Literacy and the Collegiate Student

When I confront “problems of practice” in my teaching, I like to turn to my smart friends for advice.  About a year ago, I was really confounded by my students’ trouble with reading for deep understanding.  While I could see that the students were completing assigned readings, they weren’t always able to process the information deeply to analyze the concepts or apply the content to new situations.  Since I don’t have much experience teaching reading, I turned to my colleague, Dr. Jennifer Shettel.  Jen is a literacy professor and has run several tremendously successful close-reading workshops in our area.  I figured she could give some advice. Our conversations prompted some pedagogical experimentation with different literacy-based strategies which Jen and I will be sharing at a local teaching and learning conference next week and at the Teaching Professor Conference this June.

Some readers may be wondering why we even need to examine reading strategies for collegiate students.  After all, our students are adults and they should have already developed advanced reading abilities.  That was one of the first areas that Jen tackled with me.  While we’d like to think that our students are prepared for the challenging content we assign, collegiate students are still developing as readers and we need to help them in this process.  To demonstrate her case, Jen shared Jeanne Chall’s Stages of Reading Development.  In this model, Chall identifies six different stages across a reader’s development and the different characteristics and abilities prominent at each.  Based on their age, we may expect that our students have reached the highest stage, Construction and Reconstruction.  At this stage, students should be able to construct their understanding based on text analysis and synthesis.  The reality, however, is that some of our students may be entering our classes without this ability.  Maybe some are still at Chall’s “Reading for Learning the New” stage or maybe others are just reaching the “Multiple Viewpoints” stage.  Realizing that our students are still developing as readers was pretty eye opening.

In our conversations, I inquired whether any large-scale studies had been done to examine college students’ reading abilities.  After searching around a bit, Jen and I found a 2006 study conducted by the American Institutes for Research titled The Literacy of America’s College StudentsThe study looked comprehensively at college students’ literacy levels from a variety of different perspectives.  If Chall’s work was eye opening, this study was even more so.  In the study, the authors identify four literacy levels (below basic, basic, intermediate and proficient) across three different a literacy types (prose, document and quantitative).  Looking at the average literacy levels for students enrolled in two and four year institutions, the authors report that while college students on average score significantly higher than the general adult population in all three literacy types, the average score would be characterized at the intermediate literacy level.  Expanding the lens to examine the collegiate student population closer, the authors uncover some important findings for those institutions of higher education whose missions include working with first generation college students or with international students.  Students whose parents are college graduates score significantly higher across all literacy types than those students whose parents did not attend any post-secondary education.  Foreign-born students score significantly lower across every literacy type than their US-born peers.

I know some readers may see these findings and think that our schools just need to be more selective.  Maybe other readers dismiss this study entirely because they work at an elite school with a (presumed) higher caliber of student. It’s important to note that the researchers did not find significantly different literacy levels when comparing students at public vs. private institutions or at selective vs. nonselective institutions. While the findings may be a little disheartening, the report shows that ALL institutions of higher education need to be aware of their students’ literacy levels.

And that’s the big takeaway from this post.  Considering our students’ literacy development and ability, we need to assist them with interacting with the readings we assign.  We need to help them access our disciplinary texts and support them in their growth as readers.  And that’s the main goal with the session that Jen and I are developing.  We hope you’ll join us.

References:

Baer, J. D., Cook, A. L., & Baldi, S. (2006). The Literacy of America’s College Students. American Institutes for Research.

Chall, J.S. (1983). Stages of Reading Development. New York, NY:McGraw-Hill. pp.10-24

An Online Pot Luck Dinner?

Online learning environments can be pretty confusing places to new online students and educators. To help reduce this confusion, I like to use metaphors to describe the functions, activities and components of teaching and learning online.  For instance, when I lead professional development sessions, I’m often asked about the planning process for creating and teaching a new online class.  While the process involves the traditional phases that are captured in most instructional design models, I find it’s better to describe my online course development as party planning.  When someone hosts a party, they have to consider how people are going to interact, what types of music they’re going to listen to, what they’re going to eat and so on.  Good hosts do a lot of this planning before a single person arrives.  This allows the host to attend to the needs of their guests and to enjoy the party themselves.

