CTE’s New Director!

Harris PhotoCTE is pleased to announce that as of August 1st we have a new Director.  Associate Professor Michael Harris, in the Department of Education Policy and Leadership, has been at SMU since August of 2012.  He earned his B.A. in History from the University of North Carolina, and his M.S.Ed and Ed.D in Higher Education Administration from the University of Pennsylvania.  He has published extensively in peer-reviewed journals on issues facing higher education and is the author of the blog, Higher Ed Professor:  Demystifying Higher Education.  He has lots of plans for continuing CTE’s support for teaching excellence at SMU, as well as for expanding its mission to include issues of higher ed policy.  Please join us in congratulating Michael, and welcoming him to CTE! You can also leave him messages in the comment section below.

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Finishing Strong


Folks interested in teaching and learning invest quite a bit of time and energy on the first day of courses. Symposia here at SMU regularly feature a session on “making the most of the first day of class,” rightly, I think, pointing out that the first day sets the tone for the rest of the semester. Coming across the finish line of a long-distance cycling event the other day got me wondering, though. Shouldn’t we also be concerned with that last day? How should we mark the end of a collective 14 weeks of effort?

In the world of endurance athletics, there is a finish line. Simply getting to it is generally the goal. We stagger across, receive some applause and maybe a medal, and then go home to recover and ride, run, or swim another day. In academic work, however, I find that I don’t want students to see my classes this way. Yes, it takes endurance and grit to finish that paper, those exams, that last book. But I tend to see these things as training, not the race.

This is where some well timed words on the last day can make a difference, I think. On the best last days, in the best classes, I have reminded students how much they have learned. Then, I ask them to use it. Not to do so, I point out, means that they are wasting their education, not to mention a whole lot of time, money, and effort. In classes where we are rushed, or where we have not managed to craft a sense of community, I often fail to make some kind of last statement, and walk away feeling a little incomplete. Students, I suspect, may feel the same.

If the first day of class is about the how – how the class will run, how students will earn their grades, how they can expect a professor to interact with them – the last day of class is about the why. Why did they learn this stuff? Why is it important? I don’t think we can answer these questions for all of our students, but I do think that we can remind them, in those last minutes, that questions of purpose are important questions; that we care how knowledge gets used. We can remind them that they are just starting the race.

Posted in Academia, Course Design, Inspiration | Leave a comment

Can We Increase Intrinsic Motivation in Our Students?

I don’t think anyone would argue with the assertion that as instructors, we want our students to be successful.  This doesn’t mean that we’re going to make our classes easy or pass folks who haven’t earned it.  However, one thing I struggle with frequently is motivating students to want to learn, to care about what I’m trying to teach them, and to prioritize their school work appropriately.  Professor Robert Krout blogged about student motivation back in late February and provided some tips on increasing motivation in the classroom.

Should the students motivation come strictly from the “reward” system in place or should it come from an internal drive to succeed?  You may have already caught on that what I’m referring to is intrinsic motivation vs. extrinsic motivation.  In my teaching and mentoring life, I’m still getting comfortable with these concepts.  There’s plenty of research that shows intrinsic motivation is tied to increased critical thinking, persistence, and retention.  If this is the case, how can we put the theory into practice in day-to-day teaching and course design?

While I don’t have the answer to this or a number of related questions, Professor Jonathan Stolk from Franklin W. Olin College of Engineering will join us on May 6, 2014 to shed some light on the topic of intrinsic motivation. Trained as a mechanical engineer, Prof. Stolk joined Olin in 2001 and has become immersed in the world of innovative engineering education with research focusing on a number of topics including student motivation. He will be facilitating a hands-on engaged workshop for SMU faculty entitled Understanding and Supporting Intrinsic Motivation in the Classroom from 9:30 – 11:30am in the Deason Innovation Gym of Caruth Hall (Caruth 106).  The workshop will include a hands-on design activity, an overview of motivation theory and self-determination theory, and a review of how well the traditional undergraduate course taps into intrinsic motivation of the students.

I hope you’ll consider joining us for the workshop.  If you’re interested in attending, please click here to register.

