Singing the Praises

If you’ve read many of my blog posts, you might see a pattern. I rarely refer to any of my colleagues by their names. This is intentional. It’s not that I think lowly of any of my colleagues or feel that they don’t deserve credit for making their way onto this space. My colleagues recommend books for me to read and suggest instructional practices for me to try. They make comments that dig their way into my brain and make me reflect on my place in the world. My colleagues have played a huge role in my development as a teacher and as a researcher and I value them immensely. But I rarely identify them by name. I offer them anonymity because I worry about putting their names out here for all of the interwebs to see without their consent. In a way, I’m trying to protect them.

I’m going to partially suspend this practice this week and talk specifically about a colleague and use his name. I thought about asking for his consent, but he’s much to humble to feel comfortable for the type of post this will be. I’m going to sing his praises and he’s not that kind of guy. But I’m going to do it anyway. Apologies.

Steven joined our university six years ago after working several years as a research chemist. Steven is a science guy. He’s the kind of guy who lives, breathes and sleeps science. I’m willing to bet that he dreams about science, too. Steven and I were in a meeting recently where he shared his love for the smell of camphor. Locally, we’ve been experiencing an unseasonably early Fall allergy season, which has left many of us sniffling and sneezing. Steven apologized for smelling like camphor and explained that it helped with his congestion. He also explained that he loved the smell of all of the organic volatiles because “they smelled like success.” Yep, Steven is definitely a science person.

Despite having little experience or background as a teacher, Steven chose to come to our institution, a place which values teaching greatly. But he jumped right in. He attended professional development sessions, signed up for workshops, read books and had tons of conversations with other faculty. He approached teaching almost as it were a new element he had suddenly discovered. He did tons of background research and when that didn’t answer all of his questions, he started conducting his own experiments. Working in a content area that values data and evidence, he sought the same to inform his teaching. He’d try new practices in his classroom and test their efficacy by looking at student assessment data. Over the course of the last six years, Steven has become the type of instructor you’d want a family member to have. He’s demanding, yet student-centered. He’s professional, yet empathetic. He’s highly intelligent, yet approachable. Steven is a great teacher and an amazing colleague.

More than anything, he understands what teaching means. In the same meeting where he apologized for smelling like camphor, Steven discussed the importance for faculty to build a sense of belonging with students, both in our classrooms and across campus. To make a point to the group, Steven explained that as teachers, we need to remember that it’s “Maslow before Bloom.” It’s a phrase that only a student-centered teacher would utter.

While “Maslow before Bloom” may seem like a simple saying, it’s actually pretty complex. By drawing on Maslow’s Hierarchy and Bloom’s Taxonomy, the phrase says that as educators, we need to attend to students’ physiological and psychological needs before we can really address teaching and learning. By sharing this with the group, Steven was saying that before we can share our love for the organic volatiles or help students experience that “smell of success,” they need to feel a sense of connection and belonging first. In that phrase, Steven said to the group that he understands what this whole teaching gig means.

And he’s figured out most of this through his own research and experimentation. While Steven could have applied his focus and dedication to any subject, I’m glad he has chosen to teach. Our university and our students are better off with his choice.


High Impact Teaching Practices

If you work in a collegiate environment, you’ve probably heard the phrase “High Impact Practices.” Emerging from the National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE), the High Impact Practices were intended to identify practices that increased student involvement in the university community and contributed to greater student retention and academic success. The list of High Impact Practices includes:

  • First-Year Seminars & Experiences
  • Common Intellectual Experiences
  • Learning Communities
  • Writing-Intensive Classes
  • Collaborative Assignments and Projects
  • Undergraduate Research
  • Diversity/Global Learning
  • ePortfolios
  • Service Learning, Community-Based Learning
  • Internships
  • Capstones Courses and Projects

Since they were first conceived over a decade ago, many institutions of higher education have worked to incorporate the High Impact Practices (HIPs) into their work. For example, my home institution has developed initiatives for each of the HIPs. We have an Office of International Services and Programs. We have Living Learning Communities in several of the residence halls. We have a faculty member who coordinates the First Year Experiences on campus, and we have lots of grant opportunities to support undergraduate research. In a lot of ways, the introduction of High Impact Practices has changed how institutions of higher education educate collegiate students.

