students studying for finals
Reflections

What Do Students Do When They Study?

An article in a recent issue of the International Journal of STEM Education has got me thinking about study habits and how little we know about how students study.

The article is open-access, and I encourage you to read it whether you teach in the STEM fields or not. But first, a synopsis: The research team used “a practice-based approach to focus on the actual study behaviors of 61 undergraduates at three research universities in the United States and Canada who were enrolled in biology, physics, earth science and mechanical engineering courses.” (p. 2) In small focus groups students responded to this prompt: “Please imagine for a moment how you typically study for this course—can you describe in as much detail as possible your study situation?” (p. 4) What these students reported is a good reason to read this article.

Another reason this research merits attention is the concern the researchers have with how we think about and research study behaviors. We tend to focus on parts of the study process—when students study, how long they study, what strategies they use when they study, and what strategies they should use. Hora and Oleson believe that studying is a collection of behaviors and thinking about them in isolation reduces the complex ways they interact. Their results support that belief. “Results indicate that studying is a multi-faceted process that is initiated by instructor or self-generated cues, followed by marshaling resources and managing distractions, and then implementing study behaviors that include selecting a social setting and specific strategies.” (p. 1)

As for the cohort consisting of students reporting on how they studied in STEM courses, the researchers note, “We are not suggesting that this account of studying is generalizable to all students but is a heuristic device for thinking about studying in a more multi-dimensional manner than is common at the present time.” (p. 15) So, what your students would say about how they study may well be different, but that’s another reason this is such a good article. As you make your way through it, you are constantly considering what you do and don’t know about how your students study.

Hora, M. T. and Oleson, A. K. (2017). Examining study habits in undergraduate STEM courses from a situative perspective. International Journal of STEM Education, 4 (1), 19 pages.

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Active learning

Quick In-Class Learning Activities to Build Student Engagement

The following are a few quick, easy, simple ways to engage students mentally, emotionally, or physically that do not require much planning and that you can do in almost any large class lecture. List them here and put this up in your office where you can see it to remind you to rotate these into your lectures.

  1. Think, pair, share (“Think about this, get with your neighbor, and share your thoughts…”)
  2. Concept expert (“One of you is responsible for reading [this], one for [that], and then get together and share/compare what you’ve learned”)
  3. Compare notes with your neighbor for clarity

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student discussion activity
Classroom Climate

Scenarios to Facilitate Discussion on Student Entitlement

The scenarios here can be used to explore the salient issues, starting with a deeper understanding of what entitlement involves. Most of the definitions are clear, but pretty generic. The conversation gets interesting when it focuses on what entitlement looks like when students have it or do it. The scenarios highlight some situations typically associated with entitlement. The discussion could start with student responses and actions that illustrate entitled attitudes and beliefs. But not every student request or objection is an entitled one. Sometimes students have legitimate concerns. Could that be the case in any of the scenarios outlined below?

Another rich discussion area involves whether certain faculty policies or practices promote student entitlement. Greenberger et. al. (2008) asks about the circumstances within higher education that foster it. The discussion could encompass higher education, generally, but the focus on faculty is important. Are we part of the problem? Are any of the policies and practices described or hinted at in the scenarios encouraging the sense of entitlement? Grading systems that rely on points? Policies that allow for absences? Giving partial credit?

The most needed discussion is the one that explores faculty responses to entitled attitudes and actions. Is the best approach to take the offensive—start the course by clarifying expectations? Outright discussions of entitlement—what it is and why it’s wrong?

The scenarios have been purposely written with a certain degree of ambiguity. Some responses to them will reflect entitled attitudes and beliefs, however, in some cases, the student may have a legitimate issue. Students could start by first discussing whether the scenario reveals entitlement or a legitimate concern. You might find there’s some disagreement among your students in terms of what is entitled behavior and what isn’t.

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Worksheets and Checklists

Writing Assignments: A Self-Assessment for Faculty

Do your writing assignment focus on the product or the process? How about your students? Where do you think their focus is?