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Some Quick Teaching Tips from SMU Award-Winning Professors

I am always working to improve myself as a teacher. I think about how I can more clearly convey information to my students, motivate them, push them to think harder and more carefully, make class more fun and memorable, and relate to my students on a deeper level. Of course CTE is a great resource for interesting teaching ideas, and CTE discussions and events encourage me to think more about these matters. At the end of the semester, though, when I’m feeling exhausted, I sometimes long for some quick tips about how to improve my teaching. Along these lines, here are some quick tips from some of SMU’s award-winning professors:

  1. “Set the tone you want for your class from the first day and always be an example of the characteristics you are hoping your students will learn and present.”

-Professor Carrie La Ferle, Altshuler Distinguished Teaching Professor Award (2012), President’s Associates Outstanding Faculty Award (2009)

  1. “[P]rovide the students at the beginning of the semester with bound spiral booklets that include:  1) many or even all of your old exam questions from prior semesters, and 2) a copy of the best student answer for each semester’s exam. Then during the semester you can hold extra review sessions, once every week or two, where you work though a representative selection of assigned old exam problems. This review process assures that all serious students will have clear and accurate expectations as to the nature of the exam problems that you will expect them to be able to handle, and the kind of analyses of those problems that you are looking for.”

-Professor Gregory S. Crespi, Don M. Smart Award for Excellence in Teaching (1994, 1999, 2005, 2010, 2013)

  1. “If you have a class of 50 students or less, get to know the name of every student in the course. This helps students to feel appreciated, it enhances their accountability and it opens the door for students to feel you are approachable for future interactions.”

-Professor Carrie La Ferle, Altshuler Distinguished Teaching Professor Award (2012), President’s Associates Outstanding Faculty Award (2009)

  1. “Project confidence. The teacher is like the pilot of the airplane. If she makes it sound like everything is going well, the passengers will believe her even when things get bumpy. If the pilot seems unsure, the passengers will think things are going badly even if all is smooth.” (Thanking Professor Eric Barnes for the tip.)

-Professor Robert Howell, Altshuler Distinguished Teaching Professor Award (2009)

  1. “[M]y latest experiment is in Active Learning. It looks like Tom Mayo gave it a try according to his recent blog post.  That’s basically what I’ve tried to do this semester.  Essentially, have students do something on their own in class besides just listening to me and taking notes!”

-Professor David Y. Son, HOPE Award (2003, 2011, 2012), Altshuler Distinguished Teaching Professor Award (2011)

  1. “Always look for opportunities for students to be interactive with the subject material, peers, and you during class time – experiential can help you be effective as an instructor. Students can find the facts in many places, but an engaging classroom environment can help bring those facts to life.”

-Professor Robert E. Krout, Altshuler Distinguished Teaching Professor Award (2013), SMU University Scholar/Teacher of the Year Award (2012), SMU Meadows School of the Arts Outstanding Teaching Professor (2010-2011)

  1. “SMU students can be risk-averse, especially in larger classes, and it can hold back class discussion. One simple strategy I use is to pose a question to the group and give them 2-3 minutes to write a response down. Then I ask them to trade their papers with a neighbor and ask students who find themselves holding an answer they find especially insightful to read it aloud. The anonymity breaks the cycle of self-criticism that often keeps students from speaking up, while having other students read the work gives them a chance to acknowledge good ideas. Overall, it helps get discussion going and builds community for the next time.”

-Professor Pamela Patton, President’s Associates Outstanding Faculty Award (2011)

  1. “When I think students aren’t dedicating enough time to my class I provide them with a weekly schedule and I have them block out all the times they HAVE to be somewhere (scheduled classes, work, etc).  Then I have them schedule well-being time (exercise and social).  Then I ask them to show me when they work on my class.  For some students it’s the first time they realize that they have no time for studying on MWF and T TH is best for that YET they use T TH for hanging out with friends.  It can be a very powerful moment for students who don’t use time planning systems.”

-Professor Sheri Kunovich, Altshuler Distinguished Teaching Professor Award (2013), Margareta Deschner Teaching Award (2013), Golden Mustang Award (2010)

  1. “Listen to standup comedians talk about their art. They read an audience much like we do and they are very reflective about what makes things go well. How do you deal with a heckler? How do you deal with a bit falling flat? We are performers too and need to think about these things.”

