Why Won’t They Talk in Class?

March 13th, 2013 by Karen St. Clair

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

January 14th, 2013 by Karen St. Clair

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 (http://www.facultyfocus.com/) 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.

Make It Harder to Learn!

December 14th, 2012 by Karen St. Clair

In June, 2010, noted author and Chronicle columnist on teaching and learning, James M. Lang, suggested that when learning seems easy, the result may be shallower learning.  This phenomenon, called cognitive disfluency, creates a challenge.  If material is too hard, learning could be shut off.  What we need to create, Lang suggested, is desirable difficulties – just enough difficulty to encourage deep learning and not shut off motivation to learn.  Lang asked participants at a teaching conference to identify strategies that characterize desirable difficulties that would safely bring about cognitive disfluency.  Here are the strategies (June 4, 2010, The Chronicle Review):

  • Ask students to process or translate course material using unusual rhetorical or expressive modes. I have always listened with skepticism to accounts of teachers asking their students to translate course concepts into 140-character status updates. But my workshop participants argued that having students take concepts and rework them in the form of a text message, or a Twitter update, or even visual representations or performances, could have the same defamiliarizing effect that might be achieved by a change in fonts.
  • Require students to argue on behalf of unfamiliar positions. One of my participants was a political scientist who asks her students to debate issues in the Arab-Israeli conflict—and routinely requires them to argue against their personally held convictions. Another participant, who teaches a course for medical students on abortion, does the same. In both cases, they observed, students are forced into the uncomfortable and defamiliarizing position of having to look at a well-trod debate from a new angle.
  • Ask students to find or identify mistakes. A professor of architecture noted that he occasionally makes mistakes while doing calculations on the board, and that his students had learned to watch out for those errors and correct him. A math professor then pointed out that he would sometimes deliberately seed mistakes into assigned problems and ask students to find them. In both cases students were nudged out of the mode of simply observing or running through the problems on automatic pilot. That may seem like an artificial technique, or like playing games with students—but only until you stop and think about how many jobs require people to review presentations, problems, performances, or communications and make sure they are mistake-free.
  • Plan for failure. A faculty member in chemistry said you can wake students up by asking them to undertake short experiments that are designed to fail. Rather than simply going through the motions of a lab, and finding the expected result planned for them by the teacher, students learn what every experienced researcher in the world knows: that experiments, like scholarly research of any kind, almost never proceed exactly as you planned them, and that you can learn a lot from your failures.

CITL Answers – December 2012

December 14th, 2012 by Karen St. Clair

Question: Besides contributing the “CITL Answers” column to Faculty Focus, what does the CITL do?

Answer: The Center for Innovation in Teaching and Learning (CITL) promotes excellent teaching for enhanced stu­dent learning. The word “innovation” in the center’s title simply means that as you work toward excellent teaching, new-to-you approaches are explored and used. More broadly, the CITL involves tailored support for any teach­ing and learning concern. Individual consultations and small group sessions are available to all faculty. Because the CITL promotes ways to enhance student learning, it encompasses three units that offer support for learning: the Lacerte Family Writing and Academic Resource Center, the Disability Services Office, and the Office of Ser­vice Learning and Community Action. The CITL also assists the College by investigating and recommending best practices in teaching for student learning in higher education. Frequently this is done through collaborations with other units on campus that promote excellent teaching for enhanced student learning.

CITL Answers – November 2012

November 19th, 2012 by Karen St. Clair

Question: Lately I have been hearing a lot about community. How can I bring community into my courses?

Answer: There are many options and assistance is available. Through collaborations with Emerson’s Office of Ser­vice Learning and Community Action, faculty can enhance their courses by establishing relevant exchanges with established or new community partners. Students engage with community partners through volunteerism, and then students relate their experiences back to the course. Levels of community involvement range from engaging with partners one time to multiple times across the semester. It is not too late to enhance your Spring 2013 course. Contact Suzanne Hinton, Associate Director of Service Learning: Suzanne_Hinton@emerson.edu, ext. 8774. Visit the Service Learning and Community Action webpage: http://www.emerson.edu/academics/service-learning-and-community-action.

I told the students to go to the writing center!

November 19th, 2012 by Karen St. Clair

Are you seeing completed assignments that don’t match what you expected, but you told the students to go to the writing center?  It’s a common complaint among faculty.  Faculty may give very detailed instructions to students about the required assignments, including encouraging students to make use of campus support centers.  But, writing center and other learning support staff can assist students only in so far as the assignment instructions are provided to those support staff – and, the earlier the better.  Support staff can best help students when there is sufficient time to review the assignment, assess where individual students need the most assistance, and then meet with students to improve the products.

Fleeting Patience?

October 23rd, 2012 by Karen St. Clair

In April, 2012, Mark Bauerlein wrote in the Chronicle of Higher Education about how digital tools have downsides when it comes to needing to slow down.  He wrote that “sometimes, slow understanding is a necessity.  Take, for instance, those sequences in the history of film which are slow and deliberate, but which are nonetheless central expressions of the art form.”  He considers habitual switching and hurrying as learning deficiencies.  He recommends that academics work to “insert into the curriculum exercises and experiences that cultivate a different habit, a slow-down of apprehension.”  Slow down for a moment and consider the speed with which your students access information.  Is there time for retaining and using the information?

CITL Answers – October 2012

October 23rd, 2012 by Karen St. Clair

Question: Grading is a difficult task. Sometimes grading can be objective; other times it can be too subjective. How can I grade more fairly and effectively?

Answer: Not only is grading a difficult task, it is a complicated one. There is no simple answer to your question. Many elements go into awarding grades that students earn. To be fair means that the grades reflect how well students per­formed on the learning goals for the course. To be effective means that the grades, awarded throughout the course, helped students reach the learning goals. The single best advice to get you on your way to fair and effective grading is a paraphrase of Walvoord and Anderson (Effective Grading: A Tool for Learning and Assessment in College): teach what you grade and grade what you teach.

How Can We Stop Grade Inflation?

September 11th, 2012 by Karen St. Clair

How can we stop grade inflation?  Just stop inflating grades!  I frequently return to a 2008 quote by Mary Biggs, which appeared in Grade Inflation: Academic Standards in Higher Education.  She wrote that “the cause of grade inflation is the faculty.  We give inflated grades.”  Here we are in 2012.  We still discuss the grade inflation problem, but we are also still giving the same explanation:  faculty inflate grades.  To better understand what inflating grades does and does not do, check out a June 25, 2012 Chronicle article on the topic:  http://chronicle.com/article/To-Stop-Grade-Inflation-Just/132415/.

Does “cover” equal “learning”?

August 6th, 2012 by Karen St. Clair

In the July 9, 2012 issue of The Chronicle of Higher Education, Dan Berrett described role- and game-playing pedagogy being used in college courses.  Mr. Higbee, an Eastern Michigan University faculty member, reported that on nongame days attendance is lower:  “You can cover things, but there is tremendous evidence that coverage does not equal learning.”  What exactly are we doing when we “cover” material in class?  If when we are “covering” we merely repeat what is in a text or can be read online, there is no point for students to attend class.  By experiencing what we want to “cover,” students have a better chance of actually learning.