Gains and losses

Dr. Rene Laennec is credited as being the inventor of the stethoscope. As legend has it, Laennec was trained to practice a medical process called percussion to examine his patients. This practice involved tapping on patients’ bodies and carefully listening to the sounds that echoed back. With some patients, however, percussion was hard to implement. For instance, larger patients presented a unique challenge for doctors since it was difficult to hear sounds through layers of skin and fat. It was in this situation that the stethoscope finds it origin. Examining a larger patient, Laennec reportedly rolled up a notebook to better hear the sounds. In 1819, Laennec offered this account of his discovery in a medical journal:

I was not a little surprised and pleased to find that I could thereby perceive the action of the heart in a manner much more clear and distinct than I had ever been able to do by the immediate application of my ear.”

Laennec’s simple cylindrical creation helped the percussive sounds be better heard and allowed him to better diagnose his patients’ ailments. The discovery led him to intensively examine different designs and to research how the sounds he heard related to different medical conditions. His study led to the creation of the modern day stethoscope and propelled it as a standard medical device used by doctors worldwide. Laennec’s invention undoubtedly saved lives and improved the practice and science of the medical field.

One could argue that Laennec was a great inventor and that he made significant contributions to medicine. But let’s dig a little deeper. Besides improving the way that medicine was conducted as field, Laennec also dramatically changed the way doctors interacted with their patients. To practice percussion, doctors would place their ears against patients’ backs, chests and abdomens. This close contact made seeing a doctor an intensively personal interaction. To further diagnose patients, doctors also conducted lengthy interviews with patients to try to uncover larger ailments and issues at play. Through these interviews, doctors got to know their patients and how they lived their lives. The stethoscope, however, created a distance between the doctor and patient, both literally and figuratively. Doctors could listen to a patient’s heart without placing an ear against them. Doctors could also diagnose some ailments without asking patients a single question. While the technology provided amazing benefits, it also significantly changed the way doctors interacted with their patients and dramatically altered how medicine was practiced.

So, what’s the point? For me, the big takeaway from this story is that we tend to focus on what technology adds to a situation. When a new app or device is introduced, we often can easily see how it can benefit our lives without really seeing the potentially negative impacts that could occur. In every instance of some new technology being introduced, however, there are both gains and losses. The story of the stethoscope provides one example. We can easily see how the device aided doctors’ work, but it also significantly changed how doctors interacted with patients.

Let me provide another example. I have a friend who has been deployed overseas several times. He serves in the military and returned recently from a deployment to Afghanistan. In previous deployments, he would send letters to his wife and children and would receive ones from them. Upon his return, the letters would be assembled into a scrapbook to document the family’s journey and sacrifices.

Returning from his most recent deployment, however, my friend remarked that he hadn’t sent or received a single letter. With email and Skype, the family was in contact regularly and really didn’t need to rely on handwritten communication at all. The family had gained the comfort of more regular communication with one another but had lost the documentation that the letters had provided. As his wife commented, “you can’t really scrapbook emails or a Skype call.” Gains and losses.

Since this is a blog about education, I guess it’s time that I try to bring it back to teaching and learning. We’re constantly being inundated with new educational technologies that could improve how we deliver instruction, interact with our students and assess their learning. While I’m an advocate for using technology in our classrooms, I also want us to raise a skeptical eye to the losses that emerge from the infusion of technology. Like the stethoscope, will these technologies create “a distance” that changes how we teach and how we interact with our students? Do any gains we experience outweigh the losses?

Teaching for Growth

Last week, I introduced transmission, transaction and transformation as different modes of teaching. As I got more to thinking about teaching as transformation, I decided to re-read James Lang’s chapter on “growing” in his book Small Teaching (2016). The chapter outlines three principles for teaching for growth that I thought would be a good way to build on the concept of “teaching as transformation.”

Design for Growth. When we develop our courses, it’s important to think about how we structure the semester to foster growth. One place to start is to examine your grading structure. Some instructors may think that offering equal weighting throughout the semester would benefit students. When you design a grading system for growth, however, you want to provide a time period to allow students to understand the structures, processes and ways of knowing that you as an instructor view as important. Offering low stakes assignments at the start of the class provides time for students to wade into the class and get acquainted with the content and with your teaching. I’m also a big believer in allowing students to resubmit assignments or retake exams to improve their performance. If a student wants to dedicate extra time to rewrite a paper or study the concepts more to do better on an exam, why would I stop them? I’m trying to get the best from my students. While I know that this may not be practical in every classroom environment or with every content area, embracing growth recognizes that students learn at different rates. One student may learn a concept in a day while another student may take a few weeks.

