Archive for the ‘CITL Blog’ Category

Why Don’t They Apply What They Have Learned?

Sunday, October 13th, 2013

In the January 21, 2013 issue of The Chronicle of Higher Education, James M. Lang gave some insights into the answer to the question, “Why don’t they apply what they’ve learned”?  He referred to How Learning Works: Seven Research-Based principles for Smart Teaching (Ambrose and co-authors) and The Art of Changing the Brain (Zull).  Here is Lang’s article:

For two years I taught in a special program in which the same cohort of students took two consecutive courses with me: freshman composition in the fall and introduction to literature in the spring. In the composition courses, I worked hard to help students move beyond the standard strategies they had learned in high school for writing introductory paragraphs: Start with a broad statement about life (“Since the beginning of time, people have been fighting wars …”) and narrow down to a specific topic.

In both years that I taught the two-course sequence, I was startled to see many students come back from winter break and—on their very first papers in the spring class—revert directly back to those tired strategies that I had worked so hard to help them unlearn in the fall.

One such student came into my office early in the spring semester to show me a draft of her paper, and it included a lame reverse-pyramid (i.e., general to specific) introduction. “You have to rewrite your introduction,” I said to her. “Why aren’t you using any of the introductory paragraph strategies we worked on last semester?”

She looked up at me in genuine puzzlement: “You mean that the stuff we learned last semester applies in this course, too?”


In their excellent book, How Learning Works: Seven Research-Based Principles for Smart Teaching, Susan Ambrose and her co-authors describe the cognitive activity of applying learned material from one course to another and beyond as “far transfer.” They note correctly that it might be the most fundamental expectation we have for our students.

“Far transfer is, arguably,” they point out, “the central goal of education: We want our students to be able to apply what they learn beyond the classroom.”

Many of us state that outright in our courses. I am teaching two writing courses this semester and in both of them I tried to articulate for my students on the syllabus that I would be teaching them writing and thinking skills they could use in the future. “This course will open your eyes to the arguments that swirl around you continuously,” I wrote on the syllabus for my “Argument and Persuasion” course, “and give you the tools you need to understand, analyze, evaluate, and respond effectively to them.”

Students in my creative-nonfiction course got an even more specific version of that message: “Whatever writing you end up doing after you graduate—whether published books or essays, blogs or Facebook updates, advertising copy or notes to friends—I want you to understand what forms and techniques of writing grab the attention of readers, win them to your side, and inspire them to change in some way.”

If you have ever thought or told your students that you are teaching them “critical thinking,” for example, you are banking on the prospect that students will abstract some general cognitive skill from your course and apply it to future courses or even life situations.

But in practice, as How Learning Works makes clear, “far transfer” turns out to be a much more complicated process than many of us might expect, or that I might imply in my blithely hopeful syllabus talk.

“Most research has found,” the authors explain, “that (a) transfer occurs neither often nor automatically, and (b) the more dissimilar the learning and transfer contexts, the less likely successful transfer will occur. In other words, much as we would like them to, students often do not successfully apply relevant skills or knowledge in novel contexts.”

In short, the further we move students away from the very specific context in which they have learned some information or skill, the less transfer we should expect to see.

Students in my introductory literature course may learn to transfer the interpretive skills from the poetry unit to the fiction unit during that semester, but may not apply those same skills to an upper-level literature course they take the following year. And, at least according to this research, the chances of them applying skills they have learned in my literature course to a text they are reading in a history or political-science course are even slimmer.

To illustrate the difficulties of far transfer, Ambrose and her colleagues point to a fascinating study in which subjects read an article about a military maneuver that involved an army dividing up to conquer a fortress. After the participants had demonstrated their understanding of that challenge, they were given a medical problem which required a similar solution: attacking a tumor with laser treatments from multiple angles.

“Despite having just encountered the military solution,” they write, “the large majority of students did not apply what they had learned [from the military maneuver] to the medical problem.”

Ambrose and her co-authors point to two reasons for the failure-to-transfer that all of us see sometimes in our students. First, they might tie whatever knowledge or skill we are teaching too closely to the context in which they learned it. Thus, students can write innovative opening paragraphs in my freshman-composition course, but in their other classes they continue to rely on the same strategies they learned in high school.

