Category Archives: Uncategorized

How to get snake people to speak in class

Why is it so hard to generate the kind of class discussion where everyone contributes, and everyone learns, with a minimum of cajoling, policing, and teeth-pulling by the instructor? More to the point, why was it so hard for me to generate discussion in the second week of my social ethics class this semester?

I asked questions. Nothing. I had students think-pair-share. They thought, they paired, but when it came time to speak to the whole group? Nothing. I don’t like cold-calling, because I didn’t like being cold-called. What was I supposed to do? I want to promote active learning, but I don’t want to spend several hours of the week in the only life I have to live in awkward silence in a room of quiet students.

On Twitter recently, the writer and academic Freddie deBoer admitted a similar concern:

The quick-n-easy answer is to blame the snake people — I mean, millennials — themselves. (There’s a Google Chrome browser extension that automatically, and hilariously, converts any instance of the word “millennials” on a webpage to “snake people.”) Kids and their gizmos! They’re so self-centered! They have only ever lived in a post-9/11 world!

Snake people

Snake people: They don’t eat cereal, but they vote! The horror!

That sort of hand-wringing bothered me when I was in college and commentators fretted about Generation X. So even if it’s true that kids today really are more reticent to speak in class than my peers were, knowing that won’t magically make my classroom discussions livelier. It will always be easier to change my pedagogy than to remake an entire generation’s upbringing.

To generate ideas for what changes to make, I turned of course to social media, where my question was met with a lively and instructive discussion. I heard from current colleagues, old friends who teach far away, even former students who are now college teachers (and some who aren’t teachers but who chimed in on what they found helpful about discussions). Later, I moderated a conversation among faculty at King’s about this question. The result of all of this was a raft of ideas, drawn from decades of collective wisdom. Here are some of the ideas people shared in these forums:

  • There are lots of good reasons to hold discussions in class. Discussions help students think and talk through ideas. They foster the idea that scholarship is a conversation. Through discussions, an instructor gets a real-time view of what students are learning and can guide students toward better understanding.
  • What counts as “discussion” may vary by discipline. Faculty in the humanities (like me) may think that discussion looks like a large-group conversation, with the instructor moderating. A science faculty member said that if he asks direct questions in class and students raise their hands and give the right answer, then that’s a successful discussion.
  • It’s OK to cold-call students, especially if you give them notice that you might do so and you give them the opportunity to pass sometimes. One way to do this is to warn students that you’ll just call on them in sequence, around the circle or up and down the rows, so they can have time to formulate ideas to share when it’s their turn.
  • If kids really are attached to their gizmos, then let them hold a discussion via gizmo. A middle-school teacher friend suggested Chatzy as a free, simple way to host online conversations via mobile devices.
  • Small-group work is of course a tried-and-true means of getting students to talk in class. One down side is that you can’t monitor every conversation, leaving the door open for conversations to head in the wrong direction. To keep conversations on track, you might assign every group a task with a specific outcome and give every member of the group a role (lead writer, fact-checker, devil’s advocate, etc.).
  • Ending class with a “minute paper” can cement the day’s learning, provide an opportunity for quieter students to let you know what they’re thinking, and set the stage for the next class meeting’s discussion.
  • Because human beings fear being lone voices in a silent crowd, the best way to foster discussion may be to build up the sense of community in class.

This last approach is the one I tried in my class. First I distributed a survey to all students, asking them what forms of fostering discussion they would be comfortable with and what obstacles there were to them participating more fully in discussion. Because several students said they would be willing to meet in small groups outside of class to discuss course material, I set up those meetings.

The most often cited obstacle to discussion was fear of “saying the wrong thing.” Several students said they felt like they didn’t know enough theology to say anything. (Well, of course, I thought, that’s why you’re taking the class!) To address this fear, I decided to do two things. First, consistently send the message that it’s OK to make mistakes like “saying the wrong thing.” In fact, making mistakes is a necessary part of the learning process.

Second, in order to make the classroom feel like a space where it’s OK to make the mistakes that learning requires, I spent a full week of class time meeting with students in pairs, in the classroom, just to talk about anything. If this seems like a “waste” of class time, I ask you to consider how much class time I might have wasted in unproductive, painful silence over the rest of the semester if I hadn’t tried to foster a better learning community.

