Update on “The 7 Deadly Sins of Student Writers”

According to Ben Yagoda, punctuation is this generation’s downfall.  See his article in the Chronicle of Higher Ed, “The Elements of Clunk.”



Teaching Tip: The past is always with us.

This week’s principle from the Lifelong learning at Work and at Home website focuses on prior knowledge:

New information learned depends heavily upon prior knowledge and experience.

This principle stresses the importance of getting to know our students so we can help them learn more effectively.  From infancy onward, learning is based on building new mental connections that physically change brain structure.  Our brains are not built to remember unconnected facts; if material doesn’t relate to something else that is important to us, we forget.  Not only do we need prior experiences as an anchor, but the quality of our prior assumptions, conceptual knowledge and biases can all influence what we learn, for better or worse. Despite these well known findings, most of us do little to discover what our students already know (or think they know) about our disciplines. And yet, that prior knowledge may make or break their chances for success in our classes.

Why is prior knowledge so important?  Studies comparing novices and experts in a variety of fields suggest that prior knowledge is vital to the ability to access and use what we know. For example, chess experts are able to remember meaningful patterns of chess pieces much better than novices.  However, when asked to remember the positions of randomly placed pieces, experts performed no better than novices.  When the information was meaningful, the chess experts were able to “chunk” information (i.e. organize and classify it) much more efficiently than novices and then remember those larger chunks.  Instead of seeing a certain number of pieces on the board in certain places, experts see a classic opening move and relate that information to their extensive prior experience with opening moves.

How can we help students develop more effective knowledge structures within our disciplines?  Our strategies depend on the students’ current developmental level, both generally and in the context of specific disciplines.  In introductory courses, students generally have very limited ways of understanding and organizing knowledge.  But they do have life experiences, and these are important in making those first connections.  That’s why many skilled lower level instructors spend a lot of time helping students relate what they are learning to the world around them and their existing interests.  A student may not know much about biology, but she knows that everyone wants her to use hand sanitizer all winter.  From this simple observation, a series of questions naturally presents itself that can be used to build understanding.

In introductory courses we typically don’t find (or expect) students to show a sophisticated grasp of disciplinary concepts.  Unfortunately, we often find something more difficult to change: a mental framework that’s a bit dented or missing critical pieces. Misconceptions and incorrect information can distort and limit student learning, especially at the introductory level.  Unfortunately, since this incorrect information is also anchored in prior knowledge, it can be resistant to change.  Discovering common student misconceptions and designing experiences that challenge them is a critical part of building new levels of expertise.  Experiments, demonstrations, videos and other active methods that directly challenge student misconceptions are often the most powerful since they use multiple channels and can have more emotional impact than lecture or readings.  It takes a powerful stimulus to dislodge embedded rust.  However, experience is best when it is paired with explanations and principles to help students organize their new experiences effectively.  Or, as another of the core learning principles put it: Experience alone is a poor teaching. 

As students advance in the discipline, they begin to develop their own knowledge structures. In these upper level classes it’s important to find out what students already know so that you don’t try to build on knowledge that isn’t there.  Having a good understanding of prior knowledge can also help you advise students – someone with gaps that are just too large may need to take a pre-requisite course, while others may need to be referred for tutoring in specific areas.  Other students may be able to skip some topics, or take a more in-depth approach.  There are many ways to assess prior learning.  Some faculty members assess prior knowledge using pre-tests or writing assignments that identify strengths and weaknesses. A drawback of testing or writing assignments of course is the time it takes to read and analyze them, even though they are typically ungraded.  Asking students to draw a concept map of important content is a quick way to show you what students think is important and also gives you a picture of how they organize that information.  Another approach is the Knowledge survey.  This type of survey is often quite lengthy, but students are not actually asked to answer the questions as they would be on an exam.  Instead, they rate their level of knowledge of each concept or process on a three point scale from absolute certainty to complete ignorance.  These surveys can be scored electronically and they provide a quick snapshot of the class that can guide you to focus your time in class more productively.  Administering the same survey at the end of the course provides a check up on how effectively you were able to reach your goals; ideally you will see upward movement for the class as a whole and for individual students as well.

