Finales and Closure

This week marked two big finales in the entertainment world. The Big Bang Theory and Game of Thrones aired their final episodes last week and looking through my social media feeds, the two finales were definitely received differently. Being a fan of both, I’ll save all of you from my geeky musings on how each of these beloved series could have ended. Instead, I think this is a great time to stress an important instructional axiom: Endings matter.

As educators, we tend to focus a lot on how we start a class at the beginning of a semester. We want to build rapport, outline the course expectations or communicate an appropriate level of rigor to motivate students. I know colleagues who create syllabus scavenger hunts and stage trivia-style games to make sure students know the expectations of the coming semesters. We invest a lot of creative energy making sure the semester starts well. But, what about the end? Do we approach the end of the semester with the same level of thoughtfulness and creative planning? In a 2002 issue of APS Observer, Eggleston & Smith discuss how faculty “part ways” with their students. They write:

Our recent survey of college faculty from a variety of disciplines at two different institutions demonstrated that faculty members typically end their courses with final projects, papers, and review sessions. Some faculty did more: approximately 42 percent reported that they took the time to say good-bye to their students, and 30 percent responded that they tried to leave their students with some final ‘words of wisdom.’ We also surveyed students at the same institutions: 90 percent reported that they would appreciate more closure on their courses.” (Eggleston & Smith, 2002)

Like fans who are craving for more closure as their favorite television shows come to an end, some students want more closure from their collegiate classes. In a 2017 article in College Teaching, Burgess-Van Aken reviewed the literature on course closures and reported a “dearth of attention to the issue.” Course closures are important, she writes, because they “engage students in reflection not only about what they have learned but also how they will use these ideas in the future.” The last day of class doesn’t just mark the end of a course, but an opportunity for students to look back and to look forward.

Burgess-Van Aken categorizes “meaningful course closures” as being professor-centered, activity-focused, and student-driven. Take Christopher Uhl, a biology professor at Penn State University. Uhl uses the last day of his large lecture class to have students explore themes of gratitude, acceptance, integrity and hope. In a 2005 issue of College Teaching, Uhl writes:

I use my last class to celebrate the shared humanity of our classroom community. There is no hiding behind platitudes. Students speak and tell their stories of failure, hope, gratitude, and intention. With the final sounding of the bell, I ring students out into the world, not as an assembly of letter grades, but as beings of intellect, heart, and spirit.” (Uhl, 2005)

That’s a far cry from using the last class to review for the final exam!

While we debate the success or effectiveness of the last episodes of our favorite television shows, let’s use that same scrutiny to examine how we end our classes. Let’s look for ways to make our course closures more impactful and to part ways with the students with whom we’ve spent a semester before we send them off to the next stage of their academic lives.

Burgess-Van Aken, B. (2017). Knowing Where You’re Going: Planning for Meaningful Course Closure. College Teaching, 65(3), 130-136.

Eggleston, T. J., & Smith, G. E. (2002). Parting ways: Ending your course. APS Observer, 15(3).

Uhl, C. (2005). The last class. College Teaching, 53(4), 165-166.


Teaching about Plagiarism

A few years ago, I wrote a blog post about some of the instructional resources available for teaching students about plagiarism. After a recent incident in one of my classes, I thought an update was due.

Teaching Students to Avoid Plagiarism:
From the awesome and always educational podcast, Cult of Pedagogy, this episode focuses on how to teach students to cite things properly and introduces five exercises for reducing student plagiarism. Definitely worth a listen during your commute to work or at the gym.
Who knew that there was an entire website dedicated to teaching students about plagiarism? is an AWESOME, one-stop location for educational videos for teachers and students. I see this an excellent library of materials that can be incorporated into an online module on plagiarism in an online class!

Understanding Plagiarism:
Indiana University has created a tremendous tool for educating faculty and students on plagiarism.  Offered through case studies with in-depth explanations, the site can help students and instructors better recognize and avoid plagiarism.  The site also offers a ten question quiz and certification process that would be great to use with students in any course that is writing intensive.  Students could complete the tutorial and the quiz and print off their certification to confirm that they understand plagiarism and how to avoid it.

Citing Sources Infographic:
Looking for a fun way to teach your students about citing sources?  Kate Hart, an education blogger, created a JK Rowling inspired infographic to demonstrate the best ways for students to cite sources and to avoid suspicions of plagiarism.  Using characters from the Harry Potter series, Hart uses a quote from JK Rowling and shows the proper (and improper) ways to cite a source.

