check on learning June 8

Checking for Understanding

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Research shows that checking for understanding is perhaps one of the most important components of a teaching sequence. Most teachers provide instruction on a topic and follow up with some questions. On a good day, 4–5 students may volunteer and respond with the correct answers. The teacher then assumes that the majority of the class understands the concept and can handle a homework assignment. The teacher then moves on to the next topic.

The problem with this scenario is what the teacher concludes about the level of understanding within the class. Students who raise their hands are often more confident, verbal, or simply have better study habits. Many times, students who do not fully understand are reluctant to speak. Regardless, it is very difficult to informally assess the learning of an entire class based on the responses of only a few.

A variety of formative assessment strategies give teachers a better way to gauge the level of understanding within a class. For example, a teacher can ask students to answer several questions or do some problems displayed on a digital whiteboard. Then the teacher can collect students’ work and quickly see who gets it, who needs more practice, and who has no clue.

Checking for understanding is vital to facilitate true learning. When students are still unclear, confused, or misunderstanding, and are then assigned independent practice via a homework assignment, there is a greater risk that they’ll practice incorrect learning. Checking for student understanding can prevent this complication. Below are several strategies that instructors can use to check for student understanding, all of which have the added benefit of increasing student engagement.

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online teaching May 3

Reviving the Joy of Teaching

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I have been an educator for 49 years. Throughout the years, I have seen innovation and experimentation in educational theory, practice, and style. I have experienced personal success, and failure in meeting the needs of students. For most of that time I have loved the practice and the art of teaching. I was rewarded by the feedback I have received from the many individuals whose lives I have influenced along the way. I relished the success of my students, both those school leaders and those I taught in a graduate education school leadership program. What made my

What made my relationship with these individuals special and rewarding? It was the human interaction marked by the personal connection that teachers can have with their students. It was the act of seeing the students regularly whether the setting was in a public school or a higher education classroom. It was the discussions, in and out of class, the sharing of ideas, helping students consider their futures, discussing the difficulties some were experiencing, and it was hearing about their successes that made teaching enjoyable and satisfying.

Then something changed that began to diminish the satisfaction I felt from teaching.

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storytime in library April 3

A University Professor Teaches in the K-12 Classroom

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During my recent sabbatical, I had the unique opportunity to teach full-day sessions for 14 weeks in two different K-12 settings. Here’s how that happened. I decided to propose this unique sabbatical project because my students regularly asked me about the clinical experience phase of the university’s library science program. The prospect of taking PRAXIS exams (two are required for library science certification) in a testing center and completing background checks and required Pennsylvania Department of Education paperwork were all student stressors. And although those of us teaching in the program can explain and mentor student teaching experiences in a library setting, our students knew very well that most of us had done our student teaching many years prior. Since then, the overall process has evolved to include complications such as required certification tests, background checks, fingerprints, and such. More to the point, I wanted to actually live the experience as a student might.

I didn’t arrive at my faculty position in this department via the more traditional route. I came to university teaching by way of the military, time in corporate America, and teaching at a community college. At this point, I do have a couple of master’s degrees, higher education teaching experience, and am a practicing and certified Pennsylvania Professional Public Librarian, but before my sabbatical I was not K-12 certified. Once my sabbatical project was approved I set out to “walk the walk,” doing the same steps required of our teacher candidates. First, there was some additional course work I needed to fill in certain gaps in my higher education-focused master’s degree in library science. Accordingly, to prepare for the sabbatical, I completed four courses outside the library science domain. Next, I obtained the clearances I did not yet possess or were not current enough to satisfy school district requirements, completed the requisite medical exams, and processed the paperwork at the sponsoring school district in order to be voted in and invited as a “student” teacher by the schoolboard.

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creative course design March 12

Creative Course Design (Yes, You Can!)

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A lot of teachers don’t think of themselves as being particularly creative. Creativity in education doesn’t mean coming up with a revolutionary new idea or complete reinvention of something. Creativity means doing something original or unique. A lot of educational creativity involves repackaging or “putting your own spin” on something that somebody else has already used successfully. We believe in adding your own stamp and style to already existing educational approaches—that’s being creative. Sometimes all that’s required to take a course or lesson from sleepy to exciting is a small, but personal, creative adaptation. It is almost always easier to modify than to create ex nihilo.

