The Hollywood Handshake

Over the holiday break, my family and I binge-watched the Great British Baking Show on Netflix. If you haven’t seen the show, each week amateur bakers take part in a bake-off that test their skills as they create complex desserts, pastries and breads. After weeks of increasingly more difficult tasks and eliminations, the show crowns one champion as the Best Amateur Baker in the United Kingdom. After nine seasons, the show has grown in popularity and is one of the most watched shows on PBS and Netflix.

Across the different seasons, many of the hosts and judges have changed. One consistent member of the Great British Baking Show team, however, is celebrity chef, Paul Hollywood. Hollywood is the show’s no-nonsense judge. He can be painfully direct and is not quick with praise. He also doesn’t sugarcoat things. When a baker’s custard is thin, he’ll say that it’s “slack.” He’ll also refer to a pie as having a “soggy bottom” when they haven’t been baked long enough and will critique a baker’s ability to properly fold and proof their creations. Despite the competitors being amateur bakers, Hollywood holds them all to the highest of baking standards.

Mixed in with his icy stares and his pointed critiques, Hollywood is also incredibly focused on the competitors’ development. Hollywood doesn’t just criticize the bakers. He gives real feedback for growth. He’ll ask how an “off” dessert was made and offer alternative ingredients. He’ll say that a bread would benefit from longer baking or suggest that a different mixing method would yield better results. When he reviews a baker’s work, Hollywood clearly includes both progress and discrepancy feedback, which I blogged about a few years ago. As he examines a baker’s creation, he’ll identify exactly what has been done right but also give specific feedback on areas to improve and offer suggestions on how to do it. If you’re a beginning teacher, Hollywood’s assessment and feedback processes would be good ones to emulate.

Across all of the shows and the multiple seasons, the one feedback strategy that stands out is the Hollywood Handshake. I know it sounds a little corny but when a baker has met and exceeded his expectations, Hollywood will speechlessly shake his head and offer the baker a firm handshake. In the world of the Great British Baking Show, there is no higher honor. While the judges name a Star Baker each week, weeks will go by without a baker receiving a handshake. But then it happens. And I’ve watched bakers literally come to tears as Hollywood silently shakes their hand. It’s a sight to observe.

As teachers, I think there’s a lot to unpack with Paul Hollywood’s method of feedback. Hold students to high expectations. Be consistent with your assessment techniques. Give students feedback for growth and identify specific areas where they can improve. More importantly, however, Paul Hollywood shows that we must be ready to celebrate when students have met our expectations and shouldn’t offer empty praise to those who don’t. The Hollywood Handshake is powerful because he only offers it to those who reach his standards. Everyone else gets feedback for growth. While both are great to receive, one makes the other more meaningful.


Meeting Online Students’ Needs

For the past week or so, I have been thinking about a 2012 article from the Journal of Online Learning and Teaching that a colleague shared with me. The article, written by Karen Milheim from the University of Walden, examined how Maslow’s hierarchy of needs model applied to online courses and online students. For those of you unfamiliar with Maslow’s work, he theorized that humans have five different levels of needs that must be met for individuals to survive and grow. In his conceptualization, these needs are arranged hierarchically, with Level 1 needs being the most critical for survival. These levels of needs include:

Level 1: Physical – the need for food, water, health and rest
Level 2: Security – the need for shelter, safety and stability
Level 3: Social – the need for being loved, belonging, inclusion
Level 4: Ego – the need for self-esteem, power, recognition, prestige
Level 5: Self Actualization – the need for development and becoming what one is intended to be

While Maslow developed his “theory of human motivation” in the 1940s, the JOLT article offers a fresh perspective on this groundbreaking framework. To be honest, I love when authors do this. By taking something old and seeing how it applies to something new, Milheim’s article can help us as online instructors focus on whether we’re meeting students’ basic needs. While I work a lot in the K-12 and collegiate online teaching world, I worry that we focus too much on the technological aspects of online instruction. Sure, instructors need to know how to upload content and set up discussion forums, but teaching, regardless of its modality, is a human process. Milheim’s article does a great job of focusing on the human element of online teaching.

In this post, I’m not going to completely rehash the JOLT article. Instead, I thought I’d use Maslow’s hierarchy of needs (and Milheim’s article) to frame a few self-reflection questions that online instructors should consider as they design and facilitate classes for their students.

Level 1: Are your students’ physical needs being met? How do you know? Are your online students aware of the services and supports that are being offered on campus?

Level 2: Have you outlined the norms of practice in your online class? Do you share clear rules of netiquette to support positive discourse? Have you developed a safe space where ideas can be shared and discussed respectfully?