Ten Types of Plagiarism:
This is another infographic based on a study that Turnitin conducted on the different types of plagiarism and their respective frequencies.  Not surprisingly, a student submitting a “clone” is the most common form of plagiarism.  Cloning is when a student submits the complete work of another person without alteration.  Other high frequency forms of plagiarism include the “Mashup” and the CTRL-C, which are clearly demonstrated in the infographic.  The site and its original paper would be great resources to share with students to foster a larger dialogue around the importance of originality.

Purdue’s Online Writing Lab (OWL):
Offered more as a one-stop location for all things related to writing and academic research, OWL also offer educational resources to reduce plagiarism.  Looking for some classroom activities to teach about plagiarism?  Check out the lesson plans organized around contextualizing plagiarism and avoiding plagiarism.

Cheating Lessons:
While not directly focused on plagiarism, this book by James Lang examines how we can make our classrooms less prone to student cheating through thoughtful lesson and semester design. Lang offers four different classroom features that pressure students to cheat. Our campus used the book as part of a Campus Learning Community a few semester ago and it definitely sparked some spirited conversations.

My Summer Reading List

The semester is winding down and I’m starting to look ahead to a few months with a little more flexible reading schedule. This is the time of year where I usually start collecting books that I’m planning to read to help me re-energize and refocus. Here’s a list of some of the books I plan to use this summer as catalysts for this journey. If you’re interested what I’ve read in past summers, definitely check out the links at the bottom of this post.

1. Reach Everyone, Teach Everyone: Universal Design for Learning in Higher Education (Tobin and Behling, 2018).
In full disclosure, this book was co-written by a friend of mine. It’s been on my reading list for a few months and I’m hoping to do some programming on campus with the book next fall. The book focuses on how we can incorporate principles of Universal Design for Learning (UDL) in collegiate classrooms. I’ve written about UDL before but I’m always looking for ways to reach more students through thoughtful and purposeful instructional decisions.

2. Academic Motherhood: How Faculty Manage Work and Family (Ward & Wolf-Mendel, 2012)
I work in academics but I am definitely not a mother. In my role on campus, however, I work with a lot of colleagues who are. This book has been recommended to me a bunch of times by some really wise people who feel that it can help to inform the work I do with mentoring new faculty on campus.

3. Learner-Centered Teaching: Five Key Changes to Practice (Weimer, 2013)
There are a handful of books that I’ve read and re-read over the course of my life. I’ve read Leaves of Grass probably a dozen times. I’ve read Lave and Wenger’s book Situated Learning probably six or seven times.  This will probably be the third or fourth time I’ll be reading Learner-Centered Teaching and I get something different from it every time. Like some of the other books on this list, I’m planning to use the book as part of a campus learning community this fall.

4. The Unpersuadables: Adventures with the Enemies of Science (Storr, 2014)
This book was a gift from a colleague who hand selected it for me to read. The book examines different situations where people ignore facts and dig their heels into a false narrative. While it’s not directly tied to my role as a teacher or as a faculty developer, I feel like it may help to inform my work with people who deny the evidence behind active learning.

5. The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F&ck: A Counterintuitive Approach to Living a Good Life (Manson, 2016)
This was another gift. When I posted a picture of the book on social media a few months ago, so many smart and funny people commented that they loved the book. I’m looking forward to learning about how “improving our lives hinges not on our ability to turn lemons into lemonade, but on learning how to stomach lemons.” This should be an entertaining, albeit profanity-filled, read.

Summer Reading List 2018
Summer Reading List 2017
Summer Reading List 2016
Summer Reading List 2015
Summer Reading List 2014

A Marveling Story Arc

Regular readers of this blog know that I’m a huge Marvel and Game of Thrones fan. Over the years, I’ve featured these topics in posts like Student Success and Stan Lee, Handle with Care, and The Game of Thrones and Online Teaching. These disparate worlds came together this weekend as Marvel released its blockbuster movie Avengers: Endgame while HBO showed one of the most anticipated events in Game of Thrones history – the battle of the living and the dead. While I promise that I won’t divulge any spoilers here, I wanted to discuss how the characters’ development in these different shows relates to our roles as teachers.

After watching the Game of Thrones episode and seeing Endgame this weekend, I came across two different articles where the screen writers were interviewed. In both articles, the screen writers talked about the “story arcs” for the characters. For example, the Game of Thrones writers discussed how a specific character’s story arc had him evolving from being a traitor to making a heroic sacrifice at the end of the episode. The Marvel screenwriters talked about two characters and their mirrored story arcs. Across the movies, they explained, one character evolved from being completely selfless to embracing more “enlightened self-interest” while the other character who has been self-absorbed through all of the movies commits an act of selflessness at the end.