Every program, course, and lesson can be made more effective, efficient, and exciting. What we’re suggesting is illustrated by IDEO—a California-based design and consulting firm that specializes in product and process improvement. The design principles they use can readily be applied to educational course design.

Sometimes we lack creativity in education because we work in isolation. Collaboration with colleagues fosters creativity. IDEO, for example, uses a team-based design methodology that consistently results in product designs that no single team member could have created (see https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=M66ZU2PCIcM). Here are some of the principles they use when collaborating as a group—repurposed with an emphasis on course design:

  • Encourage wild ideas. Too often we end up doing what we’ve always done. We’re busy and need to get lesson plans, assessments, and assignments completed in a hurry. But take a moment, consider an ideal teaching situation: What would you do for or with your students to help them succeed and master your course? Let your imagination run loosely. Of course, there are constraints, but letting them go (just temporarily) can help unlock new solutions to old problems. “Blue sky” brainstorming can yield imaginative, yet realistic possibilities.

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Using analogies in your teaching. February 15

Mining the Analogy

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"Genius without education is like silver in the mine.” Benjamin Franklin may not have realized at the time that he was actually using a tool for the education he espoused, namely, the analogy. More than a simple witticism, the statement can be explored for rich conceptual parallels. Although a familiar teaching tool periodically invoked as a creative clarification, we faculty may not fully appreciate how an analogy might be mined for its full value. In higher education in particular, creation of an effective analogy is a worthy endeavor because it serves not only to instruct, but also potentially to hone the deeper, more complex higher order thinking skills we aspire to teach students.

The cognitive and educational benefits of using analogy (relational or analogical reasoning) in education, especially primary and secondary, have been well explored. Although research-based recommendations have not been made for every college-level subject, principles with practical implications have been identified. Of particular interest to faculty should be the 2015 assertion Richland and Simms offer in WIREs Cognitive Science that “relational reasoning can be productively considered the cognitive underpinning of higher order thinking,” where this type of reasoning is “the process of representing information and objects in the world as systems of relationships (which) can be compared, contrasted, and combined in novel ways depending on contextual goals.” They note the beauty of the dual benefit. Analogy is both “a tool for promoting content acquisition and a basic cognitive mechanism for using information flexibly and across contexts.” For an analogy to serve as both a tool for basic understanding and development of complex reasoning, it must be carefully and intentionally designed and delivered.

An effective analogy may be pursued in many contexts. It may provide motivation in an intro course or illuminate complex concepts of an upper-level subject. It’s an invaluable means of encouraging visualization of what cannot be seen or experienced. Once it creates a spark of recognition, it may cascade into a deeper and broader appreciation of the subject, often creating the desire to delve further. However, as the foundation beneath a house determines its livability, the careful construction of the analogy with a clear view of the instructional goals determines its fruitfulness.

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What students consider unfair grading practices January 15

‘That’s So Unfair!’

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Students have strong opinions about fair and unfair practices in college courses. Previous research shows that, according to students, fair practices include clarity about grading procedures and course policies, flexibility in scheduling make-up exams and meetings, generosity with feedback, and a reasonable approach to workload in the course. If those policies and practices aren’t followed, students often raise the issue of fairness, usually with some emotional intensity. “That grade is so unfair! I worked for hours on that assignment.”

Perceptions of fairness, or classroom justice, as it’s described in this recent research, relate to three aspects of the education experiences provided in courses. Distributive justice is defined as “perceptions of the fairness of an instructional outcome” (p. 323). Grades are the best example. Procedural justice involves the “fairness of the processes used to distribute resources or outcomes in the instructional context” (p. 323). Here, an example might be the way group work is graded, be it with individual grades, group grades, or some combination of the two. Interactional justice relates to the “fairness and quality of interpersonal treatment of students by instructors when procedures are implemented or outcomes allocated” (p. 323). Does the instructor show respect for students? Is the instructor open to student opinions? Does the instructor answer student questions?

Building on earlier research completed by some of this research team, this study investigated “the cognitive, affective and behavioral processes at play in students’ perceptions of and responses to classroom injustice” (p. 324). Their almost 400 undergraduate student cohort at three different institutions responded to open-ended queries as well as survey questions.

