Wednesday, January 10, 2018

Frustrated learners

Hula hoops with drawn sad face

It's very humbling to be bad at something.

I'm trying to learn to hula hoop. I have NEVER been able to do this. Not as a child. Not now. I want to do it because (a) it looks like fun and (b) I want to prove something to myself, that there's nothing wrong with me and I really can do this.

Obviously, there's a lot of psychological baggage tied up with this. It comes from watching everyone else do something and making it look so easy.

Is this how my students feel who tell me they've never been good at English? For some of us, language just clicks. Like someone who succeeds at hooping their very first time, people who are "good at English" probably enjoyed playing with words at an early age, took pleasure in their sounds and variety. And it came "naturally." Of course, "nature" depends on a lot of factors, like how much their parents read and their early teachers.

I suppose there was a time when language wasn't easy for me. I remember in kindergarten, my teacher asked me to summarize the story of the three little pigs after we had just watched a film on it, and I was embarrassed that I couldn't do it. There must have been other struggles before that. But it was so brief and so long ago.

Some of my students, though, have been stuck at the same skill level for years. They learned to read and compose their thoughts up to a certain level, and didn't progress beyond it. And it's terribly frustrating. If they feel anything like I felt tonight at my hooping class, they sometimes want to cry.

I think it's important to recognize that learning can be an incredibly emotional process. It's easy to turn off and give up when something causes us pain. Tonight the other students told me it takes time and that it was hard for them too. I don't fully believe them, but it's comforting. That's something our students need from us: the awareness that getting to the skill level they want to be at will take time, and the assurance that eventually they can do it.

Monday, November 20, 2017


We're all in such a hurry these days. Myself included. 

We skim our newsfeeds and social media. If a video is over 10 minutes, we seldom open it, and even a short video is abandoned if it doesn't engage us in the first 15 seconds. We depend on abstracts and summaries. 

This impatience extends to other areas of our lives. For instance, I've been ordering groceries online because it's faster. I can sit in my car, reading Facebook, while a clerk loads the trunk. I'm usually in and out within 10 minutes. 

As a teacher, the length of an assignment is something I have to give special consideration to. Will this engage the students? Will they watch/read the whole thing? Will they stop and think about it? Or will their response be "tl; dr" (too long; didn't read)? I'm beginning to prepare some videos for an online course I'm teaching in the summer, and the current recommendation is to keep videos under 5 minutes. Five! 

The benefits of slowing down are obvious. It takes time to consider multiple sides of an argument, to fact-check, to consider our logic, to formulate a response. Inspiration takes time. Art takes time. 

A recent book by Maggie Berg and Barbara Seeber, The Slow Professor: Challenging the Culture of Speed in the Academy, advises faculty to reject the corporate culture of speed and train our students to slow down. But that's not what I'm arguing for today. 

What I would like to suggest is that people have always been in a hurry. Always. Humans feel the pressure of mortality and passing time. Think of Keats' "When I have fears that I may cease to be," or Marvell's "To His Coy Mistress." Before television and mass transit, a family sat in their drawing room, sewing or playing games or reading, and wondering whether their lives were worthwhile. Now we're in a hurry faster, but Time's bending sickle is headed for us all. 

Urging people to slow down isn't the answer. Instead, we should focus on consciously choosing what we spend time on. As teachers, we can train future generations to use their limited time well, to consider what is best summarized and what is best read in depth, or what are the best sources for recaps. Accepting a natural, human impulse is a much better use of faculty time than complaining about students who are in a hurry. 

Sunday, April 17, 2016

Skateboarding is not a crime.

This phrase was taught to me when I was in teacher training at the University of Iowa. The workshop leader meant that if students want to skateboard through college, that's their right. I've held on to that idea ever since, and it prevents me from getting too frustrated over students who aren't reading, aren't studying, and are writing their papers at the last minute.
Nick Robson catches some air
If this is how someone wants to spend their college years, I think that's their choice. A poor choice and a wasted opportunity, but a choice. 

But what I've been wondering lately is whether I should be less accepting of this attitude. What if students "skateboard" because they feel their success doesn't matter to anyone, and I could be the person it matters to? What if they just need some encouragement?

Saturday, January 23, 2016

Flipping the Library

It isn't uncommon to change a course schedule to adapt to student needs. But sometimes it leads to surprising results.