-Professor Robert Howell, Altshuler Distinguished Teaching Professor Award (2009)

  1. “Exams are supposed to be educational experiences.  Do not ask students to simply repeat what you and the book tells them. Ask questions that make the students THINK and apply the concepts and knowledge they have acquired.”

-Professor Patty Wisian-Neilson, President’s Associates Outstanding Faculty Award (2013), HOPE Award (2012), Altshuler Distinguished Teaching Professor Award (2005)

  1. “I am always looking for the student who wants to be what she wants to seem.”

-Professor Mary Vernon, Altshuler Distinguished Teaching Professor Award (2006), HOPE Award (2001), Meadows Foundation Distinguished Teaching Award (1998–1999), Outstanding Professor Award (1974)

  1. “Uphold the highest of academic standards even at the expense of your teaching evaluations. Good students will respect you for this.”

-Professor Patty Wisian-Neilson, President’s Associates Outstanding Faculty Award (2013), HOPE Award (2012), Altshuler Distinguished Teaching Professor Award (2005)

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Discrimination and Ethics

I love NPR. I listen on my way to work every morning. My most frequent parking lot moments are on Wednesdays, when I arrive at work just about the time Shankar Vedantam is reporting on recent social science research. This week, the story  was about a study investigating whether or not university professors exhibit racial and gender biases in their interactions with students. The researchers sent bogus emails to about 6500 faculty in highly rated universities around the country. The emails purportedly came from students, expressing interest in the professor’s research and asking for a meeting. The emails were identical except that the “student” names were varied to indicate various racial, ethnic, and gender demographics. The outcome measured was whether or not each faculty member responded and agreed to meet with the student. The headline findings were that faculty were less likely to agree to meet non-Caucasian (black, Hispanic, Indian, Chinese) and female students. White male students were most likely to receive a meeting, and Chinese females were least likely. The report went on to say that even same-ethnicty or gender faculty exhibited these disparities toward the inquiring students.

I am always looking for stories that use a simple analysis that my introductory statistics students can understand and might be interested in. So when I got in the office, I googled the author (her name is Milkman so it was easy to remember!). I did find the paper  , and it included many more findings than Vedantam had reported in his short piece. But what I found even more intriguing was the volume of citations of the article in both academic and popular press about the ethics of conducting such an experiment. One of the most critical and insistent nay-sayers was a statistician at Columbia, Andrew Gelman, who was one of the sampled faculty, and who writes a fascinating blog about data, data collection and data analysis . He feels that the unwitting subjects should be compensated for their time, since they were not provided with the opportunity for informed consent. On the other side are those who point out that revealing these kinds of inequities requires deception, and is important enough to suspend a strict interpretation of this principle. A middle ground suggested by some is that after the de-briefing, a subject should be allowed to require that their data be removed from the database, if they so choose.

But one of the more interesting points made, to me, was that there was much less concern among academics about this ethical principle when similar experiments investigated discrimination in hiring. Instead of faculty receiving bogus emails, those studies entailed human resources departments receiving bogus applications for jobs, with similar manipulation in the ethnicity of the applicant’s name. Why did we not worry so much about that? One pair of researchers whose work in this area is well cited is Bertrand and Mullainathan from University of Chicago . If you google their names, you find many discussions of the article, none of which are about its ethics. Why is that?

I am not sure of the answer to this question, but perhaps it is that some subjects of that experiment in human resources departments felt just as wronged, but don’t have time or interest in writing about topics that don’t directly related to getting their job done. Those of us in academics are paid to think, talk, and write, and we especially like a good controversy.

Another explanation might be that we think the findings can’t possibly be true, and so are looking for something to be wrong with the study. I know that was my initial reaction. In my field, if we didn’t agree to talk to Asian students about our research, we wouldn’t have many students to talk to! So, as my rationalization went, perhaps what we are seeing is the rarity factor at work. But that really wouldn’t explain the lower meeting rate for black and Hispanic students. So I am left with a feeling of disbelief/discomfort with the findings.

I’d like to hear opinions on these two questions:
1. Are you surprised by the findings of the study; and
2. Do you think the study methods are unethical?

