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.

Closing the Distance

If you’ve taught online, you’ve probably encountered some challenges getting through to students. Maybe you created a module where some difficult concept was explained but students weren’t as successful as you had hoped. Or maybe you assigned a project for students and then realized that students didn’t understand what you were asking them to do. For me, I find that sometimes when I think my expectations for an assignment are completely clear, my students will completely misunderstand it and get frustrated. Despite our best intentions and planning, our online instruction can sometimes go awry.

These types of challenges in online learning are common and they represent one of the fundamental pedagogical theories in online education: transactional distance theory. Developed by Dr. Michael Moore in the 1970s, transactional distance theory captures some of the challenges that online teachers face by examining the roles that dialogue, structure and learner autonomy play in an online learning environment. These variables create “a psychological and communication space to be crossed, a space of potential misunderstanding between the inputs of instructor and those of the learner” (Moore, 1993). In developing our online classes, we have to consider the dialogue we provide and foster to support student learning. We also have to structure our assignments so students have a clear understanding of our expectations. But we also have to provide enough autonomy for our online learners so they can navigate the courses independently. While it can be difficult at times, balancing the variables of dialogue, structure and learner autonomy is critical for effective online instruction. Considering these variables in concert can close the “transactional distance” and help students be more successful in our online classes.

I’ve thought about transactional distance a lot over the last two weeks. Students in one of my online classes were completing a large research assignment. The project is actually one of the capstone assignments in their entire program and I had structured the course to slowly build to these two weeks. While students were working individually to collect and analyze data, I didn’t assign any new course material or modules and allowed them to work independently during this time. At first glance, however, it may seem like I was taking the easy way out as an instructor. I shut down the online course for a few weeks under the guise that I was supporting “learner autonomy.” Someone might argue that I had secretly planned myself a two-week vacation.

That wasn’t the case. Considering transactional distance theory, having the students work in isolation probably wouldn’t have been a successful venture. While I certainly provided structure to support this independent student work, I also had to provide some dialogue to close the “transactional distance” gap. To do this, I scheduled individual meetings with every online student to discuss their research projects and to support their data collection and analysis. Since my online students come from a variety of places and work different schedules, I had to be as flexible as possible. I created an online sign-up sheet (with SignUpGenius) and asked them to schedule times that they were available. I also offered a variety of technologies that we could use to get together. Some students chose to Skype while others chose to use Zoom. Some just chose to use old-fashioned telephones to make calls. Regardless of the actual technology we used, I was able to meet with every student twice over the last two weeks. It was a huge effort and time commitment, but from a transactional distance perspective, it was necessary. The students asked specific questions about the assignment and I was able to clarify different aspects for them. Students react differently when working independently and I had to counsel one or two students through some anxious moments. While it was an exhausting two weeks, I was able to support my students and their learning.

Ultimately, that’s the real benefit of transactional distance theory. By examining the variables of dialogue, structure and learner autonomy, we can begin to identify solutions when challenges emerge. While online learning happens at a distance, thoughtful planning can help to close that gap.

Student Success and Stan Lee

Regular readers of this blog know that I’m a huge comic book nerd. I grew up finding inspiration in the pages of Marvel and DC comics. As a kid, I wanted to be Spider-man, the Hulk or Mr. Fantastic. I hoped that some radioactive spider or a dose of gamma radiation would morph me into some superhuman hero.

It was with great sadness that read about Stan Lee’s passing yesterday. He was the visionary behind almost all of my favorite comics. As I’ve watched the tributes on television and online, I’ve seen celebrities credit Stan Lee with tackling difficult topics like racism, drug abuse, and gang violence in the pages of his comics. I really appreciate that Stan Lee was motivated to tackle difficult societal issues but, from my perspective, his greatest contribution was the superhero team. While DC’s Justice League of America appeared years before the Fantastic Four, the Avengers or the X-Men, Stan Lee redefined the genre. He made the superhero team more than just an assembly of individuals. In Stan Lee’s world, each team was a unified group that worked together to a common end.  Reading Marvel comics, I never got the sense that Mr. Fantastic, Thor or Wolverine could defeat the bad guy without the help of their respective teammates. To succeed, they needed their team. In Stan Lee’s world, problems were always complex enough that they required an “all hands on deck” solution. No Superman was going to be able to save the day on his own.

