Embracing the 4th “R” in the Classroom – Rubrics Rule for a Reason

Rubrics It seems the rubrics have been all the rage over the past few years, and here at SMU it is no different. While many instructors have found success for their students and themselves using rubrics in their courses, others are not quite so sure about their usefulness. I believe that using rubrics has improved my own classroom teaching, and most importantly, the learning of our students. This seems to be an increasing trend at some of the best universities.

For example, the following bullet points are from Cornell University’s Center for Teaching Excellence – the entire post on these can be found here:

Why use rubrics?

Rubrics help instructors:

- Assess assignments consistently from student-to-student.
– Save time in grading, both short-term and long-term.
– Give timely, effective feedback and promote student learning in a sustainable way.
– Clarify expectations and components of an assignment for both students and course TAs.
– Refine teaching skills by evaluating rubric results.

Rubrics help students:

- Understand expectations and components of an assignment.
– Become more aware of their learning process and progress.
– Improve work through timely and detailed feedback.
– How can you develop a rubric?

Getting Started

- Start small by creating one rubric for one assignment in a semester.
– Ask colleagues if they have developed rubrics for similar assignments.
– Although it takes time to build a rubric, time will be saved in the long run as grading and providing feedback on student work will become more streamlined.

Another great way for new faculty members to get started is to attend our own upcoming SMU CTE workshop “Save Time & Get Better Student Work: Developing & Using Rubrics” being offered by Barbara Morganfield, Clinical Associate Professor, Department of Teaching & Learning, and me on Monday November 11 from 3:30-5:00 PM in Umphrey Lee room 241.  This workshop is part of CTE’s New Faculty Teaching Excellence program, aimed at faculty members in their first three years of full-time teaching.  Click here for more information and to register.

We hope to see all you NFTE new faculty members there!

Posted in Assessment, Course Design, CTE, Rubrics, Teaching Methods | Tagged , , | 3 Comments

Team Work

DSC_0303“Team work. Team work. Team work.”  “Students need to know how to work in teams.”  “Working with other people of a diverse background is as important as knowing your discipline.” “I’ve never fired an engineer for incompetence; I’ve only fired engineers because they couldn’t work with others.”  These are all statements that I’ve heard from industry partners, former students now working in corporate America, and friends in similar positions.

Teamwork is a cornerstone of Introduction to Engineering Design, a Ways of Knowing course for SMU’s new University Curriculum.  The course is a project based learning experience for first-year engineering students where the students work in multidisciplinary teams to build autonomous robots that can traverse a playing field to find a water basin.  Once found, the robots have to test the water for pH, temperature, and turbidity, and then remediate the pH of the water.  Completing a robot of this complexity is no small feat for first-year students.

We’ve done many things over the years to help the teams be more effective, procrastinate less, and achieve more technical success.  However, it is rarely the technical competence of the team members that stands in the way of that success.  More often, it is the lack of experience concerning how to work effectively on teams that has caused the most problems.  Teams would encounter typical problems such as the “slacker syndrome” where a few members leave all of the work to the others.

Recently, with the help of the Hart Center for Engineering Leadership in the Lyle School in consultation with the Center for Creative Leadership, we modeled the rhythm of the class and project based on a software project management framework called Scrum .  Scrum is an iterative development framework that focuses not only on the “thing” being developed but on the team functionality.  While not adopting each and every aspect of Scrum, we use several important parts that make sense for this type of project.  Each iteration or “sprint” is approximately 3 weeks long.  Class meetings (and hopefully other team meetings) begin with a “stand-up”.  In a stand-up, students actually stand (hiding your cell phone in your lap is challenging when your standing up), and each member of the team answers three questions to the other team members:

  1. What have I done since the last meeting?
  2. What do I intend to complete before the next meeting?
  3. What is blocking me?

Each sprint ends with some sort of major deliverable (a presentation, a robot demonstration, etc.)  One of the most important parts of Scrum, though, is the team retrospective.  After the technical deliverable, the teams adjourn to another room where they spend time with a team facilitator discussing how their team is functioning, how to become a more productive team, and what the team should start, stop, and continue doing to aid in its future success.