Level 3: How do you intentionally build community in your online class? How? How do you support “a sense of belonging” with students?

Level 4: How do you recognize students when they’ve done great work? Do you help students self-assess their work? Do you provide feedback to help students improve their work?

Level 5: How do you foster student ownership in your online class? How do you help students pursue their own areas of interest and develop as individuals? Do your provide opportunities for students to reflect on their learning?

Top 10 from 2018

As we start the new year, I wanted to take a moment to look back at 2018 on this blog. Across social media and news sites, you’ll see a lot of “Top Ten” lists. In that same spirit, I thought I’d review the most read blog posts from last year. While I started this blog as a way to work through my thoughts as an educator, researcher, professional developer, parent, and husband, I continue to be blown away by the number of people who actually read my posts. In 2018, over 10,000 people visited this site and read one (or more) of my posts. Add in the 1300 people who subscribe to this blog through email and social media and it’s a pretty humbling number. Thanks for visiting, reading, commenting and emailing. Here’s to 2019!

10. Online Learning: A Paradox – Written in October 2018, this post examined somewhat contradictory research on students’ success in online classrooms.

9.  Seeing through my students eyes – Shared almost a year ago in January 2018, this post discussed the revelations I achieved from having my students evaluate my online class as an assignment.

8. Be Critically Reflective – From September 2018, this post outlined the four lenses from Stephen Brookfield’s book Becoming a Critically Reflective Teacher.

7. Create Interactive Online Content – From last January, this post reviewed H5P and how it can be used to create interactive multimedia for classes.

6. A Bittersweet Endeavor – Written in late December 2018, this post examined the “gold and the dust” of teaching.

5. The Introverted Student Online – From January 2018, this post discussed some myths about introverts and how to reach them in online classes.

4. The Impacts of Open Educational Resources – Open Educational Resources are awesome! Not only are they freely available and adaptable, but they also can contribute to students’ academic success. This post from July 2018 outlined research from University of Georgia showing the educational impacts of OERs.

3. One Simple Way –  From May 2018, this post outlined the benefits from regularly collecting student evaluations.

2. Improving My Online Class with Checklists – Written in March 2018, I reviewed the pedagogical foundation for including checklists in online classes.

1. Shifting the Focus – From January 2018, this post discussed how teaching is an reciprocal process that involves interacting with students.

A bittersweet endeavor

The semester ended last week and my Facebook feed has been filled with colleagues who are posting requests from students who are asking for grade adjustments, deadline leniency and emotional support. Finals week is always an interesting and challenging time of the semester and I see my colleagues expressing their frustrations, stresses and joys online. Since I know these colleagues offline too, I know that many share posts that don’t really reflect their inner philosophies about teaching. For example, one colleague presents himself as a hardened curmudgeon but I know his students see him as being much warmer and supportive than his online persona would suggest. It’s a stressful time of the year for teachers and students and I’m learning that we all handle that stress differently. Some use social media to work through their emotions by sharing snarky retorts. I guess it’s the 21st Century way of letting off some steam.

Interestingly, it’s also a time of celebration. In addition to being the holiday season, this is the time of year when many college campuses hold their fall commencement ceremonies. After years of support and advisement, college faculty get to see their students walk across the stage, receive their diplomas and move on to their next phase of life. I’m sure every educator has a story of some student who faced adversity and persevered. Commencement ceremonies offer a distinct endpoint for that journey and an opportunity for all of us to celebrate our work. Not surprisingly, some of the same colleagues who are sharing their teaching frustrations online are also posting photos of themselves standing proudly with students in commencement robes. It’s a curious mix.

In the midst of the stress of finals week and the joys of commencement, however, I received an email from The Chronicle of Higher Education publicizing a research brief that examined how faculty view their work, their profession and the leadership at their institutions. I won’t dig into the leadership part here but I’m excited about the findings with regard to teaching. After surveying nearly 1,000 collegiate faculty from across the country, the Chronicle found that almost 91% report “being satisfied with teaching students” and over 98% believe that their teaching “benefits students and their lives.” The data also show that 68% of faculty see teaching as being harder work than it used to be.

In a lot of ways, I see the Chronicle research represented in my colleagues’ posts. Teaching is hard. And stressful. And time consuming. And emotionally draining. And I see all of that captured on my Facebook feed.

But teaching is also satisfying. And rewarding. And impactful. And I see that conveyed through my colleagues’ posts, too.