While Stan Lee’s death dug up these memories, I’ve been thinking about the power of teams a lot lately. I was recently invited to join a campus “Student Success and Retention” initiative. The working group is investigating different ways to help students be more successful at our university and graduate. A lot of institutions are having similar discussions and working to develop new strategies to support students. The challenge, however, is that student success is a complex problem that requires lots of complementary solutions. Entities need to work together to support one another. This isn’t a problem that can be solved by a single Superman. We need a team. We need the Avengers.

Just to be clear. These aren’t just the thoughts of some comic book fan boy. Others share this vision.  In their article on Collaborative, Faculty-Led Efforts for Sustainable Change, Graham, Ferren and McCambly (2015) write:

“Sustainable change in higher education must be built on meaningful, collaborative projects that fosters a common language and a shared vision for student learning through repeated, intentional, formal and informal interactions. This collaboration among faculty and professional staff creates lasting communication channels and interpersonal trust, and builds expertise transparency. Without trust and collaborative work that crosses departments, divisions, and institutions, new initiatives will not take hold.”

Later in the article, the authors write that a “shared sense of purpose makes a group a team as opposed to a collection of individuals.” And that’s what a complex problem like student success requires. We need to find inspiration from Stan Lee and develop a shared purpose and form a cohesive team. But, it also requires all heroes to join the fray and lend their talents to the cause.

Too often, however, student success initiatives focus on supports like advising, mentoring, tutoring and admissions. But, what about teaching faculty? We need to join the team, too. Adding teaching faculty to the student success superhero team means “that institutions would stop tinkering at the margins of institutional educational life and make enhancing student classroom success the linchpin about which they organize their activities” (Hanover Report, 2014). Arguably, teaching faculty play the most critical role in students’ success. We interact with them and communicate the expectations of the university. We support and assess their learning and provide feedback on their development. We have a lot of power in determining student success.  But Stan Lee would say, “with great power comes great responsibility.” We need to take some responsibility for student success.

Imagine the X-Men without Wolverine or the Fantastic Four without the Thing. I know I’m falling pretty far down this comic book rabbit hole, but the student success problem is a complex enough challenge that it requires an “all hands on deck” approach. Stan Lee would expect nothing less.



Fostering Trust

This semester, I’m leading a learning community on campus focused on faculty mentoring. While our university has an informal mentoring process that pairs new faculty with more experienced mentors, we’re examining other mentoring processes we could use to not only support early career faculty but mid-career and late-career ones as well.

Most of our conversations have been guided by the book Faculty Success through Mentoring (Bland et al, 2009). For each meeting, our group reads a few chapters and examines how the concepts would play out on our campus. My hope is that the discussions form the foundation for a more formalized faculty mentoring process down the road.  In preparation for this week’s meeting, the group is reading chapters on phases of effective mentoring and building effective mentoring relationships. Buried in those chapters was a quote that really resonated with me and has me thinking about how we as faculty support each other and our students. On pg 71 of the text, the authors share this quote from Daloz (1999):

Trust is the well from which we draw the courage to let go what we no longer need and receive what we do. Without a reasonably well-established sense of basic trust, it is difficult to move ahead.

While Bland and her colleagues shared the quote to talk about the necessary affective dimensions for effective mentoring, the quote stood out to me because it captured an interaction I had with a struggling teacher candidate recently.

