Writing Benefits Women in STEM Disciplines

According to a Colorado University study published in Science and described in ScienceDaily, a “values affirmation” writing exercise in an intro physics class helped female students raise their grades and improve their mastery of the material.

The researchers believe that the writing assuaged students’ stress as they ventured into a field where stereotypes often cast women in a negative light.  Even female students who embraced the stereotype did better after writing about the values most important to them, such as “relationships with family and friends.”


Stanley Fish on Plagiarism

In lieu of this week’s teaching tip, and in honor of the plagiarism season which we have now entered, here’s an excellent article by Stanley Fish for your enjoyment.  And, he had to write a follow up column to deal with all the comments the first column generated.  I hope for your comments too.  Happy Thanksgiving!!

Teaching Tip: Unprepared and at-risk

Today’s post is less of a “tip” and more of a look at one of the major issues we are all dealing with in our classrooms.  Unprepared and “at risk” students are on the rise across the country, in both graduate and undergraduate programs.  We might prefer to remember the students we used to have or imagine the students we think we should be getting, but the sooner we face reality, the sooner we can make a difference.

Kathleen Gabriel works with at-risk college students at the University of Arizona.  In her book Teaching Unprepared Students: Strategies for promoting success and retention in higher education, she identified five guiding principles for working with these at-risk students, but they can easily apply to all students.

  1. All students can become lifelong learners.  This is Gabriel’s fundamental principle, the basic belief that underlies all the others.  It sounds good, but what does this belief look like in practice?  It means focusing on effort, not ability and encouraging students to do the same.  It means challenging students’ beliefs that something is “too hard” and not letting them off the hook.  It means not looking the other way when students don’t complete assignments or complete them poorly.  It leads directly to Gabriel’s second principle….
  2. Significant change requires time and commitment from both students and professors.  We can’t continue to teach to the middle and expect less prepared students to get it on their own. And they can’t expect to be passively uninvolved.  If students are not willing to join us, that is their decision and their loss.  But if we decide not to join them, we don’t give them that chance. What does this mean in practice?  It means following up on absent students, holding frequent out of class meetings or chat sessions, assigning extra drafts of written work, giving more feedback and answering more questions.  It may mean requiring students to attend office hours!  This isn’t easy given the busy lives that we lead.  Which once again leads directly to Gabriel’s next principle…..
  3. Struggle is an important part of life; in fact, it’s required.  Once again, that struggle is both ours and our students.  Ours is to get to know students, to reach out to them, to look for new ways to intervene when the other ways don’t work.  Their struggle – to grasp the rope that is offered, to keep trying, to make change, not to avoid.  If students see us struggling to reach them, if they see that we think it’s worthwhile, just maybe they will begin to think it’s worthwhile too.  But it can’t be all on our side…..
  4. Students must take responsibility for their learning.  I don’t know a single faculty member who would disagree with this statement, but what does it mean and how do we get there?  Getting students to take responsibility for themselves and their learning is one of the major developmental tasks of college, and fewer freshmen seem ready to do so.  Sometimes just getting them to hand in work is a struggle.  Perhaps one place to start is to ask students to set goals for themselves, either for learning, class attendance and participation or even (ugh) grades.  Then check in with them to see if they are meeting their goals.  If they are struggling, you can help them plan new strategies.  This goal setting process is useful with students at all levels since the goals can be personalized.
  5. Don’t do for students what they can do for themselves.  There’s a concept in k-12 called “work inhibition”.  This term refers to students who are capable of doing work but are not doing it. I’m certain you’ve seen work inhibited students in your classes, I know I do.  One possible cause of work inhibition is adults (parents and/or teachers) who “help” students do tasks they can do themselves or otherwise get overly involved.    This sends the message that students are not capable or don’t need to do things for themselves.  When students come to us with this mindset, we need to understand that their ability to make independent choices and decision may be somewhat underdeveloped.  Practice making choices and setting up a work schedule will be needed before they can take charge of their own work.