While I understand this is a simplistic metaphor, I find it best captures my role as an instructional designer and as an online teacher. I’ll spend weeks developing a class, selecting content and planning interactions and assessments so that I can focus on the day-to-day business of meeting students’ needs and fostering engagement once the class starts.  I plan my “online party” before the class begins so I can be a better host once the party starts.

I’m teaching two online classes this semester and they are starkly different.  I’ve taught both classes several times and the classes are usually quite interactive, especially in the discussion forums.  It’s my stated goal in both classes that I’m attempting to foster a larger learning community where ideas and resources are exchanged and critiqued.  In one class, the students are sharing links to websites, uploading articles they’ve found online, embedding videos from different sources and really taking the discussions in new directions.  The other class, however, isn’t as active or as collaborative.  Students contribute posts and respond to each other but there doesn’t seem to be any real online learning community being formed.

As I’ve been thinking about the differences, I wondered whether the students had a clear understanding of what online discussion should look like.  We’ve all participated in face-to-face classroom discussions but a discussion forum is something entirely different.  In a face-to-face class, we’d never expect everyone to answer a prompt and then to respond the posts from two peers.  Yet, those expectations permeate online discussion forums.  Although they are used in many online classes, these expectations alone will reduce discussions to “bean counting” and won’t necessarily promote the type of engagement and exchange of ideas that I’m trying to foster.

Maybe a better metaphor is needed for online discussions.  To carry on with the party theme, I offer the “pot luck dinner” as a means of describing the rich and thoughtful discussions that I’m trying to build.  The “pot luck dinner” is a communal experience where everyone brings a dish to share.  The host usually offers a main course and asks the attendees to bring complementary items.  One person may bring a salad.  Another might bring a dessert.  Someone else may bring beverages.  With everyone contributing to the party, the overall meal becomes more complex and appetizing.  And people always leave satiated.

That’s what I’m trying to promote when I “host” a discussion forum.  I’m not interested in my students just submitting a requisite numbers of posts.  I want them to feed the group.  I want them to bring in complementary content and make the discussions more complex and appetizing for all of us.  While I’m contributing the “main course,” I’m hoping that the class will bring in resources and ideas to extend the meal.  Through this “potluck” experience, we’re all satiated.

Risk, vulnerability and change

Last week, as I stood on the perilous edge of a metaphorical cliff, I wondered whether I should take the jump.  Should I hit “Publish” and expose my poor teaching evaluations to the world?  Sure, I had written an in-depth reflection and reaction to my fall evaluations and outlined my plan for improvement. But, was I really ready to have the world know that my teaching didn’t cut it?  Moments before publishing that post, I can remember consciously worrying about people’s reactions and decided that I needed to put my thoughts out there. I wanted to hold myself accountable for my evaluations and to make sure that I’d live up to a plan of action for improvement. As I clicked to publish the post, I figured that I’d deal with the criticisms later.

Here’s the surprising part.  I didn’t receive a single criticism. Not one.  Instead, I received emails from former students, texts from colleagues and a phone call from a former professor. While many were reaching out to make sure I was okay, most were contacting me to thank me for putting it out there. They admired me for taking the risk, showing my vulnerability and tackling my emotions so openly.  It was not the reaction I expected.

I also wasn’t expecting the post to be viewed by hundreds of readers or be retweeted on Twitter as much as it was.  In my moment of vulnerability, I took a risk and it resonated with loads of other teacher.  One new faculty member even emailed me to ask if she could meet with me to discuss her Fall teaching evaluations so we could come up with a plan for improvement for her classes.  The reactions were honestly pretty inspiring.

