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The Center for Transformative Teaching Posts

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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Mid-Quarter Feedback

Student voice matters.

I think there is no way we can dispute this. If we wait until the end of the quarter and expect students to provide valuable information on their learning experiences in our class, chances are the disgruntled students (and aren’t there always a few?) will let us know what went wrong. Why don’t students tell us earlier if they want changes made in the course (and I’m talking about classroom activities, not course content)?

Because we didn’t ask them.

Mid-quarter check-ins are perfect opportunities to get feedback on how things are going. You may be familiar with my all-time favorite, PLUS/DELTA. A simple grid with 4 spaces for students to reflect on not only what the teacher is doing to help them learn (PLUS) and what the teacher can change to help learning (DELTA), it also includes spaces for students to identify their own behaviors that are helpful and those that should be improved upon.

The most important part of this process is reading and reviewing the anonymous (and I believe it should be anonymous) feedback from students, and then responding, closing the feedback loop.

Here’s the story of the first time I used PLUS/DELTA: I gave each student in the class a copy of the grid and assigned it as a reflective assignment for that evening. The following class period I asked students to team up in groups of 3-5 and to look for trends in the areas related to me, the teacher. I gave each small group another copy of the grid, and in about 10 minutes each group had 3-5 items in both columns, PLUS and DELTA. That night I read over the small stack of papers – only 1 from each team – and formulated my response. It started something like this: “Thank you all for your thoughtful responses. Let me share with you the things that you’d like me to continue doing in the class that are helping you to learn (and I put that list on the teaching station to share). Now let me share with you the things you’ve suggested I change (and I put that list on the teaching station). As you know, I can’t stop giving exams, but I can change the day of the week.” And so on. Interestingly, the class became much more engaged after that exercise! Before the end-of-quarter evaluations that quarter, I reminded students that their feedback helped make this a better class and me a better teacher, and I reminded them of the changes that were made because of their feedback. The next quarter when I was reviewing my IDEA results, I was pleased to read this student comment: “No one ever asked me before how I would change the class. Thank you!”

If you want to get feedback on a more regular basis, here’s one I found by a copy machine recently (I can’t give credit because there was no information on the handout!)

Directions: Please fill out one or both squares and drop in the basket up front before you leave. NO NAMES PLEASE! This is anonymous!

MURKY

This week, what part of the lesson, or what point is still a bit unclear to you? What are you struggling with? And what could I, your instructor, have done/can do to make your learning easier?

CLEAR

This week what part of the lesson, or what point, was finally made clear to you? What was your “ah ha!” moment? And/or what did YOU do this week that made your learning easier?

 

Do you have favorite anonymous feedback examples you’d like to share? Let us know!

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Making the extraordinary ordinary

“If we want students to learn, the most critical element is the teacher. So professional development is the overall most important thing we can do to help students learn.”  

Why Quality Professional Development for Teachers Matters by Ben Johnson in Edutopia

As a member of the Center for Transformative Teaching team, I think it’s important for me to continue learning deeply about the world of teaching and learning. Much of what I learn shows up on this blog and in the journal articles I post on the CTT site. To support my learning, I regularly read blogs, journals, and even take courses (online) that I hope will help me support you in this amazing work we do. To that end, I am enrolled in a MOOC called Leading Ambitious Teaching and Learning through edX. In his introduction to the course, Don Peurach, Assistant Professor of Educational Policy, Leadership and Innovation in the School of Education at the University of Michigan says we are at “A moment of renewal and reinvention in education in the United States and around the world. Complex dynamics, social, political, economic are creating needs and opportunities to pursue new aims for student learning, new approaches to classroom instruction and new strategies for school and system organization. Addressing these needs and seizing these opportunities will require transformative innovation.” There’s that word again…transformative

Transform (verb):

1. to change in form, appearance, or structure; metamorphose.
2. to change in condition, nature, or character; convert.
3. to change into another substance; transmute.
What is it that the CTT is hoping to transform?  Employee retention, efficiency, skills, knowledge and abilities. To make the extraordinary ordinary, we need pretty big ideas and goals, yes?  If you check the CTT webpage, you’ll see that we list the following:
To help you improve your teaching and learning over time, we hope to provide you with ideas for enhancing your teaching, including:
  • Getting Feedback on Teaching
  • Developing Instructional Skills and Materials
  • Improving Course/Program Design and Alignment
  • Consulting with eLearning professionals about Teaching and Learning Issues
  • Learning More About Teaching and Enhancing Student Learning

If you have ideas for how the CTT team, including John Melson, Derek Jorgenson and me, please let us know. We are here to transform!

 

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Grading anonymously can help counteract implicit bias

The first time I ever taught a college course, I spent an enormous amount of time grading my students’ essays–many, many hours reading, re-reading, and commenting on their work. Part of the reason grading papers took me so long was obviously my inexperience. I had yet to discover the many small efficiencies that can help speed up the process of evaluating students’ written work. And, of course, being new to teaching I was especially anxious about proving I could do a good job and provide my students with the kind of detailed, constructive feedback that I had received from the teachers who had most influenced and helped me in the past.

stacks of composition notebooks
Stacks and stacks and stacks of grading. Grading by ninniane licensed under Creative Commons.

But my slowness resulted from another factor as well. I wouldn’t have been able to articulate it at the time, but I now see I was filled with a vague sense that I might, without knowing it, be unfair in the comments I provided and the grades I assigned. How could I possibly be sure that a student’s tardiness the day before wasn’t subtly affecting how I was reading her essay now? How could I know that I wasn’t thinking about another student’s evident lack of preparation for a class presentation the previous week as I deemed his current work worthy of only a ‘C’? Could I truly guard against all of the various ways in which a student’s appearance or behavior might affect my judgment, even though I knew those things had nothing to do with work I was evaluating now?

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Formative Assessment Podcast

A new podcast on Formative Assessment is now available for your viewing pleasure.  If you prefer text, access this Formative Assessment transcript.  This episode is a condensed version of a Teaching and Tools workshop held April 19, 2017 at Everett Community College.  The EvCC eLearning webpage includes a list of upcoming events and other workshops that may be of interest to you.  Check back for the latest developments and announcements!

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