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The Center for Transformative Teaching Posts

A few things I learned at the retreat

In her recent post about EvCC’s Annual Teaching and Learning Retreat, Peg suggested we might consider it an “advance” rather than a retreat. I like that idea. Instead of withdrawing from the world, we seek to engage with and advance into it. It might not stick as part of the event’s name in the future (I’m not sure what I think of “16th Annual Teaching and Learning Advance”) but I can definitely get behind the principle.

Rosario Beach before sunset, with rocks in the foreground and a tree-covered bluff in the distance
Who wouldn’t want to retreat to this place?

Since this was my first year attending the retreat advance, I didn’t really know what to expect. Would it be one of those events that “strike intense malaise into the hearts of people across higher education”? (Credit to Peg for sharing that as well. Some cautionary tales for anyone involved in planning!) Or would it instead be an opportunity to learn about what my EvCC colleagues are doing, thinking about, and inspired by — and to draw inspiration from them in turn?

I’m happy to say the our retreat clearly belongs in the latter category. No malaise here! I enjoyed myself and learned a great deal. A week later I’m still thinking about a number of the sessions. I could go on about them at great length, but if I had to pick just three personal highlights from the weekend I’d choose these:

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Retreat = Advance?

This year marks the 15th annual Teaching and Learning Retreat. Everett Community College has supported this amazing weekend at the beautiful Rosario Beach Marine Science Center at Deception Pass for faculty and staff to come together for a weekend of conversation and community. This structured time is an institutional priority, important to faculty and staff who are overwhelmed with information and by lack of time. The weekend gives us the chance to come together to reflect on the past, do some in the moment reflection, and look to the future.

1: an act or process of withdrawing especially from what is difficult, dangerous, or disagreeable 
2: a place of privacy or safety

Our mission statement says that the annual retreat provides opportunities to share big ideas and best practices by creating meaningful interactions among the campus community. If we look at the first definition of the word retreat (from, it suggests that a retreat is a “withdrawal, especially from what is difficult…” Many of you will agree that the work we do, supporting students on their journey to a successful and meaningful life, is indeed difficult. So let’s look at the second definition of retreat: “a place of privacy or safety.” The Teaching and Learning Retreat is a time and place where ideas, both new and old, can be discussed without fear of push back, a time and place to explore new ways to support our students as well as ourselves, a time and place for powerful experiences, all in a safe environment. In The Slow Professor, the authors Maggie Berg and Barbara Seeber write that “when we are rushed, we’re simply not the people we’re capable of being.” The retreat is a time and place for being our best selves. Maybe instead of retreat, we should call it an “advance.”

1. to move or bring forward
2. to bring into consideration or notice; suggest; propose
3. to improve; further

The retreat offers time and space to improve our relationships with our colleagues, to propose new ideas, and to move forward with ideas that we’ve been thinking about but have not had the time to discuss with anyone in a meaningful way. Want to know more about the retreat, and why these colleagues are smiling?

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Let’s all poll together

Screenshot of poll question 'Do you use polls in your classroom' followed by two response options, 'Yes' and 'No'
What are we waiting for? Let’s poll!

I was recently asked for recommendations on simple, easy, real-time polling applications that could be used in a classroom or lecture setting to prompt discussion. I made a couple recommendations based on what I’ve observed faculty using recently, but in doing so I realized it had been some time since I’d looked at the current crop of contenders in the classroom polling realm. These types of tools come and go–what was popular last year is always in danger of being supplanted by some new contender–and so I spent a little time investigating a couple current options.

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Two sources of ideas for creating more inclusive learning environments

A topic that’s very much on people’s minds these days, here at EvCC and at many other colleges, is the concept of inclusive learning environments: spaces (conceptual as well as physical) that are truly conducive to learning. One of the basic foundations of inclusive pedagogy is the conviction that people learn best when they don’t feel overlooked, marginalized, or threatened — or, to put that in more positive terms, when they perceive that they are acknowledged, included, and respected.

I imagine almost everyone who chooses to teach or work at a college or university shares this view, in large part because we all understand that a person who feels ostracized and excluded is unlikely to be able to make the most of opportunities to learn. That’s one of the reasons that many colleges (ours included) publicly announce their commitment to establishing inclusive campus communities.

When it comes to moving from a broad principle to the specific circumstances of an individual course, though, it can be hard to know exactly what concrete steps to take as an instructor so that all students see the classroom as a space that includes them. Fortunately, there are now many excellent resources available that provide specific suggestions to help you do exactly that. Best of all, many of them also include references to research on inclusive pedagogy and its effects, so that you can pursue the topic in much greater depth if desired.

