What does your syllabus say?

Like everyone else I am trying to get all my last minute class preparations done, including my syllabus, while at the same time trying to come up with a CTE blog post that would be interesting, timely and relevant.  And quick.  Then, I saw this  blog post from Maryellen Weimer’s Teaching Professor Blog. Those of you who attended Faculty Convocation may recall that Weimer has written extensively about learner-centered classrooms. Anyway, I debated whether it would be “cheating” to just repost it, but it meets ALL my criteria AND it reminds me to remind you that we have an institutional subscription to The Teaching Professor newsletter, also edited by Weimer.  So, please check out the post, titled “What does your syllabus say about you and your course” and consider subscribing to The Teaching Professor newsletter for a continuing source of interesting and thoughtful information about teaching and learning.

Instructions for how to subscribe to the newsletter are on the CTE Blackboard community site.  If you are not enrolled in the site,  click on “Community” and search for the organization Center for Teaching Excellence and join.  Or, just email us at teaching@marymount.edu.

Welcome back!


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: Learning to be a group

If you would like to use more group work in your classes, but have had difficulty getting the groups to work as well as you would like, here are some suggestions from an expert in the field, Dr. Barbara Millis.  Her most recent book “Cooperative Learning in Higher Education” (2010) describes cooperative learning as a versatile and flexible approach that can be adapted to all disciplines.  Benefits of cooperative learning include deeper learning and critical thinking.  BUT as we all know from bad experiences with group work, if cooperative learning experiences are not well designed, they can result in less learning!

One particular issue for a lot of faculty is groups that don’t work well together.  In many disciplines learning to work on a team is an important course goal, and of course it’s a great life-long skill to have.  So how do we help students learn to work in groups?  Here are some suggestions offered by Dr. Millis.

When you assign several students to produce a major assignment together you will have to consider not only the quality of the task they complete but also the effectiveness of their interaction. If one of your course objectives is that students will learn to work altogether with colleagues, then teach them how. The steps are the same as for teaching and grading discussion:

  • Provide criteria and instructions.
  • Provide opportunities for practice and feedback.

Here are suggestions for guiding group processes:

  • Begin with instructions and guidelines for group work. Address the ways in which groups could go astray.
  • Construct a rubric by which the groups will be evaluated.  (or ask at the CTE for some samples)
  • Have groups compose and sign a written agreement, at the beginning of their work together, that details what all of them will be responsible for (for example, being on time for meetings, completing their share of the work by certain deadlines, communicating regularly with other group members) and what each will do (Mary will research this part; John will research this part; Ling-Chi will produce the first full draft; Jamal will edit the draft).
  • Ask the group to appoint people to certain roles such as record keeper, convener, and any others necessary for the group to work efficiently.
  • Ask the group for frequent feedback to you and to each other.  At the end of each meeting, whether online or face-to-face, group members can write to one another what they thought was successful about the group meeting and what they thought needed improvement.  Responses can be shared with you, and you can step in quickly if the group is struggling.
  • Ask a recorder to post or submit to you a record of the group’s activities. When did they get together? Who was present? What did each person do? What progress was made? What problems arose, and how did the group address them? What do they need from you, if anything?
  • Schedule a face-to-face or synchronous online meeting with each group at intervals to check the group’s progress and interaction. At these meetings, anyone who feels another group member is not doing his or her share should say so during the meeting so the issue can be discussed and you can facilitate.

How do you help students become more effective group members? What kinds of problems have you experienced with groups in your classes?  What questions do you have about working with groups?

Thanks to Barbara Millis of the Teaching & Learning Center and UT San Antionio (http://www.utsa.edu/tlc) for contributions to this tip.



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.


Teaching Tip #13: Summertime and the living is EZ (er)

Can you see the light yet?  Right now, it may feel like that last big Light where your dear departed await, but it’s really just the end of the spring semester tunnel.  So, let’s look forward to planning your summer.   I hope you are including large dose of fun and relaxation; could some of that fun relate to your teaching?  Here are some ideas from the CTE:

Read: Not exactly beach reading, but if you’d like to stretch your thinking about teaching, here are some excellent choices.  The CTE has copies of all of these if you’d like to borrow one.

The Courage to Teach by Parker Palmer

Not a “how-to” book, but a reflection on the spirit, art, pain and passion of teaching.  We have multiple copies if several folks would like to read this together and discuss it.