Teaching can be a bittersweet endeavor. I think Parker Palmer captures this the best in his book Courage to Teach. Citing a Hasidic tale, Palmer writes:

We need a coat with two pockets. In one pocket there is dust, and in the other pocket there is gold. We need a coat with two pockets to remind us who we are.”

I’m sure there are lots of ways to interpret this quote, but Palmer wisely connects it to our work as teachers. In my mind, I see the “dust and gold” as reminders of the difficult and joyful duality of our roles. But maybe you don’t need a coat with two pockets to visualize this. Maybe you just need a Facebook account.



Visual stimulation? Or distraction?

I’ve never been a big fan of bulletin boards in my classrooms. Over the years, I think my classrooms could best be described as being “spartan yet functional.” I’d put up a poster here or add a few things there, but decorating my classroom space was never something to which I dedicated a lot of thought, time or energy. Personally, I was always impressed by those colleagues who would change bulletin boards with the seasons or by the content they were teaching. But then there were those colleagues who would completely cover every inch of their classroom walls with cartoons, pictures, or inspirational quotes. I’d walk into their classes and be visually assaulted by their decorations. Over the years, I wondered whether any of it had an impact on student learning. I’m sure those colleagues who changed their bulletin boards regularly would argue that it help to motivate students or engage them in the content. But, were there any real, measurable educational impacts?

Interestingly, I came across a research study recently that addressed this issue experimentally.  Researchers in Portugal recruited 64 elementary-aged students and had them perform cognitive tasks in “high load” and “low load” environments. The “high load” involved random images affixed to the walls while the “low load” environments had bare, white walls. Reporting their findings, the researchers write:

Overall, the results suggested that the high-load visual environment affected children’s cognitive performance given that children performed better in the low-load visual environment. Understanding the impact that a visually rich surrounding environment has on children’s cognitive processes that support more complex ones is important to support recommendations on how the environment should be organized to foster better daily activities.”  (Rodriques & Pandeirada, 2018, p. 140)

I found this article interesting for a bunch of reasons. First, it reinforced some of my gut reactions to the visual over-stimulation caused by some classroom spaces. While it may be motivating or engaging to have things on classroom walls, this research shows that it negatively impacts student learning. It almost makes me want to email an old principal I had who chastised me for not changing my bulletin boards more regularly. (Take that, Mr. P!)

In a way, however, this research also echoes work done by Richard Mayer on multimedia principles. It could be argued that “high load” environments violate the Mayer’s Coherence Principle by adding “extraneous images.” Interestingly, Mayer’s principles focus on how instructional material is presented and not on the environment in which it is presented. This research shows that the environment has an impact as well.

This environmental connection gives me some things to consider as I start to get my online classes set up for next semester. I know that I can’t directly transfer this research (in face-to-face environments with elementary Portuguese students) with my classroom environment (online classes with undergraduate and graduate students in America), but it has given me some areas upon which to reflect. Are my online spaces “high load” or are they “low load?” Am I using the space in such a way to support my students’ learning? Or are the images, icons, fonts and such creating a visual distraction that ultimately impedes the cognitive tasks that I’m asking my students to perform?

Ultimately, more research is needed to examine how this work translates to online environments. But as I work to develop my online classes, I will be using a “less is more” approach to help my students focus on the assigned tasks. Call it “spartan” but I’ll focus on “functional.”

Researching OERs

Over the course of the last year or two, there has been a lot of work happening on our campus with regard to Open Education Resources (OERs). Regular readers of this blog know that I’ve written about OERs a number of times over the years.  In 2013, I shared a comprehensive list of sites that offer open textbooks. Looking at the options now, the open textbook landscape is pretty impressive, especially considering that these textbooks usually come at little to no cost to students. They also offer students a wide variety of digital formats to access the content (PDF, ePub, etc.). While there are lots of benefits for students, open textbooks can be beneficial for instructors. With the low entry cost, instructors could assign a chapter or two from on text and another from a different text. Depending on the Creative Commons licensing of the texts, an instructor could even cobble together their own unique text from others. From a practical point of view, using open textbooks (and other OERs) can be really impactful across a collegiate campus.

But, what does the research say? I’ve been looking at this a little more lately with some colleagues on campus. We’re working on an OER implementation program and looking for research to support more widespread OER use. For example, this summer, I shared a research article published in International Journal of Teaching and Learning in Higher Education that examined OER implementation at the University of Georgia. Through a large-scale study of 21,822 students enrolled in eight different courses over 13 semesters, researchers found that students performed better in courses that used OERs. Summarizing their findings, the researchers wrote:

OER improve end-of-course grades and decrease DFW (D, F, and Withdrawal letter grades) rates for all students. They also improve course grades at greater rates and decrease DFW rates at greater rates for Pell recipient students, part-time students, and populations historically underserved by higher education(Colvard, Watson and Park, 2018, pg. 262).