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Finding time to think

A recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education, Helping Professors Find Time to Think (Allison Adams, 12/05/16) made me remember some of the professors I had in my undergraduate and graduate years. My degrees are in math, so very few of them looked like John Houseman from “The Paper Chase,” but several of my Social Science professors were the classic bow tie, suede elbow patch on tweed jackets pipe smoking types who for me represented what I believed a professor’s professional life must be like – sitting in their book lined office (and of course the office is in an ivy covered neoclassical building), having coffee while reading academic tomes, contemplating the universe and then having a port in the faculty club at the end of the day. Later, as I began my own academic career, I realized that this was far from the truth. Even after teaching for two decades I found that with course preparation, grading, teaching, committee work, new initiatives, curriculum review, office hours, and other commitments (now add email to this list) there never seems to be enough hours in the day.

John Houseman, a professor in “The Paper Chase,”
John Houseman, “The Paper Chase,” 20th Century Fox/Kobal Collection

Adams argues for taking time to think and reflect. “I am always on the lookout for antidotes to that counterproductive frenzy;”  “it sounds luxurious, doesn’t it? Time to think.” To which I say yes, it sounds amazing and impossible…and yet isn’t that exactly what we need to do in order to be effective at our work of helping students be successful?

The larger question in this article is how those of us in the professional development world can help faculty cope and “cultivate times and places for deep deliberation and care…” Enter The Slow Professor by Maggie Berg and Barbara Seeber. I am a proponent of the Slow Food movement; you should read their manifesto which includes “We are enslaved by speed and have all succumbed to the same insidious virus: Fast Life, which disrupts our habits, pervades the privacy of our homes and forces us to eat Fast Foods.” If any profession is “enslaved by speed”, it surely is academia, and as Berg and Seebe write, “when we are rushed, we’re simply not the people we’re capable of being.” How do we become that person when the stress level of academics exceeds that of the general population? How do we cultivate reflection and intellectual inquiry in our lives (and in the lives of our students)? What ideas do you have for finding time to think? #cultivatereflection #slowprofessor #timetothink

The cover of the book Slow Professor by Maggie Berg and Barbara Seeber
The Slow Professor by Maggie Berg and Barbara Seebe

What can massive online courses teach us about peer-to-peer learning?

If you have 10 minutes to spare and feel like stretching your mind a bit by thinking about possible connections between studio learning practices, peer-to-peer instruction, and online education, this short presentation by Scott Klemmer might be just what you’re looking for.

Klemmer teaches at UC San Diego and has, in recent years, been conducting fascinating research on methods for bringing peer learning into online course environments. Many of his projects in this area have focused on massive open online courses (the so-called MOOCs you’ve no doubt heard about or perhaps even participated in). As a result, one of his interests is in “scaling” peer learning opportunities to tens of thousands of students, as he discusses here. But I think many of the concepts he’s developing have interesting implications for small-scale online and hybrid courses as well.

My personal highlights from this short talk are:

  • The idea that “studio learning”–the collection of collaborative and frequently critique-based methods that are common in disciplines like the visual arts–can be productively integrated into online courses in many other disciplines
  • The emphasis on self-assessment as a crucial skill that courses can be designed to help students master
  • The idea of peer feedback “fortune cookies”: a simple method for providing structure and guidance for students first learning to perform effective peer evaluations

Which ideas stand out for you? How might you consider applying them in your teaching, whether online or in person?

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Do you Zotero?

Though the name sounds vaguely like it could be the latest dance/exercise craze, Zotero is actually a nifty research organizer and citation manager with several features that make it worth considering for use in teaching.

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Turn back time…in Canvas

The tagline for the CTT’s blog is “Exploring innovations in teaching and learning,” so I’ve been a bit reluctant to post anything about Canvas, a system that–whatever its virtues–isn’t really the first thing that comes to mind when I think about teaching innovation. I tend to see genuine innovation as something that involves changes in outlook, understanding, or methods, not simply using software to accomplish a task.

Every now and then, though, I stumble across some feature of an online platform or an application that makes me sit up and say, “I can’t believe I didn’t know about that!” That’s what happened to me yesterday when I learned about the “undelete” feature in Canvas, a mostly undocumented method for seeing the 25 most recent changes you’ve made to a Canvas course–and then restoring content from any of them.

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I just want to be a better teacher.

“Life is trying things to see if they work.”

Ray Bradbury, American writer

On Friday, January 13, 17 EvCC faculty from multiple disciplines met to discuss a pretty big question: How do we measure student learning? These faculty have agreed to participate in a pilot program using the Instant Feedback formative assessment tool that is part of the new online platform (Campus Labs) used for our student evaluations (IDEA). When I asked them, “Why do you want to take on this additional work? It won’t be easy reviewing data, looking at how students responded to the short survey, and finding ways to improve your pedagogy!” and to a person they said, “I just want to be a better teacher.”

