My Summer Reading List

This is always one of the more popular posts that I write each year. Each May, I share the academic books that I’m planning to tackle this summer in preparation for the next academic year. If you’re interested what I’ve read in past summers, definitely check out the links at the bottom of this post.

1. Mindful Tech: How to Bring Balance to our Digital Lives (Levy, 2017)
In full disclosure, I’ve actually already started reading this book. After seeing this text referenced at a few conference sessions, I felt like it was time to check it out. In the book, Levy, a professor at the Information School of the University of Washington, discusses ways to limit technology use and more mindfully engage with our devices. Part of my motivation to read this text is personal. I need to bring a little balance to my digital choices and step away from my smartphone more regularly. I’m also interested in how I can support more “mindful tech” use with my students and my children.

2. The New Education: How to Revolutionize the University to Prepare Student for a World in Flux (Davidson, 2017)
Cathy Davidson is one of those educational thinkers who is constantly promoting innovation in schools.  She follows this trajectory in this book by discussing how our current structure of higher education doesn’t prepare students for the new, information age economy. Davidson also offers suggestions for restructuring colleges and universities to better prepare students.

3. Algorithms of Oppression: How Search Engines Reinforce Racism (Noble, 2018)
A couple of colleagues are planning to organize a Faculty Learning Community (FLC) with this text in the Fall. Over the last few semesters, our university has offered several FLCs focusing on race-related topics. Last fall, we offered an FLC on Raising Race Questions (Michael, 2014) and this spring, we offered another FLC on Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America (Kendi, 2017). Both were tremendous successes and provided springboards for difficult conversations. I’m hoping to use this summer to get a jump start on the FLC.

4. iGen: Why Today’s Super-Connected Kids Are Growing Up Less Rebellious, Less Happy – And Completely Unprepared for Adulthood-And What That Means for the Rest of Us (Twenge, 2017)
I have to admit that I’m usually skeptical of generational research that uses survey data to make broad generalizations about populations of people. Twenge, a psychology professor at San Diego State University, has made a career doing this kind of work. I purchased this book after a colleague gave a presentation on campus recently and I’m looking forward to interrogating the ideas that Twenge presents.

5. Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead (Brown, 2015)
This is another colleague recommendation. I’ve written about Brene Brown a bunch of years ago after seeing one of her TED videos. I’m looking forward to reading her book this summer and preparing myself to “strive valiantly and dare greatly.”

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


Perceptions and Reality

Across the years, I’ve written about the value of active learning numerous times. In 2014, I wrote about a comprehensive meta-analysis on STEM-related college classes. The study compiled data from 225 different studies on active learning in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics related courses and found that students in lecture-based courses were 1.5 times more likely to fail than students in classes that utilized active learning. Across the studies, the average failure rates were 21.8% in classes that employed active learning and 33.8% in traditional lecture classroom environments. Based on the reported participation numbers across the studies, the researchers estimated “there would be over $3,500,000 in saved tuition dollars for the study population, had all students been exposed to active learning.”

I’m returning to this 2014 post and research because of a recent study that was published in Science (and reported on the Faculty Focus blog). Described as the “largest-ever observational study of undergraduate STEM education,” the study monitored almost 550 faculty teaching 700 courses at 25 colleges and universities in the United States and Canada. The results were pretty alarming. 55% of the STEM classroom interactions involved lecture-based instruction. Faculty Focus interviewed one of the researchers, Marilyne Stains for the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, and discussed some of the findings. In the post, Stains discussed how their research used direct observation over self-reported surveys.

“Surveys and self-reports are useful to get people’s perceptions of what they are doing,” Stains said. “If you ask me about how I teach, I might tell you, ‘I spend 50 percent of my class having students talk to each other.’ But when you actually come to my class and observe, you may find that it’s more like 30 percent. Our perception is not always accurate.”

And that’s where the study and the Faculty Focus article offer some assistance. In their research, Stains and her colleagues used a tool called COPUS (Classroom Observation Protocol for Undergraduate STEM) to conduct their observations. The tool was funded by the National Science Foundation and is available for free online so instructors can study their own instructional practices. There are even instructions for collecting data and a video to improve inter-rater reliability.  A motivated STEM instructor could have a colleague or two observe their classroom and better identify how their classes are actually taught. In the study, the researchers suggest conducting at least four observations to provide “a reliable characterization of instructional practices.”

