Wednesday, February 10, 2016

While the first faculty learning community of the spring semester has started meeting, there is still time to sign up for the second FLC that will begin to meet on Tuesday, February 16 at 2 pm. The topic is how we, as instructors, can create self-regulated learners. Dr. Linda Nilson defines a self-regulated learner as a student who is an intentional, independent, self-directed learner who can acquire, retain, and retrieve new knowledge on their own. The FLC will meet for eight sessions over the semester and finish on April 17. If you are interested in joining this FLC, please contact Barbara Linder.

Speaking of independent students, one of the best ways to get your students to improve is to spend a little time asking them to think about their thinking. How do they think they learn best? What are the things they have learned about themselves since they started attending college? Richard Light wrote a great story about a process he has used that appears to be a survey of student's wants and needs but ingenuously creates an environment that promotes critical self-reflection. He offers a number of conversation starters and activities that you can use to help your students through this process.

Helping under-prepared adult students earn a degree in a STEM discipline can be difficult without the added stressors of work and family commitment. But that is just what the folks in Texas' Rio Grande Valley are doing with a new bachelor's program in biomedical sciences. Because of their urgent need for medical professionals in an area that includes two of the three poorest counties in Texas, the local institution knew they had to respond with something different. Take a look at Steven Mintz's story from Inside Higher Ed.

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Do you spend class time on exam reviews? Dr. Maryellen Weimer provides a concise list of ways you can handle this efficiently during class. She writes, "Here are two frequently asked questions about exam review sessions: (1) Is it worth devoting class time to review, and (2) How do you get students, rather than the teacher, doing the reviewing? Instead of answering those questions directly, I decided a more helpful response might be a set of activities that can make exam review sessions more effective." If you don't have the extra time in your classes, you should suggest that your students form study groups. They can book a study room in the Academic Learning Center or the Library. If they let you know when and where they are meeting, you can even stop by for a 15-minute check-in to see if they have any questions.
Have you noticed an increase in the amount of time students spend on their electronic devices, even during class time? A recent study showed that on average, students use their devices 11.43 times in a typical class.  The digital distractions research also tried to determine student's motivation for using their devices during class when it obviously can cause them to miss important material. The study even asks them about what they think the consequences should be for students caught using their devices despite being warned or banned. You can find an overview of the study here.

As our online program continues to grow both in numbers of students and in the courses we are offering, the progression to hybrid or blended classes is a natural progression. We are already offering some hybrid classes but would certainly like to grow the number. The great thing about hybrid class (identified by classes that meet mostly online but have a few face-to-face sessions) is the student success rate is usually higher than either fully online or traditional face-to-face classes. Here is an interesting story about the growth of this type of delivery method. If you are interested in learning more about offering a hybrid class, please contact Susan Nealy.

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

I often include #teachingmatters on the tweets of the Teaching+Learning Center's twitter account. But it's not just a hashtag that may be trending from time to time, it is something I believe in wholeheartedly. A great teacher brings so much to a class. Students respond to someone who is engaging, caring, organized, and committed to their success. I have posted about how grading and motivation are linked but I want to share with you an article by Amy Conley that synthesizes the research on this topic. I especially like the grading suggestions chart that draws on Carol Dweck's work, among others.

It is that time of the semester when we may be giving students an assessment of some type. It may be a quiz, full-blown exam, essay, or formative assessments in the class. Of course we are doing this to judge the students progress and to see how effective our teaching has been. I always spend some time explaining that the assessment is also a time for them to reflect. How did they do? Did their study effort equal their grade expectations? Have they learned the material yet? Dr. Maryellen Weimer has a post on this topic that you might find useful.

Bill Ferriter writes, "I've got a student this year -- let's call her Aliyana -- who just plain makes me smile.  She's unique times ten -- comfortable being different and always ready to think creatively.  She's also super funny and super kind -- which means she's super well-liked by her peers.  In a lot of ways, she's the kind of kid that I hope my own daughter will become. But at times, I think she doubts herself as a learner. She not the first to raise her hand in classroom conversations -- and when she does, there's a hesitance in her voice that hints at an intellectual insecurity that surprises me.  It's almost like school hasn't been kind to her over the years and so she's just not sure that being a thought leader is a role that she's supposed to fill in our classroom.  In her own mind, she's the funny kid -- not the smart kid.  She makes us laugh.  Other kids help us learn." Continue reading

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Over the last 40 years we have learned more about the human brain than in the previous 400 years. Educators and neuroscientists have been trying to put this knowledge to work by transforming the information of basic and clinical neurosciences into practical insights for the classroom. In a series of special features, we will be looking at how the brain works and what this can tell us about your teaching. First, however, it is important to remember that all learning is brain-based. Through the process of education, we are trying literally to change the brain — not the pancreas, spleen, or lungs. Indeed, education is practical neuroscience. Take a look at the rest of Dr. Bruce Perry's post on how the brain learns.