A review of assessment literature will quickly reveal the importance of faculty engagement in the improvement of student learning and engagement in the classroom. In fact, according to the authors of “Rethinking College Student Retention” (Braxton, J. et al, 2014), two of the most significant variables that impact retention are a genuine interest in students on the part of faculty, and faculty organization and clarity. In fact, when students are surveyed and asked, “What matters most?” the data indicate that it is their teachers who top the list. When faculty are engaged in the classroom experience beyond just the transmission of information, the progress that students make toward learning outcomes can be greatly enhanced. Faculty can use relatively simple assessment tools to measure students’ perception of these influencers as well as student learning; once the faculty have reviewed student responses they can make changes to stimulate classroom achievement. Closing the assessment loop by letting students know that they have been heard and what the plan for improvement is can move the needle considerably.

Reflection on the feedback from students is important to the process; faculty will write reflections that address issues in their classes and will plan strategies to be implemented the following week. A cycle of feedback from students will then be established. I will be conducting interviews with the faculty in the cohort on both their successes and challenges during the quarter. Faculty are also keeping a reflection journal that will be submitted as part of their final report.  I have encouraged faculty to write “in the moment” so that they capture all aspects – the positive as well as the not-so positive – to reflect on at the end of the quarter.

Students can be very savvy consumers when it comes to their educational experiences, and when asked the right questions, can provide valuable data that will provide an assessment of classroom dynamics, according to Dr. Ken Ryalls, IDEA Center president (Coffee Talk Webinar: Myths and Misconceptions of Student Ratings, Gender Bias and More, March 24, 2016). We believe that when students feel that they have a voice in how the class is working (specifically, in this case, teaching strategies employed by their instructor) they will not only learn more and be more engaged, but the faculty will receive better student evaluations. Both students and faculty will benefit from giving and receiving feedback that identifies areas of potential growth and improvement.

What are the questions the students are responding to in these Instant Feedback sessions?

Please describe the frequency of your instructor’s teaching procedures:

  • Displayed a personal interest in your learning.
  • Found ways to help you answer your own questions.
  • Demonstrated the importance of the subject matter.
  • Made it clear how each topic fits into the course.
  • Explained course material clearly and concisely.
  • Introduced stimulating ideas about the subject matter. 

Throughout the quarter I will be reporting on the work of the faculty and will share their stories.  I believe this will be a compelling story over time, and I hope you are looking forward to hearing more about the project.

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Simple investment, big returns

Taking attendance in class can feel like a cumbersome obligation, but it has the potential to become an engaging activity that helps establish a learning community and inspire classroom dialogue.  A number of years ago, I started developing and using attendance questions in my communication courses.  After experiencing the positive outcomes, I can’t imagine reverting to a different style for taking attendance.

Attendance questions can be easily incorporated into any class in which attendance is taken.  Rather than orally running through the roster and having students generically indicate they are present, have them answer a question.  If time is of the essence, make sure to ask a question with a short response.  If class discussion is a significant portion of your lesson, you can ask an approachable question that feeds into the content you plan to explore later on.

The outcomes of attendance questions are surprising.  First, they functionally allow you to take attendance.  Beyond that, you are providing the students a casual opportunity to share with their peers.  Students listen to each other and get to know each other better.  You get to learn more about your students each day.  If you start the process by answering your own question, your students get a glimpse into your personality, establish new connections, and change the dynamic in which students relate to you.  You also break the silence and get students talking at the beginning of the class.  Beyond this, what you hear in class provides a host of information that can inform the kinds of examples and illustrations you use in class.  When you know your students better, you have more opportunities to personalize your lessons and build on those relationships.

An easy place to start, if you are interested, is asking students to name their favorite movie, TV show, or celebrity.  I’m obsessed with food, so I often ask students to share their favorite area restaurant and menu item at the start of the quarter.  It’s amazing how interested students are to hear about the available options and to learn from each other.  And I take notes because it always expands my list of places to go and things to eat.  For more topics, search for attendance questions online.  The options are nearly endless.

There are two guiding principles for effective attendance questions.  First, ask non-threatening questions that everyone can answer.  Consider the diversity of your classes, your students’ backgrounds and experiences.  Draw from the shared elements in a way that builds an inclusive and participatory situation.  Second, try to ask questions with a host of right answers.  I attempt to avoid creating rifts or making students take sides.  The goal is to allow your students to share with each other and build community rather than to create divides.  Last, (this one is my personal suggestion rather than a principle), have fun with it!  Attendance questions can set the tone of the room or establish the mood for your class.  Let the questions be a reflection of who you are and what you want your classroom to be.

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