A Good Conference Session?

With my role as the director of my institution’s Teaching and Learning Center, I attend a fair amount of conferences that focus on faculty development, innovative pedagogies and emergent teaching practices. Over the years, I’ve also attended a number of face-to-face sessions and webinars to inform the types of programming that I could offer on campus and the evidence-based instructional practices I could promote with my colleagues. Although I’ve attended some great sessions over the years, I’ve also sat through many unrewarding presentations that lacked focus or didn’t present any real usable information. After attending a horrible session a few years ago, I penned a post entitled “Presenting to Colleagues” that attempted to offer some suggestions to inform the design and delivery of conference sessions. Reading back over the suggestions (complement your slides, don’t recite them; engage your audience, provide a roadmap early, etc.), it’s clear that I was focusing on the mechanisms of presentations. After attending several great keynote sessions recently, I may have a different set of criteria to offer.

The Magna Teaching with Technology conference was held this weekend in Baltimore, MD. In full disclosure, I was the conference chair and helped to select the amazing keynotes that we heard. Julie Smith (author of Master the Media) and Josè Antonio Bowen (author of Teaching Naked) offered inspiring and insightful bookends to a Saturday full of thought-provoking sessions. It was Peter Doolittle’s Friday night plenary, however, that has me seeing conference presentations in new ways. In his keynote on Teaching, Learning, Technology, Memory and Research, Doolittle offered the audience three simple questions to use when attending one of the conference’s sessions:

  1. Where’s the processing?
  2. Where’s the design?
  3. Where’s the research?

While Doolittle offered this simple rubric as a way to assess the instructional practices that presenters offered, I thought it would be a good tool for creating strong conference presentations. While I know this won’t apply to many disciplinary conference sessions, if you’re facilitating a teaching and learning session, you should consider the following:

Where’s the processing?
In my original post, I argued that presenters needed to engage the audience. But engagement isn’t enough. Good presenters give attendees the opportunity to process the material being presented. This means more than providing five or ten minutes at the end of the session for questions. A simple strategy would be to build a few “think/pair/share” questions in throughout your session. Get the attendees to make sense of what you’re presenting and to see how the content you’re sharing applies to them and their institution.

Where’s the design?
Good conference sessions are designed to balance sharing information and fostering interaction. Learning, even during a conference session, is a social process and good facilitators design their sessions so that attendees learn from interacting with the content and with one another.

Where’s the research?
This is a big one for me. I want to see an evidence base behind the strategies and technologies being proposed. If someone is suggesting that attendees restructure an assignment, incorporate some novel instructional strategy or redesign an entire course, the presenter better be sharing some larger research base or offering some larger instructional framework to ground their work.  Share your citations and offer any data that can show the impact of the strategies you’re sharing.

While I know this three-question rubric won’t solve every presentation misstep, it may help to make your session more rewarding for attendees. By focusing on the underlying educational processes at play in a conference session, you can make your session a better learning experience for all.


What motivates you?

As some regular readers may know, I’m the Director of the Teaching and Learning Center on my campus. Technically, the Center is called the Center for Academic Excellence (CAE) but part of the mission is “to provide professional development across the teaching-learning scholarship spectrum.” With the busy lives that many faculty have, some of my colleagues find it difficult to participate in the professional development opportunities that the Center offers. As I prepared my year-end report, I could see that some faculty members engaged regularly in professional development offerings while others hardly participated at all. While I don’t pass judgement on my colleagues’ professional development choices, I often wonder what motivates some faculty to participate and engage while others do not.

I came across an article recently which may help to shed some light. Written by Jon Wergin in 2001, the article examines forty years of research on faculty motivation and found that four common factors emerged across different studies: autonomy, community, recognition and efficacy. While the factors are interdependent and intertwined, they also act independently to impact and guide faculty decision making. As I thought about the different factors, I reflected on how each played a role in my work, not only as professional developer but as a faculty member on campus.

“Professional autonomy,” Wergin writes, “is the freedom to experiment, to follow one’s own leads wherever they may go and to so without fear of the consequences.” While autonomy arises from our pursuit of new knowledge and understandings, it is also the foundation upon which academic freedom is built.  We can feel empowered when we have the flexibility to participate or shut down when we feel controlled or manipulated.

Despite our autonomy as faculty, we are also part of a larger community. Wergin writes that faculty possess a “desire to belong, to feel part of a nurturing community.” As we serve on committees and engage in activities in campus, we get to meet new colleagues and develop a sense of our roles in the larger collegiate environment.  When we lack a sense of community, we can feel isolated, uninspired and unmotivated.

I think everyone wants their work to be appreciated and recognized. Whether it’s receiving a thank you note from a student or receiving a compliment from a colleague, we all want “to feel valued and to know that others see (our) work as worthwhile.” The lack of recognition can also impact our work. I’m sure we’ve all experienced moments when our contributions were forgotten or our efforts weren’t highlighted.

