Beyond Mnemonics for Name-Learning Challenged Teachers

hello-my-name-isI have always thought that learning the names of my students creates a better classroom environment. The alternative — pointing a finger at a student I want to call on, or calling out the “the young man in the green sweater” — seems rude and crude.

Plus, learning students’ names is simply respectful. It acknowledges their dignity as individuals. It sends the message that you care enough about what you’re doing as a teacher to make the effort to learn their names. And, as Natalie Houston has observed at The Chronicle’s ProfHacker blog, it builds rapport, creates a sense of community, and facilitates classroom management tasks such as taking attendance and grading class participation.

Learning students’ names comes in handy outside the classroom, too, where “Good morning, young man in the green sweater” sounds demented and a simple “Good morning” sounds incomplete after you’ve been greeted by your name.  There’s just one problem.

I am terrible at names.

Actually, I am worse than terrible.  I am ridiculously awful with names. I’ve greeted someone with a handshake and exchange of our names and forgotten the other person’s name before letting go of their hand. It’s as if the name went into a dark cave in my brain, never to be seen or heard again. More likely, though, the name probably never got to my brain at all. Either way, it didn’t click, register, stick, or stay.

I do okay in seminars with up to twenty students. With a roster and photo array before the first class and a few minutes of conversation with each student during class, I am usually good to go for the rest of the semester.

In a large class — say my first-year Torts class with 93 students — it’s a lost cause.

But there’s help for the hapless, and where there’s help there’s hope. I like Natalie Houston’s short list of name-learning helpers. The University of Nebraska has a website where they describe twenty-three tips and tricks for learning students’ names. As they say, not all of them will be compatible with your personal style, but some of them may prove to be useful.

Posted in Large Classes, Students | 1 Comment

Does sex matter?

r-CLASSROOM-HANDS-large570 From the Journal of Higher Education (Nov./Dec. 2013), here’s the abstract:

We conducted an observational study to examine the effect of student and professor gender on college classroom participation and faculty-student interactions. A main effect for professor gender emerged, with more voluntary responses in female-taught classes. As the percentage of males present increased, overall voluntary responses and professor praise decreased.

I am not so sure about their use of “gender” as a synonym for “sex,” but whatever. This article by Tatum et al. raises a number of interesting questions. Is there a difference in patterns of class participation for male and female professors in your discipline? Does the presence of more male students change this pattern? And if so, what can you do to alter the pattern? The study reports that “[f]emale professors were more likely to follow up on students’ comments, praise students’ verbal participation, and provide more corrections to students.” Should we male professors be learning something from these findings? If “[f]emale professors may have created an atmosphere in which students felt more comfortable participating because their responses were extrinsically reinforced more often by the instructor,” maybe male professors should be doing something differently.

Posted in Learning Communities, Students, Teaching Methods | Leave a comment

Simple Classroom Cues to Help With Student Motivation

Within the SMU CTE, we have been discussing a number of issues relating to motivating the students that we all have the privilege to teach. Although many of us assume that the subject matter itself should be interesting to and motivating for our students, the fact is that we can all benefit from considering how to motivate our students when the subject matter itself does not. While we recently presented a CTE workshop titled “Carrots and Sticks: Motivating Students to Learn”, I wanted to share some other considerations on this topic.

Sometimes it is helpful to look at how other universities approach this important consideration, as student motivation is perhaps a universal for those teaching in higher education. For example, the Center for Teaching at Vanderbilt University has provided some useful information on motivating students, looking at six categories and aspects: Intrinsic Motivation, Extrinsic Motivation, Effects of Motivation on Learning Styles, A Model of Intrinsic Motivation, Strategies for Motivating Students, and Showing Students the Appeal of a Subject. The last of the six, Showing Students the Appeal of a Subject struck me as interesting.

As Vanderbilt’s CT states, “When encouraging students to find (your) subject matter interesting, use cues to show students the appeal of the subject matter”. They then give examples of verbal cues that the instructor can provide to and for students.  They outline cues in eight areas: Novelty, Utility, Applicability, Anticipation, Surprise, Challenge, Feedback, and Closure. For example, in the area of Utility, a cue might be “This next topic is something that we’ll use again and again.  It contains valuable ideas that we’ll use throughout the later sections of the course.” I find this helpful, as it is an example of how simple but carefully worded comments can provide a spark to the student to help them take notice (and hopefully be motivated by) the course material at hand.

In summary, while some students will be motivated simply by the subject matter itself, we as instructors can also make use of targeted teaching strategies to help motivate our students as needed. If you are interested in reading more of what Vanderbilt has to share, visit their Center for Teaching website at http://cft.vanderbilt.edu/guides-sub-pages/motivating-students/

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They love me, they hate me?