At the end of the day, our students aren’t going to take from our courses the products they developed and use them in the future. But they certainly will use and refine the skills they needed to develop that product—as they move on to other courses and well into their respective fields.

When working with online instructors, I found that many will de-emphasize the writing process. They tend to assign a major project or a final paper and all eyes are on the end goal of where students need to ultimately get. But they don’t oftentimes spend a whole lot of time breaking that process down in the same way that they might in a face-to-face class.

Below you’ll find a self-assessment to help you step back and reflect on how you approach writing assignments. It can serve as a helpful reminder of the various steps along the writing journey and how you can help guide students along that path.

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Worksheets and Checklists

Writing Assignments: A Self-Evaluation for Students

I teach online at an open enrollment institution, which means I get students at all levels of writing ability. Many of them are solid writers with a good understanding of the different steps of the writing process. But I also have students who are just learning to write at the college level. Either they’ve have been out of school for a while or they’re newly minted high school graduates with little experience writing anything other than some kind of standardized writing test.

Rather than make assumptions about what my students might know, I try to demystify the writing process and break it down into individual steps. By forcing them to slow down the process and focus on each step, we can improve the process and, ultimately, the end product.

Below is a self-evaluation that I use with my students. You are welcome to adapt the questions to fit the needs of your courses and students.

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Reflections

Reflections on Learning: Giving Students Assignments They Hate

Questions for teaching-learning discussion groups or individual reflection

In this week’s Teaching Professor Blog, I offered strategies to help move our conversations about teaching beyond the “tips and tricks” to the kind of thought-provoking discussions that help promote, motivate, and sustain our growth as teachers.

Here I have outlined potential questions that can be used in a discussion group or for individual reflection. The exercise centers on those unpopular assignments that we sometimes give our students and is based on an article in this Journal on Excellence in College Teaching:

DeWall, N., (2016). Millennials by heart: Memorization as an active learning strategy for the SparkNotes Generation. Journal on Excellence in College Teaching, 27 (4), 77-91.

A synopsis: Nichole DeWall gives students an assignment they hate. Students must scan, paraphrase, and memorize a self-selected passage or poem from one of the assigned texts. Then they recite the memorized material in private to her, and teach the passage to classmates in a short, interactive presentation. Finally, they write a low-stakes reflective essay about the experience.

The article explores the rationale behind the assignment, why it’s appropriate, especially for Millennial students, and what they learn by doing it.

Even though it’s an article about an assignment few faculty will ever use, it’s well-worth reading and even more worth discussing because it raises issues much larger than the details of her assignment.

POTENTIAL DISCUSSION TOPICS AND QUESTIONS

Should we give students an assignment they hate?

“The assignment’s ability to make students uncomfortable increases its value.” (p. 80)

“Piercing Millennial students’ egos allows them to be open to truly transformational learning. Therefore it is neither necessary nor desirable for the classroom to feel like a seamless extension of our Millennial student’s native worlds.” (p. 80)

“Students sharpen their metacognitive skills when they memorize, teach, and reflect upon their poems; they also leave my classes with constant companions that may just help them make sense out of their lives. For these reasons, I continue to ask my students to commit verse to memory every semester, despite their objections (and, often, my colleagues, bewilderment).” (p. 87)

How do students see classrooms? Do they act the same way in the classroom as they do everywhere else because we have failed to make classroom spaces look and feel different from everywhere else?

Does an assignment that causes discomfort produce a different kind of learning? If so, how is it different and is it a better kind of learning?

How much discomfort is enough, too much, and how does a teacher make that determination?

Most faculty work to make classroom environments feel safe and comfortable. Does giving an assignment that makes students uncomfortable compromise that objective?

How many of our assignments cause discomfort? Enough? Not enough?

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Reflections

Learning to Teach: Are We More Like Our Students Than We Think?

