My Biggest Mistake

A colleague shared an article from the Chronicle of Higher Education that focused on whether university teachers should take attendance. The author, Kelli Marshall, draws on an essay from Murray Sperber and argues that, despite the mixed research on mandatory attendance policies, university faculty should forget about taking attendance. Marshall’s argument boils down to the three larger themes.

1. As instructors, we work with developing adults who need to take responsibility for the decisions.
2. Without an attendance policy, potentially disruptive students will choose not to attend.
3. Students choosing to attend can be viewed as an informal assessment of the class and the instructor.

While Marshall’s article offers some thought provoking fodder, it also reminded me of an attendance-related decision that I made over a decade ago. As I enter my 25th year of teaching, I count this decision as one of the biggest instructional mistakes I’ve made in my career.

I was teaching high school physics at the time and I had the privilege of teaching in a classroom that was the farthest point from the cafeteria. This always presented challenges, especially when teaching classes immediately after a lunch period. Because of the distance and the number of students walking in mass from the cafeteria, a few students would come to class late. One year, the occasional tardiness became a little more routine. Several students showed up late everyday, which I began to look as a complete affront to my power and legitimacy as a teacher. I had to do something.

I decided to institute a daily 10-point quiz that students completed when they walked into the room. If students were late, they wouldn’t get to take the quiz and their grade was impacted. After a few days, I had completely lost the class. They lost respect for me and many of the students who once enjoyed the class now saw it as a police state. As I created a policy to punish the students who were a few minutes late, I ended up punishing the whole class. I think some of the students never saw me the same way after instituting that policy.  That decision and the class’s reaction taught me two important lessons:

Pick your battles. Looking across the research the Marshall includes in her article, there are mixed results of instituting a mandatory attendance policy. One study, however, found that stressing over requiring attendance improved students’ rate of attendance, their academic performance and their attitudes about the class. I created a punitive policy that didn’t improve student tardiness but negatively impacted their perception of the class. Rather than instituting a punitive attendance policy, I should have just focused my attention on student learning and examined whether students’ tardiness had any impact on their academic performance.

Weigh the costs. In every instructional decision we make, there are larger impacts and costs. We may choose to spend more time on one subject, which causes us to spend less time on another. In this situation, I didn’t consider the larger cultural impacts of the decision and how it would affect students’ perception and attitude towards the class. And that’s the biggest lesson that I’ve learned from “my biggest mistake.” Classrooms are complex ecosystems that we as instructors need to manage with care. While some policies may seem to offer simple solutions, the resulting impacts are rarely simple.


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.

My Rules of Tech

When I was in high school, Mr. Haser was one of my favorite teachers. Mixed between his lessons on chemical bonding and electron configuration, Mr. Haser would blend in lessons about life. Through the course of the academic year, he introduced three self-proclaimed Haser’s laws. While it’s been over thirty years since I sat in Mr. Haser’s chemistry class, I can still recall each of his “laws.”

Haser’s first law: Hot glass looks like cold glass.
Haser’s second law: Your neighbor is dumber than you.
Haser’s third law: When in doubt, tell the truth.

While Haser’s first law is definitely subject specific, his other laws focus more on navigating the world honestly and with purpose.

In the spirit of Haser’s laws, I offer my Rules of Technology. While I’ve shared all of these in a class or presentation at some point, they’re not meant to solve all of your technological ills.  Instead, they offer some lighthearted advice for navigating your digital life. If you have a technological rule to share, feel free to write a comment below.

Technology Rule #1: Technology will break your heart. If not today, someday soon. You know the scenario. You have a major assignment due or you’re finishing some big project. And then… your computer crashes and you lose everything. When we least expect it or need it, our hard drives fail and our Internet goes down. Rule #1 communicates the personal toll that technology can play on our lives and echoes that age-old adage: Save and save often.

Technology Rule #2: Focus on being effective. You can work on perfection after that. This is my take on “don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.” Don’t stress over selecting the best PowerPoint slide color or the best font. Craft an effective message that clearly articulates your objectives. If you’re creating some instructional materials, make sure it effectively supports student learning. You can work on perfection after that.

Technology Rule #3: Almost everybody hates the sound of their recorded voice. This is actually somewhat research-based. Because of the structure of our inner ear, we hear our voices differently live than when we hear it through a recording. I offer this for all of those instructors who record screencasts for their students. Unless you’re William Shatner or Alex Trebek, you’re probably going to cringe when you hear your voice. It’s okay. You’re just like the rest of us.