Second, the inability to transfer a skill or information to a novel context might indicate shallow levels of learning. If students are capable of solving problems, writing essays, or answering questions according to some formula they have learned, they might not have grasped the underlying principles of our course content. Without that deeper knowledge of what lies beneath the formula, they can’t pick up what they are learning and put it back down in an unrelated context.

To dig a little more deeply into the problem, consider the work of James Zull, the author of The Art of Changing the Brain: Enriching the Practice of Teaching by Exploring the Biology of Learning. A biologist by training, Zull has devoted much of the latter part of his career to exploring the physical structures of the brain in order to better understand how teachers can facilitate learning.

Zull acknowledges our profession’s shared belief “that if we teach someone the rules for a particular kind of reasoning, they will apply those rules in a general way to everything else.” However, he also points out that “this does not seem to be the way the brain works.”

Cognitive skills of any kind depend on the growth and modification of neuronal networks in our brain, as Zull explains in his book. But because these are networks, they only grow and expand by connecting with other nearby networks. In other words, knowledge and skills obtained within the context of one network—say, my English- literature course—will not immediately float up into some brainy ether and plop down wholesale into unrelated networks.

“Neuronal networks grow by building on existing networks,” Zull writes, “so our entree to reasoning in one subject comes through the neuronal networks for the information in that subject. Often we don’t have the networks that connect one subject with another. They have been built up separately, especially if we have studied in the standard curriculum that breaks knowledge into parts like math, language, science, and social science.”

At this point you should be ready to raise an objection or two, since you are no doubt able to recount examples of students in your courses who have ably transferred content or skills learned in one course to another. I had a student last semester in an introductory literature course who gave a final presentation in which she drew on quotations from the Aristotle text she was reading in her philosophy course and applied them to the novel we had read.

And you could likely point to yourself as an example of a human being who has mastered the art of transfer. Most faculty members are capable of impressive feats of transfer when they are preparing for their courses or conducting research, pulling in examples, analogies, and ideas from a wide range of materials they have read or encountered and applying them to whatever novel context is at hand—a new course, lecture, article, or book chapter.

All hope is not lost, then, in spite of the considerable hurdles we face in helping students learn to transfer our course material from one unit to the next, or from one semester to the next, or from their education to their professional lives. We can help students develop that skill—or, perhaps more accurately, that habit of mind—with some deliberate thinking and activity at the level of the specific course, the larger curriculum, and the institution as a whole.

Have you Flipped? Do you want to?

Wednesday, October 2nd, 2013

Is the “flipped classroom” for you?  Are you already “flipping”?  There has been an enormous amount of discussion about this information delivery and classroom teaching method.  Check out the September 30, 2013 Chronicle article (below) entitled “Inside the Flipped Classroom,” and decide if you have already flipped or if you are thinking about flipping. 


Sara Infante listens intently and scribbles notes as her chemistry professor describes how to identify the masses and atomic numbers of two isotopes of carbon. When it’s time to fill in a table showing that she understands the lecture so far, she clicks her mouse, and the lecture, which is being delivered online, freezes on the computer screen.


The questions that Ms. Infante and her classmates at Southwestern University ask their professor, Maha Zewail-Foote, will help shape the next day’s session in the classroom. There, moving on to more-complex topics, she’ll help them tackle the kinds of problems that used to be given as homework.

It’s Ms. Infante’s first experience with the flipped classroom, where traditional classwork is done at home and homework is done in class.


“I like this because when you’re listening to the lecture at home and you don’t get something, you can rewind and replay it as many times as you need to,” says Ms. Infante, 19, a sophomore majoring in animal behavior who hopes to become a marine-mammal trainer.


“And when you’re working through problems,” she adds, “you aren’t sitting in your room pulling your hair out because you didn’t retain the information from the lecture.”


The video for the semester’s first flipped class, with its accompanying tables and diagrams, lasted just under 10 minutes. They’re usually five to seven minutes, which Ms. Zewail-Foote describes as the attention span of most students. But in her opinion, a well-crafted, concise, 10-minute video that students can pause and replay as many times as they want packs more teaching in than a 20-minute lecture.

The course Web site include outlines that students fill in while they’re listening to her recorded lessons, each of which ends with a short quiz.


