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The Center for Transformative Teaching Posts

Why we should learn students’ names

Many of you know that one of my favorite bloggers is Maryellen Weimer , editor of The Teaching Professor newsletter. In a recent post in Faculty Focus, Weimer reminds us that learning students’ names is just good practice. However, the inability to remember the names of possibly 100 students each quarter, and remember them for long periods of times (till next quarter? next year? next decade?) plagues us all. She writes:  “Names … why do we have such trouble learning them? For those of us who struggle with names, it never gets easier, no matter how many tricks we try. It can be embarrassing—to ourselves and to others. I remember once visiting a mall while out of town and hearing someone calling my name. Soon, a vaguely familiar person was greeting me with enthusiasm. ‘I am so happy to see you! It’s been so long? How are you?’ ”

Over the next few weeks I will be writing posts about “The 4 Connections.” Here’s the back story: about 2 years ago I was at a party and saw my friend Elliot Stern. Elliot is the Vice President of Instruction (VPI) at Lake Washington Institute of Technology (LWTech). He told me that several people from LWTech had gone to an Achieving the Dream conference and one of them went to a workshop given by staff from Odessa College in Odessa, TX. Think oil wells and Friday Night Lights. By way of introduction, they shared that Odessa had a large percentage of students who were not only struggling in their classes, but were ultimately dropping out. There was also a high rate of failure and huge equity gaps. In fact, they had the highest drop rate in the country. After a lot of research and soul searching, they discovered that there were four things that all faculty who had low drop rates were doing. They presented their DRIP program (Drop Rate Improvement Plan) that ultimately not only improved persistence and retention, but closed most of the equity gaps. Today they are an Aspen Prize winning college.

My friend Sally Heilstedt, Associate Dean of Instruction at LWTech, ran with this idea, and summarized it as “The 4 Connections.” They are: Interact with Students by Name, Check-in Regularly, Schedule One-on-One meetings, and Practice Paradox.

Let’s get back to the first connection of   Interact with Students by Name. Yes, it’s difficult to learn (and remember) students’ names. I struggled with this for a long time. When I was teaching at Michigan Technological University, an engineering school in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, I swear every math class was populated by young men who all looked alike – 18 or 19 years old, blond, wearing a cap and Carharts. Of course we have a much more diverse population at EvCC, but remembering names is still a challenge. To address not only learning but remembering names, try this simple approach: On the first day of class, have paper and markers at each table (or easily accessible if there are desks). I like to raid the recycling bin for paper that has been printed on one side only and then discarded.  Have students make a name plate with the name that they’d like you to use. They should display it every day (for this reason I collected them at the end of class and had them available at the beginning of the next class). An added benefit was that if a name plate wasn’t picked up at the beginning of class, I knew that student was absent. Ask students to be sure to make their name legible and large enough for you to read from the front of the class. And, encourage students to address each other by name. Weimer writes, “Challenge students to learn and use each other’s name – None of this, ‘I agree with him.’ Who is he? What’s his name? Someone, please, introduce him to the rest of us. When you give students an activity like think-pair-share, always remind them to first introduce themselves to their partner.”

Think about how this might improve the community in your classroom. Raid the recycling bin today and get ready for the start of Fall Quarter. And stay tuned for the next post on The 4 Connections.

 

 

 

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Panopto’s long tail

Last week I posted briefly about exploring some simple data showing how many EvCC courses use Canvas. This time around I’m turning my attention to Panopto, our video content management platform. Extracting useful information out of Panopto is a bit harder, so I figured I’d start with something simple: the total number of video hours viewed by (anonymized) course.

Let’s take a look:

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How many EvCC courses use Canvas?

I’m asked on a fairly regular basis how many courses at EvCC use the campus learning management system, Canvas, in some capacity. There are many reasons for this question–ranging from general curiosity to specific ideas the questioner may have about, say, the most effective methods for communicating with students–but until fairly recently I couldn’t provide a very reliable answer. That’s partly due to the fact that we automatically create an empty Canvas course (what we sometimes call a “shell”) for every course at the college, meaning we can’t automatically assume the existence of a course in Canvas indicates active use by the faculty member teaching that course. The difficulty in pinning down exactly how many courses use Canvas is also due, in part, to the many other purposes for which faculty, staff, and students use Canvas: clubs and student organizations; departmental or program-based groups; faculty and staff programs; and so on.