While many students have weak academic skills because of language barriers or inferior secondary schools, a variety of non-cognitive traits can also hurt or help. Those include things like study habits, time management, self-confidence, and test-taking strategies. Another is "grit," a popular term in higher-education circles these days that is used to describe perseverance or resilience. Read about how one community college used analytics and engagement techniques to improve their student success rates.

Have you spent some time reading your student ratings from the fall semester yet? Sometimes it is good to read them and then put them away for about a week. Usually when we pull them out again, we are more open to some of the critical remarks. The worst thing we can do is ignore the comments all together. We know that there are usually a few outliers in the group. Someone who earned a failing grade and is not ready yet to own their lack of participation as the most likely reason for the honest grade. But just like our students, we must also use the student assessment to improve our teaching abilities. Dr. Rob Jenkins has written a thought provoking post for The Chronicle of Higher Education and it is posted here. He notes, "I know many faculty members don’t place much credence in such informal, online evaluations. But I find them to be remarkably honest, as well as reasonably, sometimes piercingly, accurate."

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

In our transition from an instructor-oriented approach to becoming a learner-centered college, we have discussed the use of active learning methods quiet a bit in the past. One of the best ways to begin to add teaching methods that promote active learning is by making small changes. Asking a "big" question to begin your class is a great start. Not only does it allow you to connect that day's class with the past but you can also build for the future and link the knowledge to a student's everyday life. James Lang offers some other suggestions in an article in The Chronicle of Higher Education and I encourage you to take a look as you wade into the spring 2016 semester.

Another key to encouraging active learning is to use teaching methods early in the semester to set a pattern that allows your students to become comfortable with this approach. Using class discussion fosters active learning but there are times when it is difficult to get our students to participate. Scott Ellman has compiled some useful suggestions on how we can create a classroom culture that encourages participation. One of the first suggestions is to start with a sentence completion exercise. You can read about that and more in his post.

If you are looking for an easy check-list on what your first day of class might look like in order to foster active learning, Dr. Maryellen Weimer has come up with a concise top five things to do. She suggests that we be personable and adds, "Yes, you are the professor, but you are also a person. Students know that you’re the one in charge and that you’re the one who enforces the rules.Teachers shouldn't come across as the big “heavy” who lightens up only if students understand and accept who has the authority. Students want to be taught by a professor but one who acts like a person." You can find the rest of the list on the BRCC Teaching and Learning Faculty Development group on Canvas posted in the Modules under Active Learning and Teaching.

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Dr. Maryellen Weimer has posted a terrific message on her blog about critical self-reflection. She writes, "When are you going to retire?” “Why are you still working?” These are questions I’m asked regularly. Worried that the question is motivated by signs of diminished mental acuity, I scour old and new writings looking for evidence. Should I stop working? I wonder. On a recent flight back to State College I sat next to a Penn State student, a junior accounting and finance major. She sounded like one of those students we’re only too happy to have in class. She talked about her courses, projects, assignments she was working on, her teachers, and how excited she was about her chosen fields. “And what do you do?” she asked. “Oh, I work for you,” I replied. “How so?” “Well, I work with college profs on ways to teach that help students learn.” “I’ve had quite a few teachers who could use your help,” she observed. “You know, a good teacher makes such a difference for students. I have this accounting prof who is just fantastic. I leave his class and I am so motivated. I do homework for that class first and I really study for his exams, and not just for the grade; I really want to learn the material.” “What’s his name?” I asked, and when she told me I felt a big smile crossing my face. “I know him! I helped him when he was a brand-new prof.” I didn’t tell her that he wasn’t a very good teacher back then. But I remember his commitment to doing better, his openness to suggestions, and his willingness to learn. And now he’s having this kind of impact on a student! I wish I’d had a glass of wine—a toast seemed so in order." Continue reading.

Love this graphic from Edutopia. It gets to the heart of learning experiences that focus on good writing.