Communicate for Growth. In his book, Lang encourages us to examine how we communicate with our students and to consider how our language fosters students’ growth and development rather than focuses on their fixed abilities and talents. Think about that student who does really well on an exam. Should we praise them for their hard work or for their intellect? The difference presents a stark contrast in communicating with a growth mindset or a fixed onAnother place to examine how we communicate with students is our course syllabi. In many cases, it is students’ first impression of who we are as teachers and what we value about them as learners. I know that many of us are told to treat our syllabi as contracts and to communicate clear expectations in an almost legalistic way. As your preparing for the upcoming semester, however, consider how you communicate your expectations and how your language motivates students. Use your syllabus to encourage hard work and persistence.

Feedback for Growth. Providing constructive feedback on student work is one of the most time consuming task in our teaching roles. It’s also one of the most important. Our feedback can support growth and development or demotivate students. I remember taking an English class in my undergraduate program and receiving a “B” on a paper I had submitted. The professor didn’t include any comments and didn’t provide feedback so I could improve my writing. I visited the professor during office hours to discuss the paper, my grade and ways to improve. He said simply that my writing wasn’t “A” material and that I just needed to become a better writer. While both of these statements were probably accurate, neither helped me improve my writing or motivated me to do better. I left the office feeling frustrated and doubting my academic ability.

Looking back, that meeting could have gone very differently. If he had embraced the growth mindset in his teaching, the professor would have outlined areas of strength and targeted the problem spots upon which to focus. He could have pointed out some reference materials that I could read or shared some resources to help me practice. But he didn’t. I ended up getting a B in that class and still wonder how well I could have performed had I received better feedback from the instructor.

Lang, J. M. (2016). Small teaching: everyday lessons from the science of learning. John Wiley & Sons.

Teaching: Transmission, transaction or transformation

I was having a conversation recently with some colleagues. One posed an interesting question to the group about how we see our work as teachers at our respective institutions. Here’s what she asked:

How would you describe your teaching role with your students? Is it a transmission, a transaction or a transformation?

I have to admit. I love these types of questions. When posed with an inquiry like this, I’m forced to reflect on my teaching and to consider how I interact with my students. The easy answer would be “all of the above” but I don’t know if that would make for an interesting blog post. Instead, I thought I’d unpack the possibilities a bit and discuss how I see these three views of teaching.

Teaching as transmission:
In any class, there is information to be learned and content to be mastered. The larger question, however, is “how are these processes being accomplished?” Teaching as transmission puts the instructor at the center of the learning process. The instructor delivers information and the student receives it. In this view of teaching, a well-worded explanation is seen as having the most impact on student learning. While this mode of teaching is still highly regarded by both students and instructors, there is growing evidence that questions its effectiveness. After sharing posts like Long Live the Lecture? and More evidence for Active Learning, it would be difficult for me to describe my teaching as transmission.  While I’m certainly guilty of leading my share of lectures over the years, I try to actively avoid straight transmission modes of instruction and work to build more collaboration with and amongst my students.

Teaching as transaction:
In a transactional learning environment, learning happens through interactions with people and experiences. While teaching as transmission reflects more behaviorist learning theories, teaching as transaction is rooted in more constructivist perspectives. Here, learners build their understanding of content by interacting with activities and through social meaning-making processes with their peers and their instructors. Instead of delivering information, instructors work to plan experiences that can help their students learn and work with them to foster their understanding. Reflecting on my own teaching, I definitely see aspects of “transaction” in the way I plan my classes, both online and face-to-face.  I see the power of social learning environments and believe that transactions (and interactions) cultivate learning.

Teaching as transformation:
Over the last few years, I’ve been really trying to focus a lot on growth in my classroom. Instead of just helping my students learn the content of my class, I also want to help them grow as learners and as individuals. I think this broader perspective emerged after reading Mindset by Carol Dweck. While I’ve incorporated aspects of mindset as content in a few of my classes, the larger shift has occurred through a change in how my class is organized and how I communicate with students. I allow my students to revise and resubmit graded assignments and provide feedback that helps them improve their work. To foster a larger growth mindset in my class, I avoid praising students on fixed traits (like intelligence or innate talent) and focus more persistence, practice and hard work. To increase the impact of these efforts, I explain the motivations behind my instructional decisions and how they’re born from an evidence base on how people learn and develop.