So, it’s the end of the semester – is it too late to reach those at-risk students in your classes who are floundering?  For some, the boat may have sailed, and sunk.  But maybe you can help those students learn some important lessons from their failure.  For those students who still are trying — consider scheduling that extra office visit or taking time after class or via email to reach out even though a part of you may be thinking that this student really should have stepped up sooner.   They should have, it’s true.  They are learning and they make mistakes (sometimes quite colossal ones).  Maybe you will be the one who will make the difference, keep them going, give them the encouragement that they will remember next semester.   Not because you let them off the hook or watered things down or made it easy.  Because you showed them what they could do and what they needed to do and that you believed they could do it.

What’s your biggest frustration with at-risk students?  Are Gabriel’s principles helpful when thinking about at-risk students or are they just good ideas for working effectively with ALL students? Do we need to change how we teach or structure our curriculum or our programs to support the time and effort it takes to work with at-risk students?

The CTE has a copy of Gabriel’s book you are welcome to borrow.


Put This Guy Out of Business

Using the pseudonym “Ed Dante,” an academic ghostwriter (that is, a plagiarism pusher) describes in the Chronicle of Education his lucrative career writing other students’ papers.  And theses.  And dissertations.

Reading “The Shadow Scholar,” I admired his skill and questioned his ethics.  An independent contractor with an essay mill, Ed Dante earns about $66K a year enabling cheating.  He says he draws clients primarily from three groups:  “the English-as-second-language student; the hopelessly deficient student; and the lazy rich kid.”

(He’s good, but he’s not perfect.  What are those semicolons doing there?)

He may number Marymount students among his clientele.  How do we put him, or his likes, out of business?

The article has drawn a lively tail of comments, including this challenge from an English professor in Alabama:

My undergraduates have to write their essays in class, with nothing but paper and pen and a dictionary (no electronic gadgets), and the specific instructions for their writing assignment comes at them just minutes before they start writing. When they or my graduate students write research papers, they have to show me their work in progress – sources and everything – at two different times before the paper is due. If they can’t do that for me, they can’t turn the paper in: the paper fails before it’s turned in. This also ensures that they can’t cram for it; they have to work slowly and deliberately, and this gives them a chance to see how real learning happens. It also forces them to look me in the eye several times during the semester.

Try to sneak your way into one of my classes, Mr. Dante. If your “work” succeeds in getting a passing grade for one of my students, I’ll send you a hundred dollars in cash.

Requiring in-class writing and assigning and collecting drafts are two common anti-plagiarism strategies.  Did you know that Microsoft Word has a feature that allows you to see the changes made from one draft to another? Look under the Review tab and choose Compare.  You’ll just have to ask students to submit papers electronically.

Another plagiarism-busting technique is challenging students to reflect on their writing process.  You might ask students to hand in a cover sheet with questions about how they tracked down their sources and what they think is working/not working in the draft.  I suppose they could hire Ed Dante to write that reflection as well, but eventually they’re going to go broke and have to do their own work.

Teaching Tip: Students who could be doing better

With about a month left before finals (!)  we all hope that  students are moving smoothly through our courses, mastering objectives, turning in excellent work and getting more and more engaged with our disciplines.  If all of your students are in this category, you are hereby requested to submit a blog post and let us know how you did it!  The rest of us, read on.

Take a look at your students.  Are some of them failing to master the course content even though they are trying?  What about students who are passively coming to class but not really doing anything else? Do some of them seem to be just going through the motions but putting in minimum effort?  Do yo have students who breeze through the course requirements with little difficulty, but also with little sense of engagement?  And, how many seem to be in the optimal learning zone – coming to class regularly, appearing to be engaged most of the time and turning in good quality work?

If many or most of your students are in the last category, that’s a good indicator that your approach is on target.  But, what about those students who aren’t “in the zone”?  Is there anything you can do, especially this late in the semester?

One way to look at all of these students is through the lens of motivation. Research suggests that humans are motivated by three factors:

  • Autonomy  — the urge to direct our own lives.
  • Mastery — the desire to get better and better at something that matters.
  • Purpose – the yearning to have our work mean something.