Efficacy, Wergin writes, “is a sense of having a tangible impact on our environment.” As we work to have our work be appreciated and recognized, we also want to know that our efforts made a difference and have contributed to some greater goal. Our lack of efficacy can also impact our work. I know I’ve participated on several committees and initiatives that I realized would have little impact on campus. In hindsight, the lack of efficacy was demotivating.

As I reflect on my own experiences as a college faculty member, I can see these four factors as playing a role in the high points and low points of my career over the last decade. While I plan to use Wergin’s work to inform programming and efforts in the CAE, I will also use it as a guide for interacting with colleagues and supporting their work.

Wergin, J. F. (2001). Beyond Carrots and Sticks: What Really Motivates Faculty. Liberal Education, 87(1), 50-53.

My summer reading list

This post has become somewhat of an annual ritual.  Each May, I make a list of books that I plan to read that will broaden my perspectives and recharge my pedagogical batteries.  These aren’t books that I’ll necessarily be bringing to the pool or the beach with me but they will help me prepare for the upcoming academic year.  I’m open to other suggestions so if you’ve read something interesting recently be sure to share it in the comments section below. I’ve ordered the books chronologically in the order I plan to read them.

  1. Raising Race Questions: Whiteness & Inquiry in Education:  While we’d like to think that our campuses are becoming more inclusive and supportive of diversity, recent events nationally and locally have proven otherwise. I’m reading this book by Ali Michael in preparation for a Faculty Learning Community (FLC) this fall.  I’m hoping that it will spark some conversations and promote some change on campus.
  2. Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City: A colleague led a FLC on this book this semester.  While I wasn’t able to participate in the discussion, I was able to snag a copy for myself.  Written by Matthew Desmond, the book explores the lives of eight families living in the poorest neighborhoods in Milwaukee.  While it may not be the most uplifting book I’ll read this summer, it’s may be one of the most important.
  3. Advancing the Culture of Teaching on Campus: Shelve this book in the Teaching & Learning Nerd section of the bookstore. I’m entering my fifth year as the director of our university’s Center for Academic Excellence (CAE) and I’m looking for new ways to “make a difference” on campus.  Edited by Constance Cook and Matthew Kaplan, the book shares strategies and perspectives from the University of Michigan’s Center for Research on Learning and Teaching.  I’m hoping that the book will help me reflect on the professional development programs that the CAE offers and consider new ways to reach faculty.
  4. The New Faculty Member: No, I’m not leaving my job. After years of offering an informal mentoring program for new faculty, this fall, the CAE is going to offer a more formalized mentoring process. In a recent blog post, I wrote about some of my recent interactions with junior faculty on campus and the stress and anguish from navigating the tenure and promotion process. I’m hoping that the mentoring program will help.  While The New Faculty Member was written in 1992, I have always found Robert Boice’s words to transcend across eras.
  5. The Courage to Teach: It’s hard to believe that it’s been almost twenty years since Parker Palmer released this inspiring examination of what makes a good teacher a good teacher. While I’ve read the Courage to Teach numerous times, I feel that it’s time to revisit it once again. After reading the Spark of Learning by Sarah Rose Cavanagh last fall and leading a FLC on the book this spring, I’m expecting to find new parallels between Palmer’s words and the cognitive research that Cavanagh shares.

My 2014 Reading List
My 2015 Reading List
My 2016 Reading List

The Challenges with Teaching Online

Some colleagues and I have been surveying online teachers in K-12 and collegiate environments to determine the areas that they feel are critical to online teaching success and which areas are ones in which they often struggle.  After conducting some focus groups last year, we developed a comprehensive survey that we sent out to a few hundred online teachers earlier this year.  Our goal was to examine the most challenging areas that online teachers encounter with the hopes of informing our work with our online teaching colleagues and preservice teachers who may teach online in the future.  We’re pouring through the data now and trying to make sense of the responses.  While I won’t bore you with the analysis that we’re doing, I thought I’d share a few preliminary findings and discuss their importance.

Building rapport with online students can be challenging.  Looking at the data, this was one of the areas that immediately stood out.  While participating teachers identified this as an important aspect to online teaching success, they also reported that this was one of the more difficult things they had to do as online teachers.  This item saw the greatest standard deviation across all of the questions on the survey, showing that while some teachers feel pretty comfortable doing this in their online classes, others struggled with it. Understanding the importance of “social presence” in online classes, I was pretty surprised to see this aspect of online learning so well represented in the survey results.

