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.


Poverty and Cognitive Function

It was another odd intersection of work and media for me last week. Let me start with some workplace observations. For the last five or six years, I have served on my university’s Academic Standards committee. The committee adjudicates dismissal hearings for students who have had academic difficulties. Typically, students who don’t perform well will go through a semester or two on academic probation before being suspended from the university. Depending on mitigating circumstances, the Academic Standards committee may rule that a student deserves a second chance and will reverse an academic suspension. While many of the students who are dismissed lack the maturity or self-discipline for collegiate work, it’s not always the case. During my tenure on the committee, I’ve heard all sorts of heart breaking stories involving illnesses, death, assault and so much more. It’s a difficult committee on which to serve.

We had academic hearings last week and it usually causes me to reflect on my work on campus and whether we as an institution are doing enough to support students who have encountered academic challenges. Looking back over the cases we adjudicated last week, I remember several students who were juggling jobs to pay for school and tuition and to maintain a decent quality of life. Although many of these students were probably receiving financial aid, it wasn’t enough to cover their schooling and life expenses. Throw in the academic challenges from their collegiate classes and these students had a lot on their plates. As our committee meets with these students and discusses their futures, we usually recommend that the students dedicate more time to schooling and reduce their work hours when they return to school. It has always seemed like a pretty reasonable recommendation, but now I’m not so sure.

My doubt comes from a study I heard on the Freakonomics podcast last Friday. The research studied 464 sugar cane farmers over a harvest season and the impacts that changing states of wealth had on the farmers’ “cognitive capacity.” Sugar cane farmers harvest their crops once a year and they’re usually the wealthiest immediately after their harvest. As the year progresses, however, the farmers gradually become poorer until they’re barely making ends meet as they ready to harvest their crops again.  The researchers wondered what impacts these financial changes would have on the farmers intellectual ability. To study this, the researchers administered several cognitive tests pre-harvest and post-harvest and surprisingly found statistically significant differences.  The authors write:

“We found that the same farmer shows diminished cognitive performance before harvest, when poor, as compared with after harvest, when rich. This cannot be explained by differences in time available, nutrition, or work effort. Nor can it be explained with stress. Although farmers do show more stress before harvest, that does not account for diminished cognitive performance. Instead, it appears that poverty itself reduces cognitive capacity.”

This study has forced me to re-evaluate my work on the Academic Standards committee and some of the recommendations we’ve made. I know that poverty is a complex issue and lots of smart people have dedicated their careers developing policies to combat it. I worry, however, whether colleges and universities (or ANY school, for that matter) has done enough to recognize and overcome the educational impacts that poverty can cause. While “reducing work hours” may sound like good advice, it’s difficult to defend if it may actually be causing economic hardships that further “diminishes cognitive performance” for students.

Mani, A., Mullainathan, S., Shafir, E., & Zhao, J. (2013). Poverty impedes cognitive function. Science, 341(6149), 976-980.

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.

Are you being authentic?

Last week, Inside Higher Education highlighted a study that was published recently in Communication Education. The research conducted by Johnson and LaBelle examined instructor behaviors that influenced students’ views of teacher authenticity and (in)authenticity and how those behaviors manifested themselves in classroom contexts. Before I delve into the findings, I thought I’d set the stage a little.  The study was conducted by two researchers who work in the field of instructor communication where they examine “not only the way that messages are constructed and delivered to persuade and inform students (i.e., the rhetorical perspective), but also the way that teachers and students use messages to mutually create and develop relationships with one another (i.e., the relational perspective)” (p. 2). They argue that this dual purpose of instructor communication makes examining teacher authenticity important.  Johnson and LaBelle write, “the authenticity of the message delivery likely impacts student perceptions of teachers, and subsequently the teacher-student relationship” (p. 2).  By impacting student perceptions and relationships, the authors suggest, teacher authenticity can also impact student learning.

