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.


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

Learning to See

I attended an interesting professional development session this afternoon.  Offered through the university’s teaching and learning center, the session involved two online teachers showcasing the design and organization of their virtual classroom spaces. One of the presenters who has been teaching online for years discussed how he organizes his class primarily to manage due dates and to communicate classroom expectations. Another presenter with an art and design background explained that he looks at his online classroom space from a very different perspective. When he builds his course, he systematically uses typography and hierarchy to communicate the importance of concepts and to help students focus on the course material and processes that he deems as being the most critical. Hearing the presenters discuss their instructional decision- making and their classroom design, it was clear that their backgrounds and expertise informed their choices.

A few attendees shared other perspectives, however. The session was attended by two of the instructional designers on campus. While both have worked individually with the presenters, their views of the course designs were very different. When they looked at the courses being shared, the instructional designers commented the courses’ ADA compliance and how organization of content helped to support student learning and participation. While these different viewpoints amicably collided in the session, they also offered a more complete picture of the way our students will navigate an online class.

These kinds of conversations are important and need to happen more regularly. Besides helping us improve our online courses by offering peer review, these discussions also help us recognize the “professional vision” shared by our colleagues and offer us new ways to see. The term “professional vision” may be new to some readers.  It comes from a 1994 research study in American Anthropologist, where Charles Goodwin examines how beginning archaeologists develop their ways of seeing.  Introducing the term “professional vision,” Goodwin writes that it is a “socially organized ways of seeing and understanding events that are answer to the distinctive interests of a particular social group” (p. 606). In his conceptualization, professional vision is a way of seeing that is unique to an individual profession or field.  It’s how a police officer can view a crime scene and see evidence that an average citizen would miss.  It’s how an archaeologist can look at a patch of discolored mud and see a decayed fence post.  It’s how a therapist can examine a patient and identify signs of stress, depression and anxiety.

In Goodwin’s view, one of the critical practices to professional vision is the ability to “articulate graphical representations,” to explicitly examine visual artifacts and apply the theories and ways of knowing that are unique to an individual profession.  These “ways of knowing” are learned through participation in communities of practice.  Veteran police officers train rookies.  Experienced counselors train beginners through practicum sessions.   Novice archaeologists study dirt alongside experts in the field who help them learn what to see. Each of our ways of seeing and knowing is distinct to the communities in which we’ve been enculturated and learned.

And that’s what played out in the professional development session today. With the variety of the backgrounds of the people involved, each offered a different professional vision, which informed how they built their own course and how they reviewed the course design of others. Considering these different perspectives, one may wonder, “whose professional vision is valid?” When designing an online course, I think it’s important that we consider multiple points of view and build our classroom spaces to coherently draw on as many as possible.  Developing different ways of seeing can help us recognize potential gaps with our design and better attend to the needs of more learners.

Reimagining Tech in Higher Ed

Earlier this year, the Office of Educational Technology released a sweeping report examining how technology can be used to foster student-centered learning in institutions of higher education in the United States. The report is a supplement to the National Educational Technology Plan released by the office in 2016 that offered a similar vision of educational technology in K12 schools. Titled Reimagining the Role of Technology in Higher Education, this report clearly focuses on the challenges and opportunities that colleges and universities face.   For instance, the document starts with an overview of the “new normal” students currently enrolled in higher education.  Drawing on data from the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), the report identifies that 74% of undergraduate students have at least on “nontraditional characteristic.”  Maybe they have transfer from another institution (66%).  Or maybe they work a part-time or full time job (62%). They may also have a dependent (26%) or be a first-generation college student (63%). Factor in those students who are attending part time (43%) and those who are enrolled in two-year colleges (35%) and you can see that the “nontraditional” umbrella is really inclusive. Recognizing this student population, the report asserts that:

technology must serve the needs of a diverse group of students seeking access to high-quality postsecondary learning experiences, especially those students from diverse socioeconomic and racial backgrounds, students with disabilities, first-generation students, and working learners at varying life stages— all with differing educational goals, but who all share the desire to obtain a postsecondary credential.” (p. 4)

To meet this end, the report offers several ways that technology can be used to “improve and enhance learning.”  These include:

  1. Technology enables students to access learning opportunities apart from the traditional barriers of time and place.
  2. Technology lets students access learning opportunities outside of formal higher
    education institutions, such as at their workplace or in community settings.
  3. Technology allows students to access high-quality learning resources, regardless of
    their institution’s geographical location or funding.
  4. Technology enables enhanced learning experiences through blended learning models.
  5. Technology supports students in their learning based on individual academic and
    non-academic needs through personalization.
  6. Technology can ensure that students with disabilities participate in and benefit from educational programs and activities.

In addition to this outline of technological benefits, the report provides case studies to show how these aspects are playing out at different institutions across the country. Despite these examples, I was left with the feeling that these were largely aspirations of a possible future for technology at colleges and universities rather than an actual representation of the larger landscape. Not to sound overly gloomy or negative, but I don’t see widespread, consistent use of technology to support students with disabilities.  I also don’t see many institutions offering “personalized” learning experiences for students. While there are some schools that are adopting high quality OERs to meet the needs of students, I don’t see this broadly across schools.

But that’s the point of the report.  Rather than capture the world as it is, the document is designed to show the possibilities and offer a vision of an educational future where technology is used to engender these aspects.  It doesn’t represent the world as it is, but as what it could be.  It’s a “reimagined” future, where the “new normal” students have greater access to educational opportunities through the use of technology.  While I appreciate this focus, I also wish that the report would have given readers a clear guide for how to get to this “reimagined” future.


U.S. Department of Education, Office of Educational Technology, Reimagining the Role of
Technology in Higher Education: A Supplement to the National Education Technology Plan, Washington, D.C., 2017.