In my reading travels recently, I came across an article that argued for a slight change in focus in the work we do. Rather than looking only at large-scale institutional or curricular practices, maybe a smaller scale focus is also needed. That’s the position presented by Dee Fink in a 2016 commentary. If you’re not familiar with Dee Fink, I wrote about his Taxonomy of Significant Learning  a few years ago. In his more recent piece, Fink argues for the need for “High-Impact Teaching Practices” (HITPs) that professors can incorporate within a specific course they’re teaching that can contribute to greater student retention and academic success. To start the conversation, Fink offers a list of his HITPs that he developed from his forty years of working in higher education. Fink’s list includes:

  1. Helping students become meta-learners
  2. Learning-centered course design
  3. Using small groups in powerful ways
  4. Service-learning/community engagement – with reflection
  5. Being a leader with your students

At first glance, Fink’s list may seem divergent from the list of High Impact Practices. Closer examination, however, shows that there is some significant overlap philosophically and pedagogically. Both lists promote learning in social contexts where students apply what they’ve learned in larger community settings. Both lists identify the need for learners to examine what and how they’ve learned.

The one clear difference that stands out to me is how Fink calls for professors to be “a leader with your students.” Digging deeper into Fink’s view of leadership, he is really calling for professors to make connections and “leadership relationships” with students. He writes “the teacher has to establish the right kind of relationship with students, individually and collectively. The right kind of relationship, in a teaching-learning situation, is one in which both the teacher and the students are caring, respectful and collaborative” (p. 13). Interestingly, after my post last week on power distance, Fink calls for professors to build trusting relationships and give students power to make decisions regarding their learning. And that’s honestly something we should all work to infuse in all aspects of higher education, whether at the classroom level or at the institutional one.

Fink, L. D. (2016). Five high-impact teaching practices: A list of possibilities. Collected Essays on Learning and Teaching, 9, 3-18.

Navigating the Power Distance

As often happens with so many of my blog posts lately, this one starts with a podcast. I was listening to a recent episode of Revisionist History with Malcolm Gladwell that examined the cultural applications of the word chutzpah. I won’t get into that topic much here (you’ll have to listen to the podcast yourself!) but I wanted to share something that really got me thinking about our roles as teachers. Since many institutions are working through their first week of the semester, I thought this could offer a critical lens for us to view our students’ experiences as they navigate three or four new classes. Let me explain.

Midway through the Revisionist History episode, Gladwell interviews a person who had moved to the United States from Israel. She explains how culturally different the  two countries are. In Israel, the interviewee explains that she could easily email someone in a position of power and receive a response. In the United States, however, these lines of communication are more stratified. Gladwell uses this example to introduce the term “power distance” and discusses how different countries have different power distances which impacts how people communicate and interact there. I’d never heard the term “power distance” before, so I did a little research.

Power distance was first introduced by Dutch psychologist Geert Hofstede. In his conceptualization, power distance measures the strength of societal social hierarchy by examining the degree to which less powerful members of institutions and organizations accept that power is distributed unequally. Hofstede created the Power Distance Index to enumerate this construct and to offer relative comparisons between countries. Some countries have high power distance cultures where people in power are more autocratic and paternalistic. In these cultures, people at lower positions of power have less of a voice and less ability to participate in ways not defined by the people at higher levels of power. Countries like Malaysia, Saudi Arabia and Guatemala have some of the highest Power Distance Index scores.

Contrast these countries with those with lower Power Distance Index scores. In countries like Austria, Israel, and Denmark, the culture supports more democratic processes. Decision-making is more equally shared, and collaboration and interaction is more common across the social hierarchy. To see a full list of countries and their Power Distance Index scores, check out this list.

So, what does power distance have to do with teaching? I argue that to many students navigating this first week of classes is a little like going on an international trip to countries across the power distance spectrum. In some classes, the power distance is low. In these classes, the instructor could ask to be called by their first name or outline less restrictive expectations for attendance and participation. In other classes, however, the power distance may be much higher. The instructor could ask to be called by their academic title or may outline very restrictive rule for engagement, attendance and participation. These differences in classroom structures are not minor. They communicate to students the cultural norms of the classroom and define students’ roles in that culture. As students move from high power distance classes to low power distance classes, they undoubtedly experience some dissonance in understanding what their roles are. And this can create challenges and missteps for them.