“Between the lecture outline and video, they should come to class ready,” Ms. Zewail-Foote says. “They understand how to calculate average atomic mass, so we can jump right in.”


At colleges nationwide, more and more professors are inverting homework and classwork this way, using technology to give students a head start on classroom sessions where they can be active participants and not just listeners.


The flipped classroom is not for everyone. Many students feel lost without a traditional lecture to get them started, and some instructors are reluctant to give up the podium for a role on the sidelines, says Carol A. Twigg, president of the National Center for Academic Transformation.

Since 1999 the center has helped redesign about 300 courses on 159 campuses, often in a flipped format, using technology to cut costs and improve learning. (Southwestern did not work with the center on the revamped chemistry course, but it did consult with other proponents of the technique, as part of a project, supported by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, aimed at making Southwestern’s science curriculum more hands-on.)


Many of the national center’s course redesigns have been in remedial math, financed by $2.2-million from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The center has also helped flip courses in subjects as diverse as Spanish, psychology, nutrition, and anatomy.


“The traditional classroom typically consists of a lecture of some kind where students are listening or watching the professor,” Ms. Twigg says. “Then they do the hard work, solving problems, on their own. The notion is, flip that experience so the professor can help students when they need the help.”

Switching from the role of “sage on the stage” to “guide on the side” requires a professional and cultural shift that many faculty members resist, she says. “It’s easier to stand up and give the same lecture you’ve been giving for 20 years than it is to rethink your course, come up with new activities, and really engage your students.”


The problem-solving and personalized interaction that take place face-to-face sets these classes apart from massive open online courses, or MOOCs, which too often consist mainly of recorded talks, she says, explaining that flipping the classroom requires more than simply moving lectures online.

Teaching to the masses is tempting, but it’s not the same as offering a flipped course, she says. “Let’s say I am the most brilliant lecturer of intelligent design, and now I’ll have an audience of 200,000 instead of 200.


“The problem is, the success rates are awful,” she adds, in a not-so-subtle jab at Sebastian Thrun, the former Stanford University professor who co-founded the MOOC platform Udacity last year, after his online “Introduction to Artificial Intelligence” course attracted more than 160,000 students worldwide. About 23,000 of those students completed the course.


While MOOCs can be effective at delivering content, flipped classrooms make students active participants in their education, says Southwestern’s new president, Edward B. Burger. The former mathematics professor at Williams College has created more than 3,000 instructional CD-ROMS and videos in math that are used in classrooms from kindergarten through college. Instead of having students struggle to figure out problems in their dorm rooms at 2 a.m., he says, “I want to be there when students hit those roadblocks.”


Although he didn’t call it a flipped classroom at the time, Mr. Burger cultivated the technique of “inverting the roles of homework and classwork,” an approach that contributed to his winning a national teaching award in 2010.


Back in the common room of her dormitory suite at Southwestern, Ms. Infante has finished listening to the online lecture and asks her roommate, who’s curled up in an armchair across the room, for a scientific calculator so she can take the quiz.


Her roommate’s own chemistry professor, Emily Niemeyer, offers the format once a week, on what she calls “flipped Fridays.”


Ms. Infante aces the quiz and doesn’t have any questions for her professor. Other students were stumped by a few questions, Ms. Zewail-Foote notes the following morning as she prepares for class. One student asked: “Will there ever be a time when an atom is not neutral and the number of protons and electrons don’t balance each other out?”


The explanation would normally come up in Chapter 4, but Ms. Zewail-Foote decides to work the answer into today’s classroom problem-solving session. Reviewing the quiz results, she can tell that students generally understand the material, so she is comfortable accelerating the pace a bit.


There’s little danger that students are going to nod off in her class, because she peppers it with questions that they must answer using their hand-held clickers. If 29 students have clicked their answers, she pauses before moving on until all 30 have weighed in.


Shortly after the class begins, students cluster their desks into groups of three or four to work on problems as she walks around, occasionally crouching next to those who seem stuck.


When the semester’s first flipped-classroom session is over, at least one student isn’t yet sold. “I’m going to fail this class,” says Alex Petrucci, a 20-year-old sophomore. The pre-class video didn’t adequately prepare her for the problems she was asked to solve in class, she complains, and even with a cluster of classmates to confer with, she felt lost.