Technology Rule #4: Wait to send that email! You know EXACTLY what I’m talking about. You’ve just received some snarky email from a student or a colleague and you’ve spent fifteen emotionally charged minutes crafting the perfect response. Wait. Just wait. Save the email to draft and review it tomorrow. With some time, you can evaluate whether you still feel the same way.

Technology Rule #5: Shut it off. Take a few minutes and shut off your phone and power down your laptop. Go take a walk or ride your bike. Our lives have become so digitally complex that we’re almost always connected. Shut it off. Some readers are probably worried that they’ll miss something important. Others are probably thinking how boring life would be without all of these devices. But research is emerging that shows that boredom can foster creativity and innovation, which is never a bad thing.

The Branded Teacher

I want to start this post by conveying my deepest respect for teachers. Over my 25 years of teaching in K-12 and higher education environments, I’ve worked with literally thousands of innovative and dedicated professionals. They spend countless hours creating lessons and grading papers and often spend hundreds of dollars out of their own money for classroom materials. They deserve our admiration and support.

I have concerns, though. But not with teachers’ quality or their dedication. Rather, I’m concerned about a growing trend in schools and in professional conferences: the branded teacher. If you know some teachers in schools, you likely know a Google Certified Innovator or an Apple Distinguished Educator.  Or maybe you know a Seesaw Teacher Ambassador or a Microsoft Innovative Educator Expert.  These are just a few of the big corporations who have developed branding relationships with educators. While these programs offer amazing professional development opportunities for teachers, I worry about the potential influence that these branding relationships could have on the profession, on our schools and on our students.

I first took notice of the potential influence of these branding relationships a few years ago when I served on the review committee for a statewide educational technology conference. As I reviewed conference proposals, I could see that some presentations appeared almost as if they were commercials for a specific technology. On some, a company representative was even listed as a co-presenter. After I raised concerns to the conference organizers, we tried to develop a more transparent review process to require proposers to disclose any existing branding relationships. The practice became pervasive enough that I chose to discontinue reviewing proposals for that conference.

One may ask, “So, what’s the big deal?” As I mentioned earlier, I have tremendous respect for teachers and I celebrate their efforts for professional growth and recognition. My concern lies with the potential influence these branding relationship can have on our schools. But I’m not the only one. Last week, the New York Times published an article detailing how widespread these branding relationships are and how some lawmakers and education experts have concerns. In the article, a Columbia University professor worries that some teachers can be “seduced to make greater use of the technology, given these efforts by tech companies.” A Maine attorney general explained, “any time you are paying a public employee to promote a product in the public classroom without transparency, then that’s problematic.”

As I’ve mentioned in the past, I am unaffiliated with any corporation. I serve on the advisory board of two conferences, but I regularly disclose that information when I’m working with colleagues or when I’m blogging about my experiences with those groups. I have chosen to remain unaffiliated because I didn’t want my students or my colleagues to question my opinions or my advice.  Whether good or bad, my recommendations are not built on any relationships I have with any company, corporation or group.  They are my own.

To be clear, I’m not criticizing any teacher for developing a branding relationship with a company. For some schools, a teacher’s participation in a branding program can help the district acquire much needed technology or supplies. Also, with the low salaries that some teachers are paid, I totally understand their desire to seek additional compensation. But I worry about the ethical implications these relationships create. For instance, when I go for a medical check-up, I would hope that any prescription or treatment that my doctor recommends would be based on my needs as a patient and not on the doctor’s prior relationship with a pharmaceutical company. But that might not the case.  In a 2016 study of 280,000 doctors, researchers found that physicians’ “receipt of industry-sponsored meals was associated with an increased rate of prescribing the promoted brand-name medication to patients.” I think that many people would find that level of influence concerning.

And that’s my concern about branding relationships in education. Studies have found that teachers make over 1500 educational decisions each day. I worry that too many of those decisions are guided by the tacit influence of branding relationships with corporations rather than on the influence of best practices or from educational research.

Everyone is Successful in the End

I can remember the moment vividly. I was in a meeting several years ago that was examining campus retention trends. An administrator was sharing data that showed that number of the students who had left the university. While some had transferred to other institutions, other students had quit pursuing a degree entirely. The data were pretty eye opening and sparked a great deal of discussion.