Another interesting finding from the study was that despite faculty identifying classroom layout and class size as being barriers to implementing active learning strategies, “flexible classroom layouts and small course sizes do not necessarily lead to an increase in student-centered practices.” Looking at the data, regardless of the classroom physical layout, didactic instructional strategies were employed in most of the observed lessons. Considering the overwhelming research on the academic benefits for active learning, I find this shocking. But so do the researchers. At the end of the article, they call for institutions to challenge “the status quo” and to revise “their tenure, promotion, and merit-recognition policies to incentivize and reward implementation of evidence-based instructional practices.”  And that’s a great starting point but I wonder whether it’s enough.

I’m reminded of another blog post I shared in 2016 where I discussed “alternative frameworks” and their impact on people’s beliefs and actions. In science, these alternative frameworks impact how we teach different concepts. For instance, I can tell students thousands of times that gravity acts on heavy and light object the same way and that they fall (and accelerate) at the same rates when air resistance is disregarded. But their alternative frameworks get in the way. Their lived experiences have taught them differently and me telling them doesn’t change their perceptions.

In a way, that’s what has happened with the active learning research. Despite hearing about the benefits of active learning, teachers perceive that lecture works better and me them won’t change their teaching. Using promotion, tenure and merit-recognition systems to force teachers to employ student-centered teaching may change their actions but won’t change their perceptions of how students learn. Maybe the COPUS system could be used to support a Scholarship of Teaching and Learning study so faculty and departments can research how using active learning strategies impact student performance. It’s a little harder than just telling (or forcing) people to change their practice but, in the long run, it may confront both the perceptions and the reality of their work.

One Simple Way?

Several years ago, my doctor sat me down and gave me some harsh news. With my family history of cancer, diabetes, heart disease and strokes, he explained that it was likely I was heading down the same medical road that my parents and grandparents had. Each of those family members navigated difficult ailments before dying young. My doctor explained that to change the course of my family history I needed to eat better, get more active and lose weight. He challenged me to lose thirty pounds over the next year and to develop habits that could help me keep the weight off.

After meeting with my doctor, I started exercising regularly and eating better. I didn’t own a bathroom scale so, in order to chart my progress, I ordered one online. When the scale arrived and I unpacked it, a short pamphlet was included among the scale’s direction. It read something like, “Do you want one simple way to meet your weight loss goals? Weigh yourself everyday.” As I read the pamphlet, I thought maybe it was just a clever way to sell bathroom scales. Being a little skeptical of this “one simple way,” I did some online searches and found research to back its claims. So I adopted the habit. Three years later, I’m happy to report that I still weigh myself daily. More importantly, I lost more than thirty pounds and have been able to successfully keep it off.

I was reminded of this simple strategy recently in a discussion with a few junior faculty. One had recently received word that he had obtained tenure and commented that he was excited about never being forced to do student evaluations again. On our campus, student evaluations are optional for tenured faculty. Some tenured faculty choose to still have their students complete evaluations, but many do not. Most faculty recognize evaluations as being imperfect measures of their teaching and would choose to avoid them if they could. While I’ve written about the challenges with student evaluations in the past, I offered different advice to this soon-to-be-tenured colleague. Still do student evaluations. Every semester.

Since I received tenure five years ago, I’ve had my students complete evaluations on my teaching every single semester. Some are difficult to stomach (like the ones I wrote about last January). Overall, however, the evaluations help me stay focused on being student-centered and being accessible and responsive to student needs. The evaluations also provide a degree of self-accountability where I must open the envelope, stare at the numbers and make sense of them. In a lot of ways, it’s like standing on a bathroom scale.

When I stand on a bathroom scale each morning, I sometimes see numbers I don’t like. Maybe I had an extra piece of pizza (or two) while watching that football game. Or maybe I had cake and ice cream after dinner to celebrate my daughter’s birthday. Or maybe I skipped a few days at the gym and am seeing the return on my lack of investment. Seeing those numbers, however, motivates me to do better. They also help me focus on short-term goals and successes. String those together and they can lead to longer term ones.