The importance of prior knowledge is also evident when we discuss transfer of learning. Many students can repeat information or use it in similar situations but, unlike experts, they may not recognize appropriate but unfamiliar applications of a concept or procedure.  The ability to recognize when and how prior information can be used in new settings is the key behind transfer of learning and also depends on how knowledge is structured in the brain. Direct instruction in relating features of the new environment or situation to the prior one can build a path to transfer, along with a lot of guided practice. Thus, presenting students with varying situations you may have to first cue the students to apply what they know, and then help them learn to recognize cues for themselves.

Above all, it’s important to realize that students’ prior knowledge and their methods for organizing it are very dissimilar from your own.  Not only did they grow up in a different world (just check the Beloit College Mindset if you doubt that) but they have not had the wealth of training and experience in your discipline that you do.  Many of us struggle with getting our minds back to that beginner stage so that we can think like students and anticipate where they need help.  If you’d like to develop that very important sense of empathy, take a challenging class in something completely new to you.  You’ll be amazed to discover how much you attempt to use your prior knowledge to anchor new material and how many misconceptions you may have!  Plus, you will experience both the frustration and the exhilaration of making progress.

Next up:  we will finish this series with the final principles of active learning, less is more and choosing what to forget.

Teaching Tip: Better Student Study Skills

An article about the National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE) in the November 17 Inside Higher Education grabbed my attention with a table showing the use of a variety of learning strategies among freshman and senior respondents.  I think the results provide some insight into student study patterns and some useful guidance for instructors.

Not surprisingly, the most commonly endorsed strategy was “taking careful notes in class” which was endorsed by 88% of freshmen and 86% of seniors.  Unfortunately, many students were not doing much with those notes after taking them (and many of us may wonder how careful those notes really are).  Only about two-thirds of each group said they reviewed their notes after class, and only about three-quarters of either group went back and organized their notes to make them more meaningful.

When it came to completing reading assignments, around 80% of both groups reported that they “identified key information” in their reading.   However only two-thirds reported that they stayed focused while reading course and avoided distractions during studying. Sixty percent or fewer of the students who responded took notes while reading.   How effectively can they be identifying key information if they are distracted, unfocused and not taking notes?

More active strategies were used by even fewer students.  Only about half of those responding said they created their own examples to help them study, or outlined major topics or ideas from their study materials.

Finally, while three-quarters of the students surveyed said that they “set goals before starting academic tasks”, fewer sought help when they did not understand, and only about half of freshmen and fewer than half of seniors ever discussed effective study strategies with anyone.  The only other strategy that was chosen by 80% or more of both groups was “connected to learning things you already knew”.  This is an excellent strategy, but one wonders at what level this is happening given some of the other responses.

The clear implication of these findings is that our students really don’t know what it means to study effectively and efficiently.  For decades, research in cognitive psychology and education has demonstrated the need for learners to actively engage with material if they are going to truly learn and remember it.  If students are not spontaneously adopting active study strategies, we can help them by building these strategies into our course requirements.  Most of us do try to help students link new knowledge to prior knowledge, but there are more concrete things we can also do.  For example, requiring some kind of written response to readings such as notes, response logs or responses to questions based on course readings helps students learn to identify what is important and to concentrate while reading. Asking them to create study guides that involve outlining, organizing and/or summarizing their class notes and readings will promote the kind of higher level thinking that we are trying to foster. When students create case examples or problems, write potential exam questions, or otherwise actively use course material, they are more likely to develop habits of deep studying that lead to deeper learning.