One of my colleagues was aghast. “How could so many students just simply quit?” he asked. We discussed the challenges that some of our students face.  Some are working multiple jobs. Others are single parents. Maybe a few are caring for loved ones or experiencing financial difficulties. As a public university, our students often need to navigate a whole host of challenges in order to succeed.

My colleague still couldn’t believe it. “Why would they just quit?” he asked. Before we go too far down this story, my colleague grew up in Africa and, from what he’s shared in this meeting and in other discussions I’ve had with him, it’s clear he understands challenges intimately and personally. Yet, he couldn’t comprehend why any student would give up. And that’s when he said something that created a fair amount of cognitive dissonance for me.

“In my culture,” he explained, “everyone is successful in the end.”

I have to admit. At first, I didn’t understand what he was saying. So, I pushed back a little. “What do you mean?” I asked.

“We don’t have the luxury of failure. Only success.  Everyone is successful in the end.”

Still, I struggled with his message.  “I don’t get it. Everyone is successful? How can that be? Everyone is successful?” I said, stressing the word “everyone.

My colleague smiled. “Everyone is successful in the end,” he reiterated. “If someone isn’t successful, it’s just not the end.”

That’s when the light went off. It wasn’t a cultural mantra about success or some message about the exceptional native abilities of his country mates. It was a mantra about work ethic and effort and persistence. The motto communicated that things are always going to be tough and challenges will always present themselves. But don’t give up. Keep working and you’ll be successful. You only stop when you’ve achieved success.

What I like about this story is the clash of cultures represented by my colleague and me. While I believe in the power of the growth mindset and grit, my colleague has lived it and embraces it as a cultural standard. And maybe that’s what should be happening more. While we communicate the need for persistence and perseverance in our classrooms, large portions of society still celebrate the savants, natural athletes and child geniuses. We need a cultural shift, one that communicates that success isn’t a gift for a few but a struggle achievable by all.

Resources for Teaching Larger Classes

I received an email from a colleague recently asking about resources for teaching larger classes. Clearly, teaching larger classes presents unique challenges that smaller classes do not. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re only able to lecture to them. Here are some resources to help you better engage students and support their learning in your larger class.

Think like a tutor. This advice comes from a Faculty Focus post written by Dr. Maryellen Weimer, author of Learner-Centered Teaching. Rather than offering a list of teaching strategies for working with students in large classes, Weimer takes a different approach and discusses the qualities that instructors of large classes need to embrace. Weimer advises that professors of large classes need to be nurturant, socratic, progressive, indirect, reflective, and encouraging. While the post doesn’t provide specifics about how to navigate the challenges of large classrooms, it offers a mindset for how to accomplish this task successfully.

Focus on effective strategies. The Center for Teaching at Vanderbilt University houses a treasure trove of strategies for teaching large classes. They recognize that in some situations teaching a large class can feel like managing “a small city.” In their teaching guide, they offer practical strategies for taking attendance, dealing with cheating, integrating technology and grading student work.

Make it active. Can active learning work in large classrooms?  Absolutely. Check out this research that was published in Teaching and Learning Inquiry: The ISSOTL Journal. Physics professors incorporated peer instruction strategies in classes with more than 200 students and found significant improvements over traditional, lecture-based instruction. In focus group interviews, students in the large classes reported that they “love the Physics classes because they’re actually good fun.” Rather than sitting silently and taking notes, students in peer instruction environments interact with their classmates to help make sense of the material.  As one student commented, “that’s when I learn the most. That is revolutionary.”

Mix it up. While peer instruction is one effective active learning strategy for large classrooms, there are others that work too.  In this article from Cell Biology, the authors share seven active learning strategies that can be infused specifically in large-enrollment classroom.  While the article leans heavily on science-related topics, the strategies can be successfully implement in almost any course.

Find what works for you. That’s the advice from Dr. Sallie M. Ives, the director of the Faculty Center for Teaching at UNC Charlotte.  She writes, “there is no one way to teach a large class. We have to take into account our teaching style, the characteristics of our students, and the goals and objectives of our course.” With these contexts in mind, Ives offers a Survival Handbook that provides practical solutions to managing the chaos that can sometimes occur in large classes.  Still need some help? Check out Tips for Teaching Large Classes written by Dr. Jenny Lloyd-Strovas from the Teaching, Learning and Professional Development Center at Texas Tech University.


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.