We are now in our third semester using this framework for the course.  We are seeing significant improvements in the technical success of the teams due in part to the incremental deliverables.  Much of the increased success of the teams is due to the fact that they are truly learning to work together, rely on one another, and resolve their problems in a mature fashion.

Have you tried any particular project methodology from industry to manage projects and teams in your classes?  If so, please post in the comments section.  In future posts, I’ll expand on the various aspects of the Scrum methodology, more detail about how we have implemented it, and thoughts moving forward.

Posted in Active Learning, Course Design, Students, Teaching Methods | 1 Comment

I Will Read One Book This Year

open bookIn one survey, only 8% of higher ed faculty reported taking “any account of research on teaching and learning” in preparing their classes.  So one blogger has decided to try to do something about it.  He’s launching a campaign:  “I Will Read One Book This Year.“  Just one book — doesn’t sound like too huge a commitment.  And to make the project easier, here and here are links to some books full of evidence-based ideas, teaching techniques, and general inspiration. Why not follow the link, choose a book, and give it a shot?  Better yet, if you like what you read, share it with a colleague or donate it to Fondren Library to help grow their collection of teaching-related materials.

Have some more suggestions for books that have influenced your teaching?  Add them in the comments.

Posted in Inspiration, Pedagogical Theory, Students, Teaching Methods | Tagged , , | 1 Comment

SMU Professor Publishes on Teaching with Technology

KruegerPaulLast year, CTE launched its first Faculty Learning Communities, including one whose members spent 2012-13 investigating effective ways to use technology in and out of the classroom.  Professor Paul Krueger, from Lyle’s department of mechanical engineering, was one of the co-facilitators of this FLC.  Among other things, he experimented with classroom use of tablet computers, and with using lecture capture software such as Camtasia to preserve his presentation for student review.  He shared what he had learned with other FLC members, and also with the larger SMU teaching community in CTE workshops and symposia.

Now Professor Krueger has expanded his audience with the publication of his review of some Windows 8 computers — essential reading for anyone thinking of acquiring a tablet computer for classroom use.  His article, “Faculty Review: A Professor at SMU Puts Three Windows 8 Tablet PCs Through Their Paces in the Classroom,” was published in this month’s Campus Technology Magazine, a publication that reaches 50,000 academics and IT professionals a month with information about technology and teaching.  Congratulations, Paul, and thanks for sharing your expertise at SMU and beyond.

Posted in CTE, Learning Communities, Technology | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

“Something honorable to do with the rest of the day . . . “

From a blogpost over at The New York Review of Books:

Seamus Heaney used to say that the poetry-writing hours of a poet’s day were the easy part; it was what to do with the rest of the day that was a challenge. He decided early on that teaching was something honorable to do with the rest of the day. He took his teaching very seriously, regarding it as a craft, something to be worked at, much like writing.

Robert Benfy, “What Seamus Heaney Taught Me” (Sept. 1, 2013)

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Teaching Teachers Teaching Excellence

This week’s Science has a fascinating article about a White House education-policy advisor, Steve Robinson, who is leaving the heady world of the West Wing and returning to the classroom to teach high-school biology. (If my link doesn’t work, you can access the article via CUL’s electronic journal collection (http://smu.edu/cul/apps/researchcentral/a-z.html).) His quest, one he has pursued his entire professional life, is to figure out what makes a great teacher.  Although some great teachers are born, he has concluded that most are made. His focus now is on a handful of factors:

  • know the subject matter;
  • seek and receive feedback from colleagues (and not just on selected days when you know you will be at your best;
  • seek and receive rigorous feedback; and
  • create a culture in which colleagues feel comfortable giving (and receiving) constructive criticism.

Robinson is headed for a charter school in Harlem, where there is a five-point plan for educational success:

  1. more time in the classroom,
  2. targeted interventions for students who need them,
  3. an extensive use of student performance data to improve practices,
  4. a culture of high expectations, and
  5. high-quality teaching.