I’ll start. #1. Yes. #2. I’m not sure.
And you?

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Just a great story about a teacher and a student

Physical formulas on seamless blackboardI guess this is the time of year when I am looking for a little inspiration. Writing exams is fun; grading them is not. This is when, as a former colleague once said, you want to call the Provost and demand that your salary be doubled or offer to give it all back.

There is a story in the current Chronicle is a reminder of the difference one teacher can make in the life of one student, a student pre-programmed for failure, destined to drop out. A physics professor invests in a kid with few math skills and little interest or apparent aptitude, et voila! — two stars are born.

From The Chronicle:

But Mr. Khatri was tired of hearing what his pupils lacked, as if squandered potential were all their fault. The professor, then 60, had been around for four decades. After all that time, he had come to question how he taught. The summer program was a chance to try other approaches. He wanted to know if, in the problem he saw, one of the variables was him.

This is a CTE blog, so I feel obligated to close with a teaching tip from the article. It’s pretty basic, but it’s not as easy as it sounds:

Mr. Khatri resolved to “reteach” the basics and reimagine his role in the classroom. In Color-Blind Teaching, a book he and Ms. Hughes wrote, they describe how a teacher, like an actor on stage, should move around, change his tone of voice, make eye contact with students. “If you choose to … treat your students as nameless passengers in a waiting room, or present your message in a monotone,” they wrote, “then you really are a spear-carrier in the drama, not a star.” Calling on all students the same number of times was a form of “equal participation.”

The sermon endeth here, except for one last point: Teaching involves real skills, techniques, effort, and a few tricks, but there’s no substitute for caring about our students as real people. Professor Khatri really gets it.

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Think, Pair & Share

tpsWe read a case in my first-year Torts class in which a labor union’s health insurance fund paid a member’s medical bills ($22,700). When the member settled his case against the driver who hit him (for $250,000 — lots of pain and suffering!), the union wanted its $22,700 back. (In lawyerspeak: The union sought to be reimbursed out of the settlement funds for its previous payments of the medical bills of its insured (subrogation), despite the fact that there was no subrogation clause in the insurance contract or plan documents.)

The issue was whether health insurance was more like property insurance (where insurers promise to indemnify their insureds against actual losses and have an implied right of subrogation in the absence of contract language) or more like “personal insurance” (the best example being life insurance), where the insurer promises to pay a sum certain upon the occurrence of an event (like the death of the insured) and therefore subrogation is not allowed by implication.

There are arguments in favor of either result, some based on contract language (i.e., what was actually promised) and some based on considerations of social policy. The court’s opinion wasn’t a model of clarity or completeness in terms of the various arguments and ultimately decided (counter-intuitively) that health insurance does not give rise to a right of subrogation by implication because health insurance is more like personal insurance than property insurance. The court reached this conclusion even though health insurance contracts promise to pay the insured’s actual losses, which makes them seem more like property insurance (where subrogation is available by implication) and less like life insurance.

As I walked from my office to the classroom this morning, I was expecting a lively debate in which I played two students against one another while 91 others sat and waited for us to get to something that might actually be on the final exam.

To involve the whole class, I invoked the “Think, Pair & Share” device that I first heard about at CTE’s Sparks event a few weeks ago. I gave the students about 5 minutes to write an argument in favor of each result. Then they paired up with a neighbor and discussed their arguments. The room was rocking! Then they shared their arguments with the rest of the class (not all 40+ pairs shared, of course). I put all the arguments up on the board, solicited more arguments from the class, and then asked for counter-arguments. The discussion was rich and I had tons of volunteers who wanted to be heard. TP&S worked like a charm!

I don’t want to overuse this device, because I think part of its effectiveness was that it was different — a rare departure from my usual “call and response” large-class routine. It’s also not particularly efficient in terms of pure coverage — we spent 20 minutes on a point that I could have covered in ten minutes with my two-students-debating approach. By another measure of efficiency, though, it was a blazing success: In 20 minutes I had 90+ students actively engaged in digging out and analyzing some difficult policy arguments. Doing that two students at a time for 10 minutes each would take 7.5 hours!

My recommendation for Think, Pair & Share: try it — you’ll like it.

