

Evidence Based Medicine (EBM) is becoming widely utilized in medicine. All evaluation techniques that an Athletic Trainer (AT) uses to diagnose an injury should be supported by evidence that they are both valid and reliable. Many tests that are used are not truly accurate at determining the implication that they state they are for. Many texts speak about how to perform a test, what it tests for, and diagnostic accuracy values, but all do not assess whether or not the test is truly a “good” test or “bad” test for evaluation purposes. A list of available orthopedic special tests was compiled, Evidence Based Medicine (EBM) results were analyzed, and these data values were used to help the clinician choose the best tests for clinical practice.

Daniel Clasby, Department of History, “Jewish Peoplehood in the Italian Diaspora”

This paper examines Italian Jewish sites of memory, spaces where attempts are made to memorialize and curate Italian Jewish cultural heritage. Largely focused on the small, former ghetto environs of once populous and vibrant Jewish communities in Venice and Rome, the paper also reveals the conflicts and contradictions of contemporary Italian Jewish peoplehood and the way Italian Jewish history is and is not being marshaled for use in the post-Shoah present.


Do we get the students we deserve?

Hypothesis: If you assume that students are trustworthy, independent learners, then they will behave trustworthily and learn independently.

Corollary: If you assume that students are always trying to cheat and cut corners, then they will cheat and cut corners.

Experimental method: Last semester I taught an evening section of my standard, gen-ed level Theology of Work class. There were 19 students from a good cross section of the college, though theology majors were disproportionately represented (because three of them needed the class to graduate). During the semester, the class seemed fine, neither unusually good nor unusually bad. Our in-class discussions were fairly typical for a Core class: some nights they were lively, other nights they had no spark.

Then we came to the final exam. In a stroke of either insight or madness, I decided that in a course in which I argued strongly for the value of leisure and contemplation, I could not legitimately demand that students answer a long list of sharply-defined, rigid questions for the final. (In the terms of one course author, I couldn’t demand ratio on the final when I had been arguing all semester for intellectus.) So I decided I’d open things up for them. I gave them an essay to read and a question to prepare to answer. This was the complete exam:

CORE 269: Theology of Work                  Spring 2014

Final exam

“Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.” –Matthew 11:28

In the blue book, write an essay in response to Tim Kreider’s essay, “The ‘Busy’ Trap,” drawing, as appropriate, from concepts you have learned in this course. Do not assume that your reader is familiar with the concepts.

Write from your moral, spiritual, and intellectual convictions about work, leisure, and the spiritual life. Say how you want to live your life, or how people in general should live their lives, given what you know about the theology of work and in response to what Kreider is saying in the essay. If it helps, you can imagine that you are writing your response also in the opinion pages of the New York Times.

Do your best. The exam is worth 50 points, about 17% of the course grade.

It is worth noting that there was no midterm in this course, because I didn’t want to use up a whole evening just proctoring an exam. This means that the students went into the final with no idea how I would grade their work, what I was “looking for” in their answers.

To be honest, I didn’t know what I was looking for, either. I planned to grade leniently, in case the students interpreted my lax instructions as signifying low expectations. I figured most of them would write a few short paragraphs and finish in a half-hour or so.

On exam night, I reiterated the advice: “Do your best.” In fact, I said that when they turned in their exams, I’d ask each of them if they did their best. They wrote for a long time. No one finished in under an hour, and a few took longer than the allotted time. Each student told me they did their best. I told each one I was proud of them. But I still didn’t know what they had written.

Results: Then I graded the exams. They were magnificent, without question the best batch I had ever read. Even the “worst” ones were well-articulated and explained in detail the key concepts the students used. I didn’t say how many theorists to draw upon, but most students drew upon more than I would have demanded, had I asked a more traditional essay question. The students wrote from the heart as well as the mind, with true conviction.

The grades were embarrassingly high. Higher even than the students said they expected, based upon their answers on the course evaluations. (In my experience, students are more typically too optimistic about their final grades.) A part of me wondered if I had done something wrong, if I had gone too easy on them.

Or maybe when you just ask someone to do their best and nothing more, they do their best.

Discussion: If the hypothesis is true, it’s because our assumptions about students shape how we behave toward them, including how we design assignments. And your behavior in turn helps determine their response to you. If you project hostility toward someone, you should not be surprised if they get defensive. If you come across as welcoming to a guest in your home, then they will act like a good guest.

Limitations: The sample size is small, just a single class. Maybe there really was something exceptional about this collection of students, some hidden variable. When I was tallying the final course grades, I noticed that every student had completed every assignment. Attendance was very high. No one turned in major assignments late. This group had done the work all along; I just hadn’t noticed. Maybe it wasn’t that I trusted them on the exam. Maybe they were ready for it anyway.

But the results were so good, it seems like it’s worth trying again.

Do you find that your assumptions about students shape students’ behavior? How have you displayed those assumptions? Have students ever defied expectations? Share your thoughts in the comments.