And that’s what regularly completing students evaluations can do. Student evaluations can motivate us to stay focused on the short-term impacts of our work and remind us of our roles with students.  Sure, sometimes we’ll receive evaluation numbers that we don’t like or agree with. But we can commit to doing better. Just like the bathroom scale, the evaluation data only mean things in context. They’re just one piece of data to examine. But they off a simple way to stay focused on our growth as teachers, both in the short term and the long term.

The Misconception of Kindness

I get mixed reviews on Rate My Professors. For every student who rates me well, there’s another student or two who has rated me poorly. I try to not get too worked up over the ratings. For the most part, they’re sort of like Yelp reviews. People only really post a review on Yelp when their experiences are amazingly good or amazingly bad. The vast majority of people who had a completely ordinary and solid dining event will never review their experience at all. And I think most people would tolerate a solid experience over a negative one. But I digress.

Returning to my Rate My Professor reviews, to me, one comment stands out among the ratings.  One student posted:

“His feedback is very blunt and to the point, so be prepared for that.”

I don’t know what motivated this student to write this or to give me a poor rating, but I’ve thought a lot about that comment over the last two years. For the most part, I think the student’s assessment of my feedback is on the mark. I also wonder whether that’s the reason that some of my undergraduate students don’t find me particularly empathetic. At least that’s what some of my student evaluations say.  And I find it troubling.  Here’s why.

Over the years on this blog, I written many posts dedicated to providing quality feedback to support students’ growth. Across all of the posts, however, there’s never been a real dedicated focus on how students’ receive feedback. I’m a big subscriber to Grant Wiggins’ Seven Key Elements to Effective Feedback.  To foster student learning and development, Wiggins writes, teacher feedback must reflect seven essential elements:

  • Effective instructor feedback is goal-referenced.
  • Effective instructor feedback is tangible and transparent.
  • Effective instructor feedback is actionable.
  • Effective instructor feedback is timely.
  • Effective instructor feedback is ongoing.
  • Effective instructor feedback is consistent
  • Effective instructor feedback progresses towards a goal

And I provide that feedback. My worry, however, is that some students are not used to getting this type of in-depth feedback and don’t know how to respond to it emotionally. When students are accustomed to getting a few check marks on their papers and a “Great job!” written at the end, they see the professor who provides detailed feedback for growth as being the outlier. They rate the professor as being blunt and to the point and not having much empathy. To some degree, my students see me as being unkind with my feedback.

Being the hyper-reflective teacher that I am, I’ve thought a lot about this and I think there is a prevailing misconception of kindness, one that trades long-term impacts for the short-term ones. Let me explain.

Take the student who gets the “Great job!” on their paper but receives little other substantive comments from her professor. The student is receiving feedback that probably feels good. It reinforces her perceptions of the amount of work that she’s dedicated and her perceptions of her ability. She probably sees the professor as being kind and supportive.

But this is only a short-term emotion with short-term impacts. If the student’s work is not really high quality, the student will eventually reach some place in her educational journey where her development or progress will be stunted. She’ll reach a point where she sees that she may lack the skills to succeed at the expected level. She’ll recognize that her education hadn’t prepared her for that next step.

But I tend to focus on long-term impacts. While I’m (mostly) okay with students calling me direct or blunt or lacking empathy, I hope they’ll realize at some point down the road that the detailed feedback I gave wasn’t trying to hurt their feelings but was intended to help prepare them for whatever comes next. That’s long-term kindness.

I heard someone say recently that “Frustration isn’t part of learning.  It IS learning.” And maybe that’s the motto I need to share with more of my students. I know that the direct (and blunt) feedback I give to students can be frustrating at times. But it’s hardly unkind.

Be the Light in the Clouds

Imagine you’re a Viking sailor and you’re trying to navigate uncharted waters. If the skies are clear, you can navigate using the position of the sun during the day or possibly the stars at night. But what about the cloudy or foggy times that a Viking sailor would confront in the icy Northern Atlantic? Norse legend has it that the Vikings used something called a sunstone. When the conditions were bad, these ancient mariners would look through a crystal that reveals distinct patterns of light in the cloudy sky. The sailors would use the patterns of light to traverse the ocean despite any clear view of the sun. Despite the clouds and fog, the sunstones helped guide the Vikings through the roughest of waters.