The Idea Center offers us clear examples of how and why we should make our learning experiences relevant for our students. "There are many reasons for incorporating real-life situations into instruction. Foremost are that applications of theoretical material in real-life situations make content easier to understand, and that the relevance of content is demonstrated by real-life examples. Relevance is a major component of many motivational models (1, 2) and particularly important if learners’ experiences can be used as a basis for new learning. Recent literature on brain function and learning (3, 4) reinforces a constructivist view in which existing knowledge forms the foundation for incorporating new information into more complex and sophisticated schemas. Thus, if prior experience can be connected to new material in a meaningful way, that material can be more clearly understood and more easily learned." Continue reading.

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

David J. Kujawski has written a good article explaining the basics of Present, Critique, Reflect, and Refine (PCRR) as a teaching strategy. Although he writes from a science background, the pedagogy of PCRR can be altered to accommodate any type of class. The method is especially useful for creating a culture of learning through argumentation. Kujawski writes, “The PCRR strategy promotes conceptual understanding of scientific phenomena in various disciplinary core ideas through the development of explanatory models that can later be applied to enrich student understanding and help explain other phenomena. [It also] develops an inquiry-driven, evidence-based mindset that supports model-based science teaching and three dimensional learning and assessment.” You can read more in his article “Present, Critique, Reflect, and Refine: Supporting Evidence-Based Argumentation Through Conceptual Modeling” that appears in Science Scope’s December 2015 issue.

Rod, Risely, executive director of Phi Theta Kappa, released an op-ed piece about community college completion that presents a compelling case. He writes, "One has to wonder why, when the first community college was established in 1901 to provide access to higher education, completing college was not seen as integral to its mission. Clearly, today completion must be seen as central to the mission of our community colleges. To continue with our automotive analogy, it is a moral imperative that our institutions take responsibility for providing its consumers the tools and knowledge to “build a car” with the appropriate features that will lead them down a road toward economic prosperity and well-being.  Community colleges must change their approach and accept responsibility for advising students upon enrollment on the importance of completing the associate degree prior to transferring to senior colleges. Studies show that community college students who transfer to senior colleges prior to earning the associate degree significantly increase their chances of never earning the baccalaureate degree."

David Gooblar urges us to encourage our students to be critically self-reflective about themselves and notes that the end of the semester is a great time to do it. He writes, "There are many reasons to have students complete self-evaluations at semester’s end, but perhaps the best is that the exercise encourages metacognition --- essentially “thinking about one’s thinking” — particularly in the context of getting students to consider their approach to our courses as they progress. But metacognition is a significantly valuable tool at the end of a course, when there are so many opportunities for self-reflection. At that point, students have been working on the same subject for more than three months; before they move on to other courses, and other professors, give them time and space to reflect on what they’ve done, and how they’ve done it. A self-evaluation is a great way to get students to assess how they approached the course with an eye to improving their learning strategies in the future. It can also help cement the particular skills they learned in your course — in effect, they remind themselves of the skills they’ve acquired, and may be more likely to put them to use in the future."

Thursday, December 3, 2015

Now is a great time to begin to look at your syllabi for the spring semester. My colleague at George Mason's Center for Teaching and Faculty Excellence provides the following suggestions. At its most fundamental level, a course syllabus is essentially a contract between the instructor and the student and is a vital tool for communicating expectations between students and faculty. A well-constructed syllabus provides a road map for the course, answers frequently asked questions, can help to lessen student anxiety, and allows the faculty member to concentrate on instruction. At another level, though, a syllabus is the embodiment of your philosophy of teaching and learning. Implicit in every assignment, every choice of textbook, every discussion topic should be an indication of what you want your students to learn from your course and why you want them to learn it.  Because critical thinking is at the heart of academic work, emphasize how your course will help them develop the kinds of skills with inquiry and problem solving that will benefit them throughout their time in college and into their lives as professionals. Continuing reading here.

Dr. Maryellen Weimer’s latest post asks some really good questions about how we can use research to improve teaching and learning. She writes, “Evidence-based teaching seems like the new buzzword in higher education. The phrase appears to mean that we’ve identified and should be using those instructional practices shown empirically to enhance learning. Sounds pretty straightforward, but there are lots of questions that haven’t yet been addressed, such as: How much evidence does there need to be to justify a particular strategy, action, or approach? Is one study enough? What about when the evidence is mixed—in some studies the results of a practice are positive and in others they aren’t? In research conducted in classrooms, instructional strategies aren’t used in isolation; they are done in combination with other things. Does that grouping influence how individual strategies function?” Continue reading here.