Stop marking papers; start responding to student writers

I led a short workshop earlier today on how my approach to commenting on students’ papers shifted after I read Nancy Sommers’s handbook, Responding to Student Writers. It was while reading that book that I realized that my students were not just writing in order to produce “what I want.” They were sharing their ideas with me. Crazy as it sounds, I began to think of it as a privilege to respond to them.

In practice, my new outlook meant downplaying “marks” and marginal comments on papers in favor of a written dialog with each student writer, a dialog that continues throughout the semester, as students tell me about their writing and I respond to them, coaching them on how to build on their successes and improve as writers.

Two resources I referred to in the workshop were the Harvard Writing Project and an illuminating video produced by Sommers on how students respond to comments on their papers. (Sommers has links to several other videos on that page.) What I learned from the video was that students do not always know what we mean in our brief marginal comments. Even “Good,” a comment I have written at least a thousand times on papers, is pretty opaque. What is good? Why is it good?

If you want to talk more about effective strategies to respond to student writers, say so in the comments or contact CELT.

Up to you

“Some things are up to us and some are not up to us.”

These words, which open the Handbook of the Stoic philosopher Epictetus, are among the wisest ever written. (They find an echo in the “Serenity Prayer” written by the great theologian Reinhold Niebuhr.) The words are tautological but hardly trivial, because if we cannot distinguish between what is up to us and what is not, then we are likely to waste much effort and opportunity. And, Epictetus thinks, by pinning our happiness to things that are not up to us, we set ourselves up for misery when misfortune strikes.

Epictetus’ gnomic wisdom is something that the anthropologist Kate Clancy is getting at in two recent blog posts on “The Sports Psychology of Academia.” Clancy, who plays roller derby, notes the psychological importance of (a) not being upset by and (b) planning for aspects of the match that are not up to her: the quality of the playing surface, the officials, injuries, etc. She then applies this insight to her career, which is determined by countless factors she has no control over. She is resolved to improve as a scholar and mentor, but to do that, she must first figure out what about herself and her environment she can and can’t change.

Clancy’s focus in these posts is mainly on research, but her insights are immediately applicable to undergraduate teaching, too. College faculty have a lot of control in the classroom: our preparation, what activities to do in class, how to grade student work, etc. But we do not have total control. In fact, we have hardly any control over the most indispensable ingredient to education: our students. Their parents raised them, previous teachers taught them, the admissions office brought them into the college, and they enrolled in our classes. Given all of this, there is little point in railing against what students are like when they get to our classes. But we do it anyway.

I was slow to realize that my students are not up to me. For years, I was frustrated by students’ failure to live up to my expectations for them. At some point, I realized that the failure was mine. My classes were set up so that some idealized, imaginary student could learn, not so that any real student could. I like to think that once I realized that I can only ever teach the students actually enrolled in the class–with all their peculiar abilities and shortcomings–I taught, and they learned, more effectively. I certainly found teaching much more satisfying.

Given that our students are (mostly) not up to us, how do we shape what is up to us, in order to foster students’ learning?

First, we need to know what our students are like: what they can do well, what they cannot, their attention span, their general cultural literacy, their assumptions about the course material, etc. Doing this on a fine-grained level would take a long time; only the truly heroic teacher can know all of this information about every single student. But we can certainly learn all of this about student cohorts. And we can learn a little about each student by asking them about their assumptions coming into the class (indeed, doing so is the first step in a constructivist pedagogy). Once we have this knowledge, we can tailor a course to help these specific students learn. Certainly, that much is up to us.

But even then, so much is up only to the students: whether they do the reading assignment, whether they do their work on time, whether they think coming to class is more important than playing video games. Now, I can certainly do much to encourage them to read, to train them to read more effectively. But to do this, I need to have already recognized–and communicated to the students–what is up to me, what is up to them, and what is up to people not in the class.

Faculty invest a lot of ourselves in our teaching. And rightly so: students deserve our best efforts, just as much as they deserve their own best efforts. But our best efforts have limits. Discovering what they are, working honestly within them, and not being bothered by what falls outside of them are major elements to professional success and satisfaction.

What else is up to us, or not up to us, in our teaching? What aspects of teaching that are not up to you nevertheless cause you stress and dismay? How do you think faculty can best deal with the things that are not up to us?

Photo by stock.xchng user pcaputo / Creative Commons licensed.

Faculty Focus special report: Effective Strategies for Improving Teaching and Learning

Faculty Focus always has a wealth of information and suggestions for improving one’s teaching. This new special report includes several short articles that address constructing an environment in which you can teach most effectively and your students can learn most effectively. Check it out:

EffectiveStrategiesImproveTeachandLearn.pdf (application/pdf Object).

What strategies in this report will you consider as you plan your teaching for the fall semester? (Or is it too early even to think about that?)