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Tag: Communication

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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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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Shared Expectations

During a casual conversation with a faculty member, we were talking about the then upcoming quarter and the planning she was doing (along with her department colleagues) to get ready for the beginning of classes. Coincidentally, an email from the Faculty Focus blog (written by my all time favorite blogger, Dr. Maryellen Weimer, showed up in my email inbox:  What Happens in a Course is a Shared Responsibility. Weimer says, “Early in my teaching career, I heard a wise colleague tell students, ‘It’s not my class. It’s not your class. It’s our class, and together we will make it a good or not-so-good learning experience.’ ” I looked back at some of my old syllabi and realized I made some of the same mistakes that many faculty commonly make. I outlined the expectations I had for students, including things like punctuality, adherence to class rules, and the cell phone prohibition. Where, I wondered, was my statement about what students could expect from me? I did all the things that Weimer talks about: “We can carefully prepare and organize course materials, design effective activities, treat all students fairly, offer clear explanations, and establish policies that promote learning.” But did I explicitly state what they could expect? Probably not.

Weimer’s article talks mostly about how to create a classroom with shared responsibility for students’ learning. Here are the three things she suggests will be contributing factors in their success:

  1. Students will take responsibility for their own learning.
  2. Students will support the efforts that the teacher makes to help them learn.
  3. Individual students can contribute to the learning experience of other students in the classroom.

One of the activities that we use in the 5-Star Consortium Best Practices orientation for new associate faculty each quarter is “Developing Shared Expectations.” This activity right at the beginning of the orientation helps us build community with a large group of faculty from all levels of experience (some from previous academic institutions and some from industry and some with no prior experience at all!) and helps them build community within the group. We ask, “what can we as facilitators do to make this a rich learning experience?” and “what will you do to make this a rich learning experience?” We encourage the new faculty to try this on the first day of class, and to post it in their Canvas class or even on the wall of the classroom so that it can be referenced throughout the quarter. We have found that when it is regularly reinforced in conversations in the class that students will generally meet the factors set out by Weimer in her article.

Are there activities that you use in the classroom that help to build shared responsibility? Let us know! We are always looking for topics to write about, and look forward to hearing from you!

 

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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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