Occasional Posts

I’ll be blogging here periodically. The posts might be related to great instructional practices, specific dilemmas faced by me or my colleagues, useful resources, or interesting discussions in history, teaching, or higher education. I see this as an opportunity to think through some ideas and to do so while writing in a less formal way than I usually do.

Focusing on Ideas

While planning a new course this summer, I remembered something from when I was director of Elon’s Honors Program some years ago. Our advisory committee had been pondering the requirements of the program, including how it would be determined whether students could continue in it and retain their scholarships.

We knew it shouldn’t just be a matter of taking the right courses and maintaining a minimum GPA. Instead, we wanted to know that the students were learning and growing.

We decided to ask each student to submit an annual end-of-year report in which they reflected on their recent intellectual and personal development and looked ahead to how they’d be trying to achieve their academic and life goals.

One of the main prompts we asked students was: “Discuss the two or three most interesting ideas you grappled with this year.”

I assumed this prompt would yield rich answers. After all, I knew from student evaluations that they were very satisfied with their Honors courses and they reported continuing their discussions outside of class. I also knew that the faculty were thrilled with the quality of class discussions and student performances.

However, I found many of the responses disappointing. Students wrote a lot, but they rarely talked about ideas. Instead, they described courses they liked because the topics were interesting, the discussions were fantastic, the professor was great, or the project helped them get better at research.

“But what specific ideas were the interesting discussions about?!?” I would ask the piece of paper in front of me. (It was after graduation when I was reading the reflections.) “In these interesting courses, did you encounter any ideas or concepts that changed how you think or see the world?”

What explains this problem? It wasn’t the Honors students – they were smart, engaged, hard-working individuals who built great learning communities and conscientiously wrote their reflections. Maybe the prompt wasn’t worded to get at what I hoped. But I suspect a bigger problem – some kind of disconnect between students’ satisfaction with their courses in general and their ability to retain or articulate the specific ideas that engaged them.

I want all my students to encounter thought-provoking ideas in my courses, and I want them to be able to identify them and tell their friends and relatives about them. I don’t know for sure what will work, but I’m exhorting myself to do two things:

  1. As I design each class meeting, I need to come up with a clear answer to these questions:
    • How am I going to get students to really think today?
    • What’s a big idea l want students to take away from class today?
  1. I’ve got to help students become more aware of the big ideas. I need to refer to these ideas as ideas (so students realize the difference between mere facts and big ideas, and so students think of themselves as thinkers). I can’t let students lose sight of the forest. I need to regularly build their awareness of these ideas (their metacognition, that is):
    • At the beginning of class (“We will be grappling with this idea/concept today”)
    • At the end of class or a discussion (“What are the implications of this idea? Take 2 minutes to write your thoughts”)
    • Periodically (“What were the big ideas from this week/this unit of the course?”)

I’m now heading off to my planning document to put an idea at the top of each class meeting….

Messy and Fun Course Design

Designing a new course over the summer is fun.

I’m working on a course on the History of Disability and Disease in the U.S., and a great deal of the content is new to me.

I enjoy searching for possible sources. I like reading them and I’m excited about what I’m learning.

I don’t think of myself as a creative person, but I like the creative aspects of designing a course – using my imagination about what happened in the past and what the experience could be like for students.

To be honest, I enjoy the preparing more than the actual teaching. I love teaching, but it’s very intense. There are many people to be aware of and interact with, things to manage (like technology), and so much to think about (content, time, instructions, clear communication, comprehension). I get ramped up, I feel a lot of anxiety, and the experience can be exhilarating, disappointing, and/or exhausting.

I’m calmer – and I think better – when I’m planning over the summer rather than during the semester when decisions must be made quickly because it’s 4 p.m. and class meets at 8 a.m. tomorrow.

Although it’s fun, being in the middle of course design reminds me that it’s complicated. I intended to use the backward process I advocated in chapter one of my book, which was based on the models of experts like Dee Fink, Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe, and Edmund Hansen.  

In backward course design, instructors begin by deciding where they want students to be at the end of the course, describing the main big-picture ideas, concepts, and skills they want students to understand. Once they’ve decided these specific higher-level learning goals, they determine what kind of work (the projects, major assignments, exams, etc.) best serve the purpose of assessing the degree to which students learned.

Only then do instructors make decisions about the day-to-day matters – on which topics they’ll need to offer instruction and exactly what students will need to read, think about, and do inside and outside of class in order to perform well on the assessments.

In backward design, then, one starts from the big picture and then works on the details. It’s more akin to deductive reasoning, I think, moving from the general to the specific; it’s more top down than bottom up. Backward design is a neat, sensible, lovely ideal.

In reality, my process has been messier. Since I am pretty new to the field of disability history, I have started by reading what others have recommended as good articles, books, and primary sources. Those sources led to other sources. As I read, I thought, “I have to use that!” or “Students would enjoy thinking about that!” or “Boring – not worth using. Find something else.” Or “We must discuss that event and its implications!”

Immersing myself in these specific sources and details helped me determine the bigger ideas of the course and the student learning goals and the assessments I’ll use. In other words, for me it’s been more of a bottom-up process (more inductive) rather than the backward design model of starting with the general high-level goals and working down to the details.  