My only quarrel with this list is the implication that #5 is somehow independent of #1-#4.  What is I find most intriguing is how relatively easy it would be to incorporate each of these elements into teaching at the university level.

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Low Tech Ways to Make Students Reflective Learners

thinkingStudies show that students learn more, and are more likely to become self-motivated learners, if they are made explicitly aware of their learning.  A recent post in Faculty Focus reports on a study of a set of four prompts designed to require students to analyze, reflect, relate and question.  Originally used in a Psychology course to get students to reflect on a a group activity, the questions are:


  1. Identify one important concept, research finding, theory or idea . . . that you learned while completing this activity.
  2. Why do you believe that this concept, finding, theory, or idea is important?
  3. Apply what you have learned from this activity to some aspect of your life.
  4. What questions has the activity raised for you? What are you still wondering about? [Prohibited answer: 'nothing']

As the blog points out, this set of questions is quite versatile — for example, you could use it at the end of class to summarize class discussion, reflect before class on a reading assignment, guide peer feedback on other students’ papers, or consider course learning at the end of the semester.  The Psychology professors who used the prompts prior to a quiz reported that those who did the prompts before taking the quiz did significantly better than those students using the prompts after the quiz.  Another group of researchers found improvements in critical thinking.

For more on this kind of metacognition, check out these resources.

Posted in Critical Thinking, Pedagogical Theory, Students, Teaching Methods | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Spotlight on Teaching: Interact with the World

foxmanOne of the things we at CTE like to do in our blog is spotlight great examples of teaching at SMU.  Today’s Dallas Morning News features Cox’s Judy Foxman and her BBA Honors Marketing Practicum class.  Students in this class form small groups, then spend a semester competing with each other to develop the best marketing campaign for a real client, with the winner chosen after final presentations at the end of the semester.  In the process, they apply the knowledge of marketing they have developed in their classes, hone their writing and communications skills, and learn to work as members of a team. And the contest isn’t just pretend — students get the benefit of the authentic audiences who react to their work.

Today’s news story features the winning team from spring 2013 — “Team Synergy” created a campaign for Fox Sports Southwest’s college football coverage — “Sofa Stadium” — which has actually been produced by Fox and will run as 15- and 30-second spots throughout the college football season.  Graduates in 2012 also created a winning presentation for Fox Sports; unfortunately, it was for the Dallas Stars and wasn’t used because of the NHL lockout.  Even students who are not on the winning team know they are getting a valuable experience. Here’s 2012 grad Ryan Allison’s take on the class:

“Just the fact that we had the chance to do a real-life, real-world project before we graduated and went to the real world, I felt like it really gave us a step ahead of other students in a marketing program.  It was kind of a job before we got a job.”

This class is a lot of work for both Foxman and her students, but there are no regrets on either side. “It was the best class I ever took at SMU,” said 2012 grad Mayela Trespalacios.

Do you (or does someone you know) teach a class that engages students with the community? Tell us about it in the Comments.

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Tech Tapas: A Dozen Ways to Teach with Technology

Tapas It’s a longstanding tradition at SMU to start the school year with the Teaching Effectiveness Symposium. TES offers both returning colleagues and new faculty a forum to celebrate good teaching, share ways to improve it, and greet colleagues from other disciplines.  This year, TES will be held on Thursday, August 22nd, from 8 am to 2 pm.

One topic that’s always popular is teaching with technology, and this year we’re trying something new with two of the breakout sessions:  Tech Tapas — small “plates” of information about pedagogy and technology.  The east end of the Hughes-Trigg ballroom will be set up with eight stations, each demonstrating the teaching and learning made possible by tech tools used in or out of class.  Some are teaching tools; others are new media student assignments. All can be effective and fun.