To be clear, I’m not advocating for any specific level of power distance. Personally, I’m a lower power distance teacher because it engenders a more collaborative and participatory classroom culture. I rely heavily on active learning in my classroom and want my students to feel comfortable with participating. Creating a lower power distance classroom seems to assist with that. I’m sure educators with higher power distance classrooms have a rationale for the culture they foster in their classroom, too.

More than anything, I wanted to introduce the “power distance” construct as a way to better visualize our students’ experiences this week. While they may not be experiencing jet lag as they travel from class to class, they may experience some classroom culture whiplash.

Climbing the Mountain

This post has been in development for a while. I’ve been reflecting on my thoughts and emotions over the last few months and working through how to capture these reflections in some sort of coherent way. So, here goes. Hopefully this actually makes sense and doesn’t come off sounding self-absorbed or anything.

Last fall, I applied for promotion at my institution. Getting promoted to a higher rank is a challenging process at every university and I prepared myself for the potential let down. I even used this blog as a way of writing a letter of encouragement to myself in case I received bad news. But here’s the real challenge, I didn’t prepare myself for the success.

Two months ago, I received notification that I was promoted to full professor. In academia, this means that I’ve reached the highest rank of professoriate based on my service, scholarship and teaching accomplishments. This notification also means that it is the last academic promotion that I’ll work towards in my career. While I’m tremendously excited about this achievement, I’m experiencing an odd mix of emotions, including ones that I didn’t expect. First, I’m tremendously proud of this accomplishment and extremely grateful for all of the support and guidance I’ve received over my career. I know that any professional success I’ve achieved is due in no small part to the mentors, colleagues, co-authors, co-researchers, friends, and family that have helped me along the way. To me, my promotion embodied all of that support and sparked a wave of gratitude that manifested itself in a host “Thank-you” cards, texts, and emails.

After the initial excitement and joy, however, my promotion also ushered in a mixture of emotions that I didn’t expect. While I anticipated the relief, I didn’t expect to feel a sense of existential confusion or loss. I’ve been working and striving towards this huge accomplishment and, after achieving it, I felt a tremendous loss of purpose. Not that I ever really did any work specifically to get promoted, but now that I am fully promoted, what do I do now? After achieving this huge, lifetime goal, what does the next face of my career look like?

After talking with some of my friends, I guess these emotions are not unique. Once someone achieves a long-term goal, it’s hard to replace that focus and dedication. I would imagine that people who prepare for marathons or climbing expeditions feel this same odd mixture of relief, pride and loss. When someone works for months or years to accomplish a goal, that goal becomes a regular fixture in their life. The goal acts as a beacon. A motivator. A North Star.

And then suddenly, the goal is gone.

So, I’ve spent a few months this summer working through this odd amalgam of joy, loss, pride, gratitude, excitement and relief. I’ve thought a lot about where I am in my career and where I want to go. Weirdly, I received comfort unexpectedly from Maureen Dowd and John Oliver. Let me explain.

In mid-July, Maureen Dowd wrote an opinion piece in the New York Times explaining a fight between four junior congresswomen and the Speaker of the House. Midway through the article, Dowd included a quote from Alex Toussaint, a Peloton instructor, that gave me pause.

You climb the mountain to see the world. You don’t climb the mountain so the world can see you.

I’m sure Maureen Dowd didn’t include this quote to force some mid-career professor to reflect on his life and accomplishments, but that’s what it did. The quote made me question why I climbed “the mountain” of promotion and what I was seeking with that goal. I certainly didn’t seek promotion so the world could see me. My close friends know that I’m uncomfortable with public recognition. But I also didn’t seek promotion to achieve any sort of divine or professional clarity. In reflecting on the Toussaint quote, I marked myself in the “neither of the above” category for climbing mountains.

While I was in this “mountain climbing” headspace, I tried to distract myself by binge-watched some old episodes of This Week Tonight, which is hosted by John Oliver. If you’ve never watched the show, John Oliver often takes a meandering and critical look at different topics that he feels deserves more wide-spread attention. Surprisingly, one episode I watched discussed the challenges of climbing Mount Everest.