While this is an impressive finding, our group wanted to look at OER implementation a little more broadly. After examining a bunch of articles, I thought I’d share a few to help others who may be considering OER adoption, either in their own classes or through some larger scale program on their campuses. If you have some other references to share, be sure to leave a comment below.

Hilton, J. (2016). Open educational resources and college textbook choices: a review of research on efficacy and perceptions. Educational Technology Research and Development, 64(4), 573-590.

If you’re new to the OER game, this is an excellent primer to the subject. This article synthesizes sixteen different studies that examined the influence of OER on student learning outcomes in higher education settings and the perceptions of college students and instructors of OER. Looking across the different studies, Hilton found that students generally achieve the same learning outcomes when OERs are utilized in collegiate classes. While they perform equally as well, students in OER classes are able to save a great deal of money. This may be why Hilton found the students and faculty generally hold positive perceptions regarding OERs.

Hilton III, J. L., Robinson, T. J., Wiley, D., & Ackerman, J. D. (2014). Cost-savings achieved in two semesters through the adoption of open educational resources. The International Review of Research in Open and Distributed Learning, 15(2).

This is one of the most referenced articles on open textbook adoption. This study examines the cost savings at eight colleges through the adoption of OERs. The 3,734 students enrolled in courses that used open textbook saved collectively over $338,000 in textbook costs. Based on this research, the authors estimated that if 5% of the 20,000,000 collegiate students saw similar savings through greater open textbook adoption, they would save approximately one billion dollars per year.

Belikov, O.M., and Bodily, R. (2016). Incentives and barriers to OER adoption: A qualitative analysis of faculty perceptions. Open Praxis, 8(3), 235 – 246.

Through a survey of 218 US faculty members, the researchers found the top barriers to and incentives for OER adoption. Before adopting an OER, faculty felt that they needed more information about OERS and wanted to be able to find OER repositories more easily. Faculty also reported confusion over what constitutes an OER from other digital resources. To foster OER adoption, participating faculty stressed focusing on student benefits, outlining pedagogical benefits and providing more institutional support for faculty.


With Gratitude

Last week, Americans celebrated the Thanksgiving holiday.  At this time of year, it’s traditional for people to give thanks for their blessings. Rather than outline my gratitude for the joys I’ve experienced, I thought I’d offer a list of some areas to which I’m thankful.

  1.  My friends and family.  I usually focus on professional aspects on this blog. During this time of the year, however, I’m reminded how important it is to have thoughtful, supportive people in my life. I love each of you more than written words can ever express. Thanks!
  2. My colleagues. Despite being in education for over twenty years, I find that I still learn something new everyday.  I try to surround myself with intelligent individuals who think deeply about teaching and learning and push me to consider new ways to reach my students and to approach my work.  I especially appreciate those colleagues who email me with articles to read on Mondays and Tuesdays knowing that I’ll be thinking of something to share on this blog. Even though I know you’re secretly (or not so secretly) trying to seed my writing here, I really appreciate your support.  Thanks!
  3. My job.  Teaching is hard work. Teaching others to teach can be even harder. At times, I’m humbled by the difficulty of teacher education and professional development. But when I see a new teacher who really gets it or a colleague who implements some new teaching strategies, I forget about the challenges and focus only on the success.  At the end of the day, It’s rewarding to realize that I’m at a great institution doing work that really matters.  Finding a home professionally is so important. Thanks!
  4. This blog.  I know this sounds kind silly but this blog has been such a huge influence on my professional life. This month marks the ninth anniversary for the 8 Blog.  Over the last nine years, almost 98,000 people have visited one of the 478 posts I’ve written.  Visitors have left over 618 comments and 1376 people have chosen to subscribe to my musings.  When I started this blog, I really never thought that it would have that sort of reach. I wanted a vehicle to force me to write more regularly so I could hone my writing skills. I never expected that it would have any widespread readership or that visitors would choose to share my work.  This has been tremendously inspiring. Thank you.
  5. You.  If you’ve chosen to read until this point in this post, please realize that I’m thankful for you being here.  I don’t make any advertising revenue from this blog and my writings do not emerge from any corporate influences.  These are simply my thoughts, ideas and wonderings offered free of charge.  Thanks for being here and I hope to catch you back here reading another post down the road.  Thanks.