Becoming a Critically Reflective Teacher by Stephen Brookfield

Brookfield encourages us to examine our work in the classroom critically through the four key “lenses” of self, students, colleagues, and theory.  Great examples and a sense of humor.

Our Underachieving Colleges by Derek Bok

Bok’s critique of current higher education will raise questions and make you uncomfortable at times.  Isn’t that what a good challenge is all about?  Another good group read!

The Art of Changing the Brain by James Zull

Neuroscience for all, as applied to teaching.  Clear, interesting and helps you understand how to apply what we know to your teaching.

Learner Centered Teaching by Maryellen Weimer

What are the ramifications of focusing closely on what students learn as opposed to what teachers teach?  Maryellen Weimer lays it out for you clearly and compellingly.

And one more book that I can’t recommend yet but plan to read this summer:

Why Don’t Students Like School: A Cognitive Scientist Answers Questions About How the Mind Works and What It Means for the Classroom by Daniel T. Willingham.  Although this book is not specifically for higher education settings, it’s gotten rave reviews and I’m looking forward to it.  Care to join me?

Talk: It’s a good time to stop by the CTE and chat about including more inquiry in your courses, using technology, course design or other topics.  We have lots of information as well as suggestions taken from classroom practice, and we’re around pretty much all summer.  Stop by, call or email!

Write: Join a summer writing group.  Peer review isn’t just for students! Start working on a grant proposal or your application for sabbatical.  Finish up that article or start a new one.  We’re happy to host writing groups and help you get organized.  Email teaching@marymount.edu to express interest.

Play with Tech Toys: The CTE has clickers you can check out and Sympodia you can play with.  E-learning services will be offering BB 9 training regularly.  Go to https://www.marymount.edu/itstraining/ to check for group training or contact elearning services if you need individual training.

Take a workshop: WI workshops will be offered through the summer; even if you’re not teaching a WI courses you will learn how to incorporate writing into ANY course in ANY discipline!  Contact Sylvia Whitman at Sylvia.whitman@marymount.edu for more information and to sign up.

Plan a course portfolio: Join a few colleagues and plan to design a course portfolio for one of your classes next year.  Why would you want to do that?  A course portfolio can help you improve the course for yourself and your students, it can provide evidence of your teaching skills and your commitment to teaching excellence and you can hang out with like-minded colleagues and share ideas.

We will have an organizational lunch meeting on May 26th at noon on the Main Campus.  Please email Carolyn.oxenford@marymount.edu or teaching@marymount.edu if you are interested (whether or not you can make it on May 26).

So, what are you doing this summer?  What would you like to try? Share the fun!

Note: This will be the last regular teaching tip post until August.  I would love to hear suggestions for topics you like and things you’re bored with.  Guest bloggers are also welcome!

Teaching Tip #4: Better Lectures?

The lecture method of instruction may be the original pedagogical strategy.  Before information was readily available in print form (and now online), a lecture was the most efficient way to transmit expert knowledge to novice learners.  Now, rather than being the primary source of information, faculty experts need to help students learn to find, select, use and evaluate ideas and information from the constant high-speed flow that surrounds us.  How effective is lecturing compared to other teaching methods for today’s learners, and how can we maximize the effectiveness of our lectures?

McKeachie et al. (1990) analyzed a large body of evidence and concluded that lecture is not a particularly effective method of instruction when compared to more active approaches. Discussion methods result in superior student retention of information, transfer of knowledge, problem solving, critical thinking, attitude change and motivation.  Print sources of information are superior to lecture since students can read faster than lecturers can talk and can review printed materials easily and at their own time and pace.  Despite these findings, lecture does continue to have a place in the pedagogical toolbox.  The trick lies in understanding how and when they are most useful.