That kind of reaction isn’t uncommon when classes are flipped.


An aeronautics-engineering professor at Mississippi State University who taught a course in statics, in a flipped format, encountered similar resistance from some students who couldn’t get used to online lectures.


Masoud Rais-Rohani, who worked with the National Center for Academic Transformation to revamp the statics course, says having students watch videos, take quizzes, and reflect on what they learned before each class session made it possible to spend class time doing hands-on projects that the course had never before had room for, like working with physical models of bridges and calculating the loads they can carry.


Nevertheless, the flipped format was put on hold for the statics course this year, after tests revealed that learning outcomes were about the same in the flipped classes, which cost the same, or slightly more, because of the extra tutors and teaching assistants required. In addition, students were grumbling.


“Some complained that the instructors were good, but they were wasted if they weren’t standing in front of the class lecturing,” says Pasquale Cinnella, head of the aerospace-engineering department.


If engineering enrollment continues to increase, and the classes become more cost-effective, Mr. Cinnella says, he may reinstate the flipped format.


Eventually, Mr. Rais-Rohani hopes to win over skeptics like the student who responded to his survey by saying: “If I am paying for a class and a professor to teach me, then I do not want to teach myself for homework and have homework for class.”


In time, the professor hopes, more students will come around to agreeing with the student who found that the flipped format forced him to improve his study skills and take a more active role in his learning. “Now,” that student wrote, “I’m responsible for my grade.”

Teaching Resource for All

Wednesday, October 2nd, 2013

I am a big fan of Maryellen Weimer’s work.  Check out her 2010 book, Inspired College Teaching: A Career-Long Resource for Professional Growth (Jossey-Bass).  There’s something for everyone who believes that excellent teaching enhances student learning. 

Grading and Its Discontents – You Are Not Your Grades

Thursday, August 1st, 2013

This post is the final in a series of four.  In his article entitled, “Grading and Its Discontents” (The Chronicle, July 11, 2012), Ahmed Afzaal reflected about grading in ways that you may find helpful when you are discontented with grading.  To find out how to minimize discontent, he asked his students for their thoughts on grading.  The responses led to several suggestions you can use in your teaching.  The first suggestion was posted in May, 2013.  The second was posted in June, 2013.  The third was posted in July, 2013.  Here is the fourth and final of Afzaal’s suggestions.

You are not your grades. I want my students to avoid defining themselves in terms of a grade. I want them to know that grades represent nothing more than someone’s assessment of one or more instances of their academic performance. Given the nature of the grading process and the limited purposes for which it is designed, the grades they receive are in no way a reflection of who they are as people or even what they are capable of achieving in the long run.

Grades do not represent an objective measure of students’ intelligence, capabilities, talents, or potential, nor do they capture the essence of their character, soul, or worth as human beings. An A in a particular assignment or a course does not make the recipient a worthy person, just as a D or an F does not make anyone an unworthy person.

In discussing these matters with my students, my aim is to reduce their grade-related anxiety as much as possible. I believe that when students see their grades as pieces of information, rather than as external rewards or punishments, or as mechanisms of control, they are much more likely to discover the joy that is inherent in the very experience of learning.

Grading and Its Discontents-Via Negativa

Tuesday, July 2nd, 2013

In his article entitled, “Grading and Its Discontents” (The Chronicle, July 11, 2012), Ahmed Afzaal reflected about grading in ways that you may find helpful when you are discontented with grading.  To find out how to minimize discontent, he asked his students for their thoughts on grading.  The responses led to several suggestions you can use in your teaching.  The first suggestion was posted in May, 2013.  The second was posted in June, 2013.  Below is the third of those suggestions.

Via negativa. I want students to understand that there are certain functions that grading is not designed to perform. For instance, grading cannot measure a student’s effort.

Sometimes a student complains: “I worked so hard in this course and spent so much time studying but I only received a. … ” That student is probably assuming that grading is intended to gauge the time and effort that students invest in their studies—an assumption that clearly isn’t true.

Professors rarely observe their students outside of the classroom or lab, which is why we are in no position to judge how hard or long someone has studied. We can only assess their actual performance. A student using ineffective methods of study would have to work a lot harder and a lot longer than a student who is using effective methods. Similarly, a student who is trying to do multiple things simultaneously, or is being constantly distracted by technology, is likely to accomplish much less in the same amount of time than a student who is giving full attention to the task at hand.