How is this going to work? Picture a poster session at a conference, but with cocktail tables and laptops instead of posterboard — wander the tapas tables and talk with the faculty and staff members presenting each tool.  Ask questions.  Try it out.  Get handouts with more information about the technology and its uses.  See something you like and want to learn more? Academic Technologies will be right in the middle of things to help you sign up for further training.

Here’s just a taste of the tapas feast:

Portfolios to  Go! (Caroline Kethley)
Curating in Cyberspace: The Virtual Museum Exhibition (Pamela Patton)
Apps for Teaching (Tyeson Seale)
Using Blackboard Blog for Collaborative Writing Assignments (Lori Ann Stephens)
Help from the STARS (Ian Aberle)
Blackboard Basics and Beyond (Steve Snider)
Online Office Hours (David Son)
Storing & Sharing Your Data (David Sedman & Jason Warner)
From Blogs to Webzines (Camille Kraeplin)
Say it Once: Make and Use Screencasts (Barbara Morganfield)
Toward Visual Pedagogy (Ben Voth, Tony Cortese & Dayna Oscherwitz)
Central Command: Information and Sign-Up Area (OIT)

For more information about TES, and to register to attend, click here.  Hope to see you there!

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Of Smooth Delivery, Teaching to the Test, and Student Evaluations

catThis month brought news of two studies that question the correlation between student evaluations of their teachers and student learning. One tested whether the “fluency” of a teacher’s delivery would impact student perceptions or student learning.  The Chronicle describes these experiments in “Smooth Lectures Foster Only the Illusion of Learning, Study Finds” (log in required).  Here’s how the experiment was designed:

42 undergraduates in an introductory psychology course at Iowa State were randomly assigned to two groups. Each was told their memory would be tested later. They watched a 65-second video of a lecturer explaining why calico cats are usually female. . . . One group watched the fluent video, in which the speaker stood in front of a desk, spoke without notes, maintained eye contact with the camera, and gestured with her hands for emphasis. The other students watched the disfluent one. The same lecturer stood behind a desk and delivered identical content, but read haltingly from notes as she hunched over a podium, pausing occasionally to glance at the camera.

After watching the videos, the students in both groups were asked how well they thought they had learned the material, how much they predicted they would remember 10 minutes later, and how organized, effective, and knowledgeable the speaker was.  The students who had watched the fluent lecture were about twice as likely as those who had watched the disfluent one to predict that they would remember what they had heard and to say they had learned the material. The fluent speaker was also rated as significantly more organized, knowledgeable, and effective than the disfluent speaker.

All pretty much what we’d expect, right? The more clearly delivered lecture should result in better learning.  But it didn’t happen.  Students in both groups did equally well (actually, equally badly):  they got about 25% of the material correct.  So while the fluent lecture gave a stronger perception of learning, and that lecture received higher ratings, it did not lead to greater knowledge. Would you get the same result from a longer lecture, or a semester-long course? This experiment can’t answer that question. But it does point to a quickly-formed perception/learning gap.

The second article also examines the tie between student evaluations and student learning.  A study of more than 10,000 Air Force Academy cadets randomly assigned students to different sections of a course and used identical syllabi and identical final exams (graded by someone other than the professor). The students also all took mandatory follow-up classes, which again had identical final exams. Students of the less experienced professors did better on the exam in the initial course, and gave their professors higher evaluations.  However, the students of the more experienced professors did better on the exam in the follow-up courses.

The authors theorize that the more experienced professors broadened their coverage, while the less experienced ones “taught to the test.” The broader coverage may have led to deeper understanding of the material, which in turn helped the students do better in more advanced classes (while feeling less happy in the intro course).

Does this mean that student evaluations are worthless? Certainly not (and the Air Force experiment may demonstrate a flawed alignment between the coverage of the introductory and advanced courses).  But it is further evidence that when we use student evaluations we need to be quite clear about what questions to ask the students, and we need to understand that there is a gap between what people think they have learned and what they actually learn.  It’s also another reason not to base decisions about the quality of teaching for tenure and promotion on student evaluations alone.

Posted in Teaching Evaluations, Teaching Methods | Tagged , , | Leave a comment