Lectures can be an effective and efficient method of instruction by:

  • Providing information that is more current than written materials
  • Summarizing or adapting material from multiple sources
  • Helping students learn by providing conceptual frameworks, key concepts, principles and ideas
  • Motivating students to consider a different point of view, a new problem or a challenge
  • Modeling how to approach a problem or question; providing examples of a “scholar in action”

Making the best use of lectures:

  • Cognitive theory shows us that lasting learning depends on mental activity – thinking about, elaborating and using information makes it more likely to be retained.  Knowledge is stored in linked networks of concepts, principles and facts.  Effective lectures help to bridge the students’ existing networks and the structures of the discipline.
  • Watch out for “conclusion oriented” lectures – lectures that strive to summarize the knowledge “covered” in the day’s readings.  Aim instead to use demonstrations, metaphors, problems, and examples that allow you to help students learn how to read and understand their assignments.
  • Break up lectures into 10 – 20 minute segments.  Research indicates that listeners have trouble maintaining attention after this amount of time and without attention, there can be no retention!  The most effective lecture breaks require students to apply or use the material just covered.
  • Some sample lecture breaks include
    • minute papers (give students one minute to write about the main points of the lecture so far)
    • muddiest point papers (write down the most confusing part of the lecture so far)
    • think-pair-share (pose a visual, a question or problem and ask students to respond, then turn to a partner and share)
    • applying the lecture content to a case study or example (individually or with a partner or small group)
    • Using multiple choice clicker questions to quickly assess student understanding of points just made

You may be thinking that taking notes is enough activity to promote learning during lectures.  The research suggests that the answer is – not usually.  The usefulness of note taking depends on several factors, including the students’ ability to maintain attention, understand what was said, and hold onto it in short term memory (not to mention fast and accurate fine motor skills).  Studies suggest that students aren’t able to write down most of what was said in lectures, and that they get some things wrong.  This is because listeners have limited information processing capability, and if the material is complex or unfamiliar, the effort of note taking can detract from the effort required to comprehend and organize the material.   The bottom line?  When material is new and/or particularly complex, students do better when you limit the number of concepts presented, and provide multiple opportunities to understand the material.  Providing extra support such as organizers (outlines, concept maps, headings, etc.) that students can use to help them begin to process information more deeply is also helpful.

Do you lecture?  Why or why not?  What do you do to make lectures more effective?

McKeachie, W.J., Pintrich, P.R., Lin, Y-G., Smith, D.A. F., & Sharma, R. (1990). Teaching and learning in the college classroom: A review of the literature (2nd Ed.). Ann Arbor: NCRIPTAL, University of Michigan.

McKeachie, W.J. & Svinicki, M. (2006).  McKeachie’s Teaching Tips. Boston, MA:Houghton Mifflin.

Teaching Tip #3: Writing is Learning

Try this experiment:  ask your students to spend 5 minutes writing about a topic before beginning class discussion on the topic. You don’t need to grade it or even collect it, although you might want to use the students’ work as a way to take attendance.   Why do this?  Research findings suggest that students who write about topics learn more than those who do not.

Drabick, Weisberg, Paul, and Bubier (2007) compared the test performance of students who either wrote or thought about a topic for 5 minutes before engaging in a 10 minute class discussion of the topic. Ungraded writing produced larger improvements in student performance on both factual and conceptual questions than did merely thinking about the topic, with a larger benefit for conceptual questions. Even when student writing is not graded, these assignments can be effective strategies for improving student learning.

Brief, in-class “process” writing has other advantages.  Students who are reluctant to contribute to class discussion are more likely to do so if they have had a few minutes to gather their thoughts and write them down.  You can avoid calling on habitual responders and randomly ask students to share what they have written.

In-class process writing can also serve to quickly assess student knowledge about a topic.  You can use it as a pre-test, to assess reading comprehension or as an application exercise.  None of these writing assignments need to take more than a few minutes of class time, they require little faculty grading time, and they enhance student thinking and learning.

How do you use writing to learn in your classes?  Please share your ideas with us!

Want to hear more about teaching content through writing?  Join us for the faculty conversation on January 27, 2010 (11:30 am, main campus dining hall) with nationally recognized writing-across-the-curriculum expert Terry Zawacki.

Terry Zawacki will also be leading two informal writing-related conversations that morning–all are welcome.
9:30-10:20 (Ballston): group vs. individual writing projects
10:30-11:30 (main campus): writing and digital/new media

Thanks to Claudia Stanny at the University of West Florida for portions of this tip.

Drabick, D. A. G., Weisberg, R., Paul, L., & Bubier, J. L. (2007). Keeping it short and sweet: Brief, ungraded writing assignments facilitate learning. Teaching of Psychology, 34, 172-176.