Grading cannot measure a student’s progress either. On the first day of classes in any given course, some students are already ahead of others because they have a special aptitude for, or a particular interest in, the subject matter. And some students are already at a disadvantage: Perhaps they grew up in an intellectually impoverished environment, or their personal inclinations don’t match the subject matter of the course, or they bring to the class deeply ingrained misconceptions that will inhibit them from fully engaging with the material.

Typically, professors do not take such an initial advantage or disadvantage into account when evaluating students’ performance, mainly because such factors cannot be realistically quantified. Some students must invest more time and effort than other students in order to receive the same grade. That may seem unjust, I tell students, but it simply mimics the way “real life” functions.

Even academic performance in the form of exams, presentations, and essays provides the professor with no more than a cross-section of all that a student learns during a semester.

Consider this common student complaint: “I learned so much in this course but I only received a. … ” It is true that the quantity of what a student learns is one of the main factors that determine his or her academic performance and grade, but it is also true that not everything a student learns in a course can actually be tested, measured, and graded in a reliable fashion. Indeed, the most important skills that any student can acquire—abstract thinking, self-awareness, empathy, perspective, personal maturity, respect, love of learning, curiosity, and responsibility—are all unquantifiable.

I try to help my students realize that learning is its own reward. No amount of accolades, trophies, diplomas, and money can equal the worth of one’s actual learning. It is impossible to reduce the full richness or value of a genuine learning experience to something as bland as a letter grade.

Grading and Its Discontents-Frequently Asked Questions

Tuesday, June 4th, 2013

In his article entitled, “Grading and Its Discontents” (The Chronicle, July 11, 2012), Ahmed Afzaal reflected about grading in ways that you may find helpful when you are discontented with grading.  To find out how to minimize discontent, he asked his students for their thoughts on grading.  The responses led to several suggestions you can use in your teaching.  The first suggestion was posted in May, 2013.  Below is the second of those suggestions.  More will follow in subsequent postings.

Frequently asked questions. The process of grading is misunderstood in only a limited number of ways, and they can be inferred from the type of questions that students tend to ask about their own grades. Here are a few examples.

It is not uncommon for a student to ask: “Why did you take off points?” After hearing that several times, I became curious about the kind of reasoning that would lead someone to ask such a question. The students seems to be assuming that they already had a full score and that the professor is therefore responsible for taking away some of what rightfully belonged to them. Needless to say, that is a mistaken assumption.

So I explain: It is not the case that you start out with a perfect score and then “lose” some points because the professor “takes” them “off.” Rather, you start out with zero and must earn all of your points. Moreover, a proactive student would not ask “Why did you take off my points?” but rather “Why was I not able to earn a perfect score?”

Learning is never directly caused by anything that a professor does. It happens as a result of the student’s own activities (reading, thinking, writing, etc.), while the professor can only facilitate that process. Since the responsibility for learning lies with the student, so does the burden of demonstrating that he or she has actually achieved that learning.

For a while, I took it for granted that students were cognizant of my responsibility for maintaining a reasonable standard of fairness. I started having doubts, however, after the third or fourth time that I heard the following statement: “If I don’t get an A in this course, I will lose my scholarship” (or “I won’t get into the nursing program,” or “I wouldn’t qualify for medical school”). What these students seem to be suggesting is that I should not treat them like everyone else in the class because of their special circumstances or difficult career paths. In principle, such a request shouldn’t trouble the conscience of any professor, for we are under no obligation to assign grades simply on the basis of what students want or need.

Yet being told that the entire life plan of a young man or woman depends on what grade I give them does put me in an awkward situation psychologically: I don’t wish to be the person who destroys someone’s dream, but I also have a strong need for integrity. It would be best for both parties if students simply do not share this kind of information with faculty members.

After receiving a poor grade on an assignment, a student has sometimes asked me the following question: “What can I do to improve my grade in this course?” What that question usually implies is that I should give such students an additional assignment so that they can make up for their previous, less-than-stellar performance.

I suspect the main reason students make such a request is that they haven’t taken the time to think through its implications. It’s obviously unfair to give an opportunity for extra credit to only one student, but giving the same opportunity to everyone in class is not always practical.