Fine for freshmen, perhaps, but shouldn’t upper level or graduate students be able to do this on their own?  At least according to these NSSE results, the differences in responses between freshmen and seniors was minimal, which suggests that students are not internalizing effective study strategies as they progress through undergraduate education.  It also suggests that beginning graduate students are unlikely to have highly developed study skills.  Some schools have attempted to address the issue by requiring study skills, orientation and/or critical thinking courses or workshops, but these tend to be ineffective unless the skills are somehow embedded into a larger topic or them.  Robert Leamson quotes the response of a failing student when asked why he was not using the success strategies that he had learned in a freshman orientation course.  “You mean we were supposed to actually do all the stuff in that book?”  (Leamson, 1999, p. 41)    I think that by working these skills into many of our course requirements we are likely to reach a much broader audience as well as ensure that they “actually do” what we know works.

What strategies do you use to help students develop better learning habits?

To read the entire article Major Engagement (which addresses a number of other interesting findings and issues from the NSSE) go to


Leamson, R. (1999) Thinking about teaching and learning.  Sterling, VA:Stylus.

Teaching Tip: Fail Early, Fail Often

“Failure is simply the opportunity to begin again, this time more intelligently”
Henry Ford

Your midterm grades are in (I hope) and some of your students are about to get a wake-up call about their performance in your class. You may be somewhat depressed about the number of students who are failing or close to it. But many highly successful teachers, entrepreneurs and researchers believe that failure is a critical part of the learning process. It’s what students think and do about failure that makes the difference.

Student responses to failure are shaped by several factors; one of these is their attitude toward failure. Students who come in the door believing that intellectual ability is fixed and cannot be changed (entity theorists) see failure as a confirmation of their lack of ability. If this is what you believe, why would you try again? Students who believe that intellectual ability can be increased through hard work (incremental theorists) are more open to seeing the inherent challenge in a failure.

Entity thinkers focus more on getting that A because they see it as a confirmation of their ability – how many of you have heard “but I’m an A student, how could I get a B (or C!) in this class?” Students who truly believe they can’t do math or philosophy or economics because they lack some essential mental quality are going to give up the first time they see a low score.

Our society and our schools often foster entity thinking, without necessarily intending to do so. I think it’s one example of John Tagg’s dichotomy between espoused theory (Take intellectual risks!) and theory-in-use (Do it right the first time because you won’t get another chance!).  If you’re faced with a classroom of entity theorists who play it safe to avoid failure or give up after an initial failure, how can you encourage them to embrace failure?

Tell failure stories – lots of them. Students need to hear about the failures of famous people they know and well-known people in your field. They also need to hear about the mistakes you have made, how many drafts you wrote or projects you tossed. Even better, take some risks in your class, and when one of your ideas doesn’t work, use it as an illustration. The technology doesn’t work today? Show them how to cope with failures that aren’t even your fault! Students need to see models for how to cope with failure graciously, how to analyze failure and learn from it. It’s one of the most useful life skills you’ll ever teach. Talking about the process of trying, failing and improving also normalizes failure and makes it less threatening and more of an opportunity. Sometimes talking quite directly about these types of attitudes and asking students to think about their own beliefs can help them begin to let go of these attitudes.

Help students practice learning from failures. Have students analyze their performance in your class. Why did they do poorly on a test? What made the paper they wrote a C or D instead of an A or a B? Don’t let them say “I didn’t study/work hard enough” and stop there. How did they study? How long, what did they do, when and where did they do it? How could they have improved? Who could they talk to about learning better ways to study? Have them re-write answers to test questions (for partial credit), re-submit or critique their papers. Videotape their presentations (the CTE has mini-video cameras!) and ask them to watch and analyze them.  Critiquing completed works is good, but it’s even better if there is the opportunity to apply the critique to improve the work.

Encourage failures in class. My music teachers have always said that it’s better to make a mistake confidently and loudly rather than refuse to make the commitment. This is true in class discussion, problem solving and all kinds of creative projects. Give bonus points and praise for a risk taking students even if (ESPECIALLY if) their idea goes down in flames. Encourage other students to see questioning and risk taking as admirable. And do not subtly excuse failure – “that’s a really hard one”. These kinds of statements are meant to be reassuring, but they also imply that the student can’t do hard work. Better to say something like “this one takes awhile to figure out – keep at it.” This tells the students that if they are willing to do the work, they will get there. And that it’s completely normal not to figure out a problem or answer a question on the first try. If you are feeling playful you could even have a competition for the biggest and best mistake of the day!