HeartEach semester I dread and welcome the day I receive the email with the subject line ”Teaching Evaluations”.  In the email, I get access to two things, my quantitative scores and my open-ended student comments.

Like many colleagues, I love the comments – the good and the bad.  I welcome the sarcastic remarks about why the assignments have to be so complicated, the compliments regarding my choice of readings, and even the somewhat odd personal observations such as, “do you know you wear black pants every Thursday.”  I learn so much about what students believe to be fair and good about my course.  I take most of these comments to heart, even the odd observations. In general, I feel nothing but love from the students when I read these comments, even the critical ones.

On the other hand, I dread opening the quantitative scores that always accompany the comments.  As a quantitative researcher, I know how to make sense of the distributions and the possible random errors.  As a heavy user of survey research, I place a lot of value on scaled responses.  As a member of a large university faculty, I know that my relative overall ranking from these scores matter and that professional careers can hinge on good and bad teaching evaluations.  With all the possible limitations and consequences in mind, I also take these averages and individual scores selected by my students to heart.

To be honest, my quantitative scores are rarely that low, but they are far from excellent which is what I aspire to.  What I have come to accept is that only a small proportion of students will choose the highest rank on all questions asked.  For example, some might believe I manage class time well others disagree.  When colleagues question the utility of standardized teaching evaluations I often disagree.  In my experience, my students are as intentional in their response choices using these measures as they were in writing their comments.  If I am honest with myself, the majority of students are often right with respect to where they find me lacking and where they see my strengths.  So I now use both my comments and my standardized scores to improve my courses.

I know many of us are concerned with the heavy reliance on standardized evaluations and the lack of attention paid to the comments portion of teaching evaluations, the peer observations, and the critical assessment of syllabi.  I completely agree.  I know that we worry about students using these evaluations as a tool to exact revenge for their poor performance.  However, as standardized teaching evaluation questions have improved, I increasingly see value in the responses generated from these questions. Universities are increasingly paying attention to the questions asked and to the data received.  Over the last two years, Dedman College examined the content of questions, revised and added new ones, and finally found a way to link class characteristics to the data.  As a result, the standardized scores from my fall evaluations were some of the most helpful I have received while at SMU.

While changing standardized evaluations are certainly a step in the right direction, I would suggest that universities also find a way to use the open-ended comments as well.  All they need to accomplish this is software that analyzes qualitative data to identify patterns.  Using these software packages, we can quickly and reliably identify positive versus negative adjectives, identify consistent problems, generate super cool WORD CLOUDS to see what words dominate student comments.  In other words, there are ways to not rely so heavily on a single number or a rank when determining how good of a teacher someone is.

I would love to hear other ideas for how we might continue to improve how we personally use our teaching evaluations and how our institutions use these evaluations (both quantitative and qualitative) to evaluate our performance.

Posted in Teaching Evaluations | 4 Comments

Adjuncts Adrift?

SMU is boat-hull-dam_70945_990x742hosting “The Year of the Faculty,” but the Chronicle of Higher Education seems to be amid a year of Adjuncts. Many articles in the last several months have detailed the often poverty-stricken, prep-strapped life of some adjuncts. Clearly, not all adjuncts are alike. Some are indeed affluent leaders in their fields who teach to share their special knowledge, serve their professions, enhance their résumés, or enjoy the classroom experience. But sometimes, adjuncts are relegated to the dregs of Academia’s caste system.

Long-term adjunct work, part-time and full-time, has its drawbacks for faculty as well as students. At the 2014 AAC&U conference, I attended a session titled, “Addressing the Adverse Impact of Non-Tenure-Track Faculty Working Conditions on Student Learning: Practical Approaches and Resources for Facilitating Change.” (There’s an academic title for you.) A panel discussed the many challenges for adjuncts and the ways those hurdles may impact student learning. Overall, the session identified difficulties and called for more inclusion of adjuncts.

Granted, tenure is hard won and deserves respect. But adjuncts teach the same students, in the same classrooms, for the same tuition dollars as tenured professors. Our students deserve the best learning opportunity in all classes, regardless of who is standing in front of the room. And our instructors deserve respect, regardless of rank.

Fortunately, more people and institutions are recognizing the problem and calling for change. For example, recent articles in the Chronicle include: “Accreditation Standards Should Include Treatment of Adjuncts, Report Says,” and “Adjuncts Gain Traction With Congressional Attention.” USC has launched The Delphi Project on The Changing Faculty and Student Success.

Here at SMU, the CTE is developing a program to support part-time adjuncts: CAFÉ, a Community for Adjunct Faculty Excellence. If you would like to learn more, participate, comment, or collaborate, please contact me at bwhitehead@smu.edu. In the meantime, please join me in speaking up for greater awareness at SMU.