However, after building those higher-level goals from the bottom up, achieving clarity on them has been important in deciding some of the details about specific topics, activities, and readings. So my process has not been exclusively top down or bottom up – it’s been a constant process of working from smaller details about ideas and topics toward larger themes and higher-level learning goals and then making decisions about specific readings and class meetings based on the larger themes and learning goals.

So I’m not sure what to call my process. Iterative? Back-and-forth design?

I suspect many historians use the same process – because we think about the details and implications of specific events, and we want students to encounter really influential works and primary sources. I don’t think we need to apologize for starting with the specifics – as long as:

  • Significant ideas and concepts (rather than the small details and facts) actually do end up driving the course – that is, we arrive at clear learning goals before starting the semester.
  • We design assessments (essays, projects, exams, informal writings, or whatever) that are aligned with the goals and truly check students’ understanding of the key ideas, concepts, and skills.
  • All the day-to-day details – what students read, what we do in class – build students’ capacity on some of the learning goals.

We don’t let students lose the big picture (because they’re focused on or overwhelmed by details). I’m hoping that my messy, back-and-forth process will result in a fairly coherent and integrated whole. I’m sure all the details won’t end up working, but the process of trying to design that whole course is enjoyable. Hope it is for you, too.

Equity-Minded Assessment – The Challenges

Do you hate grading essays as much as I do?

I suspect I’m not alone. In her “Why I Hate Grading” post, Katherine Pickering Antonova describes all sorts of work she’d rather do besides grading, and she concludes, “I would rather lick the bottom of a New York subway car than grade papers.” Yuck. 

Of course, many of our students hate their work being assessed as much as we hate assessing it. 

Many students feel a great deal of performance anxiety – which can get in the way of doing their best work. Some put too much weight on the importance of their grade on a specific task, confusing the grade with their potential or even their self-worth. In addition, some of them don’t know whether they can trust their instructor’s grading process.

Continue reading Equity-Minded Assessment – The Challenges

Baseball and Teaching

As I was watching one of my favorite baseball players hang his head and make the long walk back to the dugout after striking out in front of 30,000 fans, I recalled how I feel after a disappointing class meeting.

I strike out when I assign tedious readings, give confusing directions for a class exercise, keep lecturing even though students’ eyes are glazing over, ask uninspiring discussion questions, or botch the answer to an unexpected student question. I do these things fairly frequently. It’s not a good feeling.

Continue reading Baseball and Teaching

Tips from My Students (on learning in Zoom)

Students were the main reason for my positive teaching experiences in Zoom in Winter Term. They were open, hard-working, and willing to be engaged. These first-year students prepared for each class meeting, wrote thoughtful reflections on our topics, and took steps to help create a supportive learning community.

Continue reading Tips from My Students (on learning in Zoom)

I Survived Winter Term in Zoom

I was teaching a short-term intensive course during our January Winter Term. It was scheduled to meet synchronously in Zoom five days a week for three hours a day for 3 ½ weeks. Yikes. Winter Term at Elon is a challenging format.

Beforehand, I was quite nervous about how to engage the 34 students in Zoom. In a pre-course survey, students sounded a bit wary or worried too, even after having had some previous experience with online synchronous classes in the fall.

Continue reading I Survived Winter Term in Zoom

Stereotype Threat – What Instructors Can Do

What’s Stereotype Threat?

When students find themselves in an environment where they worry that they will be judged or treated negatively because of stereotypes about one or more facets of their identity, they become anxious and vigilant, combing their environment for how they are being viewed and trying to regulate their thoughts and emotional responses (like worry, self-doubt) to the threats.

Continue reading Stereotype Threat – What Instructors Can Do

What is good teaching?

While preparing a workshop about ways to do observations of teaching, my co-facilitator and I were thinking about how to adapt the traditional ways at our institution (i.e., sit in on a face-to-face class) for the many varied online and hybrid ways faculty are teaching during these pandemic days.

That got us thinking about the various benefits and limitations of any one way of evaluating a faculty member’s teaching (e.g., student ratings forms, observations, materials like syllabi and assignments, actual student work, communication and interactions in a learning management system, etc.).

Continue reading What is good teaching?

Building a learning community during tough times

I was over-the-top excited when I received my first responses from students to my pre-course survey. After spending the summer reading, adapting, pondering contingencies, and attending course design institutes and digital learning days, I’m tired of being anxious about the semester and just want it to start.

I’m also ready to interact with real students rather than the imaginary ones I’ve been thinking and worrying about all summer.

Some of the students are eager for the semester to get started too. I sent out the survey much earlier than I usually would (11 days before the first day of class), and a couple of students filled it out right away! Responses have been trickling in since then; over 90% had completed it a couple days before class begins.

Continue reading Building a learning community during tough times

Who We Teach

Musing 3 on Teaching about Race

Framework of the book

As I’ve been reflecting on teaching about race in the U.S., I returned to the framework I first encountered in a webinar taught by some great pioneers in multicultural education, Christine A. Stanley and Mathew Ouellett. (I adapted their framework in the image to the right.) For inclusive teaching, they advised we think carefully about who it is we are teaching.

Continue reading Who We Teach