Now, I know that some of your students fall more easily into the category of passive failures – their motivation, their readiness for college, or maybe their personal problems are getting in the way of their success. Their attitudes towards failure may not have much to do with their current problems. Dealing with student failures, like dealing with students, is not one size fits all. But helping all students learn to embrace failure as a necessary part of learning and life is a goal well worth seeking. Think about the rest of the semester. How could you incorporate more failure in your course?

If you’re interested in further reading, Doug Lemov’s book Teach Like a Champion was written for k-12 audiences but has applications in post-secondary education and beyond.

Teaching Tip: End of Semester Stories

Students can be so annoying at this time of the semester.  They wait too long to come in for help or they avoid us and hope that somehow we will fail to notice their failing grades, their absences from class, their disengagement.  Then they come in to see you, desperately hoping for a miracle.  They are, in the words of one of my students “feeling uneasy” when alarm bells should have been sounding for weeks.

I’ve spent the last day at an advising conference, which has prompted me to concentrate on the advisory role we play with students.  Whether or not they are your official advisees, giving feedback, support, suggestions and difficult doses of reality is an inescapable part of the faculty role.  How do we respond to these students appropriately, especially when we’re annoyed by their behavior?

Peter Hagen from The Richard Stockton College of New Jersey  provided one perspective on this issue during his presentation on the role of narrative, metaphor and hermaneutics in advising.  While the following thoughts were inspired by his presentation, they are undoubtedly filtered through my own interpretations and certainly capture only a portion of his argument.

Narrative – every student has a story.  (So does everybody else, for that matter – we are a story-telling species.)  Sometimes we think we’ve heard them all, fiction and non-fiction alike. But how do we interpret this story?  How does the student see the arc of their life and experiences?  Is theirs a success story?  Or is it a story of redemption, overcoming odds to succeed at last?  Or a story of contamination where a good story inevitably goes bad?  Understanding how the student sees him or herself can help us understand what they expect, and how they may interpret and structure situations so that what they expect comes true.  If the student’s story shows them as members of a group to whom loyalty is more important than individual success, how will that affect their performance in your class?  Do they see themselves as agents or as buffeted helplessly by external forces?  Instead of brushing off those crazy stories, what if we tried to dig deeper and find the conflicts between their personal narratives and the norms and expectations of higher education?  What implicit assumptions do student stories contain and how can we go about making them explicit and confronting them?  This is not to excuse students from meeting the requirements of our programs, but to help them understand how their stories both help and hinder them in achieving their goals.

Metaphor – what is your metaphor for teaching?  What is your students’ metaphor for learning?  Do they expect learning to be hydraulic — you pour knowledge into their brains and they leak it out all over their final exam? (And then it’s gone!)  Do they think of courses as boxes that are unconnected to each other or to real life?  How can we shift metaphors that limit student and faculty understanding of learning, teaching and education into others that offer new meaning?  What if thought of teaching as more akin to coaching? What if student’s metaphors shifted too?  Could that affect their understanding of their responsibility for learning?  How would it change our understanding of good teaching?

Hermaneutics – how can we learn to “read” students – what is the real meaning behind their actions?  Instead of throwing up our hands at the lame excuses, can we look beneath the surface to see what is really going on?  I think this is related to both the stories they tell themselves (and us) and the metaphors that shape their thinking.  Think of the student who turns in work late, or not at all.  What is their action saying?  Is it “I know I can’t live up to expectations so I’m not going to risk failure.”  Or “I have never had to be responsible for myself before and I don’t know how to do it.”  Perhaps “My other responsibilities (or desires) are more important than my commitment to myself and my learning.”  Or even “I don’t think rules really apply to me, because they haven’t in the past.”  We can apply the same sanction to each of those students.  But will we have asked those students to really question their beliefs and assumptions, evaluated their choices and learned from them?