Establishing routines and procedures in online classes is important. Across the surveyed online teachers, this area was rated as one of the most critical aspects to online teaching success.  Recalling a US News article I shared a few years ago on this blog, provided clear, structured experiences for students is really important for quality online instruction.  Here’s the surprising part, though.  While responding online teachers found this area important, they also rated their ability to do it as really high.  When assessing their own abilities, online teachers rated “establishing routines and procedures” as the area they felt most comfortable across all of the survey items.  The item also had one of the lowest standard deviations.  From the data, it’s pretty clear that while online teachers feel that establishing routines and procedures is important, they also feel pretty confident that they’re doing it well.

Providing feedback is critical to online students’ success.  As we examined the data, this was another surprising finding.  Online teachers working in both K-12 and collegiate settings reported this as one of the most important aspects to effective online instruction.  Looking back at a blog post from a few years ago, I wrote that online teachers needed to be VOCAL.  Building on an article in the Journal of Interactive Online Learning, the post discussed how the VOCAL acronym identified that online teachers needed to be visible, organized, compassionate, analytical and a leader-by-example.  In my post, I offered a revision where assessment and feedback replaced being analytical.  Looking at the data from the surveyed teachers, it’s clear they also see the importance of these areas.  The great part is that the online teachers rated their ability to provide feedback as being high.

Now, it’s important to remember that these findings are based on self-reported data from surveyed online teachers.  With the number of respondents and the ongoing data analysis, however, we’re hoping to more clearly define the challenging areas for online teachers.  Ultimately, we plan to use these data to inform professional development opportunities on campus and the courses in our online teacher preparation program.


Making Learning Significant

Over the course of a semester, I’ll attend a number of webinars.  Since the quality of webinars can differ greatly in quality and value, I’ve adopted a simple metric to gauge whether my attendance and participation was worthwhile.

Did I learn something new?

While it may sound like a pretty low bar for attending a professional development session, it’s surprising the number of webinars that don’t meet this standard.  Take a webinar I attended last week.  To avoid publicly criticizing the session, I won’t identify the subject or the presenter here but it clearly didn’t meet my “something new” standard. At several points, the presenter stopped the session to poll the group on our collective prior knowledge.  For almost every question the presenter asked, more than 95% of the attendees answered correctly.  While the polling demonstrated that the vast majority of the attendees already knew the topic in depth, the presenter went on to explain the concepts that most of us already knew.  Was the session worthwhile?  Hardly.

Earlier in the semester, however, I attended a webinar that still has me thinking.  The webinar, organized by Faculty Focus, discussed how Learning Assessment Techniques (LATs) could be used to gauge and promote student learning.  During the session, the presenter, Dr. Elizabeth Barkley, showed real examples from her class that demonstrated how LATs could be incorporated in face-to-face and online classes.  While the presentation and content was interesting, it was the framework that she used to organize the LATs that made really stop and ponder.

In my teaching, I typically draw on Bloom’s Taxonomy to examine the levels of learning I’m targeting with my students. Dr. Barkley, however, introduced a different taxonomy with which my colleagues in attendance and I were not familiar. The Taxonomy for Significant Learning was developed be Dee Fink and targets learning at the collegiate level.  Since this was a new framework for me, I did some research so I could offer a short overview here.  Like Bloom’s Taxonomy, Fink’s taxonomy has six different levels of learning. These include:

1. Foundational Knowledge:  Similar to Bloom’s Knowledge and Comprehension levels, Foundational Knowledge involves remembering and understanding information and important concepts and ideas.

2. Application:  This level is also represented in Bloom’s Taxonomy.  This represents learning where students are required to problem solve, think critically and manage complex projects.

3. Integration:  This is the first major departure from Bloom.  Here, students are expected to connect ideas, people and realms of life.  Students attempt to recognize similarities and connections across subjects to look for patterns and interactions.

4. Human Dimension: Here, students learn about themselves and others and develop an understanding of interpersonal dimensions at play in the world around them.

5. Caring:  At this level, students develop new interests, values and feelings through classroom interactions.  By participating in lesson and discussions, students change the way they emotionally connect to something.

6. Learning How to Learn: Here, Fink introduces a metacognitive level.  At this level, students develop new ways to learn and may identify better ways to self-direct their learning.

By introducing several socio-emotional levels, it’s clear that Fink takes a broader view to the learning process than Bloom’s cognitive-based taxonomy does.  It’s also important to recognize that Fink identifies “significant learning” as processes where the different levels interact with one another. Think of those rich activities and lessons where students make connections beyond the content and learn about themselves and the world in the process. That’s significant learning in Fink’s view.

While Barkley’s webinar didn’t prompt me to incorporate Learning Assessment Techniques, it introduced me to the Taxonomy of Significant Learning.  At this point, I’m still mentally working through Fink’s taxonomy but I’m considering retooling some lessons and activities to better target additional levels of learning. I doubt that any webinar would be identified as being significant according to Fink’s taxonomy. Since I learned something new in Barkley’s LAT webinar, however, I definitely consider the session “worthwhile.”