Posted in Academia | 1 Comment

Anyone up for playing a game in the classroom?

GamificationWhat’s wrong (and right) with having some scholastic fun? What do students gain, both cognitively and affectively, from role-playing simulations? Do games and related activities stimulate student motivation to learn? Those are some the questions a small group of faculty members are thinking about this academic year under the auspices of the CTE Faculty Learning Community. The group, intrepidly led by Alice Kendrick (Advertising-Meadows) includes Ann Batenburg (Teaching & Learning-Simmons), Tony Cuevas (Instructional Design & Learning Technology-Simmons), Andy Greenwood (Music History- Meadows), and me (Psychology-Dedman).

We are learning that there are lots of good reasons to occasionally insert a game or “playful” activity in class. It breaks up the lectures, gets students’ competitive juices flowing, and as Dean Bowen would endorse, it is a great way to actively engage students. We’ve also learned that there is a literature out there about such topics as “gamification” (Kapp, 2012), defined as using game elements or design techniques to make learning more engaging and fun.

Classroom games are already being played on the hilltop. Maria Dixon (Communication Studies) is using the John Madden football game to teach organizational communication skills. Alice Kendrick has students go without wearing denim for several days (“deconsumption deprivation”) to learn how clothing affects social activities and personal choice. Ann Batenburg adapted the speed dating concept to help students prepare for tests. I’ve used a customized Jeopardy game for reviewing course material. One of my colleagues plays a song at the beginning of class. The first student who makes the connection between the song and the topic of the day gets a point of extra credit. These are just a few examples of what is going on in our classrooms.

As is evident, games and related activities can add life and some fun to the classroom experience. You will hear more from our group as we develop more knowledge and expertise in this area. But you can also help us. If you are using a game or game-like activity in your class, please send me an email about it (gholden@smu.edu). And don’t forget to have some fun in class!

Posted in Active Learning, CTE, Learning Communities, Teaching Methods | Tagged , | 1 Comment

7 Characteristics of Good Learners

thinkingOver at the Teaching Professor blog, Maryellen Weimer has come up with a list of seven characteristics of good learners.  We might all salivate at the idea of students like this:

  1. Good learners are curious
  2. Good learners pursue understanding diligently
  3. Good learners recognize that a lot of learning isn’t fun.
  4. Failure frightens good learners, but they know it’s beneficial.
  5. Good learners make knowledge their own.
  6. Good learners never run out of questions.
  7. Good learners share what they’ve learned.

Imagine a classroom full of the curious, persistent, generous risk-takers described here.  “But Beth,” I hear you saying, “that’s all very well, but we have to take our students the way they come.”

And that’s true, but we’re not helpless in the face of passive resistance.  We can adopt policies that require and reinforce diligence.  But more to the point, we can model this kind of learning for our students, demonstrating our own curiosity and the way in which our discipline asks questions.  We can share some of our own flubs, and create a classroom environment that provides the kind of support that encourages risk-taking and enables success.  We can show how the un-fun equips us to fly.

Most of us probably ended up in teaching because we love to learn.  Let’s remember to show our students how we got there.

Posted in Active Learning, Critical Thinking, Students, Teaching Methods | Tagged , | Leave a comment

How do I ask students better questions?

While preparing for class I find that a lot of my time is spent composing my delivery, i.e., what is the content that I will present, how will I present it, how I will use the board, how I will use computer demonstrations, etc. These are all important to consider. However, I often find that my lectures or assignments may be weakened not by the whats and hows of my delivery but by the questions I ask — the whats and hows I pose to the students. The silent class, lack of engagement or incorrect answers are sometimes due to not giving as much thought to my questions as I do to my delivery.

The importance of asking the right questions is in itself a field of study. Inquiry-Based Learning is a well-evolved teaching system based on asking questions. The Foundation for Critical Thinking has a nice (and short) opinion piece with a somewhat call-to-arms tone emphasizing the importance of a well-considered question strategy in the classroom. One example can be found in this recent article, which asks how to pose questions with the goal of increasing participation and engagement: www.edutuopia.org. A “simple, effective approach” that this article suggests is to ask specific questions of specific students.

At the level of a specific question, how a question is asked can generate different answers and stimulate different thought processes. As described in the paper Asking More Effective Questions, questions in the classroom typically take one of two forms: convergent questions, where there is generally a specific answer, and divergent questions, whose answers are more open ended. Formulating effective divergent questions is recognized as more challenging for instructors. This theme is taken up by Nesbit and Cliff in the field of physiology and I note one of their conclusions: “Our findings indicate that, despite the fact that instructors of anatomy and physiology recognize the value of open-ended science questions, they have considerable difficulty in successfully creating them. Inexperience may contribute to the low rate of success in producing open-ended questions.” This gets down to perhaps the most detailed level of asking questions, i.e., how do we word them to best achieve our goal?