As John Oliver describes it, climbing Mount Everest is one of the most difficult and dangerous pursuits in the world. While over 4500 people have summited the mountain, almost 300 people have died trying. Because it’s so challenging, Sherpa guides often help climbers ascend the mountain. The Sherpa guides carry supplies, set up camp, cook food and fix ropes and supports to keep climbers safe. Over the course of their career, a Sherpa guide can summit Mount Everest a dozen or more times in service to others. And they usually accomplish this without public recognition or fanfare.

The concept of the “Sherpa guide” really resonates with me and gives me a different perspective on my career.  Maybe, I need to channel my inner “Sherpa guide” and write a better rationale for goal setting and achievement, one that is more in line with my cherished roles as a teacher, mentor, and parent.

You climb the mountain to help others climb it, too.

With this new perspective, I think it’s time to get back to work.

Supporting At-Risk Student Success

Last week, I attended the Distance Teaching and Learning Conference in Madison, Wisconsin. While I was able to see a bunch of really gifted presenters who shared insightful and inspiring messages, one presenter really stood out. Dr. Newton Miller is the Associate Dean of the Department of Educational Studies at Ashford University. Dr. Miller shared research that examined ways to support men of color in collegiate academic settings. By interviewing at-risk students who had were successful academically, Dr. Miller was able to identify three critical “pillars of mind” that led to student success. These pillars include:

Pillar 1: Men of color were more successful when they had positive experiences with educators, curriculum interactions, and academic support teams for services.

Pillar 2: Men of color were more successful when they have an intrinsic commitment to well defined personal goals.

Pillar 3: Men of color were more successful when they use their responsibility to those depending on them to meet their obligations as a source of motivation towards success.

In his presentation, Dr. Miller outlined how these pillars can inform advising, teaching, and support services on all college campuses. Because the conference focused on online teaching, Dr. Miller condensed these three pillars of mind into five best practices for serving at-risk students in online classes. These strategies are critical for supporting at-risk students who Dr. Miller described as navigating a “survival mindset.” Like many recommendations, however, the best practices that Dr. Miller shared would actually work for all students in all classes.

  • Early in the semester, provide course at-a-glance tables to let students know what’s expected week to week and identify when the course is going to be the most demanding.
  • Provide scheduling accommodations when appropriate. Dr. Miller discussed how relaxing some deadlines can be a huge difference maker to at-risk students.
  • Schedule students as cohorts. This can help to build community and give students a support system when needed.
  • Personalize the course by providing testimonials from previous classes and individualized communication to students.
  • Collaborate with advisors and coaches to welcome students to classes and provide support when needed.

Looking across Dr. Miller’s recommended best practices, it’s clear that he is promoting strategies that support student growth and success. Reflecting on these strategies, I’m reminded of another conference session where a faculty member from Arizona State University shared her institution’s charter. She said that ASU is “measured not by whom it excludes, but by whom it includes and how they succeed.” By incorporating more targeted strategies to support at-risk students, we can help all student populations feel more included in the ranks of academic success.

Immediacy Online

This week, I’m heading to Madison, Wisconsin where I’ll be presenting at the Distance Teaching & Learning Conference. On Thursday morning, I’m leading a presentation titled Humanizing the Online Learning Environment where I’ll be sharing some strategies for making the online classroom (and online teaching) a little more of an affective endeavor. Most of the quality checklists that online teachers employ focus on design and facilitation elements that can make the online space more effective. While these are important, I think we as online teachers also need to attend to the emotional and human side of our instruction.

I’ve been thinking about this stuff since I read The Spark of Learning (Cavanagh, 2016) a few years ago. The book examines “the science of emotion” and discusses how different teaching strategies impact students’ motivation and emotional engagement and foster student learning. While the book focuses entirely on face-to-face classroom instruction, I kept thinking how it really relates to all classrooms, online included.

One of the emotional constructs that Cavanagh discusses in the book is called “teacher immediacy.” Online, we talk about “teaching presence” a lot but I think teacher immediacy is a little different. In the book, Cavanagh defines immediacy as “behaviors that are both spoken and unspoken that communicate to students that you are interested in them, the material, and the process of learning” (p. 100). In contrast, the concept of “teaching presence” (which comes from the Community of Inquiry framework) is defined as “the design, facilitation, and direction of cognitive and social processes for the purpose of realizing personally meaningful and educational worthwhile learning outcomes.” While there’s definitely some overlap between these constructs, I think the focus on emotions is a much-needed addition to online teaching conversations.