For some people, I am sure that this emphasis on looking beneath the surface of student behaviors sounds dangerously like counseling.  Perhaps I’m showing my own disciplinary bias here, but I believe that if we really want to educate the whole person, we need to see the whole person.

So, just what you want to hear at the end of the semester.  It’s much easier to just give an extension (or not), assign a grade and move on.  Digging deeper takes more time and effort. But pick one or two students, maybe the ones that really bug you.  See if you can see them from a different perspective.  At the very least, you may be less annoyed with them.  At best, you will make a difference in their lives.  Isn’t that why we are here?


Teaching Tip: Balancing Flexibility and Fairness through Course Design

This week’s teaching tip is a guest post from Mark Potter, Center for Faculty Development at Metropolitan State College of Denver. http://www.mscd.edu/cfd/

●     “Prof. Smith, I won’t be able to make it to class tonight because unfortunately my flight back from vacation has been delayed by an hour and now I won’t make it back to Denver in time for class.  Is there supposed to be a quiz today and if so is there any way I can make it up?”

●     “Hey Professor, I am terribly sorry, but I am unable to attend class this evening due to familial issues. I am writing in an attempt to ascertain what precisely we went over tonight, and what I need to review in order to not fall behind my peers.”

●     “I will not be able to make it to class today due to a conflict with work but I have attached my re-write of the last paper and will get the notes from someone who was in class. Please let me know if there are any important announcements I will miss.”

We have probably all seen emails from students like the ones above, and in fact these are probably fairly mild examples; I have received far more outrageous–and inappropriate–student emails than these.  It is understandable if we react viscerally to them.  We may want to yell at the computer, reply with a snarky email, or, more to the point, penalize the student for missing class and/or assignment deadlines.  Students should just follow the rules and then, “problem solved,” right?

Well, sort of.

Perhaps there is a place for empathy and compassion toward the student whose work schedule changes abruptly, who has (even an unspecified) family emergency, or whose family travel plans become derailed in the middle of the semester.  Like it or not, student demographics are changing as are students’ priorities and work habits (Higher Education Research Institute, 2010).  More students work to cover costs while in college, more students attend college with specific job-skills development in mind, and the range of aptitudes, study skills, and college preparedness continues to widen.  Maryellen Weimer (2006) encourages instructors to put themselves in their students’ shoes by taking a college course outside their field of expertise every few years in order to experience all the aspects of learning, including balancing course deadlines with work deadlines, figuring out what the professor “wants,” and adhering to the rules and expectations that are particular to that course alone–all of which are juggling acts that our students must do constantly.  Still, while compassion and empathy may be warranted, we want to avoid granting special treatment to individual students, and it is important for the sake of our own workload and our own time management to hold students to reasonable standards, or “lines in the sand” (Robertson, 2003)

Learner-centered course design can help us to balance these competing demands between compassion and fairness.  Learner-centeredness shifts responsibility for learning to students while granting them more opportunities, control, and options over how they demonstrate their learning (Weimer, 2002).  We can use course design both to hold students responsible and to provide allowances for when life “interrupts” their studies, all while preserving our lines in the sand and our sanity.

Some course design ideas that accomplish this include:

●     Carrots that incentivize on-time submission of assignments.  I accept late papers (up to three days late) from my students, but only those students who submit their work on time have the option to rewrite their papers and to incorporate my feedback for an improved grade.

●     Bounded flexibility.  Alternatively, a colleague at Metropolitan State College gives his students a “syllabus quiz” in the first week of the semester.  Every student who passes earns 5 credits toward turning in work late (1 credit = 1 day).  Students can cash in all of their credits at once with one assignment, or they can split them across assignments at different times in the semester.

●     Cooperative/collaborative learning.  If students have to miss a class session in a course that incorporates group learning, they have a resource–their fellow students–on whom to rely to try to catch up, rather than coming right away to the instructor to find out what they “missed.”