From these conversations, I learned a lot about my students, including that most of them chose to come to King’s because they would be known by their classmates and professors and could have a voice in their classes. Several said they learn a lot by tracking discussions among their classmates. On some level, the students really want to participate actively in classroom conversation, but, as they said on the survey, there are obstacles.

So did these conversations make a difference? Maybe. This week’s discussion was a lot closer to the ideal I have for discussion. Participation was broader. Students responded directly to each other. I could hear students learning. There was more side chatter in class (which I don’t see as a bad thing, even if the chatter isn’t on topic). I hesitate to declare the experiment a success yet, because things could still shift after spring break. But I’m much more optimistic now.

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.


How to improve student evaluations of your teaching

It’s the last week of the semester, which can only mean one thing (that’s right, only ONE thing): it’s course evaluation time! Most faculty want to receive good scores on their course evals. With the right strategy, we can also get good information from them and use that information to improve our teaching.

It’s true that student evaluations are imperfect means of evaluating teaching quality. But because they are so systematic, these evals are, practically speaking, the best available tool for finding out how students respond to our teaching. Like any tool, they need to be used properly, lest anyone get seriously injured.

In May I responded to Rebecca Schuman’s criticism of course evals with a blog post that appeared on the Chronicle of Higher Education website. That post prompted a comment thread on Facebook that turned up some fantastic ideas for how to get more out of your course evaluations.

In that thread, Temple University sociologist Dustin Kidd (follow his blog; buy his book!) offered a comprehensive–and illuminating–view of how he works with evaluations. Dustin reports that generating useful responses starts with how he administers the evals. His advice is to

tell students what kind of feedback you want and how you plan to use it. I always tell students that I’m planning to revise the course and ask them to use evaluations to help me with the process. I give them a list of elements from the course that names all the readings, films, assignments, and other components and ask them to use the list to give me specific feedback.

Yes, students know, in one sense, how to fill out evaluation forms. But they do not inherently know how to make those forms most helpful to you. You may want to know what they thought about the first unit in the course, which has been on your mind daily for three months. But during the last week of the semester and with final exams looming, they may not recall that unit right now. So, following Dustin’s advice, why not remind them? It’s even possible that by reminding students of everything you’ve done in the course, they will also think well of the course overall, which can’t hurt.

Dustin further explains to his students the role that their evaluation of his teaching plays within the institution:

I have a very explicit discussion with the students about how the evaluations are used in my performance reviews when I apply for merit raises, promotions, or awards. I tell them the department uses the evaluations to make decisions about what courses will be offered and who will staff them. Making the process transparent helps the students to take it more seriously.

I suspect (though I do not know for sure) that at a large university like Temple, students are glad to know that their voices really do matter to the institution. Dustin conveys to students that they are taken seriously; in turn, one hopes, they will take seriously the responsibility to inform the department and university about Dustin’s teaching.

Finally, getting the very most useful information out of your evals does not necessarily mean using every last bit of information. Some filtering is necessary:

In brief, I try to summarize the evaluations in short phrases that strip away the judgement (positive and negative). I then quantify them so I know how many people made each critique. Then I focus only on the good and bad critiques that were said several times, as well as any helpful suggestions (even if the suggestion was only made once). The process helps me avoid zeroing in on the evaluations with really strong language and focus instead on the big picture.

It’s not surprising that Dustin takes a methodical approach, placing the evaluations within their institutional context and seeking to filter out the “noise” in the responses. He is a sociologist, after all. But this approach is not just good social science. It is good for the professor’s mental state, because it’s a way to avoid the twin pitfalls of vanity (upon reading a positive comment) and anger (upon reading a really negative one). What one student says might be interesting, but what many students say is real evidence, which can then inform your pedagogical decisions in later semesters.

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.

Call for proposals: National Learning Communities Conference 2012

Consider submitting a proposal for the 2012 National Learning Communities Conference, to be held Nov. 8-10 in Indianapolis. More information is here.