Looking across the dimensions of teaching, it’s clear that I see myself as leaning more heavily to the transformation and transaction rather than transmission. The question, however, is how these self-assessments align with my students’ assessments on my practices.  Maybe this post will encourage a comment or two from former students or maybe one will volunteer to write a guest post in response.  Any takers?

A blast from the past

Last week, I was cleaning out some dresser drawers and trying to reorganize stuff to make room for a few shirts I had purchased. While I’m a typically a pretty organized guy, my clothes drawers can get a little messy. With the influx of new clothing items, the older items tend to get lost in the shuffle. They get pushed to the bottom of drawers and forgotten. As I was cleaning out a drawer with T-shirts, I found an older one that I haven’t worn for a year or two. I received the shirt as a Father’s Day gift and despite wearing it regularly for a while, it had disappeared into the nether regions of my dresser drawer. Although it had fallen victim to the old adage “out of sight, out of mind,” the shirt still fits and I’ve started wearing it again. Seeing the shirt’s magical resurrection in my wardrobe, my family has jokingly called the shirt a “blast from the past.”

I had another “blast from the past” this weekend as I prepared to serve on a panel assessing candidacy exams for several doctoral students. Each student was assigned different research articles to critique. After submitting written critiques, the students also had to orally defend their positions before a panel of professors. To prepare, I read each of the students’ assigned articles and took notes on methodological and theoretical aspects that could potentially be discussed. Buried in a study on interactive whiteboards, I was reacquainted with the work of John Bransford, Ann Brown and Randall Cocking and their seminal work How People Learn (2000). Developed with support from the National Research Council, How People Learn offered a powerful evidence-based examination on the different factors and strategies that influenced student learning. While it was first published almost twenty years ago, revisiting it now, it is still relevant and critical to our work as educators.  Some of the major take aways include:

  1. Students come to the classroom with preconceptions about how the world works. If their initial understanding is not engaged, they may fail to grasp the new concepts and information that are taught, or they may learn them for purposes of a test but revert to their preconceptions outside the classroom. (p. 15)
  2. To develop competence in an area, students must: (a) have a deep foundation of factual knowledge, (b) understand facts and ideas in the context of a conceptual framework, and (c) organize knowledge in ways that facilitate retrieval and application. (p. 16)
  3. A “metacognitive” approach to instruction can help students learn to take control of their own learning by defining learning goals and monitoring their progress in achieving them. (p. 18)
  4. Knowledge that is taught in a variety of contexts is more likely to support flexible transfer than knowledge that is taught in a single context. (p. 237)
  5. Formative assessments—ongoing assessments designed to make students’ thinking visible to both teachers and students—are essential. In the assessment-centered classroom environment, formative assessments help both teachers and students monitor progress. (p. 24)

While I’ve spent a lot of time over the last few years reading new examinations of these concepts, returning to this work is a little like finding that T-shirt at the bottom of the dresser drawer. While Bransford, Brown and Cocking’s work may be a “blast from the past,” their ideas still “fit” and deserve a resurrection.


Communicating Online

Author’s note: I’m taking a few weeks off to do some traveling with my family. In my absence, I’m going to run a series of older posts that I’ve written on online teaching.  This week’s post originally appeared in May 2014.  Enjoy!

In past posts, I’ve discussed the Community of Inquiry framework  and how it relates to our work in online classes.  The framework, developed by Garrison, Anderson and Archer (2000), identifies the need for instructors to attend to three different domains in an online class:  a social presence, a cognitive presence and a teaching presence.  As instructors build and manage online classes, they need to thoughtfully and purposefully build these presences into the learning environment and consider how they will be present to instruct students, challenge them cognitively and interact and communicate with them.  I think most online instructors find the cognitive and teaching presences easier to visualize and foster than the social presence.  In response to this, I wrote a post last year where I offered some suggestions to build social presence in online classes.

I’ve been thinking a lot about social presence online in response to research I shared a few weeks ago.  In work conducted by Chambliss and Takacs, they found that undergraduates were more likely to major in a field if they had an inspiring and caring faculty member in an introductory course.  Students were also equally likely to write off an entire field if they had a single negative experience with a professor.  With communication mediated through electronic means in an online class, I worry that negative experiences may occur at a greater frequency.  I’m not saying that online instructors are treating their students poorly or demonstrate less compassion than instructors in face-to-face classrooms.  I just worry that the means of communication may undermine how students perceive a message.  I think we’ve all sent or received an email whose tone was misread.  That’s why communicating and interacting online requires great care and attention.  And sometimes some creative thinking.