I often struggle with the open-ended question posed to the classroom. Is the silence that follows due to a mis-application of a teaching technique or strategy indicating lack of engagement, preparation or understanding? Or is it simply the fact that they don’t know what I want? Is my attempt to pose an open-ended question merely resulting in obfuscation? As another example, I recently posed an exam question (mathematics) that said, “Solve the following differential equations for x(t):”. Many students did not carry the solution as far as I intended. The fact that many did not and that many stopped at the same point indicated to me that I must be somewhat culpable for the misunderstanding. In this case, it appears that I should have said, “Solve the following differential equation and determine all unknown coefficients.” In this case I needed to be more specific. On the other hand, sometimes I don’t want to be more specific because understanding what I mean with a question is part of the examination.

I conclude not with any “how tos” or suggestions to try a nifty bit of technology. Instead, I want to emphasize that just like our delivery methods, which can be analyzed from theory down to their MOOC bits, we should give equal attention to our question techniques. And for those questions, we must consider not only the theoretical and strategic issues of engagement and convergent vs. divergent questions, but also simple wording. Sometime (maybe often), it’s less an issue of pedagogy, and simply a matter of careful, considered and effective composition.

Posted in Active Learning, Course Design, Teaching Methods | Leave a comment

Documenting Kindness

kindnessHere’s a happy thought for the start of a new semester:  academic life can be characterized by kindness rather than snarkiness.  Thanks to Mark Chancey‘s Facebook post, I read a recent article that highlights a project created by a professor at Mizzou named Rabia Gregory.  She has started the Academic Kindness Tumblr — as its subhead proclaims, this blog provides a space to “record unsolicited kindness, unexpected goodwill, and excessive generosity in academia.”  As Professor Gregory notes, Academic Kindness seeks to show that “not all academics are brutish self-centered narcissists who delight in tearing apart the work of others for sport.”  It also encourages us to respond to the kindness that comes our way by “paying it forward” — being generous to colleagues, staff, and students.

Most of the examples posted so far reflect generosity in the scholarly realm.  For example, there are stories of senior scholars taking time to support the work of graduate students they had never met.  Here’s one of my favorites:

“While doing my comps, I found myself in need of an obscure, unpublished Ph.D. I was still figuring out ProQuest and I was trying to figure out a way to order it from the university. As I was doing this, I sent a brief email to a very senior scholar whose work deals with the material in this dissertation and asked if he could recommend the best way to find a copy of it. Instead, he sent the entire dissertation to me by mail — in two packages because it took him a while to photocopy the whole thing (I should also note that I live in a different country, so it would not have been cheap to send). A very kind and unexpected gesture!”

One post is even a fan letter to SMU’s Professor Bonnie Wheeler.

I bet, though, that we all also have teaching-related stories of unexpected grace.  My teaching life, for example, has been immeasurably enriched by colleagues who shared teaching materials, covered for me when I was ill, provided really helpful critique, or shared a confidence-building compliment when I needed it the most.  How about you?  Share your stories of academic kindness in the Comments to this post, or on the Academic Kindness Tumblr. And remember to pay it forward.

Posted in Academia, Inspiration, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , | 1 Comment

Reading Fiction

novel-1There is a piece in the Dec. 9 Chronicle (“Why Fiction Does It Better”) that argues that fiction develops readers’ capacity for “sociocognitive complexity”:

Cognitive scientists and literary theorists have plenty to say on this subject. Cognitive science connects the acquisition of vocabulary to social cognition, or the development of theory of mind—a capacity to attribute mental states, including thoughts, beliefs, and desires, to oneself and other people.

For those of us around the university who aim to prepare our students to bring to their various post-University roles — citizens, parents, professionals/workers, bosses — such useful attributes as compassion, tolerance, empathy, and the ability to deal with uncertainty and ambiguity, it is encouraging to see a positive correlation between these capacities and a universally available activity.

The author’s challenge is to get more fiction into school curriculums and to do so earlier, not later, in the moral development of students.  And in universities, where an emphasis on STEM education has the potential to crowd out courses built around novels, drama, and narrative poetry, the curricular challenge is no less severe.

When a few of my first-year law students asked what they might read over the holiday break, I didn’t hesitate to suggest a handful of novels that I thought would entertain and provide a welcome break from the past four months of reading cases and statutes. Little did I know I was also adding to the development of their capacity for sociocognitive complexity!

Posted in Learning Communities, Pedagogical Theory, Uncategorized | Leave a comment