Instead of agonizing over what grades they are going to get, I wish my students would be more concerned about the state of their learning. For a student who is truly focused on learning, the appropriate question to ask is not “How can I earn a better grade?” but rather “What do I need to learn that will enhance my academic performance?”

Grading and Its Discontents

Thursday, May 2nd, 2013

In his article entitled, “Grading and Its Discontents” (The Chronicle, July 11, 2012), Ahmed Afzaal reflected about grading in ways that you may find helpful when you are discontented with grading.  To find out how to minimize discontent, he asked his students for their thoughts on grading.  The responses led to several suggestions you can use in your teaching.  Below is the first of those suggestions.  More will follow in subsequent postings.

“The nature of grading.

Grading is a tool, I tell my students. And like any other tool, it is meant to perform certain specific functions. To explain those functions, I like to use a simple analogy.

Consider a car’s speedometer. It is a tool that performs two interrelated functions: (1) It measures speed, and (2) it communicates that information to the driver. In a somewhat similar way, grading is a tool that also performs two interrelated functions: (1) It assesses academic performance, and (2) it communicates that information to the student. When driving, you glance at the speedometer to determine the speed of the vehicle—if it is what you want, you try to maintain it; if not, you make appropriate adjustments. That is analogous to how students are supposed to use, and benefit from, whatever it is that their grades are telling them.

It’s perfectly normal to desire good grades since they serve as evidence that a student has demonstrated competence in a particular area. But problems arise when students assume that their primary goal in college is to earn good grades so they can achieve or maintain a certain GPA. That is like believing that the primary goal of driving a car is not to reach a particular destination but to achieve or maintain a certain speed.

Since grades have only instrumental value—rather than any intrinsic value—they must be treated as only means to some end, and never as ends in themselves. I tell my students: If your primary goal in college is to receive good grades, you will probably view the required work as an onerous obstacle and you’re not likely to feel very motivated to do the work. But you are most likely to receive good grades when you are so focused on learning that grades have ceased to matter.”

Kitchen Cabinet of Mentors

Friday, April 5th, 2013

Are you on your own to find a mentor or mentors to assist you through your life as an academic?  Owen Sutkowski, Director of the Transfer Resource Center at Central Piedmont Community College, suggested having a “Kitchen Cabinet of Mentors.”  Here is his article from Inside Higher Ed on July 6, 2011.

Many higher education professionals find mentors with similar backgrounds to seek advice and test their ideas. Borrowing an idea from president Andrew Jackson, what if you create an informal cabinet of mentors from a set of diverse backgrounds? As we build a network of mentors, it is important to have a diversity of viewpoints and connections. Having a variety of mentors will serve as a strong sounding board for professional growth as we face different challenges. Five types of mentors are important to consider appointing to your mentorship cabinet. Each of these types of mentors can contribute a unique perspective to your professional and personal development.

The Friend: The friend mentor is someone who can see connections between your personal and office life, knows you outside of your professional pursuits, and can offer feedback as an “outsider” to your professional world. Although we have many friends, it can be helpful to have a dedicated friend with whom to talk about your professional goals and issues. When thinking about someone for this role, it is also important that this person knows enough about your field and even more about you. The friend can also give you feedback in a context outside of your work environment and will not have the biases of mentors within your profession.

Pick someone who has been a part of your life through several professional roles and has seen you through work and personal change. The friend mentor does not need to be an expert in your field; he or she only need be a person whom you can trust to give you authentic feedback. For example, I have a good friend who works on the career counseling side of higher education. She has been invaluable as I chart the logistics behind professional moves and has been someone who has seen me grow professionally since we were in graduate school together. She knows very little about my higher ed field and has learned more about it through my talks with her.

The Role Model: This member of your mentor cabinet is in the professional position and has the skill set that you strive to achieve. This person may have followed a similar educational or professional path to you. As you seek out this type of mentor, look for both professional role and skills. Having this mentor means first knowing what professional role and set of skills you are working toward. Role models can give you feedback about the challenges they face and the path they took to get where they are. The role model can also be valuable when you are looking to apply for a similar role at your institution and you need a reference. I am a firm believer in personal reflection on what skills you wish to develop, seeking out a mentor with those skills, and asking them if they would be willing to mentor you. The skills you develop lead you to the positions you are interested in. Many people think about position and work their way backward instead of thinking about abilities and working their way forward. Having a role model with the skills and position you aspire to will help you see at least one path and hopefully learn from it. I am still seeking out this mentor for myself.