Looking for some levity? Allison M. Vaillancourt’s latest post made me laugh while I was learning. She writes, “Who Melted My Cheese? would challenge the still-common worldview that academic life will eventually return to “normal” if we just sit patiently. According to that view, all the annoyances we are currently experiencing — state funding reductions, demands for accountability, and students who want their course content to be compelling — are simply fads that will soon fade if we just stay the course and insist on running our institutions like we did in the 1980s, or even the 1880s.” Continue reading here.

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

As I began to put together this week's blog post, I received an email that a colleague had died. Shereen Marx, librarian, teacher, wife, mother, grandmother, all-around exceptional person, died this morning at 4:55 am according to her husband Max. To know Shereen was to see courage in action. A cancer survivor, she was not surprised or depressed when the terrible disease reappeared. Shereen and I were neighbors as her office and mine were around the corner from each other. After the reappearance of her cancer, I marked good days as the ones when I saw Shereen working in her office. I would stop because she drew you in. I would ask her how she was feeling and she would smile that smile and say "I am alive!" Lately, you could tell that when you hugged her, it was painful for her but she never refused a hug. What first drew me to a friendship with Shereen was having my brother diagnosed with cancer. She immediately provided me with information, advice, and support. She always asked how he was doing and marked his treatment progress along with me. She did what she did because that is who she was. A life well lived is a blessing and Shereen proved that everyday. I know this is a strange post on a blog dedicated to teaching and learning enhancement but I think it is appropriate because of Shereen's example. She was engaging, caring and emphatic. Those three things are the traits of a good teacher that matter most in the academic success of students. So I challenge you to honor our friend Shereen by using her example to make a difference in all of the lives you touch at BRCC. I feel confident that is what she would have expected us to do. RIP Shereen Marx.

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

While we continue to offer a college success skills course, many of the students who would benefit most are not enrolling in the class. If you are advising a student who has struggled with time management, test anxiety, metacognition issues, critical thinking or any other issues that prevent their academic progress, it may be time to suggest they enroll in a CSSK 102 class. In the absence of taking that class, you should strongly encourage them to take advantage of the various workshops offered by the Academic Learning Center. Karp and Bork, of the Community College Research Center, have written a working paper on the topic. They note "While low college success rates are typically linked to students’ lack of academic preparation for college and their subsequent need for developmental or remedial instruction, research suggests that even many students who are deemed “college-ready” by virtue of their placement test scores or completion of developmental coursework still do not earn a credential." Their paper builds on previous work arguing that community college success is dependent not only upon academic preparation but also upon a host of important skills, attitudes, and behaviors that are often left unspoken. The paper  clarifies the role of the community college student and the components of that role that must be enacted for students to be successful. They provide a concrete, actionable description of the community college student role and present a framework that practitioners can use to help students learn how to be successful community college students.

As our students begin to complete their ratings of their experiences in our classes, it is a good time to take a look at how we as faculty can use the data and what the current research says about the process.  Safavi and Bakar, et al. suggest that faculty may want to add some additional questions to the ratings in order to gather information more specific to their subject matter and teaching approach. In research performed by Slocombe, Miller, and Hite, they note that students tended to give higher evaluations to professors who used humor and to professors they liked but the difficulty of the class did not impact students' ratings of faculty. Ronald A. Berk's research revealed that students' expectations about how the results will be used are also critical to future response rates. Chen and Hoshower found that students’ motivation to participate in  the  rating  system  hinged  on  the following semi-observable outcomes (in order  of decreasing importance): (1) improvements in teaching, (2) improvements in course content and format, and (3) faculty personnel decisions (promotion, tenure, salary increase).

Dr. James Lang has written a column for The Chronicle of Higher Education about some of the small decisions he has made that had a big impact on his classes. He writes, "When I first started teaching, the open space of a 50- or 75-minute class period seemed an eternity. Like many a new faculty member, I worried about having enough material. I wanted to ensure that, if discussion faltered or if I rushed through the lecture too quickly, I would have options to fill the remaining time. My greatest fear was using up everything I had and finding 30 minutes still left on the clock. Twenty years later I seem to have the opposite problem: not enough time in the class period to accomplish everything I have planned. It seems so difficult to me now to do much of substance in 50 minutes. I don’t know whether to blame that shift in perspective on the fact that I have more teaching experience or that I’m just older. I suppose those two possibilities don’t untangle very easily." Continue reading here.