So, how do we develop teacher immediacy online? Cavanagh (and others) actually subdivide the teacher immediacy concept into two separate areas: verbal immediacy and non-verbal immediacy. Here are some ideas for both:

Verbal immediacy:

  • Consider including humor in your video and audio recordings. I have some colleagues who wear funny hats in their videos or have amusing music playing during their introductions.
  • Disclose relevant information about yourself. A few months ago, I shared a blog post about research that showed teacher rapport increased when teachers and students shared common interests.
  • Use inclusive pronouns and first names.

Non-verbal immediacy:

  • For video and audio recordings, be mindful of your facial expressions, tone of voice and gestures. Instructors can communicate powerful positive and negative emotional content with a sarcastic comment, an eye roll or a hand gesture.
  • For email and discussion posts, consider the tone you use. Last fall, I wrote a post about “leading with empathy” and “assuming positive intent” helps to frame my written communication with students.

Cavanagh, S. R. (2016). The spark of learning: Energizing the college classroom with the science of emotion. West Virginia University Press.

Intelligent Agents for Online Teaching

After a few weeks of traveling with my family, I’m back in work mode. I’m putting together a workshop online “advanced online teaching” strategies and one of the tools I’m planning to share is something called “intelligent agents.” Intelligent agents are automated notifications that can be sent to instructors or students based on a set of predefined criteria. Most learning management systems (LMS) use intelligent agents to generate automated emails where replacement text can be used to personalize the communication. Think of it a little like the mail merge feature in word processing applications where <Student Name> is actually replaced with the student’s name. With the host of options, intelligent agents can offer another level of efficiency and interaction to online classes.

If you’re having trouble envisioning the possibilities with intelligent agents, I came across a great article called Conceptualizing Intelligent Agents for Teaching and Learning written by Ali Jafari in 2002 that can help. In the article, Jafari proposes three different ways to visualize the use of intelligent agents. Used strategically, intelligent agents can act as Digital Teaching Assistants, as Digital Tutors, or as Digital Secretaries. Let me explain each in detail.

Digital Teaching Assistants: Many larger universities use teaching assistants to assist with the instruction of a class or classes. These teaching assistants may help take attendance or monitor student progress or assist with other management tasks in the class. In an online class, intelligent agents can perform a lot of these same tasks. For example, I use intelligent agents to send a “welcome” email to students at the start of every new online class. If the student hasn’t logged into the class after a day or two, the intelligent agent sends another email that asks if the student is having technical issues. These management tasks would be much more difficult and time-consuming without the use of intelligent agents.

Digital Tutors:  The challenge with some online classes is that instructors don’t always differentiate instruction based on students’ needs. But the data available inside the LMS offers a ton of automated possibilities. An intelligent agent could be used to send recorded remediated lessons to students who had performed poorly on an assessment. The intelligent agent could also encourage students to seek assistance by attending office hours or setting up a one-on-one meeting with their instructor. Intelligent agents could also be used to send “Good job!” emails to students who did well on an exam or who showed marked improvement over previous exams.

Digital Secretary: There’s a lot of logistical and administrative tasks that can be automated through the use of intelligent agents. For example, maybe you want to know which students haven’t yet submitted a paper or haven’t completed an assignment. An intelligent agent can automatically send you email listing which students are missing work. They can also be used to alert you to “curious” behavior from students. For example, I’ve had students who had taken a quiz in my online class without ever accessing the assigned readings. I only noticed the behavior after seeing the students’ poor grade. Using an intelligent agent, however, I would have received an email alerting me to the situation sooner.

I’ve tried to use this post to offer different use cases for intelligent agents to give readers a sense of the possibilities that the tool offers. If you’re thinking that intelligent agents sound overly technical or cumbersome to use, they’re really not. If you’re new to the tool, I’d suggest talking to your institution’s instructional designer for a quick tutorial or to check out the support materials provided by your LMS. With a little bit of forethought and practice, you can use intelligent agents to create your own digital teaching assistant, digital tutor or digital secretary.

Jafari, A. (2002). Conceptualizing intelligent agents for teaching and learning. Educause Quarterly, 25(3), 28-34.