Unsatisfied with only being able to say that “many” or “the majority” of courses at the college use Canvas in some way, I set out last fall to develop a more reliable measure of Canvas use and its change, if any, over the past few years. I’m happy to say the results are in. By combining course information from our student management system with data from the Canvas API, we can quickly identify the subset of Canvas shells that correspond to courses students take for credit at the college. Then, within that subset, we look only at those courses that have been published and that have at least 3 students enrolled. (I won’t bore you with the details of why that is necessary, but in general it helps filter out a variety of unusual cases that might otherwise provide a false sense of the rate of Canvas use.)

This yields a reasonably good approximation of actual Canvas use for credit-bearing courses at EvCC:

As this chart shows, 83% of courses at the college used Canvas in the spring of 2017, up from about 68% when we first moved to Canvas in 2013.

Obviously, this doesn’t tell us anything at all about how Canvas is being used, or why, or whether it benefits students or faculty. There are other data that could help us begin to investigate all of those more nuanced and complex questions–and I hope to write about some of that here in the future–but these numbers alone doesn’t tell any of those stories. Still, it’s interesting to observe the adoption of this particular platform on our campus over time.

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Using Zotero in the classroom

Comic-book style graphic of explosion with the word Zotero superimposed
Pow! Zotero sure is exciting!

In a previous post, I introduced Zotero–a free, open-source research tool–and suggested exploring ways to use it in classroom activities and student assignments. Zotero has been part of many librarians’ research and instructional toolkits since its early days, so the idea that it should have a place in the classroom is by no means a new one. Instructors have also been incorporating it directly into their courses for some time, often with the explicit goal of improving students’ literacies and familiarity with individual and collaborative research practices.

One of the hardest things to do in the span of a single class is to contextualize new information so that students learn to see individual facts or concepts in relation to one another. A shared Zotero collection is one way to engage students directly in that process of contextualization, helping them develop a more realistic view of the depth and breadth of a particular field of study than is often possible in an introductory or survey course. As a bonus, it happens to be useful to you as an instructor as well, since the collection created by one cohort of students can become a resource to be used in future courses or, perhaps, to provide new examples or readings you can add to the course when revising it.

Let’s say that I’m teaching an introductory environmental science course whose purpose is to give students a broad conceptual foundation for studying both the environment and the impact of human activities on it. I’ve decided that I’m going to unify the various topics we’ll cover by focusing on a common theme that we’ll return to throughout the quarter: modern agricultural practices and the challenges of mitigating their environmental consequences while also feeding a rapidly growing human population. So while the course as a whole will include units that introduce atmospheric science, ecology, biodiversity, and so on, each unit approaches those specific topics by considering their effects on some particular aspect of agriculture, and vice versa. For example, a unit that addresses freshwater ecosystems might include a discussion of the effects of nitrogen runoff resulting from industrial agriculture.

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Coming out of the cave

When I was cleaning out some papers in a desk drawer the other day I came across an article from the Community College Week magazine. I sometimes tear articles out of magazines or newspapers and keep them in a file for reference later. Of course sometimes I re-read the article and can’t remember why I thought it was important at the time, but when I saw the title of this article, Leave the Cave: Professional Development to Improve Student Success, I knew I had to share it in a blog post. The author, Christine Johnson McPhail, Managing Partner of the McPhail Group, said, “People need to come out of their caves!” She visited a community college and met with the school’s student success committee and president. The people she is encouraging to come out of their caves are faculty who teach and fulfill their contractual duties, but do little else. “They seemed disengaged from the greater strategic direction of the college. Their pedagogical practices were all over the map. They appeared to embody little commitment to tweaking classroom practices to improve student outcomes…the result was a cave-dwelling environment with a ‘do your own thing’ mindset.”

Note that there is light at the entrance to the cave image at the left. That suggests that it is possible for those reluctant colleagues to leave the cave – but there is no quick fix to this problem. Whose responsibility is it to help our colleagues see the light and move towards it?

McPhail suggests that we must first “assess the operative culture and climate in order to define student success and the existing professional development issues.” Do we all agree what student success means? Are we willing to have a conversation about our professional development needs? How are we going to answer these questions in light of our Guided Pathways work? What is it that all faculty need to know in order for us to have a shared vision of student success?

Let’s assume that all faculty (and staff) sign on for the work and vision of Guided Pathways (or just student success)? There are three areas that we must avoid as identified by McPhail:

  • The “That’s above my pay grade” mentality.
    • We all know that teachers are are poorly paid. Why should I work harder than I have to? I already spend hours grading and prepping!
  • The “This is my space” syndrome.
    • I have academic freedom. What happens in my classroom is my business!
  • The “That’s not in my job description” discussion.
    • My job is to teach. I shouldn’t have to serve on so many committees. Besides, that’s what administrators are for!

