A bitter pill

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

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

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

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

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

Our phones may be smarter…

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

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

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

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

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

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

Student Control and Value

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

Best of 2016 – Part 2

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

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

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

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

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

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

Best of 2016 – Part 1

As the year winds down, I thought I’d take a few moments to review the top visited blog posts from 2016.  This week, I’ll be sharing half of the “Top Ten” list.  I’ll share the rest of the list in next week’s post.  Enjoy!

6.  The Protege Effect.  Shared in March 2016, this post discussed how the act of teaching someone else can motivate individual learners to take more ownership over their learning and to put forth greater effort to learn

7.  Recorded Lectures: Does Size Matter?  From May 2016, this post sought to provide a research-based answer to one of the most asked questions in online education: How long should my recorded lecture be? Based on research from the British Journal of Educational Technology, the answer is a little more complicated than you would expect.

8.  Podcasts For Educators.  This post, written in September 2016, provides a comprehensive list of podcasts that focus on teaching and learning.

9.  Finding Your Tribe.  Written in October, this post shared my experiences at the Teaching Professor Technology Conference and how the event assembled a group of people that shared my perspectives on teaching, learning and the integration of technology.  Since I shared the post, I’m happy to report that the conference has been re-branded as the Teaching with Technology Conference.  I hope you’ll join us in Washington, DC in October 2017.

10.  Where Do We Start?  From February 2016, this post examines instructors’ beliefs of student-centered classrooms vs. teacher-centered classrooms and how these beliefs impacted how they integrated technology into their learning environments.


Walking the Walk

I started a new online graduate class yesterday.  In the first assignment of this course, I ask the students to record a “confession camera” like those used on reality television shows.  In a confession camera, individuals record themselves answering a series of reflective questions.  While these are usually spliced and diced by the reality TV producers to create drama and promote infighting, in this class, my goal is to get the students to reflect on the assigned readings in first module and also to build a larger learning community in the class.  By seeing and hearing their classmates, my hope is that it makes the potentially isolating nature of online learning environments a little more social and collaborative.

The class is one of the advanced courses in our online teaching program and I’ve worked with all of these students in prior courses. I provide a list of prompts that I want the students to answer and also offer a list of applications that the students can use.  I tell my students that ultimately I don’t care how they record their “confession cameras” but I want to be able to see and hear them.  Since many of these students are currently teaching in some face-to-face capacity at their schools, one of the prompts asks them to reflect on the courses in the program so far and whether studying online instruction in the courses in the program has informed their face-to-face instruction.  In last week’s post, I wrote about how some people believe that we should view online instruction as “an entirely new way of teaching with new methods of engaging students.”  While that may be true, I think teaching online can certainly enrich our face-to-face instruction (and vice versa).  I wondered how the students would respond to the prompt and the first submissions are being posted online.

In one of the confession cameras, a student reflected that she has learned to “walk the walk” when she assigns a project with her face-to-face classes.  This, she says, is one of the big take aways from our online classes.  In my online classes, I don’t just provide directions, guidelines and rubrics for my students.  I “walk the walk” and contribute and participate as I’m hoping my students will.  For example, my confession camera was the first one submitted.  I responded to the prompts, drew on the readings and discussed my thoughts and reflections.  I know the confession camera assignment is uncomfortable for students.  Few people like to see recorded videos of themselves.  Fewer still enjoy hearing the sound of their recorded voices. By “walking the walk,” however, I’m saying to my students “I’m fully participating in this experience with you.”

I hope this doesn’t sound too preachy but “with” is one of my favorite prepositions.  I worry that educators often focus too much on “for” or “to” and lose sight of “with.”  By “walking the walk,” I’m hopefully changing the perception of assignments as being something done to them or being required for their grade in the class.  Instead, I’m hoping that my students see the class activities as something done with their classmates and with me.  From watching some of the confession cameras, it’s great to see that my students recognize that I’m walking the walk with them.

Online education: bias, hope and reality

A post on Inside Higher Education today discusses faculty’s continued reservations to teaching online.  The author, Robert Ubell, shares several studies that examine professors’ resistance to online education and how they view virtual learning environments as being inferior.  As the vice dean for online learning at New York University’s Tandon School for Engineering, Ubell is a proponent of online learning.  In his role, however, he also recognizes some challenges that faculty face when teaching online.  For instance, he explains how many professors have very little experience with online education and therefore have very little personal experience with how to teach well online.  Ubell writes “going online is like moving to a foreign country, where you must learn a new language and assimilate a new culture.” To him, teaching online isn’t just about navigating the technical aspects of learning management systems or attempting to “migrate the campus experience online.”  Instead, Ubell challenges educators to visualize online learning as “an entirely new way of teaching with new methods of engaging students.”

The challenge is that many professors see face-to-face instruction as the gold standard and create a false dichotomy between physical classroom spaces and online ones.  The reality, however, is that we often compare our best face-to-face classroom experiences with our worst online ones.  Also, since many of us don’t have online experiences upon which to draw, we visualize a confusing, highly technical environment where students independently work through low level content in isolation from their classmates.  But these beliefs largely do not reflect reality.  Ubell cites a research study from the US Department of Education which found “on average, students in online learning conditions performed better than those receiving face-to-face instruction.” (Means, et al, 2009).  Despite this evidence, some educators like to pit online and face-to-face education against one another, as if they’re battling for dominance in some instructional arena.  Rather than focus on whether “physical nor virtual education will triumph,” Ubell writes, we must shift our attention to “the best pedagogical practices that support active student learning” in whatever learning environment students are enrolled.

So, what are the best pedagogical practices online? One of the things that is becoming abundantly clear is that online learning is more than just accessing content.  Many educators like to think that content is the currency of their courses.  Sure, students enroll in our classes to learn English, physics and mathematics.  More than content, student learning and success is dependent to a large degree on their ability to interact with their classmates and with their instructors.  That’s one of the critical shifts that educators need to make when teaching online.  Interaction is the currency of online learning.  In many ways, this statement is true in almost every learning environment. But interactions happen naturally in face-to-face classes. They don’t have to be intentionally designed. In our physical classes, we don’t have to plan for students to see each other or hear other.  By sharing the same physical space, the interactions occur without educators planning for it.

Online learning environments, however, require that educators plan for interaction.  To be successful, online educators have to build opportunities for students to interact with their peers.  This interaction has to be intentional and purposeful.  In past posts, I’ve written about the Community of Inquiry framework and the importance of building social presence in online classes.  By focusing on these aspects and increasing interaction and engagement in our virtual classes, online teachers can better rise to Ubell’s challenge of making “digital education transformative” for students.


Means, B., Toyama, Y., Murphy, R., Bakia, M., & Jones, K. (2009). Evaluation of evidence-based practices in online learning: A meta-analysis and review of online learning studies. US Department of Education.