Let me provide a scenario.  Last week, I started a new online class and one student did not log in for the first two days of the course.  Although the class was being offered asynchronously, I was worried that the student would not be able to meet the first due dates of the course and would be a potential problem through the remainder of the class.  My initial reaction was to send an email saying something like:

“Student,  Our online class started two days ago and you have yet to log into the course or complete any of the first modules.  Without consistent attention to the course, you are likely to fail the class.  Please log in and start working.  The first modules are due tomorrow.

As I thought about the reasons a student may not have logged in, I started creating fictional scenarios in my head.  Maybe there was a death in the family.  Or maybe the student was having technical difficulties.  Or maybe…  There were a bunch of possible scenarios that didn’t necessarily fit the email I was planning to send.  In light of these, I sent this email instead.

Student, I see that you have not contributed in our online class yet.  The first modules are due on Thursday by noon.  Are you having any technical challenges of which I should be aware?  Just checking in.   I hope all is well.

It turned out that the student was having some serious medical issues and appreciated that I reached out through email.  We discussed whether she would be able to complete the class and what accommodations could be made to help her be successful.  I’m happy to report that she is now feeling better and is actively participating in the class.   I wonder whether the original email would have been received as positively or had the same impact.

I understand that communication is a two-way street and that the student should have taken some responsibility in contacting me about her situation.  The student and I discussed this responsibility in our email exchange.  As instructors, however, we have to remember the power we have in establishing the social presence in our courses.  In some ways, it conjures up images of Old Fezziwig in Dickens’ A Christmas Carol:

He has the power to render us happy or unhappy; to make our service light or burdensome; a pleasure or a toil. Say that his power lies in words and looks; in things so slight and insignificant that it is impossible to add and count them up.

In online communication, the power lies in carefully crafted words, which should never be considered slight or insignificant.

Online instructors, show yourself?

Author’s note: I’m taking a few weeks off to do some traveling with my family. In my absence, I’m going to run a series of older posts that I’ve written on online teaching.  This week’s post originally appeared in January 2016.  Enjoy!

Last week, while helping to coordinate an online teaching workshop for faculty on campus, a colleague asked about the importance of having an instructor appear visually in a synchronous classroom space.  We had just demonstrated our institution’s online classroom tool and one of the faculty members wondered whether it was important for students to actually see the instructors who was leading the synchronous online lesson.  My first thoughts went to Mayer’s multimedia principles.  As I’ve shared before on this blog, Mayer’s multimedia principles outline ways to successfully design and incorporate multimedia in educational settings to foster student learning.  Mayer’s image principle says that incorporating an image of a speaker in a multimedia presentation has no significant influence on students’ learning of the content being presented.  Using Mayer as guide, I explained to my colleague, one could conclude that incorporating an instructor’s face in a synchronous classroom probably wouldn’t have much impact on learning.

My colleague, however, was persistent.  While student learning may not be impacted by instructor visibility, maybe there were other areas to consider?  Maybe the instructor’s image could foster more social presence in the class?  Or maybe the instructor’s image could motivate students?  Needless to say, my colleague’s questions motivated me to do a little digging and see what I could find.

I came across some research that examined the use of video tutorials with students.  Published in the Journal of Educational Psychology, the study examined the impact of having an instructor’s face be visible in recorded lessons.  While not a direct match with my colleague’s questions, the results were pretty compelling.  In the first phase of the study, the researchers found that the vast majority of students preferred to see the instructor during the recorded lessons.  While 35% of the participants found the instructor’s image distracting, most would choose to have the teacher be visible in the lesson.

With this in mind, in the next phase of the study, the researchers examined whether having the instructor constantly visible or visible only during strategic times would have any impact on student learning.  In this phase, participants were placed in two groups (constantly visible and strategically visible) and a host of different factors were examined.  Researchers examined learning outcome, attrition, cognitive load, social presence and assessment taking.  For most of the areas, the researchers found no significant differences between the two groups.  For both groups, the participants completed similar numbers of assessments, watched the same amount of the videos and demonstrated similar levels of learning.  When looking at the social presence and cognitive load, however, the groups differed greatly.

Students who watched the instructors appearing strategically during the lessons reported higher levels of social presence than the students who saw the instructors who appeared constantly.  When the instructors appeared only at certain times during the lesson, the students reported feeling more connected to the class and developed a sense that the instructor was there to support their learning.  When the instructor was constantly visible, the students eventually began to ignore the teacher’s image completely.  Since they were ignoring the image of the instructor, the students didn’t report similar levels of belonging to the class and reported lower levels of social presence in the class.