My guess is that we have all heard someone say at least one of these things. In fact, perhaps you have said something like this yourself (I think I am guilty of that at some point, especially when we seem to be adding one initiative after another, or at the end of the academic year when we are all hoping the quarter ends soon!). So here’s my question for all of you: How do those of us responsible for professional development on our campus help our colleagues venture towards the light at the entrance to the cave? Remember that the motto of the CTT (Center for Transformative Teaching) is Exploring Innovations in Teaching and Learning. How can we help you explore new ways to help students be successful?

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The Ins and Outs of Canvas Groups

Canvas allows instructors to create student groups, a feature that does much more than dividing up a class into smaller sections for projects. Groups in Canvas actually become a smaller, internal version of the course with many tools designed to let students collaborate on projects and assignments.

As an instructor, you can assign students manually, or allow Canvas to generate the group membership. You are allowed to view all the activity within a group, so you can monitor the progress and interact with the group easily. You can even assign group leaders and move students into different subgroups. If your students are turning in a group project, only one assignment needs to be submitted. The SpeedGrader will submit the grade and share all the comments/feedback with all the group members automatically.

The features for students make group projects more accessible. The students can store and share files within the Group, start and continue discussions, send messages, and create collaborations. It’s a great built-in tool with shared communication tools.

More information about Groups is available in the official Canvas Documentation.

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Active Learning and Actively Learning

Do you remember your first year as a teacher?

I have (not so fond) memories of staying mostly one step ahead of my students that year, prepping the material I was supposed to cover the next day. Despite the fact that I had just graduated from college and thought I was fully prepared to stand in front of students and share my “wisdom,” it wasn’t until I was teaching the material that I really began to get a deep understanding of it!  You could say that I was actively learning that year. And actually several years after that as I taught more and different math courses, and when I began teaching college math courses it started all over again!

I just read an article by Neil Haave, Associate Professor of Biology at The University of Alberta Augustana Campus, who was considering the issue of actively learning after he implemented an activity in a class that required very little of him and quite a lot of his students. In other words, he had them do active learning in his class. All of the important facts had been covered in previous classes, and now it was time for students to begin synthesizing; he was pleased that students were really actively engaged in the material. Haave says, “This (activity) produced a fairly lively classroom with students trying to understand the flow of both carbons and energy through the cycle. While they worked, I walked around commenting here and there as needed or when I saw a misconception arising. Clearly, learning was happening. But the weird thing was . . . I didn’t feel like I was teaching.”

A podium in a spot light on stage.

So there’s the rub. So many of us prefer the Sage on the Stage  approach rather than the Guide on the Side position. When we are teaching/lecturing, we begin to know and understand the material differently (and deeply) from when we were students ourselves, and that feels good. At some point we are no longer a step or two ahead of the students. But when we move away from the podium (literal or figurative) and let the students have a larger role in their learning, it does begin to feel a bit like we aren’t teaching. Coincidentally, students may report that they think you aren’t teaching anymore either! Perhaps you’ve even had student comments like that on your end-of-course evaluations, similar to what Haave did:  “Haave didn’t teach us! We had to learn it ourselves!

So how has Haave’s view of what’s happening in the classroom changed since he became an active learning instructor?  He writes that, “I am now learning which concepts trip up my students and how I can guide them through those bottlenecks. I’m also learning how to help them reflect on the misconceptions that prevent them from grasping the material at a deep level.”

Have you tried active learning techniques in your classes? What was the outcome? Many times I have tried new things and have experienced some degree of failure, only to discover that my directions were not clear or I hadn’t adequately prepared students for the work I anticipated they would be able to do. In reflecting on what went well and what didn’t, I recognize that most of the time I didn’t adequately prepare. Now, however, I have a few “back pocket techniques” (remember James Lang telling us in Small Teaching that we should always have a couple of activities that we can pull out of our back pocket when we want to turn things around without a complete overhaul?) that I like to use. Case studies is one, presenting students with “wicked problems” that often have no right answer. I also use Pass the Problem when I want students to get up and move while they are working together. At the conclusion of both of these activities I ask students to reflect on what they’ve learned. We’ve mentioned helping students to reflect on their learning in this blog before, and will continue to think of it as one of the most important ways to help students actively learn the material.

