Teaching Tip: Muse? What muse?

This week the Monday Motivator, a weekly email for new faculty from the Center for Faculty Development and Diversity (http://www.facultydiversity.org/?page=MondayMotivator), focused on the benefits of daily writing.  Evidence indicates that even brief daily writing sessions result in increased faculty scholarly productivity, but many professors resist establishing a daily writing practice.  Instead, they believe that it’s more effective to wait for inspiration (the “muse”) to strike and then write for extended periods of time.  Unfortunately the muse doesn’t always strike at convenient times, and junior faculty members using this method suddenly may realize that tenure is upon them and the muse has gone missing.

As I thought about why professors resist the idea of daily writing, I started to think about the similarities between ourselves and our students.  We bemoan the common student practice of waiting until the last minute to complete writing assignments, of not allowing sufficient time to write drafts and let them rest, of not breaking larger assignments down into pieces.  Yet, how many of us “binge” write?  If the “inspiration” for students is a looming deadline, isn’t that also true for us?  The assumption that writers have to wait for inspiration and then need big chunks of time to produce anything of value seems to be quite widespread (and seems related to the fantasy of the writer in his or her garret, oblivious to the world as the muse strikes).  In fact, most of the time when I read interviews with successful writers, they seem to have very organized schedules that involve regular daily writing.

I’ve certainly done my share of binge writing as a student and as a professor, and for a long time I thought it worked just fine.   I first began to think of binge writing as problematic while I was teaching the Senior Seminar in psychology, which involved a lengthy literature review and analysis.  We always had one class conversation about the process of writing a lengthy and complex paper.  Many students had never had to write something that could not be done in a single (long) sitting, and most of them never had done more than a single draft.  Trying to complete this task using binge techniques was a recipe for stress overload and disaster. Then I heard Tara Grey talk about becoming a prolific writer, and I read Robert Boice’s research on faculty who become productive scholars.  I started looking into various writing coaches’ philosophies.  I found the same thing over and over.  Daily writing matters.

So what’s so great about daily writing?  Well, one of the advantages is that you never quite forget what you’re doing  – you can work for half an hour, leave yourself a note about where you want to start tomorrow, and go off feeling good about having accomplished something.  The work stays fresher, and you may find that you keep thinking about it between daily sessions, so in that sense you may be getting more done.   And it’s a lot easier for most of us to squeeze in 30 minutes every day than it is to find a 3 or 4 hour block of uninterrupted time.    Contrast that with the article you started a few weeks ago (a month?  already?) and now you can’t follow your own train of thought or remember what you wanted to do with it.

OK, this is a teaching tip, so what does this have to do with teaching?  Well — what if we required students to write daily?  It would be an interesting experiment to see if students who were required to write a certain amount each day ended up with better quality work than those who did not write daily. If daily writing is as good as the research suggests that it is, we could be helping our students acquire a habit that would promote academic success and lifelong learning.  Will they like it?  Probably not.

How could we manage such a requirement?  Students could keep a journal or some kind of record of their writing process, and turn it in with their work (this does have the disadvantage of being easily falsifiable).  For students who have trouble concentrating, the Pomodoro technique might be a useful way to structure daily writing as well as track progress.  For those of you who have not heard of it, the Pomodoro technique is a time management tool created by an Italian university student named Francesco Cirillo.  Basically, you time yourself for 25 minutes using a kitchen timer that has a noticeable ticking sound and dings when it’s done (his was shaped like a tomato, hence the name).  Each 25 minute segment is one “pomodoro”.  A five minute break separates pomodoros during which you do not think about whatever you’re working on.  After four pomodoros, you take at least a half hour break.   Pomodoros are logged and can be used to help you understand how long a project really takes.  For example, the paper you thought would take two hours (four pomodoros) might actually take twice that long.  By monitoring your time, you can plan more efficiently.  You can do as many pomodoros in a day as you want to; if you only have time for one pomodoro per day of writing, no problem.  The process of timing and logging pomodoros helps many people concentrate and focus.  (This is a very simplistic explanation of the Pomodoro technique.  To learn more check out  http://www.pomodorotechnique.com/)   Another option is 750words.com which gives you a daily nudge and also tracks the number of days in a row that you have written.   You might also be able to use blogs or online journals as a way to track daily writing.  Note that I am NOT suggesting you read or grade all this writing.  The purpose is to make sure that daily writing is occurring, and the assumption is that it will help improve the final product.

Of course, if you’re a “muse-driven” writer yourself, you might not believe that daily writing will help.  Or maybe you think it would be good for students but not that helpful for you.  So, try it out on your students and see what you get – you might be inspired to try it on yourself.

Do you write daily?  Do you find it helpful?  How do you encourage students to do less “binge” writing?  If you are in a design field, do the same ideas relate to the design process?  Could you adapt daily writing to daily designing?

Teaching Tip: Grading, Like it or Not

Grading is generally the least favorite part of teaching for me, and this blog entry on the 5 stages of grading suggests that I’m not alone (thanks to Brian Flanagan for posting). A quick Google search turned up “5 things I hate more than grading.” Some folks couldn’t come up with five things worse than grading; most mentioned life-threatening illnesses or surgery without anesthesia. And of course, there are the many Facebook entries that academics post this time of year e.g. “Grading is sucking out my soul.” With mid-term grades due this Friday, chances are good that your soul is a little battered about now too. Why do we find grading so awful? What can we do to make it better?