Composition II at my institution focuses on research skills. When I'm teaching the unit on secondary sources, I usually don't take time to introduce the library--the library is supposed to be covered in Composition I.  The preparation level of our students has changed in recent years, however, leading to more first-semester students who already have credit for Composition I from elsewhere and hence have no library experience. I realized on the first day of the unit, as I was demonstrating the library databases, that they needed help finding books and navigating the library. So, I added a library day. 

Students began by completing a "pre-search" worksheet asking for basic information about their proposed topic for the research paper, some contextual information, keywords that could be used in a search, and the call number and title of a possible source. All the students had to do for that Wednesday was find me on the library's first floor, show me the completed worksheet, find the book, and then show me the book. 

Somehow I expected I would have a lot of time to myself, that they would find the book and be done with it, and that the day was really about them having more time to gather research. It turned out differently. I only had brief periods to myself. Some students needed help understanding the overall paper assignment. Some didn't have their worksheet completed. Others were prepared but needed help understanding call numbers, figuring out where the books were shelved, or locating the circulation desk. 

Simple as it was, the day was very useful and revealed areas where students had misunderstandings. In retrospect, I realize that this was a flipped class. Walking through the library and finding books are usually out-of-class tasks. Having them complete the activity during class time ensured, first, that they did it and, second, provided them with valuable guidance. 

Monday, June 29, 2015

Information Design in the Course Syllabus

Information design refers to visual and organizational aspects of a document that facilitate communication. It includes font face and size, colors, layout, headers, and images. Information design is most effective when it conforms to the needs of a specific audience. It helps them break information into chunks and see the relation among ideas. Attention to information design also builds credibility by demonstrating a concern for audience needs.

On the course syllabus, appropriate information design can convey that the course is strategically organized. It also enables readers to locate information quickly. “Headers, graphics, and layout strategies can make syllabi more attractive and user-friendly.”[1]  On the practical side, more information will fit on the page if formatted well. Columns, for instance, permit smaller font sizes because each line is shorter. Compare:
  • Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetur adipiscing elit. Morbi sit amet velit vitae massa. 
  • Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetur
    adipiscing elit. Morbi sit amet velit vitae massa. 
The second example would be easier to read, though the text is otherwise the same.

Information design is especially important in lower-level classes where students may easily become overwhelmed. Imagine a first-year student faced with this dense sheet of information (please don't try to read it--the words don't matter):

If this page had been broken into two columns and given larger subheadings, the sections would be easier to parse. I sometimes use a newsletter template from MS Word to create columns and sections, but you don't have to go that fancy, as the next example illustrates:

The comparison is a little unfair because the first example was the syllabus's first page and this one is the second. Nevertheless, it shows how white space and underlining can assist in organizing information.

[1] Slattery, J.M., and J.F. Carlson. (2005). Preparing an effective syllabus: Current best practices. College Teaching 53,4, 159-164. p. 163. DOI: 10.3200/CTCH.53.4.159-164.

Monday, May 25, 2015

The Importance of Tone in the Course Syllabus

The course syllabus has been receiving greater scrutiny in recent years. For administration, the syllabus is considered to have legal weight, a contract between instructor and student. For external reviewers, it provides criteria to judge the education students receive. For instructors and students, it structures the course. Among some of the things the document is supposed to contain are:

  • Complete course information and description
  • Information about the instructor and any assistants 
  • A list of reading and any other required materials 
  • Student learning outcomes (reviewers are big on these)
  • All graded course requirements and a breakdown of grading scale 
  • Criteria for evaluation of assignments (this is never on my syllabus.)
  • Policy on late work and extra credit. 
  • Other, non-graded course expectations 
  • Attendance and tardiness 
  • Late or missed papers and exams 
  • Policy on academic dishonesty 
  • ADA statement 
  • Classroom decorum and academic discourse 
  • Campus support services (what a long list!)
  • Study or assignment aids 
  • Schedule 
  • Legal disclaimer that policies and schedule are subject to change “by mutual agreement and/or to ensure better student learning” [1] 
With all these demands placed on it, instructors may forget that this document also helps create our first impression. The syllabus establishes the attitude of the instructor and provides a sense of how the course will be run. What kind of impression do you want to make?

Previously, I had been advised to make my language as impersonal as possible and to remove "you" from the document so that it sounds less domineering. "You will complete three papers. You will take two tests. You will bow to my every command." Okay, not that last, but you get the idea. 