The story arcs are what makes the Game of Thrones series and the Marvel movies interesting. As fans, we see characters develop and change. We see them grow. And that’s what many of us enjoy about our roles as teachers. We like to see the growth in our students. We get a front row seat in our students’ “story arc.” Let me give you an example.

Recently, I’ve been working with a struggling graduate student as she prepared for a presentation on some research she had conducted. Through a series of emails and conversations, it was clear that the student was having difficulty organizing her thoughts and findings in a coherent way. In her first email, she sent me a draft of slides that were honestly a muddled mess. Since the presentation was going to be held in a public graduate symposium organized with another university, I worried whether she’d be able to make the necessary revisions in her slides (and her thinking) to pull off the presentation successfully. I gave the student detailed feedback on her work and offered to check out a second draft if she wanted me to. Later that day, she sent me an additional draft. While this draft was an improvement, there was still some areas that needed to be addressed. I sent some additional feedback and hoped that she’d be able to make significant improvements before the presentation later that week.

During the symposium, I could see how nervous the student was as she started her presentation. About twenty people had gathered to hear her talk and I got a little lump in my throat. She fumbled through the first slide or two and then…

The student hit her stride. She was funny, thoughtful and engaging and shared her work really well. It was a successful presentation and I could see the pride (and relief) in my student’s face.

In our roles as teachers, we don’t get to see epic battles between good and evil or get to watch zombies fight dragons. In my mind, we have a much better job. We get to help our students learn and develop. We help them hit their strides and taste success. Much like the Game of Thrones and the Marvel movies, it’s the story arc of our students’ lives that keeps us coming back for more.

End-of-the-semester load

As the end of the semester winds down, I can see the level of panic setting in with my students and colleagues. Students are (hopefully) beginning to study for their final exams and writing their final papers. Faculty are working to get caught up on their ever-growing mound of grading. This is the time of year when the level of stress builds just from the sheer weight and magnitude of the remaining tasks that are crammed into the last weeks of the semester.

I totally get the stress and it’s something for which I try to plan. I’m not necessarily talking how I navigate my own mental health state or anything (that’s a different blog post..). Instead, I’m talking about the stress of the academic work that my students have to complete and how I can help them. At times like this, I think a lot about cognitive load theory and how this challenging time can impact students’ work.  Let me explain.

Cognitive load theory proposes that our brains have a limited working memory capacity. As things get more complicated, our brain has to work harder to remember the information and to learn. Cognitive psychologists have identified three different types of cognitive load: intrinsic load, germane load and extraneous load. Intrinsic cognitive load is related to the difficulty of the specific topic being learned. To a lot of students, learning differential calculus is more challenging than learning the names of the states in America. There’s a difference in the perceived intrinsic load with those topics. Our brains have to work harder to learn some topics just based on the shear difficulty of the subject matter. This certainly plays a role with our students as most are working on the most difficult assignments of the semester right now. Because of this, the intrinsic load is high as we near the end of the semester.

But the difficulty of the content isn’t the only factor that impacts the capacity of our working memories. Germane load is more individualized to the specific student and their cognitive state. If you’ve ever taught an 8 AM class on a Friday, you know that undergraduates come to class with different levels of motivation and preparedness to learn. Students’ diets, restedness and physical activity can impact their germane loads. The stress that students (and faculty) are experiencing right now is definitely having a germane load on their learning.

But, what about extraneous load? Extraneous load relates to how content is presented and organized. Say you’re attending a conference presentation and the speaker is using PowerPoint slides to discuss their work. Each slide is dense with text and images, which the speaker reads aloud for the audience. The speaker also wants to show off the PowerPoint prowess, so they have used different transitions, animations and sound effects for every slide. All of these factors create additional extraneous load that will make the presentation harder to follow and understand. As an attendee, you almost have to wade through the noise and the distractions to focus on the content.

So, how does extraneous load apply to the end-of-semester chaos and stress? For me, I try to reduce the extraneous load by laying the ground work for my end-of-the semester assignments earlier in the semester. It’s an attempt to reduce the noise so students can be more successful now that the germane and intrinsic loads are higher. In some of my classes, I’ve already had students write portions of papers as drafts that they can build on later. I’ve provided checklists and rubrics to try to reduce the noise and help them succeed. I’ve also given detailed timelines, so they know what to expect in these remaining weeks. While it may not reduce all of the stress and difficulty my students will experience, I know that I’m helping to reduce the end-of-the-semester load as best I can.