As I’ve been reflecting on last week’s post, I decided to reread a post I wrote on August 2013.  Titled “the birthplace of innovation?” the post examines Dr. Brene Brown’s TED Talk on vulnerability and shame.  In her presentation, Dr. Brown says:

“Vulnerability is the birthplace of innovation, creativity and change.”

While I definitely felt vulnerable as I wrote and shared my post, I also saw it as a route for improving my teaching and fostering personal change.  While I worried about criticism, I should have kept in mind President Theodore Roosevelt and his moving words from Citizen in a Republic.

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.

Strive valiantly, my friends.  Be willing to enthusiastically put yourself out there and to fail while daring greatly.  I’m sure you’ll be as inspired by the reactions as I was.

Thanks to all.

A bitter pill

It’s been a rough twenty-four hours for me.  Yesterday morning, I received my student evaluations from last semester and one section rated me really low. Although my usual course evaluations are on par with departmental and university means, this section rated me a full point lower than I usually receive.  Particularly troubling was the areas in which they rated me the lowest.  The two lowest sections were “the instructor treated the class fairly and with respect” and “the instructor demonstrated concern and interest in students.”  In these two areas, I received ratings drastically lower than my average and my other sections from the semester.  Seeing these low scores in print was definitely a bitter pill to swallow.

I have to admit that the scores weren’t completely unexpected.  I had several difficult moments with this particular section.  The course is built around a semester-long group project that pairs students with a local elementary school.  My students create instructional materials for use with the elementary classes and evaluate how they’ve impacted learning.  While it’s a realistic application of instructional technology, the project is at times chaotic and messy.  I’m trying to teach soft skills like problem solving, flexibility and creativity and the project creates an authentic environment for these skills to develop.  But students have mixed reactions to this approach. As one student wrote on RateMyProfessors at the end of last semester,

“Dr. Dreon teaches in an unconventional manner which may benefit some, but for me it was challenging.”

Obviously, the challenging nature of the class (and my teaching) caused the negative evaluations I received.  So, after “licking my wounds” for the last 24 hours, I decided to use this space to work through these emotions. Since I’m the director for my institution’s teaching and learning center, the evaluation scores are humbling (to say the least).  But they also present an opportunity for reflection and growth.  In the remainder of this post, I want to share some of thoughts and emotions that I’m working through.

  1.  I own these scores.  While I’d like to chalk the scores up to a bad group of students or to student immaturity, the reality is these scores represent how this group of students saw my teaching.  I don’t control student maturity and I don’t control the students who take my class but I do control my teaching and how I interact with my students.  While I consider myself to be a student-centered instructor who works on behalf of his students, clearly my approach was off the mark and needs some revision.
  2. The scores don’t mean I’m a bad teacher.  Despite a few hours of self-doubt and self-pity, I’ve decided to embrace the “growth mindset” and see these scores as opportunities for improvement.  I find that some instructors who embrace the growth mindset when working with students won’t necessarily apply that same mindset to their own instructional or scholarly lives.  Just like a single bad grade wouldn’t mean that a student didn’t possess the ability to succeed, a section of bad evaluations doesn’t mean that I’m a bad instructor.  With hard work and dedication, I’m confident my evaluation scores will improve.
  3. I will need to make some changes.  I’m sure you’ve heard the cliché “insanity is doing the same things over and over and expecting different results.”  This certainly applies here.  A new section of the class meets tomorrow for the first time and this evaluation data shows that changes need to be made.  So, what am I going to do differently?  First, I’m going to try to scaffold the chaos a little more so students don’t feel as stressed by the project.  I’m also going to directly explain my overall objectives and how the students’ learning (and futures) will benefit.  Another change I plan to implement is to more regularly take “the temperature” of the class.  While I include lots of active learning strategies in the class, I don’t often attend the affective dimensions of learning and how my students are feeling and reacting to the class.