In their study, Johnson and LaBelle invited students to list qualities and behaviors from authentic and (in)authentic teachers.  Almost 300 students responded to the call and the researchers used a grounded theory approach to code the responses. Looking at the developed codes, the researchers found that students perceived authentic teachers to be approachable, passionate, attentive and capable. In contrast, (in)authentic teachers were viewed as unapproachable, lacking passion, inattentive, incapable and disrespectful.  Digging deeper into the indicators that related to each code, authentic teachers made themselves available to students, talked to them before and after class, got excited about the content they were teaching and were prompt and organized.  (In)authentic teachers ignored students outside of class, avoided questions, didn’t know students names and did not offer assistance when their students were struggling.  Surprisingly, the majority of the indicators provided by students had little to do with an instructor’s content knowledge or their expertise. The researchers write that “descriptions of a teacher’s lack of knowledge or incompetence regarding material were less recurrent and forceful within the data.”  In fact, across the list of indicators provided in the study, only one directly connected to these aspects; instructors who were “unfamiliar with material” were perceived as inauthentic because students viewed them as being “incapable.” Interestingly, students also viewed instructors who read directly from Powerpoint slides or from a book as being “incapable.”

Lately, it appears that more and more research is emerging that highlights the importance of the affective dimensions of teaching. While Johnson and LaBelle’s study contributes to this conversation, it also offers an additional perspective. While institutions of higher education value professors’ content knowledge and research acumen, students overwhelmingly see teacher immediacy, empathy, and helpfulness as being the more important indicators of an instructor’s authenticity and ability.  Just to be clear, Johnson and LaBelle are not suggesting that instructor competence isn’t an important factor for teaching and learning. In their study, however, participating students gravitated to the relational aspects of teaching over the rhetorical ones when examining an instructor’s authenticity or (in)authenticity.  From my point of view, this is an important finding.

We instructors like to identify ourselves as teaching organic chemistry or teaching anatomy and physiology or teaching philosophy. More importantly, we have to remember that we’re teaching students and their learning is dependent on the positive, supportive teacher/student relationships we foster.

A Rare Sighting

Collectors consider a Honus Wagner baseball card to be one of rarest.  A “near mint-mint” copy sold for $2.8 Million in 2007.

Action Comics #1 was released in 1938 and features the first appearance of Superman. While it originally sold for ten cents, collectors consider a near-perfect copy one of the rarest comic books.  A copy sold for $3 Million on eBay in 2014.

Reportedly, there are only six known copies of Shakespeare’s signature in existence, which is pretty surprising considering how much he’s written. Collectors consider his autograph to be one of the rarest.

This post isn’t about collecting things.  Or about Superman. Or Shakespeare. Or even about baseball.  It’s about rare stuff.  It’s about the things you don’t see everyday.

I started a new online class last week and the first assignment was due recently. One of the first activities I have my online students complete is recording an introductory video. The students share their majors, their hobbies and their goals for the class.  I usually pair this with some readings so the students have to make sense of course content at the same time. As I was watching the recorded introduction, one video stuck out.  While the class is a required course in several education programs, Mark (not his real name) isn’t pursuing a degree in the field. Although he’s a graduate student on campus, Mark is enrolled a program pretty far removed from education. I wondered whether he was misadvised or had accidentally signed up for the wrong class. As the add/drop period just ended, I worried that maybe Mark would be stuck in a class he hadn’t planned to take.  So, I emailed him.

My email went something like this.

“Mark, I’m wondering why you’re taking our Educational Technology class. Don’t get me wrong. I’m glad you’re in the class but I’m wondering about your future goals and how this class fits in with them. Did your advisor recommend taking this class? I’m trying to get a handle on your plans and how I can support them.”

Mark responded almost immediately. He shared a personal story about his journey to class. While I won’t go into a lot detail about that, his rationale for taking the class is what made this interaction (and him) really rare.  He wrote:

“I’m taking this class because I felt it would be a good fit for me. It’s not required for my program or anything but it will help me learn about some of the newer technologies that I’m unfamiliar with. This was a personal pick for the summer.  I felt it would be a positive addition to my existing knowledge.”

I’ve been teaching at the collegiate level for the last decade. This is the first time that I can remember that a student took one of my classes just for the sake of learning. The class wasn’t going to satisfy a check box on his transcript, help him maintain state certification or reach some contractual requirement at his school district.  While those are common reasons that people enroll in my classes, Mark was motivated by something different. He recognized gaps in his own knowledge and expertise and wanted to fill them. He was here just to learn. And that makes him pretty rare.