How did you learn how to teach? By trying to teach like those who taught you? Through trial and error? By looking for feedback on course evaluations? As an experienced educator, what methods do you now rely to continue your growth as a teacher? Do you read articles and blogs? Talk to colleagues? Attend workshops?

Let’s get specific about some of these approaches to developing ourselves as teachers. Say you’re attending a workshop on some new pedagogical approach. The presenter moves through the slides quickly and you don’t quite see how the examples could work in your field or large intro course. Some concepts are familiar; others aren’t. Some of the central ideas—metacognition or pedagogical content knowledge—are new and it’s not clear how they relate to each other. A group activity is announced but what you really want is time to think on your own. You were looking back through your notes and not listening to the instructions, so you aren’t exactly sure what the group is supposed to do. Someone in your group tells a long story. The discussion wanders around. The presenter’s debrief doesn’t really clear up your confusion. In the end, you learned a thing or two but you leave the session disappointed.

Or perhaps you’re not big on workshops and prefer to stay current and learn new approaches by reading. An article with an intriguing idea captures your attention. Maybe it’s on using clickers to check conceptual understanding, cold calling to increase student participation in discussion, or some other teaching technique that the author swears is nearly foolproof. You skim the piece during a lunch break. It gives you the germ of an idea, which grows into an outline of an activity. You spend some extra time to prep the details. You’re enthused about what you’ve put together but worry about how much content won’t get covered. You think about asking a colleague, but you’ve left the prep to the eleventh hour and there’s no time to bounce ideas off someone. Besides, sharing a new strategy before you use it feels rather risky, so you test it out in class. The activity goes pretty well. Students don’t jump in with great enthusiasm but by the end they’re engaged, even your most quiet ones. You tell yourself to remember to give clearer instructions in the future and persuade yourself the other rough spots will smooth out the second time around.

Or here’s one of my learning experiences. I was working with two younger colleagues who suggested modifying a course the three of us teach. We all thought we could be more intentional in teaching students how to use primary literature. My colleagues were eager to try something they’d read about; I was eager to support them. However, committee assignments kept me from participating as fully as I would have liked. After several meetings, one of which I missed, my colleagues presented a model for the project. I didn’t entirely understand it, but since I missed a meeting I simply went along. I expected that with my long-time experience I could make it work. I couldn’t. My students were confused; I was confused. Conversations with my colleagues helped me figure it out, but I still wasn’t happy with the quality of my students’ work. In the end, I wished I’d understood the proposed model more deeply before launching the assignment.

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Worksheets and Checklists

Brainstorming Questionnaire for Designing or Improving a Course with Increased Faculty Presence

Faculty presence is a component of the online classroom that’s sometimes overlooked or underestimated by new online instructors, but it is often the most important determining factor for a student’s success and overall satisfaction in a course.

Instructor presence influences the ways that your students interact with the course content and how they interact with you. So, if you're not there, why should they be?

One of the things I like to think about with my classes is how do I form a better learning community? That's something that a lot of instructors do in a face-to-face classroom. But when it comes to online instruction it's a little more challenging.

I’ve outlined below some opportunities for increasing faculty presence. These are moments during the class when you can reach out to students and demonstrate that you're a real person who's there for them. You’ll find opportunities before the course begins, at various checkpoints, during follow up and interventions, beyond the classroom, and as part of the course wrap-up.

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Worksheets and Checklists

Checklist to Evaluate Faculty Presence in an Existing Class

▢   Do you reach out to students first before the semester begins? ▢   Do you send a welcome email outside the course, perhaps to college email or another email provided by the student? ▢   Do you post...

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online learning
Online Learning

Dos and Don’ts for Providing Effective and Efficient Feedback in the Online Classroom

Best practices consider feedback holistically and address three key elements: timing, target, and nature. It is important for instructors to be deliberate about all three factors and use care when determining when to deliver feedback, what the feedback should say, and what the feedback is meant to accomplish.

This post breaks down the dos and don’ts of effective feedback across four key areas: nature of feedback, time management, emergent technologies, and alternative approaches.

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