Posted in Active Learning, Large Classes | 2 Comments

The Value of Note-taking: Laptop versus Ink?

paper-pen-laptop image

Do you ever ask yourself why you have students take notes in class? Do you plan out what you hope they will write and then how they will use these notes later? Obviously we want our students to learn material we think is important. If they are writing it down they at least have the required material. But are there tangible benefits of note-taking and in this age of computers is note-taking better done by using a laptop or ink?

This area became of interest to me when I was recently asked if a student could have my notes for the semester and if not, could I secure a fellow student who might be a more efficient note taker to provide notes for this student. The request made me reflect on note-taking and wonder if there is not more value to the process than simply making sure you have the notes from class and I also wondered if my no-laptop policy was a hindrance for some note takers?

I began my quest asking a trusted colleague for her opinion. She put me on to an interesting blog post that led me to more literature and a recent study undertaken on this specific issue. Below are some of the highlights of what I found that might make you ponder the role of note-taking in your course and whether you want students to use laptops or ink.

Wray Herbert’s report in The Huffington Post (2014) titled “Ink on Paper: Some Notes on Note-taking,” summarizes several experiments undertaken by Pam Mueller and Daniel Oppenheimer examining note-taking via laptops versus traditional notebooks. Their results are to be published in a forthcoming Psychological Science issue. In the research they assessed amount of note-taking and type of notes as well as short and long term recall and factual versus conceptual learning. The findings suggest handwritten note-taking is a superior technique to typing notes on a laptop across most outcome measures. Specifically, Herbert summarizes the main results indicating that while more notes were taken using a laptop:

“Those who took notes in longhand, and were able to study, did significantly better than any of the other students in the experiment – better even than the fleet typists who had basically transcribed the lectures. That is, they took fewer notes overall with less verbatim recording, but they nevertheless did better on both factual learning and higher-order conceptual learning.”

Prior research on note-taking would suggest that note taking encourages encoding and recall of material, but that verbatim note takers score lower on tests than students who engage in a greater integrative process during note-taking (Bretzing and Kulhary 1979). Computer note-takers tend to engage in what Herbert termed ‘mindless transcription’ leaving no chance for higher level processing of information.

In the end, I will continue the note-taking process in my course as well as my no-laptop policy. But I will be more conscious of providing ‘pause’ moments to allow students depth of processing and higher level integration of the material.

If you are interested to find out more here are a few citations discussing various studies in relation to note-taking.

Bretzing, Burke H. and Raymond W. Kulhary (1979), “Notetaking and depth of processing,” Contemporary Educational Psychology, 4 (2), pp. 124-153.

ERIC Digest “Note-Taking: What Do We Know about the Benefits? ERIC Digest #12,” http://www.ericdigests.org/pre-929/note.htm

Herbert, Wray (2014), “Ink on Paper; Some Notes on Note-taking,” http://www.huffingtonpost.com/wray-herbert/ink-on-paper-some-notes-o_b_4681440.html

Mueller, P. A., & Oppenheimer, D. M. (in press), “The pen is mightier than the keyboard: Advantages of longhand over laptop note-taking,” Psychological Science.

Posted in Active Learning, Pedagogical Theory, Teaching Methods | Tagged , | Leave a comment

Humor in Teaching

We’ve recently added a lot of seriousness to the offices of teaching, from the too-high cost of a degree to the desire to produce specific results (jobs, right?) that are not really promise-able in any environment. But humor is an important tool to keep in the toolbox, for a number of reasons.

I was first alerted to this in a critique, a number of years ago, when a very perceptive student noted to the class that I used humor specifically when I was getting most serious and specific about something in the work discussed–follow the humor, he said, to find what I thought.  Now, I teach in a studio environment, in art, which is extremely discursive, seemingly “subjective”, and is essentially evaluative about student results that are, in essence, propositions about a problem or thesis. While there is much attendant theory and critical structure, essentially most teaching involves students delivering a product which is then discussed as to its efficacy (success or failure).  Even in class, when things are being rather publicly produced (calculus on stage), one works exposed.  This is, at the least, a stressful process. So clearly humor can help, given its traditional psychological role of defusing tension and leveling difference.  But humor often hurts, and this can be good and bad.