Ignoring the instructor has some positive value, however. The students in the strategic group reported much higher levels of distractions than the students in the constant group.  While this self-reported “cognitive load” didn’t translate into lower assessment scores for students, the research suggests that this could create challenges for students who prefer to learn visually.

So, what does it all mean?  When instructors are visible in online spaces, they can help to foster more social presence with students.  While it won’t impact student learning or their participation in the class, being visible can help students feel more connected to classes.  Instructors should remember that this is a case of diminishing returns.  More instructor visibility in video lessons (or synchronous classrooms) doesn’t necessarily lead to more social presence.  Much like many things in life, a little can go a long way.


Kizilcec, R. F., Bailenson, J. N., & Gomez, C. J. (2015). The instructor’s face in video instruction: Evidence from two large-scale field studies. Journal of Educational Psychology, 107(3), 724–739.

Tips for Building Social Presence in Your Online Class

Author’s note: I’m taking a few weeks off to do some traveling with my family. In my absence, I’m going to run a series of older posts that I’ve written on online teaching.  This week’s post originally appeared in May 2013.  Enjoy!

You’ve been assigned your first online class to teach and you feel like you’re ready. You’ve done your homework and learned the ins and outs of the institution’s course management system. You’ve structured your content in purposeful ways and developed thoughtful guiding questions to situate student learning and motivate them. When the class starts, however, you realize that while everything is technically functioning correctly, many of the students are not engaged. While you were looking forward to teaching online and interacting with students, the students are approaching your course as if it’s an independent study. This wasn’t what you anticipated when you agreed to teach online!

In their framework outlining educational experiences for students, Garrison, Anderson, and Archer (2000) identify and explain the critical elements of a Community of Inquiry that supports instruction and learning. The elements include: cognitive presence, social presence, and teaching presence. For online classes, many new online instructors tend to focus on the cognitive presence and teaching presence, and overlook the necessity of the social presence. They’ll build great online modules that help students enhance their understanding of course content but forget to attend to the critical social aspects that engage students and foster community building. While these aspects can happen naturally in face-to-face courses, they must be intentionally built into online classes.

Here are five ways you can build social presence in your online class:

  1. Have your online students introduce themselves. This may sound simple but the first module of my online courses asks students to introduce themselves to their peers. I create a discussion board where students share short introductions with the group either through text or through a short multimedia production using Fotobabble, MyBrainShark or some other Web 2.0 tool. I usually try to connect the introductions to course content in some informal way to assess the students’ prior knowledge and experience with the material. More than anything, the introductions are designed to foster open communication amongst students outside of course content.
  2. Introduce yourself to your students. When I ask my students to create short introductions of themselves, I offer my own introduction as an example. I also create a short orientation video where I provide an overview of the course and share a little about myself. Presented in a short video where students hear my voice, students can connect with me outside of the written text that I provide for most of the class material.
  3. Create a “commons area” for off-topic discussions. In a face-to-face class, it’s easy to engage in off-topic discussions. Students walking into the classroom will argue about last night’s football game, discuss the latest movies, or talk about their favorite music. This type of engagement is extracurricular but it can help students build relationships that are advantageous inside the classroom. Without purposeful inclusion of risk-free environments for sharing, online students’ affective needs will not be met and they may not fully engage with course content or with their classmates. In my online classes, I create a discussion board labeled “Commons Area” or “Water Cooler” and offer some guidance to the purpose of the area. While I’ll often peek in to add a question or respond to a post, I generally give the students some free rein over this forum.
  4. Use synchronous tools for office hours. Most course management systems offer chat rooms or synchronous online classrooms as tools for teaching and communication. I schedule online office hours where students can meet with me to discuss course content and ask questions. While not every student takes advantage of the office hours, publishing their availability communicates to students that I am committed to their success in the course.
  5. Don’t be the center of every discussion. Many new online instructors try to respond to every post in a discussion board. This habit can actually limit student-to-student interaction and discussion. In a face-to-face class, few instructors would break up lively classroom discussions by evaluating every remark from students. In online classes, however, instructors will do exactly that. Instead of excessively participating in discussion boards, provide some thought-provoking questions and allow the students to discuss course content openly on their own. Offer guidance when necessary and communicate that you’re present in the discussion through carefully chosen posts. Give the students some space to interact with one another and build their understanding through collaborating with their classmates.

Garrison, D. R., Anderson, T., & Archer, W. (2000). Critical inquiry in a text-based environment: Computer conferencing in higher education. The Internet and Higher Education, 2(2-3), 87-105.

Note:  This post was originally published on Faculty Focus on May 13, 2013.