Our phones may be smarter…

Look across any college campus and you’ll see large number of students walking around with their faces glued to their smartphones.  Some times, you’ll see three or four students walking together and staring at their smartphone rather than talking to one another.  You’ll also see students using their smartphones to capture the minutiae of their days.  They post images of their lunches or their outfits or the squirrels playing in the park. The smartphone has become a ubiquitous device in students’ lives.

If you’ve wondering whether there’s been a growth in smartphone ownership over the years, there has been. Last year, the Educause Center for Analysis and Research (ECAR) reported that smartphone ownership outpaced laptop for the first time in its decade of research on technology ownership among undergraduate students.  In the 2016 study, ECAR reported that 96% of undergrads report owning smartphones while only 93% report owning a laptop.  Considering that the iPhone just had its 10th birthday, it’s amazing to see how rapid this mass adoption has occurred.

Many of us who work with instructional technology think of the educational opportunities that these tools present.  Compared to the computers that many students used decades ago, the computing power of a smartphone is orders of magnitude more powerful.  And our students have these devices on them all the time.  The devices offer limitless educational opportunities for students.  But there is another side to recognize.

In a New York Times article titled Hooked on our Smartphones, Jane Brody writes about the negative impact that widespread smartphone use causes.  The article begins with a quote from Lin-Manuel Miranda, the creator of the award winning musical “Hamilton.”  Smartphones, Miranda argues, has stolen our downtime and made us less creative and innovative.  “The good idea comes in the moment of rest. It comes in the shower.” Miranda says. “It comes when you’re doodling or playing trains with your son. ‘Hamilton’ forced me to double down on being awake to the inspirations of just living my life.” When smartphones are used to fill every down second of our days, we’re losing these moments of inspiration.

Is Miranda exaggerating? Consider research that Nancy Colier shares in her book, The Power of Off.  On average, people check their smartphones 150 times a day, or roughly every six minutes.  Young adults, Colier writes, send “an average of 110 texts per day” and are increasingly overexposed to online media.  Returning to the Times article, Brody shares a study conducted by the University of Maryland that showed that “a clear majority” of students experienced distress when they tried to go without their devices for a day.  And this isn’t just a phenomenon experienced in the U.S.  Students from across the globe report similar emotional reactions.  As a student from Mexico reported “It was an unpleasant surprise to realize that I am in a state of constant distraction, as if my real life and my virtual life were coexisting in different planes, but in equal time.”

So, what’s the big take-away? Often, with technological advances and innovations, we focus on the gains and improvements that occur.  With smartphones, we can communicate and interact with a larger population.  We have unlimited information at our fingertips. We can document our lives through text, images and video. But what have we lost with our smartphone usage?  While we think we’re filling a void by entertaining ourselves during “downtime, if Miranda and Colier are correct, we’re actually robbing ourselves of a powerful creative catalyst and becoming dependent on the flood of media that these devices supply.  While the phones have become smarter, can we say the same for ourselves?

Student Control and Value

I finished reading Sarah Rose Cavanagh’s book The Spark of Learning several weeks ago but I’m still reflecting on it and finding all sorts of applications to my teaching.  The book is intended to “energize the college classroom with the science of emotion.” More than this, however, the book is giving me a lens to review some recent challenges I’ve had with my classes and offers me some possible solutions for the upcoming semester.

In a lot of ways, last semester was “the best of times and the worst of times.” I partnered one of my classes with a local elementary school and my students developed instructional materials for use with the elementary students. The project itself is beneficial for my students.  The elementary classroom provides an authentic context in which to work.  Rather than studying instructional technology in the abstract, my students created and studied technology in real learning environments.  Talking to the elementary teachers and administrators, the project was a real success.  My students rose to the challenge and developed innovative instructional materials for use with the elementary classes.