Here is an example of the type of change I made. My former late-work policy read, "Unless I have authorized an extension at least 36 hours before the due date, I will not accept late work except for verifiably excellent reasons such as hospital stays or accidents." The new policy was phrased in a way to motivate students while being less domineering: "Because timely progress is essential in this course, work is due at the time specified and no later. Unless the instructor has authorized an extension at least 36 hours before the deadline, late work will receive a grade of zero." 

According to D.L. Baecker, however, such language is morally suspect because it masks the power dynamics of the classroom. It sidesteps responsibility, "the instructor" instead of "I." Rhetorical distancing is something many instructors do by instinct, especially since students have become more aggressive about grades: if we can turn to the course or department policy, we can pretend we don't have a choice. Baecker's argument certainly gives food for thought. I've started including "I" and "me" in some documents, and it feels much less stilted, which is an advantage.

The language I added about the cause for the policy, though, I feel was a good move and fits with research about best practices in syllabus construction. Research has shown that a warm tone increases retention of syllabus content, and that teachers and lecturers are perceived as more effective when described as “warm.” [2]

This was hard for me to hear. I'm not a particularly "warm" person toward strangers. I'm an introvert, and I like to keep people at a distance. I confess, though, that it matches my experience and it makes sense. Students like and appreciate me, but it's rare that students love me. If I could be more warm towards them, perhaps that would change. More importantly, a welcoming and encouraging tone can motivate students by fostering their confidence. [3] And creating a successful learning environment is really what it's all about.

In my next post, I'll address the importance of information design to establishing a welcoming tone for the course.

I'm prickly but cute.

[1] Nilson, Linda Burzotta. Teaching at Its Best: A Research-based Resource for College Instructors. 3rd ed. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2010. 35-37.
[2] Slattery, Jeanne M., and Janet F. Carlson. “Preparing An Effective Syllabus: Current Best Practices.” College Teaching 53:4 (2005): 159-164. DOI: 10.3200/CTCH.53.4. 
Harnish, Richard J., and K. Robert Bridges. “Effect of syllabus tone: students’ perceptions of instructor and course.” Social Psychology of Education (2011) 14:319–330. DOI 10.1007/s11218-011-9152-4
[3] Thompson, Blair. “The Syllabus as a Communication Document: Constructing and Presenting the Syllabus.” Communication Education 56.1 (2007): 54-71. p. 59. DOI: 10.1080/03634520601011575

Thursday, May 7, 2015

Grading Rituals

Where do you grade? Do you have grading "rituals"?

The effect of environmental factors was the focus of a recent study conducted by UT graduate students Stephanie Derochers and Stacy Sivinski. They wondered, "Are there any potential correlations between the environmental and emotional conditions in which teachers decide to grade and specific grading practices? I participated in the research by completing a 22-question anonymous survey, so I was especially curious about the results. Stephanie and Stacy also conducted six interviews.

Some of their findings were that coffee-shop graders were less likely to feel rushed and tended to leave fewer marginal comments. The former is true for me, while the latter isn't. Of course, I grade everywhere. Yesterday, I marked papers at the public library, Starbucks, and my recliner in the morning, afternoon, and evening. True, this is unusual for me and is only possible because classes are over, but the truth is I don't have one set practice. I'm wondering if I should.

The researchers found that "Those with the most set & detailed grading rituals ALWAYS reported being 'Calm' or 'Amused' while grading whereas participants who reported having no grading rituals ALWAYS stated that they felt 'Rushed' or 'Stressed' during this process."

I must have stated that I have a limited ritual (usually checking Facebook and email first), because my state is variable, from calm to amused to frustrated, depending on the paper. The closest I have is my Starbucks 'ritual'--I'm there three to four evenings a week, and during the semester it's always to grade. If I had a more defined practice, would the process go more smoothly? Would my comments be more thoughtful? Would I be a better teacher?

I have so very many papers to mark that it's hard to imagine having just one regular practice. I wish the researchers had taken that variable into account, since most of their respondents were probably graduate students teaching two sections a term. I am, however, tempted by the idea of having a regular grading schedule, for instance being at the public library every Tuesday and Thursday afternoon for 2 hours. It's something I'm willing to try this fall, when I'll be teaching lots of new material.

Grading and lunch while at a conference in Toronto