I think there are four main reasons why most of us hate grading:
1. We don’t like to judge people. As instructors, we are both coaches and judges, and most of us got into teaching for the coaching part, not the judging part. Assigning a grade doesn’t really seem to help anyone learn; it just rates the amount and quality of their learning. Plus, since learning is such a complex task, assigning a single number or letter that summarizes the total learning (or lack thereof) seems inadequate and not particularly helpful.

2. Grading policies are hard to formulate, and we’re never sure we have it right. We struggle to balance our grading criteria between fairness and rigor. We don’t want to be too easy (grade inflation alerts go off) or too difficult (student evaluations tank). Do we factor in improvement? Effort? Achievement alone? What about second language learners? The dilemmas just keep coming.

3. Grading can make us question ourselves as teachers. Exams or papers that don’t meet our expectations are discouraging, even depressing. Sometimes we blame the students e.g. Didn’t they study? How did they get admitted? Sometimes we blame ourselves. Perhaps all semester you thought you were doing a great job (or at least a competent one) and now you are wondering if you’re meant for this profession.

4. Grading can feel like a fight. Students complain, they challenge their grades directly, they attempt to cheat or plagiarize, they focus on the grades at the expense of the learning. It can feel like our job is to guard the tower of academe, defend ourselves and catch those miscreants.

How can we make it better?

Accept the role conflict inherent in grading, and make this explicit to yourself and your students. Separate out the coaching function from the evaluation function, and decide which one you are doing at a particular point in time. You might choose to only give comments without a grade or tell students “this is the grade you would get on this work right now” and then allow revision. You can give practice quiz or test questions with feedback before the real thing so that students (and you) get a sense of how they are doing and what their likely grade will be if they don’t do more.

Remember that grades are always subjective. You are an expert judge, but another expert judge in another context might have a different opinion. That’s OK. Establish your criteria and standards, communicate them to the students and use them to the best of your ability. Then move on.

Understand what grades mean to your students, and what an emotional issue they are for many of them. Talk and listen! Get student input on your standards and criteria, let them make suggestions and be very clear about what grades mean to you. Using rubrics or other grading schemes can help your students understand your grading decisions and lessen the complaining. You can even use rubrics for essays and share these with students. Obviously, you set the standards and criteria but you want your students to understand them fully and have some idea of WHY you are asking them to meet these criteria.

If your students are consistently failing to live up to your hopes for them, you will want to examine a couple of possibilities.

Are your expectations unrealistic? Do students have the background and preparation to achieve at the level you are expecting, or do they need additional support? You may need to change assignments, provide additional support or look at course pre-requisites. I am not advocating “dumbing down” a course here – but often we do not realize how difficult a task really is – especially when it comes to reading college level material and applying it.

Are your evaluation tools sharp? Look at your assignment or your test questions, and get some input from a colleague and from some students too. Is it clear what you want them to do? Vague questions or assignments frequently lead to confusion and difficulty grading the resulting products.

Are you requiring students to USE information before you assess them? If you lecture for several weeks and then give an exam, you have no idea if the students really understood anything you said until you start grading. And then it’s too late to do much about it. Ask students to demonstrate their understanding during class so you can check in on their learning. That way, you can catch errors and omissions while there is still a chance to make a difference. This doesn’t need to take a lot of time. Asking students to regularly write down questions they have at the end of class, using a brief exercise, or asking a few clicker questions lets you spot check understanding. Once you have taught a course once, you will be able to identify the concepts students struggle with the most – why not create an extra exercise to reinforce those problem areas? (And warn the students about those sticky spots, so they can spend extra time where it’s needed.)

I don’t think there’s any way to make grading easy, but I do think we can take a bit of the sting out. After all, nothing makes you feel prouder than reading a really good run of student exams or papers and knowing that they got it. If we can increase the percentage of good work that’s being done, we’ll be doing the students and ourselves a great service.

What do you hate most about grading? What do you do to make the experience better?

Teaching Tip: Don’t quote me but….

Quotations can be a fun way to spice up your classes from time to time.  For example, you can use a quote of the day to  introduce the class to a new concept,  inject some humour, provoke a discussion, or create closure by asking “how does this quote relate to what we did today?”  Here are just a few general possibilities to get you started.

Want your students to reflect on values around learning?  Try these:

Learning is not a spectator sport.  – D. Blocher

Personally, I am always ready to learn, although I do not always like being taught. – Winston Churchill

The only real mistake is the one from which we learn nothing. – John Powell

If you want your students to reflect on the value of critical thinking and multiple perspectives , try these quotes:

There are truths on this side of the Pyrenees, which are falsehoods on the other.  ~Blaise Pascal

People who look through keyholes are apt to get the idea that most things are keyhole shaped.  ~Author Unknown

It is not enough for a man to know how to ride; he must know how to fall.

~Mexican Proverb

How might you use these in your class?  Perhaps you ask  students brainstorm other proverbs/quotes that relate to the same concept, which may reveal interesting cultural variations. Or students could free write for 2 minutes about how this quote relates to the course/concept/skill of the class. (e.g. how  might this relate to being a scientist, artist, business person…etc.)  Students could share their ideas in small groups or hand them to the instructor who chooses a few to share . Or you could lead a class discussion.  You could even ask students to write a new quote, or revise the quote.

Specific quotes about your course content can also be fun and useful.  A couple of my psychology favorites:

There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies and statistics – Disraeli (or Mark Twain)

The aim of psychoanalysis is to relieve people of their neurotic unhappiness so that they can be normally unhappy.  ~Sigmund Freud, attributed

What are your favorite quotes for class use?

Other sources for quotes: www.quotegarden.com and http://thinkexist.com/quotations/mathematics/

Thanks to Emma Bourassa, Thompson Rivers University for the ideas in this tip.