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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adult student talking in class June 7, 2017

Improvising Great Classroom Discussion

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I was watching a video of several of my students teaching this week. I had to be away for a conference, and they were scheduled to teach that day anyway, so I asked our Center for Teaching Excellence to record it. I would evaluate them later. Although most of the students in the class are planning to be English teachers, it’s not an education class. For that reason, I planned to pay closer attention to the content and preparation than to their actual pedagogy.

However, as I watched the video, I kept noticing places where discussion would be on the verge of beginning, only to see it die almost immediately. The students were prepared, and they were often asking the types of questions we want them to ask. Why did the discussion keep faltering? I had to start looking at their pedagogy.

What I discovered was that they didn’t know how to build on each other’s comments. A student would make a statement that could easily lead to a larger discussion, but no one responded, as if there was nothing else they could say about the comment. The student leading the discussion would then move on to some other topic. When I realized what was happening, I remembered the “Yes, and . . . ” idea from improvisational comedy.

The “Yes, and . . . ” idea has been rather popular of late, stemming from a rising interest in improvisational comedy; Don’t Think Twice, a movie about an improv group; and a variety of comedians and business leaders speaking and writing about the idea. For those not familiar with the “Yes, and . . .” idea, it’s almost exactly what it sounds like. In improv, the actors are supposed to accept whatever premise another actor begins with; they say “yes” to the setup. And then they try to build on the situation or line of dialogue, the equivalent of saying “and . . . ”

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students collaborating on project May 3, 2017

Actively Learning to Teach

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Today I had an interesting experience while teaching my biochemistry class. I had students write the Krebs cycle on their digital whiteboards while keeping track of the specific carbons in the cycle intermediates. The point of this exercise was to have students understand how biochemists study metabolic pathways and to practice writing the chemistry of the cycle. To initiate the exercise, I explained the biochemical logic of the first reaction. After that, I let them go because we had already spent a lecture discussing the reactions. This produced a fairly lively classroom with students trying to understand the flow of both carbons and energy through the cycle. While they worked, I walked around commenting here and there as needed or when I saw a misconception arising. Clearly, learning was happening. But the weird thing was . . . I didn’t feel like I was teaching.

With active learning, we often discuss the culture shock that students feel. No longer is it sufficient for students to sit listening as passive consumers of information doled out by their instructor. An active learning class compels students to become actively engaged in applying the material and uncovering the consequences of their newly learned knowledge. But for those of us instructors who never had active learning modeled for us as students, the experience can be just as alien. It can be invigorating, as it was today when my students were working hard to understand the biochemical logic of the reactions. But for me, it also felt like was I wasn’t doing my job. I was reminded of those comments on my end-of-term course evaluations: “Haave didn’t teach us! We had to learn it ourselves!”

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