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.


Gains and losses

Dr. Rene Laennec is credited as being the inventor of the stethoscope. As legend has it, Laennec was trained to practice a medical process called percussion to examine his patients. This practice involved tapping on patients’ bodies and carefully listening to the sounds that echoed back. With some patients, however, percussion was hard to implement. For instance, larger patients presented a unique challenge for doctors since it was difficult to hear sounds through layers of skin and fat. It was in this situation that the stethoscope finds it origin. Examining a larger patient, Laennec reportedly rolled up a notebook to better hear the sounds. In 1819, Laennec offered this account of his discovery in a medical journal:

I was not a little surprised and pleased to find that I could thereby perceive the action of the heart in a manner much more clear and distinct than I had ever been able to do by the immediate application of my ear.”

Laennec’s simple cylindrical creation helped the percussive sounds be better heard and allowed him to better diagnose his patients’ ailments. The discovery led him to intensively examine different designs and to research how the sounds he heard related to different medical conditions. His study led to the creation of the modern day stethoscope and propelled it as a standard medical device used by doctors worldwide. Laennec’s invention undoubtedly saved lives and improved the practice and science of the medical field.

One could argue that Laennec was a great inventor and that he made significant contributions to medicine. But let’s dig a little deeper. Besides improving the way that medicine was conducted as field, Laennec also dramatically changed the way doctors interacted with their patients. To practice percussion, doctors would place their ears against patients’ backs, chests and abdomens. This close contact made seeing a doctor an intensively personal interaction. To further diagnose patients, doctors also conducted lengthy interviews with patients to try to uncover larger ailments and issues at play. Through these interviews, doctors got to know their patients and how they lived their lives. The stethoscope, however, created a distance between the doctor and patient, both literally and figuratively. Doctors could listen to a patient’s heart without placing an ear against them. Doctors could also diagnose some ailments without asking patients a single question. While the technology provided amazing benefits, it also significantly changed the way doctors interacted with their patients and dramatically altered how medicine was practiced.

So, what’s the point? For me, the big takeaway from this story is that we tend to focus on what technology adds to a situation. When a new app or device is introduced, we often can easily see how it can benefit our lives without really seeing the potentially negative impacts that could occur. In every instance of some new technology being introduced, however, there are both gains and losses. The story of the stethoscope provides one example. We can easily see how the device aided doctors’ work, but it also significantly changed how doctors interacted with patients.

Let me provide another example. I have a friend who has been deployed overseas several times. He serves in the military and returned recently from a deployment to Afghanistan. In previous deployments, he would send letters to his wife and children and would receive ones from them. Upon his return, the letters would be assembled into a scrapbook to document the family’s journey and sacrifices.

Returning from his most recent deployment, however, my friend remarked that he hadn’t sent or received a single letter. With email and Skype, the family was in contact regularly and really didn’t need to rely on handwritten communication at all. The family had gained the comfort of more regular communication with one another but had lost the documentation that the letters had provided. As his wife commented, “you can’t really scrapbook emails or a Skype call.” Gains and losses.

Since this is a blog about education, I guess it’s time that I try to bring it back to teaching and learning. We’re constantly being inundated with new educational technologies that could improve how we deliver instruction, interact with our students and assess their learning. While I’m an advocate for using technology in our classrooms, I also want us to raise a skeptical eye to the losses that emerge from the infusion of technology. Like the stethoscope, will these technologies create “a distance” that changes how we teach and how we interact with our students? Do any gains we experience outweigh the losses?

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.


Communicating Online

Author’s note: I’m taking a few weeks off to do some traveling with my family. In my absence, I’m going to run a series of older posts that I’ve written on online teaching.  This week’s post originally appeared in May 2014.  Enjoy!

In past posts, I’ve discussed the Community of Inquiry framework  and how it relates to our work in online classes.  The framework, developed by Garrison, Anderson and Archer (2000), identifies the need for instructors to attend to three different domains in an online class:  a social presence, a cognitive presence and a teaching presence.  As instructors build and manage online classes, they need to thoughtfully and purposefully build these presences into the learning environment and consider how they will be present to instruct students, challenge them cognitively and interact and communicate with them.  I think most online instructors find the cognitive and teaching presences easier to visualize and foster than the social presence.  In response to this, I wrote a post last year where I offered some suggestions to build social presence in online classes.

I’ve been thinking a lot about social presence online in response to research I shared a few weeks ago.  In work conducted by Chambliss and Takacs, they found that undergraduates were more likely to major in a field if they had an inspiring and caring faculty member in an introductory course.  Students were also equally likely to write off an entire field if they had a single negative experience with a professor.  With communication mediated through electronic means in an online class, I worry that negative experiences may occur at a greater frequency.  I’m not saying that online instructors are treating their students poorly or demonstrate less compassion than instructors in face-to-face classrooms.  I just worry that the means of communication may undermine how students perceive a message.  I think we’ve all sent or received an email whose tone was misread.  That’s why communicating and interacting online requires great care and attention.  And sometimes some creative thinking.

Let me provide a scenario.  Last week, I started a new online class and one student did not log in for the first two days of the course.  Although the class was being offered asynchronously, I was worried that the student would not be able to meet the first due dates of the course and would be a potential problem through the remainder of the class.  My initial reaction was to send an email saying something like:

“Student,  Our online class started two days ago and you have yet to log into the course or complete any of the first modules.  Without consistent attention to the course, you are likely to fail the class.  Please log in and start working.  The first modules are due tomorrow.

As I thought about the reasons a student may not have logged in, I started creating fictional scenarios in my head.  Maybe there was a death in the family.  Or maybe the student was having technical difficulties.  Or maybe…  There were a bunch of possible scenarios that didn’t necessarily fit the email I was planning to send.  In light of these, I sent this email instead.

Student, I see that you have not contributed in our online class yet.  The first modules are due on Thursday by noon.  Are you having any technical challenges of which I should be aware?  Just checking in.   I hope all is well.

It turned out that the student was having some serious medical issues and appreciated that I reached out through email.  We discussed whether she would be able to complete the class and what accommodations could be made to help her be successful.  I’m happy to report that she is now feeling better and is actively participating in the class.   I wonder whether the original email would have been received as positively or had the same impact.

I understand that communication is a two-way street and that the student should have taken some responsibility in contacting me about her situation.  The student and I discussed this responsibility in our email exchange.  As instructors, however, we have to remember the power we have in establishing the social presence in our courses.  In some ways, it conjures up images of Old Fezziwig in Dickens’ A Christmas Carol:

He has the power to render us happy or unhappy; to make our service light or burdensome; a pleasure or a toil. Say that his power lies in words and looks; in things so slight and insignificant that it is impossible to add and count them up.

In online communication, the power lies in carefully crafted words, which should never be considered slight or insignificant.