I read about the sunstone recently and how scientists are suggesting that the Vikings simply used pieces of translucent calcite, cordierite and tourmaline to guide their ships. These crystals filter light due to a process called “polarization” which enabled the Vikings to see concentric rings around the sun, even in the foggiest of conditions. Despite the visibility, if the Vikings navigated using the sunstone, they were more likely to reach their destination.

When I read the Viking article, I thought the sunstone was a good metaphor for instructors’ roles in online classes. To our online students, the learning management system can be a foggy and cloudy place to navigate. Instructors organize their courses differently and use different communication structures. Some instructors teach primarily through asynchronous means while others use synchronous avenues exclusively. Within a learning management system, content and assessment can be distributed across a multiple of links to click and pages to view. They’re not always easy waters to navigate.

But online teachers can serve as sunstones and show the way. At our institution, we conducted a survey of students enrolled in online classes in Fall 2016 and Spring 2017. With over 700 undergraduate and graduate students participating in the study, we are starting to identify some clear way that instructors can help their students navigate online classes. Here are some takeaways for our research.  To help students navigate their online classes, instructors need to:

  • Provide clearly stated course learning objectives
  • Clearly identify course policies and expectations
  • Provide regular and clear communication with students
  • Link assessments to course learning objectives
  • Engage online students with their peers

In our study, each of these teacher actions was significantly correlated with students’ perceptions of the quality of their online experience (p < 0.05). We’re still analyzing the data and looking for other trends but one thing is clear, online instructors play a critical role in reducing the chaos of online classes. Like the sunstone that Vikings used to sail during foggy times, the instructor serves as the light in the clouds and can help students successfully navigate their online classes.

What about Learner Presence?

In science, researchers see theories and ideas as being tentative.  New information can be introduced that prompts reflection and re-examination.  For example, Copernicus’ work forced astronomers to re-evaluate whether the Earth was the center of the solar system and it helped to set up the work done by Kepler and Galileo. By looking at things a little differently and introducing research to back up his claims, Copernicus opened the scientific doorway for all of modern astronomy.

I thought about Copernicus this weekend as I read a study conducted by Peter Shea and Temi Bidjerano. In an article that appeared in Computers and Education in 2010, Shea and Bidjerano examined whether online students’ self-efficacy impacted their perceptions of the quality of the virtual learning environments in which they participated. The researchers surveyed over 3000 students in 42 different institutions of higher education to see whether behavioral and motivational elements correlated with aspects of the Community of Inquiry framework (COI).   When Garrison, Archer and Anderson (2001) first introduced the COI framework, they presented it as model to describe a “worthwhile educational experience” for online students. The framework involves three intersecting “presences” which help to describe the overall learning activities with which students and instructors must engage. The framework includes: social presence, cognitive presence and teaching presence.  Describing COI holistically, successful online classes depend upon instructors fostering the development of a social environment where students interact cognitively with one another and with the teacher.  While thousands of research articles have validated the COI framework from a variety of perspectives, few have examined the role that a student’s beliefs in self play in online educational experiences.

In Shea and Bidjerano’s work, they concluded “that a positive relationship exists between elements of the COI framework and between elements of a nascent theoretical construct that we label “learning presence”. We suggest that learning presence represents elements such as self-efficacy as well as other cognitive, behavioral, and motivational constructs supportive of online learner self-regulation.”  For those new to the concept of self-efficacy, Bandura (1986) defined it as an individual’s beliefs in their “capabilities to organize and execute courses of action required to attain designated types of performance.” Self-efficacy is a well-researched area that has been shown to have an impact on individuals’ job satisfaction, academic success, and so much more.  The surprising part about self-efficacy is that it focuses more on individuals’ beliefs in self rather than their actual abilities.  And that’s the important connection to Shea and Bidjerano’s work.  Students who feel that they are more able to be successful in an online class find the class worthwhile.  Shea and Bidjerano also found relationships between the elements of their proposed “learning presence” and the teaching, social and cognitive presences in the original COI framework.  This, I feel, is the most powerful part of the research and the most motivating for instructors.  The online environments that instructors construct and facilitate need to help students attend to their own learning.  While we can build learning environments that support social and cognitive development, we must also thoughtful construct spaces where students feel they can be successful and are motivated to learn.