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experiential education - hiking in the mountains December 7, 2017

What Is Experiential Education?

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For many years, I have tried to explain what experiential education (EE) is to my colleagues. In the process, I often found myself bogged down in the technical jargon of my discipline (outdoor and adventure education) as well as the writings of thinkers such as John Dewey. I’m writing here to clarify my own understanding of EE and to present a simple model that can be understood regardless of academic discipline. In doing so, I am hesitant to even use the phrase EE because I believe it represents sound educational pedagogy no matter what it’s called.

From my understanding and experience, at the heart of EE are three key elements: content, experience, and reflection. Central to effective EE is establishing a clear and relevant relationship between these three elements in our teaching practice; ideally, content, experience, and reflection are seamlessly intertwined. I imagine three overlapping circles with EE in that space where they overlap.

The traditional lecture course is an example of content-focused practice. A teacher delivers the content, and it is up to students to experience or reflect on it. I think it is fair to say that the shortcomings of content-only practices are well understood and that most teachers are trying to distance themselves from relying solely on this tradition.

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UDL framework for learning November 16, 2017

Applying Universal Design for Learning Principles

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When creating course materials, it is important to be as inclusive as possible. A common way of working to ensure that materials respond to different approaches to learning is to use Universal Design for Learning (UDL), which proposes inclusive course design. It is a framework that helps to make content, activities and assignments, and instruction accessible to students at different levels, with different abilities, and who take different approaches to learning. While this sounds straightforward and relatively simple, when one dives into the UDL literature and works to implement its guidelines, the task quickly starts to feel overwhelming—at least that’s how it made me feel.

Last year, I attended a year-long faculty working group in which we focused on implementing UDL in our courses. Here’s what made this a daunting task. A course that is truly adhering to UDL guidelines makes every aspect of the course as inclusive as possible, including the syllabus, lectures, and any online components such as videos, PowerPoints, etc. It can mean creating closed captioning for videos and ensuring that all documents are created and saved in a manner that is screen reader ready.

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student evaluations October 10, 2017

Improving Student Evaluations with Integrity

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Oh, how the tables do turn! Each semester, after quizzing, testing, and otherwise grading our students, they get to return the favor and rate their professors, and some of them can be harsher than we are on our most critical days. Because administrators incorporate these ratings in their evaluations of us, they can’t be ignored. Rather than wallowing in the sorrows of negative reviews, we must accept it for what it is: feedback. And although we should not in any way compromise our principles or the course content to get better ratings, there are actions that don’t undermine our integrity and do positively influence the end-of-course ratings. I’d like to suggest several that have improved my ratings.

Be transparent about your grading methods. It’s my opinion that students should never be surprised by their grades in a course. Whenever I give an assignment, no matter how small, I provide instructions in writing, a point value, and a due date. I’m a huge fan of rubrics and always take time to help students understand and interpret them. Examples posted on the course website can demonstrate what you’re looking for in assignments.

I work hard to return papers in a timely manner and share my deadlines with students so that they know when to expect the feedback. Most online grading systems make it easy for students to monitor their progress throughout the semester. By removing the mystery from my grading system, I have consistently received high scores from students on the applicable questions on the evaluation form.

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student collaboration August 1, 2017

Taking Collaboration Seriously

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Like many professors, I use group projects in my classes. When my students work together on a project, I’m hoping they’ll be able to accomplish complex instructional tasks and support each other’s learning on the project and in the course. In my experience, I’ve found that many student groups function positively and productively, but there are always some groups that do not. In those groups infighting occurs, which negatively affects the students’ work in addition to their learning, their connection to course content, and their overall impression of the class.

Over the years, I’ve tried different ways of forming student groups. I’ve put students in groups based on their schedules, their interests, and their majors. I’ve allowed students to choose their own groups and even used the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (www.myersbriggs.org) to form complimentary teams based on students’ personality types. Regardless of the system, I still have a few groups that just don’t function well. To work on this, I’ve attended different conference presentations over the last year where colleagues shared their grouping strategies. One presenter used a compatibility quiz similar to those used on online dating sites. Another described a complex online system called CATME (info.catme.org) that puts students in groups based on a series of survey responses. I was happy to discover that I wasn’t the only one interested in the best way to form groups.

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