So a few ground rules I intuitively follow:

1. The best humorists work at the expense of themselves, not others.  A former graduate student compiled a video of all of Rodney Dangerfield’s entrances to Johnny Carson shows–it was heartbreaking.  Instantly, you wanted to be helping him, for whatever he wanted.

2. Humor is hard.  If one looks at the files of comics, one sees such a vast array of approaches and failures to get the point across that most of us look lazy.  They involve not just words but physical attitude.  They are dependent on context–if a particular group doesn’t get it, a new path will be tried.

3. Humor follows a specific thesis structure–a problem is set, and results are tried.  Interestingly they are all “failures”, because the dominant mode of humor is desire and failure.  This applies not just to the conveyance of a problem, but to the problem itself–the problem perhaps has no solution.

What results from a (virtuous)  humorous cycle is of great interest psychologically.  The lowering of structurally defined power enables subjects to try for power themselves.  The lightness of identifying difficulty invites approaches to its challenges. The identification with failure as the common result creates community rather than exclusion.

That humor creates a space in which to operate is not a particularly new idea.  Tonight, at a talk about Afghan poetry in the “Landlay” style, we essentially viewed the creation of a safe space for women through a very simple but wickedly humorous art-form, essentially a text-message in its brevity.  While we are perhaps all to aware broadly of the negative side of humor, as it is employed to deprecate others,  specifically focused humor specifically focuses its power in ways that, for the “powerless” would not exist.  Witness Swift, and it is not insignificant that the most powerful figures in Shakespeare are often fools; power that cannot lower itself is never really power. This is particularly true for teaching, which is one of the most asymmetric relationships possible, but one which doesn’t clearly enunciate its asymmetries–students are mostly powerless, so give them a shot.  And shoot back.


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47 Down. Effectiveness of crosswords as review vehicles (2 wds.)

crossword-coasterFor many years, I wrote a crossword puzzle for my students to use as a vehicle for reviewing what we had just covered (either at the end of each week or, less ambitiously, at the end of each chapter). I used commercial software that took my clues and answers and formatted them into the familiar grid and arranged the clues in the usual columnar display. The program also arranged the squares so as to create the maximum number of intersecting letters, which probably allowed students to spend less time on the puzzle without (I hoped) materially affecting their learning.

The result was a puzzle that looked great, and the students seemed to enjoy this outside-the-box approach to reviewing material.  It took very little time for me to write the clues and answers, maybe 30-40 minutes for 30-40 items. It was also flexible enough to allow me to include clues about things that were discussed in class but not covered (or not covered in the same depth) in the readings. Will Shortz’ day-job is secure, but the result looked pretty darned good.

For some classes, this might be a good review option. It’s great for vocabulary (e.g., “jurisdiction over things” (answer: inrem)), concept identification (“standard of appellate review of questions of law” (answer: denovo)), and even some black-letter rules (“number of defendants who can have the same citizenship as one or more plaintiffs in a federal suit based upon diversity” (answer: zero)).

A 2009 article in the on-line Journal of Effective Teaching by Davis et al. compared outcomes for two classes in a Sociology course. Each class used crossword puzzles to review for two tests and multiple-choice questions to review for two other tests. One class did better on tests for which the review was done by crossword, the other class did worse. The authors’ conclusion: “The differing results between the two classes used in this study suggest that further research on this topic needs to be done.” Clear as mud. (Answer to title of this blog: notknown.) The inconclusiveness of this study allows me to cling to my belief that the crossword puzzle works well for certain kinds of reviews, but it’s just a belief at this point.

Meanwhile, I’ve moved on to a review vehicle for all my classes that I think works better for the kinds of things I want law students to get some practice doing: making arguments by applying legal rules to fact patterns, which requires a knowledge of the rules, creativity in formulating arguments, judgment (to accept some arguments and reject others), and writing skill, all in a fifteen-minute exercise. (It’s also the format for my final exam, so students get multiple opportunities to practice this type of question before they encounter it for real.) The device is a multiple-choice question with short-essay explanation. More on that, perhaps, in a future blog.


Posted in Teaching Methods, Technology | 2 Comments