Since it is the mid-point of the semester, many of our teacher candidates have been receiving assessments from their field supervisors. The assessments are designed as formative measures to provide feedback for growth and improvement. When a teacher candidate receives several unsatisfactory marks, a group of faculty will convene to meet with the struggling teacher candidate to discuss ways to improve. A few colleagues and I met with a candidate yesterday and it was clear that trust played a huge role in her struggles as a teacher. But it was also impacting her role as a learner. Let me explain.

In our meeting with the teacher candidate, we discussed the areas where she was struggling. As we talked about the different areas (student engagement, classroom management, attention to student learning), I recognized that many stemmed from the fact that the students didn’t see the teacher candidate as being “on their side.” The field supervisor commented that the teacher candidate seemed disinterested in the class, rarely called students by name and didn’t work to build relationships with the students. Without the teacher candidate working to establish “a sense of basic trust,” it was clear that her students were having trouble “moving ahead.” And that led to the struggles she was experiencing in her classroom.

But trust was also impacting her ability to “move ahead” and develop as a teacher. Throughout our meeting, the other faculty and I came up with a list of different strategies the teacher candidate could incorporate to reach her students. While the other faculty and I communicated our suggestions were intended to help her grow and improve, the teacher candidate kept making excuses and seemed resistant to implement the changes we suggested. I got the sense that she didn’t trust us or our motivations to help her. It was going to be difficult for her to move ahead.

“Trust is the well from which we draw the courage to let go what we no longer need and receive what we do.”

As teachers, as colleagues, and as mentors, we have to dig that well. We have to cultivate trust with one another. I know that can be a difficult task considering the constraints under which we work but it’s the only way we can collectively move ahead.

Bland, C. J., Taylor, A. L., Shollen, S. L., Weber-Main, A. M., & Mulcahy, P. A. (2009). Faculty success through mentoring: A guide for mentors, mentees, and leaders. R&L Education.

Daloz, L. A. (2009). Mentor: Guiding the journey of adult learners. John Wiley & Sons.

A Letter of Encouragement to Future Me

After almost nine years of blogging, my regular readers probably know my writing patterns.  There are those posts that are inspired by my amazing colleagues and those posts that I write about my children. I write some posts because I came across some exciting research study and others because I found some new teaching strategy that I feel deserves larger attention. Some posts just involve me working through my thoughts on something I read or heard. Those posts are the ones where my endings aren’t often where I planned at my start.

I’ve written posts for lots of reasons over these last nine years but I’m going to take a different approach this week. I’m going to write a post to myself. Let me clarify a bit. I’m in the midst of one of those professional rites of passage where the ends are not defined or guaranteed. Right now, I’m rational and logical and I’m thinking of the advice I may need to give to my future self. Here’s what I think I’d say.

Dear Future Ollie,

It’s probably eight or nine months in the future now and you’re looking back here for words of encouragement. You may be working through some difficult emotions but you came back to this blog to read how your less emotional self thought about things. I want you to treat future me/present you like we treat our students and our children. Be positive. Be supportive. Be respectful. But most importantly, remember, the power of yet.

Imagine if you had a student in your class who was struggling with a concept. If they announced “I just can’t get this stuff,” you’d be quick to interject “You just haven’t gotten this stuff yet!” You would explain that learning occurs through fits and starts, through successes and failures. And that each event, positive or negative, is an opportunity to learn. You’d work to develop different teaching techniques because you know they’ll eventually learn it. If you’re back here reading this post, Future Ollie, it’s clear that your learning isn’t done, yet.

Remember when your daughter complained about not being able to ride her bicycle. After falling down quite a few times, she wanted to give up. But you argued that she couldn’t give up because she didn’t know how to ride a bicycle yet. You then worked to figure out a different way to teach her. Treat yourself with the same level of encouragement and positivity that you would with those in your care. You deserve it.

Remember that “the power of yet” embodies growth and development and that we alone control how we react and respond to growing and developing. Work through your emotions, Future Ollie.

Now, let’s get to work. We’re not done yet.


Your past and present self