How do these factors play out in with students?

Trying but not succeeding: These students are motivated now, but their failure to achieve mastery has negative implications for their current success and even worse, their future motivation. If most of your students are in this category, you will want to look closely at your syllabus and class activities.   Are you expecting students to do something that they have never been taught to do?  Are you overestimating the skills that your students had when they entered the class?  Overestimation is particularly likely with regard to students’ reading and writing skills.  Many expert instructors also forget how much students don’t know about their discipline.  You don’t necessarily need to lower your expectations, but if the leap is too broad and there are no handholds, students will just fall into the pit.  So, if most of the class is struggling, providing more support during class and more structure outside of class can make it possible for students to rise to your expectations.  The feeling of mastery they earn will help them persevere in other challenging courses.  If you are at a loss for how to do this, please contact the CTE – we can help!

If there are just a few students in your class who are trying hard but struggling, you can meet their specific needs through strategies like referrals to the LRC, holding study groups during your office hours or other individual support.  You may notice patterns as you talk to your struggling students – maybe transfers are missing essential skills or there is some characteristic that successful students have that the struggling students need to acquire.  Finding these patterns can help you prevent the same problems from recurring.

Still in class but not producing: These “passively failing” students frustrate and confuse us. They come to class and may even participate but they don’t complete assignments. Sometimes they come in at the end of the semester begging for extra credit once they realize that they are in trouble.  Passively failing students all have their own reasons, but it can be helpful to think about the dimensions of motivation with them as well.  Often these students don’t understand the purpose of an assignment or a course (or a college education).  They may fear they cannot master the content (so why try?), or they may not feel any sense of control or participation in their learning.  They also may have personal or family issues that make them feel a lack of autonomy, mastery or purpose that then bleeds over into their academic life.

To reach passively failing students, you need to get their attention and then try to figure out what is going on with each of them.  A clear warning signal like a mid-term grade, a flag in Starfish or a note on a paper is a good place to start, followed by an individual meeting.  Once you have a better sense of what is going on, referrals to the Academic Success Center or the Counseling Center may be in order if there’s a serious problem that’s beyond your capability to address.  Sometimes however, these students respond to faculty interest and support.  For example,  first generation college students, who make up around 30% of our undergraduates,  may be struggling with purpose and mastery issues.  They have made the decision to attend college, but they have no role models for how to be a successful student or even a clear idea of why they are here.  They may be lacking essential social and academic skills that we take for granted in the college environment.  This is a time when some friendly, supportive conversation can help a student understand their purpose, believe that they can master your course and feel that they have some control over their academic careers and indeed, their lives.

Just good enough: Students (like faculty) are strategic.  We are all crunched for time and energy, and we all make decisions about how much effort to expend on a given project.  What do you spend most of your time on?  If you are like me, you finish the things you have to do (but don’t like) at a “good enough” level, to leave maximum time for the interesting stuff.  So, how can we get students to classify at least some of our class assignments as the “interesting stuff”?  Again, we come back to purpose, mastery and autonomy. Perhaps these students don’t understand the significance of your assignments and can’t relate them to any of their prior knowledge.  It’s not a waste of class time to discuss assignments thoroughly, especially those assignments whose point is not obvious to students.  Helping students understand how assignments help students achieve course objectives, develop as thinkers and problem solvers and prepare for more advanced work can heighten a sense of purpose and mastery. Or, perhaps students are not working harder because they don’t feel like they own their learning.   Giving students choices also helps them develop more of a sense of ownership and autonomy.

Breezing by: It’s tempting to ignore these students – they’re doing well and you have lots of other things to do. But these are solid students that we want to retain and if they are too bored and disengaged they are likely to go elsewhere.  And beyond that rather self-serving reason, I think we owe it to these students to support the development of their talents.  If you have quite a few “breezers”, it’s time to look at your expectations again, this time from the other end.  Maybe the entire class needs more challenge.  If you just have a few, you can use the ideas of mastery and autonomy to help challenge your top students.  Put several strong students together to work on a more challenging problem.  Consider allowing students to “test out” of a course segment, waiving lower level work that the student is clearly able to perform and substituting an independent project of their interest.