●     Technology.  Web-based tools, including the course Learning Management System (for example Moodle or Blackboard), Wikis (for example PBWiki), and Google Docs can reinforce cooperative learning and the sense of community within a course.  If students find unexpectedly that they need to miss a class meeting, they can turn to these online resources where they might find threaded discussions designed to supplement in-class learning or examples of student work/reflections completed in class and posted to a Wiki.  Students may also be able to use the online tool to contact their “group” for help.

Of course, students need to know that the interactions and engagement that occur in class are not replicable and that missing class means missing out on an opportunity to learn.  Still, the premise of this essay is that life sometimes gets in the way of the best of intentions, and providing some opportunity for students to learn–an opportunity that does not rely on the instructor delivering instruction twice over–is preferable to penalizing the student by doing nothing.

Additional Resources:

Higher Education Research Institute at UCLA. “A Snapshot of the First Year Experience.  Accessed on July 15, 2010 at http://www.heri.ucla.edu/PDFs/pubs/briefs/HERI_ResearchBrief_OL_2009_YFCY_02_04.pdf

Robertson, D. (2003). Making Time, Making Change: Avoiding Overload in College Teaching. Stillwater, OK: New Forums Press.

Weimer, M. (2002). Learner-Centered Teaching: Five Key Changes to Practice. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Weimer, M. (2006). Enhancing Scholarly Work on Teaching and Learning: Professional Literature That Makes a Difference. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.



Teaching Tip: Just Ask

What’s one of the best, quickest things you can do to improve your teaching?  Get formative feedback from your students BEFORE the semester is over.  I know that you already will be encouraging students to complete end-of-semester ratings forms, but those forms frequently don’t tell you what you want to know for several reasons.  Students may not complete them thoughtfully (or at all), they may interpret the items differently and the items themselves may be unclear.   If students don’t feel that your feedback helps them learn, what are they looking for that they aren’t getting?  The best way to find out is to ask your students for feedback now, while there’s still time to change things.

There are lots of ways to do this, from simple to complex.  The easiest way is to ask simple, open-ended questions.  But do NOT ask students what they liked and did not like about the course so far.  That’s an invitation for comments on everything from your clothing to the heat in the classroom.  Ask them what helped them learn the most and the least.  One approach I like is to ask students three questions:  1) what aspects of the course would you keep exactly as it is; 2) what would you keep but improve;  3) what would you toss?

A mid-semester evaluation doesn’t have to be that broad.  Perhaps you’d really like to know what students think of a particular assignment or reading or maybe you’ d like their feedback on a broad issue like class participation, group work  or the attendance policy.  Create a series of questions that will give you more in-depth understanding of just that aspect of your course.  You may also want to ask students to honestly (and anonymously) tell you how often they do the reading or how much time they spend out of class studying.  This information can help you better understand the rest of the feedback and it also may give you some insights into overall issues in the class.

In her book Inspired College Teaching, Maryellen Weimer points out that student end-of-course evaluations don’t really help students themselves – maybe future students will benefit, but not those filling out the forms right now. This fact, coupled with limited evidence that their evaluations actually result in change, makes students less motivated to complete evaluation forms.  But mid-semester assessment means that there’s still a chance for students to make a difference in ways that directly impact them.  If students are concerned about confidentiality, you can have the assessments administered by a student worker or colleague and collated by the office (the CTE can help with this if needed).  Or you can devise a survey that doesn’t require handwritten responses.

What do you do with the feedback once you get it?  Share it with students!  If they are dissatisfied with something that you cannot or will not change, you can at least explain why.  If you can make a change, students get to see that their opinions are valued, and the class develops a sense of collaboration.   According to Weimer, students also learn when you share and reflect on their feedback in class.  For example, if you get vague feedback (“that reading was bad”),   you can reflect out loud about how difficult it is to improve without more specific information – what made it bad?  Was it too long? Too difficult?  Students see the need to be more detailed and constructive.  Learning to give constructive criticism is like most other skills; it needs practice and feedback.  And if students know you are going to heed it, they will be more likely to deliver helpful responses.