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The Center for Transformative Teaching Posts

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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Timing announcements to coincide with periods of highest course activity

Black and white photograph of Two large megaphone or public announcement speakers
Megaphone by Bruno Buontempo licensed under Creative Commons.

There’s been solid evidence for decades that frequent faculty-student interactions can have a powerful, beneficial effect on student persistence. Studies have consistently found that the frequency and clarity of communication between students and faculty can predict student success better, in some cases, than characteristics like socioeconomic status or prior educational attainment. (If you’re looking for a good summary of some of this research, this paper by scholars at Indiana University’s Center for Postsecondary Research offers a nice overview in its introductory section.)

One small but important implication of these findings is that frequent communication–especially if it is topical and related in some way to the intellectual matters of a course–is an excellent way to promote student persistence. This follows common sense as well, since it’s not surprising that when students see their instructor takes the time to send messages, post announcements, or contribute to online course discussions they’re more likely to feel that instructor is invested in their success. Small actions can have a big impact. Something as simple as a weekly announcement previewing what’s coming in the week ahead or providing some context for a new topic or assignment may be all that’s needed.

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On failure and learning

Reacquainting myself recently with Don Norman’s The Design of Everyday Things, I came across this quote:

We need to remove the word failure from our vocabulary, replacing it instead with learning experience. To fail is to learn. We learn more from our failures than from our successes. With success, sure, we are pleased, but we often have no idea why we succeeded. With failure, it is often possible to figure out why, to ensure that it will never happen again.

Revised edition (2013), p. 64

As we embark on a new quarter, hopefully trying new things as we do, it’s worth keeping in mind that we often learn more from our failures than our successes. As Norman goes on to say, It is possible to avoid failure, to always be safe. But that is also the route to a dull, uninteresting life.

What new things are trying this quarter that have the potential to fail in interesting and productive ways?

[Edited 1/4/17: added link]

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The Center for Transformative Teaching starts a blog

The web site of the Center for Transformative Teaching has for some time featured a directory of our favorite blogs on topics related to teaching and learning. Now we can add our very own to the list!

Sustaining thoughtful conversations about teaching and learning is central to the Center’s purpose, a critical part of our commitment to facilitating professional growth and to fostering a supportive, collaborative campus climate. These conversations take many forms–informal chats over coffee and cookies, individual consultations, workshops and seminars, or even conferences–and bring together faculty and staff participants from across the college.

We all lead busy lives, though, and time often seems to be so limited a resource that attending every event we want to seems nearly impossible. I’ve lost track of the number of times I’ve heard some variation on the lament, “I’d love to attend a workshop, but I just don’t have the time!” By helping us share thoughts and spread ideas about innovative teaching practices, we hope the blog will allow us to extend conversation to all interested members of the EvCC community–and beyond–for those times when you can’t be there to participate in person.

In the weeks and months ahead we’ll be featuring a broad range of teaching and learning topics, from brief CTT updates to in-depth explorations of particular pedagogical methods to the innovative efforts of EvCC faculty. And if you have ideas for topics you’d like us to write about here, let us know.


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