If you want to learn more techniques for bringing active learning to your classroom, be sure to let us know.

 

 

 

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Let’s jam: the accessibility session

Poster for Accessibility Jam, with orange and white text, displayed on a slight angle, on a purple background. Decorative accessibility icons appear at the bottom of the poster. Full text reads: 'Accessibility Jam. ELearning live in person and featuring performances by Text Alternatives, Closed Captions for Videos, Universal Design, Headings and Document Styles, Canvas Accessibility Tools. Thursday May 18, 10 a.m. - 2 p.m., Gray Wolf 268. Free entry, all ages. Come jam with us! Bring your syllabus or course materials for hands-on help with accessibility.'
Accessibility: just like cool jazz.

Here at EvCC, we’re hosting an Accessibility Jam on May 18 in honor of Global Accessibility Awareness Day. What’s an Accessibility Jam, you ask? Much like the musical jam session from which it borrows its name, the Accessibility Jam is an informal and improvisational gathering that aims to raise awareness of how easy it can be to create accessible course materials, even if you don’t have a lot of time or experience with accessibility-related matters. It’s a drop-in affair, not a formal training session or workshop. That means anyone can stop by to ask a question, sit down with a colleague for some hands-on help with a document or video, or simply find out about some accessibility-related resources and tools. Whether you can spare five minutes or fifty, there’s bound to be some strain of accessibility you can riff on, in your own way and at your own pace, before being pulled back to the regular schedule of your day.

The Accessibility Jam has its origins in a common statement I’ve heard on numerous occasions. You may have heard it, too. It usually goes something like this:

“Accessibility sounds important, but I don’t know anything about making course materials accessible. Plus, it seems like a lot of work — I just don’t have the time to think about it.”

It’s easy to be critical of this view, but anyone familiar with the realities and time constraints of teaching should be able to sympathize. It’s true that making course materials fully accessible does take a lot of time, and it requires specific knowledge of common accessibility problems and solutions. Together those two factors — lack of time and lack of knowledge — can make the idea of an accessible class seem like a fantasy: something we’d all like to see, for sure, but not something that seems very achievable.

But what if we could replace this way of thinking with a different perspective, one that holds every single incremental step toward greater accessibility, no matter how small, is a change for the better that brings us closer to the goal of universal accessibility? This way of seeing course accessibility would mean that small slivers of time could be put to productive use  — which is exactly what we hope to promote at the Accessibility Jam.

Plus, it will be fun. It’s a chance to spend a few minutes with colleagues, working collectively on a shared endeavor, with something tangible to show at the end of it. So if you find yourself with even five minutes to spare on May 18, be sure to stop by the Accessibility Jam!

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Is Innovation Just a Buzzword?

Have you been to a conference or a meeting on campus recently where the word innovation WASN’T used? It seems to be a buzzword not just in the halls of academia but in the business world as well. What does it mean to be innovative, and how do we incorporate innovations into our teaching practices?

Dictionary.com  defines the verb to innovate as: to introduce something new; make changes in anything established. Does innovation mean revolution? No – it can mean small changes, incremental changes, to your daily work. Think Small Teaching by James Lang, a book I wrote about in an early post. Lang writes about “back pocket techniques” that you can have at the ready to enhance student learning. I wish I had known that innovations could be small when I first started teaching. 

In my first several years in the classroom I struggled to “get things right” and when things started to go smoothly, I did what many of us do: I rested on my laurels. At that point I was mostly concerned about covering the material each day and not evidence of student learning.  Since then I have taken to heart this quote by 19th Century Clergyman William Pollard, “Learning and innovation go hand-in-hand. The arrogance of success is to think that what you did yesterday is sufficient for tomorrow.”

So, it’s not critical that you re-invent your course or yourself. What about starting with one small task next week? Yes, planning for innovation is a good way to make sure it happens. Consider this: On Monday, start class with this activity. Say to students: Before I introduce the next topic to explore in class, please find a partner and discuss the big topics we have learned so far. Make a list and be ready to describe how they are related.

Opening class with a “retrieval” activity will let you know how well students have actually learned the material, and is a great way to help students to see the big picture of the topics in the course. I should note that the first time you introduce an activity like this you may be surprised how difficult it is for students. I can tell you from experience that not all my innovative practices were a resounding success! Don’t throw away an activity just because it doesn’t work as well as you’d like the first time around.

Are there innovative practices that you’d like to share? We’d love to hear about them!

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