I know some instructors feel that motivating students is not their job, but I can’t agree.  If you can stimulate student curiosity and enthusiasm by enhancing their feelings of autonomy, mastery and purpose, you will be happier with your students’ accomplishments and they will be closer to being lifelong learners.   I guess the bottom line for me here is that really looking at your students’ performance, identifying patterns and digging a bit beyond the surface can help you target your energy where it will be most effective and has the potential to really change the trajectory of a significant number of students.

What are some of the other signs and patterns you look for in your classes?  What motivates your students?  What are you seeing that I’ve left out?


Teaching Tip: Send a Problem

Looking for a different way to structure some group activity in your class?  This week’s tip was contributed to a consortium of faculty developers who share ideas that have worked on their campuses.  If you give it a try, please share your experiences with us!

Purpose:  To challenge students to think critically about key issues and open-ended questions in each discipline.  This three-part process encourages students to question assumptions and explore alternative solutions.

How to Conduct: The instructor brings to class file folders or envelopes with one problem posted on each one.  She announces the activity and its time limits.  She distributes the folders, one per team.  In large classes several teams can work simultaneously on the same problems with the caveat that they cannot be seated close together.  The activity proceeds in a highly structured manner:

(a)    Each team discusses its particular problem and generates within the given time frame as many solutions as possible; the solutions, recorded on a sheet of paper, are placed in the folder or envelope on which is written the problem addressed.

(b)    The folders are then passed clockwise to another team which does not open the folder.  That team, seeing only the problem posed but not the solutions generated by the previous team, follows an identical procedure and brainstorms solutions, placing their recorded conclusions in the folder or envelope.

(c)  The folders are passed a third time, but in this case, the third team opens the folder and reviews the ideas/solutions generated by the other two teams.  They can add additional ideas of their own or consolidate those already suggested by the two other teams.  Their primary task, however, is to identify the most viable solutions to the given problem or issue, usually by synthesizing all three teams’ answers.

Those familiar with Bloom’s Taxonomy (1956) will recognize that this activity brings students to the highest levels of critical thinking because the final step requires sophisticated evaluation and synthesis.  Group reports can provide useful closure.

Discipline applications:  Instructors will find that Send-a-Problem activities are limited only by their imagination.  Virtually all disciplines lend themselves to problem-solving activities where “many heads are better than one:” For example, what things would a clinician need to know before considering a diagnosis of Attention-Deficit Disorder/AIDS/Alzheimer’s?  What features would an art historian look for to authenticate an original Rembrandt/Renoir/Klee?  Biology students could be asked to design various experiments, including a list of equipment:  Compare the rates of growth of two different kinds of bread molds; compare the rates of growth of fruit fly populations under different vitamin supplements; compare the rates of growth of two hybrid varieties of bean plants.  A class in religion might identify challenges facing the Catholic Church today (challenges to Papal authority; the declining priesthood, etc.) and have students discuss the ramifications of these issues and possible solutions.  A class in history might outline the various claims to territory of the cattleman, the farmers, and the native Americans.  Courses in literature could break down various aspects of a novel or short story with teams locating and explaining examples of things such as color imagery, symbols, and figures of speech in books such as The Great Gatsby.  Geography students could discuss these topics: What makes the Balkan region unique as compared to other shatter belts?  Explain the effects of linguistic diversity on European unity. Describe and explain the impact of colonialism and the resulting economies of a given region.

The Send-a-Problem concept does not need to be limited to issues only.  In place of the folders, geologists can pass around rocks needing identification; paralegal instructors can have teams fill out work sheets on various legal books; and ESL teachers can have teams caption various cartoons using the target language.

Submitted by Barbara Millis
Teaching and Learning Center
University of Texas at San Antonio