Improving Teacher-Student Relationships

A few months ago, I wrote a blog post about how educators could build rapport online. In the post, I shared strategies like providing prompt feedback, recording faculty introductions, being available and addressing students by name as ways to foster better student-teacher relationships. In that original post, I drew on Maryellen Weimer’s Faculty Focus article that outlined the importance of building respect, being approachable, fostering open communication, and communicating care and a positive attitude. While these strategies can help to improve our relationships with students, I came across an article recently that has me wondering whether we may be missing some additional opportunities.

In 2016, the Journal of Educational Psychology published a study examining teacher-student relationships. The premise of the article is that relationships are improved when teachers and students find similarities with one another. Titled Creating Birds of Similar Feathers, the researchers paired 315 ninth grade students with 25 classroom teachers. At the start of the academic year, the students and teachers completed get-to-know-you surveys. After the surveys were completed, students and teachers were placed in control and treatment groups. For the control groups, students and teachers received lists of similarities that students shared with other students in a neighboring state. In the treatment groups, however, the teachers and students received lists of five similarities that they had in common. To foster reflection, the participants in the treatment group were asked to examine the similarities and identify similarities that they may have found surprising.

The interesting part is that the individuals in the treatment groups perceived more positive teacher-student relationships than the ones in the control groups. At first, this may sound logical. But the study was organized as a 2 X 2 design. This means that some students in the control group were paired with some teachers in the treatment groups, resulting in some students receiving similarities about their teachers (treatment group) without their teachers receiving similarities about them (control group).

I know this may sound a little confusing so here’s the big take away. When teachers received information about the similarities they shared with specific students, they perceived better relationships with those students, and those students earned higher course grades. The authors did not chalk the impacts of the study on instructor bias or unethical behavior. Instead, the researchers suggested that teachers may have created a more welcoming space for their students when they realize they shared some similar interests or backgrounds. The teachers may have also interacted with these students more which may have motivated the students to participate more in class, to attend class more regularly or to dedicate more time to studying.

Returning to my post on building rapport, most of the strategies that I offered were designed so that students can see their instructors as real human beings who are approachable and caring. This research, however, suggests that instructors need to see their students as human beings, too. In my online classes, I have my students record a short introduction video that acts as an icebreaker so that students can meet one another. I usually watch these videos, but I don’t actively search for similarities with my students. With my new online classes that will be starting in a few weeks, I plan to try this out. I’ll keep you posted on the impact it has.

Reflect. And savor.

Regular readers know that I’m a big podcast listener. If I were to give a rough estimate, I would say that 25-30% of my blog posts find their origins in some episode of a podcast. Like this one.

Last week, the Science of Happiness podcast featured the work of Ross Gay, a poet from Indiana University. If you’re not familiar with the podcast, in each episode, The Science of Happiness examines regular practices that “happiness guinea pigs” try out and then discusses the impacts and research behind the practice. Gay played the role as the “happiness guinea pig” because he recently released a set of essays titled The Book of Delights that included observations that he wrote daily for a calendar year. The podcast featured several of his essays and discusses how Gay felt as he savored these “daily delights.”

At the end of the episode, the host interviews Dr. Cara Palmer, an Assistant Professor of Psychology at Montana State University, who studies the impact of savoring. Discussing her research, Palmer says:

“We know that people who tend to savor more, often they generally experience greater emotional well-being in their daily lives; greater happiness, greater self-esteem. You see, these increases in happiness, not just in the moment when you’re savoring, but also over time, improve general emotional well-being, in terms of our long-term emotional health.

I’ve been thinking a lot about Ross Gay’s “daily delights” and the happiness practice of savoring for the last few days. One of the fundamental practices in teaching is “reflective practice.” Some readers may remember a post I shared in September 2018 that outlined the power of “critical reflection.” In the post, I discussed the importance of using different lens to impact our roles as teachers and drew on Stephen Brookfield’s book Becoming a Critically Reflective Teacher. In the post, however, I never really talked about savoring our teaching roles or even embracing our successes. And that’s a problem. Something Palmer discusses at the end of the podcast has really resonated with me. She says:

when good things happen, if we’re spending time thinking about ways that those good things might still go wrong, or minimize the importance of what happened, or simply just not taking the time to stop to think about it, I think could be problematic too. So savoring is really the combination of appreciating good things and not focusing on the negative aspects of some of those good events, too.

As teachers, there’s certainly a time for us to be critically reflective. But there also needs to be a time for us to savor our work. We need to enjoy those moments when we’ve been effective and delight in our interactions with students.

Take a moment and savor your work today.