The Insider: Higher education professionals do not always think to seek out this kind of mentor. The insider is a person who works at the institution at which you are currently employed, and has been there longer than you. Insiders can be situated in any part of the institution, and it is important to seek out a professional you feel knows the workings of the institution. The value of insiders is that they know you and they know the institution. They can offer feedback about your work in relation to the institution and give advice from an institutional process and historical perspective. This mentor can also help you learn and continue to understand the dynamics of your institution as well as offer feedback on your performance within the institution. You should find someone outside your department for this member of your cabinet.

Having a mentor like this will be important as specific institutional questions, issues, or concerns arise. I have been in my current position for seven months. I immediately sought out a mentor when I started. The one I found has been with the institution for over seven years and offers insight and advice that has helped bring me up to speed very quickly about the workings of the campus. Had I not met this mentor, it would have taken me years to learn all the information. She has also helped me to learn the personalities of the campus. So as these colleagues have sought me out for assistance the background knowledge has helped me to work better with them.

The Veteran: This member of your cabinet may be the most traditional way of looking at a mentor in the field. The veteran has been in his or her role for decades and may have held a variety of leadership roles. This person is also higher up in the leadership chain and therefore can offer a broader, more holistic, viewpoint. Many professionals see this mentor as a maternal or paternal figure. To this mentor you can take a variety of issues for a historical perspective as well as advice on how to handle the politics of higher education. A colleague of mine at Indiana University has been through many higher education roles, including residence life, student unions, and facilities. He has a holistic viewpoint, having had experiences from so many areas, and I have seen him successfully navigate the politics of the profession. He has both a breadth and depth of experience. His skill is in asking questions. Whenever I have an issu,e I know he will have a line of questioning, without ever telling me to do anything, which will open my mind as well as focus my thoughts. The veteran mentor has a long and deep view of the field. Many professionals already have this kind of mentor and it is the person who most impacted them during their undergraduate or graduate work.

The Teacher: Many of the mentors above have this role inherent in how you choose to work with them; the reason I list this one separately is to make sure you think about what you want to learn. Are you seeking managerial, pedagogical, research or other skills? We are eager to seek out mentors and do not always think about what we hope to learn from them. Think about how the teacher mentor fits in with the other mentors above. Many professionals can be teachers of what not to do as much as they can for what to do. It is important to understand what you are seeking to learn. Being a minority professional in higher education also means the possibility of needing a unique kind of teacher. Therefore, as you think about teachers, consider seeking a mentor with a similar background (i.e., racial/ethnic, faith, sexual orientation) who you feel can offer insight into addressing the specific needs of relating to your background. As a gay man, I have had several mentors who have talked through challenges I have faced and prepared me early in my professional life for unforeseen issues.

Each mentor serves a specific role in the cabinet and it is always good to have a variety of perspectives. However, make sure to know what role(s) you are looking for perspective mentors to fill.

Professionals who are new to the field or have been in it for decades can benefit from thinking about which categories their mentors fall into and seek out new mentors as needed. Some of the types above may be found in one person; however, seeking several mentors who are independent of one other provides you with multiple viewpoints. Some issues may be appropriate for one mentor while others fit better with a different one. Creating this network of mentorship offers multiple outlets to address the unique issues you will face on your path.

Higher education professionals are also called to be mentors for others, and it is important to think about what kind of mentor roles you are filling, or could fill, for others. Take a moment and write down the five mentor types on a piece of paper and start “appointing your cabinet.” As you write in the names, think about how they fit the role or roles you have assigned to them. Also, think about how you want to keep in touch with your mentors. You may connect with each mentor in a different way and it is important to have a regular connection. Each of these mentor types will play an important role in your professional life.

Why Won’t They Talk in Class?