On my summer reading list

It’s finals week at my institution so I’ve started to compile my annual book list of professional literature that I’m hoping to tackle during summer break. I’m open to other suggestions so if you’ve read something interesting recently be sure to share it in the comments section below. I’ve ordered the books chronologically in the order I plan to read them.

  1. Small teaching: Everyday lessons from the science of learning: In this book, James Lang discusses practical ways to incorporate cognitive science into collegiate classrooms. I recently re-read Lang’s book Cheating Lessons as part of a faculty learning community. I’m certain that Lang’s new book will continue to expand the way I approach my teaching roles on campus.
  2. Discussion in the college classroom: This book, written by Jay R. Howard, explores ways to increase the academic discourse that occurs in our classrooms.  Discussions are one of the most widely used instructional strategies on campus and I’m hoping the book will help me facilitate more engaging discussions in my online and face-to-face classrooms.
  3. The work of play:  I recently re-read James Paul Gee’s book What video games can teach us about literacy and learning.  I continue to be amazed at the level of involvement that games can foster with some of the most disengaged students. This book, written Aaron Chia Yuan Hung, examines how video games represent new literacies and captures digital epistemologies. While I’m sure it’s going to be a dense read, I always enjoy books that make my head hurt.
  4. How we learn: The surprising truth about when, where and why it happens: While I like to think I’m up on educational research, I always to like to read new texts that can broaden my perspective. Written by award-winning New York Times science reporter Benedict Carey, this book seeks to challenge long-held beliefs about learning and attention.
  5. Girls & sex: Navigating the complicated new landscape: Besides being a college instructor and a campus professional developer, I’m a father of a teenage girl. Last summer, I read It’s Complicated by Danah Boyd which explored how teenagers use social networks and other digital communication tools. Girls & sex, written by Peggy Orenstein, examines how teenage girls are negotiating a complex sexual terrain that is influenced by mixed signals sent by popular culture and social media.

Where do we start?

I came across a study recently that sort of stopped me in my tracks.  The study made absolute sense but the presentation really made me think about how I offer professional development for faculty and how I teach my students on campus.  Here’s a synopsis.

In a study involving 13 different professors at a large university in Canada, researchers examined how participants visualized effective teaching and the types of learning strategies they used.  The researchers also examined the types of instructional objectives the participants had for their students and how they integrated technology into their classroom.  Through the interviews, the researchers were able to categorize the participating professors into three different categories based on their models of effective teaching:  teacher-centered, engagement-centered or learning-centered.  This categorization on its own isn’t that surprising.  We all work with colleagues who are teacher-centered and lecture through classes.  We have colleagues who work to provide engaging classes and others who focus heavily on their students’ development.  The interesting part, however, is how these categorizations matched with the professors’ instructional strategies, learning objectives and levels of technology integration.  Professors who were categorized as “teacher-centered” tended to use instructional strategies and technologies that supported didactic, lecture-based classrooms.  The professors who were categorized as being “engagement-centered” tended to use strategies and technologies that reflected this framework.  The ones who were categorized as being “learning-centered” used technologies and teaching strategies that supported this.

On first glance, this research shouldn’t be that surprising.  If instructors believe that students learn a certain way, it makes sense that their chosen strategies and technologies match those beliefs.  The challenge, however, is that the professors in the study were all placed in active learning classrooms where the tools, technologies and classroom layout were designed to support collaborative learning.  While the instructors had access to means to support engagement-centered or learning-centered teaching, they chose teaching-centered instruction.

So, why do I find this research article so powerful?  I think it comes down to how institutions drive innovation.  Many schools and colleges are investing in building new learning spaces and incorporating new technologies into their institutions.  The hope is that these new tools and spaces on their own will act as catalysts to spark innovative teaching practices.  But that’s not how it happens.  To really change practice, fundamental beliefs of teaching and learning have to be addressed.  Simply building new classrooms or purchasing new computers isn’t going to make an impact.  We have to start with learning.

But that’s also the disheartening part of the research.  We know that active learning works.  But the inertia of teacher-centered instruction is overpowering.  It’s the model that many instructors experienced as students and in which they were successful.  These lived histories inform their pedagogical beliefs and impact the instructional strategies they employ and the instructional technologies they use.  While we can provide access and training for different ways of teaching and integrating technology, the reality is unless we promote evidence-based conceptualizations of how students learn, our efforts won’t make much of an impact.


Gebre, E, Saroyan, A. & Aulls, M. (2015). Conceptions of effective teaching and perceived use of computer technologies in active learning classrooms.  International Journal of Teaching and Learning in Higher Education, 27 (2), 204-220.