While the district partners reacted very positively to the project, talking with my students would yield a very different perspective.  While I haven’t received my student evaluations from last semester yet, I’m anticipating some low ratings.  Since the project is really complex and (at times) messy, the students didn’t always react positively.  Some students were stressed and anxious. Some were sullen and angry. Other students were emotionally detached from the process completely and did not appear invested in the class at all.  During the semester, I had to navigate several tearful emotional breakdowns and had to intervene with quite a few group issues. Despite the successful project outcomes, it was a difficult semester for my students and for me.

In all honesty, this was one of the reasons that I sought out Dr. Cavanagh’s book. Since the students reacted so emotionally to the project, I felt a little more dedicated examination to the research on the connection between emotion and learning would be valuable.  The book covers a lot of ground and I wrote a few weeks ago about crossover and how instructors’ emotions can impact the emotions (and learning) of students.  While I don’t think crossover played much of a role in my students’ emotional responses to the project, another concept that Cavanagh presents clearly does.  Control-value theory is “based on the premise that appraisals of control and values are central to the arousal of achievement emotions, including activity-related emotions such as enjoyment, frustration, and boredom experienced at learning, as well as outcome emotions such as joy, hope, pride, anxiety, hopelessness, shame, and anger relating to success or failure” (Pekrun, 2006).  According to Cavanagh, students’ emotional responses to classroom activities are based on their assessment of two critical factors:  control and value.  In a classroom environment, students must “feel in control of the activities and outcomes that are important to them” and that “the activity or material represents meaning or worth.” Returning to my classroom project, while students might have seen the assignment as being valuable and having meaning to their future careers, they definitely didn’t feel in control.  Because of the messiness of the assignment, students didn’t often know the next steps in the project.  This lack of clarity (and control) fostered the negative reactions (stress, anger, detachment) that I witnessed during the class.

So, what am I going to do differently this semester?  First off, I’m still planning to do the project. I think the students see the value in the assignment.  The project has them working with real students in authentic classroom environments and I think my students see the value and relevancy of this experience.  Ultimately, however, I need to change how they appraise their control over the assignment.  I need to reduce some of the messiness and develop supports so students have more agency over their learning.  I need to make my expectations clearer and be a better facilitator and guide through the assignment.  Will these additions be enough to change how the students appraise their control and also how they perceive the project? I don’t know.  But I’ll probably have a better idea in a few months.  For now, I’m still studying Cavanagh’s book for ways to increase “the spark of learning.”

References:

Cavanagh, S. R.(2016). The Spark of Learning: Energizing the College Classroom with the Science of Emotion. Morgantown: West Virginia University Press.

Pekrun, R. (2006). The control-value theory of achievement emotions: Assumptions, corollaries, and implications for educational research and practice. Educational psychology review, 18(4), 315-341.

Best of 2016 – Part 2

As the new year begins, I thought I’d take this opportunity to review some of the most popular posts from 2016.  If you missed last week’s post, I shared the first half of the “Top Ten” list.  Happy New Year!

1. What’s Your Teaching Perspective?  This post, shared in May 2016, was the most visited and shared post of 2016.  The post examines the Teaching Perspective Inventory (TPI) and discusses how the TPI can be used (and potentially misused) in professional development and hiring situations.

2.  The Open Syllabus Project: Friend or Foe?  Written in January 2016, this post discusses how Columbia University has been collecting and analyzing syllabi as part of a collaborative open educational materials project.  While I’m a big supporter of open initiatives, I identify some of my reservations with the Open Syllabus Project in the post.

3. What’s Your Teaching Metaphor? Shared at the start of Fall 2016 semester, this post emerged from a discussion in a doctoral class where one of my students saw educators as “brokers” of learning.  That remark prompted me to do some research on “teaching metaphors” and how different instructors describe their roles.

4. The SAMR Model: A Critical Perspective.  Everyone loves the SAMR model of technology integration!  Okay, maybe not everyone.  In this post from May 2016, I share some of my reservations of the model.

5.  The Magic Pill of Online Teaching?  Written in January 2016, this post examines an instructional strategy for online learning environments that has been shown to have significant impacts on student success.