As I read Shea and Bidjerano’s research, other studies kept coming to mind and making sense in a new light.  The one that stands out a study I wrote about earlier this year.  Titled The Magic Pill of Online Learning, the post described the importance of including orientation videos in online classes.  In classes with high dropout and failure rates, researchers added short videos that helped students understand how to navigate the online environment and complete important tasks like check grades, access content and participate in discussion forums.  By adding the orientation videos, students were more successful and dropout and failure rates decreased.  Viewed from Shea and Bidjerano’s work, the orientation videos helped to motivate students and foster confidence in their ability to be successful.

Hopefully, Shea and Bidjerano’s work will usher in a re-examination of the current COI framework.  Despite being almost six years old, the research hasn’t raised widespread awareness of the socio-cognitive aspects that students bring to online learning environments.  Navigating the Community of Inquiry website that is maintained by Garrison and others, however, I came across a blog post authored by Terry Anderson (one of the original COI researchers) that outlined the potential of a fourth presence.  The post references Shea and Bidjerano and other researchers who are examining the impact that students have on online learning environments.  While this research will not force a complete redesign of the Solar System (like Copernicus), it may prompt re-configuration of current models that describe online learning.

Note: This post originally appeared on the 8 Blog in August 2016.


Bandura, A. (1986). Social foundations of thought and action: A social cognitive theory. Prentice-Hall, Inc.

Garrison, D. R., Anderson, T., & Archer, W. (2001). Critical thinking, cognitive presence, and computer conferencing in distance education. American Journal of distance education, 15(1), 7-23.

Shea, P., & Bidjerano, T. (2010). Learning presence: Towards a theory of self-efficacy, self-regulation, and the development of a communities of inquiry in online and blended learning environments. Computers & Education, 55(4), 1721-1731.

The Value of Blogging

Regular readers may know that I’ve been blogging every week since 2009. This blog came out of a conversation with a colleague who asked if I could regularly update them with cool technologies or research that I came across. Little by little, this blog has evolved into a space where I wrestle with ideas and work through my positions on topics related to teaching, learning, technology and education. Sitting down each week to think and write has been a real labor of love.

A few years ago, I wrote a post titled Why I blog. In the post, I outlined my main reasons for blogging and explained that:

I’m having a dialogue with and learning from the world. Blogging gives me the ability to have a larger discussion with people I’ve never met about subjects I find interesting. At the time I’m writing this, over 31,000 visitors have read the 8 Blog with over 125 people stopping by today. While I’ve submitted 154 posts so far (today’s post will be 155), I have gotten 180 comments on my posts from readers across the globe. People have visited the blog from almost every state in the US and from over 100 different countries. While I’ve been able to get a number of manuscripts published in national and international means, I have had very few people contact me or interact with me regarding those publications. Blogging opens my work to an international dialogue. As a learner, it’s been tremendously educational for me.

As a means of an update, this will be my 445th post. Over 90,000 people from 154 countries have visited this blog and more than 250 people subscribe to get these weekly musings sent to them. Despite doing this for almost nine years, I continue to be humbled by the response.

I’m only sharing these numbers in response to an article that was shared with me recently. Appearing in the Smithsonian magazine online, the article examined the overall impact of academic scholarship. Drawing on a few different studies, the article estimated that 1.8 million articles are published in about 28,000 journals each year. The author quotes a 2007 citation analysis study that claims that:

90% of papers that have been published in academic journals are never cited.
Indeed, as many as 50% of papers are never read by anyone other than their authors, referees and journal editors.
While this is a staggering claim (which has been challenged by other researchers), it does provide an interesting contrast to my experiences as a blogger. I’m not saying that my writing here qualifies as “scholarship” or that it meets the standard of blind peer review that academic scholarship upholds. But many of my colleagues have used these same standards to challenge blogging and question the value of this forum. While I recognize that it doesn’t meet the gold standards of scholarship, this forum does provide a voice to share ideas without barriers. Blogging is both democratizing and empowering. In a few moments, I’ll click “Publish” and the world will be able to read this post. And that’s the real value of blogging.