Wednesday, March 13th, 2013

Ashley Marshall in her piece entitled, Talk to Me (Chronicle Review, June 25, 2012), noted how frustrating it is for professors when excellent students do not speak up in class.  Marshall admits she was one of those students.  She points out that there are many reasons why students won’t speak up:  under-prepared, frightened, uninterested, hoping to coast through the semester with a C.  When Marshall encountered a student like she was in her course, she offered help to her.  Marshall wrote that she “e-mailed her a few questions before the next class discussion and told her to try out an answer on me before the class met.  She duly, if tentatively, offered her electronic answer, and I responded with (justified) reassurance.”  The help worked.  Of course, professors may not encounter the same situation, the same type of student.  But, Marshall advises that “if the object is to get the most you can from all your students, then you need to offer help and encouragement wherever possible.”  Most of us would agree with Marshall as to our charge.  Perhaps the trick for us is to search for the reasons for students not speaking up in class.  Once you have the reason, an appropriate solution can be tried.

Making Meaning of Assigned Reading Reviews

Monday, January 14th, 2013

Do your reviews of assigned reading merely determine whether or not students have done the reading?  Would you like to make those reviews more meaningful for you and for your students?  Below is a Faculty Focus ( article which was reprinted from “Making the Review of Assigned Reading Meaningful.” The Teaching Professor, 24.9 (2010): 2-3.

The typical college student dreads hearing, “Let’s review the chapters you read for homework.” What generally ensues is a question and answer drill in which students are peppered with questions designed to make clear who has and hasn’t done the reading. In reality, these exchanges do little to encourage deep thought or understanding of the assigned reading. They produce awkward silences during which students squirm in their seats, hoping to become invisible. Other times students decline to answer for fear of giving the wrong answer. Almost all the time a negative tone permeates the classroom during this review. I decided to restructure the way that I approached reviews of reading assignments, and found that by doing things differently, I could change both the tone and outcomes of the review activity. I’d like to share some of the ideas and techniques that I have found useful:

The Top Ten - Ask students to create their own “Top Ten List” of important concepts presented in the chapter(s). I encourage student collaboration in the creation of these lists. The activity provides a nice review of the material, and you’ll be amazed at what students consider to be most important. I use these lists as a starting point for discussions. They also let me know what areas of content need further explanation. For students who didn’t do the reading, the lists expose them to ideas in the text and that prepares them at least a bit for the subject of the day.

Secondary Sources - Gone are the days when the textbook is the only source of information available to students. With blogs, research articles, journals, informational pages, and news websites at the touch of a fingertip, students can easily learn more about the subject. After they’ve done the assigned readings, have students locate another viewpoint on the subject and bring it to class. In class, set a time limit (say 15 minutes) and have partners/groups discuss the reading material and their secondary sources. As you circulate around the room, you may hear some good examples that you can use later in the period. Interestingly, students often (without being asked) continue to bring in outside resources on the topics we study, which makes for rich and healthy discussions.

Journaling - For the ideas presented in the readings to become relevant, students need to articulate thoughts about what they are reading and they need to hear how others responded as well. I encourage my students to write journal notes, which I describe as what the brain is thinking while reading. Example: “Wow! I never considered how George Washington must have felt during this turbulent time in the nation’s history. I always thought of him as liking his role as president.” Students can share their journaling with a partner or small group. This exercise helps students get past initial impressions, and it connects what they already know to the new information.

Divide and Conquer - Divide up the next reading chapter among small groups of students. Student A reads the first section in the chapter, Student B reads the next section, and so forth. The next day, students meet in small groups and report on the section they read. Or you can have groups of students that read the same section meet with students who read different sections. Students become dependent on one another to create the full picture of what was in the reading material. My students seem to enjoy these group discussions, which are a way to become familiar with the material before being graded on it.

Using these and other strategies has really made a difference in my classes. More students are engaged in and contributing to class discussions, and they are moving beyond a simple repetition of facts and details. Students are digging deeper and connecting their world with other viewpoints, and that gives them a richer understanding of the content.

These new approaches are having an effect on me, too. I am more calm and confident in my role as a teacher and a learner. I find it easier to be more patient and thoughtful with my students. Most important, I have noticed that the classroom feels like a safe and positive place. Students show greater respect for one another and more appreciation of the material. In my opinion, all these responses make these changes worthwhile!

Dr. Sarah K. Clark is an assistant professor of elementary education at Utah State University.